Allan Shortt - a celebration of his legacy

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , , , ,


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...

Athena

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.