Playing Voidrunner (C16)

One of Jeff Minter‘s early successes was Gridrunner, a Centipede-inspired spot of blasting which was originally written for the unexpanded VIC 20 and later ported to a cluster of other systems. It was followed by a second game in the “Droid Wars” series called Matrix which again originated on the VIC but required extra RAM that was used for improved visuals and to graft in new gameplay elements. The third game in the series was Voidrunner which this time originated on the C16; publishing was handled by Ariolasoft – Jeff had worked with them previously for Batalyx on the C64 – and it shipped as a double pack along with the C16 port of Hellgate. That pairing might seem an odd choice but Voidrunner doesn’t merely continue where the previous games left off and, whilst it takes many cues from the previous titles, this third instalment also pulls in some inspiration from the game bundled with it.

The player is handed control of a shiny fighter which is accompanied by three support drones that fly in formation, either directly mimicking or mirroring it’s movement depending on the current stage. Enemies materialise within the playfield sometimes in waves or, with some of the trickier attackers, in small clusters and reacting to and indeed avoiding all of those moving objects as they patrol around the screen is where Voidrunner‘s challenge lies. Patrolling at the bottom of the screen whilst concentrating on enemies above the ship doesn’t work this time around since nasties can rez up pretty much anywhere and there’s also The Zapper to worry about, a beam that travels slowly down the screen and occasionally pulses to leave a bright and deadly version of itself behind for a moment which will destroy the formation’s lead craft if it comes into contact.

I remember feeling back in the day that this release was an unusual step since Jeff Minter had long been developing larger and more intricate games like Batalyx or Iridis Alpha by the time Voidrunner came out in 1987. But going for a simpler, single screen game does make sense since this was him acclimatising to the new platform and the gameplay offered up is still as frantic and enjoyable as either Gridrunner or Matrix. There’s also a C64 port of Voidrunner which was produced by Jeff himself – it doesn’t splash anywhere near as much colour around but plays about the same and the sound effects are a teensy bit meatier – which was published on Mastertronic’s MAD label and that in turn led to a couple of conversions for the Spectrum and MSX built by Icon Design, but the C16 original still stands as the best of the bunch.

Watching Little Demos (Atari ST)

“Robb says wow!” We’re going back to the early releases of Atari ST legends The Exceptions for a quick squint at the two demos which followed on and indeed evolved from Readme.prg – this would all lead to The B.I.G. Demo in early 1988 but that’s probably a post for another time (along with quite a bit of recording since the name isn’t exactly ironic).

The first of these two releases is Little Sound Demo and the large scrolling message with palette rotation in the background returns for another outing, but this time the picture has some raster bars through the TEX logo instead of the background and some decorative palette rotation around the indicator saying which piece of music is currently playing. There are twelve tunes in total which are mostly conversions of Rob Hubbard’s work from the C64 – hence the picture of a Breadbin getting lamped in the back of its “head” by the music emitting from an ST – with a couple of pieces composed by new group member Mad Max who also did the conversions and wrote the music driver.

That handle might not be familiar to those outside the Atari ST scene, but a few folks might recognise his real name Jochen Hippel since he was the musician for several games including Wings Of Death and the ST versions of Turrican and Turrican 2. He also released an album mostly consisting of reworked versions of his game tunes called Give It A Try and I’ve got a copy of that CD knocking around… somewhere?

Little Color Demo continues where its predecessor left off in expanding on what Readme.prg did and wedging more colour and action into the display like the barrel scroller between the two pictures of Rob Hubbard, more palette rotation under the tune list and some serious colour splitting on the lower scroller. One feature that wasn’t carried over from the previous release however is Mad Max’s compositions, there’s only eight tunes in this demo and everything is a Hubbard cover apart from the version of Axel F.

