Playing Mission Genocide (Amstrad CPC)

The Badstar Empire is on a mission to subjugate the people of your world, but a counter attack has been organised; the first wave of this assault is to do as much damage as possible to the little Badstars using a small but manoeuvrable spacecraft armed with lasers for airborne enemies and missiles to destroy the ground-based defences. The cassette inlay comments that this super secret project has been given the codename ZTB – Zap The Badstars… and yes, that’s deliberate because the original name of Paul ““Spindizzy” Shirley’s hardware scrolling 1986 blaster was ZTB, which in turn is short for Zap The Bastards.

The gameplay in Mission Genocide for the Amstrad CPC is fairly traditional scrolling shooter fare, using a fairly rarely employed feature of the CPC hardware for scrolling – similar to the technique used for the excellent Firetrack on the BBC Micro – and some neat tricks to speed up sprite rendering which keeps things very smooth and responsive. The ship is simple to control but rather cleverly puts two weapons onto just the one button; holding fire down shoots the main guns at nasties in the air – pressing space will toggle a handy automatic fire option – whilst missiles are launched when the button is pressed after being released.

There’s a power-up system too, with items being found in storage silos after they’re destroyed along with blobs of Astro Gloo which are needed to actually stick said items to the craft. Just grabbing everything uncovered will rapidly backfire however because, if the player accidentally picks up a black hole, said adhesive loses its stick and the previously collected toys are lost. The other item to keep an eye out for is the shield which is incredibly useful , especially when things get busy around the third stage – rather subtly called “Taking the Urineium” – where the ground bases start getting more enthusiastic about firing back.

Mission Genocide is on a couple of other platforms but didn’t have as much impact there as it did on the Amstrad CPC; the Atari ST version is much of a muchness that doesn’t really take advantage of the hardware and the C64 version didn’t make much of an impression in part because there were a lot of more accomplished scrolling blasters around when it arrived in 1988. If you think I’m perhaps being harsh there, Paul Shirley himself has previously described the C64 conversion as “not worth the tape it’s saved on”. But the Amstrad CPC version is solid stuff and, when our trusty CPC464 has been set up in the front room and left running in the past, it’s usually Mission Genocide that’s loaded into it.

Workprint – June 2018

One ongoing project that’s been vexing me a little is the new C64CD game; the problem I’m having is with the name, which is basically six consonants from the latter half of the alphabet slung together pretty much at random which make it, as far as I can tell, unpronounceable. That wouldn’t be a problem except there’s always a chance I’ll need to talk face to face about this thing down the line and having to refer to it as “Thingybob” because I can’t pronounce my own game title would be embarrassing if I had any shame… perhaps I’ll just tell everybody that it’s pronounced “Thingybob”?

Anyway… the weekend saw me prodding around Vallation with the intention being to migrate to the latest version of Char Pad; this was mainly because it supports direct editing of the character set again rather than painting to the tiles, something which kept me away from every version after the first release. This transition would also mean a begrudging upgrade to my cheap and incredibly cheerless map converter which was originally written because the levels are stored as source code with each screen being a converted block of Char Pad map data followed by colour, exit and enemy data.

But on yanking the existing CTM files into the new version of the editor I discovered that the mode Vallation used which assigned thirty two bytes per tile with half of them being attribute data wasn’t supported in this updated Char Pad! Instead there’s an attribute byte per character so, if the byte for character $14 is set to red, every instance will appear in that colour and there has to be a second copy of the character if you want one in purple. But after muttering darkly about this for about half an hour whilst and prodding grumpily at the data, I realised that the bullet had actually been dodged because, apart from the four teleporter characters which ended up getting their own code, the tiles weren’t using more than one colour per character so converting it was actually possible.

It still took a quite few hours of juggling to sort out the existing levels, followed by rewrites to the tile plotters which updated how they handled colour, then some new code allowing each tile set could have a unique attribute table as well but, after three days scratching my head and swearing, for the most part at least all of those changes are invisible because it looks the same as before! On the plus side, there’s over 5K of memory saved on colour data and I can work in a far more comfortable version of Char Pad now, although the map converter was more cheerless than I remembered it being and will need further surgery sooner rather than later.

Playing Sea Dragon (Atari 8-bit)

A life on the ocean wave… or at least below it with Sea Dragon where the player takes control of the titular submarine. This game started life on the Tandy TRS-80 and was ported fairly far and wide – there are versions for the Apple II, C64 and IBM PC – but we’re looking at the Atari 8-bit version here because that’s the one I’ve enjoyed playing the most personally – although the Spectrum conversion from 2010 gets a close second – and that’s as good a reason as any.

The first and most common enemies are sea mines which lie in wait at the bottom of the ocean, slipping their moorings when the player is in range to drift slowly upwards towards them and not leaving much time to react. These can be torpedoed at any point as long as the submarine has a clear line of sight so the threat they pose is limited, but it doesn’t take long before they’re joined by other hazards including automated gun emplacements in the underwater caverns and ships which sit on the surface and drop depth charges into the water; the charges themselves can at least be shot to give the sub a little more wiggle room, but a close eye on the other enemies has to be kept whilst doing so.

Along with these direct threats to the submarine, there’s also an air gauge to worry about which is constantly dropping whilst submerged. This can be replenished by going up to the surface and waiting for the tanks to refill – one nice little detail is that this process isn’t immediate – although that can’t be done when traversing the underwater caves so spending some time at the surface to stock up before each of these sections is a must. Staying in one place for too long really does put the craft in harm’s way as the game progresses as well, so refuelling will become quite perilous.

Sea Dragon obviously takes a few cues from Scramble – the sea mines work in a very similar way to Konami’s ground-to-air rockets for example – but some thought has gone into reworking that design for the underwater setting and I particularly like how the fuel gauge has been updated. To my mind at least, the Atari 8-bit implementation stands out from the rest for it’s simple, chunky but still effective graphics and having fairly minimal sound effects overlaid onto the constant sonar pings, adding far more to the slower, tense atmosphere Sea Dragon has than in-game music would have done.