Atarians of Note

Back in 8-bit days it was quite common for people to actually know the names of the individuals who made some of their favourite games (for back then many games were made entirely by individuals, before it became the huge-team-effort that it is today). These days you’re only likely to know the name of a game’s designer if they are egotistical enough to actually mention it in the title of their game.

On the Speccy you had the likes of your Matthew Smiths and Mike Singletons. On the Commodore you had your Andy Braybrooks and Tony Crowthers. There were quite a few well known names on each platform and you could generally be assured of getting what you were after if you liked the work of one of these fellows and then decided to pick up further games by the same person. It was a bit like following a favourite band, but with nerds.

But what of the Atari? Continuing my amble through the world of Atari 8-bits, today I’ll look at the A8 output of some people whose names I actually remember from those days. I’m not going to begin with the obvious like Doug Neubauer because he deserves an entire blog entry on his own which I shall hopefully get to one day. Here I’ll just examine the a8 output of a couple of chaps whose work I enjoyed, and who actually did more than one game on the system. I’m not saying these guys are the best of the best, just that their work impressed me enough back in the day that I remember their names even now. And their work is pretty consistent so it likely won’t be a waste of time to boot up and try any of the games I mention here.

Russ Wetmore

One has to feel sorry for poor Mr. Wetmore having had to go through school with a last name that sounds like one of those baby dolls with convincingly disgusting simulated bodily functions that some children seem to like (perhaps because they have only recently mastered voluntary control of said bodily functions themselves). I bet that can’t have been much fun. Nonetheless Russ Wetmore emerged from this unfortunate circumstance with sparkling Atari 8-bit programming skills which he put to good use in some excellent titles that are well worth a look.

Preppie
Preppie

I had this on cassette for my a8 and spent many happy hours in front of the Radio Rentals BAIRD 19 inch colour telly that we had in the family living room waggling my stick thereto. This is perhaps surprising as the game is based on Frogger and I’ve never been an especially huge fan of Frogger. Not even the prospect of lady frog action can hold my attention for more than a few goes of that I’m afraid.

BAIRD
19 inches of 70stastic glory. I don’t think this one caught fire.

For all that the gameplay is basically Frogger though, Preppie is so nicely dressed up that I can forgive it that and enjoy persevering through quite a few levels. A “preppie”, apparently, is the kind of American college student who is far too rich by dint of having rich parents. They like to wear Lacoste shirts (remember those, with the little alligator on them? I vaguely remember those being a thing in the 80s) and are generally a bit annoying, apparently. In this game you are one of these “preppies” by the name of Wadsworth Overcash (I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE) and for some reason you have to collect balls on a golf course (because golf is a preppie kind of game to be playing apparently). Anyway.

Preppie. Basically Frogger.
Basically it’s Frogger isn’t it.

Yes, basically it is Frogger, but there’s at least a little humour in it and the music’s rather good. It starts out pretty gentle and easy but the time limit in particular becomes a lot shorter on higher levels where you have several balls to pick up.

Preppie level 5
Here we are on level 5 with three balls to collect and Lacoste alligators to mount.

As far as Froggers go this is one of the nicest on the a8, and very nicely made as are all the games on the platform by Mr. Wetmore (I wonder if he’s ever been to Wetwang in the Yorkshire Wolds? Probably not). His next though is a little more interesting as it departs (mostly) from being so basically Frogger.

Preppie 2

In this outing Wadsworth Overcash is back and for some reason is tasked with painting the floors of a maze pink.

Preppie 2
Pinken that maze Wadsworth.

To be honest I think he looks more like a footballer here than a rich American college student but I guess there’s only so much you can do with player/missile graphics. The giant frogs from the first game are back (they appear in the median strip of that game after a few levels) and these lollop in a fairly leisurely fashion around two of the three interconnected mazes. There are a couple of turnstile-doors like in Lady Bug that you can use to thwart their relentless advances, and just like a real rich person you can make yourself visually and corporially imperceptible with a press of the fire button, allowing you to pass straight through your slimy pursuers like a bad lunch. Naturally this power isn’t unlimited and you must use it sparingly in order successfully to pinken all three mazes.

The interconnecting room.
The second of the three mazes.

In the second maze of the three there are no giant frogs; instead there is a reprise of some of the elements from the first game in the shape of golf carts and lawnmowers. Beware as although there can only be one of each in each corridor at a time, they can emerge from either side, making painting the corridor ends somewhat of a bugger if you’re not careful.

Another jolly nice game from Mr. Wetmore then, again excellently programmed and with nice jolly music, rather more interesting than the first in that it incorporates elements of the painting and maze genres as well as a slight remaining whiff of Frogger. I can’t remember if cats come out and leave paw prints in your pink paint on higher levels or if I’m just imagining that. If they don’t then they ought to.

Russ Wetmore also did a game called Sea Dragon which is a port of a game originally infinitely uglier on the TRS-80.

Sea Dragon cover

The game itself can be pretty much summed up as “Scramble with a submarine”.

Scramble with a submarine.
Scramble with a submarine.

It’s considerably slower than arcade Scramble, and you might think that’ll work to your advantage but trust me, it really doesn’t. This game is harder than a drunken Scotsman. You will die and swear a few times even on the first, relatively easy bit where you are just shooting the mines. Once you get into the twisty little caverns (which are immediately about as hard to navigate through as the last parts of arcade Scramble, necessitating those kind of turns where you have to haul back on the stick just to scrape through, and there are bastard lasers) good luck.

William Mataga

You might have seen some of these games ported to the Commodore 64 but they originated on the A8 (in fact I plan at some point to do a blog entry along the theme of “Games whose A8 Versions are the Original and Best“, which is actually quite a large category containing some famous names). We’ll start with one of my favourite A8 games from back in the day:

Shamus
Apparently “shamus” is American slang for a private eye. I did not know that. The only Shamus I knew at that time was the dog out of Meddle by Pink Floyd.

I had this on cassette tape for my Atari 400 before I got posh and bought an 800 with a disk drive. You could actually hear the data as the game loaded; it sounded something like the ringing tone of an American telephone. Still took bloody ages to load though. However did we all put up with tape decks for so long? (Mind you, back in those days when you’d actually paid a decent price for a game and waited ten minutes for it to load, you damn well took your time to learn to play that game well, despite how much more difficult many games were back then. Having invested a not inconsiderable amount of money and time to get that game into your machine you were damn well going to persevere for a bit before switching it off).

Anyway, sitting through the bleeps and burps was well worth it.

Shamus on the A8.
May not look like much but it was in fact challenging and fun.

Granted the graphics don’t look like that much, and the colours aren’t quite as lovely as they can be in a lot of A8 games, but the gameplay was strong and challenging. It’s basically faster Berzerk with some actual purposeful exploration bolted on. Rooms could contain treasures as well as monsters, and there were variously coloured keys to be found which opened up new parts of the maze and eventually whole new levels.

Corner maze section.
The enemies look like they belong in one of those peculiar childrens’ breakfast cereals.

Notice the line between the little man’s head and his hat – bullets will pass straight through that without harming you, just like the same thing with the player’s neck in Berzerk. Also like in Berzerk spending too long in a room will lead to an indestructible enemy appearing and chasing you out of the room. Gameplay overall is a good bit faster than Berzerk though – not quite up to Robotron standards but pretty quick on the later levels. There’s nice little touches throughout like the fact that if you die for the next couple of rooms the enemies are a little bit less aggressive, giving you a little breathing space for you to recover from your loss. Nice.

Map of the first level.
Map of the first level. There are four in total.

A jolly nice game, and one which scratches a nice little itch between fast-paced arena violence and exploration. In fact I think there’s still room for more of this type of thing to this day – straight arena shooters have been done to death by now I think, but something like this done in a Robotron style is something I could play the hell out of even now.

Mataga did a sequel to Shamus:

Shamus Case 2

which is kind of interesting but IMO not such a good game as its ancestor.

The first kind of screen.
The first kind of screen.

Play alternates between two different kinds of screen. In this first kind you can move around the chambers and ladders, jumping over the pits and avoiding the snakes that come through all the snake delivery tubes that cross the level. It sort of looks a bit like Montezuma’s Revenge (another excellent game I’ll get to in a future update) but it’s really not.

The second kind of screen.
The second kind of screen.

On this second kind of screen you can shoot projectiles upwards into the teeming masses of thingummajigs, some of which come down and try to get you. You have to knock out all of the pacman-snake-things at the top to move to the next bit. There’s something to do with a bird that is supposed to be your ally but which nonetheless attacks you and needs shot, and every now and again the indestructible enemy from the first game appears and attacks you. It’s all a little bit confusing to be honest, and I don’t fully understand all of it yet despite having read the manual. Definitely more complex than the basic “you, gun, baddies, maze” of the original. Still, quite a lot of people seem to like it, and I fully admit I haven’t played it much so it could be I’ve just not given it a fair chance yet. I’ll have a few more goes and see. As of this moment I still prefer the original Shamus by far.

Finally let’s have a look at Mataga’s final release on the A8, “Zeppelin”.

Zeppelin
Continuing the videogame tradition of subterranean aviation.

In this multidirectionally scrolling shooter you get to fly a dirigible through a cave. Cave-based aviation seemed like quite a popular theme for 80s videogames, with the likes of Fort Apocalypse having you pilot a helicopter through subterranean caverns, and Looping having you fly a small, acrobatic prop plane through various cave-like structures. Not to mention Scramble and Caverns of Mars.

Anyway.

Zeppelin gameplay.
Flying through the caverns.

OK it looks a bit of a dog’s breakfast in the screenshot bit it’s actually not too bad when you’re playing. The terrain scrolls past smoothly in whatever direction you’re going. There are switches to shoot which turn on or off various defences, little balloons to shoot, and factories under domes that you get to wreck as you pass by. By moving your zeppelin to different parts of the screen you can kind of choose which direction the scrolling will go next and therefore where you will end up going. There are some parts of the cavern that are locked and which require you to pick up an absolutely enormous key, almost as big as a bungalow, and bring it to an equally gigantic lock by carrying it underneath your zeppelin.

Look out, bungalow.
Nice little bungalows can be found throughout the caverns.

There are more factories under glass domes which you get bonus points for fucking up, and nice little bungalows everywhere that you get to ruin. Some switches are guarded by a monster that likes hamburgers, so you have to find a giant hamburger almost as big as a bungalow and bring it to said monsters to distract them. To progress to the next level you have to find a box of TNT almost as big as a bungalow, shoot an absolutely gigantic plunger to make it go up, deposit the TNT into the box, and then shoot the plunger, itself almost as big as a zeppelin, in order to progress to the next level.

