Monday, 28 January 2013

Day 247 - Eeeeeeviiiiiiillll!

I haven't used this title purely because I've just watched the lost Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy episode with my youngest child.  Ooohhhhh, no.  I'm using it because that's what this post is about.  Pure evil.  And we (almost) all were guilty...

I was just digging through my retro stash (thanks again Mr. Reed), when I came across some of these:

Look at that.  The 80s equivalent of a bar of gold.
Surely everybody that owned a computer, be it C64, Spectrum, Amstrad, Dragon 32, BBC or Oric must have had a stash of these.  They were perfect.  You could fit almost any single-load game on one side, which negated the need for tediously hunting through tapes and writing down counter numbers for each game.  You'd just load up the game, play it, and when you'd finished you'd turn the tape over, rewind it the short distance to the beginning and load up the game on that side.  Brilliant!

Of course, the fact you were doing so meant that you were a filthy, stinking PIRATE!  But to be honest, I don't think many kids back then even knew what that meant or what the consequences were.  It wasn't something I even thought about.

That said, there can have been no other reason for these cassettes to be produced other than for kids to copy games onto.  They were dead cheap (anyone remember exactly how much?), ideal for kids with limited budgets.  And let's face it, how many of us actually wrote our own programs?  Well, I wrote one... a database of ZZAP! 64-style reviews.  But it only consisted or PRINT and IF...THEN...GOTO statements.  Hardly a complex work.

Erm... that's right, m'lud. My reviews database was called "Commando".  Honest.
And for all that, I owned tens of Boots C15 cassettes.  Boots even sold cassette carriers, which held ten or twenty of these things and had a handle... perfect for carrying your evil ill-gotten games to a mate's house.

Of course, there were times when a C15 wouldn't do.  Complex multiloads needed more tape room, for starters.  And then there was the fact that you could get up to ten games on a side of C90 cassette.  So if you didn't have a big enough supply of trusty C15s, then you had to break out the big fella.

I probably sound like a right scumbag now.  But to be fair, I owned over 200 original games for my C64.  The problem was there were just so many great games available, and kids of our age had a very finite amount of cash.  It was simply impossible to buy all the games we wanted, which is where blank cassettes came in.  But I know that I, and most of my mates, had a very impressive collection of original games.  We bought as much as we could, not necessarily because we knew it was right, but because we liked owning this stuff.

That's just WRONG, man!  Who would waste tape on Trivial Pursuit?
I'm much the same now.  I've never owned any copied games for any system beyond my Commodore 64 (except for inherited copies that have come with a second-hand system I've bought).  I'd rather buy and own a film than download it.  And although I will admit to downloading music on occasion, I will either buy it if I like it or delete it if I don't.  Although in this day and age, there are programs available that legally allow you to preview music before you buy it so downloading is becoming a bit of a thing of the past.

I don't really have a point to this.  I'm not staunchly condemning the evil pirate scum or implicitly advocating the purchase of absolutely everything you like.  I just thought it would be fun to write a bit about the old days, having found a box of treasures.  There's not much that's more fun than digging through the past.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Day 239 - snow means... Horace!

If you look at it, any good hardware manufacturer over the last couple of decades has had a mascot.  Sega has (had) Sonic, Nintendo has Mario, Microsoft has Master Chief, Sony has... erm, I dunno, who's Sony's mascot?  Sackboy?  Crash Bandicoot?  Kratos?  I dunno.

Anyway, it wasn't always like this.  Although there were tons of memorable characters in the 80s, not many of them were attached to a platform as a mascot.  Miner Willy, you could argue, might have been the face of the Spectrum.  But if there's one unofficial mascot that endears today, it's got to be the first blue character that did a lot of running (and other things)... Horace.

Om-nom-nom!  Horace fills his belly!
Although he made appearances on other computers, Horace feels synonymous with the Spectrum (which probably had a lot to do with the fact that, on the Spectrum, his games were published by Sinclair).  He only appeared in three games, but it was enough for Horace to stamp himself into pop culture history forever...

