As a youngster owning only one computer, it's fair to say that I didn't pay much attention to any of the other available computers. Sure, I played on friends' Spectrums a lot, and one mate had an MSX, which was pretty awesome... but I didn't really know that much about the other scenes. I knew Ultimate "made" Knight Lore and JetPac, for instance, but I didn't know who actually programmed games or did their graphics unless it was splashed on the title screen.
I didn't pay as much attention to the magazines either. That being the case, I was pretty much unaware that some programmers had coded games for more than just the Commodore 64. You don't really pay attention to stuff like that unless it actually affects you in some way, do you?
Now, though, it's my business to know all that. I can't do a thorough job without knowing a lot of background information. It's quite the voyage of discovery, I have to say. It also means more"work" for me, but I can't say I'm unhappy about that!
One programmer I've been looking into where that applies is Nick Pelling. Known back in the day to most as Orlando (Or Orlando M. Pilchard), I was a huge fan of his game, Firetrack, on the Commodore 64. What I didn't know was that he also a BBC programmer of some repute! Indeed, he programmed both BBC and C64 versions of some of his games... one of which was Firetrack. So I thought I'd play both versions of that game and write about them here.
A little scene-setting first... one of my favourite arcade games in the Eighties was Tehkan's vertically-scrolling shoot 'em up, Star Force. It's something of a cult classic... not really a big name, but loved by all those who played it. I was obsessed with it. Each level was named after a letter of the Greek alphabet, and I was really into Greek mythology at the time. But best of all, it was just an incredibly playable blaster. I poured tons of tens into that thing.
I wanted a home conversion more than anything. But I knew that it wouldn't be accurate, so I was torn. It didn't matter, because in the end, the conversion never came. There was Firebird's budget take, Warhawk, which really scratched my itch for a while. But when I read ZZAP! 64's review of Firetrack, I knew I had to have that game.
I actually bought it for £2.99 from an entrepreneurial second-hand book merchant in my home town. When I saw it in his box of second-hand games, I snapped it up like you wouldn't believe. It was such a renowned little shop that you'd almost always have small crowds around the game boxes, just in case somebody had traded in a gem. On this occasion, they had.
Firetrack, then, is a vertically-scrolling shoot 'em up. No surprises there. It has a very simple plot... something about industrial pirates occupying the eight worlds of an asteroid belt. Your job is to fly across those worlds and destroy all the enemy's installations. Apparently people watch this and bet on it, too. That part's a bit weird.
As with any shoot 'em ups, it's not quite as easy as that. The pirates don't take kindly to this behaviour, and send up squadrons of attack ships to thwart your progress. Initially, they're more of an annoyance, buzzing around like swarms of flies but harmless if you avoid contact. After a while, though, they start spitting missiles at you, and they move noticeably quicker too, meaning your quest becomes a lot more perilous.
Although Firetrack is clearly and obviously inspired by Star Force, it most certainly has its own vibe and personality, too. The attack patterns and enemy craft bear much resemblance to that arcade game, and the land masses also have much in common, although Firetrack's look more organic.
When comparing the BBC and Commodore 64 versions of Firetrack, it's apparent that the C64 version is smoother and a little easier to play. The BBC version is a lot brighter (more garish?). Otherwise, there's little to choose between the two. Both have an odd little soundtrack which suits the game well.
Firetrack on the Commodore 64 is a game I have loved for a lot of years. It's so good, it almost made me forget that I couldn't play Star Force at home. It's nice to know that BBC owners also got to experience this little slice of shoot 'em up heaven, too. It's surely a sign of its greatness that I keep playing it even though I don't have to, but purely because I want to. It's probably my favourite vertically-scrolling shooter of the 8-bit era.