I love 1980s game logic. It’s like being stoned without having to actually smoke any weed.

Where are they now?

Russ Wetmore stopped making games after the three mentioned here and went on to develop business and productivity software. Still coding, according to the info about him on Wikipedia. Excellently enough he recently released the source code for all three games on archive.org.

William Mataga is now Cathryn Mataga and appears to have had a productive career in the games biz since those early 8-bit days. You’ve probably played some of the games she’s worked on.

Right that’s it for this week. I’ll be doing more Atarians of Note in the future and I have a few other themed entries I’m going to do, all still centered round the A8, and all of which will featire games well worth firing up on the emulator. Do play along :) .

And finally…

From December 1982, A8 public domain.

Flappy Bats then.
Sounds familiar…

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A8 Arcade Ports: Win some, lose some…

Atari carts
Some Atari 8-bit cartridges. The brown ones are Atari releases.

In the early days of the Atari 8-bit machines, pre-5200 era, Atari came out with a bunch of arcade game cartridges; as mentioned in the introduction Atari owned the rights to a lot of popular coinops back there so it was only natural that they would produce ports for their own line of 8-bit machines. Some of these were excellent, and some of them rather missed the mark for various reasons.

Atari Getting It Right

Missile Command
Missile Command. Excellent.

There had already been a very good (nay miraculous, considering the technical limitations of the VCS and just how not at all cut out for drawing multiple arbitrary lines that system was) port of Missile Command onto the VCS game console, but Rob Zdybel’s port to the A8 was sublime. It managed to incorporate just about every feature of the coinop, including features such as MIRVs, satellites and planes, and those complete and utterly bastardy little guided bomb thingies that were such a bugger to shoot. The three missile bases of the coinop were consolidated into one, but that was a necessary compromise in order to fit the game to controllers of the day which had but one button, and although it simplified the gameplay somewhat it certainly didn’t detract too much from what was a great port, and well worth spending a bit of time with to this day. I believe that later releases of this cart for the XL/XE machines even allowed the user to plug in an Atari ST mouse and use it to control the cursor after selecting trakball mode (Ctrl-T).

Donkey Kong
Donkey Kong. I never found the donkey.

Atari’s Donkey Kong port isn’t perfect – if you wanted to get really picky you might moan about the slightly too thin girders and that on the first screen there was one less level than in the coinop so Kong is on the wrong side (completely understandable as the coinop had a vertical aspect ratio), and masking might’ve been nicer than XORing. But in terms of playability this is a very good port indeed. Most home versions of the day managed to lose at least one of the levels from the arcade game due to constraints of space but this port retains all 4 of the coinop’s levels plus the animated intro and intermission screens. Surprisingly it was written by a guy who didn’t even like Donkey Kong that much – read his blog entry about it here, for a good insight into what it was like to actually be in the belly of the beast at Atari working on these arcade ports. Visually the Coleco port was probably a bit more attractive but you could at least play the A8 port with a controller that wasn’t almost entirely unpleasant, making it my Kong winner of that era for pure gameplay.

Defender
Defender

Here’s a good example of an arcade port that’s toned down somewhat for its home incarnation. Arcade Defender is one of the most notoriously difficult arcade games of the era (in modern times no doubt people would start comparing it to Dark bloody Souls) and this port is a lot more forgiving. Part of Defender’s difficulty lies in its control method, which is here tamed to a much more conventional joystick control, with the keyboard’s space bar activating the Smart Bomb. This led to the demise of the space bar on my own Atari 800 – I was playing Defender with the 800 sat on the ground where I was using my foot to trigger Smart Bombs. I must have been too vigorous one day and broke the space bar, forcing me to up my game and play without using Smart Bombs. I did get to the point where I was able to play forever even on hard difficulty and no Smart Bombs, which further indicates the lenience of the port, since I have never come anywhere near that on an actual coin-op.

The port itself is smooth and competent and features all the essential elements of Defender gameplay. The ship’s a bit on the large side and the sound effects don’t have quite the same bite as the Williams originals, but it’s one of the nicer looking and sounding ports of the time. Explosions are appropriately shattery, although they seem to be made up of generic particles rather than the actual parts of the disintegrating sprite’s bitmap as in the coinop. It feels a little bit soft and mushy in control compared to the original but that just makes it feel comfortable and easy to settle into; it’s not hyper twitchy. It makes Defender nicely accessible to most people, who might not have the skills or patience to get to grips with a more accurate port.

If you do want to experience Defender gameplay that’s closer to the original in terms of difficulty then I recommend you check out Planetoid on the BBC Micro, or Guardian on the C64, both of which use the keyboard rather than the joystick to more accurately emulate the coinop’s multitude of buttons, and both of which are hard as a bastard.

Berzerk
The Humanoid must not escape

Atari’s port of Berzerk to the 2600 was pretty decent for that system but if you studied the gameplay you noticed that the robots never strayed outside of the horizontal band of screen space in which they originated, a constraint imposed by the limitations of the VCS’ hardware that rendered accurate reproduction of the coinop’s gameplay impossible. This A8 port, however, suffers from no such constraints and is as perfect a rendition of coin-op Berzerk as you are likely to see on any machine of that era. There is even the taunting speech from the robots, calling out “The Humanoid must not escape” and “Chicken, fight like a robot” should you leave the room before all of them are dead. The only difference is that the speech is only generated between levels since without speech generation hardware the 6502 has to play back the samples by hand, which can’t be done at the same time as running the game. That doesn’t detract at all from an excellent port of Berzerk though.

Atari Getting It Not So Right

Asteroids.
Asteroids. In my eyes. Ow.

I have to begin by pointing out that if you look at the truly dreadful things perpetrated in the name of Asteroids by other people on other systems then it must seem positively churlish to call this out as not being good, since on most of those other systems it’d be considered great. However it’s the A8 here and we expect a degree of arcade-style lustre which is simply entirely absent – look at it, the poor thing’s ugly as sin. Plus it’s Atari making a port of one of their own best known and loved coinops so I’d expect the highest standards to apply.

To add insult to injury Atari had already produced an excellent port of Asteroids to the 2600 which was actually verging on the miraculous, and which despite a bit of sprite flicker and some constraint of the asteroids’ trajectories nonetheless managed to deliver a decent looking and playing game on that system. Here the game ported to a much more capable system actually ended up looking worse. Multiplexed sprite graphics were replaced by XOR plotted monochrome playfield graphics, which allowed more asteroids to be on screen at once, but which also unfortunately ended up being flickery and ugly and looking like a dog’s breakfast when a lot of asteroids occupied the same space.

XOR draw ugliness
An XOR dog’s breakfast.

Even the motion of the asteroids got a bit choppy when there were a lot on screen. This game was intended to be one of the flagship titles on the 5200 (game system never released in proper British parts, consisting basically of an a8 in a gigantic, enormous case paired with unreliable, unsuitable analogue joystick controllers for no apparent reason, so we were actually rather better off without it, especially as most of its games were either derived from existing a8 games or could be trivially backported to the a8). It was never actually released on the 5200 though, perhaps because someone sensible at Atari decided that a dog’s breakfast looking port of Asteroids on a system with a wholly unsuitable controller might not be showing the company or the system in their best light.

Multiplayer Asteroids
Fun multiplayer options though

It is a shame though because not everything about the game is poor. Moving the asteroid rendering to the playfield freed up the sprite system allowing for a variety of multiplayer local gameplay options for up to four players at once, whcih was actually kind of fun. And as I said at the start, on any other system this would probably be considered good. It’s just that we hold the A8 and Atari to much higher standards and this just doesn’t make the grade.

If you want to see just how well an a8 machine can do Asteroids, then you should check out this version, made in 2012:

Asteroids emulator boot screen
Your eyes do not deceive you.

Yep, that’s not a port; that’s an emulator. It actually loads and runs the code from the ROMs of the real arcade version of Asteroids. Additional software emulates the vector drawing and sound routines and it runs fast enough to be fully playable.

A miracle.
A miracle.

This is a truly remarkable achievement on behalf of the programmer, and the only example I have seen of an emulator running on a system that was designed a couple of years earlier than the thing it’s emulating.

Now for another truly remarkable achievement, although in an entirely different sense…

Cast your mind back. It is the early 80s (and there will not be time for Klax for nearly another decade). You are Atari. You own the license to one of the hottest arcade games of all time, Space Invaders. You’ve already done a decent VCS version that flew off the shelves. You have expert programmers on hand to do ports onto hardware that you designed. Space Invaders isn’t even that difficult of a game to program. So your own A8 port of Invaders is going to be a bit special, yes?

Erm…

What the actual fuck.
What the actual fuck.

If you are at all familiar with what Space Invaders looks like I am sure that there are several questions that will go through your head on looking at that image. Questions like “where the fuck are my houses”? Questions like “what the fuck is that giant shed at the side of the screen in aid of?” and “where are the iconic Invader shapes that everybody in the Universe recognises instantly and the license for which you paid a crapload of cash to Taito?”

That kind of thing. Lordy knows what they were thinking, for this is a rubbish port of a great game.

I think the shed at the side is supposed to be some kind of rocket. At the start of every wave the invaders actually come marching out of it, giving you plenty of time to pick plenty of them off before they’ve even mustered their ranks in the play area. Maybe that’s why the houses were taken away as you had an unfair advantage in murdering the Invaders as they came out the shed doors. I really don’t know. It gives me a headache to think about someone at Atari looking at this port and going “yup, looks like a good version of Space Invaders to me”, and signing off on it, maybe even paying the programmer a bonus for producing what is so blatantly obviously a huge pile of smeg to anyone with competent eyes to see. Maybe they’d given S. Munnery a job, I don’t know. This is why arcade ports and remakes should never be trusted to anybody whose main motivation is money alone. They must be done by people who love and will respect the original work or you end up with this kind of crap.

I decided to take a look at the 5200 version of Space Invaders to see if they’d improved it at all:

Still smeg.
Still smeg.

At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’d improved it because there are at least houses this time, even if they are tiny, rubbish ones. Which inexplicably have random colour streaks through them, and not in a cool-looking raster bar kind of way, just in a random rubbish way. The Invader shapes would be fine shapes for a canine’s breakfast I suppose, and notice how they are all coloured in various shades of fugly. Nice. But at least the shed’s gone… or has it? In fact when you play it’s evident that although the awful shed graphic has been removed the game behaves in every way as if it’s still there. The Invaders still march out inauthentically from the left. Worst of all once out they don’t even traverse the entire screen properly as they ought; instead they turn around where the invisible shed ought to be, which is confusing and rubbish when you’re playing. It’s obviously they’ve just reused the old a8 code, bolting on some rubbish houses, turning off the shed graphics and changing the invader graphics but not even changing the associated logic to reflect the removal of the shed. I really don’t understand the attitude that must have prevailed at Atari at that time. Why not give the job to somebody who actually gave a fuck about it, especially given that it’s supposed to be, you know, a flagship title on your brand new console. You’d think it’d be worth making the effort, even if it did cost you a few more bucks, or the effort of finding some loyal fan who’d do the job more for love than money, but no, just tweak up an already shite port and call it done. It beggars belief, it really does. I just can’t begin to get my head round it. I’ll never understand “business”.

