Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Allan Shortt - a celebration of his legacy

It's always difficult to hear that someone you've admired has passed away.  Ocean Software stalwart Mark Jones Jr has announced on the Ocean Software Facebook page that we have lost Commodore 64 coder Allan Shortt.

His might not be a name that you automatically think of in neon lights and with fanfares sounding, as with some of the luminaries of Eighties gaming.  In fact, he only worked on five games for the Commodore 64 (well, six, technically, but I'm not including a very basic effort writtne for C&VG magazine).  But those games were all great fun, and that's the important standard by which computer games should be measured.

I did not know Allan Shortt, but I certainly knew his games, and I would have loved the chance to talk about them with him for this book.  As for today, I am going to take part in my equivalent of football's "one minute's applause", and play and write about Allan's games.

Yie Ar Kung-Fu II

I remember when the first adverts for Yie Ar Kung-Fu II appeared in games magazines.  I was a little surprised to see them... having played, loved and had my backside kicked by the original arcade game and wrung way more than my nine quid's worth out of the highly respectable Commodore 64 conversion, I hadn't even been aware of a Yie Ar Kung-Fu II arcade machine.

There was a reason for this, of course... there wasn't an arcade machine.  Imagine had taken advantage of the licence and developed an original beat 'em up game, based on the original's successful formula.

Life lesson for you... always be wary of a redhead.
This was a pretty bold move... and one that might be trickier to pull off today, with companies being incredibly protective of their IPs.  In my opinion, it paid off quite handsomely, and the fact the game was developed for home computers rather than converted worked in its favour.  Imagine were able to take a few liberties, and developed a game with more of a sense of humour than the original.

It was also more difficult.  I know that the original was hardly classed as a walk in the park... in fact, the arcade one remains incredibly difficult to this day (and I think I am qualified to say that).  But with the Commodore 64 version, at least, you could go on forever once you found the right groove.  I know I scored over 13 million on it one summer's day.  There was no chance of that happening with Yie Ar 2.

Oi!  Ugly!  Yeah... Fan was much better looking than you!
It was packed with imaginative bad guys to battle, some of whom were inspired by the original game and some who were probably inspired by a night down the pub.  The first enemy, Yen-Pei, for instance, twirls his braided pony tail around and then lashes you with it.  I think he was probably loosely based on Yie Ar Kung-Fu's Chain, but it's definitely an inspired twist.

Beating him takes some doing... I must have played a dozen games just now before I finally saw him on his back.  And then I managed to inexplicably reset my emulator before I could take a screenshot of the second boss!  Aaargh!  Nonetheless, Yie Ar Kung-Fu II stands up pretty well.  There are less moves available, but I think that actually gives you a little more control.  And with a sub-game before you reach the boss and pickups to boost health or give limited invulnerability, this game can stand proudly as a true sequel to the arcade classic.

Mario Bros.

Everyone knows Mario Bros.  Well, now they do, anyway.  In 1987, many of us probably didn't.  I know I didn't... in fact, I didn't know much about Nintendo at all (to be honest, I still don't... even when I've bought their systems I've always preferred third-party games... I know, I'm a heathen).  So when I borrowed an odd little platform game called Mario Bros., I wasn't expecting very much.

As it turns out, it's not exactly earth-shattering.  Mario (and Luigi, if you start a two-player game) are trapped in a series of single-screen levels.  Critters will pour from the pipes, and the only way for the titular brothers to leave is to slaughter them all in cold blood.

Whatcha doin' on your back?  You should be dancin', yeah!
What?  Does that sound a bit harsh?  Well, it's nature's way, so you have to get on with it.  Turtles are the order of the day on the first few screens, then crabs, then turtles and crabs.  And who knows what else?  It might just be that the brothers are trapped forever...

Of course, we know that they weren't, as they went on to star in God knows how many Nintendo games, some of which were amazing and some of which were awful (Mario Superstars Baseball, I'm looking at you here).  Mario Bros. is something of an inauspicious start to their career, though.

