Playing Laser Gates (Atari 8-bit)

The story behind Imagic’s 1984 release Laser Gates is as old as time itself – an advanced race builds super computer and tasks it with protecting them by giving it a reality-destroying device as the ultimate deterrent, but said computer develops a glitch that in turn threatens the entire universe so a lone pilot must fly deep into the belly of the electronic beast to save the day. This mission takes place in a series of horizontally scrolling caverns which are populated by defensive craft, destructible walls and the titular gates which either open and close around their centre or have an aperture to fly through which bounces up and down.

What makes Laser Gates unusual is how complicated it is for a fixed speed scrolling shooter; the player is issued just the one shielded craft so there’s a power gauge for that in the status area, but it’s accompanied by a second bar for the current energy level which constantly decreases during play and will need to be topped up around halfway through each stage. The controls are also surprisingly involved, with the ship pointing and firing either left or right based on the joystick input and, if the player feels brave, being able to nudge the scrolling forwards by “pushing” on the right hand edge of the playfield.

A few features seem to have been lost in translation from the Atari 2600 original where there are ground bases on both scrolling landscapes and a third variant of laser gate which is solid but flashes on and off to allow the player to pass, but that doesn’t detract too much from the overall experience. Laser Gates isn’t the kind of game where you just settle down for a quick five minute blast however – in fact the ship’s shields will take a couple of minutes of abuse even if the player hits fire and wanders off to the point where running out of energy becomes a more immediate concern – and it’s fair to say it’s repetitive since nothing really changes between stages, but that doesn’t stop it being lots of fun when players find themselves properly “in the zone”.

Playing Armourdillo (C64)

The planet of Mobanti was a peaceful world without words for “war” or “destruction” in their language before the human race came visiting. Now it’s peoples have to learn at least some of the ways of war in a hurry and, after sending mostly unsuccessful spies into the enemy camp, a few secrets to creating weapons were discovered that could be merged with the more organic Mobantian science to form the Armourdillo, a hybrid of mutated animal and advanced machine which potentially has the firepower to protect itself from humanity’s onslaught. Think Dalek, but significantly larger and more friendly.

The first live combat sortie for this new armoured vehicle is primarily a rescue mission where, within a given time limit, a quota of life pods containing survivors of the ongoing war must be collected from behind an energy shield at the left side of each play area and ferried across the hostile scrolling environment to the safety of an escape tunnel to the right. Horizontal controls on the joystick tell the Armourdillo which way to move while up and down rotate the gun turret between four positions, allowing it to take out ground- and air-based enemies which drain the vehicle’s shield on contact. Learning the controls and how to aim the weapon accurately are both vital survival skills on Mobanti and will take some practise to master.

Released exclusively on the C64 by the recently formed budget publishers Codemasters, this was a one person project from Giulio Zicchi – his name even appears front and centre on the cassette inlay’s artwork – who wrote the code, drew the graphics, composed the theme tune, sung the… you get the idea. It’s nothing to write home about on a technical level -scrolling a small window of that size is relatively easy and the static starfield isn’t well implemented despite Uridium having done it better the previous year – but the music is great especially the in-game tune activated by pressing F1 during play, the graphics are pretty reasonable too and the gameplay itself proves fun if challenging in part due to the way the Armourdillo itself has to be steered.

In fact I remember this being quite a contentious title within my circle of friends back in the day; I liked the unusual control scheme at the time but not everybody agreed, feeling it was clunky and unresponsive especially when changing direction. Looking at it again now it’s pretty easy to see where those opinions were coming from – despite playing it for a few days for this post I’m still getting my arse handed to me near the end of level 3 – but I still feel that the system is flawed but workable overall and makes sense in context even if I don’t feel comfortable recommending this game to shoot ’em up fans without a few caveats because of it.

Stercore (Spectrum)

There’s another C64CD release drifting it’s way around the interwebs this evening. Stercore is a no-nonsense, scrolling shoot ’em up for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum with 48K or more RAM which was developed by yours truly a little while ago with the intention being to enter it into the venerable CSS Crap Game Competition because, well, it’s pretty darned crap! The code languished for a quite while after being mostly completed and was finally pushed out of the door and into the wild after a quick wash and brush up.

Everything should be moving at a constant 50 frames a second during play – my DivIDE is currently in need of either a major service or more likely replacing so I didn’t get a chance to try it on real hardware before release, but it doesn’t appear to be dropping frames under emulation – and the backgrounds whip past at a dizzying eight pixels a frame since it’s all built from attribute cells rather than graphics data. Because it would probably be impossible to play at this speed if there were background collisions there isn’t anything to smack into, but parts of the landscape scroll over both the player and their assailants so a close eye needs to be kept to make sure enemies aren’t not lurking behind something.

There’s even some beeper-powered “music” on the title page which was composed by a Python script called Autotracker and then forced kicking and screaming into Beepola. For the sake of maintaining the 1980s budget game aesthetic, the Wham! The Music Box style sound driver was selected when compiling the music rather than going for any of the more complicated routines available and there are also some appropriately beep-laden sound effects during play as well.

This is my first complete assembly language game for the Spectrum and yes, that’s very apparent even without delving through the source code at GitHub – it’s recommended that anybody brave enough to do that wears hazmat gear or at the very least a good quality wetsuit and breathing apparatus – and, although I can accurately make the claim that Stercore has been written in 100% machine code, it really isn’t “pure machine code” as some people used to claim on their cassette inlays. Oh no, this is the dirty, impure stuff that our parents would warn us about as children…