If you want to play a half decent Space Invaders on the a8 then I would recommend seeking out Roklan’s Deluxe Invaders:

Roklan's Deluxe Invaders
Recognisably Space Invaders.

It isn’t perfect but it is at least recognisably Space Invaders (in fact I am not sure how they got away with doing such a close clone, unless they had their own licensing deal with Taito back in the day). You have houses, the Invaders look like Invaders, there’s no shed, and there’s also a pleasing number of game variations to enjoy.

It isn’t the most authentic Invaders from that era though. For that you need to head over to the Vic-20 and look at the excellent Vic Avenger cartridge, which is as close a clone of Space Invaders as I have ever seen, reproducing almost perfectly nearly every quirk of the original game, despite running in a much smaller screen area.

VIC Avenger
VIC Invaders. Best Invaders.

The Invaders of the Vic version look a little portly due to the Vic’s odd screen proportions, but apart from that the graphics are pretty much spot on to the coinop. But it’s other little bits of attention to detail in reproducing the game that make the Vic version stand out. For one, if you look at the Roklan game, you will see that everything moves very smoothly – including the block of Invaders itself, they all move smoothly as a body, wiggling as they go; something that it’s naturally very simple to do on the Atari, animating characters on the playfield and just scrolling them about.

Only if you go and watch a real game of Space Invaders you’ll see that that’s not how it works. In real Space Invaders hardware limitations meant that the machine could only move one Invader at a time, and early on in the level you can see that the motion kind of ripples through the block of Invaders as they shuffle left and right on the screen. As the player shoots away Invaders, the hardware has fewer to draw, and so the overall motion of the pack of Invaders starts to speed up. This effect of the game’s hardware limitation, and its effect on gameplay, was recognised as a positive thing by the game’s designer and became a defining characteristic of the game. There is a feeling when you play of organically chipping away at the game’s very code and hardware capability as you battle towards the end of a level; it doesn’t just go “oh there’s thirty Invaders left now; I’ll speed up the attack pattern a bit”, it’s something that you make happen by altering the task that the code has to do through your ablative actions. In both the Atari and Roklan games you never see that, because they use the a8′s playfield and character handling to make the burden of moving the block of Invaders almost nonexistent – a clever move technically that uses the target hardware well, but one which unwittingly removes part of the soul of the game they’re trying to replicate.

The Vic game gets it pretty damn near perfect. Well worth firing up an emulator for if you’re inclined to study this further.

Anyway! That’s enough arcade ports for now. There are tons more that I’ll get to in future weekends, although next up I think I’ll do some original A8 games rather than just ports. There was a lot of great stuff on there. I hope some of you are playing along and maybe coming to discover a new love for Atari and their 8-bits that you might not have known before :) .

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A British Person’s Introduction to Atari 8-Bit

British people are eminently sensible (or at least they are in some things, but obviously not when it comes to Brexit or voting Tory, but let’s not dwell upon that) and as such many of them will have owned an Atari computer at some point during the 80s. However it’s likely to have been one of the 16-bit ST series of machines from the Tramiel era, and very nice those machines were too (I was way more of an ST man than an Amiga dude myself back at that point in history).

Not so many people are familiar with Atari’s 8-bit machines though, because just by dint of timing, pricing and how things unfolded during 8-bit times on our lovely isle of tea and biscuits the A8 machines (for that is how we refer to them historically now that we all live in the future) sort of fell through a gap in the market and were never really that popular here.

These machines were actually rather special though, and there was some excellent software developed for them, which it’d be a particular shame for you to have to go through an entire lifetime never having seen. Plus it’s getting on for winter which is an excellent time for weekend emulator fiddling and game playing so I thought it might be nice to do a little intro to the Atari 8-bits, link to a decent setup that you can download and use to explore some of their library yourself, and an ongoing series of occasional posts looking at some of the games.

If you remember the A8s at all you probably remember the XL (and later the XE) series machines that only really appeared in Britain as those other machines you’d sometimes see in the shops that nobody bought many of because they weren’t Commodore 64s or Spectrums. And whereas you wouldn’t look as much of a pillock to your mates if you’d bought one as you would if you’d've bought an Oric or a Camputers Lynx or something daft like that you probably would have still felt like a second class citizen compared to your mates with their Speccys and C64s.

However it wasn’t always like that. There was a period in the early 80s when the Atari 8-bit machines seemed glamorous and alluring and were the object of desire for a certain class of computer spods, myself included. To understand this you have to understand certain conditions that prevailed at the time.

Firstly, we fucking loved Atari. It’s hard to imagine how loved Atari was back then, especially in this day and age; but for a bunch of us growing up round then Atari were synonymous with videogames, both in the arcade and at home. The Atari VCS looks laughably primitive to us now but back then it was the most amazing thing, bringing an ever-growing selection of brightly-coloured and playable games to your telly, beating the crap of the boring Pong-based machines that had come before it. The name “Atari” became synonymous with the act of gaming itself and kids would say they were coming round to “play Atari” (as would similarly happen with the name “Nintendo” some years later). Plus they made or licensed some of the best coin-ops in the arcade, so if you were a gamer at the start of the 80s, you by default loved Atari.

Secondly the machines were incredibly advanced for their time. The basic design of the machines was begun in 1978, originally intended to be a more advanced game console that developed and extended a lot of the ideas that had gone into the VCS. Around that time home computers such as the PET, TRS-80 and Apple ][ started to become popular and the extended-VCS design was itself extended to incorporate the features of a proper home computer. Home computers of that era were in general rather janky and unattractive from a game enthusiast's point of view, usually featuring monochrome displays, a complete lack of sound, and bugger all in the way of controllers. The Apple ][ fared a little bit better in that it had a bitmapped colour display, farty Spectrum-level sound and the possibility of plugging in those floppy analogue controllers that nobody ever used for proper gaming back then. The Apple ][ never gained a toehold amongst gamers in the UK however, largely because it cost about as much as the moon and was pretty useless without a disk drive, which was another lunar-magnitude expense on its own.

And so it was for us in 1980. The spoddiest of us computer spods had obtained the likes of the ZX80 and the Acorn Atom and were rasterbating furiously over those machines, or farting about on the PETs and TRS-80s at school or college. We'd heard of the Apple ][ but in all likelihood never actually seen one in the flesh. Then in October 1980, nearly a year after their launch in the US, Personal Computer World brought us news of new machines, made by our sainted and beloved Atari, and destined for the UK.

PCW Oct 1980
An 8-bit porn mag.

I still remember having that magazine in my digs at uni, I must have read the bit about the Atari machines hundreds of times, poring over every detail like a beloved porno. Compared to what we were used to, from an aspiring game designer's point of view these new machines were nothing short of incredible, full of all kinds of features to make the very tasks we struggled to achieve in games programming on existing machines both massively easier and hugely less limited. Reading again and again the details about such things as hardware scrolling, player/missile graphics, display lists, amazing colour capabilities and compatibility with existing Atari controllers was enough to make one's own joystick somewhat tumescent.

The machines were available in two flavours, the somewhat space-age-looking Atari 400:

Atari 400
Atari 400. Beam me up Scotty.

with its Star Trekian angularity and jizz-proof keyboard (which was perhaps less of a deterrent than it ought to have been for those of us already inured to the ZX80's plastic membrane which had a keyfeel about the same as drumming your fingers on the desk). Here you can see the cartridge lid flipped open and the BASIC cartridge inside - not that that would be staying in there for any length of time for those of us who did end up getting one of the machines, but we'll get to that later. It even boasted an incredible FOUR joystick ports along the front of the machine, a generosity and ergonomic bounty of interface possibilities that would not be equalled for many years to come.

The big brother to the 400 was the somewhat more conventional-looking 800, which looked rather like some kind of office typewriter:

Atari 800
The imposing Atari 800.

and I am sure Atari probably had hopes of making inroads into the business market, but let's face it business types were more likely to go for the existing TRS-80, PET or an Apple ][ if they really wanted to be posh. The 800 had the distinction of being built like an absolute tank, and boasted 16k (later 48k) of RAM and an extra cartridge slot that nobody ever used.

Best of all was the potential for excellent gaming software on these machines. Atari owned the rights to a lot of the most popular arcade games by dint of either having already made or licensed the games themselves, and with all that fancy hardware there was the possibility of hods of excellent games making their way onto those machines. There was also Star Raiders, a game that for its time was so gob-smackingly amazing that anyone who saw the game in action (or even read about it in the stuck-together pages of that PCW magazine) was immediately inseminated with a burning desire to possess a machine to run it on.

Star Raiders
Star Raiders. Spooooooge.

My favourite arcade game of the time was Exidy "Star Fire" which featured the same first-person out of the cockpit window view. Star Raiders promised not only to bring that experience home but also enhanced it by bolting on features that until then had been purely the domain of the ultra-spoddy text-based Star Trek games that proliferated on the less capable machines to yield an arcade/strategy game hybrid that concealed an astonishing depth of gameplay in its meagre 8K of 6502 machine code.

A particularly outstanding feature of the Atari machines was the mind-blowing wealth of colour they allowed programmers to bring to bear on their game creations. Many machines of that era were pedestrianly monochrome; if you had colour at all it was a huge deal, and just about every other machine could only muster up eight, or if you were lucky 16 colours in total. The Atari smashed that limit utterly and allowed programmers to have exotic luxury like several shades of blue on one screen.

Attack of the Mutant Camels
Several shades of blue I tell you.

With capabilities like these, a fistful of great software licenses in hand, and the undying love of every potential new game programmer in the country, surely then Atari with these machines would sweep forth and take over Britain? Alas, it was not to be.

The trouble being basically that upon introduction the machines were priced roughly in line with their model numbers. Ouch. In Eighties quids as well. Us British computer spods were an impecunious lot, and so excellent though these machines promised to be they were admired from afar as being akin to the Apple ]['s sexier siblings rather than anything we could actually be hoping to buy. And by that time Uncle Clive was cranking up to the peak of his career and bringing us first the ZX80 (at under a ton the first machine I could ever actually afford to buy), then the ZX81 (miraculously both better than the ZX80 and considerably cheaper) and ultimately the Speccy (crowning glory of Uncle Clive's career and the direct genesis of the UK game development scene). Commodore brought out the VIC-20, also cheap as chips and with a decent keyboard, appealing to those of us who'd cut their teeth on 6502-based systems like the PET. So us nerds hoovered up these less capable but a hell of a lot cheaper systems while the Ataris languished out there on the exotic boundary.

