Conversion Wars #1: Out Run (part 1 of 3: 8-bit home computer ports)

Note: this entry has proven itself much longer than I had intended; I had concieved of a post per game, but this one, as it is now, will require three! Obviously, I need to play with this format in the future — perhaps a table of ports, screenshots, scores, and a 1- or 2-sentence comment. Still, here’s my first attempt — which may end up being the only one in this format.

Welcome to the first entry in Winterdrake’s new Conversion Wars series, where I’ll be comparing the various home computer and console ports of several popular games (it’s only fun if they had a lot of conversions, after all). For details, please see the intro. The first entry, following on my previous post from another series, is Sega’s Out Run. This entry will actually be split into 3 separate parts: one (this one) focusing on 8-bit home computer ports, another one where I’ll look at 16-bit home computer ports, and a third one about console ports.

So, Out Run. In the arcades, it was a very popular game in the late 80s, and a big part of it was its atmosphere. As I mentioned in my last post, linked above, Out Run wasn’t about some “highly competitive race”; instead, it was about driving an expensive cabriolet sports car, a girl at your side, in several almost paradisiac scenarios based on the United States — beginning, very famously, with a road parallel to a beach. Providing at least a fraction of that sensation, then, would be essential to any port; by turning Out Run into a generic driving game where you couldn’t even tell where you were supposed to be (“is this a beach or a snowy mountain?”), you’d be completely missing the point.

A feeling of speed would be essential, as it is for any driving simulation. If you can read “250 km/h” on the screen, and yet it looks and feels like you’re driving a tank, then you should go back to the drawing board.

Out Run was also famous for its graphics and music, and, therefore, reproducing at least some part of both should be a priority.

So, how do the several ports compare?

Continue reading Conversion Wars #1: Out Run (part 1 of 3: 8-bit home computer ports)

Conversion Wars: Intro

Welcome to yet another series on Winterdrake! Just a little bit of personal info: I subscribe to the UK Retro Gamer magazine; among other reasons, because, unlike any other gaming magazine, I don’t ever have to worry about it getting old: it is old, intentionally. Nostalgia is a beautiful emotion.

Anyway, in that mag, one of my favorite bits — which doesn’t even appear in every issue, but the magazine is still great without it ((if you care about any of my “retro gaming” posts at all, look it up, and, no, the previous link isn’t an “affiliate” one)) is the comparison of the several ports / versions of a game, whether the game originated in arcades (common in the late 80s / early 90s) or in a particular computer system. I really love that part: to look at screenshots and descriptions of how a game was ported / interpreted on each system, how it played, and, sometimes, even the stories behind a couple of ports. Call me weird; I really love this; it’s one of the few times I am able to “feed” several parts of myself: video games, computer systems, nostalgia, and history.

So, I thought about creating a series of posts based exactly on that.

Typically, there will be one post per game, with a few exceptions where a particular game will need two posts (say, one about home computer ports and the other about console ports). I intend to pick the games myself, mostly from the ones I remember — and I already have a bunch of them in mind –, though I’m always open to suggestions.

And, because I grew up with magazines that bestowed numerical ratings on different aspects of games (e.g. graphics, sound, gameplay, etc.), I’ll do the same. For now, to make this simple, my ratings will be just between 1 and 5, for “terrible”, “bad”, “average”, “good” and “great”. And the aspects I’ll rate each conversion in are:

  1. faithfulness: how well a port reproduces its original version, in terms of levels, features, and so on. In almost every case, there is an original version, even if that’s not immediately obvious. If there really isn’t one, then all ports get a maximum score (5) here, as will happen if we’re talking about the original version of a game. ((e.g. Out Run ports will be compared to the original arcade version, which won’t be included here. But, say, Cybernoid ports will be compared to the original ZX Spectrum version, which will be included as a “port”.))
  2. hardware use: how much a particular conversion takes advantage of the system it runs on. In other words, top scores for “this system couldn’t really do much better than this”, and lowest scores for “this computer/console could have handled a much better version”. Exception: if a version reproduces the original perfectly, it will get a maximum score here, even if the original hardware was much more primitive (e.g. a port for modern systems of a 30-year-old game). ((for instance, an Xbox 360 version of Pac-Man which emulated the original perfectly wouldn’t be penalized, even though the 360 is capable of much more than an 8-bit 1980 arcade machine. On the other hand, if the Amiga port of Space Harrier plays slower than the Spectrum 48K version, doesn’t really look much better, and has loading pauses between levels that the Spectrum port was able to avoid…))
  3. fun: in a world where this game wasn’t a port at all, where there were no other versions of it, and where you were playing it on its merits alone, instead of pining for the fjords the original, how enjoyable would this particular version be to play (assuming you enjoyed the genre)?

