Flame of the Month, as the name suggests, is going to be a regular feature where our guest editors will review a game on all the major 8-bit platforms. The first Flame comes from Commodore Crusader. Jason Wotnau and Akio Tenshi would like to say that even though they respect the guest editors and their opinions, they don’t necessarily have to agree with the contents of these articles.
Druid is an action adventure by Firebird from 1986. A lot of those who have played it (my humble self included) return to it with affection. Yet it rarely scores high in any C=64 Top X list that I know. And that’s the point. Even though it’s not considered a tops game that would showcase the numerous strengths of the C=64, it’s still enough to demonstrate the machine’s superiority over the jokes of a platform called Atari, CPC, and Spectrum.
You are Hasrinaxx, the last of the Great Druids, and your task is to restore peace in the realm of Belorn by defeating four demon princes in the dungeons of the evil lich Acamantor.
You have missile spells based on Water, Fire, and Lightning. The element of Earth is used through a golem that you can control and use either to cover your back or as a tank. Apart from those, you can also cast Chaos and Invisibility. Let the journey begin and good luck!
Well, good presentation doesn’t make a good game, but it can’t harm, can it?
The C=64 has a great loading picture featuring the main protagonist in a mysterious landscape in the moonlight, with a staircase leading down into Acamantor’s lair. The CPC version is a direct conversion of that. It’s worse than the original, but at least it tries.
The ZX picture was probably drawn by a schoolboy. Talent-free schoolboy. There are lots of bad details in the picture, but the winner is the golem. It looks like it’s dressed in spandex under which it has an erection.
No, actually, the reall winner is the Atari 8-bit version because it has no loading picture at all.
Well, good music doesn’t make a good game, but it can’t harm, can it?
On the C=64, there’s this cult tune by David M. Hanlon (whose tune for Druid II later became even cultier because it was used about a zillion times in Fairlight cracks). It emanates mystery, tension, looming fate. But on the CPC, the music has absolutely nothing in common with the atmosphere of the game. I swear I’m not overdoing it when I tell you that it sounds like one of the old wanna-be-merry hurdy-gurdy carousel tunes.
Then there’s the bizarre bit with the Spectrum music, or the lack thereof. The ZX version credits D. M. Hanlon for music, but there’s no music at all! Actually, all the ZX credits go to the same people as on the C=64, so it looks like someone just mindlessly copied a few lines of text. Or hoped no one would notice. And ah yes, no music whatsoever on Atari either.
Now good sound effects don’t make a good game, but they certainly can’t harm, can they?
The Commodore has them pretty straightforward: shots and enemies being born or killed are white noise, the druid is taken care of with a bass sound that implies power. But for the other platforms, in-game sounds are another Waterloo.
On the Atari, the sounds that have to do with the enemies sound either like wet farts or like a bike tire losing air. And the druid sounds are much, much worse. Those bleeps sound so electronic that it completely ruins the fantasy atmosphere of the game. The CPC sounds have a strange metallic touch to them. Most of them have a high pitch element that just causes me a headache. Maybe it was meant as additional motivation for players: don’t let any enemies near you, or we’ll play you this sound! Works for me. Really does. The ZX version, for a change, has about one sound: the slight crack of a skipping record. All the sounds in the game are then composed of this one crack being played various times and with various gaps in between. Yet, if I had to choose between the ZX’s serial cracking and the Atari’s and CPC’s radio bleeping and squeaking in fantasy settings, I’d go for the Spectrum in 11 out of 10 cases.
Well, good graphics don’t necessarily make a good game, but bad graphics can suck some enjoyment out of it.
On the C=64, you start out in Acamantor’s gardens infested by ghosts and giant beetles (further levels will add more, like living blobs of slime, ralacks, wraiths, or even devils). Next to trees and hedges, there’s a neatly animated river. There are also chests scattered across the gardens (and later in the dungeons as well) where you can replenish your magic inventory. After you cross the river, you find a rotating pentagram (called “Pentogram [sic!] of life” in the manual, probably to signal to concerned parents that this has nothing to do with worshiping evil) that heals you if you stand on it. When you feel ready for it, you take the staircase down to the dungeons.
The CPC in-game graphics are once again a solid conversion of the C=64 original, but what surrounds them puts the looks of the game down. Obviously for hardware reasons, the part of the screen where action happens is several lines smaller than on the C=64. What to do with the empty space? Let’s put the druid, golem, and rating statuses below the spells! Result? It still looks like they didn’t know what to do with the space. But as they were redesigning, they had another “clever” idea: putting some graphics under the game window to make the screen less empty. But what color, not to risk confusing it with in-game gfx? They chose blue instead of the original druidish green and gold (yellow), which then led to changing the font in the “DRUID” on the screen’s top, and once they were at killing the style, they also replaced the stylish eye indicating the spell currently in use with a blue arrow. Not cool.
On the Spectrum, the dark energy emanating from Acamantor’s lair is already much more visible in the gardens. For example, not just the beetles, also the ghosts are black. Even the druid is black, perhaps as a kind of mimicry. Very efficient mimicry. As more or less anything that moves looks like a shapeless lump of black pixels, don’t ever take your eyes off the screen, or when you’re back, you won’t know what’s you and what’s an enemy. The river then contains squares and rectangles of light blue water. I spent ages trying to decipher this secret code until I realized it was just bad drawing. The rest is the regular “black on something” Spectrum graphics.