The first time we saw the bug-eyed blue fella he was feeling a mite peckish, in Hungry Horace.  A PacMan clone of sorts, it featured Horace running around mazes in a park and eating all the food from within those mazes.  As you would expect, he wasn't left to his own devices.  Vicious parkies patrolled the grounds and wouldn't hesitate to give Horace a good hiding if they caught him.

That parkie's not exactly a handsome lad, is he?
Luckily, Horace could fight back.  Bells were scattered around the mazes, and if Horace picked one up it appeared to play havoc with the parkies' inner ears, rendering them vulnerable to a Horace attack.  This respite was brief, though, and they'd soon be back on Horace's case.

In a slight twist from PacMan, Horace could move on to the next screen without having completed the screen he was on.  However, it wasn't possible to go directly back to that screen; instead, Horace would have to work his way back around to it.  This was an interesting way of providing an escape route, but was probably necessary as the screens were a little cramped.

Hmmm.  This level looks a bit tricky.
Hungry Horace wasn't (and isn't) a bad game at all, and served as a fine introduction to the legendary character.  However, it was his next game which would cement his legacy...

That game was Horace Goes Skiing.  In essence, it was incredibly simple.  Horace was minted up with $40, and fancied going skiing ("Why dollars?" asked a lot of mags at the time... well, remember, it was written by an Australian and that's their currency...).  All he had to do was hop across the road, hand over ten bucks for ski rental, get back across the road, and away he could go, down the slippery slope.

The traffic doesn't look much, but it moves at a fair rate!
In essence, this meant that you played a game of Frogger (or more accurately, Activision's Atari VCS game Freeway) to get your skis, and then played a simplified skiing game with no real goal other than to get to the end without crashing and breaking your skis.

That doesn't sound terribly thrilling, but back in those days it was pretty compulsive stuff.  Running across the road required little skill and more in the way of luck and judgement, but you did feel like you'd achieved something just by getting into that ski hut.

Ahhhh... just look at that.  Look at it, revel in it, drink it in.
Then there was the skiing.  It wasn't very taxing... you didn't go very fast and there weren't many trees to avoid.  Your only real punishment was losing points if you missed the gates, although if you crashed you might break your skis which would force you back to the Freeway.

None of that mattered.  Horace was now an icon, and Horace Goes Skiing destined to go down as a classic game title.  Despite its relative averageness (?), it's fondly remembered by all those that have played it.

Well done, Horace! Pluckier than Eddie the Eagle, and looks better on a T-shirt.
It wasn't the last time we would see Horace.  Rounding out his trilogy (and story) was Horace & the Spiders.

It could be argued that Horace & the Spiders was a very ambitious game.  After all, you have to remember that author William Tang programmed all the Horace games to run on the 16K Spectrum, and Horace & the Spiders had three different (albeit simplistic) game screens.

That spider's got some evil eyes on it.
The first saw Horace running and jumping over spiders in what was almost a simple Moon Patrol variant.  It was very short, and led straight into the next screen in which Horace had to swing across spider threads to get across a chasm.  Once a spider sensed you on its thread it tried to reel you in, and if you didn't get off in time you'd be bitten and poisoned.  Nasty!

Successfully making it to the other side meant that Horace would find himself trapped in a cave full of spiders.  The only way out was to STAMP THEM ALL TO DEATH!

How does Horace hang on without any hands?
That sounds a bit harsh, but in reality all it meant was that you were stuck in a level modelled on arcade game Space Panic.  Horace would clamber around on the webs, stamping holes in them at strategic points.  The spiders would hopefully get miffed at this and come down to repair the holes.  If and when this happened, the evil, heartless monster Horace could pounce!

This variety meant that Horace & the Spiders was a pretty nice little arcade game.  All the Horace games were high score games, which meant that repeated play was inevitable for the arcade-hungry kids of the 80s.  The fact that the games were all simple and straightforward to play pretty much guaranteed they would occupy the tape deck for lengthy spells.

I had a mate called Shaun, and it was on his Spectrum that I was introduced to the joys of Horace.  I would often find myself at his house after school, where along with the likes of Jet Set Willy, Kokotoni Wilf and Stop the Express he owned all the Horace games.  I enjoyed them all, but it's Horace Goes Skiing that has left the biggest mark.  It has that certain something that makes it stay in the memory when other games have long since disappeared.