For instance, suppose you’re talking about a conversion of a beat ’em up game, and not only doesn’t it include most of the features of the original, but in fact it doesn’t look or play much like it… yet it’s still a great, enjoyable game by itself. It’d get a low score in faithfulness, but a high score in fun. On the other hand, if a port reproduced every feature and level of the original, but played like a dog, its scores would be the other way around.

Bad Games I Played a Lot #2: Out Run (ZX Spectrum)

Ah, Out Run. Anyone who was a gamer in the eighties and early nineties can’t ever forget it.

Out Run (arcade)
Out Run (original arcade version, 1986)

It wasn’t just that it was technically impressive — and it was, for the time. The main appeal of Out Run was that it wasn’t a typical “racing” game in which professional drivers run against each other in specially prepared tracks or sections, such as a Formula 1 or rally race. Out Run was different: it was about a guy trying to impress a girl in his Ferrari Testarossa, through several North American scenarios. It wasn’t a “race”, there were no “opponents”; the other cars on the road were just normal traffic. Even advertisements at the time, instead of talking about some “ultimate driving challenge”, just said that you’d almost be able to feel the wind in your hair. In short, it was a very different driving game, and there’s a reason people still remember it well.

So, naturally, there were ports for home computers and consoles. Nowadays, it’s easy to try them all out, using emulators and such, but at the time the teenager I was didn’t have any options other than to play it on his trusty ZX Spectrum (a 128K +3, at the time). In other words, I didn’t really have other versions of the game to compare the Speccy port to (OK, there was the original arcade version, but nobody expected a home computer port at the time to compare to that!). If I had, maybe I wouldn’t have played it so much. 🙂

It looked like this:

Out Run (ZX Spectrum)
Out Run (ZX Spectrum, 1987)

Continue reading Bad Games I Played a Lot #2: Out Run (ZX Spectrum)

The Hobbit (ZX Spectrum, 1982), and how a kid became a geek

Note: this post is expanded from one in my old blog, The Games of My Life.

Back in time, to a 1982 game I played in 1983, on my first computer (well, technically my father’s), a 48K ZX Spectrum: Melbourne House’s The Hobbit.

The Hobbit -- starting location
The Hobbit -- starting location

This game… well, it has a story, and I’m not talking about the “Bilbo, Gandalf and a bunch of dwarves go on a quest to retrieve a dragon’s treasure” one. I mean a personal story. I guess I could say that this game changed my life — as much as anything can change one’s life, I guess.

So you’ll have to bear with me — or, of course, skip this post. Because this one is as much about “why I’m the way I am” as it is about the game — perhaps more. And it’s a long one. 🙂 More after the break…

Continue reading The Hobbit (ZX Spectrum, 1982), and how a kid became a geek

Medieval: Total War (PC, 2002)

Note: this post is unchanged from one from 2005 in my old blog, The Games of My Life. But please see the new section at the end.

This game has a big problem. The load times. For some reason, in my Athlon XP 2000 with 1 GB of RAM and a fast hard drive, they’re huge – not “read a book”-like, but, still, 30-60 seconds to load a battle and 30-60 seconds to come back to the main map are, IMO, too much. Especially since Rome: Total War, their more recent and even more detailed game, actually has shorter load times.

That’s the problem. In almost every other respect, Medieval: Total War is virtually perfect.

Medieval: Total War - campaign map
M:TW - campaign map

M:TW, like its predecessor Shogun: Total War and its successor Rome: Total War, is a historical turn-based strategy game with fantastic real-time battles. These are really wonderful – no other game, except perhaps Close Combat, simulates a battle so well – and that one was squad-based. This one, though, can have armies of 10.000 men. On each side. And they all move, shout, fight and, possibly, die.

Continue reading Medieval: Total War (PC, 2002)

Blagtron: The Resurrection!

