Commodore_Format_PowerPack_23_1992-08

Here’s our look at the tape CF dropped during 1992’s summer holidays, when Arnie topped the charts and Keith Chegwin appeared on page 12. Yup. Two games and three demos this time – let’s go.

DEFENDERS OF THE EARTH

In the first full game of the month, CF gave kids the chance to be one of the greatest comic book heroes of them all: Flash Gordon. He’s who you play in this breadbin convo of the dazzling ’80s Defenders of the Earth cartoon, which brought together four comic strip heroes to fight Ming the Merciless in the fantasy space year of, erm, 2015.

So Ming’s kidnapped the Defender’s kids. The needlessly creepy story raised eyebrows when it was reviewed at full retail price release back in 1990, and CF wisely ignores it and makes up its own background (you’re trying to stop him taking over the world style of thing).

You begin outside Ming’s fortress. It’s a flick screen mazey thing with a ridiculous number of things to shoot at with your simple hand gun. Occasionally, you’ll need a door unlocked or a bridge to be built. That’s when you can call up one of your buddies by tapping space.

The main kick-the-cat problem here is that the game is demonically hard. Every screen has such a lot going on that it’s hard to keep track, and here’s the bit that will have you really punching walls: Ming has installed a deadly intruder alarm, so if you stay on a screen too long to try and compose yourself you get a massive rocket launched at your ass.

With a cheat mode and a guide, Flash Gordon can rescue his kids/the world in under ten minutes. It looks like the tiny map’s been compensated for with difficulty. The guts of something quite nice are here, but it hasn’t happened. A daft act of self sabotage, really, and a waste of a license.

PACK FACT: Ming the Merciless has been trying to foil Flash Gordon since 1934. Despite supposedly being an “alien”, the character was clearly a racist stereotype of the age. For the Defenders of the Earth cartoon his skin was changed to a reptilian green, but as this great piece explains it’s still pretty suspect. In the C64 game, possibly mindful of this, they’ve made him an unrecognisable and disembodied floating head.

BIFF

In this demo, you take control of a chimp who’s been thrown out of the family tree house by his Mum “for being rude”. Yep. To win, you’ve got to wander around a flick screen platform world doing things that please Mother to get back into your home in time for Neighbours, or whatever it is gorillas did at tea time back in 1992. You’ve got the full game here minus one essential rope that’ll stop you getting any further.

So it’s Dizzy, right? Right. A platform adventure where instead of killing stuff (in fact there’s no violence at all) you have to avoid nasties and collect objects to solve a series of puzzles. They’re quite thoughtfully done in Biff, too. For example, you need to grow a tree from seeds, cut it down with an axe and then use the wood to build a bridge. Only then can you crack on with the game. There’s quiet a bit of satisfaction in sussing out this kind of thing, but the game’s design isn’t flawless. One forehead smashing “feature” is that you’ll sometimes enter a screen at exactly the same place as a baddie is waiting, losing you precious energy. It’s just unfair, really, and so is the big old pit you can easily fall into with no means of getting out except killing yourself. The other thing you’ll notice straight away about this Dizzy tribute act is that just like most of the ovoid one’s outings it’s a Spectrum port. The graphics are crisp and clear but unmistakebly ZX-ish; James Leach (and Speccy fan, before you send him hate mail!) pokes fun at that by wondering if Biff is an albino yeti or “a man in an unrealistic gorilla suit”.

It could have been very different, though. Interestingly, a version of Biff predates 1992 and publishers Beyond Belief. The story hasn’t become totally clear yet, but in 1989 Michael Ware (of Warhawk fame) was asked to make the game for Zeit Corp, who usually specialised in stuff for the Speccy. The graphics for the C64 version Michael worked on were by a young Mark Healey, who’s now known for spectacular stuff like the Little Big Planet series. And it looks a lot, lot nicer than the mono version that eventually surfaced in the early ’90s. Sadly, C64 Biff version 1.0 was abandoned for reasons we’re yet to unearth. You can have a play of a preview thanks to Frank Gasking at Games That Weren’t here, and he’s got more of the story over there too.

