Watching Five To Five (Atari 8-bit)

I’m not actually sure when Five To Five was released; there’s a YouTube video which says 1989 in the description and one visitor to Pouet commented about watching it in 1990, but there’s no date on any of the archives I usually grab Atari 8-bit files from. It’s a single-parter produced by Polish game developers Mirage Software – again according to the aforementioned YouTube description, it was put out as a preview for a game that wasn’t actually released – and features solid graphics, a brilliant piece of music by Jakub Husak and some clever use of the Atari 8-bit’s video hardware.

There’s a couple of effects of note, specifically the oscillating snake picture in the middle of the screen and a moving chessboard at the bottom; the latter is simple enough and works in the “traditional” manner which games like Trailblazer employ, having a series of triangles defining the shape and changing two colour registers for each row of squares, making the gaps wider between those colour changes near the bottom of the effect and narrower at the top.

The main effect is also relatively simple in technical terms but the implementation is what sells it; the shape of the Atari 8-bit’s screen is handled by a series of instructions called a display list and these commands can specify which mode is being used for each line of the screen, if horizontal or vertical fine scrolling is enabled and, most importantly in this case, where in memory to start fetching graphics data. There’s one of these memory selection commands for every scanline of the effect and the addresses following them are rewritten based on a sine curve. This technique wasn’t new and had already been used in the past to manipulate the display in programs like Jeff Minter’s Colourspace but the trapezoid frame around the picture adds to the overall effect, making appear to be moving in 3D.

This second screenshot is a glimpse behind the curtain for both effects that appears during the fraction of a second long pause between the display list being enabled and Five To Five‘s main code kicking in. The top of the snake picture is there without any distortion applied – the rest of the image is of course in memory after that part finishes, but the display list doesn’t have instructions to display it – so the shape of the frame more obvious and those triangles I mentioned that are used for the chessboard are visible as well.

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.

Teenage dreams

I’m running a little late this week due to various factors so here, have some randomness. I’ve always wanted to make computer games and have been trying to since the early 1980s despite not really being able to program well enough in order to do so. My friends and I also tended to talk about games as well, flinging all manner of random, sometimes surreal scenarios against the wall to see which would stick. So for your delight and delectation here are a couple that didn’t pan out for one reason or another, they should be in roughly chronological order and I’ve listed platforms even though there’s a fairly good chance I’m not remembering correctly.

Pavement Pigeon (Atari 8-bit, 1985)
The blame for this one lies very squarely at the feet of my pretty much lifelong friend David Young, who mashed together the “classic” action television series Street Hawk and Clive Sinclair’s recently-released electric vehicle. So whilst Street Hawk was a jet-powered, all-American motorcycle with cool, futuristic weapons, Pavement Pigeon was the British equivalent, a Sinclair C5. We were teenagers, so that kind of juxtaposition was high comedy to us at the time… and still makes me giggle now since I’ve spectacularly failed to grow up since then.

As for what the game would’ve entailed I’m not sure after all these years; I think we were aware of Peace Women and C5 Clive on the C64 at the time – both feature the player character riding a C5 and the latter is very different to the Spectrum game it shares a name with – so that or possibly Moon Patrol clones like Trooper Truck would have served as potential inspirations. David and I both had an Atari 800XL at the time, but neither of us were proficient enough at programming to actually write the game – learning assembly language on a tape-based Atari 8-bit was… difficult – so I might well be misremembering the format here.

Who knows, we might have eventually come up with something similar to Street Hawk Subscriber’s Edition

Piggles (C64, 1986)
I’m far more more vague on the origins for this one; it’s basically a parody of Biggles which was inspired by the hype around the less-than-stellar 1986 film of the same name – well okay, I like it personally but that’s possibly my masochistic streak talking – where the player controls a pig with a propeller attached to its snout… no wings, just a prop and nobody talking about the idea seemed to be concerned by that omission for some reason. My memory is being almost painfully vague about this one to the point where I really don’t know whose idea it actually was, but it was a classmate at school.

I think it was going to takes cues from the official, rather lacklustre Mirrorsoft game Biggles, specifically the plane flying stage but using pre-shifted graphics for the background scrolling. This didn’t get anywhere as a project because nobody involved could draw the flying pig and it’s not every day you find yourself writing something like that!

The Last VW (C64, 1987)
And to finish, one I can’t blame anybody else for; The Last VW was intended to be something of a “parody” of The Last V8 about a post-apocalyptic racer which just happened to be a Volkswagen Beetle for… well, reasons. The plan was to develop it using the rather clunky Creations in part because building a knock off of David Darling’s Mastertronic game with the Codemasters-published creation tool he co-authored was, once more, endlessly amusing to the teenage and slightly more immature version of me.

The result would’ve been more like another budget game called Morphicle – The Transforming Car from the Power House – a terrible game in its own right due to the difficulty curve which was actually steeper than The Last V8 – with fixed speed horizontal scrolling. Due to limitations of the aforementioned utility, it was planned to have just one wrap-around screen to drive through and items to collect in order to finish the stage. I vaguely recall getting a half decent car sprite and some background graphics drawn but lost interest after that.

So there you go, three things the fevered imagination of teenagers came up with over thirty years ago; there were many more – it was probably my most “creative” period on that front even if the majority of the ideas were utterly unworkable – but my memory really doesn’t want to give out further details. Some would say that’s down to shame, but I’m reasonably sure I don’t have any at least in that context? Still, if the little grey cells relent there’s always the chance of another post… you lucky people.