Posts

I thought about the right title for this review for a long time. Only to realize that it doesn’t need any. Sam’s Journey is probably the most talked about Commodore 64 game of the recent years. It dares to inject console gaming principles into 8-bit gaming. Checkpoints. Game saves. Level scores. Loads of content. And who hasn’t heard of the authors’ gamble and their developing the game not in their spare time but sometimes as a half-time, sometimes full-time job? Unlike some other reviewers, 8-bitstuff.com played the game from start to finish, so we base our review on the full experience.

Biggest 8-bit jump and run of all time. 30 hours of captivating content. Zero bugs. Buy it. Play it! Love it!!!

 

NOD TO THE SISTERS

A little boy named Sam wakes up in the middle of the night (or does he?) to some loud noise and bright light leaking through the door of his wardrobe from the inside. He opens it, and a giant claw appears, grabs him, and throws him into a strange land.

If it sounds kinda familiar, it sounds right. Sam’s Journey is one giant nod to the legendary The Great Giana Sisters, from collecting diamonds to getting rid of enemies by jumping on their heads and the advert saying “The Sisters Are History” (deeper than some might think, as Giana’s slogan was “The Brothers Are History”). Except that Sam’s Journey scrolls in 8 directions (Giana just left to right), offers almost 60 huge (think Turrican level size) maps, and countless enemies.

BEST OF BOTH WORLDS?

Each circle on the path stands for a level consisting of 2-3 big maps.

The game’s coder, Chester Kollschen, and graphician, Stefan Gutsch, are no novices to game making. Ice Guys are still cute after all those years, Stroke World doesn’t stop amazing with its crazy story and the main character animated in some 170 sprites, Bomb Mania is still many a party’s favorite multiplayer game. They chose to take take the classic 8-bit cuteness and playability, and up it with the good bits the modern-times gaming brought, like more content and less frustration.

Concerning content, there’s tons of it in Sam. 27 levels, all of them multi-load (2 or 3 maps), 3 boss fights, and a lengthy animated intro and end sequence.

Long games sometimes run the risk of overstaying their welcome. It’s happened to me too many times on the PC that I was totally ready for a game to end, but it still threw more of the same at me. It’s not the case of Sam though. Sam is perfectly aware of that, and the authors do their best to make the game as variable as possible.

TWO WAYS TO PLAY

Basically, you can play Sam two ways: either just find the exit and get out as soon as possible or try to collect all of the 40 diamonds, 10 coins, and 3 trophies that are placed in each level. A diamond counts as 1%, a coin is 3%, and a trophy counts for 10% in the level score (don’t ask me why a coin is more valuable than a diamond of roughly the same size), adding up to 100%.

SEVEN DIFFERENT SAMS

By the way, before you start playing Sam, you should really read the manual, otherwise you might not get the most out his seven forms. Yes, seven! Apart from his little boy persona, he can collect “costumes”, as the game calls them, that give him special abilities. Pirate Sam has a sword with which you can dispatch most of the enemies, Ninja Sam can cling to walls, Pitcher Sam can throw objects fast and far, Space Sam has a jetpack that allows him to make double jumps, Disco Sam (whom I promptly dubbed Elvis) twists in the air, allowing him to stay airborne longer (a feature that looks like it’s escaped from Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams), and Vampire Sam (aka Dracula in my personal vocabulary) can change into a bat and fly for a while.

Left to right, up to down: Boy (default) Sam, Pirate Sam, Ninja Sam, Pitcher Sam, Space Sam, Disco Sam, Vampire Sam, and flying Vampire Sam

If all you want to do is enjoy the game and see all the levels, you should stick to Dracula, as flying will help you to make a lot of shortcuts and avoid most of the enemies. Only in very few levels you will need the Ninja to get you through a high vertical passage. If you want to reach 100% score in every level, sooner or later you’ll need the other costumes too. Here a coin is hidden in a chest that you’ll need to open with a sword, there only the Ninja can climb up a chimney, or the Pitcher throw a rock so that it will hit an otherwise inaccessible diamond. The Pitcher is the least useful–you’ll really need him only twice, I think, but he’s also pretty good when it comes to boss fights. But as you don’t need him otherwise, you probably won’t practice with him enough to really utilize him against the bosses. Anyway, the best way to enjoy the game is not to try to stick to one particular costume, even if you like it best, and just enjoy the variability as you go through the level.

Any costume also serves as an extra life. If an enemy hits you and you’re wearing a costume, you lose the costume and go on as Sam the boy. If you’re hit in your boy form, you can either return to the last checkpoint or restart the level as a whole. After completing a level you can save your game. And you can always restart any of the levels you’ve been through before to improve your score there.

As I mentioned the manual, there’s one sentence there that’s very easy to overlook: “Some switches are portable and can be moved to more useful locations.” Remember it when it looks like you can never reach the portal before the switch with a timer switches back.

LIKE A SWISS WATCH

There’s one 8-bit quality that’s hard to in the PC world–stuff working out of the box. I haven’t met a single one bug in Sam’s Journey, and only maybe two or three times a sprite flickered in a different y position when being multiplexed.

As Sam’s playtime is longer than that of many PC AAA titles, this disproves at least a part of the PC developers’ excuses that you can’t get rid of all bugs prior to release because of the vast complexity.

MULTITUDE OF MONSTERS

Where the game deserves a lot of credit is the area of monsters. Not just that there are many of them, but the authors took a lot of care to make each one an original in their behavior. So there are monsters that patrol their platform by walking on it end to end, others that jump down to lower platforms if they can, some change their speed if they’re hit, some leave fiery footprints, some fly horizontally, others vertically, some just hop, others throw stuff at you, and then you get a whole new set of movement patterns from the fish in water levels.

DEADLY CUTENESS

The graphics are colorful and cute.

The price you sometimes pay for the variability of the graphics is that when you enter a new environment, it’s not quite clear what’s a platform that will support your weight (or a wall that will block your progress) and what is just background. Especially climbable stuff I often discovered by sheer luck.

