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.

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.