There's an obvious, Beavis and Butthead-style caption just waiting here.  But I'll refrain.
I don't think there's anything wrong with the conversion... it looks and sounds really nice, and plays well enough.  It's the limitations of the game itself that put you off playing for any length of time.  It's more fun in two-player mode, though, where you can scupper your friend's game just to survive yourself...


No, I've never seen an Athena arcade game.  I remember seeing the adverts and reading the reviews, and thinking that someone had made a Rastan game to appeal to girls, even though I'd never played it.

Turns out, that's not too far wide of the mark!  Although having said that, it probably compares better to Wonder Boy in Monster Land.  I can say those things quite confidently, as I enjoy them both.  And now that I've had a good go at Athena, I can say that I enjoy that too.

Yeah... don't go to the right.  It's water.  Games characters don't do well in water.
It wasn't that way to start with.  I was dropped into "World of Sea", where I died.  Repeatedly.  And quickly, I might add.  It seemed that Athena wasn't blessed with a big pair of lungs (shush!), and drowned before I could find another patch of dry land.  Frustrating.

But then I managed to start at "World of Forest", where things picked up considerably.  By that, I mean that I didn't die within seconds.  I found progress came somewhat more easily, especially when I killed a bear and picked up its yo-yo (yes, really).  With this exciting weapon, you can not only batter creatures to death, you can also destroy blocks of landscape and reveal other treats beneath, like shields and boots that give you the ability to "fly" (well, jump a long way).

Aaargh!  I'm not going up there... what the hell is that thing?
Once you've had the chance to do a bit of exploring, the game becomes very enjoyable.  I wish I'd played this one back in the day, as it would have been right up my street.  It looks like a fast-action game, but it's more laid-back with the combat being a necessity if you're going to explore.  I might have a bit more of a go on this one later... it seems pretty epic, with large levels, and I'm in the mood for a bit of a poke about in another world.

Combat School

Oh, Combat School.  This was probably the game that made me glad I used a Zipstik and not something like a Quickshot II.  I was also very happy with this brilliant conversion, because I can't begin to tell you how painful it was the time I trapped the skin on my hand in the trackball on the arcade version.

I definitely had some trepidation regarding this... I wondered whether it could possibly do the arcade game justice.  I didn't think joystick waggling would be as good, and the target shooting sections would surely suffer, wouldn't they?  I needn't have worried for a second, as the conversion really hit the mark.

Come on, get a move on, monkey-man.
Combat School featured seven events.  Cleverly, they were split so that each waggler was followed by a shooting event, giving the player a much-appreciated opportunity to get some feeling back into their waggling arm.

The events were standard military fare: an obstacle course, arm wrestling, an iron man race (not against a bloke in a flying metal suit; that would be unfair), and the target shooting.  The ultimate aim was to reach a qualifying mark in each event, so that you would be deemed worthy of taking on your drill instructor in a one-on-one fight.  Good luck with that one.

Tell you what, the Olympics have got nothing on this.
It's a really enjoyable take on the multi-event game, even today.  Everyone loves to prove their worth at waggling games, and then there's the high-scoring action of the target shooting to add broader appeal.  Combat School can easily be regarded as one of the best arcade conversions of the 8-bit computer era... absolutely top work.

Arkanoid: Revenge of Doh

Allan Shortt's last game on the Commodore 64 was a sequel to the incredibly popular Arkanoid.  Subtitled Revenge of Doh, unlike Yie Ar Kung-Fu II this one actually was an arcade conversion.

You probably all know Arkanoid, in which case you all know it's a Breakout game.  One of the first and simplest games, Arkanoid gave it a big shot in the arm with great sound, massively-improved graphics and loads of extra features, freshening it up and making it a game you wanted to play in the Eighties.

Pew! Pew!  Man, all games are more fun with lasers.
A sequel was inevitable, but what on Earth could you do to improve on the original, erm, improvements?  Where Arkanoid was like the jump from VHS to DVD, Revenge of Doh was more like the move from DVD to BluRay (not that you'd know it then, of course).  It's definitely better than Arkanoid, but not as big an improvement as Arkanoid was over Breakout.

