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Monday, 26 September 2011

Defender of the Crown (Commodore Amiga)

Cinemaware is a company that had quite a reputation back in the day. Well, actually, they had two reputations... one was as a company that produced very ambitious, highly polished games with tremendous production values, in an attempt to make games that captured the essence of classic Hollywood. The other reputation that was held in some quarters was that they were overrated, producing nothing more than a series of dull mini-games held together by ropey plots. Seems a bit harsh...

Ladies and gentlemen, please bear witness to the arrival of Sir PaulEMoz.

I've only played one Cinemaware game before today, and that was Rocket Ranger. It just so happens that that game is one of my all-time favourite Amiga games. Not having owned an Amiga in its halcyon days, though, meant that I never got the opportunity to sample the rest of the Cinemaware catalogue. The first of their games, and the one that served to hype their name to the heavens, was Defender of the Crown. Finally, twenty-five years after its release, I've managed to play it.

Defender of the Crown is a strategy game, with action sequence mini-games. You find yourself in Ye Olde England, in the time of Robin Hood. And in fact, you're one of his mates. But he's decided he's past all that heroic rubbish, and is leaving it up to you to wrest control of England (and Wales, I guess, as you can have that bit o' land too) from evil hands. That said, he does agree to come to your aid up to three times, should you require it. Mighty generous of him.

I love Eugene Jarvis. Oh, wait...

Once the game starts, you're presented with a map of England and Wales (well, most of it... the map stops at Yorkshire. Racists!). There are six castles on the map, one of which is yours! But you can't just sit in your stately home, Lording it over all and sundry. The crown is missing, and you have to not only retrieve it, but also defeat the other five usurpers and earn the right to the throne.

Many of our land's counties are not under rule to begin with. That's how the game starts, with you taking turns to mop up strategically useful pieces of land. You'll earn money off this land, and this can (and must) be used to build your army. This isn't complicated, or especially deep. The only units you can buy are soldiers, knights, catapults and castles. You'll need catapults to attack the other castles. Knights and soldiers should be gathered in nicely proportionate numbers to ensure effective fighting.

My counties are displayed in light blue. Looks like it's going alright, so far.

Once you have an army fit for a prospective king, you can go and set about one of the other pretenders to the throne. It's probably best to take some of their other counties first, lessening their forces in number before laying siege to their stronghold. You don't get to control fights, but you do get to have a go at smashing the castle. If you can correctly judge the strength at which to hurl each boulder from the catapult, you'll smash a big enough hole in the wall for your army to flood through, and that will be one foe conquered! Or at least, you hope it will... you're never aware how many opposing soldiers lie beyond those walls...

Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelled of elderberries. Now go away, or I will taunt you a second time.

It's then a case of rinse and repeat for the rest of the game. Which makes it sound boring, which is to do it a disservice. And there's a little more to it than that. For instance, at times, tournaments will be called. All the contenders will be summoned to one location where they (and you) will joust, for fame and possibly for land.

On a more serious note, there's castle raiding. This can happen in two ways... off your own bat, or to avenge a damsel from foul Normans. Either which way, you'll break into a castle, do a bit of swordfighting, and if all goes to plan, have your way with a lovely maiden. Get it wrong, and you'll be captured, and will have to part with some of your hard-earned funds in order to secure your release.

Alright lads, we're in! You take this lot, I'll get the wench!

These bits all sound like fun, but the problem is, I can't win any of the mini-games. At all. Well, that's not strictly true... I can knock down the castle walls easily in a siege. But the jousting and swordfighting are proving to be impossible for me. Now, you can win the game without them... I did, on my first try... but where's the fun in it if you're not dominant in everything? You want to win the joust. You want to win the swordfights and rescue the damsels. Of course you do. I feel like a bit of a limp-wristed fraud.

Still, as a groundbreaking bit of strategy-lite, Defender of the Crown is something of a triumph. And I would go so far as to say that, even today, it would be a good introduction to the genre for anyone that's a bit wary (or even scared) of the more dense strategy games. You can count me in that number.

Friday, 23 September 2011

The King of Kung?

