R.I.P. Jack Tramiel

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , , ,

When I was a teenager, nothing in this world mattered more to me than my Commodore 64. School became something that just got in the way of my game time. My heroes were not rock stars, or film stars... they were the reviewers at ZZAP! 64, still the best computer magazine of all time. Or the programmers who made such awesome games: Andrew Braybrook; Jeff Minter; Archer MacLean; the guys at Sensible Software; even musician Rob Hubbard. The Commodore 64 has meant more to me than any other possession I have owned. It's part of my soul.

I didn't spare a thought as to how that Commodore 64 ended up in my possession, save for the fact my parents had bought me it for Christmas (which, whether they knew it or not, made them the most awesome people on the planet that Christmas Day). I certainly didn't think for a moment about the people who had designed and manufactured the thing. Why would I? I didn't want a job with them. I just wanted to play games.

I never had any interest in programming, as such. I think that's always been beyond me. Still, the Commodore 64 was the first machine that inspired me to so much as dabble. The first such instance was probably much the same as yours. I'd go into Boots with my mates, and there's be a few computers running in their display. We'd sidle up to the Commodore 64 and type:

20 GOTO 10 

And once we hit the Enter key, the message would infinitely scroll down the screen, and we'd run out of the shop laughing, hoping to avoid a clip from the security guard.

Later, inspired by the ZZAP! lads, I actually programmed, using much the same instructions as the infamous Boots message, an entire catalogue of reviews of the games I owned. I separated them by genre and wrote reviews in the ZZAP! style, with the same categories of ratings and my own personal comments. Somewhere, in a north-east landfill, lies a Boots C15 cassette with that program on it.

Since those days, I've always fancied being a games writer. It's why I love writing for Way of the Rodent, and it's why I've got this blog. I even have thoughts of writing a book about computer games. And it all stems from owning the Commodore 64.

The main man behind the Commodore 64 was Jack Tramiel, and he died this weekend. The videogaming world owes him an awful lot, as do I.

Andrew Braybrook - a quick C64 history.

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , , , , ,

A while ago (a good while... sorry!), I ran a poll to decide what I should write about next, in series form. I've left it up... it's to the right there. As you'll see, the reading public decided that I should write about Andrew Braybrook's Commodore 64 games. Now, I've had a fair few distractions since then, but I'm moving on with that right now, so buckle up and get ready for a classic Commodore ride.

As is the case with a lot of my articles, I did some research on Andrew Braybrook before I started writing this. I knew a fair bit already... of course I did, he was one of the Commodore 64's biggest celebrities back in the day. I thought he'd written more Commodore 64 games than he actually had... although some of them were rewrites and upgrades. I still haven't decided whether or not to include those yet...

It turns out that I've never played Andrew's first or last Commodore 64 games. That gives me something extra to look forward to over the coming days... for while it's nice to revisit well-loved classics, it's embarking on a voyage of discovery that really makes this exciting for me.

The man himself! Responsible for about 30% of my worst homework assignments...

There was almost always an air of excitement around a new Braybrook game. The first one I followed excitedly was Paradroid, courtesy of ZZAP! 64's "Diary of a Game - The Birth of a Paradroid". You can read that here, at the rather splendid 'Def Guide to ZZAP! 64' website. I didn't even have a Commodore 64 at the time, although friends did, and I would often be found at one of their houses, marvelling at this amazing machine.

Little did I know at the time, but I'd already played an Andrew Braybrook game while I was reading this diary - his Gribbly's Day Out was a favourite from those snatched afternoons. The strange infant-collecting platformer was already renowned as something of a minor classic, and was an indicator of things to come from the programmer...

Paradroid, of course, blazed onto the scene with a fanfare and a shower of awards, and accusations of favouritism in certain quarters... but it really set out Braybrook's stall as a top-notch programmer, not just technically but as someone who could write amazing games. This was reiterated with the release of Uridium, one of the finest arcade shoot 'em ups on the 8-bits not just on its release, but in their entire lifespan.

Andrew released just three more original games on the C64... once its natural life was reaching an end, he started moving toward the more powerful machines. Alleykat was a space racer with guns... which was probably only partially successful. The massive, sprawling space epic Morpheus followed, and then his time on the 64 ended with something of a whimper, with the puzzle game, Intensity.

