Workprint – July 2018

Things have been a little rough of late with everything being topped off with our thirteen-year-old dog King passing away on the 7th of June – he arrived here at the start of 2005 as a small, six week old bundle of fluff. I haven’t really been in a fit state for much of anything since then – I pretty much kept up with Retro Gamer and tried “powering through” and sticking to my blog schedules but only managed about half of the “planned” posts – and I was even quieter than usual on social media which is something of an achievement I suppose? I’ve just realised whilst writing this that it happened almost a month ago, but I’m still getting the occasional wobble when it would have been his dinner time…

I haven’t done much code since then, but the bulk of what I’ve written during that period has been “busy work” to keep my mind occupied more than anything else. Vallation hasn’t seen any attention because I didn’t dare sit down with anything that complicated where I could easily lose concentration halfway through modifying something important and leave myself with a steaming mess to knock the bugs out of later… I’m perfectly capable of doing things like that often enough as it is without any external encouragement!

One of the distractions was writing a game for the Spectrum for release under the C64CD brand. It’s pretty much done apart from needing quite a bit more level data, but now it’s that close to complete I’m sort of committed to finishing it as an entry for the venerable CSS Crap Game Competition. It’s crap in the sense that it’s incredibly simple as a game and my Z80 is shockingly bad to the point where I’m considering a disclaimer when the source goes up to Github warning people that it’s not there as a “learning tool” unless being used as an example of how things really shouldn’t be done. That doesn’t stop me being almost perversely proud of it for some reason?

Playing Lightfarce (Spectrum)

I’ve never really been a fan of Mastertronic’s platform shooter Zub; some of this comes from having played it first on the C64 – which isn’t a perfect conversion of the original – but even when revisiting the original on the Spectrum over the years it just feels empty, in part because the developers were working to a strict deadline and didn’t have the time to get it finished to their own satisfaction. But one thing it does have going for it at least in the Spectrum 128K incarnation is an Easter egg called Lightfarce, a parody of a certain similarly-titled blaster which had just been released and was gathering quite a bit of media attention.

There’s nothing to write home about in Lightfarce on the originality front; it has big objects moving around and multi-level parallax scrolling but the action is incredibly simple, with enemies pootling down the screen and the player having to either blast or dodge them because collisions will sap some of their shield. Everything updates at quite a sedate pace but, due to the quite erratic movement of the nasties, keeping the ship safe from harm is tricky and can get the adrenalin pumping when there are only a few hits left on the energy gauge. The craft wraps around horizontally – completely disappearing off one side before reappearing on the other – which can occasionally prove helpful whilst trying to avoid collisions, but there aren’t any weapon power-ups or items that restore shield power.

There’s a beefed up version called Zarjas – a misspelling of “zarjaz”, the catchphrase of 2000AD’s editor Tharg which publishers Reaktor would later “borrow” wholesale – which was given away on Sinclair User’s covertape a few years later; the colour schemes have changed and it now sports a titles tune and loading picture, but more important than those cosmetic tweaks is the gameplay which has been rebalanced for the worse, making the enemies less predictable and allowing them take more health away from the player on contact. I get that they had to “rebrand” Lightfarce once it stopped hiding behind Zub‘ skirts, but just swapping the name out and wedging in the tune before going to the pub for the rest of the day would’ve been fine. If they absolutely had to alter the gameplay for some reason, just changing the movement pattern for one enemy type would’ve worked better.

Lightfarce was knocked out in an afternoon, I suspect as a diversion for coder John Pickford in order to avoid burnout from the crunch of finishing the game it was buried within, and free to anyone who’d paid their three quid for Zub. It was never going to set the shoot ’em up world on fire of course, but is still technically neat with those large sprites and the parallax, with the action being a forgettable but fun distraction for the player. For me personally, this little game is more entertaining than the bigger product it was bundled with or indeed some later Mastertronic efforts like Speed Zone. Zarjas is the same in most respects, but both it and Lightfarce have pretty sensitive collision detection so the former is significantly more frustrating overall to play and less enjoyable as a result.

Playing Chronos (Spectrum)

Before I start there’s a little wallowing in nostalgia to get out of the way; during my “formative years” I was primarily a 6502 bunny so never actually owned a Spectrum, but I did get a chance to play on one occasionally when visiting school friends. The first time I played Chronos would have been either 1987 when it was released or perhaps 1988 at my friend Simon Probert’s house and we spent quite a while taking turns at the keyboard to work through and eventually loop it.

To use its full title for a moment, Chronos: A Tapestry Of Time is a horizontally scrolling shoot ’em up from cheap software purveyors Mastertronic, was developed by John and Steven Tatlock – who were also behind the Agent X games – and features a stunning piece of beeper-powered title music from Tim Follin. The cassette inlay also has that “edgy” cover art style that Mastertronic were going for at the time with lots of “exciting” arrows and “torn” edges which was, presumably, considered to be “down with the kids” in the mid to late 1980s.

Turning to the game, things start of relatively sedately with just two randomly spawned nasties in play that travel across the playfield horizontally at different speeds but each new stage introduces another enemy type. Some of these can be little scumbags to, especially during the parts of the map where there isn’t much room to manoeuvre; the squares and Yin-Yangs in particular can suddenly change direction and twonk the player without much warning so really need to be managed before they get the chance.

There’s also a few places where the ground defences are positioned so the player can’t destroy them, forcing some dodging between laser beams as they toggle states or randomly timed streams of bullets. Whilst that can be sometimes frustrating the game makes up for it by being generous with the extra lives and, with some practice and a few moments of blind panic, the first loop can actually be completed with relative ease as I accidentally did whilst recording the video.

I’ve got a fair bit of love for Chronos, in part because of the aforementioned nostalgia but also because it’s a fun game which is solidly written and well presented, especially with that measly £1.99 price tag. There’s an Amstrad CPC version as well which is reasonable but suffers from “Spectrum port syndrome”, having a slower refresh speed overall and omitting the Tim Follin goodness – the only sound is in-game effects which are basic AY zapping and exploding noises – so the Spectrum version as the one to play of the two.