Sometimes, pretty odd things happen. Yesterday evening, after I wrote the Quest for the Rings post, I kept thinking about old games for a time, and after a while I recalled a game I wrote very, very long ago (think early 90s), that I used to play with two separate groups of friends, and that we enjoyed a lot at the time. I then wondered: could I find it somewhere? No, finding it here would be a lost cause: the game was written on a 486, and later on a Pentium, and those machines of mine are long gone. At the time, there was no Internet to speak of, much less the concept of online backups, so there wasn’t any hope there. But I did remember uploading it to in the late 90s…

Its name was “Blagtron“. Yup, I was young, back then. 🙂

Well, some quick googling, and I found it. 🙂 The version that still exists, and that I include (with some tweaks) later in this post, is the latest one, in English (I seem to have missed a couple of phrases when translating it from my native Portuguese, but those are minor — and, anyway, there’s very little text in the game). The question then was whether it would work in DOSBox. Amazingly, it did — though, to enable sound, I had to replace an included file with one from an old version of Sound Blaster 16 drivers; this, fortunately, had been a problem for other DOSBox users before, and therefore the solution was easy to find. A few more minor changes (unfortunately, I don’t have the source anymore, as I said, so major alterations aren’t viable), and here it is: a repackaging of Blagtron 3.0.1, which works without problems on a default DOSBox installation.

Blagtron, running under DOSBox, in 640x350 EGA mode. Modes up to 800x600 are available -- not to look "better", but to extend the play area.

As you can see from the screenshot above, Blagtron is a “Tron-like” game — hence the name. You can’t ever stop, just turn around, and you leave behind a trail wherever you go. Touching a trail left behind by any player — including yourself — means instant death, and the goal is to be the last one standing. The main feature distinguishing it from other “Tron-likes” is the 4-player support — yes, all on the same keyboard –, though you can play a 2- or 3-player game, or even practice on your own. There’s also a 2 vs 2 team option.

I remember this game being quite fun and addictive to play in groups — though it’s the kind of game that can bring out the worst in people, when they lose… you have been warned. 🙂 The only caveats to playing it now, under DOSBox, is that the automatic speed detection may need some manual adjustment, and you must close DOSBox to exit the game — originally, you needed to use CTRL-Break, but that doesn’t seem to work under DOSBox. Again, I’d fix it now if I had the source, but that is not the case. For details, (including how to run it in DOSBox, though if you’re familiar with it you won’t have any problem) read the included README.TXT file.

Well, here is the game itself, a “massive” 52KB zip file:

Again, please take a look at the readme file for instructions (tip: run SETUP.EXE before running the game itself, and the game’s speed may then need manual adjustment; all of this is explained in the aforementioned file) and solutions to possible problems. I appreciate praise comments and constructive criticism (bug fixes, unfortunately, can’t be dealt with until I eventually program a new version of Blagtron from scratch, in a modern language ((perhaps Java, so I can release a multi-platform version, and eventually adapt it to Android phones and tablets?))). For the history behind this game, read on…

Continue reading Blagtron: The Resurrection!

The Quest for the Rings (Odyssey2 / Videopac, 1981)

So far the oldest game to deserve a post on this blog, The Quest for the Rings is my favorite Videopac / Odyssey2 game, and arguably the best. Had it been released in 1985, its computer part (more on this in a minute) would have been described as “a Gauntlet clone”… only it preceded Gauntlet by a full 4 years (and Dandy, the game that inspired Gauntlet, by 2 years).

Quest for the Rings: a dragon
Both heroes are currently thinking: can I get to the ring while that dragon eats my best buddy in the entire world?

That, however, wasn’t the extent of QftR’s innovation. It was also, as far as I know (please correct me if I’m wrong, and I’ll edit this post) the first successful combination of a video game and a board game; the game came in an unusually large (and lavish) box, which included not only the game cartridge and (beautifully illustrated) manual, but also a game board and an assortment of game pieces, plus a keyboard overlay for selecting game options. Also, it was a cooperative game at a time where that was truly rare (I don’t know of a co-op game before this one, but it’s likely that one exists). Oh, and it had four character classes for the players to choose from. Remember that all of this was at a time of games such as Pac-Man and Frogger.

Continue reading The Quest for the Rings (Odyssey2 / Videopac, 1981)

The Magnavox Odyssey2 / Philips Videopac G7000

If you thought the ZX Spectrum was “old”, you’ve got another thing coming. Meet the Magnavox Odyssey2, known in Europe as the Philips Videopac G7000. ((in Brazil, it was the Phillips Odyssey, without the “2“; I remember ads for in in the Brazilian Disney comics commonly available in Portugal when I was a kid, in the late 70s and early 80s)). Released in 1978, and competing with the Atari 2600, the Videopac (sorry, Americans, but I grew up with the Videopac name) was a moderately successful console. I think my father bought his in 1980, though there’s no way to be sure; as you can guess, I was quite young back then. Anyway, the console would be used for years, mostly by me and my brother, even after we “evolved” to the 48K ZX Spectrum.