The monsters are beautifully drawn. Not the style (Stefan, aka Big Users, has always had his own) but the mood of the graphics reminds me of another timeless Commodore classic: the Creatures series. All of the monsters are absolutely lovable, most of them smile … and are happy to tear you apart if they get the slightest whiff of a chance to do so.

MAGICAL MUSIC

There are nearly 40 minutes of original music by Alex Ney (also known as Taxim in the scene) in Sam, split into 18 tracks, each about 2 minutes long. And now comes the strange thing. When you spend 40-60 minutes in a level (which is about the time you need later in the game to find all the secrets and finish it with a 100% score), you hear the tune 20-30 times. I usually hate short tunes in games, but not a single one in Sam’s Journey turned out to be annoying. My musical experience with Sam’s Journey was oscillating between the tunes just being a part of the overall thing and me sometimes deliberately stopping to enjoy the tunes that I liked more.

THE NOT-SO-GREAT

When you throw tons of content at the players, they’re bound to have issues with a few grams of it. There are three bits I would change in Sam if I had the power.

The first one is a trivial controls issue: “enter the door” is the same direction as “jump” (up). What’s the problem with that? You go through a door and end up in a new location. What I often did was try to jump up to get a better initial idea of the level layout… and of course went back through the door (often meaning waiting for the previous location to load, then go back through the door immediately and waiting for the new location to load again). It kept happening to me even toward the end of the game; I never got used to it. If the going through doors was assigned to the down direction (or up+fire), the problem wouldn’t exist.

My second gripe is about the things that happen automatically. Even the game’s manual advises that it’s not always advantageous to activate a checkpoint. The thing is, you activate it by just passing by (or landing on it when jumping from above etc.). So sometimes you store your position even if you don’t want to, especially if you’re trying to get a score of 100%. Same goes for autocollecting the costumes. Too many times I ended up with a costume I didn’t want to use.

And finally, in their effort not to play all their trump cards too soon, the authors didn’t put too many secrets and new enemies into the first levels. Between perhaps the 6th and 8th level I initially thought, “Is that all Sam’s got to offer?” Boy, am I glad that I persevered and played on!

THE GREAT

What I’ll remember for quite a while will be Sam’s Dracula, Spaceman, and Elvis personas, and countless monsters with their various movement patterns. The funny caterpillars, the hilarious elephants, the fireballs with fiery footprints, the… And the second boss. I loved the second boss, even though I had to play against him maybe 60 times to get it right!

The fireball, as I called him. Ain’t he beautiful?!

As the physical edition comes with the game’s soundtrack on a CD, I converted it to mp3s and tunes like The Green Hills, Under Deck, The Ice Caves, and Desert Sands are now in my playlist.

The secrets. Especially in the advanced levels, you often end up looking for the one last, very well hidden coin. And it’s always “Ah, there it is!”, not a “Bah, so it’s there…”

The end sequence. No spoilers, but Knights of Bytes know how to make a nice ending to a game. Loved it.

And then there’s the elusive quality called “playability” that can turn even a soundless game with ASCII graphics into a killer. Sam’s Journey woke up the passionate player in me. Because before writing this review, I finished Sam twice. The first playthrough was about 18 hours, which might be how much the game will take a casual player to finish. And then I decided that I want to see and know it all. I went for the 100% score. 30 hours, more or less. I doubt that in the last ten years, I sunk about 50 hours in one 8-bit game over the course of some two weeks.

VERDICT

Talking about Sam in the 8-bit community, one could hear all kinds of opinions, from that it can’t really be that good because it’s new to people taking offence at hearing that not everything in Sam is perfect.

So, what’s 8-bitstuff.com’s position?

Rational summary:

Biggest 8-bit jump and run of all time. 30 hours of captivating content. Zero bugs.

Subjective summary:

The best C=64 game since the commercial death of the 8-bitters in mid-1990s? Totally!

The best C=64 jump and run of all time? Yes.

The best C=64 game ever? No. But it’s up there in my top X.

Buy it. Play it! Love it!!!

 

As a bonus, we give you a gallery with one screenshot from every level, except for boss fights, so that we don’t spoil the surprises for you:

Level 01

Happy Grassland. The pink monsters are called Roamers, and Sam is soon going to be called Ninja Sam.

Level 02

Deep Woods. The hornets are invincible. If you jump into a gun, it will shoot you somewhere where you otherwise couldn’t get.

Level 03

Forest Cave. What will you find in the old mine?

Level 04

Ice Flowers. Pirate Sam climbing up a liana. The penguins have a funny pattern: they fly a short distance and then slide on their belly.

Level 05

Frozen Land. If I had collected the violet T-shirt, I would have become Elvis.

Level 06

Arctic Plains. Panic mode on, I’m under a penguin attack!

Level 07

Cold Castle. If the lightning-throwing mummy comes just a bit closer, my spaceman will be able to hit it with a stone. That’s what I call eclecticism.

Level 08

Beaver Bridge. Another reference to Giana here.

Level 09

Desert Heat. Ancient statues spit fire, a gun moving left and right, and you have to shoot it at the right time to avoid the fire and hit the other gun. I wouldn’t mind my desert a bit colder.

Level 10

Mystical Pyramid. The first really complicated level with a lot of secrets. Need to time my jump for the coin so that the wasps don’t sting me.

Level 12

Underground. After you dispatch the first boss, you go underground. When the ghosts are transparent, you can run through them. When they are white, they can harm you – but also you can harm them. And what if one of them drops one of the three trophies scattered around the level?

Level 13

Deep sea. The underwater parts of Sam are like a second game within the game. New physics, new monsters, new patterns.

Level 14

Glittering Cave. Snowmen roll snowballs at you. The balls get bigger and bigger as they roll. Nice touch.

Level 15

Spiky Tower. A kinda pop problem. Do I want to get Elvis if it means risking getting (a) Sting?

Level 16

Flower Shore. You can climb these nets. So climb to the top, jump up to get the diamond, jump diagonally over the wasps, jump up to get the second diamond, jump back…

Level 17

Pirates Ahoy! The pirate/ship levels are some of the best fun in the game. Not easy, not at all. But totally fun anyway.