The Atari has more colors, but even there, Acamantor has been hard at work. He started with stealing every other pixel line of the lawn and replacing the grass there with his evil yellow stuff. Then he, for whatever mysterious reason, made his minions smaller than on the other platforms. Well, one could live with these cute ghosties (or, more accurately, cute white tree stubs wearing sunglasses) or the giant beetles being not-quite-as-giant as on the other platforms, but the devils in the later levels look more like overgrown mice with wings. Also, being limited on monster colors, the Atarimantor probably decided to make up for it in the display area: if you look closely, you’ll see that the water drop has a grey lower left corner and the fire is chiefly pink. To me, that’s a choice of colors asking for a very colorful language on the player’s side. Plus, where on the C=64 and the ZX you have a golem icon, on the Atari, there’s something between a flexing bodybuilder and a gorilla. And finally, there’s a certain WTF factor to the pentagram. Every self-respecting pentagram is either black or black and white. Well, the pentatarigram of life in screwed colors is blue and yellow.
IN THE DETAIL
“The devil’s in the detail.” Well, in Atari’s case, it’s, “The overgrown mouse with wings is in the detail.” Anyway, nice details don’t make a great game, but they can turn faint hopes of having a good time either into facepalms or laugh-fests.
One nice touch of the C=64 version are the missiles. They have different shapes and colors. Water is white and blue, fire is red, lightning is white. On the CPC, they just took the fire sprite and recolored it for the other elements. On the Atari, all the shots also look the same (like some enigmatic hieroglyphics), but they’re even the same two colors: blue and pink. We already know that some people on the Atari thought that pink was the color of fire, so now we also have pink water and pink lightnings. And the Spectrum? Well, yeah, the “black on something,” I know. That’s a kinda hardware thing. But the missiles also look the same. So instead of a fireball, lightning and a water bomb, you’ve got three identical tar balls.
One more proof of programming laziness on the Spectrum side: there’s no masking out of the background. In human terms, while nothing can be done about that the druid is black and the other color changes all the time according to the background, the “inside” of the druid isn’t just filled with this color, it acts transparent instead. It’s most visible in the druid’s face, or, as the picture below shows, most invisible if the background happens to be black too.
The Spectrum’s druid seems to be a specter. But Atari fans shouldn’t despair. They have typewriters. Really! On the C=64, the CPC, and the ZX, they are the chests with magic spells, but on the Atari they look like stylized typewriters. Have a look! (The typewriter on the right is added by me for comparison.)
And then there are the monsters. On the C=64 and the CPC.
On the Spectrum and the Atari, they are rather graphical monstrosities. The ZX enemies – and sometimes the druid as well – look like a “guess the monster” quiz. Just try it yourself!
Question: In the picture, there are two characters standing opposite each other. Those of you with a really rich imagination can recognize the druid on the left and a ghost on the right. But what’s the black smudge in front of the tree on the far left supposed to be? (Answer: another ghost.)
On the Atari, monster colors are a problem. So someone had a bright idea: if we can’t have multicolored monsters, let’s at least have the monsters in a multitude of colors. The only other explanation would be that the Atari druid has smoked some weird stuff and can see the monsters in psychedelic colors. Have a look at the – by far – not exhaustive gallery. Top to bottom: a salmon-colored something (probably a wraith), a yellow overgrown mouse with wings. Then there are a white, greenish, purple, and a blue beetle; all with blue eyes (note that they are very magical beetles because their heads are not connected to their bodies). Next are a yellow, green, salmon, and a pinkish-violetish snake. The bottom line are then a grey and a green ralack. Yet the winners in my eyes are the pink and the turquoise skeleton.
Just for a bit of a comparison, here are some monsters from the C=64 version. Top to bottom, left to right: ralack, snake, slime, devil, beetle, ghost, skeleton.
I’ll be brief here. Bad gameplay does make a bad game.
The CPC version is sluggish and too difficult at the same time. Due to the smaller game window, more enemies spawn closer to you, giving you less time to react. Also, on the C=64, if you’re running from an enemy and the enemy gets off-screen, the computer still “remembers” it for a while, so if you stop, the same enemy will come from that direction. The CPC, on the other hand, removes the enemy from the screen as soon as it touches the border, resulting in not only enemies suddenly disappearing but once again more random spawns and you not being able to plan your next steps. In addition to that, your spell missiles are slower than on the C=64, and as you can have only one on the screen at any given time, if you miss, you’ll have to wait that much longer till you can shoot again, which can cost you dearly. The sluggishness then comes from that even though the game window is smaller, if there are more enemies on the screen, the game gets visibly slower. And the scrolling is wobbly, so avoid if you’re prone to headaches from unsteadily moving pictures.
The Atari version has some fun-breaking issues too, like there’s no difference between the pictures of a typewriter that you haven’t looted yet and one you’ve already opened. So if you get a bit lost, you may go through a lot of fights and lose a lot of energy to get somewhere only to find out you’ve already been there. Furthermore, sometimes monsters drain your energy not through direct contact but touching the same object you’re touching. Collision-checking clumsiness at its worst. And on top of that, the game is somewhat too easy. I haven’t played Druid for about ten years, yet on my first play of the Atari version I got beyond half of the game.
The Atari might have issues with how the game is balanced and how some of the game mechanics are implemented, but the Spectrum version is just a total flop. Not only is it quite slow. Its biggest problem is that it doesn’t scroll. So it happens that you’re on the side of a screen, and suddenly you start losing energy because there’s a monster on the next screen that can see you and starts biting you. In Druid, it’s vital that you can always see what’s coming at you, so that you can either kill it or avoid it, and the Spectrum copies all the other game mechanics except the scrolling. It’s like having to play a joystick-wiggling sports game with text adventure commands.
C=64 rules. Atari, CPC, and ZX Spectrum suck. Or at least Druid on the Atari, CPC, and ZX Spectrum sucks.