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.
I joked in the scroller for Demo Factory 2018 last week about my X entry ending up as just a couple of parts with loads of effect presets to pad it out, but the party is only a month away now and progress on my demo really hasn’t really been… well, progressing. Part of the problem is my damned shoulder, it’s been “frozen” since the end of 2017 so, whilst working at a computer isn’t an issue in the short term, the longer sessions required for larger projects are proving problematic, leaving me in need of painkillers. I’ll have to see how things go over the next week or so and, if it’s not going anywhere fast, perhaps consider a “plan B”.
In slightly happier news I have a new toy which is pictured above. It’s a Pi1541 and is essentially a Raspberry Pi model 3B+ wearing a magical hat that, with the right software installed, makes it pretend to be a Commodore 1541 floppy drive including emulating the electronics. I haven’t had much time to test things since the hat only arrived in the post this afternoon from Australia, but the Pi’s micro SD card has been set up and I’ve tried loading a couple of demos on the C64; from what I’ve seen so far at least, it knocks the SD2IEC into a cocked hat despite being not much more expensive. It’s intended for use on my VIC 20 but I’ve been keeping an eye out for a C16 or Plus/4 although that search hasn’t been particularly fruitful, one of the latter arrived a few weeks ago but won’t even power up so is going back – which will be able to utilise it as well.
Finally, something interesting which made me happy as it floated past in my Twitter feed this morning was a YouTube video posted by Adrian Black about the C64C he was given which had spent a decade braving the elements of Oregon to the point where a colony of ants had moved in. The video itself is a heartwarming tale of a little 8-bit that could but one thing that made me smile was Adrian’s demo of choice for testing the machine was SIDBurners 7; only the Nostalgia intro appears in his video but the main menu code on that one was mine!
Coded by Simon Pick – who is probably better known for various C64 outings such as Star Control, Nemesis – The Final Challenge or digital drum kit Microrhythm – and published in 1986 by Gremlin, Planet Search is a shoot ’em up for the C16. Despite that title the action is more about fighting for survival in hostile alien environments, although I suppose it could be said that the player is searching the planet for threats to destroy before being allowed to move onwards to the next.
The gameplay has, as might be apparent from the images and video, been inspired by Williams’ classic Defender but also heavily simplified; the only objective is destroying all instances of the level’s single enemy type and there aren’t humanoids to… well, defend. A scanner in the status area keeps an eye on active enemies – although it does fail if the ship’s shields are getting low – and there’s a twist, the nasties lay “eggs” either over time or when blown up that must also be dealt with by flying over them – presumably poaching them in the process with the ship’s engine – otherwise they hatch and release another nasty into the playfield.
There’s also a bonus stage where the scrolling changes to fixed speed and the craft needs to be guided through a warp tunnel to the next planet; breaking the warp field isn’t fatal despite what the manual might imply, but does send the player hurtling back to the last world which will need clearing again before the next attempt at leaving can be made. The tunnels appear to be randomly generated which means there’s no consistency in the difficulty level for this part of the game and, because the collision detection is overly sensitive and has accuracy issues, the first warp can repeatedly be brutally hard whilst the ride to the third or fourth level ends up being a piece of cake.
From what I can gather, Gremlin didn’t sell Planet Search as a stand-alone, instead shipping it with the solid C16 conversion of Bounder and that’s fair enough to my mind because, whilst it’d make a reasonable budget title, there simply there isn’t enough meat on this particular bone to warrant a solo, full price release. It’s still mindless blasting fun to hammer around the landscape whilst blowing things away with the ship’s cool-looking laser though, and repeatedly crashing out of warp and being stuck on one world doesn’t really get in the way of that.