Saturday, 25 June 2011

Paradroid (Commodore 64)

Gribbly's Day Out proved to be quite a hit with the critics... which must have brought a certain amount of pressure. Once you've had one hit game, you're expected to have another. Possibly an even bigger hit. Possibly an even better game.

As if that wasn't enough pressure, Andrew Braybrook submitted to a request from ZZAP! 64 to diarise his latest project. You can read it here in HTML form, or go to the excellent Def Guide to ZZAP! 64 website, where scans of the magazine can be found. You'll need Issue 3 onwards...

Oi! Braybrook! Stop mucking about with your last game, and get on with making a new one!

So all of Andrew's ideas and processes were laid bare to the public. For me, as a thirteen-year-old lad, it made fascinating reading. This upcoming game about rogue robots in space sounded amazing. My teenage mind had fashioned 3D dreadnaught decks, bustling with vicious, colourful robots. I imagined peering around deck walls of spaceships, stealthily sneaking up on the robots or dashing from room to room, avoiding detection. And then it was reviewed and got a ZZAP! Gold Medal. It was called Paradroid, and I couldn't wait to play it...

Imagine, then, my initial disappointment when I first saw Paradroid in action. My vision was nowhere to be seen... instead, I had an overhead view of a grey spaceship deck, with little black and white numbers trundling about. What the hell was this? But then I finally got my hands on it...

What? I wasn't expecting "Fun with numbers"!

The idea behind Paradroid, for anyone that hasn't clicked on one of the links I posted or has never played the game, is that robots have gone rogue on a series of dreadnaught spaceships, and are out of control and very hostile. The player controls an Influence Device, which has been beamed aboard the first ship, and you're tasked with clearing out all these robots and taking back control of the ship.

Hold on a minute... you control a what, now?

The Influence Device is the most sophisticated robot of all. It may not be armed to the teeth, but it is able to patch into any other robot and take control of it for a brief time, and in doing so can utilise all its functions. This is, in fact, the most important aspect of Paradroid, and what sets it above the standard shoot 'em up. You're basically able to pick and choose your own upgrades at will, as long as you're good at the transfer subgame...

You must choose wisely.

This is how it works. As you roam the decks, you might spot another robot that you quite fancy. So you casually saunter up to it, initiate transfer mode and bump into it. You're then connected. If only it worked like that in a club or a bar.

Once you're connected, you enter a transfer game. At this stage, you get to choose which side of the game "board" you wish to use. It's vitally important that you pick well, because you only have a limited number of pulses to fire at the board. There are a number of connectors on each side of the transfer board, with the objective being to control more of the board when the time runs out than your opponent. If you do, you take control. If you don't... boom.

See, that's how you do it.

The transfer game is simple, but very sophisticated. Once you get the hang of it, or rather, become very good at it, you can take control of almost anything, given a suitable transfer board. The feeling of satisfaction gained from successfully capturing the 999 Command Cyborg using the 001 Influence Droid is like little else in gaming. That said, it's not wise to try it unless you want to see the Game Over sequence... I've only ever attempted it through sheer blind panic and desperation!

I've talked at length about the transfer game here, which is almost to overlook the main game itself. And I shouldn't, because Paradroid is a very solid and imaginitive shoot 'em up, even without the added bonus game. There are nine classes of robot to attack, avoid and control, and this is where the genius of the graphic display comes in. Had each robot been represented by its actual graphic, things would have looked messy and cluttered, and confusion would more than likely have reigned.

Looks like a firefight has broken out.

By using a numeric display, it's almost as though you're watching from on-ship cameras, from the safety of a command centre. And when you encounter enemies you immediately know what you're up against, as the first number denotes the class of droid, from 1-9. Number 326? Messenger robot, fast, useful for getting around in a hurry. Number 629? Sentinel droid, well-armed, be wary. Number 999? Erm... well, let's just keep out of that one's way...

As well as the obvious stuff, Paradroid is a very clever program, with lots of cute little stuff that you might not necessarily notice. I mentioned the basic droid graphics while you're playing, but if you happen to dock with a console on one of the ship's decks, you can pull up a dossier on each of the robots... but only for those at the level you're at or below. Each dossier contains information including robot type and class, a brief description of its function and a picture, so that you can fill in the visual gaps while you play.


Other features of note include the way you can only see other robots when they're in your line of sight... an awesome touch... and little things like the deck powering down when it's cleared of hostiles, or the ship's ever-changing Alert status being shown via coloured lights around the ship. I didn't notice that until I'd played the game for ages... it's a lovely, subtle touch.

With eight ships to clear, each with sixteen decks, Paradroid was always a massive challenge... and it remains so today. It was a stunning achievement in many ways, and has stood the test of time in that it remains great fun and very challenging to play. It's still a surprise to me that it hasn't been copied more... the actual game mechanics are sound, and the transfer element is something that surely has the scope to be used in today's games.

The inevitable reult when a class 2 robot confronts a class eight robot.