Level 18

Elephant Tree. Don’t ask me how that elephant got onto the platform. It’s just there and you’ll have to deal with it.

Level 19

Wet and Dry. A lot of underwater action going on. Who would have thought that pearls can be used as ammo?

Level 21

Platform Hell. So you thought that if you get rid of the second boss, the game will give you a break? Wrong! Platform Hell is exactly what the name suggests, especially if you want the 100% score. In this part of the level, I have a bit of a hope: if I make the jump for the red T-shirt and don’t collide with the bat, I’ll get the Dracula form, which will make my life among the moving platforms a bit easier because I’ll be able to fly.

Level 22

Highlands Gate. Welcome to the Highlands. Fancy being flattened by a giant granite cube?

Level 23

Sunken Ship. Is that a turtle throwing an axe?

Level 24

Waterfalls. Alright, so that’s a lobster shooting its claw at you, while you’re carrying a huge key to the door to unlock it. Getting keys to doors is often difficult because while carrying them, you can’t use your special abilities.

Level 25

Fungus Lake. While other enemies have their steady movement patterns, the jellyfish always goes after you.

Level 26

Cloud Runner. Having a treasure chest and not being able to open it is unfortunate. Luckily, it also opens if it hits an enemy (while taking care of it too).

Level 27

Foggy Treetop. Hear the words of wisdom: never ever jump between two angry elephants. I bet you’d never figure that out on your own!

Level 28

Sky City. So, after I leave the net, I’ll collect the key, jump over (on onto) the two caterpillars, and then–should I or should I not exchange my Elvis outfit for the green Pitcher outfit?

Level 29

Chilly Challenge. Climb and grab and slide and jump and fly and avoid and… After all, this is the final level before meeting the final boss.

The beginning of the end

End of the Journey. Now let’s assume you have defeated the final boss. If you want to know what happens next, you’ll have to play the game to deserve it. Have fun!

Sam - score

The playtime is about 10 hours more than I actually spent with the game, as once I forgot to turn off the computer and the game ran overnight. The score is accurate though. Try to equal it!

On the cyber world of Thraxx, an evil baddie called Havok somehow returned after 10,000 years and started wreaking himselv. Or something. Plus he’s got his “nightmare creations” to help him, while everyone on the good side has died… I mean, everyone but you, the last survivor of the ancient Bladeknights. Normally, the Bladeknights would have probably kicked Thraxx’s bottom, but he somehow managed to destroy the Fireblade, the source of the Bladeknights’ power. So it’s up to you to find the 16 fragments of the Fireblade in the Undercity and then get medieval on Havok. And by the way, if the bad guy’s name is Havok, yours can’t be any other than Hiro.

Switchblade is a wonderful game. Do yourself a favor and play it. But, for the sake of your sanity, only on the CPC. Because there’s no other decent 8-bit version.

This introduction from the manual of Switchblade (a 1989 game developed by Core Design and released by Gremlin Graphics) competes with the epic emptiness of stories for Manfred Trenz’s games. But we’re not here to write literary reviews. We’re here to see the undeniable truth: that the CPC has always been the best 8-bitter of them all. Switchblade is just one random example out of the countless proofs.

I’ll put aside the title screen, which looks quite similar on all the three machines. Yes, three, because as usual, the game made it to the Spectrum, the C=64, and the CPC. It doesn’t exist for the 8-bit Atari, but it might actually be good for the platform, as it saves it from humiliation by the Amstrad version.

IT’S ENOUGH SEE THE INTRO

The intro tells the story you already know from the manual. It also tells us that the authors of the C=64 and the ZX version were, uhhh, not very smart.

Let’s say you’ve got a source picture from a machine with a better resolution or more colors. The picture is very small, and it’s the only piece of graphics on the screen. In the corner of a bloody eye, it features three colors, which might be a problem. The rest of the screen is just a very short text. What do you do?

On the ZX, do you try to shift the picture in the bitmap so that you don’t get a color clash? Or, perhaps, do you redraw the picture so that it’s slightly bigger and you always have only 2 colors in one character square? No, you don’t! You just convert it and get the clash!

And on the C=64? Do you overlay the critical area with a sprite (you could have up to ten different colors in the critical attribute square this way, if I’m not mistaken)? No, you don’t. You just obviously leave your brain switched off, too, and convert the picture from the Spectrum, including the bloody (pun intended) color clash!

Intro - ZX and C=64

The colors are different, the hardware is different, the unnecessary color clash is the same (left: ZX, right: C=64).

And now look at the CPC version.

Intro on the CPC

See? It is doable (CPC)!

AND YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE GAME YET!!!

Well, now you do. Now you’ll understand.

On the Spectrum, the game was bound to look ugly from the start. They just had to choose between ugly looks because of the attribute clashes or because of being monochromatic. And, congratulations, having gone monochrome, they managed to take the wrong decision again! As the background is more or less dithered (lots of dense dots), you can hardly see any objects or monsters if they’re not moving.

The first screen on the ZX and the 64

Left: blobs of dots on blabs of dots (ZX). Right: Ugly multicolor (C=64).

Knowing the game, I thought at least monsters would look decent on the C=64 with its fabled hardware sprites. But … this? Either they just, again, converted the ZX version (might as well be it, as the game get suspiciously slow as soon as you get more enemies on the screen, so it might be animated bitmap instead of the sprites, which would cost the C=64 next to no processor time), or I’d rename the sprites to ha-ha-ha-hardware sprites. Yes, the monsters are that laughable!

And now look at the CPC version.

The first screen on the CPC

So much of a difference (CPC)!!!

WHY MAKE THE PLAYER HAPPY?

As you’re exploring first the surface of the planet and then the Undercity, you’re looking for the 16 pieces of the Fireblade. There are many bonus items that increase your score or attack abilities, but if you’re skillful, you can do without them. But without the Fireblade, you can’t do, because only when you collect all the bits, you can wreak havoc on Havok. And to get to those bits, you’ll first have to discover that not all the walls are alike in the game. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Well, you might call the wall part a puzzle, but do you think the C=64 and ZX help you find the parts of the sword? Of course not! In some cases, especially on the Spectrum, you can’t even distinguish them from the backdrops.