Of course this situation didn't last, Commodore firing the first broadside across the industry in what proved to be a punishing price war that decimated the early home computer scene, and also introducing the Commodore 64 which everyone agreed was just the best computer ever, even those who had bought Spectrums, although they would never allow themselves to admit it and they carried that self-delusion with them throughout their entire lives, scarring them to this very day. Atari too became embroiled in the price war, and the prices of the hitherto exotic A8 systems tumbled - but by then everyone was already decided for either the C64 or the Speccy and the machines were never taken up in significant numbers, leaving Atari very much the Green Party to Uncle Clive and Jack Tramiel's Tories and Labour.

For some of us though the Atari machines still had about them a bit of glamour and arcade allure that the other machines, even great ones like the Commodore 64, somehow lacked. The possibility of great, cartridge-based arcade ports was enticing. I was fortunate enough to get my first Atari machine during the Vic-20 era, when they were still quite expensive and finding anywhere selling them and the software for them was pretty rare. I only knew a couple of fellow Atari owners in my area, and we'd meet up several times a month for gaming sessions and yes, a bit of yo-ho-ho did go on, as it always did back then, but in the case of the Atari it was as often as not simply because a lot of the games were hard to come by via legitimate means unless you were prepared to order stuff from the US. Atari of course were turning out their arcade ports, and there was a succession of other good games coming mostly out of the US, where people were richer and the Ataris had caught on more than they had here. Much of this software was well-made and had quite a different "flavour" to the British and European stuff we saw a lot of on our 64s and Speccies. Us Atarians felt like we had access to games that were somehow more exotic, more arcadey-feeling somehow, than those available on our other machines.

A8 software, the best of it, has a special kind of feeling, I don't know how to explain it really, except that it feels more "arcadey". That isn't to say that it was all brilliant - there was a fair share of smeg as there was on all machines, and not even Atari themselves were consistently excellent, as we shall come to see. But there was some truly excellent stuff on there, and some games that people might know better on other machines originally had their start (and often their best implementation) on the Ataris. I still enjoy wandering through the A8 section of my emulator collection (or even occasionally firing up my original 800 that I still have, and which still works fine apart from the space bar, which I broke back in the day doing Smart Bombs with my foot whilst playing Defender).

I thought it might be fun to do a series of blog posts about some of these games, especially as a lot of British people might have missed them entirely, having never owned an A8-series machine. If you're interested, it's also pretty easy for you to follow along with me, or wander through some of the A8 library on your own, through an extensive curated collection of "the best of Atari 8-bit" which you can download from this page here. This collection contains over a thousand games and the emulators necessary to run them, all contained in a neat UI and accompanied by extras such as manuals and screenshots and is a complete piece of piss to install.

Right that’s it for the intro. Next posts I’ll get on to the games. If you don’t know 8-bit Atari that well do make yourself a cup of tea, grab some biscuits and join in, there’s some great stuff to be found!

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No Man’s Sky, eh. What a load of old smeg.

For the last month the Internet has been reverberating with the massed moaning of a nearly infinite galaxy of procedurally-generated nerds all with their knickers in a bollock-binding twist over the fact that the long-anticipated No Man’s Sky turned out to be, in the end, not what they had anticipated at all. Anyone expecting to find a galaxy teeming with intelligent life and full of lots of missions and side quests, anyone thinking that they might be able to explore said universe in the company of their mates online, would be disappointed. It all got a bit nasty and personal with the devs being accused of lying and deliberately misleading people. A long laundry list of stuff that was supposedly promised but not delivered was posted and debated. I don’t need to elaborate, I am sure everyone’s seen it by now and got fully fed up with it to boot.

On the surface of it you could look at the game and argue that the whiners are right. Such plot as is present is stretched exceedingly thin. After the first few hours you will have experienced most of the core gameplay loops and perhaps be wanting for something a bit deeper. It’s evident in various places throughout the game that things that were intended to be in there have been taken out or switched off. You can find “stargates” on some planets but they are deactivated. Observatories – which usually study the stars – refer to locating signals “deep in the cosmos” but inevitably only yield locations on the planet you happen to be on. You have a “reputation” with each of the three alien races which can be improved by doing certain things but it doesn’t seem to have much bearing on anything. Space battles are more of an occasional inconvenience than particularly epic. From some aspects the game is flawed and somewhat incomplete. Planets aren’t rendered photorealistically. There’s not enough variation. I could go on and on but you get the idea.

Despite all that though it’s probably been the game I’ve played the most since Skyrim. Every single night I usually end up with an hour or two of NMS before I go to bed. I think that what’s keeping me there playing is that when I’m playing it I’m seeing and enjoying the stuff that they got right, the things that weren’t omitted, enough that I really don’t care that much about the things that aren’t there.

When I was a nipper I was brought up on a steady diet of Asimov and Clarke. The covers of the books I liked to read looked like this.

Tongue spaceship.

And this.

No cows.

Lovely stuff, and I loved the psychedelic cover artwork as much as the stories inside the books.

I also was there during the paleolithic era of computer graphics, when memory and processor constraints meant that displays had pixels the size of house bricks and being able to display more than eight colours was considered to be the height of graphical sophistication. One of the most astounding games of the day, something which truly had my jaw on the floor the first time I beheld it on my much-loved Atari 8-bit system (already host to the best game of all time at that point in history, “Star Raiders”). The game was called “Rescue on Fractalus” (or “Behind Jaggi Lines” in the pre-release bootleg I had somehow managed to get my hands on). It looked like this:

Rescue on Fractalus

Now of course to anyone in this day and age that looks rough as a badger’s arse, so it’s difficult to relay how astonishing it was for me and others back at that time. Game worlds back then were almost exclusively 2D affairs. Some more adventurous titles ventured into 3D but normally with nothing more than a few stars whizzing by and 2D sprites for enemies, a simple but effective formula used to great effect by the aforementioned Star Raiders. Here came Fractalus though and suddenly you weren’t just floating through sparse starfields any more; you could actually descend to a planet’s surface, see its jagged mountains rendered in solid 3D, and even fly between them and land on the surface, all at a frame rate that nearly approached being quite close to double figures. It was revolutionary, and I sunk many hours into that game even though at the end of the day there was a shockingly small amount of things to actually do there. You flew around, shot some turrets, picked up some dudes and fried some enemies, and once you’d seen one planet you’d seen them all. Pac Man had more advanced actual gameplay when it comes down to it. But that didn’t matter so much to me because it was just awesome to be actually looking out through the window on my spaceship, flying between those mountain peaks, landing and picking up dudes. On a 1MHz 8-bit system it was also a bloody miracle of programming, let me tell you.

The mountains and sky were even that Asimov orange, too. Provided you played it on the Atari, because the Commodore could only display 16 colours, and several of those were variants of “mud”.

Anyway. The years rolled by. I got older and smellier. Graphics evolved too, and eventually pixels got smaller, colour resolution got larger, and games usually no longer looked as rough as a badger’s arse except when done intentionally by ever increasing ranks of indie developers either looking for a nostalgia trip or, like me, unable to employ a proper artist and therefore using low res pixel graphics to excuse crappy programmer art. We came to expect our game worlds to look decent. Nice even.

Then one day a decade ago something happened for the first time, for me. I was playing “Oblivion” on the Xbox 360, riding along on my horse on a path overlooking the Imperial City, and it just looked so lovely I felt compelled just to stop, get off my horse and stand there for a while taking in the view. I think it marked some kind of transition for me, transforming the environment from just being a space where the action took place to… well, the kind of place that you actually want to just stop and gaze out at for a while because it’s beautiful. Somehow this new appreciation of the beauty of the game world made it feel more like you’d been there. And just like in real life when you go to a nice place, sometimes you feel like taking a picture or two to show your mates. I think the first game that turned me into a digital-world photographer was Skyrim, again thanks to Bethesda. I have no end of pictures taken, usually of the scenery and my minotaur companion.

*gruntle*

And to return to the subject at hand, nothing has had me getting my virtual camera out quite so much as No Man’s Sky. That is because one of the things they got absolutely, massively right in NMS is nailing that sci-fi book cover look absolutely perfectly. I mean check out that Asimov cover from earlier

Still no cows.

and compare this view of a planet I was on a few nights ago.

Phallicworld

The difference being, of course, that the second image isn’t one of some static artwork; that’s an actual place I can spend time in. I can climb those distant mountains if I want to. I can hike around looking for even more spectacular views and a lot of the time when I am playing NMS that is exactly what I am doing. It really is quite astonishing how well they have nailed the sci-fi artstyle. Sometimes I’ll just be stopped gawping at a particularly nice view and as if on cue a flight of sleek starships will perform a perfect flyover, leaving pastel contrails in the Raleigh Chopper purple sky. You could pretty much take any random frames from this game in play, slap an Asimov or Psygnosis logo on top and it’d look authentic. Making every second of your gameplay look like proper sci-fi art is pretty damn amazing. Photo-realistic it certainly isn’t but it was never intended to be. It does what they intended it to do gloriously well. I mean look at this stuff.

There’s that lovely Asimov orange again. Or perhaps you would prefer a more Roger Dean style of planet? Check out the lovely planet of God’s Cow:

God's Cow

Which would have looked lovely on the cover of a Yes album or some Amiga software box.

Some have said that they feel that there isn’t enough variety in the planet generation stuff, and indeed there are a few areas where I think it could be improved aesthetically – having poles with associated different climatic conditions might be nice, and planets would look a bit less samey from a distance if there were features more like the oceans and distinct continents of our own planet. I do think, however, that people perhaps underestimate how difficult it is to make procedural stuff that is both (a) nice looking and (b) widely variable. In a lot of proc stuff you tend to find that niceness occurs in fairly locally constrained clusters and that there are vast tracts of parameter space where things look at best rough and at worst fugly. The designers of the game had to work within certain constraints, throttling back the raw RNG and constraining the proc output so that the planets produced are at least reasonable-looking and also practical to get around on. Sure, you’ll probably go through times during gameplay where you see a few relatively barren rocks one after another, and some elements are common to all planets for reasons of gameplay (if the various mineral-providing features of each world were different everywhere you went it’d make for much slower gameplay having to scan and identify everything anew at each landing).