Sadly, there were no more Horace games.  Apparently William Tang had health problems while he was developing the next, and he never finished it.  I don't know where he is or what he's doing now, but I hope that he's alive and well and knows how much he's appreciated by the now-grown-up kids of the 80s.  And if by some chance he or someone he knows reads this, please get in touch!

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Day 238 - Meep! Meep? How's that for a Cliff Hanger?

I distinctly remember the first time I played the Road Runner arcade conversion at home.  It looked great, but I couldn't help but feel disappointed by the simplistic gameplay.  Controlling the Road Runner, you ran along a series of roads, avoiding the ravenous Wile E. Coyote who attempted to catch you in a number of mildly amusing ways.

I think the problem with that game was that you played the Road Runner.  You don't watch Road Runner cartoons for the Road Runner, after all.  The fun comes from Wile E. Coyote's misadventures, mishaps and catastrophes.  Why would you play a game that doesn't feature any of that?

See, I just wanted to let the coyote get the Road Runner.  Wile E. is great!
Luckily, none of that mattered, because may years earlier a company called New Generation Software had released a game called Cliff Hanger.  And it was the only Road Runner game you'd ever need.

I doubt I'll ever forget the first time I loaded Cliff Hanger on my C64.  It was buried in the middle of a C90 that I'd borrowed, and as I'd never heard of it before I'd primarily loaded it to get to whatever was next on the tape.  Those feelings appeared to be confirmed when a droning tune burst into life and a crippled looking character (Cliff Hanger himself!) appeared and hobbled across the screen.  The fact that his brother was called Coat almost sealed the deal...

I'm looking at this and thinking that a lot could go wrong...
Still, I'd spent five minutes or so waiting for it to load, and in those days we all had more patience.  So I decided to give it a go.  What would another couple of lost minutes be, really?

Of course, I had no idea what to do.  The first screen appeared, and my character stood in a desolate-looking desert backdrop, appearing to be as clueless as I was.  I pushed the joystick right, and accidentally walked over the ledge.  Wow... what a rubbish game.

Well, that could have gone better. But at least I'm still in one piece.
The game took me back to a title page, but I noticed it had a different name this time.  I pressed fire, and a different scene appeared.  And this time, something was moving!  It was getting closer... a bandit!  I hurriedly ran at the precariously-positioned boulder, knocking it off the edge of the cliff... and squashed the bandit!

OK, so it was a pure fluke, but in that moment I realised what this game was all about.  Set up like a film set, Cliff Hanger has you playing a series of outrageous scenes or stunts in which you, as Cliff, must stop the evil bandit from making his getaway.  Some are relatively straightforward, merely asking you to roll a boulder off a cliff and onto the fleeing criminal.  Others, though, are very complicated and lead to a bit of head-scratching as you try and figure out what you need to do.

Alright, now I'm a bit stuck.
Graphically, the game is very simple... which is perfect.  It helps to generate the look and feel of the Road Runner cartoons.  The simplistic desert settings, although not of the finest quality, could almost have been ripped from your favourite episodes.

Interestingly, the tables are turned in terms of how the characters work.  The bad guy is now effectively the Road Runner, with the hapless Cliff Hanger taking on the role of Wile E. Coyote.  That's why the game is so much fun... you get to act out all the crazy stunts.  When you first start playing, you're never quite sure what's going to happen.  Sure, there are sometimes clues in the title, but when you're faced with a sparse landscape and just a couple of objects, it's all down to trial and error as to whether or not you'll be successful.  And when you set off one of those traps, you're almost hiding your eyes as you do it, wondering how it might go horribly wrong...

Alright, who put that giant rock there?  Thanks, whoever it was!
Cliff Hanger is hilarious and a heck of a lot of fun.  I suspect it was overlooked when it was released, which would be a shame as a lot of people missed out on a great time if that was the case.  There's not much to choose between the Spectrum and C64 versions... for me the Commodore version edges it with its slightly more authentic backdrops and the fact that screens are a lot more randomised, keeping it fresher.  Either way, though, if you like Road Runner you'd love playing Cliff Hanger.

