Retro Gamer 77

I’ve actually had issue 77 since Wednesday but, with work and family matters munching their way through my free time more than they’d usually do, haven’t had a proper chance to look at the mag, let alone blog about it (and I totally forgot to mention issue 76 last month…!). Flicking through, the piece on Hewson just has to be my first stop and, amongst others, there are articles about Prince of Persia and Zork that’ll be an interesting read an’ all.

Of course, the first pages I check whilst walking back from the corner shop are going to be the homebrew section (well, I have to see how many of my screenshot captions made it in) where time-based vertical shoot ’em up Dead on Time on the Amstrad CPC is given the first page, whilst arena blaster Berzerk MMX for the VIC 20 is joined by two platformers, Kyd Cadet for the Spectrum and a conversion of the Mojon Twins’ Uwol: Quest for Money over to the Megadrive no less.

Hermit Games’ rather spiffy ‘Troid and the less than stellar Pong Plus head up the remakes and the large review has been given over to Christine Love’s Digital: A Love Story, a spot of point-and-click interactive fiction with a surprisingly engrossing story. The Flash game is some neat gallery shooting against the clock called Nyahax ’93 and the interview victim is Pete “JCB/Meanteam” Dabbs whose nostrils are rather prominent in the picture.

Monitor the monitors

Ah, me and getting sidetracked… the weekend just gone was mostly spent writing yet another horizontally scrolling shoot ’em up for the C64. This isn’t even close to news (although my actually finishing one might be) but there’s a kink to this particular project. A couple of people have said to me previously that they felt working in a machine code monitor with a single pass assembler and disassembler was somehow easier than using an assembler (most of them were beginners to machine code programming) and one particular individual, an almost fanatical supporter of monitor-written code, commented repeatedly about how much of a “palava” using an assembler was despite not having used one.

Said individual recently resurfaced to post a little garbage to the comments on my YouTube videos and, after I deleted them and blocked him, it set me thinking a little; although I’ve done a lot of work in various monitors over the years and even hand assembled code for the VIC 20 back in “ye olde days” (and that’s so much fun, even now I can remember some of the opcodes in decimal) I’ve never actually written a complete game with a monitor. Some of the people who developed in a monitor like John Ferrari, Stavros Fasoulas and Jon Wells have produced some cracking games (although the difficulty curves always seem to be rather harsh, I have my own theories as to why) which means that, despite certain other examples being utterly appalling, it must be possible to produce something decent.

So to quote Jeremy Clarkson, how hard can it be? Not particularly hard, as it goes, but certainly laborious to an almost masochistic level because tasks that are relatively simple in an assembler such as adding or subtracting commands or even relocating large blocks of code become fiddly operations with the monitor and every subroutine or table of data needs to be documented to avoid forgetting what they do. Usually I can keep the memory map straight in my head (although I usually have a simple memory map at the top of my source code) but the notes I’ve compiled so far for this project resemble something that Ordnance Survey would churn out!

The game itself is coming along nicely though, after three days of occasional coding it currently only lacks background collisions before the most important parts of the core are done – after that there’s just graphics, data and cosmetic code to do. There aren’t any screenshots just yet because the backgrounds have been “donated” by another project for testing and there are only a couple of specifically created sprites to date.

This exercise hasn’t changed my opinion of developing in a monitor; if the assembler is a word processor, using a monitor is akin to reverting to a manual typewriter – yes, with some skill it’s possible to be incredibly creative with either, but with the more primitive choice a significant amount of time will be spent working around the shortfalls of the environment.

For colour’s sake

One thing I’ve found myself doing repeatedly whilst building this ‘ere Atari 8-bit game is trying to wedge colours into it – that’s fine and dandy of course, as long as those colours make sense in context but I’ve really had to restrain myself for the last couple of days to prevent the entire thing devolving into a mass of rainbows! Some Atari fans would actually like it if that happened, but I pretend to be more subtle and it won’t be happening on my watch!

The other issue of the project not having a title has been slowly eroding me internally (okay, that’s an overstatement but it’s still a bit annoying) so something had to be found and the game now has at least a working title of Energy Arc. This was chosen partly because it survives the traditional “sci-fi voiceover” test (where the name is said repeatedly in the gravely tones required for science fiction film trailers) but mostly because I’m pretty sure that there isn’t a game beginning with E in the list of titles I’ve written.