When you really look at them though there’s beauty and variety even on the bare, rocky worlds; for me part of the gameplay is looking for and finding that beauty in wherever I end up. The places themselves, and the near infinite variety in them (albeit subtle at times) is part of what keeps me playing this game every day. The bits of lore scattered throughout the planets are nice, and I enjoy coming across some monument or other and gently learning more about the history of the three races in the galaxy, learning bits of their languages, gradually expanding the capacity of my ship and exosuit and accumulating space quid by rinsing planets of vortex cubes and albumen pearls and woe betide any sentinels that come between me and my loot. That stuff’s ok, and certainly I would not complain if more of it is added later, reactivating some of the unused objects we see from time to time in the game, fleshing out the endless worlds with more of the kind of game structure that many people expected from the game in the first place.

For me though I suspect I’ll still keep on coming back even once I’m a space millionaire with the best ships and a flawless knowledge of all three cultures and their languages, simply because I’ve come to enjoy the places so much.

Sunset on Donald Trump's Slimy Pucker.

When I fire up the ps4 at the end of the day and climb in my ship I’m not so much off out there in search of space battles and galactic quid. It’s more like going out into the countryside for a walk. I want to find out what the sunsets are like on the next planet. Maybe I’ll even meet some cool beasts, or maybe it’ll be those ones that look like someone stuck bits of a lizard, a chicken and a cow together, and asshole crabs again. Whatever. Wherever I go I enjoy going for nice long walks, looking for the beauty in it, usually finding it too, even on at first unpromising planets. Even the bare rocky ones have their own beauty, and after a run of those it makes it even nicer when you come across somewhere lush and full of life where you just feel like chilling out for a good while before the next hyperjump takes you away.

Chill.

In the end I’m not so much a galactic trader or a pirate or anything like that; I’m more of a space tourist hopping from system to system looking for the coolest sights, taking virtual pictures to send back to my mates in the real world. The simple core game loops are just a framework to hold everything gently together as I wander from planet to planet looking for the coolest mountains, the loveliest vista against which to park my ship and take a ship-selfie against the sunset. Most of my gameplay is as chilled and empty of structure as the act of going out for a wander in the woods after Sunday lunch. And that’s perfectly OK. A game doesn’t have to be absolutely ram-packed with missions and constant excitement to be relaxing and enjoyable. Sometimes even though you’ve rinsed all the story-context out of a game environment you keep on going back there simply because you like how the place feels. Trust me, I know, having played the same game of Animal Crossing for four years straight a few years ago (I only stopped when Chevre left because after all what is life without Chevre?). And what I’m ultimately getting out of NMS is just that, a nice comfortable place I can go to and enjoy nice walks and pretty sights for a little while before I go to bed.

Do I wish there was more to the traditional gameplay elements? Well yes, I do think it’d be cool to have more lore stuff in the world, more dynamic between the races involved, more of the kinds of things that all those moaning people complain about. But then again I wasn’t really expecting a huge amount of that stuff anyway – the impression I got of the game pre-launch is that it’d likely be something like European Truck Simulator set in a Roger Dean universe, and that’s pretty close to what we got. It’d certainly be nice if, having set the stage, HG now go on to fill things out with more trad gameplay things to help the game appeal to more people. Can’t say I’m that bothered about multiplayer to be honest, the last thing I’d want is griefers invading my nice peaceful galactic Sunday walk simulator.

People have also moaned about the price, and I guess if you bought it and the lack of a lot of structured gameplay upset you then it wasn’t fifty quid well spent (maybe don’t pre-order and wait to see some reviews before dropping that kind of loot next time?) but for me, judging by the number of hours played I think the only thing I have more time logged on is Skyrim, which also cost me £50. So I don’t begrudge them that, and in fact people shouldn’t be reluctant to set decent price points for stuff anyway or we’ll end up with a situation like the App Store where it’s all a radioactive waste of F2P and only a few lumbering monsters survive with everybody else dying an agonising death, and we don’t want that.

As for me I’ll doubtless be continuing to take my nightly excursions ere bed, looking for that perfect sunset, that weirdest beast. I bumped into the Flying Spaghetti Monster last night.

The FSM

I was blessed by His Noodly Appendages.

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Where have all the iOS games gone?

Gosh it’s been ages since I have posted anything on here.

Anyway I see this question coming up a lot in my twitter stream so I thought I’d post a reply here that I can link to when it comes up.

We spent two years doing games on iOS and in the end we stopped doing them because the income generated from them was so tiny that it ended up actually costing *us* money. Despite excellent reviews both by users and on relevant gaming websites, and notwithstanding the sheer number of iOS devices out there which would, you might think, make it viable for even stuff slightly off mainstream to find enough of an audience to comfortably sustain them, this proved not to be the case and we couldn’t in any way justify carrying on with it.

Which is kind of sad, because I actually rather enjoyed the work. The hardware was nice to work with and well suited to the kind of games I like to do, and I enjoyed the challenge of overcoming the difficulty of doing decent controls on a touchscreen and making something you could happily play on a phone or tablet. In fact to this day the only other thing I play on my phone apart from the contents of my Llamasoft folder is Scrabble.

To give some idea of just how awful iOS was for us, the first non-iOS game I did after spending two years on iOS, released on a Sony handheld that many describe as being “obscure”, generated literally *thousands* of times more income for us than two years and ten games on iOS with its potential billions of users. In the face of that I would have been absolutely daft to spend any more time at all on iOS.

So we quit developing for iOS, but for a few years we still paid the yearly developer fee just so that the games would remain up in the App Store. Not because we were making any money from them (towards the end I’d made pretty much all of them free anyway, since as we weren’t getting any income from them I didn’t see why people shouldn’t just be allowed to take them if they wanted).

Then halfway through the iPhone 6 life cycle we started to hear that newer phones were not working well with some of the games and they were crashing. And the thing is by now we don’t have any working Macs left to do development work on, and we’d effectively have to upgrade stuff and buy new Apple kit to test on and spend time going back and reworking all the games to make them work again and… given just how little we got out of them in the first place, and how skint we are and committed to other work, we just can’t justify supporting them any more. So this time when the dev license came up for renewal we let it lapse. Over time the games are only going to get more broken relative to newer hardware anyway and I didn’t want to leave stuff up there that people would download and increasingly find to be crashy and broken.

I realise it’s not ideal and must be annoying if you have a folder full of our stuff and it disappears when you get a new phone, and I’m sorry that it works out like that, but we simply don’t have the resources to support these games indefinitely on a constantly changing platform like iOS.

My recommendation if you really love the games that much and want to keep them around is to take an old iOS device you have upgraded from – the games should run well even on hardware as old as the old iPhone 3s – jailbreak it and download the games from some pirate site for free with my blessing.

Failing that get ahold of a cheap-ass Android tablet – even the cheapest and assiest out there should have sufficient oomph to run those games in this day and age – and take the free .apks that we have put up for our Android ports of five of the iOS games on this site.

In the end we’re sorry that it’s come to this. The sad thing is that if only there’d been a few more users, if only we’d been able to charge a couple of quid instead of a pittance, I could have been quite happy doing more of those little games indefinitely. I really enjoyed the short turnaround time on projects and being able to work on fun little designs that fit well on the platform. I never really expected to get Angry Birds rich or anything, I would have been quite happy just to get by, but in the end mobile these days seems to be all-or-nothing, with most developers falling to the “nothing” side of the divide, and not much room for that middle ground I was looking for.

Anyway, I really ought to blog a bit more often, it has been ages. And we are doing some fun stuff, and there could be something else good happening too that I can’t say more about just now, but soon.

So hopefully I shall blog more soon :) .

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The Road Ahead

Now that Goatup 2 is out there, it’s time to reveal a bit more about our plans moving forward. Much though we’ve enjoyed working on iOS, it’s clear to us that it’s not a good idea for us to concentrate on that platform alone. So we have a couple of things we’ll be doing, starting immediately.

- We are going to release certain things as “donationware”. What that means is that you can download them in full, use them in a completely unrestricted and DRM free fashion, and then if you like them, you can pay us whatever you like through a donation. This is very close to the old idea of “pure” shareware which we espoused back in the days of Llamatron. We figure this is a nice, fair way to distribute some goodies that were never released, and other things that if sold via conventional App Store means would bring in next to bugger all.

We’ve begun this process with the release of the Android version of “Gridrunner”. You can download it from the donationware page, install it on your Android device, and make sure that it runs nicely and that you enjoy it. If you do, then you can donate whatever you want to us.

The donation page is open for nonspecific donations too, so if you just like us and feel that we’ve done some nice work over the years and want to show support, you can bung us a curry that way too. It’s all good, and keeps us happy and working and hay in the mouths of the sheepies :) .

Over the coming weeks and months we have more items that we’ll be adding to the donationware page, some of which are quite rare and never saw release for various reasons. One of these in particular is quite special; one of the best things we’ve ever made.

The donationware page has been up for a few days now and we’ve had a fair number of donations already; we’d like to thank everyone who has already donated. Thanks guys, it really is appreciated.

Visit our new Donationware page right here!

- Secondly, we are happy to announce that we have just begun work on a new game for the Playstation Vita. I’m very grateful to Shahid Ahmad at Sony for the opportunity; he’s a man on a mission to bring a ton of indie talent to the Vita and we’re fortunate enough to have been invited to the party. And cheers to Gary Liddon from Ruffian, who gently nudged us in the direction of this exciting opportunity.

19 years ago saw the release of one of the best games Llamasoft ever made, a game which came to be recognised as one of the best games on an entire system – Tempest 2000 on the Atari Jaguar. I’ve often thought that one day I would like to revisit that game and do some kind of an updated version on modern hardware.

We’ve had a couple of cracks at it before, it’s true, but neither of them quite managed to achieve the same level of greatness as the original. T3K for the Nuon was in its own way remarkable, given that it was built using shader-like techniques (doing significant per-pixel computations) before shaders even existed, in software, on a 54 MHz CPU. But that game never achieved its full potential given that the NUON chip that it ran on only ever had very limited distribution, and the resolution and framerate were never quite what I hoped they would be.

Then there was Space Giraffe on the X360 and PC – still in my opinion one of the best things we’ve ever made, and a game that pushed boundaries by making sensory overload an integral part of the game’s difficulty. For those players that got what we were trying to do, SG could be an almost transcendental experience, and those people who love it REALLY love it. In that I still feel that we succeeded admirably. But I also have to admit that the game was divisive; some people didn’t like the complete immersion in eyeball-searing psychedelia and the gameplay modifications that made it not quite the pure shooty T2K upgrade that the initial look of the game seemed to promise.

In considering what we could do on the Vita I was thinking about the various things we’ve done with Gridrunner over the years. Super Gridrunner on the ST and Amiga, Gridrunner++ on PocketPC, Gridrunner Revolution on the PC – all good games without a doubt, each more complex than the next. But the best version? I think that’s the recent iOS (and now Android) version. To make that I went back to the core design of the game, and made a new version in that same spirit – modern enough to be satisfying to today’s players, but true to the design of the original game.