Where is the sword on the ZX and the 64?

Where on Tarxx would you look for the first part of the sword (left: ZX, right: C=64)?

And now look at the CPC version.

See the sword now on the CPC?

Just a bit of an extra color, and you know where it is (CPC)!

BEEP, SPLASH, BOING

The area where I couldn’t see why the ZX and the C=64 couldn’t be on par with the CPC version was the sound department. I’ve never minded about the AY, and some say the C=64’s SID isn’t that bad either. Well, the C=64 sound was a shock… and not a positive one. The Commodore versions of the tunes sound like they’re coming from a beeper. Even though I thought that was what the Speccy originally had. The Spectrum sounds better, but still like in the early ’80s when the musicians where just happy that the machine made any sound. The CPC tune then renders the same melody in a much fuller and more atmospheric sound.

PLAYABILITY

Surprisingly, the game behaves almost identical on all the three platforms. The layout of the rooms is the same, the speed movement is the same, the jump lenght is the same, you get more or less the same bonuses in the same places. However, this is one of the cases when the graphics and the music make or break your experience. If the music is crap, there’s no real immersion, and if you can’t make out what’s what on the screen, it significantly hampers your experience.

Some not-so-nice monsters on the ZX and C=64

Can you find the monsters? And if so, can you enjoy them (Left: ZX, right: C=64)?

A screen with monsters on the CPC

Now that‘s what I call monsters (CPC)!

VERDICT

Switchblade is a wonderful game. It’s full of secrets. It’s full of surprises. It’s huge. Do yourself a favor and play it. But, for the sake of your sanity, only on the CPC. Because there’s no other decent 8-bit version.

There is no point in beating about the bush. Oil’s Well is best on the 8-bit Atari… Wait, you don’t know Oil’s Well? Okay. Let’s explain it, you dumb Commodore and Zed Ex Ex Ex freax!

Oil’s Well is an early ’80s game by Sierra On-Line released in 1983. That was around the time when the C64 and the Speccy appeared but the 8-bit Atari was a strong player on the home computer market playground already – I mean the best machine, I’m telling ya! With a dedicated hardware for gaming, it was the ideal and natural choice for both developers and gamers. And that’s when Sierra came with their new game. The game is about an underground oil rig harvester that has to collect all oil from the underground deposit under the oil well. It looks like a Pac-Man on a stick and has a similar principle – to eat dots. The harvester is connected with the well by a telescopic tube, so it can get to the deepest places in the underground. But the underground corridors are full of horrible insect, and if they hit the harvester or its tube, one loses a life.

Title screen. Top left: Atari, top right: C64. Bottom left: MSX, bottom right: Colecovision

The telescopic tube is controlled by you, the player, by standard joystick movement and the fire button, which works like the telescope’s remote, so when you press it, the telescope starts to wind up. Thus you can avoid the nasty baddies. Sometimes, there are also bonuses going in random rows from random directions. Collecting them brings points or extra lives. But sometimes, a bomb that can kill your harvester unit comes, but it leaves your tube intact so you can avoid this danger easily.

The game came out for the Atari, C64, MSX, Coleco Vision, and the IBM PC compatibles. Let’s focus on the 8-bit ones, just mentioning that the 1983 PC version is very ugly and slow.

The Atari version is the best one. It has nice and colorful graphics, great sounds and excellent playability. The C64 version isn’t that good: the sounds are worse, and so is the use of colors. Some effects are missing altogether. Colecovision is, surprisingly, in the third place with high resolution graphics and sounds very close to the Atari version, but the color amount is limited. The last place belongs to the MSX, which has identical graphics as Colecovision version but a bit weaker AY chip sounds with no background kind-a-melody that’s present in other versions highlighting the game’s atmosphere nicely.

The first level. The Atari and C64 versions might seem identical, but if you take a closer look, you’ll find out differences. The MSX and Colecovision versions are almost the  same; you’d hardly find a difference. Top left: Atari, top right: C64. Bottom left: MSX, bottom right: Colecovision.

What is bad in the C64 version? One could say there’s nothing wrong with it. If you’ve played the Atari version before, you’ll see a lot of difference. First, the sounds are a bit simple. I’d be awaiting some more drama from the SID chip. It seems to me like a little boy was trying to make fancy sounds in V2 BASIC. Second, the graphics are really very similar to the Atari, the color palette is… erm… steady brown and pink, but, that’s just Commodore. Rather than this, I miss that the baddies aren’t appearing on the sides of the screen like on Atari, but they’re coming out of the C64’s border. But, that’s understandable for the hardware. Some elements like flashing bombs and bonuses are made in hires and that’s making a weird impression to me, namely flashing in random colors seems ugly. The C64’s color order in the memory is weird and it seems that nobody took care about smooth flashing effects.

Level two on the 8-bit Atari.

On the MSX and the Colecovision, things are substantially worse. Everything is in higher resolution than on Atari and C64, but there’s a lack of colors. All baddies are just white and they’re small like one text character or so, which looks and feels ugly. The only colored things are static graphics and the miner’s tube. Both versions seem like they’re running on a ZX Spectrum, although a ZX version doesn’t exist at all, actually. There’s nothing much more to say about these two versions, except the sound. On the Coleco, sounds are closer to the Atari version, while we hear just MSX’s AY chip simple bleeps on the other side. All in all, none of these two conversions are good enough to stand on the Atari’s step.

The verdict was clear since the beginning. Atari rulez! If you own a Commodore, you can feel quite a similar experience, but not on the other platforms. This is an Atari game, and you must play it now!

There are games that have cute graphics. There are games that have great playability. There are games that have a long playtime. And then there are games that have all of that. Mega games. And mega games deserve mega reviews. In terms of pictures (exactly 100 screenshots!), not text–so relax and read on. In case you’re really extremely text-shy, just scroll down to the mega gallery at the end of the article.

A VERY DIFFERENT RACING GAME

Hot Rod was originally a 1988 SEGA top-down racing arcade game. A very different racing game.

