We’re about halfway in the series now and, yeah, the tapes start to get naffer as the mag’s budget goes down and the deals with Hewson and Gremlin run dry. But that doesn’t mean we’re short of interesting stories to go with the games. This month, an unnoticed coding glitch in a demo meant that Zeppelin accidentally gave away their new game to readers for free.

CAULDRON II: THE PUMPKIN STRIKES BACK

Cauldron II is so nearly an excellent adventure but it makes life difficult from the moment you open the box. First released back in June ’86 by Palace Software, these are the original instructions. Seriously, this is all you got.

This does not prepare you for taking “control” of a bouncing pumpkin head that never stops. No matter how hard you try, the massive carved fruit will not stop doing his best Bounder impression. Except here, you’re chucked in to flick screen platform action. You’ve got to navigate the map to find a witch, cut her hair off (er…-Ed) and then mash up her locks to make a spell that’ll release your pumpkin pals from her bald clutches.

Strip out the spooky mise-en-scène and you’ve got a wee homage to Jet Set Willy here. It’s a giant house with surreal enemies like floating scissors. The presentation is cracking, from the graphics and comedy animation (the sleeping witch is proper LOL) right down to the jokes on the credit screen. The map is big, allowing you to roam outside the house. There are pleasing little touches like levers to pull and spell books to collect. It pads things out beyond the main task.

The fundamental barrier to your fun is that controlling the main sprite is a nightmare. The perpetual motion means that timing jumps is finnicky and if you’re at the top of one screen you keep leaping back up to the previous one. It makes everything a real slog, and needlessly so. It’s not even clear why he has to be permanently bouncing: take out this weird element and you’ve got a right laugh here. But you can’t, and it isn’t. Sad (pumpkin) face.

PACK FACT: ZZAP! still gave this 94%, and CF reckons the difficulty is “medium”. So either we’ve gone soft or they got it wrong. (it’s the children who are wrong – Principal Skinner Ed) 

SNARE

Founded towards the end of 1991, Snare publisher Beyond Belief featured heavily in the first issue of Commodore Force. To add a bit of context that’ll be useful later here, issue 1 of Force was cover dated January 1993 even though it was published in mid-November 1992. Given the “lag” time for magazines, that means it’s likely that the interview with Beyond’s MD Jim Scott took place around September or early October of 1992 at the very latest.

“I don’t think the C64 is a dying market”, he tells Force. “We couldn’t [have launched in to one 18 months earlier]”.

There’s some truth in what he says. The bestselling game of 1992 for C64 had been Zeppelin’s budget blaster Arnie, shipping in the low five figure units. Beyond’s first game, the boxing sim’ Devastating Blow, had shifted 10K too. That was more than many console titles, but there was one crucial caveat: at £3.99, the profit was small no matter how many cassettes were sold. High street retailers Boots and WHSmith began clearing the shelves of eight-bit cassettes at about this time in favour of Nintendo and Sega cartridges, effectively killing off the market overnight. This is why there’s such a steep decline in games after Autumn ’92: the likes of Beyond (and famously, Zeppelin and Alternative Software) were really keen to keep making stuff but there was nowhere to sell it. It’s why the market drops off so dramatically in a few months between the end of ’92 and early ’93.

Looking at the games Jim talks about back in Force ish 1, it’s a really mixed bag of archaic and largely unreleased sports and beat ‘em up games with a couple of interesting exceptions. There’s the published and popular Dizzy clone Biff with graphics by Mark Healey (who is now responsible for the Little Big Planet games for Playstation). The other one is this ‘ere puzzler Snare, not to be confused with Thalamus’ namesake.

You control a white blobby thing a bit like Codemasters’ Seymour. The idea is to clear each screen of gems which are behind stuff like rocks and bombs and more traps than you’d find in a, er, mouse trap factory (bloody hell – Ed). There are objects to help you which are activated by pressing fire but some of them hinder you too. And that’s the main problem with Snare, really: there’s way too much trial and error. You’ll probs have your fill with this five-level demo, but this sort of thing captivates a certain kind of masochistic joystick juggler for sure. If that’s you, here’s the full review.