Snapping back to the game we eventually got to buy, then, and Biff scored 70% in CF and 76% in ZZAP!. It sold poorly, which Beyond Belief blamed on the game’s awful artwork but was probably more to do with the fact that it released in the precise month WH Smith pulled C64 software forever. Timing.

PACK FACT: Northamptonshire based Beyond Belief had a string of other titles in the works for the Commodore in 1992. A few like boxing sim’ Devastating Blow and Jimmy’s Soccer Manager shifted over 10,000 units each but even with the impressive attitude shown in this 1993 interview, nobody was ever going to make a killing once the high street ceased distribution. After Biff and Snare, one other game – the Commando clone Shellshock – appeared on Commodore Format Power Pack 34 after Beyond Belief went under. Blub.

PACK FACT 2: There’s sound on this demo. But the full game? It’s gone. Silence. Nothing! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

NOBBY THE AARDVARK

Nobby creators Genesis were three teenagers from Northern Ireland. Artist Jonathan Smyth (AKA Temples) and programmer Dave Clarke were cousins who’d already had experience with Choice Software when they met musician Ashley Hogg in a Belfast computer store. The three decided to make a game together, and the resulting CJ’s Elephant Antics for Codemasters was a smash. A CJ sequel followed and the group’s “one true love”, the pick ’em up adventure Spike In Translyvania (more on that one here), also topped the budget charts.

Nobby The Aardvark was a bigger task. Genesis wanted to create an Amiga feel on the C64, spending months and months getting the little details right and signing up with premium publisher Thalamus (Creatures, Hunter’s Moon).

The build up to the game was huge. Full page adverts across the C64 press promised an amazing looking cartoon adventure. Nobby was shown in a coal mine cart, complete with tin hat. Another screenshot showed him piloting a hot air balloon. Yet another was of the main sprite hoovering up lunch from an ant hill. This was the age of the Super Nintendo: stylish platformers were in. It looked as if Thalamus was about to serve up a truly modern game on our favourite old computer.

This demo of the hot air balloon level and a drooling review the following month was enough to tip most C64 owners over the edge of excitement.

And then, cruelly, there was nothing.

Publishers Thalamus were in serious financial trouble. The business was put on hold, and the game would not appear for another eight months.

But it was totally worth it.

Your task is to help Nobby reach Antopia, a paradise world of ants that he can eat all day. To reach the planet, he must build a “matter transporter”. You collect the parts for the machine across seven beautiful looking levels – you start in 1950s America, where you get to ride a huge balloon. Later, Nobby can swim. Then, he’s in a submarine and at a space station and in an old mine. He continuously rolls forward in that level on rails with a little flashlight on his head. It’s like nothing else in the game and the same can be said of every other stage. There are new graphics, sounds and neat things to try out at every corner. Unlike other platformers it doesn’t ever feel like you’re going through the motions or treading old ground. Every level is almost a game in itself. The map is huge, the graphics drawn with care and the animation is to die for.

Original reviewer James Leach was astounded with the game’s size, and asked why more games weren’t like it. On its eventual release, Clur reviewed it again and told programmers to stop whingeing about the limitations of the 8-bits and look at Nobby. “It’s fab!”, she exclaimed – nudging James’ original score up to 96%.

Looking at Nobby with modern eyes, you’d have to say the game’s a bit cagey at points: the collision detection can be brutal, and the enemies will respawn if you scroll them off screen which can be infuriating. But the difficulty of stuff like Creatures and its sequel were their respective downers, too, and nobody seems to dwell on that because the rest of it is so darned good. Nobby – which is installed on every C64 Mini – deserves the same respect.

PACK FACT: When Thalamus’ Dave Birch got off the plane in early ’90s Belfast, the sight of armoured vehicles and soldiers armed to the teeth had him clamouring to get back to England as soon as he could. “But the advantage of staying in Northern Ireland was cheap rent”, says Jonathan. The other two Genesis boys eventually moved to England; Jonathan designs graphics for magazines, books and more in Belfast to this day.