Being a World Record holder can be a massively prestigious thing. Who wouldn't want the fame and glory that comes with being Usain Bolt, running the 100 metres in 9.58 seconds? Or how about Feliks Zemdegs, who can complete a Rubik's Cube in an amazing 6.65 seconds? Maybe you'd prefer the prestige that comes with being Joey Chestnut, eater of 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes? Actually, on second thoughts I think I could do without that one.

Wow. Doesn't that look like a lot of fun?

I'm not a great athlete... being school champion at the triple jump hardly counts. I hate puzzles, we all know that. And although I'm getting a bit of a kite on me as I tap forty on the shoulder, I'm not really that big an eater. Video games, though, are my thing. And there are tons of video games out there. Surely getting a World Record on one of them must be easy? And then you could genuinely say you're a World Record holder. That would be cool.

Now, there are games out there where you've got no chance. I'm no Billy Mitchell or Tony Temple... the real classic records simply aren't attainable for me. But I do have a fairly vast experience of gaming over the last thirty-odd years... and there is one game I always thought I was quite good at. That game is Yie Ar Kung-Fu.

Down you go, fat boy.

I first used to play Yie Ar Kung-Fu regularly at the YMCA in Consett, of all places. It was a cool place, the "YM". They held roller discos for the teens in the area, and they had a few arcade machines in there, most memorable of which was Tron. That was a lovely machine. I was never much good at it, though. Around another corner, however, was Yie Ar Kung-Fu. And that one, I WAS good at.

It's an interesting game, is Yie Ar Kung-Fu. If you haven't heard of it, it's a beat 'em up that puts you in the shoes of protagonist Oolong, who must fight his way, one-on-one, past eleven different and increasingly difficult enemies. Each enemy has his (or her) own fighting style, and in many cases, they have weapons too. Should you be good enough to beat all eleven, then you'll go back to the first... but they're all better and harder second time around...

I was taught never to hit a girl. So I'll kick this one instead.

OK, so Karate Champ came first. And if you look at that game, you can see that it led to games such as Way of the Exploding Fist and International Karate. But Yie Ar Kung-Fu is really the grandaddy of fighting games as we know them today. It deserves our respect on that front. To many, it's an irritating game... to me, it's something of a joy. I can't get on with modern fighting games; there are too many moves, too many commands to input on the controller. Yie Ar Kung-Fu gives you sixteen moves; eight kicks and eight punches, accessed by the eight directions on the controller and one of two buttons.

I can manage that, and I've always been able to. Even from the beginning, I had something of an affinity with the game, and regularly saw myself defeating opponent after opponent and reaching the final bad guy, Blues. He's a tough nut, but after practice I found I could beat him fairly often, albeit after losing a few lives in the process.

This very game here was the first time I'd ever had a Perfect on Pole.

That's the key... having a good supply of extra lives. To get these, you'll need to score points... and to boost your score, you can get Perfect ratings on each opponent. This is, in many cases, easier said than done. "All" you have to do is defeat an opponent without taking a hit yourself... almost impossible against some fighters. Defeat the first opponent, the fat man Buchu, without getting hit and you'll score a 10,000 bonus. This "Perfect" bonus increases by 10,000 with every fighter. Work that out, and you'll see that over the eleven fighters, there's a pretty big score to be had... if you can master them.

So that's what I set about doing. Now, I know that back in the Eighties I could score over 600,000 points, which I always thought was pretty good. Then I kind of forgot about it for a lot of years, until the wonder that is MAME enabled me to play it again. And I played it quite often for fun, not thinking any more of it, until I played it in a competition on a gaming forum. There, I scored 890,000 points... certainly my best. That's when somebody asked me what the World Record was.

And this one, who looks easiest of all, always manages to get a hit on me. Bastard.

I had no idea. The thought had never crossed my mind. I knew there was a website for such things... the fabled Twin Galaxies. But for some reason, I'd never looked the game up there. When I did, I was quite surprised.

The World Record for Yie Ar Kung-Fu on an actual arcade machine was around 600,000. On MAME, it was about 470,000. I'd beaten both of those scores, and quite comfortably! So it was settled. I was going to go for a World Record! Roy Castle would have been proud.

