Commodore_Format_PowerPack_18_1992-03This month in CF history, Trenton Webb became the mag’s third editor (here’s his interview – Ed). He’s an important change, not just because we’re now with Trent for the next two years but because he made the first really big difference to what was on the cassettes.

It mightn’t look like it flicking through the mag around this time with Creatures 2, First Samurai and loads of other classics hitting the shelves – but C64 software was starting its steady slow to 1994’s eventual halt. As we talked about last time, major retailers had also recently announced they wouldn’t be stocking software for 8-bit machines after the Autumn.

Trent did three things in response. First, he started asking budget game publishers if they’d like their stuff demo’d on the tape – a first, as far as we can see, for any computer mag. It was sensible: it guaranteed readers something new to try before they buy every month. It also helped CF continue to make each issue an “event”, often with a demo, review and front cover all tied together. Most importantly, it supported the people still sticking around to support the Commodore.

Second, and as we’ll see in future instalments, the new editor convinced Future to invest heavily in better games for the tape: a sort of “if you readers can’t buy games, we’ll give them to you” attitude.

The third thing was to introduce regular reader games and utilities, with the intention of inspiring readers to make their own adventures. We see all of these things straight away here on tape 18, which is a strong start from the man who’ll go on to be the mag’s longest serving and arguably most loved editor:

DEMON BLUE(S)

Bit of history to start with, then. This is the first budget game to be demo’d on the Power Pack. It’s from Micro Value (the budget arm of North East softies Flair, who did Elvira and Trolls).

In Demon Blue (or is it Demon Blues? The box art and game itself say different things, as did the reviews) you take control of a blue splodge and waddle around 100 flicking screens finding keys and collecting treasure (in this demo there’s one key and a handful of screens). There’s a twist, though. Press fire as much as you want – there’s no weapon. What you have instead is a rotating star, constantly orbiting your sprite, which will destroy anything it touches. The trick is to time your jumps and work out where to land or stand so the ball of gas makes contact with whatever you want to say goodnight to. The star has one useful special power: you can make it slide sideways, like lightning, to take out your enemy.

Every screen has something new to see. There’s loads of neat animation, and if you know anything about Greek mythology you’ll recognise a lot of the backdrops. They’re gorgeous, and owe a lot to the famed beauty of StormLord. The orbiting star thing is neat, and adds a sort of puzzle element to things.

The only thing spoiling the party is the high level of difficulty, compounded by the fact you only get that one life. Occasionally, jumps also require pixel perfection. That said, the game’s so good looking and quirky you force yourself to become better at it to see what trap, trick or puzzle comes next. The gameplay’s more 1985 than 1992, if we’re honest, and when you mix that up with the very modern graphics you do have a bit of an odd ‘un. But for plenty, the challenge of no weapon and the opportunity to map this adventure will equal a lot of value.

PACK FACT: The music here’s by Adam Gilmore, the ’64 stalwart who also did tunes on everything from Edd The Duck to Elvira.

FIRELORD

Firelord is a medieval fantasy action adventure written by Stephen Crow. Also credited as Steve Crow and Steve J. Crow, the author was an early favourite on the Spectrum, winning the Crash mag programmer of the year award in 1986. Work on the C64 followed, including Golden Axe and Ocean cart game Chase HQ II: SCI, before he got swallowed up by the world of consoles. He was part of the EarthWorm Jim team, before getting involved with the World of Warcraft series.

The C64 version of Firelord was immaculately converted over from the Speccy by John Cumming. Not unlike the Dizzy games, you know this one’s a Speccy port immediately. But once you get over the graphics and realise how clear and perfunctory they are (kind – Ed) you can get really drawn in by this game’s surprising depth.

You are Galahad, a geezer living zillions of years ago in the fantasy world of Torot. It was a decent enough life until an evil Queen tricked a dragon into parting with the all-powerful Firestone (my temples hurt already – Ed). She used its magical powers to put a curse on the land, spreading fire and calling up ghostly apparitions to put fear into Torot. Eventually, she issues the people an ultimatum: she’ll return to Firestone if she is given the four Charms of Eternal Youth, which for some reason are given capital letters. Anyway, you can guess what your task is.

So far, so much plot for a lifetime. Put the instructions down and you’ll find a mammoth 500-screen flick adventure. It’s beautiful: roam the streets and you’ll find houses occupied by peasants, witches, wise old men, herbalists and knights. You can interact with them all to get spells, advice, food and drink (for energy) or weapons. Trade these for whatever you’ve found, including corn or more valuable shizzle. If you’re feeling naughty, you can even try stealing from the townspeople. If you’re seen, though, you get sent to trial and could lose a life.

Ghosts and other spooky stuff cast by the evil Queen roam Torot trying to harm you, and there’s fire and other elements to avoid too. The mix of arcade action and figuring out what to trade (and where to get stuff to trade) works well, and the whole thing chugs along at a good speed. There’s an atmospheric old world track by the late Ben Dalglish, and the only thing which seemed to go against it back in ’86 was the price: nearly nine pounds for a game that looked like it was on the Speccy was too much for proud C64 owners, but if we’re to retrospectively apply the “but it’s the playability that counts!” rule we all crowed about once the Amiga arrived, this game demands you spend some time with it.