It’s fascinating to see the code mutate and evolve as the coders learnt more about their machine of choice but, whilst the bespoke music driver and converted tunes are a major plus, the hyperbole around them is probably pushing things a little; the tunes are good if sometimes missing elements – or large chunks in the case of Flash Gordon and International Karate – but the sounds being used don’t really hold a candle to their C64 equivalents. Rob himself was already doing Atari ST tunes in 1987 including a reworked version of Human Race tune 4 for Goldrunner, which was coded by the well-known game developer Steve Bak who, by a sad coincidence, passed away a couple of days ago whilst this post was being written.

Looking at these two as a whole, as with Readme.prg they were a little underwhelming to the teenage version of me waiting for the Atari ST to really offer stunning graphics and sound – hearing those covers of older Rob Hubbard tunes was cool but nowhere near enough to entice anyone away from the C64 in that respect – but the early works from Mad Max did offer some promise for the future and both demos are significant milestones in the Atari ST’s scene history.

Watching NWCUG Demos (C64)

As the name might suggest, the North-West Commodore User Group – or NWCUG for short – wasn’t actually a demo or cracking crew in the same way that contemporaries like the Mean Team or Borderzone were, it was instead a user group which covered, perhaps unsurprisingly, the north west of the United Kingdom. They also had a presence on UK-based online service Compunet and a few of their members produced a cluster of demos in the group’s name for release on said service so, as a “bumper” post to get back up to speed after a few weeks off, here’s a look at the three demos bearing the NWCUG brand in their name.

To begin with we’ve got The NWCUG Demo, a two parter which starts with an intro whizzing some square blocks around the screen and running a scrolling message across the bottom; nothing special but it’s fun to watch and has a good, upbeat tune playing as well. The main part has a large scrolling message at the bottom of the screen where each character in the font has been scaled up to eight times its regular size and there’s an area at the top where a series of pictures dissolve in and out. There’s also a NWCUG logo built from expanded sprites which sits in the lower border and a couple of tunes available from the function keys including a solid cover of Dire Straits’ Walk Of Life.

As with the first demo, NWCUG 2 opens with a scroller and sprite sinus, although everything has been overhauled since the previous demo’s intro; the sprites this time are defined as hearts rather than just blocks and their movements are more interesting, with the latter also being true for the excellent multi speed, direction and colour scroller which is, for me at least, only marred by the short length of the text especially since this is probably my favourite piece of music in all three of these demos as well.

Pressing the space bar will start the second part which has some Max Headroom animations originally drawn by Bob Stevenson and reworked via ESCOS to use the upper, lower and side borders whilst dancing to some appropriate David Whittaker music. A tap of the Restore key from there brings up a simulation of the NWCUG page on Compunet, accompanied by some classical music and a scrolling message where the “duck shoot” menu would usually be and, when the music ends on this part it, hands over to a simulated test card entirely built from colour splits.

NWCUG Demo 3‘s first part has some raster bars in the side borders, although sadly they’re not properly timed so there’s some “sparkling” on a C64C or C128. The expanded sprite logo and scaled up scroller from the first NWCUG demo make a return, except with the former cycling through different colour schemes and the latter sporting cool-looking shadow effects. Hitting space gets another ESCOS-style part which this time reproduces the demo Power Windows but in all four borders, allowing the user to move the picture up and down under joystick control.

Finally, slapping Restore pulls up another sprite sinus part to finish the show which this time updates sixteen sprites with eight being displayed on each frame. It might be flickery – I was surprised that the YouTube video comes out as well as it does – but the routine comes with several presets to choose from and the option to play with various settings once they’re in motion. It also features my second favourite tune from all of the NWCUG demos playing behind it, a wonderfully laid back piece that fits the sedate, almost hypnotic movement of those sprites very well.

Almost all of the music in these three demos are original and enjoyable, the graphics are good throughout in part because there’s a couple of “borrowed” Bob Stevenson works in there and the code is for the most part solid. I remember originally watching the second and third NWCUG demos as a teenager after a friend downloaded them – I didn’t see the first until some point in the 1990s if memory serves – and being completely blown away at the time. All three have a unique style throughout despite their being collections of parts and, for me at least, still hold together well now.