There's lots to look forward to there, especially if I include any of the Special Edition updates. But first it's back to the beginning, with a game I suspect few of us have played before... Lunattack.

Armalyte (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , , , ,

If ZZAP! 64 had courted controversy over Thalamus' releases in the past, either with the awarding of Gold Medals that people didn't agree with or the supposed under-rating of Delta, there was nary a murmur when it came to their opinion of Thalamus' sixth game - Armalyte. Why the quiet? ZZAP! 64 gave it a Gold Medal... but this time, almost everyone agreed.

Once more, unto the breach... do they have to make it so claustrophobic right from the outset?

The plot of Armalyte is... oh, who cares? Some twaddle that loosely ties it in with Delta... apparently, it seemed like a good idea to market this as a sequel to that game, as if this wasn't good enough to stand on its own. It's more than good enough, and certainly doesn't need the Delta II subtitle it was lumbered with.

With no structures to run into, this doesn't look so bad... just don't get rammed.

Armalyte is a game that takes every other shoot 'em up on the Commodore 64, and ramps up all their best bits by a few notches. It starts in classic Nemesis/Gradius fashion, with your ship flying from left to right as waves of enemies fly toward you, intent on your destruction. The power-up system is different, though... rather than collecting pods left behind by the destruction of enemy formations, a la Konami's classic, weapons pods are to be found floating in space, and you activate them by blasting them.

Mmmm, eggs. Wish I'd had a proper breakfast before I left...

Shooting the floating pods repeatedly switches them through a cycle that includes increased forward fire, rear fire and vertical fire, among others. And if that's not enough for you, you have two huge laser weapons you can switch between that are very satisfying to unleash. Oh, and you start the game with a drone ship which replicates your firepower, which is just as well, given everything you have to attempt to cope with...

Don't go spitting that stuff at me. That's just rude.

There are a few things that elevate Armalyte beyond the bog-standard shooter. The first thing you're likely to notice is the number of enemy ships that you have to deal with. The attack waves come thick and fast, with each containing a good number of attackers. They're relentless, and they're difficult to deal with as they whip about at an often alarming rate. It's overwhelming at first, and you'll find yourself crushed to dust far more often than you'd like.

OK, big fella... get a load of what I'm packing.

Then there are the levels themselves. They're huge, and you'll often be praying for the relative safety of deep space, as you'll frequently find yourself with just a small gap to squeeze through, which mightn't be so bad if it wasn't for the alien attack ships waiting on the other side... There's quite a bit of variety to the levels, which is highly commendable. OK, so the game loaded each level separately, but I can think of plenty of multiload games that didn't try so hard. The levels change in colour as you move through them, and each has its own style, giving the game a massive sense of scale.

It's not the scary heads I'm worried about. It's that giant wall beyond them.

Should you negotiate the countless minions and treacherous landscapes, you'll find that each level has its own gigantic boss to overcome. These are actually probably the weakest points of Armalyte. They're not bad, don't get me wrong, just a bit too similar to each other. It's always been pretty difficult to come up with good enemy boss ship it seems, and for all they look impressive, especially when they take it upon themselves to fly across the screen at you, I can't help but feel they could have been better. But that's as much a constraint of the horizontally-scrolling shoot 'em up as anything else.

Die, alien scum! OK, I've used that one before. If it ain't broke, etc...

Armalyte is pretty much a wonder of the 8-bit era. It came at a time when people thought they could no longer be surprised or impressed by a Commodore 64 game, and were proven wrong in slack-jawed amazement. It was easily Thalamus' most impressive release to date from a technical standpoint, although whether it's actually a better game than Hunter's Moon is something we can argue about over a pint down the pub one day. Regardless, it was fully deserving of its ZZAP! Gold Medal, and any other honours that may have been thrown its way. It's good enough to make me want to play again now that I've finished writing about it... the sign of a top-notch game if ever there was one.

Hawkeye (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , ,

The ZZAP! 64/Thalamus controversy continued with Hawkeye, which was awarded a Gold Medal by the magazine; incorrectly, in the views of many. My mate Reedy bought the game, and we spent a long, long while playing it and enjoying it. If those are any criteria that should count towards a good review, then we'd certainly have given the game very high marks back then.