Hot Rod is one of the best racing games to ever hit the 8-bit market.

 

It starts with that it’s one of just very few overhead games where you don’t race on circuits. Instead, you’re driving across an unspecified country. Every three stages take place in roughly the same kind of landscape. The landscapes range from mountains to deserts to sea shores and from wilderness to cities. You’ll drive not only on good old tarmac, but also on dirt, sand, snow, and ice. So what you’re getting are 30 levels of scrolling awesomeness in ten different environments.

Hot Rod title screens

Title screens from the Spectrum (left) and Commodore 64 (right) version. The CPC one has no title picture.

Another huge difference is that unlike in other car games, Hot Rod isn’t about lightning-quick reactions. The pace of the game is quite relaxed, so it’s all about precision driving, not jerking the wheel in this or that direction as fast as possible. That is supported by a game mechanics that’s only possible in a game world: there are no collisions with other players. Your car can be in the very same place as your opponent’s, so everyone can take the racing line they deem the optimal one. This eliminates the most frequent problem of multiplayer car games, where you often get rid of the other humans as soon as possible through crashing into them and/or driving them off the track and then just cruise to victory. It practically asks for cooperative playing instead: sharing the available bonuses and trying to get both humans through all the levels.

Anytime you have a scrolling multiplayer racer, you have to solve the same problem: what to do with a player who’s lagging behind so much that they’d fall off the screen? Hot Rod bases its logic on one all-important variable: gas. You get extra gas depending on your place in each stage, and you can collect some on the road in the form of extras. You burn it with each second the road, and it’s a currency in which you pay for your blunders. If one of the three cars (up to two human players, the rest is played by the machine), for example, falls into the ocean or gets buried by an avalanche or a landslide, they’re resurrected at the cost of 20 gas units. Same goes for the time when they fall behind–the game puts them back among the competitors, but they lose 20 gas. If their gas tank gets empty–game over.

Perhaps the only traditional element of Hot Rod are the upgrades, which you exchange for the second most important indicator in the game: money. You receive money for your performane in the races, and in the CPC and ZX version also for collecting bonuses. Between the races, you can visit a parts shop and buy one of the 20 possible thingies that change the behavior of your car. These are engines, wings, bumpers, and tires for different surfaces. Yet even here, Hot Rod inserts its own little twist. Every shop has only select upgrades and you can always buy only one; therefore, you have to plan your upgrade strategy very carefully.

CPC Parts Shop

In Parts Shops, you can buy upgrades for your car. This one is from the CPC version.

In most stages, the roads and/or streets are closed for the race, but occasionally, Hot Rod gets a Gumballish touch, and you have to navigate among other cars, dozers, and rollers, and avoid being caught by the police or hit by a train. And sometimes you can take a shortcut that, in turn, is more difficult navigate – so if you’re good, you gain, if you make a mistake, you lose time (and possibly gas).

THREE DIFFERENTLY BEAUTIFUL VERSIONS

All of the above says how much creativity and effort went into the game, but what I’ve always loved about Hot Rod the most is how it all clicks together. You get a polished, immensely entertaining, variable, highly replayable eye candy monster of a game. Hot Rod is simply one of the best racing games to ever hit the 8-bit market (and my No. 1 personally). And its versions are a perfect example of that each 8-bit platform has its strengths.

Hot Rod found its way to the C=64, CPC, and ZX.

Podium ceremony

Top right: ZX Spectrum. Bottom left: C=64. Bottom right: CPC. This layout will be the same for all the pictures in the mega gallery below.

The best-presented version is the C=64 one. It has a neat intro, great music by Jeroen Tel, and makes the most of the Commodore’s hardware sprites and hardware scrolling. Everything is smooth and sleek. However, typically for C=64 versions of arcade games, there’s one big dent in all that beauty: the game lacks nine out of the original 30 levels (19-24, 28-30). Sadly, they are some of the best levels. As they are all from the final parts of the game, it looks as if there was a hard deadline and the publisher said, “We’ll just put out whatever we’ll have by then.” Back on the positive side, the C=64 is the only 8-bit version that has an end sequence – on the CPC and the ZX, the game just wraps (which I have always hated–I play games to win them, not to play them until I lose).

The C=64 version is also the best balanced of them all. It’s got to do with the brave, but ultimately bad, decision of the CPC and ZX converters to be fair to the human players and implement actual AI. On the C=64, you have your typical computer droids. They follow a predetermined path no matter what. It’s a little dull, very predictable–but it works. On the Z80-based machines, the computer tries to find the best way through the level on the fly, reacting to what’s currently happening on the screen. The problem is that the AI is too weak. Once you throw it off balance, it usually fails to get back on track and your victory in that level is guaranteed. Yet, when the AI works well, the racing is more fun than on the C=64, as the computer also upgrades its cars, and if you let it grow, it becomes a tough opponent. When a computer car gets a game over, a new car is pitted against you, starting from scratch without any upgrades.

The Z80 versions have somewhat broken economy

Another bit of balancing that the C=64 version got right is the economy. On the Speccy, and esp. on the CPC, near the end, you have a lot of money and not much to buy for it (with most upgrades priced between $600 and $5000, the $48000 from the picture above is ridiculously much). While on the C=64, an engine will last you only 6 races, so you have to make sure to win enough money to keep replacing it–and remember the right levels in which the Parts Shops have the engines you want.

The CPC version of the game has all of the glorious 30 levels but pays the price for the hardware it runs on. Compared to the C=64 and ZX version, it feels kind of sluggish. There’s a delay between the time you change the steering and the time the car actually reacts. Which means that especially on snow and ice, where your car is already difficult to control by default, you have to do a lot of very anticipative driving. Apart from the jerky scrolling, there’s also a smaller game window, into which the creators tried to put all the necessary graphics, resulting in not much detail. On the other hand, compared to Speccy, the graphics are much more colorful. And the slower pace of the game can be an advantage for weaker gamers.