Still, a greater range of power-ups made for better entertainment.  The fact that they dropped more frequently added to the enjoyment... whereas in Arkanoid you might play half a dozen games and only see the laser once, you could be sure of getting it early on and often in Revenge of Doh.  That alone made the fun factor a lot higher.

Ugh, a giant bug!  Quick, where's that laser?  Or a newspaper?
It did have its niggles... the main one being that you could often get stuck with a slow-moving ball and just a couple of bricks to destroy and being too cack-handed to hit the ball in the right direction.  This meant a level could outstay its welcome.  But that was your own fault.  In the main, Arkanoid: Revenge of Doh was a superb Breakout game.

It's obvious from these games that Allan Shortt was a very talented coder, capable of giving us excellent versions of the games we loved in the arcades (and even those we'd never seen before!).  I would imagine that these talents would serve him well in whatever he took on after he'd left the Commodore 64 behind.  From our point of view, he was one of our Gods, and the legacy he left behind will forever live in our memories.  Thanks for the good times, Allan.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Day 113 - U.S. Gold

The north-east of England was invaded by the might of the United States of America last week, as they dragged us into a more civilised world with the opening of a massive Krispy Kreme doughnut and coffee shop.

Mmmm... delicious, glazed, doughnutty goodness!
Oh, what?  You thought this post would be about games?  Sorry!  Well, I'll see if I can squeeze some in while I'm here...

When you think about U.S. Gold, you think of a meganormous American company shipping their exotic foreign wares to a grateful British gaming public.  In truth, it wasn't exactly like that.  True, they did produce or publish some amazing stuff, but they also put out more than their fair share of dross, particularly in the early days.

Interestingly, several of their better games, particularly in later years, were programmed by British coders.  One of my favourite U.S. Gold games was Archer MacLean's Dropzone.  That wasn't always the case...

These are the things that will be killing you now.
I first played Dropzone at a mate's house.  I didn't particularly want to, after I'd seen him play it.  Clearly, it was a Defender variant... and I hated Defender, on the grounds that I was rubbish at it.  Still, I gave Dropzone a go... and I was rubbish at that, as well.  It was soul-destroyingly difficult.  Not to worry, I didn't need to play it any more, I had plenty of other games to be getting on with and it wasn't like I owned it or anything.

Then, one fateful day, I was walking around Newcastle with ten pounds to burn.  There was no question in my mind that it would be spent on a game (or some games)... the only question was which game?

I'm so busy, my head is spinning...
It was then that I saw a compilation on the shop shelf... U.S. Gold's Arcade Hall of Fame.  It looked amazing.  Spy Hunter... Tapper... Up 'N' Down... Aztec Challenge... Blue Max.  I'd played all of them before, and the only one I didn't love was Blue Max.  Better still, I didn't own any of them.  It was a must-buy for £9.99.

I had a great time when I got home, loading them up one at a time for an evening of cracking entertainment.  Spy Hunter, Tapper and Up 'N' Down were all excellent arcade conversions.  Aztec Challenge was great fun with excellent music (although if you've ever tried to play it on a black and white telly, you'll know that there's a problem that effectively renders you blind on one of the levels).

It's the end of the world as we know it.
Blue Max was the last game I went to load, because I hadn't much liked it when I played it and so wasn't really bothered about it.  I hit Shift and Run/Stop, pressed Play on tape and started reading the instructions.  I missed the "FOUND" message, but looked up when I heard the familiar screech of the Novaload... whereupon I was dismayed to see the word DROPZONE in the middle of the grey screen.

I didn't even know how this could be.  I mean, I knew I wasn't exactly excited by the prospect of Blue Max, but Dropzone wasn't even supposed to be in this compilation!  Why would they replace Blue Max with that, of all games?  Damn them!

I played it a few times, and only broke the 10,000 barrier once or twice.  It was so hard and I hated it.  I vowed never to play it again.

Some things never change...
But over time I kept reading about how it was a modern classic, and one of the best games ever, and how everyone loved it.  As someone who considered myself a pretty decent gamer, I figured I owed it to myself, and the game, to give it one more shot.