Maybe that's why it still feels quite fresh. There's not much like it out there, over twenty-five years later. There's still a genuine feel of tension as you trundle around the decks... and one of panic when you're on an empty deck with your energy running out! It could do with a save game function... once you get good at it, you can be on for a good while. Then again, it's an arcade game. You don't save arcade games, even sophisticated ones.

Paradroid is not just a Commodore 64 classic... it's an all-time videogame classic. No matter what Andrew Braybrook did after this, it was destined to be his legacy, and it's one for which he can be rightly proud. It's a game that's still loved to this day, and if Andrew ever fancies getting back into games programming, he could do a lot worse than starting off with a remake of Paradroid. In the likely even that that doesn't happen, we will always have this to fall back on, and for that we should be truly thankful.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Gribbly's Day Out (Commodore 64)

With his toe dipped well and truly into the blue and cyan waters of the Commodore 64, Andrew Braybrook followed up the conversion of Steve Turner's Lunattack by coming up with his own creation, named Gribbly's Day Out. Great. But who or what the hell is Gribbly?

Gribbly (or Gribbly Grobbly, to give him/it his/its full name) is a Blabgorian. That is, a creature from Blabgor. Glad that's clear. Gribbly is a green creature, with no arms and one giant foot. He's not a handsome chap by our standards, but I'm sure on Blabgor he's something of a stunner.

Awww... look at de widdwe baby Gribblets...

Alright, enough of the silliness. Gribbly's Day Out sees you playing the titular monopod in babysitting mode, as eight baby Gribblets find themselves strewn about the Blabgorian landscape. That wouldn't be so bad, but Blabgor is a fairly hostile place, fraught with danger for the little Gribblets, and so Gribbly must collect them all and put them in a safe zone, so they can enjoy their day out without fear of death or kidnap.

Boing, boing... the web can't hurt you when you're in Bounce mode.

Kidnap? What kind of place is this? Well, it's a place of evolution. Although the creatures that inhabit each level start out as simple beings, they evolve into more complex (and dangerous) entities the longer you hang around. And to complete their cycle, they just happen to need Gribblets...

Come back with my baby!

It's very clever, the game's eco-system. If you're quick or observant enough, you can wipe out critters at certain stages of their development, which gives you more time to pick up the Gribblets and get them to safety. If you're not quick enough and a Flyer makes off with a Gribblet, you can still save it... if you're good enough.

Gribbly Grobbly fires bubbles, which (as mentioned before) can destroy certain creatures. One of those creatures is the Flyer, but if you drop it you'll have to catch the Gribblet in mid-air to save it! This will take some tricky manoeuvring on your part... the number of times I've frantically overshot a falling Gribblet, sometimes twice on the same fall, only to see it land safely on some flat ground can't be counted on the toes of one Gribbly Grobbly. Of course, if it doesn't land on flat ground, the consequences don't bear thinking about.

What a lovely place for Gribblets to play! As long as they don't fall in the pool...

This still sounds fairly easy, but you haven't got clear skies to idly roam around. For one, there is an electrified web on each level. This can be deactivated and reactivated easily, using the switches that are handily positioned around the area. But what the hell is an electrified web doing around a kiddies' play area? Well, it's there to contain Seon, the 6809 Beast...

Ah, he's just sitting there, I'll be alright...

I think that Seon is one of the most frightening bosses I've ever encountered. I would go so far as to say he's the Commodore 64 equivalent of Sinistar. He sits there, trapped, as you trundle about, happily collecting Gribblets and putting them into their playpen... until there's only one left, at which point the web completely deactivates. Seon is then free to come at you at speed, and he will. And if you're off-guard, then you're going to get a shock as he ploughs into you, crackling with anger, reducing your health to nothing at a stroke.

Aaaaargh! Ouch! Seon attacks, and Gribbly's precious energy is sapped.

What really makes Gribbly's Day Out work, and what makes it so good, is the control method. The game is a joy to play. There's a tricky inertia at work when Gribbly is flying, and if you're not careful you can find yourself ricocheting between obstacles in an energy-depleting rebound of doom. Once you get the hang of it, though, you can make seamless transitions from flying to bouncing, whizzing about the environment as though you've lived there your whole life. It's very satisfying indeed, never more so than pulling off a spectacular mid-air Gribblet rescue in the nick of time.

There may be grey skies, but it's still pretty.

And yet, even though you're soon patrolling the skies with the grace of a Spitfire... well, maybe a Sopwith Camel... the game never becomes easy. The clever progression system (you advance between one and three levels once you complete the level you're on, depending on how well you did) ensures that you're always on your toes. And even though you may be good at it, it's still very easy for one mistake to cause you real problems.

Gribbly's Day Out is an excellent game. It's really well balanced, enjoyable and challenging even by today's standards. It's one of those games that I'll fire up every now and then for a quick blast, and I usually end up spending an hour or more on it, trying to get further than the last time. There are sixteen levels... I've never seen them all, and I probably never will. But I can't see the time coming when I'll stop trying.