Workprint – July 2018

Things have been a little rough of late with everything being topped off with our thirteen-year-old dog King passing away on the 7th of June – he arrived here at the start of 2005 as a small, six week old bundle of fluff. I haven’t really been in a fit state for much of anything since then – I pretty much kept up with Retro Gamer and tried “powering through” and sticking to my blog schedules but only managed about half of the “planned” posts – and I was even quieter than usual on social media which is something of an achievement I suppose? I’ve just realised whilst writing this that it happened almost a month ago, but I’m still getting the occasional wobble when it would have been his dinner time…

I haven’t done much code since then, but the bulk of what I’ve written during that period has been “busy work” to keep my mind occupied more than anything else. Vallation hasn’t seen any attention because I didn’t dare sit down with anything that complicated where I could easily lose concentration halfway through modifying something important and leave myself with a steaming mess to knock the bugs out of later… I’m perfectly capable of doing things like that often enough as it is without any external encouragement!

One of the distractions was writing a game for the Spectrum for release under the C64CD brand. It’s pretty much done apart from needing quite a bit more level data, but now it’s that close to complete I’m sort of committed to finishing it as an entry for the venerable CSS Crap Game Competition. It’s crap in the sense that it’s incredibly simple as a game and my Z80 is shockingly bad to the point where I’m considering a disclaimer when the source goes up to Github warning people that it’s not there as a “learning tool” unless being used as an example of how things really shouldn’t be done. That doesn’t stop me being almost perversely proud of it for some reason?

Playing Lightfarce (Spectrum)

I’ve never really been a fan of Mastertronic’s platform shooter Zub; some of this comes from having played it first on the C64 – which isn’t a perfect conversion of the original – but even when revisiting the original on the Spectrum over the years it just feels empty, in part because the developers were working to a strict deadline and didn’t have the time to get it finished to their own satisfaction. But one thing it does have going for it at least in the Spectrum 128K incarnation is an Easter egg called Lightfarce, a parody of a certain similarly-titled blaster which had just been released and was gathering quite a bit of media attention.

There’s nothing to write home about in Lightfarce on the originality front; it has big objects moving around and multi-level parallax scrolling but the action is incredibly simple, with enemies pootling down the screen and the player having to either blast or dodge them because collisions will sap some of their shield. Everything updates at quite a sedate pace but, due to the quite erratic movement of the nasties, keeping the ship safe from harm is tricky and can get the adrenalin pumping when there are only a few hits left on the energy gauge. The craft wraps around horizontally – completely disappearing off one side before reappearing on the other – which can occasionally prove helpful whilst trying to avoid collisions, but there aren’t any weapon power-ups or items that restore shield power.

There’s a beefed up version called Zarjas – a misspelling of “zarjaz”, the catchphrase of 2000AD’s editor Tharg which publishers Reaktor would later “borrow” wholesale – which was given away on Sinclair User’s covertape a few years later; the colour schemes have changed and it now sports a titles tune and loading picture, but more important than those cosmetic tweaks is the gameplay which has been rebalanced for the worse, making the enemies less predictable and allowing them take more health away from the player on contact. I get that they had to “rebrand” Lightfarce once it stopped hiding behind Zub‘ skirts, but just swapping the name out and wedging in the tune before going to the pub for the rest of the day would’ve been fine. If they absolutely had to alter the gameplay for some reason, just changing the movement pattern for one enemy type would’ve worked better.

Lightfarce was knocked out in an afternoon, I suspect as a diversion for coder John Pickford in order to avoid burnout from the crunch of finishing the game it was buried within, and free to anyone who’d paid their three quid for Zub. It was never going to set the shoot ’em up world on fire of course, but is still technically neat with those large sprites and the parallax, with the action being a forgettable but fun distraction for the player. For me personally, this little game is more entertaining than the bigger product it was bundled with or indeed some later Mastertronic efforts like Speed Zone. Zarjas is the same in most respects, but both it and Lightfarce have pretty sensitive collision detection so the former is significantly more frustrating overall to play and less enjoyable as a result.

Playing Planet Search (C16)

Coded by Simon Pick – who is probably better known for various C64 outings such as Star Control, Nemesis – The Final Challenge or digital drum kit Microrhythm – and published in 1986 by Gremlin, Planet Search is a shoot ’em up for the C16. Despite that title the action is more about fighting for survival in hostile alien environments, although I suppose it could be said that the player is searching the planet for threats to destroy before being allowed to move onwards to the next.

The gameplay has, as might be apparent from the images and video, been inspired by Williams’ classic Defender but also heavily simplified; the only objective is destroying all instances of the level’s single enemy type and there aren’t humanoids to… well, defend. A scanner in the status area keeps an eye on active enemies – although it does fail if the ship’s shields are getting low – and there’s a twist, the nasties lay “eggs” either over time or when blown up that must also be dealt with by flying over them – presumably poaching them in the process with the ship’s engine – otherwise they hatch and release another nasty into the playfield.

There’s also a bonus stage where the scrolling changes to fixed speed and the craft needs to be guided through a warp tunnel to the next planet; breaking the warp field isn’t fatal despite what the manual might imply, but does send the player hurtling back to the last world which will need clearing again before the next attempt at leaving can be made. The tunnels appear to be randomly generated which means there’s no consistency in the difficulty level for this part of the game and, because the collision detection is overly sensitive and has accuracy issues, the first warp can repeatedly be brutally hard whilst the ride to the third or fourth level ends up being a piece of cake.

From what I can gather, Gremlin didn’t sell Planet Search as a stand-alone, instead shipping it with the solid C16 conversion of Bounder and that’s fair enough to my mind because, whilst it’d make a reasonable budget title, there simply there isn’t enough meat on this particular bone to warrant a solo, full price release. It’s still mindless blasting fun to hammer around the landscape whilst blowing things away with the ship’s cool-looking laser though, and repeatedly crashing out of warp and being stuck on one world doesn’t really get in the way of that.