Slowly, with intense concentration, I began to improve.  I reached 20,000, then 30,000... and I found myself enjoying the game.  With the computer on the floor, my left foot on the Commodore key for my invisibility cloak and my right foot on the space bar for the smart bomb, I had a set-up which was comfortable and saw me making decent progress.  And I saw the game for what it really was... an incredibly challenging shoot 'em up which ranked up there with the very best.

Foot, meet face.
I think my high score on Dropzone was about 153,000.  That's not amazing by any stretch, but it's not bad and it shows that I made a more than reasonable effort at learning the game.  I still enjoy it to this day... it's probably Archer MacLean's best game, although the superb International Karate runs it close.  It would be great if I could get a few quotes from Archer in my book, and it goes without saying I'll be including him and his games regardless.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Day 103 - and suddenly, it hit me...

You know, there are a lot of retro gaming books and projects on the go at the moment.  A LOT.  I know... I've looked into it.  I'm even backing some of them.  What?  Backing my competition?  Crazy!

Well, perhaps, but I genuinely want to see those things.  It's in all our interests that they're out there... they'll be great reading (or viewing).

Whilst looking at them, though, I've come to a realisation.  Mine is going to be bigger, broader in scope and more ambitious than any of them.  Hopefully, that means it will be the best of the lot!

The other projects, especially the books, seem to be focusing on more specific areas or subjects.  I want to cover or include as much as possible.  I want to talk to as many people as possible, and write about as many games as possible.  I think that's what you want to read about, too.  And while the other projects will be great, they're definitely aimed more at certain people.  I want you all!

This realisation only helps to strengthen my enthusiasm for the project.  I'm confident that I'll produce something different to the rest.  A book that will be great to dip in and out of in a few spare minutes, or to settle down with, cuppa and biscuits at the ready.  A book we can all be proud of, whether we were involved in the industry at the time or merely played the games in awe.  A book for the ages!  Yes!  You still with me?  Let's do it!

Monday, 3 September 2012

Day 100 - the baby hits a milestone

Wow.  Can you believe it?  It's been a hundred days since I officially announced this venture.  It doesn't feel as though it was that long ago!

I suppose that, after a hundred days, you might be wondering where I'm at with it.  How come I haven't finished this thing yet?  A hundred days is aaaaages!

It does sound like ages, but it's gone by in the blink of an eye.  What you should be encouraged by is the fact I'm still going.  I think that, when people announce an ambitious project like this, it usually goes one of two ways; it fizzles out by now as the potential author realises they've bitten off more than they can chew and they don't really have the enthusiasm after all, or it marches solidly on towards completion.

We're definitely looking at the second of those two options here.  My enthusiasm is at least as great as it was when I started.

However; I've come to the realisation that it really is a massive task.  It won't be as easy as anyone might think, and I simply won't get all the content I want.  That doesn't mean it won't be a great read by the time it's finished.  It just means that there are people I'd love to talk to who won't be interested.

It's funny, when you start something like this from my point of view (which is, that of an admiring fan), you can't see any way that someone wouldn't want to talk about this stuff.  When you step back a bit, though, you realise that we're talking about things that happened between twenty and thirty years ago.  Can you remember everything you did then?  I can't.  So just as you or I might vividly recall the difficulties in reaching that awkward star on the third level of Kokotoni Wilf or the fiendishness of the fifth torture screen in Creatures 2, memories might be a little hazier for the actual programmers.  And so, with that, I've learned to temper my expectations a little.  

Now, you might be wondering where things stand after a hundred days.  What, exactly, have I been up to?  Here's a breakdown:

I've made 90 blog posts, which have had nearly 7,500 views.  I can understand concerns that I might be concentrating too much on the blog, but I think it's important to keep posting, otherwise interest might die out completely.

I have e-mailed fourteen of our Gods.  Of those, four have already sent great replies.  I've been working on those, writing my own stuff and working in their comments where appropriate.

Of the others, I've had one flat-out refusal, three have not yet replied (and probably won't, it's been a while), and six have promised replies.  Again, some of them were from a good while ago, so although I won't be hassling anyone, it might be a good idea if I get in touch with them again.