PACK FACT: There’s a ton of info on unreleased Beyond stuff at Frank Gasking’s Games That Weren’t.

SUBTERRANEA

This standard sideways schmup is one of the games CF got with their Hewson deal. Published on the budget arm Rack-It, ZZAP!’s 74% score in June ’88 is weighted towards the low price tag. But stripped of that context in modern times it’s a pretty dull offering. Without any fancy coding tricks there are a limited number of uninterested enemies on the screen at any time, no power ups and the levels just end abruptly. It’s presented nicely and it’s engaging enough for a bit, but why bother when Armalyte loads just as quickly eh?

PACK FACT: The Prism re-release of Subterranea is bugged. The bonus rounds don’t work properly. Pick it up on the Power Pack or Rack-It.

ARNIE 2

Now then. As we said up there a while ago, Arnie was a surprise, massive hit in 1992. Legendary coder Chris Butler (Turbocharge, Ghosts ‘N Goblins) absolutely nailed this remake of his ’80s game Commando with a blasting blend of simplicity and quirky isometric scale. This sequel is absolutely nothing to do with him though, instead coded in-house at Zeppelin by David Sowerby. He was behind a string of games for them in the early ’90s, some of which – Carnage and the top-rated Sleepwalker – were not too shabby. But this smacks of “can you have a play of Arnie and make some more?”. The original was Chris Butler’s passion project; one last love letter to the Commodore 64. This is a sequel pushed out to make a few quid before the C64 died off.

It isn’t actually as bad as the internet would have you believe, mind. The graphics seem nicer than the greys and browns of the original at first, but there are some comically disproportionate sprites (like the men who’re as big as huts). You can also switch weapons this time around, instead of just being stuck with whatever you’ve picked up. There’s an extra mission too. But the collision detection is so poor you’ll probably throw down your joystick in frustration before you get to sample the big playing area and extra level. It ain’t what you do, it’s how you do it. And with Arnie 2 Zeppelin, er, haven’t (CF still liked it – Ed).

PACK FACT: At the start of the full game, a glitch means it’s possible to sneak under a piece of wire and reach level 2 very quickly. This oversight also works in the demo here on Power Pack 31 and bypasses the blocks on accessing the rest of the game. It’s all there. You can get to the finish and even see the ending screen this way. In effect savvy kids could play the whole game for free, although this method did mean you’d encounter a few bugs.

MONSTER MASH

No matter how flashy they might be, if there’s one thing that gets really quite dull about Shoot ‘Em Up Construction Kit games it’s that they’re the same thing over and over right? Pew-pew-pew until you reach for the power button and load up Mayhem instead. Back off that reset button just for a sec, though, ‘cos here’s Jon Wells with a great example of what you can do with the game creating utility if you have a bit of imagination and design nous. It’s an exclusive dinosaur/Godzilla style romp that ties in with the author’s series on making sexy SEUCK in the mag.

Instead of shooting the villagers, you stomp on them and flame their houses with your bad breath. They try to fight back with weapons and there are swooping pterodactyls to avoid, whose historically confusing presence alongside humans is almost as irksome as how easy it is for them to deck you. When it comes down to it, it’s still SEUCK. But it’s as good as these things get. Nice bosses, too.

PACK FACT: The music’s by Feekzoid, who also crafted this memorable and moody SID for Jon’s Commodore Force Easy Lives.

ONE MORE THING YOU PROBABLY NEVER SAW!

If you’ve got the physical cassette version of this Power Pack, the end of side two has a rolling ad for Odus PD.

SUMMING UP

Bit of a nearly tape, this. Cauldron II is so close to greatness. The sneaky slices of Arnie II and Snare are awash with unfulfilled promise too. But hey, wang cheat modes on all of ‘em and you’ll open up a new world. Get to it, and see you next time.  CF