I wasn't sure I'd think so highly of it now, but then my expectations have changed over the years.

Awww, look at that cute ickle fing! Makes a great noise when it explodes, too.

It was a tricky start... it turned out that I'd completely forgotten how to play this game. And so I piled along as far right as I could go as quickly as I could go, hair flowing in the breeze, synthetic muscles rippling in the sunlight, bullets flying like, well, bullets. And I had to shoot this big dinosaur-type thing. So when it died, why didn't the level end? And why did the dinosaur-type thing come back when I scrolled the screen?

Ooh, I love dinosaurs. But... it's not stopping. Shoot it! Shoot it!

And then I remembered... the game is called Hawkeye, and at the top of the screen are two rather majestic-looking hawks' heads. And when the eye flashes on one of those heads, it's telling you that that's the direction you need to go in to pick up the next of the puzzle pieces need to complete the level. It all came flooding back...

Well, alright... will it take long? I've got a bus to catch in thirty minutes.

Hawkeye, as expected of a Thalamus game, is really well presented, having maybe even more bells and whistles than any of their previous games. There's the Mix-e-load to mess with as the game loads, this time featuring the music of Jeroen Tel; an animated storyteller providing the backstory of the game; and everything is brilliantly set out, with a helpful title sequence letting you know what to expect from the in-game icons. There's even a secret level in there, if you're good enough to unlock it...

Jesus Christ! Look at the size of that flying thing! I'll have to swat it with my laser...

But it also has a pretty damn good game attached to that. Although it's a simple collect'em up at heart, it throws loads of baddies at you as you're running around, which makes it a lot more intense to play than it otherwise might be. That said, you can choose to avoid a lot of the combat, if you wish. Each level, although only one screen in height, is littered with platforms. The majority of the creatures in the game hop and bounce around in such a way that you can often duck underneath them or run straight past them.

Aaahhh... nothing like a quick recharge...

It might seem a bit strange to even want to do that, but your ammunition is limited, although more can be picked up, if you're lucky. More importantly, your energy depletes over the course of a level... it's a kind of time limit, in essence. Again, this can be replenished occasionally, but there's no point in risking losing more than you need to, if you can help it. Especially as, once you get to level four, enemy attack patterns get more complicated and make things even more difficult...

Well, I can't say I was expecting that.

I enjoyed Hawkeye a considerable amount whilst playing it for this. There are times when the shooting action is really frantic, and you have to be quite selective about what you're doing if you want to progress. I wouldn't say it's a thinking man's shoot 'em up, but with a choice of four weapons, each of which is effective in different ways, and this element of having to pick your battles carefully, it keeps you on your toes at all times. It's also a pretty good high score game, and with plenty of levels it's a real challenge. Another high point for the Thalamus catalogue, in my opinion.

Creatures (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , ,

I'm surprised I hadn't played Creatures before! It was one of the most highly rated games on the Commodore 64, and it was by Thalamus, and I had most of their games. For some reason, though, this (and its sequel!) escaped me.

Creatures tells the story of Clyde Radcliffe, a cute and fluffy thing that's landed on a desert island on Earth. The heartless (but cute!) bastard then sets about eliminating all the indigenous species on the island, just so he and his friends can bunk down there. Harsh.

Right turn, Clyde!

It's fairly typical platform stuff, but although it's a bit on the slow side, it plays pretty nicely. In fact, it probably helps that you're not haring around at breakneck speed, because it's quite difficult and it would be easy to miss things. You can fire, erm, fireballs, or you can charge up and unleash a flamethrower. From your mouth.

There are also things to collect and go shopping with, and then at the end of each stage, there's a torture screen. In the torture screen, you must rescue one of your fuzzy friends from a fate worse than death. Or you can just sit there and watch them get ripped to shreds. Your call.

Creatures is a fun game, if possibly overrated at the time. On the other hand, if I've enjoyed it now, I'm sure I would have enjoyed it more at the time and possibly played it to completion. I don't think I'd be awarding it Gold Medals, but it was almost certainly a cut above the competition then, and as far as 8-bit games go today, it holds up pretty well, I reckon.