Posts Tagged ‘shmup’

Playing Humanoid (Atari 8-bit)

Friday, December 8th, 2017

Despite the house currently being in chaos and the room I use as an office having been dismantled there’s still been a little time for some gaming recently. So I’ve been playing Humanoid on the Atari 8-bit, a scrolling shoot ’em up released in the early 1990s. The gameplay doesn’t really offer much in the way of frills, just seeing the player guiding their craft through increasingly narrow spaces in the landscape whilst avoiding contact with enemies which drift across the screen, occasionally changing speed to make things more difficult.

There are also destructible walls to blast a path through and laser gates which need to be temporarily disabled by shooting the nearby control units, so the player has quite a bit to keep an eye on which can rob them of a precious life. At the end of each level is a boss stage where a static mothership sits on the right side of the screen and peppers the player with bullets; this repeats but doesn’t seem to change in difficulty as the game progresses, but dying doesn’t have an effect on the lives counter and it’s worth slogging through for the cool explosion and extra ship awarded at the end.

The backgrounds and player sprite might look familiar to C64 gamers because they were lifted wholesale from Hugh Binns’ budget blaster Subterranea – even the code for decompressing the backgrounds seems to have made it across – whilst Mirax Force on the Atari 8-bit seems to have donated its enemy sprites to the cause. This “borrowing” of assets for a commercial title has happened a few times on the Atari 8-bit and I’ve previously spotted graphics lifted from Lethal Zone, Task 3, Uridium, Tangent, Hawkeye and Stormlord (the latter two used by the same Atari game, Hawkmoon) amongst others. Here’s what Subterranea looks like for reference:

And, although there are other games like Astromeda which work in a similar way as regards in-game sprites, Humanoid presumably looks to Mirax Force for inspiration on that front too. In this case the player craft is using two players and all four missiles to build a twelve pixel wide object, leaving just the two remaining players for all of the nasties so only one of them can exist on a horizontal row with the player and everything just moves right to left without any changes to the vertical position to avoid conflicts. A few people these days seem to feel that the limitations make this technique somewhat “cheap” but it’s a good starting point for a newly-minted coder at least and can still make for a fun to play game.

The game is does have some issues though; there’s what appears to be either a bug – or potentially a fault in the cracked version online – which will occasionally cause the player’s gun to “jam” for short a while and the collision detection is stricter than Subterranea too so getting through some of the already tricky-to-negotiate gaps is more difficult. Enemy spawning also seems to be random as do the speed changes made whilst they travel across the screen and the sudden changes in speed; that’s not a bad thing in itself but makes avoiding obliteration even harder, especially since the exploded ships continue moving and explosions are also fatal.

Humanoid is an average shooter but one I’ve always had fun with personally, although I possibly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone not looking for a challenge since it doesn’t take many prisoners on the difficulty front and some of the deaths can be pretty cheap, even more so than the game it lifts elements from. With a little tweaking it could’ve been less frustrating to play and some bespoke graphics probably wouldn’t have gone amiss as well, but what’s there is still worthy of at least some attention.

Playing: Mission Monday (C64)

Sunday, March 15th, 2015

Ashley Routledge and David Saunders’ public domain release Mission Monday is a small action game starring Willy Warmstart who previously appeared in a previous free Ash and Dave game called Snowball Sunday, a cute little Christmas card of a program with a festive message in the upper half of the screen and three little men having a snowball fight in the lower. There were no win or lose conditions, but lobbing snowballs at the other sprites to knock them on their bums was entertaining.

Willy’s next outing was far less whimsical however, he was given a jeep and tasked with driving through the scrolling enemy territory, either leaping over or in some cases destroying obstacles coming towards him whilst listening to the music from Battle Valley on the in-jeep cassette player. The action resembles the Irem coin-op classic Moon Patrol, but there aren’t any airborne nasties or holes in the ground to worry about and willy’s vehicle appears to have been kitted out with a mortar so, rather than merely firing ahead and upwards, bombs arc through the air and timing shots to detonate in front of enemies takes some getting used to.

Despite that twist the gameplay is simple, no-nonsense dodging and blasting which, apart from a few spikes in the difficulty curve, isn’t too hard to complete. The intro says that “this is a demo and not a game, so don’t take it as a bad game” but I feel that they were underselling Mission Monday quite a bit there. It might be simple stuff but it has an addictive quality and, after first challenge of completing the mission, it becomes more about playing for score and figuring out how to utilise the “feature” in the way the bombs work. And then there’s being able to run over enemy soldiers or indeed drop the jeep on their heads, that always proves endlessly amusing and quite cathartic too…

There’s even a “clone” out there in the form of Konrad Wieclawski’s Jungle Patrol (again for the C64) but the poor handling and addition of airborne nasties make it a chore to play. Ash and Dave’s effort is far more entertaining and probably wouldn’t have required much expansion to make it into a solid Mastertronic release.

