Playing Warhawk (C64)

I’ve been playing Warhawk quite a bit recently whilst testing various recording settings for YouTube, so it’d be churlish of me to not actually talk about the game itself! And it’s another budget shooter that I’ve got some nostalgia for, including a few shockingly vague memories of being at what I believe was a PCW show in London and seeing it running for the first time on Firebird’s stand; trying to play a fast-paced game in the middle of a raucous exhibition hall was never going to work and my arse was duly handed to me, but I was sold and picked up a copy as soon as my local software emporium had it in stock.

The obvious influence is Tehkan’s 1984 classic coin-op Star Force to the point where a couple of escaped preview versions exist (included in the Gamebase 64 archive, one under the development title of Proteus) which have similar end of level guardians; these disappeared for the actual release to be replaced by a final screen on each stage where the player is pelted with enemies which home in on them. Actually, here’s a handy hint for that part of the game whilst I’m here; park the ship over the second digit of the score from the left, hold completely still and just hammer the fire button – you’ll take a few hits doing this depending on how fast the enemies are moving, but it’s safer than trying to dodge, weave and blast.

The pace increases with each stage of the ten included and some of the enemies get more vicious in the process, but there are gaps in the madness since a new wave can’t start until the bullets for the previous one have left the playfield and players can “herd” enemy bullets to maximise that quiet time with a little practice. Because it gets so manic this isn’t a “one hit kills” kind of shooter and there is what at least initially appears to be a generous energy gauge which decreases a little with each hit. There’s also a power-up that starts appearing at level 4 which speeds the ship up a bit, gives it a faster firing rate and removes the need to constantly stab at the fire button, but this enhancement is only temporary and care must be taken to avoid shooting the items.

Warhawk‘s sprites are very nice – the titular craft in particular really looks the part – but, whilst the background graphics are reasonable, they did look somewhat dated even when the game was released in 1986. The Rob Hubbard soundtrack, on the other hand, still holds it’s own well is is certainly worth several listens; that’s best done on the titles page, it gets “remixed” during play since the lead channel constantly drops out to make room for firing and explosion sound effects. It might be an unintentional effect but having just the bassline driving away behind the frantic action works well especially when things really heat up.

Firebird published some very solid budget shooters for the C64 – and a few howlers like Force One, more on that another time perhaps – and this is a great example that starts off sedately but builts to a crescendo by the time the tenth level is conquered to the point where going back to start a new game almost feels like you’re playing in slow motion. And for those players who manage to loop Warhawk there’s always the challenge of playing for score to keep them going, the remaining shield is translated into points at the end of eac h stage and destroying all of the bases will earn an extra bonus.

Playing Lazer Force (C64)

Lazer Force is one of the myriad budget shooters which materialised in the mid 1980s on the C64, hailing from Codemasters and programmed by Gavin Raeburn who already had a couple of shoot ’em up previously distributed by Alpha Omega and the bi-directional, horizontal blaster Thunderbolt, which was distributed by Codies.

The levels are divided into four parts; a very busy vertically scrolling shooter with tons of character bullets and fast moving nasties leads into a Centipede-inspired affair which is overlaid by more of the chaotic sprite-based enemies.

These high octane battles are followed by a significantly more sedate refuelling sequence where the player’s ship must be precisely placed on the docking bay of a mothership as it drifts back and forth across the screen and, regardless of if that sequence is completed successfully, there’s also one of those tunnel navigation games where the terrain is randomly generated; the player earns more points for going faster but risks losing control and mashing the craft into a wall before the timer runs out.

Whilst the first couple of phases are simple but often frustratingly difficult fun, the latter two feel as though they were just tacked on as an afterthought. Suddenly transitioning from thumb blistering action to the slow-paced docking stage and back breaks the flow of the game up. There are going to be players who enjoy that calm between each main assault’s storm, but I’ve always felt that the long break between action sequences dragged me out of “the zone”, which is problematic in a game where fast reactions are so important to survival.

The sound is probably best described as okay – it certainly isn’t one of David Whittaker’s more memorable tracks and too “jolly” for a shoot ’em up – and, although the graphics are reasonable throughout, some of the levels are a little sparse presumably to keep the character set use down to a minimum. But, despite having some flaws, Lazer Force is still a fun budget blaster; I got my money’s worth from the couple of quid handed over all those years ago and still enjoy playing it occasionally but, as old age sets in, that high difficulty seems far harsher now than it ever did to my teenage self.

The end of the war

Battle Eagle is finished and sent off a day before the ABBUC competition deadline! For those who haven’t read the previous posts, Battle Eagle is a vertically scrolling shoot ’em up that uses the Atari 8-bit’s 80×192 pixel sixteen shades of one hue graphics mode and hardware sprites which are horizontally expanded to make them fit in a bit more cleanly. Here’s a short video of the title page (with some of the music composed by Sascha “Der Luchs” Lubenow) and some of the first level:

Here are some “interesting” facts about Battle Eagle just because I’ve remembered how to do bullet points today:

  • It has 50FPS smooth scrolling using a character-based screen mode.
  • There are 60 screens of scrolling background constructed from 3,620 4×4 character tiles.
  • Up to four independently controlled enemies, all generated with just two hardware sprites.
  • There’s 106 frames of animation for the explosion, player ship and enemies in there.

At some point I’ll try to do another post mortem like the one written for Callisto last year but for the moment here are a couple of screenshots and the game itself will be released onto the Cosine website as soon as the nice ABBUC people give the okay.