In the current post-Manic Miner / Jet Set Willy depression, many software companies seem to be striving to emulate the
success of these two games, resulting in a
number of semi-clones appearing
recently on the market. Of the three
games reviewed here - Astronut, Frank N Stein and Monty Mole - all the cliched
elements can be found, ie. little jumping
figures, platforms, and collecting objects
while avoiding the nasties. |
I'm sure that the companies themselves had no intention whatever of the games bearing any resemblance to other packages. But, having said that, it does seem that effort, conscious or otherwise, has been made to identify the addictive or attractive elements in already published software - such as the collection of objects, pixel graphics, colourful screens and figures leaping around a series of platforms. Throw these factors into a computerised melting pot and hope that something playable comes out.
Maybe what the software houses fail to realise is that originality is a very important 'success' factor in any new package. A new version of Defender may still sell well, but too many variations on a theme and it's surely doomed to failure. Even Matthew Smith realised that Jet Set Willy had to be very different from its predecessor - just take a look at the increased size of the game, the 'move anywhere' ability and those wonderful ropes.
The novelty value of a game and the comparative standard of the coding at the time of release are also important factors - most games players look back fondly to the days of the first copies of Space Invaders and the excitement generated by the first 48K arcade adventures like Time Gate, but they certainly wouldn't fork out hard cash for them today. You only have to take a time-trip back a few months to remember the furore created when Sabre Wulf was released, mainly due to its similarities to Atic Atac - but try booting up Atic Atac now and you may be surprised (I certainly was!) to discover it wasn't quite as good as you'd remembered.
Producing an original game these days must be very difficult, especially as so many of the good ideas have been used. Also, it must be noted that, despite my criticism of the three games here being just a little reminiscent of others, it may well be that Matthew Smith himself had a good look at a game called Miner 2049'er before he buried himself in machine code to produce Manic Miner. The difference is, of course, that he turned a good idea into a brilliant one, with lots of original implementation based on his own ideas.
It's the originality and complexity of UK software that makes it so good, and I hope we see more and more excellent material being produced for 1985.
Astronut is produced by the same company
M A N I C
|Could it be that there are too few original ideas coming out of UK software houses? Ross Holman examines three new releases - Astronut, Frank N Stein and Monty Mole - and draws the inevitable conclusion ...|
responsible for Manic Miner and
Jet Set Willy, although it's not billed in
any way as a sequel to Matthew Smith's
games. Written by Patrick Richmond,
the game is attractive and colourful - but
as a 'platform' game, I'm sure Software
Projects are hoping that their reputation
for this type of package will help this one
on its way to the high street shelves. |
The lack of instructions both on the cassette sleeve and on-screen (at least with the copy I've got anyway), didn't actually inspire any confidence that it was a particularly polished piece of software. To start the game, you need to press the 'S' key - and the 'Q' key is used to turn off the terrible sound effect (you'll find this is probably the most useful key in the whole game!).
Astronut's a game of some 15 screens; the object of the exercise on each screen is to push three resource blocks from various platforms down to ground level. You control the little two-cursor man and can move him left or right, or get him to drop bombs. To move the figure up the screen, you have to position him above a volcano and wait for it to erupt or, on the later screens, you can manoeuvre the figure up the ladders. Beware though, once you've started to climb there's no turning back.
Stopping you gathering the power capsules and moving the resource blocks are, of course, many assorted meanies which have to be negotiated. There's also the problem of extending platforms, which have an annoying habit of collapsing just when you want to use them!
The sprites move fairly smoothly by one or two pixels and come in the usual horizontally and vertically moving varieties; some are even more tricky and cascade back and forth along the platforms, defying gravity more often than not. The stationary graphics characters aren't your average run-of-the-mill platforms either - you may encounter dragons spitting fire and amazing castle towers - and they certainly go some way to brightening up the game.
Despite the pixel movement of the sprites, your man moves by cursor block stages, although the figure is animated within each stage. Unfortunately, this, coupled with the 'attribute collision detection' routine used, sometimes causes your figure to be pronounced dead even when there's lots of clear air between you and your killer.
Astronut is visually appealing, but it's too easy! Dropping bombs to protect
yourself and timing the jumps to collapsing platforms do add an element of skill,
but overall I didn't find it challenging
enough. Each of the screens can be
reached independently of the others by
instructing the program to start on a specific screen - in my view, this spoils any
suspense for the enthusiast. |
FRANK N STEIN
Despite the obvious enthusiasm for this
game generated by the games players in
the YS editorial office, Frank N Stein was
the game I liked least of the three programs.
|MANIC MIMICRY COMPARISON CHART|
|Sorry, but I'm too crap at these games to get to all the screens for the full 2-page, 15-screenshot annotated comparison chart |
(except for Astronut, which has a demo mode that displays all the screens in turn).
FRANK N STEIN|
Planning out a route through each screen is reminiscent of Manic Miner, but it doesn't work out quite as well. If you miss the opportunity to jump for something, then very often you either die or have to hang around for the same pattern of events to repeat itself - there's not much room for you to experiment with new and original ways round each screen as more often than not, there's only one way round and that's your lot!