Of course, merely getting a World Record score is not enough; you have to accompany it with evidence. That might be tricky if I owned an original arcade machine, but it's easy in the days of emulators... they all have built in recording functions. What does make it a bit trickier is that you must submit your score on Twin Galaxies' accepted version of the game.

See, now that's GOT to hurt.

If you don't know about emulation, then you won't know that it's constantly being refined and updated. Games are made to run more accurately as time goes by, which is great but can be a bit of a faff on at times. There have been well over 100 revisions to the MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) program since it started. Twin Galaxies wants to be fair to all, and so they use a version of the program called WolfMAME, and it must be version 0.106. It took me ages to locate this particular version of the program and the game ROM to go with it!

Once I had everything I needed, though, the matter of setting about my task was simple. Hit the emulator's record button, start the game, kick and punch. I had a couple of warm-up games just to jog my memory, but it was obvious that all my old routines were easily called back into memory. And so it was that on March 24th 2008, I achieved a score of 610,300. Decent enough, if nowhere near my best, but certainly enough to be a new World Record! Not only that, but it beat the arcade version's high score too. I was happy with that, so instead of playing more and getting a much more daunting high score, I submitted my new World's best.

When they said I'd meet a Fan, I didn't think...

You wouldn't think it, but the wait between submitting your score and it being verified and posted on the site is excruciating. You can't stop yourself from checking every day, even if you know they're busy. All sorts of questions float around in your mind. What if they've found something wrong with my game? What if someone else has submitted a better score in the meantime? The possibility that you might not see your name in lights after all is a worrying one.

It took about a month for my score to be verified and them to hit the website. It felt a bit weird to see it there, with a number "1" next to it, but that was that. I was a World Record holder. Roy Castle would have been proud. And although it was on a game that was relatively insignificant in the arcade world, I was proud too.

Bloody hell! You can keep that thing away from me, mate!

Sadly, it didn't last, and withing a few short months some git, erm, I mean some gaming Titan had beaten my score. They'd only managed 679,000... a score I could have beaten comfortably if I'd kept practicing instead of submitting the first effort that counted. But that was that, and I felt a bit deflated. That's not the attitude of a champion. Then I heard of another gaming world records site, called MARP. I thought I'd have a look at that one and see what their best was... and was staggered to find it stood at 9,999,900.

How could that be? All this time, I thought I'd been half-decent at the game. When I saw that, I wondered, what was the point of trying again? I simply couldn't fathom how you could manage a score like that. I really struggled with the game, second time around. Had other players found an exploit and could play it forever, beating all opponents with a single move? I was defeated. I put all thoughts of high scores to the back of my mind...

This bloke's pretty hard. I'm not ashamed of kicking him in the back.

...until the much-maligned Game Room was released on the XBox 360. One of the few companies to sign up was Konami, producers of Yie Ar Kung-Fu. I'd already bought it on the 360, but I forked out again to add it to my impressive arcade collection. Despite using a less-than-ideal controller, I had the top score on the Game Room when I first bought it, and uploaded my replay. But when I checked again a couple of days later, the high score was... 9,999,900.

I was gutted. How could there be so many people out there that were SO good at this game? I thought it was really hard! But then I remembered that a feature of Game Room was that it allowed you to watch replays from the top 20 players. Finally I'd get to see some of the techniques of the world's top players. So I loaded up the number one score and watched. Huh, they didn't even get a Perfect on Buchu, the first opponent! Oh well, you only get 10,000 points for that, and anyone can slip up. On to Star, next...

Here's the daddy of them all, Blues. Get in and out quick, or you're dead.

And then that's when it hit me, with all the force of Keyser Soze's unveiling in The Usual Suspects. These amazing players, the ones that had clocked the game, were merely reaching the second opponent and then kicking her stars for points! I honestly couldn't believe it. Why would you bother to play a game without actually playing the game? All those MARP high scores must have been achieved the same way!

I was heartened by that. None of those scores would count on Twin Galaxies, and so my opportunity was there again! And then it was derailed by the arrival of our second child, Ryan. And then I just forgot. Excuses, excuses. But now I'm ready. I'm focused. And I want my record back. I'm going for it. Stay with me gang, and I'll let you know when it happens...