How Co-Axis works – part 2

Saturday, June 14th, 2014

Continuing where we left off previously with the meandering through Co-Axis, there are a worryingly large number of references and homages in there to document. So lets pootle level by level through the entire game to cover as much as I can remember over a quarter of a century on.

Level 0 – Here Goes Nothing
This is meant as a “welcome” to the game. I had to do a little research to remember that the nasties were based on a sprite animation from Hugh Binns’ Subterranea and I think the backgrounds were meant to be either clouds or possibly stone blocks but I just wasn’t good enough artist an to draw that! The C64 conversion of Nemesis was the visual cue for the player’s spaceship (which received a positive response from C64 legend Paul “Dokk” Docherty at a computer show despite my teenage self extracting urine over his Flying Shark loading screen) and the explosions were based on Sanxion by Stavros Fasoulas.

Level 1 – Blue Monday
This name mostly comes from the level itself being blue but was also because New Order’s track was popular at the time even if my own exposure was limited to the various C64 covers doing the rounds rather than the original. On the graphics front, the backgrounds borrow liberally from Sanxion and the aliens were inspired by the blinking robotic eyes in Jeff Minter’s demo DNA.

Level 2 – An Old Favourite
This name is a reference to the level being filled with Asteroids really, although it probably shares more genetic material with those “dodge the background” games written in BASIC that use the PRINT command for vertical scrolling. The titular rocks are an attempt at rendering a particular element from Sensible Software’s excellent Wizball and the attackers are similarly my go at copying one of the sprites from Denarius by Software Creations.

Level 3 – Faulty Plumbing
The pipes are something I liked from the later levels of Wizball and to a degree Subterranea, but the enemies… well, I’m fairly sure they’re based on one of the nasties from Stavros Fasoulas’ second game Delta but there are a few other possibles as well. We’ll call the title another pun for want of a better word.

Level 4 – Getting The Point
Speaking of puns, this is an incredibly weak one even by my “standards” and those spikes were a similarly poor rendering of an idea from either Subterranea or possibly a later stage of Wizball. I forget where the nasties came from, but Subterranea has a rotating shield for the player’s ship and that would be the most likely origin.

Level 5 – Babylon And On
Another musical reference, this time it’s the title of a Squeeze album from the 1980’s which featured a track with the same name. The rather poorly-drawn pyramids which originally lead to that title being chosen were loosely based on the ones in the Atari 8-bit version of Jeff Minter’s Attack Of The Mutant Camels and, looking back at them now, those bubbles (which are a cross between the crystalline ones in Zybex and the animation of the colour droplets in Wizball before they’re shot) really should’ve been in “Faulty Plumbing”, shouldn’t they…?

Level 6 – Late Night Re-run
A reference to the then new late night television services being run by ITV; before the cross-network services like Night Network and similar started with their 2am showings of classics like Adam West Batman or Randal And Hopkirk (Deceased), the ITV stations would actually close down and go off air for the night! The name is also a reference to recycling the asteroid from “An Old Favourite” with a darker blue colour scheme and this time the adversary is a painfully bad attempt at doing something like one of the spinning ring enemies from Bob Stevenson and Doug Hare’s awesome Io.

Level 7 – The Second City
This level went back to the Sanxion-inspired towers which were accompanied by a terrible rotating “spaceship” that must have been inspired by something but the only possible that springs to mind is the far better animated turning yellow ship in Wizball! The name comes from the expansion pack for Paul Woakes’ wireframe epic Mercenary which burnt a lot of Atari 800XL processor cycles during the coding of Co-Axis.

Level 8 – Willow Farm
I was into the earlier works of prog rockers Genesis and in particular an album called Foxtrot which contained a vast piece called Supper’s Ready that in turn had a segment called Willow Farm – the second-hand tape I had of that album took a serious beating during the development of Co-Axis. This name was chosen because of the “weird” nature of the level; the strange bouncing ball nasties weren’t directly inspired by budget blaster Zybex but at least borrowed some ideas, whilst the backgrounds were yet another go at copying Wizball.