And so that brings us to our new project – TxK on the Playstation Vita.

We’re going to base it on the essence of the original T2K. It’ll be the pure, straightforward shooter that maybe you hoped for when you first saw Space Giraffe. We’re not going to overload you with ultra psychedelia, but we will make it fluid and colourful and awesome-looking on the Vita’s delicious, vibrant OLED screen. We’re going to give you a perfect treat for your eyes, ears and thumbs with a modern extrapolation of one of the best shooters ever made on hardware that’s just perfectly suited for it, and in a way that retains the purity of the original design.

It’s going to be *awesome* :) .

Thanks again to Shahid and his team for making this happen and getting us all set up and ready to rock so smoothly. Looks like we’ve got a busy summer ahead but it’s totally going to be so worth it.

We also plan on doing a bit of a development blog as we go along, so watch out for that. I’ll link it up when we make the first entry.

But right now it’s back to the devkit for me!

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GoatUp 2 submitted to Apple

Goatup 2 icon

Well that took a little longer than expected but Goatup 2 is finally off to Apple. Hopefully it’ll all go well there and if so should be available in about a week. This is the first thing I’ve done that involves having level editing and the ability to share game files, and I know Apple can be a little wary of stuff that does that, but I’m hoping it’ll be fine since I’ve done the filesharing part totally by the book through iTunes, and anyway the game files themselves don’t contain any executable code at all, there just a map of brick and object types and positions.

We’ll see! But anyway soon you’ll be able to finally unleash your inner Matthew Smith!

GU2 level

So what kind of game is Goatup 2?

It’s different from Goatup 1 in that it’s no longer an endless climber. It’s a more conventional platformer, with games consisting of a set of self-contained levels. It’s obviously influenced by games like Manic Miner and Miner 2049er, in that you have to traverse the level collecting keys, which then cause an exit to open, allowing you to leave the level.

It’s nowhere near as demandingly finicky as Manic Miner though. By now I am sure you know that I like my platformers to be very flow-y and sloppy with the emphasis on joyously bouncing around rather than sphincter-clenching over every little jump. So the main difference between this and, say, MM, is that in GU2 there’s no penalty for falling from any height. I’ve always hated that in platform games – fall more than 2 inches, BAM you’re dead. So in GU2, if you can land a jump on a platform, you’ll live. Of course there has to be a platform there – you can still fall out of a level to your doom. And you will, oh yes, you will.

Also unlike in Manic Miner you get to kill your enemies. The same mechanic that allows you to attack enemies also allows you to make midair jumps – and it is the humble fart.

parp!

As in Goatup 1, certain objects that you collect trail behind you in a long stream. In Goatup 1 those objects were kids (and you “collected” them by giving birth to them). In Goatup 2 these objects can be kids (which you find on platforms, since you are a billy goat this time around) or other things like level keys, the Queen, or a chicken vindaloo curry.

Trailing some objects like a boss

Each object you collect behind you can be traded for one fart. So if you collect a bunch of objects you can effectively fly, Joust-style, for a while by repeatedly pressing the jump button. Under certain circumstances (having a curry when the Queen is not looking) you can have unlimited farts for a few seconds, during which time you can use your extra mobility to explore otherwise unreachable parts of levels, or to attack clusters of enemies.

Yes, your flatus can be directed at enemies, and in most cases it will knock them off their platforms and out of the game. In all it makes for a game that is like a Bomb Jack-type platformer crossed with a shooter. Crossed with Joust. Kinda. And the shots come out your arse. Which may sound weird but is actually pretty fun.

remember the pink hairy things?

Of course it is quite possible to make levels with no farting by simply designing them without any fartable objects to collect, so an individual designer may choose to make levels far more tricky and less loose and sloppy than my own. And that’s good :D .

You can also place The Queen in a level. If The Queen is collected, she starts watching the goat from the side of the level, and of course with Royal eyes upon you you can’t possibly fart. Until you find a curry…

Happy and glorious

The game ships with 4 default level sets (a level set is referred to as a “game” in the editor) of 20 levels each. Game 1 is a set of levels that start extremely easy to introduce the player to the gameplay. Game 4 is a level set that uses a level template and then varies it by using the various types of bricks, objects and enemies that are available in the level editor. It should serve as a good introduction to the game components for those who want to try making their own levels.

An underwater Kongotaur.

Games 2 and 3 are a collection of levels by me, PVB and Precious Pony. With 80 levels there by default there should be plenty there for people to get stuck into even before they consider using the editor or importing other people’s games.

Game 1 is locked and its levels can’t be edited. This is simply so that we can have online leaderboards that make sense for at least one set of levels. If people could edit those levels they’d change the difficulty and scoring, rendering any leaderboards useless. So the game 1 levels are fixed. There are four leaderboards: Pure (best score in game 1, starting from the beginning); Lifetime (the best score you ever got on each level in Game 1, totalled); Pure Time (fastest time for completing all the levels in Game 1) and Lifetime Time (the sum of all your best ever times on each of the levels in Game 1). So you can play the levels for score, or try and speed run them for time. The two different objectives lead to quite different ways of playing each level, so there’s plenty of scope for replaying, and for either sitting down to do a nice long Pure game or simply dipping in to try to improve one’s score or time on a particular level.

Scores and times are saved locally for the other games too, just not put on a global leaderboard, as that makes no sense for editable level sets.

You can still copy any of the levels out of Game 1 and paste them into another game if you just want to look at how they are made and modify them as you see fit.

A level on Game 4

Here is a bit of one of the levels in Game 4, showing the use of telephone kiosks, one-way doorways and bulls.

Of course I am hoping that people will start to use the editor and make their own levels too. I thought building an editor would be pretty quick, and yes, it’s not too hard to have something basic up and running in a short while. But making an editor that’s actually stable and suitable for anyone to use is actually a fair old undertaking and it’s taken a while. But in the end I think it’s come out pretty well, and whereas it’ll never be as convenient as something PC-based it actually works nicely, allowing levels to be built easily and tested quickly right on your device. It’s even just about usable on the iPhone, although it’s obviously easier on the iPad. I made all my game levels on an iPad mini, some of them whilst on the toilet. That’ll do for me :) .

The Editor.

I’ve tried to keep the editor as simple as possible – basically there’s a large area at the top of the screen where you can scroll around the entire tilemap, and a little strip at the bottom where you choose which bricks and objects you want to add to the level. Adding stuff is as simple as drawing it on the screen using your finger. At any time you can press the PLAY button to try out your level.

I’ve made a little guide about how to use the editor. You can view it here, or in-game press the HELP button on the Game Select screen while in Edit mode.

Here’s a couple of videos showing some gameplay and some editor usage that I’ve published before, but which may be interesting if you haven’t seen them yet or just want to get an idea of how the game looks in motion. These are a couple of months old now and some stuff has changed, other stuff has been added, and most things tidied up. But these give a good idea of what the game’s all about.

This shows some GU2 gameplay.

And these two show the editor in use.

The game will be on sale for £2.50 – yes, we’ve decided to move away from the super ultra lowest pricing on the App Store. It’s simply not working out for us to release things at those prices. We’ve done 9 games now so we have a pretty good feel for how things are going and super low prices simply aren’t working for us. We feel that most people who like the work we do wouldn’t begrudge us the price of a pint once every few months, as opposed to the price of a Lion Bar. And as part of our future strategy rather than concentrating on putting out a lot of small iOS games we’re going to aim to do slightly longer projects, on the order of 6 months or so each, and which will be cross-platform on Mac and PC as well as on iOS and Android.

Even so I bet there will still be one or two people who will complain that our games are now “too expensive” at £2.50. But as I said it’s only the price of a pint, and it’s still about one third of what a Llamasoft game cost in 1982!

The upside is that by taking a bit longer to do crossplatform games I should be able to come up with some stuff that’s a bit deeper than most of the iOS work I’ve done, and I think you’ll be quite interested by what I have in mind for my next project. Which will be revealed in due course.

Until then enjoy GoatUp 2 and let’s be seeing some of those user-created levels! I’ll collect up a bunch of my favourites and put them up on the website when there start to be a few around.

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Fun for the Whole Family: Old Computer Ads Revisited

You may remember a few months ago I did a bit of a pisstake of some old ads from out of ancient computer magazines, concluding with this memorable “OH HOLY FUCK, LOOK AT THOSE KNOBBLY GREEN TRIANGLES!” one for the Apple ][.

HOLY FUCK IT'S TRIANGLES

Computer mags were rife with ads done in that particular style back in the late 70s/early 80s. I guess it was just part of the Universal Lie that was prevalent around home computers and game systems back then: that these things were Educational, would Help With Your Homework, would Bring The Whole Family Together in Joy and Harmony, and not just for little Johnny to shut himself in his room playing Beach Head and Impossible Mission in the hours in between masturbation sessions. Kids told their parents that, and the ads were happily complicit in the lie, representing some kind of nonexistent happy family Utopia in many a ridiculous ad.

spreadsheets are awesome.

Mom is gazing adoringly at the Vic, grinning along with Son, who isn’t doing anything at all apart from gurn at the fingers of Dad’s left hand. He’s also smiling too, in a strange, distant kind of way, and definitely not the expression you would expect of anyone who is actually using a spreadsheet. A spreadsheet on a Vic-20, with absolutely massive characters, which you are doubtless supposed to use with a tape drive. And come on, who *actually* balanced their family accounts in giant characters on a Vic-20 with a tape drive? Nobody at all, not one single bugger. It was just part of the universally-condoned Lie about how your new home computer would be properly useful *and* bring the family together round it, everyone grinning in endless Utopian bliss.

How nice.

Over in the Tandy catalogue at least Awfully Nice Blue Ribbon Girl is allowed to actually play an honest to God game instead of do a bit of family accountancy, even if it does look like a bit of a boring maze game. She seems to be smiling way more than the dreadful palette (what was it with the CoCo/Dragon and that nasty bile green?) and dreadful graphics warrant. Perhaps it’s due to the reassuring hand of Dad, resting on her shoulder while he gazes at the top of her head grinning slackly. And look at Mom. She’s not seeing her little girl playing some crap maze game. She’s in the thrall of the Lie and she’s seeing her daughter Learning Computer Skills and is already mentally at the daughter’s graduation ceremony from MIT.

Holy crap.