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Intensity (Commodore 64)

Morpheus scraped its way to a ZZAP! Sizzler award... decent, but probably not what was hoped for. But depending on who had reviewed it, it might have not even garnered that... some would suggest a Sizzler was overly generous, and that maybe it was awarded out of a sense of duty, with the game having been subject of a Diary of a Game. I would counter that such a suggestion was harsh... Morpheus is an epic game that takes a long, long time to get into and appreciate, and ZZAP!'s review pointed out that it would not hold universal appeal.

It would be interesting to know how Andrew Braybrook felt about it when all was said and done. Perhaps it burnt him out on the space shooter genre, because his next (and ultimately his last) game on the Commodore 64 turned out to be nothing like that. It was, instead, a single-screen collect 'em up, and it was called Intensity.

Doesn't look all that intense...

There's still a spacey element to the game, as you might expect. Colonists are stranded on their, um, colonies, and with no course of action remaining other than evacuation, you're tasked with piloting the rescue mission. A drone ship is placed on the exterior of each space station. The colonists will emerge from doors and run towards this... hurray, safety beckons!

Once you have saved the requisite number, the exit portal will be activated. You must use your skimmer to guide the now-heaving-with-colonists drone to that exit. This task is simple enough... if you press the fire button, the drone will move to the point at which you summoned it. There's a bit of a problem, though. If the drone hits your skimmer, both will explode. So once you've pressed that button, you'd best leg it, sharpish.

The exit has been activated. Save them!

You don't have to go directly to the exit, and indeed, there are times when you can't, such is the layout of some of the colonies. Why they litter the exteriors of space stations with obstacles is beyond me. You'll also find yourself skimming backwards and forwards between points, picking up a colonist here then heading over to get one from there. It's reminiscent of Choplifter in a way, albeit from a different viewpoint.

Naturally there's a little more to it than that. The colonists are evacuating for a reason, and that reason manifests itself in the skies above each space station. Alien critters meander about, causing bother wherever they may roam. In a nod back to Gribbly's Day Out, the alien critters mutate into stronger, more dangerous forms, if left to their own devices. Luckily you can turn them into space roadkill by just flattening them with your skimmer.

Things are getting a little more complicated now...

That's the game, in a rather large nutshell. There are other bells and whistles... saving colonists releases resources which you can pick up and spend between levels, for instance. But after the sprawling epic that was Morpheus, it comes as a huge surprise to find such a small-scale, tight and focused game. There's no shooting (another surprise), and the single-screen action, whilst initially a little confusing, doesn't take long to click. Once it does, it's very enjoyable indeed, and it gets quite frantic just a few levels in. Considering I'd never played it before, I picked it up in no time, played it for ages and had loads of fun with it.

You're dying to fly a Manta over that and blast everything, aren't you?

Intensity proved to be the last game Andrew Braybrook would write on the Commodore 64. It's a bit of an underrated gem in my opinion, and as such it unfortunately provided something of a low-key swansong. He certainly deserved to leave the scene with a very large bang, having provided some of the greatest gaming moments of its history. Gribblets, Paradroids and Dreadnaughts will forever be remembered fondly by a public that bought in on gaming to a massive degree at the time, and Andrew Braybrook will be remembered as one of the brightest stars of the era.

That's not the end of my look back at Andrew Braybrook, though. I've got a few other things I want to get out there, and then I'm going to come back and round up his Special Editions, and there just might be a sneaky look at something on the Amiga...

Monday, 12 September 2011

Morpheus (Commodore 64)

Ambition. It's what drives so many people on. Ambition to be bigger, better, faster stronger. The ambition to do what has never been done before. The ambition to create what has never been created before. Or, perhaps, to refine something into the best it's ever been.

Andrew Braybrook's ambition led him back to the cold black of space for his next game - a game more epic than anything he'd attempted before. A game called Morpheus.

And we're off!

Alleykat hadn't really gone down as well as Braybrook's prior games... it was well-received, certainly, but not spectacularly so. It might have been nice to just be allowed to plug away at the next game, but that wasn't to happen... Morpheus became the feature of ZZAP! 64's Diary of a Game. I don't know how that came about... maybe both parties harkened back to Birth of a Paradroid and hoped that lightning would strike twice. It was certainly possible with such an undoubtedly talented programmer...