The ZX version has the least colors, but that’s the nature of the platform. The only serious problem with the graphics is that while on the C=64 and the CPC, there’s a red, green, and blue car, on the Spectrum, all the cars are black. And as they can all be in one place at one time, sometimes it happens that you’re happy with how brilliantly you’ve steered through a curve, to notice only five seconds later that your car actually is the one that ended in the barrier and that you’re mistaking it for one of your computer opponents. On the other hand, the hires graphics allow for a solid level of detail, and the game is as fast as it needs to be and very playable.

A MUST-PLAY GAME

Having had a Commodore 64 for almost 30 years now, I’ve completed Hot Rod on the C=64 countless times already, but I loved playing through it on the CPC as well as on the Spectrum. And I heartily recommend you to do the same, because each of the versions has nice bits that the others lack. You can see it in the mega gallery that follows. And then? Stop reading, start playing!

HOT ROD MEGA GALLERY

In this gallery, you’ll find a screenshot from every level on each platform. What we’re not showing you is the end sequence. After all, this is a teaser. Enjoy it, drool, and then play through the game on your own. Have fun!

Level 01

Level 02

Level 03

Level 04

Level 05

Level 06

Level 07

Level 08

Level 09

Level 10

Level 11

Level 12

Level 13

Level 14

Level 15

Level 16

Level 17

Level 18

Level 19

Level 20

Level 21

Level 22

Level 23

Level 24

Level 25

Level 26

Level 27

Level 28

Level 29

Level 30

Parts Shops

Did you think that you can drive a Porsche without driving licence? In Ocean’s 1989 game Chase H.Q. which is a Taito’s 1988 coin-op conversion you can because they said you’re the right hand of the law from Miami Vice or so. You’re chasing thieves escaping in fast, luxury fancy cars, and you have to stop them. Everything would go smooth and clear, but on certain platforms it’s just… Let’s have a closer look at it.

The game came out on major 8-bit platforms. The Commodore 64 (boo!), the Amstrad CPC, and the Spectrum and even some more like Nintendo Gameboy, NES/Famicom or MSX. We’ll focus on the popular 8-bit home computers versions, though. I’m not sure if the CPC and Spectrum versions are equal in many ways, but I’m pretty sure the C64 port is bad.

Simply forget about the C64 version. Really.

 

LOADING SCREENS

The C64 loading screen looks like it had been drawn by one eyed retarded child. Nice colours, hmm, but… Look at the heroes’ faces. They look weird. Now the CPC screen. Hmm, nice – but wait, I’ve seen this before! On the Spectrum. It seems it’s a conversion because even the attribute clash remained in there. The picture itself is a nice pic of the two main heroes in high resolution and decent attribute (even on the CPC!) undercoloring. So the result – C64 sucks with its lame proportions, the CPC has the same Spectrum hires screen but there are more colours on the Speccy. So I’d choose the Spectrum one because it looks the most realistic and has acceptable colours.

Look at the C64 picture above. Doesn’t it look weird? Below are the Spectrum and CPC loading screens that look much better.

SOUNDS

Sounds on the C64 aren’t bad. You easily recognize what’s the matter. It’s SID, although it sounds a bit basic. I’d expect something better in this game, though. Nothing much to say about it. The Amstrad has nice sounds, even a digitized speech, but there’s no title music. The sounds are almost same like on the Spectrum, but the Speccy even has music, which is special as the drums are interpreted by beeper and the melody is played by the AY sound chip. Beeper sounds are also in the game so you experience two different sound sources, which makes the game special. In addition, on the CPC, there’s no siren sound when chasing the bad guy, which the Speccy and C64 have. The MSX port seems to be ported from the 48K Spectrum even with beeper sounds! All of this points to the Speccy version as the winner.

GAME GRAPHICS

Oh dear, the graphics on the C64 isn’t really nice. The cars are brown-grey boxes, the road has no lanes. Spectrum version is very detailed as expected, although it’s monochrome with some bits of attribute colouring. But the CPC rules with colours. The lowres mode doesn’t seem too blocky due to so many colourful details, so can I declare my favourite is the CPC in this case? Too bad the Speccy can’t have it in more colours. Last but not least, I have to mention the MSX version of the game, which looks almost identical to the Spectrum one.

Spectrum (top left), C64 (top right) and the CPC (bottom) gameplay screenshots.

GAMEPLAY AND DETAILS

The gameplay on the C64 is just horrible. Everything is so slow, slow as hell, even a worm would crawl faster than your 64-ized blocky Porsche. All I felt while playing was just boredom. Everything takes so much time and when you catch up with the villain at last and have to wreck his car, oh my, that’s just straining your patience. Endlessly. Simply forget about the C64 version. Really. Let’s move to the Spectrum. Well, it’s a completely different cup of tea. Nice and detailed graphics and great gameplay make the game a gem in a Spectrum gamer’s collection. It’s fast and well designed. You feel all the details, you catch the target car and the destruction derby starts. I like it! On the CPC, well, well… Colourful graphics and solid gameplay, just a little less smoother than on the Spectrum. The game’s taking the best from the Speccy and adds nice colours. Who cares it’s in the lowres mode. Even nicely made blocky graphics can look cute … erm. perhaps. The Spectrum’s overall gameplay is a little bit better, so the Spectrum wins again.


VERDICT

I’m very sorry, Amstrad guys, the Speccy won this race, but it was close. The Amstrad game isn’t bad, it has fancy colours, but the smoothness and absence of Spectrum details are frustrating for me. The Spectrum gameplay is just great. The MSX can be happy with its Spectrum 48K-like conversion and shut up, and even I don’t mention the stupid NES version, which looks silly, but the big beige breadbox can just envy the CPC and Speccy and only regret the programmers of Chase H.Q. probably didn’t know what could be done with this beast. Shame on you, C64!

A brand new game for the Commodore 64 in 2017? YES! Protovision, todays’ only software house producing exclusive C64 games has, among others, released a new shoot’em-up game based on the aged Galaga: Galencia by Jason Aldred. But why the hell did he do a Galaga clone in 2017? Because he could. And because Galaga is cool. And because it’s not just a copy of the former game; it adds a lot of cool stuff. WE PLAYED IT!

