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.

Playing Matta Blatta (Atari 8-bit)

Published by Firebird’s Silverbird label for a couple of quid, Matta Blatta is a horizontally scrolling blaster for the Atari 8-bit from developer Shahid Ahmad who previously coded Chimera on a range of platforms. It was released in 1988, which was quite late in the day for the Atari’s market here in the UK so quite a few fans of the machine or indeed shoot ’em ups may not be aware of it; I missed out personally because most of the local shops had already stopped selling Atari 8-bit games by that point and the lack of new releases meant I’d already been enticed away by the C64, copious amounts of new releases and a larger library of software overall.

Matta Blatta is also a surprisingly simple game as well, each level is populated by just one type of enemy with a fixed movement pattern and the player merely has to survive through each onslaught to progress to the next, although actually making it through a wave is tricky though, since the speed of enemy movement doesn’t leave much in the way of reaction time. The collision detection is definitely on the side of the invading forces as well with little mercy being shown to the player’s craft when it gets too close to the enemies or their bullets, something that other games in the genre tend to be far more generous about.

That stinginess means Matta Blatta can often be irritatingly tough, but at the same time it’s not ridiculously difficult in the way that something like Firefleet is. There isn’t much variety to the gameplay – not necessarily a problem to my mind, but that can sometimes be off-putting for others – but, along with existing games already doing the same sort of thing better, Zeppelin’s Zybex came out the same year and offers far more meat on the bone for just a quid extra. Matta Blatta probably won’t be anybody’s first choice when thinking of something to destroy on the Atari 8-bit, but there is still some fun to be had from the frantic manoeuvring and wanton, sometimes desperate blasting it offers.