You can read the Diary of a Game in HTML format here, via the excellent DEF Guide to ZZAP! 64 site. It's also available in scanned format from the site's front page.

Get it! Get it! Oh, hang on... that's the wrong one.

The diary ambled along for eight months... that's a long time for the development of a Commodore 64 game. It makes for tortured reading at times... there were long periods where AB wasn't sure what he wanted in the game, couldn't come up with enemy designs, had to break from the game foran eye operation, had to break from the game to work on new versions of old games... it's almost a wonder that Morpheus was released at all. And maybe it wasn't... throughout the length of the diary, this was going to be a Hewson game, but it ended up being released by Rainbird.

So, it was hardly a smooth path that Morpheus trod. In such cases, the end product can often be a disappointment. It's difficult to say whether that was the case with Morpheus... I suppose it depends on what you wanted from the game.

Haha, yeah, you wish. It'll take ages before you've earned enough to buy this bad boy.

Morpheus is a space shoot 'em up. But just hold it right there before you go rushing in willy-nilly to wipe out wave after wave of attacking space craft. This game isn't like that at all.

It's a knocking bet that your first game of Morpheus will end in confusion and death. Your ship exits the docking station, which fades away as you enter the vastness of space. Then you blunder around, bumping into creatures indigenous to the area, which will bump into you and shoot you. Then you encounter a pulsing star, which will bombard you with bullets. If you're lucky, you will "de-mat" back to the docking station. There, you will see that you don't have enough money to buy anything, so you'll exit the docking station, and this time you will die.

Red scanner at night - space pilot's delight. That means you've shut down the nucleus.

Then you'll notice that you don't lose the credits you've accumulated. Morpheus is not quite the cruel mistress she appears to be... in storing your credits after you die, you can at least give yourself a sporting chance of getting somewhere. It might take a few games and a bit of time, but eventually you'll have the funds to commission yourself a new unit of some description.

Customisation of your ship is one of Morpheus' strong suits... to a degree. There's a large number of upgrades to choose from... if you have the cash, you can treat yourself to a new, bigger hull (essential if you want to get anywhere, as it can carry more upgrades), and other goodies such as weapons, energy supplies, radar, shields, etc. You might need to experiment a little to find the upgrades that work best for you. It's a very deep system, and it's handled in a very interesting way.

There you go, your first upgrade. Now your path will be clearer...

The upgrades don't work the way of most games, where you might find them floating around and pick them up, or you might go to a shop and buy them. In Morpheus, you must commission a new system (this, of course, is dependent on funds and the availability of a space on your ship for installation). Once a part is commissioned, you'll have to wait for it to be ready. You'll have to fly back into space and do battle for a while, and hope the mechanics will have finished working when you get back.

I like this aspect of the game. In this world of instant gratification, it's refreshing to play something where you have to really earn every upgrade. On the other hand, it doesn't make the game any more accessible, and in my time with it this time around, I never did manage to get a hull upgrade. But this isn't a straightforward arcade shoot 'em up, as the programmer takes great pains to point out.

Oh, bollocks. That didn't last long. What a waste of a grand!

Morpheus has fifty levels, or "timeslices". Getting through them all would be a real challenge... or maybe a chore, depending on your viewpoint. Each timeslice has a positive and negative phase, which you can alternate between depending on how much positive charge you're carrying. It kind of reminds me of the Entropy system in Jeff Minter's Iridis Alpha, but I don't think it's implemented as successfully. Unlike that game, in Morpheus, I never quite knew where I was or how the positive and negative was really working.

I think that Morpheus suffers from being too ambitious. Too ambitious for its time, and the technology of the day. Once you start adding stuff to your ship, especially hulls, everything starts to feel cramped. Even at its smallest, your ship takes up a lot of the screen, and it's easy to just blunder into everything willy-nilly. Of course, adding other units helps to compensate for this, but not entirely. I think that a remade version, taking advantage of today's widescreen tellies and higher resolutions, could really be something. As it was, Morpheus was a game for those with extremely high patience and the love of a stern challenge. It's more likely to appeal to the sort of person that liked Elite, Citadel or Hunter's Moon, which I think might have been the idea while the game was in production. But this one is very much an acquired taste.