Level 9 – The Final Countdown
“We’re leaving together, but still its farewell”. I’ve always thought myself to only be something of a casual music fan but it does seem to have been a major influence. This time it was courtesy of Europe’s biggest hit which friends and I would occasionally “sing” as The Final Cartridge… geeks, eh? The level itself is a mish-mash of elements from all of the other stages and the sprites are based on an animation from an old Compunet demo by the Harlow Cracking Service called Planet Invasion which, along with the character-based starfield from Delta, was what shaped the Co-Axis completion screen.

Other References And Inspirations
The cheat code is another musical reference; The Secret Garden (entered on the title screen) which was one of my favourite tracks from T’Pau’s album Rage. Bigtime Software took its name from Big Time Television, the fictional pirate broadcaster from the original Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future because, for reasons I’ll probably never get back to understanding, we decided at the time that the name of Blank Reg’s bright pink bus and the television station it contained was similar to how myself (under my school nickname “Bada” which was apparently due to me talking too quickly and sounding like Tony Hart’s Plasticine sideckick Morph), Alan Jesse and Jason Morrell were trying to write games.

The idea for the titles logo came from a Papillons intro, the colour wash effects on the status bar and game over screen were based on the ones in Kele Line’s Tiger Mission and the idea for the two large double scrollers of the latter fell off the back of a lorry having previously been “procured” from Knuckle Busters by Mat Sneape (anyone who has played Edge Grinder will no doubt realise that I have very little shame since it takes a second bite at that particular cherry).

The titles page greetings are something of a stream of consciousness compared to the “organised” list we use in Cosine now (and yes, that was quite heavy sarcasm) so, after the hellos to people who were influential in Co-Axis‘ creation such as Chris, Matthew and David Young, Alan Jesse, Jason Morrell, Marc Francois and Nia Trinh, there was Steve Chambers (his first name was actually Karl but he didn’t mention it for a few years). Jim (Wynn), Chris (Powley) and Sid (Santer) were computer studies teachers at the Geoffrey Chaucer school whilst Alison (Wells, formerly Barnes and her initials were AEB, which was noted by the C64 gamers who played Uridium since those were Andrew Braybrook’s initials) was part of the history department. The rest of the names were classmates with poor Steve getting more flak about fancying “Genavive” (my bad on the spelling) when it was probably me who fancied her more but was far too immature to actually do anything about it.

Anyway, putting unrequited love aside (and the missing greeting to Hamish Parker, shown below in the W.A.R-inspired font from the preview that RTI released – I think we may have temporarily fallen out), why wasn’t Co-Axis released? Well, I don’t think it could be called “well received” since the only response to the half a dozen or so disks sent out to budget software houses was the one that Alternative Software returned with a huge shoeprint on it (which said far more than the enclosed stock letter) but there was also the issue of that Rough Trade Inc release; I’m still not certain how the preview was leaked, but after it appeared the teenage me couldn’t see the point in trying to flog a game that was already close to complete and “in the wild” despite having upgraded chunks of the code in the meantime.

There are obviously going to be lots of things that could have been done better or at least differently, but Co-Axis was at least a completed project even though I went around several streets worth of houses to get there. I learnt a lot from writing that code and recently rekindled my fondness for it whilst playing through again for these posts. And at this point in the original draft of this post I mumbled something about possibly taking Co-Axis, dragging it kicking and screaming through a cross assembler and giving it an overhaul, but… well, that sort of accidentally happened between the previous post and this one courtesy of Nostalgia’s truly amazing cross disassembler Regenerator:

This is currently called Co-Axis RX (which I quite like so it’ll probably “stick”) and, along with some fairly major internal surgery and a few cosmetic tweaks (the bubbles from “Babylon And On” have finally been swapped with the enemies from “Faulty Plumbing”), the most important changes are that it runs cleanly on PAL or NTSC and the one frame in eight stutter bug has been stamped on! That hiccupping was there in the very first proper versions of Co-Axis and was being caused by the way that the runtime level code which handled sprite movement checked for a specific raster line; it was looking for the value $1a which, if you’re only reading the main raster register $d012 as I was at that time, occurs twice a frame so the game actually shifted the sprites twice each 50th of a second for seven frames until the interrupt used that line for the scroll routine on the eighth and only one instance happened. What will happen to Co-Axis RX when I get it finished is anyone’s guess, but it compresses to less than 15K so RGCD’s annual 16K cartridge competition is always an option and, if there’s any interest, perhaps a future How It Works post too…?

I’ve had quite a few surprisingly enjoyable waves of nostalgia whilst reminiscing about Co-Axis and mentioned some old friends during these two posts, but not all of them are currently in touch so, if Alan Jesse, Jason Morrell, Hamish Parker or indeed anyone else I currently don’t have any contact with happens to be reading, it’d be great to hear from you folks after all these years…