Cliff Hanger was programmed by James Day, who didn't write much else.  I'd love to get his thoughts on the game, and also from New Generation's Malcolm Evans and their other programmers.  New Generation didn't release a lot of games, but there were some genuine groundbreakers among them, and they deserve to be featured in this book.  One can only try...

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Day 232 - any time is a good time for a High Noon showdown!

I'm going to do more posts about single games from now on... otherwise there's a danger of me only writing one post a month!  That doesn't guarantee the game I write about will be included in the book, so if that happens with any of them you can consider these bonus features!

One of the first Commodore 64 games I ever played, well before I even owned a machine of my own, was Ocean Software's High Noon.  I used to go to a mate's house and he had loads of games for his, even at that early stage.  Some of them might be considered quite obscure by now... for instance, I now distinctly remember playing Jason Perkins' Blue Moon, which I'd completely forgotten about until I started researching Jason Perkins!

Yee-haw, ya rootin'-tootin- varmint!
One game I never forgot was High Noon.  Back in those early days, the prospect of any new game loading was exciting.  This was a fairly typical early Ocean game, with the Novaload squeaking into life and then a basic loading screen, short repetitive tune and scrolling message popping up.  For some reason, even though I was used to the instant access of the Atari VCS' cartridges, the nervous anticipation of seeing a new game was there every time.

Once it loaded, High Noon was one of the best things I'd ever seen.  It may have had really chunky sprites, but it gave them charm and character.  And you could walk into and out of the screen!  This made the play area bigger, although you had to learn a whole new method of bullet dodging as a result!

You can never die with dignity in the Old West.
Speaking of charm and character, for a game where the focus is purely on gunning down as many bad guys as possible, High Noon has a nice sense of humour.  This is evidenced by the undertakers, "Rig + Mortis", who wander out after each kill and drags the still-warm bodies into their lair!  Oh, and this even includes your good self, so try not to get hit if you can...

Later levels ramp up the difficulty, with bandits on horseback throwing you off guard, and then there are the robbers with dynamite to keep a close eye on...

Ah.  So that's what that hissing thing does.
You have to keep your trigger finger warm and active if these guys aren't going to make off with all the bank's money or worse, all the saloon's women!  And while it does get repetitive, the difficulty curve is well-judged and the gameplay remains frantic enough to entertain.  I don't know who wrote High Noon... there is no in-game credit other than "Ocean Software Presents".  But it's a game I've enjoyed for almost thirty years now, and still well worth a little blast today.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Happy New Year!

Welcome to They Were Our Gods 2013!  I've seen in the new year with a nasty strain of flu... luckily it hasn't hit me as hard as other family members, but it's pretty evil nonetheless.

Still, it hasn't stopped me from being productive.  Those that know me might be aware that I have some good ideas now and again, and like to put my limited Photoshop-esque skills to use to attempt to realise those ideas.

This year, I thought it might be nice to produce a couple of calendars for my readers.  I've done it partly because it's fun and I like to, and partly as a thank you for sticking with me.  Oh, and partly as a promotional tool too, I guess.  If they're a hit and get shared enough, then my little big project might gain a bit more notoriety.

Anyway, as you might expect from a project like this, I've made two calendars, one with a ZX Spectrum theme and one with a Commodore 64 theme.  I've made two versions, one which would be great for printing (if you could afford the fifty quid in printer ink), and one which is great as smartphone wallpaper.  And they look like this:

If you like the look of these and quite fancy one (or both!), then it's easy to get one.  If you feel like waiting, I've teamed up with splendid retro website 80s Nostalgia, and they will be hosted there for download very soon.  But if you want them now, now, NOW!... then simply e-mail me at the address in the sidebar and I'll e-mail you whichever calendar you want as soon as I can!

How does that sound?  Good?  Great!  Stick with me in 2013 as They Were Our Gods marches on... I'll be in touch with a lot of our programming heroes this coming year, and will hopefully have a heck of a lot to report!

All the best,