Over in the Bible Belt Dad’s looking well smug since he’s not only providing a Computer Education, he’s also on his way to Heaven for sure. Son also looks completely artificially happy given that he’s sat in front of a bloody TI 99/4A instead of the Commodore that all his mates have got, *and* he’s expected to play bloody Jesus games. The little girl knows the score though. Her mouth may be smiling but her eyes are clearly yelling “oh for fuck’s sake”.

SO EXCITED

This kind of thing has been going on since well back in the black and white age, as this old Atari 800 ad demonstrates. Big nose 70s moustache Dad has done something so amazing (just by holding the joystick by its very tip in one hand) that his entire family are in abject awe. Son is slack jawed, pointing wordlessly at the screen. Mum looks like she’s just done a fat line of coke and it’s just now starting to kick in. Daughter has had all thoughts of My Little Pony princess castle play sets expunged from her mind by the sheer awesomeness of what looks like a complete dog’s breakfast of an effort on the Sony. The home computer in this case seems to be being presented less as an educational tool and more like some kind of shared ecstatic visionary experience.

surprise!

Even in modern times the same kind of thing persists. Just look at this ad for some kind of Wii sketchpad peripheral. Mum’s beaming while she wields the stylus. Son is clearly ecstatic to see what his mum’s drawn. Whatever can it be? Judging by Dad’s expression and the way he’s holding his hands out like that, perhaps the game is to guess what Mum is drawing and he’s about to ask “is it a horse’s arse”?

Daughter, I think, has just unexpectedly sat on a dildo.

Wii twii

Of course it’s rife in Wii ads. This one shows the happy family from the point of view of the telly itself. Whatever they are playing it seems to encompass a fair range of simultaneous activities for the family members to enjoy. Looks like Mum’s jogging, Son is getting ready to fry an egg, Daughter is disco dancing, and Dad has lost something in some dark recess and is looking for it with a torch and a worried expression.

Coke is it!

Back at the start of the 80s cocaine use was particularly rampant, as evidenced by this buzzing Atari family. The three adult members are plainly off their tits. Mom is clenching like crazy. Older Daughter has a grin that reminds me of Aphex Twin, and Dad is on the verge of drooling while his eyebrows attempt to crawl off his face. All he can do is gesture limply with his right hand, presumably to the mirror just out of shot on top of the TV, indicating that someone should get busy and chop out some more lines with the platinum American Express card.

Son is clearly going to grow up to be a Bucky the Beaver furry.

Helpless Dad

Without everyone else round him gawping and grinning, poor old Dad is left wondering why he can’t find the footy results on this weird new radio thing he’s holding. Now he’s not smiling – his mouth is open as he yells “FUCKING THING!” at it in frustration.

And the dog

Here the McPervert family are shown reacting upon the occasion of their first exposure to Goatse.

WRONG

Oh come off it Tandy, that is not a Family Computer by any stretch, no matter how you try to spin it. Green screen and another fucking spreadsheet, nary a joystick in sight, parents with huge piles of Serious Software and kids with armfuls of Wholesome Educational Stuff. This is taking “we bought it to help with the homework” way too far in the direction of truth.

Better

Better – that is at least the right machine, as it’s a Commodore 64. The kids are chuffed and earnestly thank you for it Dad, but they are plainly waiting for you to sod off to bed with your earnest face and your earnest educational software. Yes, the diameter of Saturn is all well and good, but there’s Bruce Lee to be played once you’re out of the picture.

also what the hell kind of Commodore 64 is that that only needs one cable?

woah!

What you can’t see is that the dog is in this family grouping too. He’s just stuck his nose right up Mom’s skirt, and boy is his nose cold.

pong fu

A few years earlier over in Taiwan families gathered together to learn the art of “pong-fu” – the ability to play Pong without using any kind of paddle controller at all. Just the merest touch of the little finger sufficed for the true masters.

At that time in history raster bars existed only in textile form. Here the family TV sits atop a really early Fairlight demo on the dyed wool platform.

Serious business

It was a man’s life in the insurance business in the swinging 70s, as evidenced by this little scene. Mr. Swinging Business Dude is having a right old fine time with his slightly-too-long hair and approximate moustache, grinning like a monkey as he enjoys a rousing game of Pong in his office. Curiously enough his opponent (presumably his secretary) looks like she is still taking dictation; her hand isn’t even on the console, as his is. Perhaps that thing in her hand is a remote paddle and not a microphone.

The gun lies between them like a threat.

OUCH MY ARSE

This is clearly, as they say, one for Up The Arse Corner.

Origins

Back in the Bible Belt, another Dad who figures he’s on his way to heaven. Little does he realise that Son is going to grow up and become Mr. Goatse. And that look in the girl’s eye isn’t glee. It’s psychosis.

Healthy play

Next door things are also a bit worrying. Dad is toothless and sports the moustache and belt buckle of a true pervert. Older Daughter is concealing a knife in that marsupial pouch thing of her Atari sweatshirt. And they’ve invited their friend Joe over to play and he seems to have forgotten half his t-shirt. Little Johnny’s getting ready to lay his head on that sweet exposed manflesh.

You just know that the joysticks are about to come out.

Super duper Mario

Ahh, Super Mario Brothers, the multiplayer game for all the family! Except that it’s single-player. And whoever’s playing is just jumping Mario down a hole in the ground. I don’t think any of them are actually seeing what’s going on, it’s just a big plurry glow for them by now.

FUCK NO

This kid isn’t ecstatic. Those raised thumbs were coerced somehow, perhaps by threatening his dog’s life or something. He’s actually screaming in agony and RAGE at the very idea that anybody would expect him to show any other kind of emotion at the prospect of playing crappy 30 year old Spectrum games in blurry black and white on some piece of Amstrad absolute shite.

ANAL SURPRISE!

Finally, here you can see the kids happily playing VCS Indiana Jones (using one of those weirdly complicated and expensive contraptions you could get back then which bolted to your VCS making it awkwardly unwieldy and prone to glitching and saved you the bother of unplugging a cart and plugging another one in) despite the distress of Dad, who has clearly either trodden on an upturned British plug or experienced an unexpected, anal surprise.

Well that’s it for this time. More old ads, and rubbish game videos, and of course shiny new games from me next year! Nadolig Llawen!

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Being Matthew Smith: A First Look at Goatup 2

I’ve been working lately on a sequel of sorts to “Goatup”. The full title of the sequel is “BUCK! The Tail of Goatup 2″ but I am sure most people will be happy enough to just shorten that to Goatup 2. This video gives a little overview of the game’s editor and a couple of test levels.

As you can see from this, the game this time isn’t continuously scrolling as before. It’s more of a traditional one-screen-per-level platformer (although the “screen” in this case is a large area much bigger than the physical screen, and the view scrolls around as you play).

I want not only to provide players with plenty of platforming fun; I also want them to be able to experience for themselves exactly what it’s like to be Matthew Smith. To that end, although I cannot provide them with any appropriate recreational combustibles, I do provide a level editor with which I hope people will find it easy to experiment and create their own levels. The editor provides a selection of platform game items and an environment in which it’s pretty easy to just “paint” a level using your finger, place items within the level, and try it out instantly by just pressing the PLAY button. There are various different platform types covering most common platformer tropes, collectible items, various bad guys, and “toys” such as the barrel-emitting Kongotaur which can be used to populate your levels.

The platform action itself is kinda Rainbow Islandish, although without the continuous vertical scroll of that game. Collected items follow behind you, and you can trade these items one at a time for a mid-air jump, allowing you to reach otherwise inaccessible places, or to get you out of trouble. Doing such a jump also makes you and any kids you have fart out stars and sparkles, which can be used to knock baddies off platforms. Each kid you collect doubles your bonus multiplier in all items. So there’s a goodly number of ways to complete each level, and you’ll want to go back after initially completing a level to look for ways of completing it with as high a level score as possible, farting away as few bonus items as you can manage.

There’s still a few weeks left in development yet, mainly now just adding more items and toys to the collection, building a good set of default levels, and looking into how we’ll let users share levels they’ve made.

Some people have said they dislike the giant burping noise in the video, and in fact in the final game all you’ll hear for double-jumping is the quiet fart sound effect. The burp was a warning for when your goat was full up from too much grass. It used to be you’d explode if you ate too much, but I took that out, so the burp is now redundant anyway.

Anyway there you go, there’s my master plan to make Matthew Smiths of you all :) .

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Obscure Cult Game System Resurrected on iOS

Caprichoso Arcade

In which the black ox with the blue star (the best ox) out of Super Ox Wars recommends games we’ve been enjoying lately.

One of my first ever trips to the US (to go and visit Human Engineered Software, who were distributing some of my Commodore games at the time) coincided with the launch of a new game system. I’d read about this prior to my visit, and so I was determined that when I was visiting I was going to get hold of one of these new toys and bring it back to Blighty. That proved trickier than I’d initially thought, as the new system was in demand and finding a place that had some in stock proved difficult. I walked many miles all over San Francisco trying to find a shop that had any in, and perseverence eventually paid off and I lugged my prize back to my motel room and prepared for an evening of gaming.

The system in question was called the Vectrex, and it was unusual for a couple of reasons: for one, it had its own screen, whereas all other game systems of that time required that you plug them into the telly for display. And secondly, it had a different kind of screen, one that gamers had seen before, in the arcades, displaying games like Asteroids and Tempest: a vector display. Back in those days graphics in game systems tended to look pretty chunky, due to memory constraints and the low resolution of raster displays. Games made with vector displays looked very sharp and clean by contrast. Objects in such games were made up of lines (“vectors”) that were pure lines, not made out of a bunch of blocks like on a raster display. There were no visible pixels at all – in a way vector displays were the “Retina” displays of their day, and the idea of having such a display in a home system was pretty appealing.

The Vectrex itself was a nice little portable unit, looking quite a lot like the Macintosh that would appear a couple of years later. It was handy to set up and use, just plug it in and start playing without having to faff about with hooking it up to a telly and tuning in the RF signal. Easy to take with you round a mate’s house too (I remember there being a slight flight delay on my trip home from the US and I busted out my Vectrex that was in my hand baggage, plugged it into a wall socket in the departure lounge, and amused myself and some of my fellow passengers with games of Mine Storm, Scramble, Berzerk and Star Trek while we waited).

For a while the future looked good for the little system – gamers liked it, it received good reviews, and in a few months it became available in the UK too; one of my brothers liked mine so much he bought his own, and I was able to buy more games for mine without having to import them from the US. I went to the Summer CES in 1983 and saw on the Vectrex stand all manner of intriguing extras they were planning to release for the system – a light pen, a funky headset thing that used a spinning filter thing to transform the Vectrex’s monochrome display into colour with stereoscopic 3D, and even a keyboard to transform the system into a BASIC home computer.