I also have a few other Gods who are interested in taking part.  I will be in touch with them soon.  Besides them, I've found a lot of people on Facebook that I'd be very interested in speaking to... I'm just trying to decide on the best way to approach them with the subject.

And there you have it... that's where we stand at the moment.  I'd probably like to be further on, but hey, I work in an office, not the games industry, and I've started from scratch, with no contacts at all.  I should be really pleased with what I've done, and with my prospects.  And in the meantime, I hope I'm creating an entertaining blog to keep people going while we wait.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Day 99 - Set myself a Task

I'm sure you've noticed my posting has slowed down of late.  There are a few reasons for that.  Real-world stuff has reared its ugly head again, with me having to get my eldest prepared for going back to school this coming week... he's at a new school, and it's ridiculous how much stuff I've had to buy.  I sense another eBay purge in my near future...

Another reason is one I've been both hoping for and dreading at the same time.  I've got through to the next stage of both the jobs I applied for recently, one of which means I have to have an interview.  I've never liked interviews, and it's been fifteen years since I had one.  So I have to prepare really thoroughly for this one.  It's quite important, so I might well be less evident here until it's out of the way.

Pew! Pew! Shoot the little saucer things from your giant Gyro thing!
With that being said, I have to have the odd respite from all that, and this is where games come in to save the day, yet again.  I delved into the depths of my mind, and pulled out the name of one of the more charming software houses, and one who really only existed in the early-ish days of the 8-bit computers... Taskset.

One of my mates had a few of their games before I even owned my Commodore 64 and they were quite distinctive and fun to play, although not many of them would stand out as classics.  They were colourful, with very big, mostly chunky graphics, and an immediately recognisable music style.

Some of their games could only have come from the minds of the British.  Take Bozo's Night Out, for example.  The object of the game was to get Bozo home after an epic night on the lash.  This, of course, is much easier said than done.

Yep, this has all the makings of a good night out.
Bozo is a chunky-looking bloke... and not in a good way.  This doesn't help when he's staggering about after a skinful.  Nor does the fact Bozo has many obstacles to overcome in his quest to sleep it off.  As if avoiding cops, skinheads and, ummm, naked women (?) wasn't bad enough, attempting to take a shortcut through the park sees Bozo bumping into all kinds of horrors.

It's mental stuff, and not all that good in the cold light of day, but back in the day it was entertaining stuff.

Another Taskset game that you wouldn't get from any other nation was Seaside Special.  Borne from the legacy of the seaside postcard but imbued with a British sense of satire, the game saw you trawling a beach for radioactive seaweed, with which you then trooped off to 10 Downing Street to lob at the sackless political residents.

Even Tebbit would be crapping himself at the sight of that stripey loon!
To be fair, it sounds a lot better than it actually was.  Every aspect of the game was simplistic, but again, it was a bit of a laugh to play back in the day... for a while, at least.

All this does make it sound as though Taskset were a bit of a novelty company, who were only there to make up the software numbers at the beginning of the 8-bit revolution.  There were, however, two stone-cold classics in the Taskset lineup... Super Pipeline, and its sequel, Super Pipeline II.

The object of both games is to guide your plumber and his mates around a series of pipes, keeping them open so that the water (or whatever liquid it is) can flow into the barrels at the end.  This sounds easy, but as you would expect, there are a number of obstacles which attempt to make things run far from smoothly...

You know, this would be a lot easier if they built a pipe
that went straight to the barrel.
Rogue tools will make holes in the pipes, and these will need to be fixed.  That's where your mates come in... they're skilled at pipe fixing.  While they're at work, you have to fend off anything that might drag them from the pipes.  And I do mean anything... besides the roving tools, insects and lobsters wander about, and they will drag you and your pals from the pipes at every opportunity.

The Super Pipeline games are frantic, cartoony and great fun to play.  They were unquestionably the jewels in the Taskset crown, and kept me amused for many a long while.  It's a shame that the company died out as things were really taking off with computer and video games... Andy Walker was their key man, maybe I'll get to hear some of his and their story in weeks to come.