Commodore_Format_PowerPack_20_1992-05The summer was always a critical time for computer mags in Britain, especially the ones that had games frantically taped to the front of them. Traditionally, software publishers wound down the releases over June to August. Ostensibly, the logic was that kids were playing outside in the better weather so why release anything new? In reality, the suits took their holidays and the coders knuckled down and crunched over the games due in the Autumn. The result was the same, though: a stench of tumbleweed, even in the ’64s best years.

There was a negative for games mags here, of course, with fewer games being in for review and – potentially – a lower summer circulation. There was an opportunity to offset this, though. No games in the shops, kids? Come and play ours! This is probably why tape quality tended to rise with the outside temperatures. Get a load of May ’92…

THE BOD SQUAD

In our feature on software houses that had their own fan clubs, we mentioned Zeppelin early doors. We’ve always felt that the Zeps never really got the love in modern times that they deserve for publishing over fifty games towards the end of the C64’s high street life and for saving games that may otherwise have fallen into that Games That Weren’t Pit.

The outrageously slick The Bod Squad – nicknamed all sorts during its development and press coverage, including Bod The Alien – became the second ever budget game to get a Power Pack demo this month, but everything about this platform adventure screams premium.

Bod is a squishy, marshmallow-y alien with a beautifully animated sprite. Zeppelin’s press gumph at the time reckoned he had over 100 “screens” (mmhmm – Ed) of animation. And yes, OK, he’s Slimer from Ghostbusters. But when you see how satisfyingly he squidges around the levels of this time travelling jump-a-thon, you won’t care. Er…his time machine resembles the Tardis, too, but unless you’re a BBC lawyer you won’t be bothered about that either.

Bod is on earth to rescue his pals, the Mini Bods, who’ve stupidly got themselves stuck across the three time zones that make up the game. There’s an 18th Century Castle, the pyramids of ancient Egypt (that’s the cut down level in this demo) and grim Victorian England to explore, all via platforms. Lots of platforms. You push up and down to jump, holding longer to perform a super jump. This helps you navigate pits, spikes, fire, and all the usual stuff. The enemies are themed to each level, too, so you’ll encounter mummies, witches, knights and more.

Switches dotted around each stage add a puzzle element to the game. Pushing them will open a drawbridge or open a wall. Sometimes you need to go back and reset them which really keeps you on your toes.

The game looks gorgeous, especially the main sprite. But it’s frustrating to play, and way too short.

We’ve done a bit of digging, though, and unearthed The Bod Squad’s tragic back story. When you hear it everything starts to make sense. In short: it looks like a premium title because that’s what it was intended to be.

Initially, Bod was sent out in demo form by programmer Kent Murray to a bunch of full-price software publishers. It was originally meant for Digital Magic (they of great lost title Escape From Colditz) before their collapse. Thalamus – Creatures and Summer Camp – were next on the list. They loved what they saw, but told Kent that it was six months too late: they’d already given up on trying to make money out of the dying C64 market.

Eventually, budget label Zeppelin said yes. But they demanded it was turned around in super quick time for a £3.99 release. Just three levels were asked for, which accounts for it being so short. Many more were planned. The game’s maddening level of difficulty, inescapable pits (you just have to wait to run out of time!) and questionable restart points can also be attributed to this: if there’d been more time, play testing would have weeded it out.

The good news is that Kent intends – one day – to release the game as he imagined it would be. As it stands we’ve got a frustrating, limited glimpse at what could’ve been.

PACK FACT None of the above stopped CF giving this one 86%, but does say it’s a bit short.

CATALYPSE

Italy never gets much of a look-in from the outside when we think of European C64 nations, in spite of being so Commodore obsessed it had its own version of ZZAP! 64 and was producing stuff like Chuck Rock way into the 90’s. It was Genias who eventually put out Chuck, the stone-age platformer, in Italy after Core decided to pull it everywhere else; a month earlier, the Bologna-based softies unleashed Armalyte clone Catalypse. CF20’s tape had a one level demo.

In the far future, the world’s been peaceful for centuries thanks to the efforts of the Galactic Federation. One group of aliens, though, wants to change that and take over the universe. They’re from the hilariously named Clio (which was already a car your Gran drove even in 1992 – Ed), but they’re serious. The federation send their best pilot – that’s you, that is – to penetrate the outer defences of Clio and literally shoot at the heart of its freakish pink leader.

The name of the game comes from the T2E Catalypse ship you board, shooting your way left to right across five levels and nodding as you notice parts of Armalyte and R-Type along the way. At the start, you’ve only got a laser but as your rampage progresses you’ll encounter nine different power ups, all capable of cutting your opponent craft to ribbons in satisfying ways. It really gets fun when you’ve got a shield orbiting your craft and something like the Megablast power up shooting lasers and bullets absolutely everywhere, allowing you to plough through the landscape at exceptional speed. The thumping sound and occasionally enormous enemy ships add to the intensity, but Catalypse divides folk now just as it did in 1992.

Commodore Format loved it, noting its cut scenes, “threatening sampled speech”, the attack waves of the enemy (“there’s a safe zone for every attack”) and the option to turn off the enemy’s guns. That turns the game into an avoid ’em up, allowing less experienced players to get deeper into space than they’d ever imagined. It’s actually worth reading one of CF‘s most thoughtful reviews again here, as Trenton Webb explains how so many shoot ’em ups fall down but that Catalypse looks like it’s been tested countless times. It scores at 91%.