JOHNNY REB II

Next up on August 1992’s tape is the full version of American Civil War strategy game Johnny Reb II. Lothlorien software specialised in war games, mainly because two of the founders (Roger Lees and Mike Cohen) were history buffs. Mike started programming really early doors on the Speccy and in 1982 spent £95 advertising his first effort Tyrant of Athens in Your Computer magazine. His wife was furious at the thought of throwing such a wad of cash away, with Roger later revealing that the company ended up nicknaming the game dishwasher “because it was dangled as a bribe. I said if it makes any money I’ll buy you a dishwasher out of the profits” (oh sweet Lord. Please, don’t write in. My eyes are rolling further back in my head than you could ever imagine. He said it in Crash too – Ed)

Tyrant needed to shift 20 copies to cover the cost of the ad. After a fortnight, it’d sold 200. Lothlorien swung into full time business, expanding to the Commodore and farming out a C64 version of Johnny Reb II to Choice Software in 1986. The follow up to the fairly simple Speccy original gives you an overhead Sim City style view of a battlefield, and it’s fairly comprehensive turn by turn stuff. Confeds are attacking a bridge defended by inferior Union forces as the game starts. Depending on who you’ve chosen to play as, you’re on the attack or defence. There are cavalry and infantry to play with, artillery to ration, buildings to navigate (or blow apart), walls to use to your advantage, a two player mode and even a map editor for your own battles. Add in stuff like soldier morale and you’ve got something really serious to get your teeth into here. You like this stuff or you don’t; if you do, Reb II is one of the best.

PACK FACT Johnny Reb II was runner up in Computer and Video Games’ strategy game of the year 1986.

BUG BOMBER

This demo of the underplayed Bomberman/Dynablaster clone came from Germany’s Kingsoft, who’d been making games for different Commodore machines since 1982. Founder Fritz Schäfer bought a Commodore PET 2001 using money he’d saved from his job at McDonalds; by the early ’80s he’d written a chess game called Boss (retitled Grandmaster) that kickstarted the business.

There’s a backstory about a computer’s circuitry being infected with bugs and your tiny little man getting sent in to destroy them. Each level is a single maze full of nasties to kill – preferably before they hatch from their eggs. Depending on how you use your joystick you can release bombs that take things out straight away, mines that will explode on contact or a “hatchling” of your own. These eggs eventually crack open to reveal robots which will track and hit your foes; depending on the power ups you’ve collected, they’re of varying lethality.

You get three lives, and another after 50 levels. Every mine or bomb you use or hatchling you create costs points (you start with 100, and can get more for every successful kill). So there’s planning and economising to do here, but against the computer it’s pretty easy. The game really reveals itself in multi player mode. Up to four people can play (two at the keyboard)! As a co-operative you work to clear the screens as buddies, or you can pick to go competitive for all out blasting. It’s here that you’ll find there’s the most enjoyment, as you work to kill each other instead of anything computer generated. “The infighting, backstabbing and blowings up are nothing short of excellent”, said James Leach in the review. Quick, lively and very well coded this is one that hasn’t aged a bit. Not bad for a game full of bugs (you’re fired again -Ed)

PACK FACT: Kingsoft stopped publishing games a year later to become a distributor. It became an acquisition target for businesses wanting to get their games into as many German shops as possible. Electronic Arts won the Kingsoft lottery, buying it for DM20m in 1995. Kingsoft’s name was retired, and the operation became EA’s distribution hub in Germany.

SUMMING UP

The Bomber demo has enough levels to be a game in itself, really. Great value. The Nobby level’s curious because it’s not really that representative of the game and it’s also the – sigh –  most frustrating section. The dark horse here, if you can figure things out, is Johnny Reb II. A great tape to keep you occupied all school holidays. CF

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s