PACK FACT: Hewson gave away a free “Christmas gift” with this one on original release, provoking another round of arguments over whether that sort of thing should count against games in chart positions. It isn’t clear what the gift was, so let us know if you do!

SPHINX JINX

This 1989 game set in 1930’s Egypt is the sequel to the similarly 3D-ish shooter Total Eclipse. For whatever reason, CF claimed this to be an exclusive release of a “lost” game. Not entirely true: it was available three years earlier for members of the Home Computer Club in various forms (there’s a version of it twinned with Total Eclipse in a big box), but never available at retail.

Sphinx Jinx is actual first person 3D, which is a rare treat on the Commodore, eh? It uses the Freescape engine developed by Incentive Software that also powered stuff like Driller and culminated in the game creator 3D Construction Kit.

Sphinx Jinx‘ famous opening sees the Egyptian landmark vanish, piece by piece, in front of your eyes. It’s up to you to find all the pieces and put it back together before a total eclipse happens and the moon explodes for reasons only the person writing the plot to this one probably understood, and even then only after a beer.

Once you’ve seen the Sphinx vanish, you find yourself out in the desert with a couple of pyramids in front of you. Push forwards and the screen updates, letting you walk in first person perspective towards a door and into the tombs beneath you. In the maze of corridors and chambers are twelve pieces of the Egyptian icon to find before the clock ticks down to Moon-explodey time (technical term, that – Ed).

As you wander around, you’ll notice the water icon start to drain. That means you’re getting thirsty in the desert heat. You’ll find water troughs to solve the problem, but the trick is remembering where they are. Next to the water icon is a heart. You need to stay calm to solve this adventure, so if your pulse is up from getting shot at or falling you can tap R to rest until you’re settled.

You’ll find yourself avoiding poisoned darts, trap doors, wandering down dead ends and even falling down pits. Keys, of a sort, will do the obvious and you can even use the keyboard to crouch down or alter your pace as needed.

Ah, yes. The pace. Here’s yer elephant in the room (pyramid?). 3D was never particularly fast on the Commodore, with even the Speccy version running faster than this ‘un. The game looks great stationary, the music’s lovely, the map is thoughtful and – yep – it really is true first person “action” right there on your C64. But it…runs…so…slowly. It was irritating even back in the early ’90s, and traipsing across one side of the room only to realise you forgot to activate a button and have to U-turn in slow motion killed Sphinx Jinx dead for a lot of younger players.

Not for everyone, though. A basic search of t’internet reveals a ton of fans for this version of the game, and these days any decent emulator will let you speed things up (we recommend you do it to about x5!) to enjoy the game. The clock ticks down more furiously as a result too, of course, but at least you can enjoy the environment. Want to finish it? There’s a full solution and map here.

PACK FACT: The publishers stuck with 3D way into the ’90s, eventually getting involved in the first wave of virtual reality software as Dimension International.

FAST

Rounding off CF‘s eighteenth tape is a game which sets the tone for the future: it’s the first of what would become semi-regular games sent in by readers. FAST is credited, Points of View style, to “S Metcalfe of Leeds”, as if to ram home the point. The mag’s instructions also keep saying this one isn’t by a “big software house…with expensive computers…and fast cars”, but all of this is initially counter intuitive. As you read, a voice begins to say OK – how good can this thing really be?

Turns out very. And actually, on this occasion “reader game” was a bit of a kid. “S” was Steve Metcalfe, who’d done stuff like Blue Baron for Zeppelin and had also contracted for Alternative Software. This, perhaps, was one that didn’t get bought up by either.

FAST is a two-player, overhead racing game set in space. It looks like a standard shooter at first, but the task here isn’t to blast everything out of the sky; you’ve got to beat your opponent to the finish line without dying. You die by colliding with buildings, other craft or getting slammed by your opponent. It’s for this reason two-player mode makes this game an absolute peach. You might not even die straight away, but instead spin around and have to regain composure – all the while your enemy buzzing off into the distance. Should you die completely, you’ve got to suffer watching your opponent try and finish the track themselves. Unless your foot slips onto the C64 power supply, ‘course (classic 1992 little brother tip, that – Ed).

For added thrills, the computer can randomly select a course for you. That way, your mate can’t practice a particular level before you come over and get your ass whooped. ‘Cos getting whooped in FAST can be galling, with the computer joining in the fun and flashing up “dummy”or “dead” on a banner. Nice touch. There are more, like the ability to turn out the lights and race at night, or the road signs that warn you to slow down if there’s a tricky bit to navigate ahead.

Looking back, Commodore Format‘s borderline desperate attempt to convince its readers that a one man, “homebrew” game wasn’t totally awful was way off the mark even at the time; after all, how many of those early classics were written by one kid in a bedroom? That’s right: almost all of ’em.

So it’s good, is FAST. Most “reader games” became synonymous later on with Shoot ‘Em Up Construction Kit, but this one could justifiably have been commercially released.

PACK FACT: Spelling, punctuation and grammar fans probably want to avert their eyes from, erm, almost everything in this game. STEVE!

SUMMING UP

Three totally different full games here. Most people will never have played two of ’em, and Firelord was actually still knocking about at retail for more than the cost of the entire issue of CF. Great value, and way more than a month’s worth of enjoyment. CF

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