Posters! You’ll get them if you purchase this game on a tape or disk.

FIRST IMPRESSION

Is amazing. You load the game, it automatically recognizes whether you’re using a PAL or NTSC machine, shows a very nice intro with a story about a person named Amy (who surely has to be gender neutral, because he or she looks so in the game graphics, but let’s suppose it’s a woman because Amy is a female name) and her dog who has to fight against the big bad insect population that mankind has lost control of, and then the main game loads up and a title screen appears. Pressing the F1 key will take you to options. There you can alter things like background starfield color and score and time font colors, turn in-game music on or off, load, save or reset the high score, and a tournament mode which gives you just one life.

Galaga (1982) had two versions on the C64: a monochrome one (for saving the screen of your high-radiation 1981 CRT monitor) and an upgraded color version, which didn’t contribute to its beauty, to be honest.

Galencia is one of the best Galaga clones ever made for a home computer; no doubt.

The game starts by pressing fire on your joystick, and you can watch a pretty animation of the hero with her dog at a rocket base entering their “1981 Galencia Fighter” space ship. Then a classic playfield appears with your fighter ship on the bottom, the starfield in the background, and all the insect baddies attacking you from left and right. The insects are actually big wasps. They might seem quite peaceful at the first sight, but then, when you start shooting them, they retaliate soon by attacking your ship with bombs.

The picture and scroll text introducing the plot.

GAMEPLAY

You’ll have to find a certain strategy of what to shoot and when to shoot it. The number of lives is important here, because you can be kidnapped by one of the aliens, named Siren. It’ll take one of your lives away, but just until you shoot the kidnapper and your kidnapped ship returns to you as a second fighting module, so you’re able to shoot double bullets since then. However, the game respects the old Galaga style. Your ship(s) can be controlled to the left and right directions only while you can shoot bullets. Unfortunately, the bullets never get any extra power, at least to the point where we’ve got to. After every three standard rounds there is an extra hard stage with different, tougher enemies, and then comes a bonus level, in which you have to shoot anything that moves.

Top: The Siren is going to kidnap the player’s fighter ship | Bottom left: Preparing to destroy the kidnapper | Bottom right: Double fighter ship in the first bonus level

If you miss a single object, you don’t get a bonus. The bonus can be an extra life or extra rocket in the tandem (double). Another type of bonus levels come later in the game. There you have to avoid asteroids and collect stars for points and extra lives or to kill the big boss and get the same for that. As the stage counter comes up, the enemies are tougher and survival is getting harder and harder. They are the basic “Formations” (150 points), nastier “Attacking” (250 points) and the insidious “Sirens” (500 points when shot).

The big-bee-boss bonus with lasers is hard to pass even with the double fighter ship.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND

The graphics are just cute. All of them are well drawn, detailed, and very well animated. You’ll love the intro screen and the intro animation of the hero and her dog entering their space fighter ship.

Cute animation of Amy and her dog entering the fighter ship.

The in-game screen mode uses extended upper and lower border areas to display score counters, your ranks, and messages. Some aliens change colours to indicate how many hits remain to kill them. In addition to the title screen music, there are also in-game music and bonus level music, which strike as a bit repetitive, but they use just one or two SID channels, so you never miss any of the all-important sound effects. Anyway, if the music gets annoying to you, you can turn it off in the settings, as mentioned above.

Top left: Extra life for shooting all the aliens in the bonus level | Top right: In the 2nd bonus level you must avoid the big asteroids and collect stars for good | Bottom left: The Game Over screen | Bottom right: Entering Hi-Score initials

OVERALL

Galencia is one of the best Galaga clones ever made for a home computer; no doubt. It brings some new ideas and offers very addictive gameplay with nice extras, and you won’t get bored after the first couple of minutes. You’ll be wanting to beat your record again and again, which is exactly what a game relying on simple mechanics should achieve. If you have a C64 game party evening with friends, you can turn on the tournament mode and fun is guaranteed, at least for a while. The game can be bought as a digital download at itch.io, and eventually you can get a physical copy on a floppy disk, cassette tape or even a cartridge from Protovision, which is about to be a gem for collectors’ show-cases with all the merch like posters, manual, and original cassette tape, floppy or the cart. We played it. Now it’s your turn!

I like big, epic games. Turricans, Nobby the Aardvark, Dragon Wars – that kind of stuff. But every now and then I just don’t feel like immersing in a game for hours or even days. And then it’s time for some of the great game miniatures that replace size and complexity with perfectly polished mechanisms and sheer playability. Like Traffic.

Immense fun! And immensely addictive.

 

WHAT

Traffic is a logical game from 1984, a time long before the genre’s reputation got ruined by the tsunami of 2nd and 3rd rate half-baked quick-cash junk in the mid 1990s. It was originally released by Argus Press Software (APS)/Quicksilva for the C=64 and ported to CPC a year later by Amsoft/Andromeda Software.

Let the CPC version tell us what the game’s about:

Traffic - Game Description

Well, thank you very much for such a reward!

The graphics are simplistic but cute. All the vehicles are just rectangles of various sizes, but you’ll have no trouble seeing motorbikes, regular cars, vans, and trucks in them. Their blinking indicators, made of a minimum amount of pixels, are lovely.

The sound could probably be called simplistic too (but not cute). On the title screen, there’s the typical Big Ben jingle, followed by a forgettable tune with instruments typical of the early ’80s (“we’re happy that it makes a sound!”). There are also a few in-game sound effects, the most important one being the alarm that sounds anytime a queue length is nearing a terminal value.

Where the game excels is the behavior of the cars. They don’t just decelerate and accelerate. They properly slow down when they need to turn. Trucks are slower. But the winner is the situation when the red light comes on and the drivers know they won’t be able to stop in time: in that case they simply step on the gas to go through the crossroad faster. It’s so lifelike that I have to smile whenever I see it.

HOW

Playing the game is easy. On the screen, you have a top-down view of the area, with only two actions available: you move between the junctions with your joystick and switch the lights from red to green and vice versa with the fire button. Cars come from outside the screen, go through the area (adhering to the lights), and then leave. You get a point for each car that leaves your area. You complete the first level if you dispatch 200 cars, the second level is over after 300 cars, the third level takes 400 cars, and so on.