(Man, I wish I’d had a video camera with me at that show, or at least have taken a bunch of pictures, because i didn’t know it but I was seeing the last peak of the videogame boom before the oncoming Crash of ’83. That show was full of stuff that was never released, shovel-loads of VCS games, computer-keyboard-addons for game systems, all sorts of stuff that in later years would be only dimly remembered or outright lost).

Then the crash happened and the Vectrex was one of the casualties. For a while as shops cleared out their inventories you could pick up brand new systems for £30 each and the games for a few quid; then it vanished, lost and gone forever, and over the years the systems that remained and still worked became increasingly cherished by collectors (I still have two). A Vectrex in good nick commands quite a decent price on ebay these days.

Of course things being what they are, systems are no longer lost and gone forever thanks to emulation, and for a few years now it’s been possible to play the system in emulation on a PC. And just now there’s a new Vectrex emulation out for iOS.

A Vectrex, and stuff.

Emulation on iOS can be a bit of a mixed bag. For one thing it’s rarer than it could be, due to Apple not liking stuff which can run arbitrary ROMS, and it not being practical usually for a developer to license the rights to sell an emulator complete with all its software. The platform is more than capable of decent emulation, but there are significant difficulties in simulating controls which were decidedly physical back in the day on devices that use a multitouch screen for input. Sometimes you can get great emulation but let down by less than great controls (the Atari collection is a bit like that; although the controls have been improved from the initial release they are still a bit of a dog’s breakfast), and sometimes you get lucky and the controls don’t actually suck (the Activision collection is quite playable and worth having).

So when I heard about the new Vectrex emulation in development I was interested but worried about the controls. I always worry about iOS controls. So I was relieved to discover when the app was released that the controls are pretty good. Not perfect – that’s not a criticism of the app, just an acknowledgement of the fact that you are never going to get perfect controls on an emulation of a system that used buttons and joysticks. But what they’ve done is really pretty good, and all the games are playable and fun even using just the touch screen. (The analog stick is emulated by the left touch, and centres where the touch lands; the visible image of the touch location can be turned off, as God and Nature intended. The four fire buttons can be scaled and rotated so as to be positioned as you want under the other hand. It’s always going to be a compromise compared to a proper stick and buttons (and you can have those, if you want, too) but it works well enough that you should be able to make it comfortable to play the games reasonably well on just your bare iOS device).

Scramble on Vectrex

The simulation of the actual vector display is very good too. They’ve even left in authentic-looking amounts of vector flicker and some of the weird background noises that display used to make (which may sound like a bad thing, but actually adds to the charm and realism of the emulation). The Vectrex was a monochrome system, and each game came with a coloured plastic overlay that you’d clip in front of the screen, which defined play areas and added come colour to the scene – these overlays are faithfully reproduced too. As is the option to just go ahead and play in (brighter) monochrome with the overlay off, as many of us real system users did, having misplaced the overlays or not being arsed to put them on when changing games.

For full-on authenticity though you’ll be happy if you’ve got an iCade. If you look at the image of the Vectrex system I posted earlier you can see the iCade next to the original system, and you can see it has the same screen orientation and even pretty much the same joystick and button layout. Although the joystick on the original Veccie was analog, most games just treated it like a digital stick anyway, so most of the games are playable on the iCade in just about as authentic a way as physically possible. It really is a pleasure to play on the iCade, and with the bigger screen and arcade controls could even be considered to be better than the original in some cases.

Vectrex UI

The UI is very posh, and consists of a 3D rendering of a kid’s bedroom from the 80s. Your Vectrex sits on a desk in the corner, and you can pan around to see your game collection on a shelf. Choose a cart from your collection and you can rotate the box and examine it closely. It’s all very nicely done and makes a posh and pretty front end to the emulation.

cheevos

The game is fond of showering you with lots of little micro-achievements (I farted once while playing and was mildly surprised not to get a “First Wind Broken” achievement at the end of my game) and as you get them a corkboard in your virtual bedroom fills up with little badges for them all.

leaderboard

There’s a blackboard in the bedroom which shows you the current online leaderboard for whatever game you’ve been playing. Yes, that really is me being best in the world at Star Ship. I’m high on a good few of the leaderboards, come on and beat me! :)

There are photos and videos to look at too; the emulation frontend is really very well done, and it adds an extra, modern dimension to these old games to be able to post on global leaderboards. I can’t imagine how awesome that idea would have seemed to 1980s me. We take so much for granted these days :) .

What of the games themselves? After all great emulation, decent controls and a posh frontend all count for bugger all if the games are a pile of wank, and many old games don’t stand the test of time too well. But fortunately by and large the Vectrex games were a pretty decent lot, and given that they are, after all, early 80s games, they remain surprisingly fun to play today, particularly with the addition of online leaderboards. 80s games are all about score, after all.

Out of the chunk of the official library released so far (more games are forthcoming soon, apparently) the only two I don’t play much are the American football one (it makes no more sense to me rendered as tiny Os and Xes than it does on telly with real people) and the soccer one (which actually wasn’t that bad when I tried it, just it’s not really my thing). Some of my favourites:

- Mine Storm (this game was built in to every Vectrex, and is the free game you can play when you download the app). This is a cool and challenging Asteroids-style game. You start with passive mines that just drift about and on later levels progress to mines that shoot back at you, homing mines, and combinations thereof.

- Fortress of Narzod. This is a really fun bottom shooter in which you shoot at baddies who advance down a twisting corridor. You can bounce your shots off the walls and have to be careful not to bounce your own shots back and shoot yourself. After three levels there’s a fireball-hurling boss to kill. Gets satisfyingly fast and challenging as you go on.

- Scramble. Not a game you’d think would translate to vector very well, but in fact this conversion is extremely good and plays very much like its coinop ancestor.

- Pole Position. Again, a game you’d think wouldn’t suit translation to vector, and indeed it does look a bit sparse compared to more colourful raster versions, but it actually plays really well and feels nicer to control than some of the raster versions I’ve played.

- Rip Off. An interesting game in that you have infinite lives and simply have to prevent enemies from stealing a stash of pods in the middle of the screen. Smashing your ship to kill a bad guy is just as important a strategy as shooting them. Games are short and frantic.

- Solar Quest. I believe I’ve mentioned this as being one of the games that inspired Minotaur Rescue, and if you’ve played that you’ll see why when you play this, in which you shoot baddies which release “enemy pilots” (little asterisks) which you can either shoot or rescue before they fall into the sun (sound familiar?).

- Star Castle. A near perfect recreation of a classic vector coinop, at which I am rubbish as I tend to get blasted as soon as the middle cannon is exposed. I suspect I need to work more with the screen wrap to develop a good technique.

- Star Ship. This was released as Star Trek in the US version I had. First-person space shooter incorporating elements of Tail Gunner (shields you can use to bounce incoming enemy shots back off the screen) and Star Raiders (a star base to refuel at, a warp tunnel to use).

- Web Wars. A peculiar game in which you have to fly down a web collecting space insects by licking them with your tongue while avoiding and shooting enemy shots. Sounds odd, and is, but look at the lovely perspective changing web and think of the great version of Tempest they could have done if they’d had the license.

Most of the other released games are well worth a look too, and between them all there’s certainly enough gameplay to justify the investment (you get Mine Storm for free and unlock the rest with a single IAP). Also free are four homebrew games, the best of which is probably a pretty decent implementation of old 8-bit classic “Thrust”.

The price to buy all the games is a fiver, and whereas some might think “a fiver, that’s expensive” when it comes to iOS games, I think it’s a good thing, and I would like to see more developers moving away from the ultra-low price point. 69p does more harm than good in my opinion. For a game priced at 69p to succeed it has to sell absolute bucketloads (which most games don’t, so developers either give up after realising they’d be better off playing the lottery, or start messing about with niggly bits of IAP to try and gouge back their development costs that way). I’d much rather developers be more upfront about it, and charge at least the price of a pint for their work; it’d mean sustainable game development would actually be possible without hanging out for the miracle of “going viral” (and would beneficially impact game design too, since developers wouldn’t necessarily have to feel that they absolutely must design for maximal popularity above all else). Also if you charge a fiver for a game it’s a much more reasonable thing to expect a few updates during its life. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to make updates for 69p games that you’ll never get paid for again.

But I digress. Is Vectrex worth a fiver? Given the nice front end, great presentation, leaderboard integration and a nice collection of games, yes of course it is. If you’ve any enthusiasm for or interest in older game systems then having this beautifully presented collection on your iOS devices (it’s Universal, as all apps should be) is well worth the slightly less than the cost of a vindaloo (without even the rice and pappadoms, never mind the lager) they are asking. Good on them for setting a decent price point I reckon.

It’s not perfect though. There are a few bugs and gotchas in this initial release – it doesn’t run on original iPad 1s and it’s a bit slow and dim on my iPhone 4. It looks and works great on my iPad 3 and mini though, so you should be good on anything rated similar to the iPad 2 or above. There’s a slight emulation glitch which means that sometimes, when playing Mine Storm, the vector display will go a bit funny for a few seconds. One of the developers told me this is a 6809 emulation bug which has since been fixed and there’ll be an update along shortly to fix it. It’s not game breaking usually anyway – if it happens in game to you just sit tight and after a few seconds it’ll go back to normal.

They also say they are working on improving performance, so there’s a chance it’ll become viable on the older iOS versions in due course.

There’s some more games from the original library soon to be released (and you’ll get them for free if you’ve already bought the current game collection), and who knows, maybe they’ll release emulations of some of those funky peripherals I mentioned. I’d quite like to see that if they did because I’ve never actually seen the colour imager thingy, which was released but is pretty rare.

If I were to have a wishlist, I guess I’d ask for a couple of things: it might be nice to be able to set autofire on some of the buttons. To make a game playable on the touchscreen I strongly believe it’s necessary to de-complicate controls as much as possible (which is why many of my games don’t even need a fire button). Every time you have to lift your finger and tap to make a now shot, there’s the chance your finger will wander away from the landing zone for that button. I just think autofire on some games’ fire button might make them feel and play more nicely on the touchscreen.

I don’t know how the vector generation code is broken out inside the emulation, but it might be nice if it were possible to choose some alternate vector styles not possible on the original hardware (good though the emulation actually is). It’d be fun to play the old games in some new funky modern style :) .

So yeah, highly recommended, modulo the few glitches I’ve mentioned (which will be fixed soon anyway). And now i think I feel a game of Fortress of Narzod coming on.

(In fact I wouldn’t mind doing a modern remake of Fortress of Narzod one day. I reckon it’d quite suit my style)…

The app is a free download from here:

Vectrex Regeneration on the App Store

That gets you Mine Storm and the homebrew games and you pay a fiver to get all the rest, including a few more from the original lineup yet to be released.

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