Here’s the thing. ZZAP! 64 crucified the game. The contempt is there from the beginning of a pretty vicious and occasionally downright inaccurate review.  We’ll be more adult about it than ZZAP! were here and say we don’t know if they saw a finished version of the game or if the pressure had been on to review a zillion other things that day and Catalypse got it in the neck. Whatever the rationale, though, it’s hardly the Ludlow mag’s finest moment and the game’s publishers firmly believe it was behind the game’s commercial failure. One great review, one awful review: if you’re a kid who’s slowly saved ten pounds by delivering newspapers, would you risk it?

Looking at it again today, it’s probably neither deserving of CF‘s 91% nor ZZAP‘s sneering 30% (seriously, that is one mean review – Ed). Its intro screens, cut-scenes, the speech and graphics can flatter to deceive: the collision detection is sometimes a bit wonky and the speed can be a bit much – especially with our irritatingly middle aged reflexes. But it does do a lot of things very well. Somewhere in the 70-80% range is probably fair – which deffo makes it one to check out.

PACK FACT: There’s a new version of Catalypse, which cleans up some bugs and adds some nice presentation. It’s legit and by the original team. You can download it here.

ANT ATTACK

Back in the early 80’s, art school graduate and sculptor Sandy White was making eerie 3D worlds on the ZX Spectrum. The modest Scot only made three games before quitting the industry, but the legacy of his work – Ant Attack especially – filters down today in stuff like Minecraft.

Ant Attack is arguably the first fully explorable solid 3D world. It is also a genuinely unsettling experience. The Black Mirror-esque, cold and uncertain world plays out before you’ve even got the tape into the cassette deck through the deliberately vague instructions. As “Girl” or “Boy”, it says, you are in the walled city of Antescher – a place full of giant, angry ants. It hints that you might be the bad guy. Have a look:

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Creepy, eh? When Ant Attack loads, it’s the icy minimalism that immediately strikes you. Antescher is big, grey blocks which are too often mistaken for “1984 graphics”. The animosity, the chunkiness and the scale here are the point: you’re made to feel small and insignificant as you dash around locating and rescuing ten of your fellow He or Shes. As you do so, the ants give chase. If they surround you or you want to take them out by stealth, you can use one of your limited hand grenades.

There are so many “firsts” in Ant Attack: sometimes, He or She will get lost behind a building so you can hit F1 and F4 to toggle camera angles. There’s a scanner which’ll flash green directing you to the next He or She, and the game’s author even reckons the storyline – written by Quicksilva’s Mark Eyles – might be the first proper cassette blurb.
And then, of course, there’s the fact that in Ant Attack women can rescue men. It’s thought to be the first game that let you choose between having a male or female protagonist. “Having just come out of art college at a time when sexual equality was a hot topic, it would have been unthinkable to do it any other way,” Sandy told EuroGamer in 2013. “If I could have put in a gender setting which went all the way from male to female with everything in between, I would have.”

C64 Ant Attack is in full here on Power Pack 20. If you’re looking to grump the place out then the sound effects and incidental tunes seem a bit out of place and bring you out of the moment; there are times, too, when three or four ants give chase in comically precise fashion and it all gets a bit Benny Hill. That is to unfairly judge the game by modern standards, though. This is is rightly a game with many fans, and was considered so groundbreaking at the time that Quicksilva flew the programmer from Scotland to England to sign a contract within 24 hours of seeing the code. And that city which took the author five months to build, and of which he can recollect making even down to the songs that were playing on the radio? It is very Minecraft, isn’t it? Great stuff.

PACK FACT: The game’s original cover art was done by David Rowe, who also did the sets for ITV’s Knightmare. He actually captured an ant and drew what he saw under a second hand microscope :/

MAZE MANIA

Looky here, another 1989 Hewson game on the covertape – this one’s a sort of PacMan/Q*Bert mash up and we are here to defend it. You take control of Flippo, who has one task: change the colour of every tile in the maze and get to the exit. You do that by simply making contact with each tile, avoiding pits and your lurking enemies. Power ups give you lives, top up your energy or even the ability to temporarily kill anything that comes near you on contact.

Some slabs take a few times to change colour, others only change colour if they’re approached from a certain angle. But that’s about it, and it looks to us like it’s the same few mazes in rotation for each level – just with tougher enemies.

Maze Mania is actually really good fun, with a satisfying “dash” sound effect and a great tune by Matt Gray. The game got a real beating on initial release ‘cos Hewson wanted a tenner for it, but for free on the tape you can’t go wrong, really. Decent 15-minute style of thing.

PACK FACT: Matt Gray has remade his C64 music in staggering, widescreen fashion. Hear modern versions of his Arkanoid, Last Ninja, Commando and Ocean loader stuff – and more – on Spotify or get his albums.

SUMMING UP

Loads of fun on this month’s tape. If you were put off Ant Attack by what you thought were prehistoric graphics back in the day, it’s worth another play as a grown-up. Maze Mania has been way too harshly judged because of the daft decision to try and sell it at full price – it’s great fun, for as long as it lasts. And irritating as Bod Squad can be, you’ve got to love how he squidges the place up. Schaa-loooop (again, get out – Ed) CF