Level 2. C=64 on the left, CPC on the right. Note that even though the roads are put pixel-exact in the CPC version, the graphics aren’t converted but re-drawn (see placing of the buildings, the perspective, and the number of their floors) from scratch.

As long as incoming cars fit onto the screen, everything’s fine. When a queue starts to form outside the screen, you’re in trouble. If the number of cars in any one street waiting to enter the screen reaches 5 in the first two levels and 9 in the higher levels, you’re game over. In the higher levels, there’s also a limit for the total of all the queues.

WHY

Sounds as sexy as a decaying zombie teeming with maggots? Sure, but it’s immense fun! And immensely addictive. Seeing the cars traverse the screen fluently gives you a feeling of satisfaction, and then there are countless little dramas when you are this close to a queue reaching critical length and get the traffic going again in the last moment possible. Plus the game has the “just one more try” magic. You’re sure next time you’ll do better because you think you know what just went wrong. And then again. And again. And again.

In the beginning you go all operative. Get used to that it’s the UK, i.e., cars on the left. Just turn the green light on wherever cars are waiting. Then you realize there’s a tactical layer to it: you don’t want cars to go through one crossroad only to stop at the next traffic light because if the cars have to accelerate and brake, they spend more time on the screen. So you need to create a flow. And after you fail a level several times, the strategic element comes in. You see that no matter which queue finally gameovered you one particular time, there always seem to be one or two streets that are absolutely jammed at that moment and are probably the bottleneck. Therefore you try to create a flow with special attention paid to those critical places. Well, yeah, you still haven’t negotiated the level – but your high score just went 15 points up. You’re on a good track. Next time (or the one after that) you’ll sure make it!

C=64 VS. CPC

The two versions are almost identical.

The C=64 version boasts an achievement for the time: when you complete a level, a sampled voice says, “Next map.” But the CPC has a unique element as well: it offers a special color scheme for playing on a monochromatic monitor (having white color for red and blue for green if you choose it on a normal device feels kinda surreal).

Traffic - screenshot from the monochrome version

Would you stop or go if you saw a white traffic light? And what about a blue one?

The rest is just details. On the Commodore, the active junction is indicated by a crosshair, on the CPC, its outlines change color. The high score table (which is not saved) has 3-char names on the 64 and 4-char names on the CPC.

So the only important difference is that the CPC version seems to be one tiny little bit easier than the C=64 version. Which might be an important factor because the game’s not only great; it’s also fairly difficult.

But whichever platform you prefer, give traffic a try. It’s totally worth it.

Stop reading, start playing!

Wait… Cookie? I’ve heard this before. Oh yeah, I remember! I played it as one of the very first games on my Spectrum. One of the Ultimate Play The Game’s early 16K games. Excellent game on the Speccy. Cool graphics, very good sound, and superb playability. I spent long hours with Cookie; also because it didn’t always load correctly and I got Tape loading errors.

I love the graphics. They’re just wonderful.

So, what’s the point of this article? To review such an old game? Well, actually, yes [*a gale of hearty laughter]! Because the good old Cookie came out for the Commodore 64. After 34 years! Bang!!!

The title picture is drawn in the multicolor mode. It looks very attractive.

The author of the conversion is the well known Andy Noble. The same Andy Noble who created the super excellent conversion Jet Set Willy PC in 1999. The C64 version of Cookie seems cool and has additional title music by Paul Tankard, which is not present in the original version. But first let’s talk about the setting.

You are a little Cookie who has to bake a cake. All you have to do is put all the ingredients coming from the Pantry cabinet into a bowl by firing flour bags. But nothing is as simple as it seems. There are also bad items like fish bones, old cans and nails and tacks coming from trashcans positioned on both sides of your bowl. They’re trying to kill you, unsurprisingly. You can shoot them with the flour bags, but you also have to shoot them down to the trashcans. If you accidentaly get them down to your bowl, the amount of required ingredients will increase. Once you fill the bowl with the needed amount of food, the level is completed and you’re about to go to the next one and next kind of ingredient. The game ends after completing the fifth level and you go from the beginning on a higher difficulty.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND

The title screen is excellently converted from Speccy to the C64 multicolor mode. It looks very great. The game character set (font) is a bold Speccy font, and the game is controlled with a joystick in port two or a spectacular combination of Q-A-O-P-Space keys. The C64 sprites are used, of course, so you can see a nice logo animation on the title screen and also all in-game moving objects are very smooth. I love the graphics. They’re just wonderful. It isn’t just a straight conversion — all the graphics are hand-drawn from scratch, to be as close to the Speccy original as possible and to be as colourful as possible on the Commodore 64.

Menu screen (top left), credits and greetings (top right), ready message (bottom left), level 1 (bottom right).

THE GAMEPLAY

This is a very questionable thing. I love the original Cookie for its very good playability. I can return to this game anytime, and it never gets boring. But the C64 version is hard. It is just [*censored]ing hard, even from the very first level. On the Speccy, you get the irritating nails and tacks at a later stage, but here it’s almost the first object that flies out of the Pantry cabinet. And it goes after you and wants to take you down immediately. Even the known tricks to position the Cookie next to the Pantry and shoot in the upper directions doesn’t work well here. I must say this is the worst aspect of the otherwise excellently converted game. The game, like the original, has 1 player and 2 player modes; the second one based on alternating players.

The second level.

Cookie on the Commodore 64 surprised me by its quality, it’s very close to the A.C.G. quality quality level we’ve seen in 1983 on the Spectrum. Nobody did such good games on Speccy back then. The mysterious Ashby Computer Graphics made the breakthrough and all the girls and boys adored them for that. With the new 2017 conversion it’s similar. Andy Noble is a quarantee of quality and the game is so well done that it casts a kind of nobility on it.

We compared the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64 versions. ZX title screen (top left), C64 title screen (top right), game level 2 on the ZX (bottom left), game level 2 on the C64 (bottom right).