Monty Mole is probably the most similar
to Manic Miner but there are many similarities to Quicksilva's Fred as well.
mole around a series of caverns - about
21 in all - until your eventual escape.
This package received a lot of media
attention a few weeks ago due to its supposed connections with the miner's strike
and its inclusion of an Arthur Scargill
character. How Gremlin Graphics conned the TV companies into believing
this, I'll never know - I've been through
the whole game and can find no real links
at all with the current industrial situation. |
Anyway, back to the game. On the first screen you guide Monty over a river to collect a coal bucket in which to steal your coal - but the owner's not too happy about this and starts chasing you down the nearest available mine shaft. Once there, you can start collecting the twinkling pieces of coal. (For all you bug-hunters, try carrying on running towards the house and jumping just before you reach it - with any luck you'll find yourself in the coal-miner's house and he can't do a thing about it.)
The caverns are, in essence, very similar to those found in Manic Miner, with platforms and graphics characters trollying along, and up and down. Ropes have also been added for Monty to climb up
and down (á la Fred), and extending platforms are also used quite effectively.
You'll also come to hate the Coal Crushers that appear in most screens - they are
totally unpredictable, except for the fact
that you can assure yourself that whenever you decide to walk under them
you'll be crushed! Another nice feature is
the Antics-like technique of being able to
change events by doing certain things;
carrying certain objects around with you
makes various walls disappear when you
enter the screen, allowing you to explore
still more of the caverns. |
The program has a number of slightly off-putting characteristics which don't enhance its playability - for example: the graphics routine allows you to stand on any INKed pixel; you can get Monty actually standing in a graphic and still not have the fact that you've collected it registered; and if you die in a room having just caused a wall to disappear, that wall will appear with your new life and there's no way you can get past it!
Despite all this though, I still thought Monty Mole the most challenging of the three - even though it's the most blatant clone of Matthew's Manic Miner.
CODE CONCERN?Before I explain the way in which Frank N Stein, Astronut and Monty Mole solve this problem, there are a few other points to note concerning the construction of the games' code. First off, Monty Mole has to take my prize for being the most untidily coded piece of software that I've seen for ages - several routines are duplicated (one is even triplicated!) and many's the gap you'll find between the routines. I realise that when you're putting a game together
there's a great temptation to
leave in the routines you tested
it with, but a good assembler (I
use OCP's full screen one,
incidentally) makes the job of
linking all the bits and pieces
quite simple and the saving in
loading time can be
considerable. On the plus side,
Monty Mole has an interrupt
handler that's set up to work
properly with any peripherals.
It also contains some very nice
movement routines for the
graphics characters (I think the
Thumpers are great!). |
Having said all that about Monty Mole, I must admit that in the sloppiness league Astronut comes a close second with even bigger gaps between some of the routines and, the hacker's nightmare, self- modifying code! Frank N Stein, on the other hand, had me fooled for a while - it took me several minutes to realise that what I'd mistaken for incredibly inefficient coding was, in fact, the output from a Basic compiler. The compiler itself is still in memory with the game and, if you know where to look, can be taken out and used on its own - two programs for the price of one maybe?
Frank N Stein, incidentally, also has an interrupt handler that's been written separately in machine code and, like Monty Mole's, can be used with all but the kitchen sink hanging out the back of your Speccy. My one gripe, however, is that the routine to handle the Kempston joystick only recognizes the straight left and right movements, and not the diagonals - but I soon got used to it.
WHAT'S IN STORE?Returning to the storage methods I mentioned earlier, let me first emphasise that in all the games I've ever looked at, I've only really found two different way of compressing data - although like most other things to do with computing, there's always more than one variation on a theme.
The first method is to store
information about each screen
cursor position and use that to
work out what should go on to
the screen. In the case of
Monty Mole, three bits are
stored per position and these
are used to pick one of eight
attribute/pixel sets for display
(including the blank one); this
means that there can never be
more than seven distinct
platform shapes on each
screen. This is also exactly the
method used by Matthew
Smith in Manic Miner. Overall,
however, it's probably the most
inefficient of the two methods
for most cases because you
have to store information
about the empty parts of the
screen as well as the rest. |
The second method, used by Astronut and Frank N Stein, gets around this problem by only storing the sections of the screen that have something in them, ignoring all the empty areas. This is usually accomplished by storing the starting screen position and the length of each platform, and expanding it out as a loop. Frank N Stein does this by PEEKing the two values and then using them as the start and end parameters of a FOR ... NEXT loop. Once all the red parts have been drawn in, the same procedure is followed for the slime, ice and other bits and bobs around the screen. Astronut varies its format because it has different types of platform - that is, some are one character high and some are two - so it reads in an extra value that tells it which routine to run to print the platform correctly; other than this though, both games work in the same way.
One obvious thing in all three games is that the moving graphics characters are added last of all, using extra data which normally consists of a start and end position for their travels, along with an initial start position. The exceptions to this are the graphics characters in Astronut whose movements aren't linear - for these a 'route' has to be calculated as well.