Philips Videopac G7000
(image source: Wikipedia)

Continue reading The Magnavox Odyssey2 / Philips Videopac G7000

TGomL: Last Ninja 2 (Commodore 64, 1988)

Note: this post is expanded from one in my old blog, The Games of My Life.

Most retro games here so far have been on the ZX Spectrum, due to that being the computer of my childhood and early teenage years, but later on I also had a Commodore 64 that I bought second-hand, one of the original models, which looked a lot like a bread box (which was actually one of its nicknames). Although I only had one quite late in its life (I think it was 1989 or so, and the C64 was released in 1982, the same year as the Speccy), there were some unforgettable masterpieces for that little 1 MHz (!) beast that I played even then. This, System 3’s Last Ninja 2 ((note that the first game is The Last Ninja, but the second one lost the “The“.)), is certainly one of them.

Last Ninja 2 - starting screenOddly enough, I played the Spectrum version first, for more than a year, and one tends to get attached to the version he plays first. The Speccy version was good enough, with its decent monochrome graphics and smooth gameplay, although it only had any music on the start menu: the game itself was as silent as if you were playing on a ZX81. But the C64 version blew me away. One screen of this game has more atmosphere than many entire games of the time. The music is hauntingly beautiful ((yes, I know this last one is based on a Tangerine Dream song.)) (all 13 tunes), and from time to time I even fire up Sidplay just to listen to it. Playing it, there’s an almost tangible sense of desperation and utter loneliness, of being in a world where everyone tries to kill you… and yet, everything is familiar — a park, city streets, sewers ((OK, these are probably not that familiar to most people, hopefully…)), an office building, and so on. And the environment is at least as dangerous an enemy as your human enemies. The whole game is difficult and unforgiving – no “tutorials where you can do no wrong”, or any other kind of hand-holding here. You will die a lot. But the feeling of finally passing a level (after hours or even days), and getting a beautifully drawn loading screen for the next one, complete with a new tune, a new area, new enemies, and the suspense of not knowing what’s next…

Last Ninja 2 - the parkOh, and there are alligators in the sewers. I knew it all along. 🙂

If you’re not a graphics junkie (or even if you are, but are able to see games in the context of when they were released), get an emulator and the game (or buy it for the Wii Virtual Console for 500 points), and try it for yourself. You’ll truly appreciate how sad it is that games like this are no longer made; these days it seems that almost all games are first person shooters, sports games and MMORPGs.

Tip: even if you, at the time, finished the Spectrum version (or even another one, such as the quite inferior(!) Amiga, NES and PC ports), try the original C64 version. It’s the only one that really “got” it.

TGomL: Doomdark’s Revenge (ZX Spectrum, 1984)

Note: this post is expanded from one in my old blog, The Games of My Life.

In 1984, there was a little game for a little 48 KB machine which amazed everyone – nobody had done something like that with a computer (even a “bigger” one) before. You may have heard about it. I’ve even mentioned it here, some time ago: Mike Singleton’s The Lords of Midnight. ((I also used it as an obviously — and intentionally — unfair comparison with The Lord of the Rings Online with DirectX11.))

In the same year (!!!), Mike surpassed himself, with a game that was even larger, more complex, more detailed, more varied… and still used only 49152 bytes of RAM. It wasn’t very well named, though. The game was Doomdark’s Revenge.

Doomdark's Revenge - starting screen Doomdark's Revenge - meeting Torinarg the Barbarian

Why wasn’t that a good name? Because Doomdark, the villain from the first game, was, indeed, dead, after his defeat in LoM. Really dead, not “undead” or “sleeping until the stars are right”. The so-called “revenge” was to be by his daughter, Shareth the Heartstealer, from the land of Icemark (to the north of the land of Midnight), who was even more powerful and evil than his father (aren’t they always?), and who wanted Luxor the Moonprince to pay… because she had wanted the pleasure of killing her father for herself. Yes, you read that right. Surely a biting commentary on the nature of father-daughter relationships. To that end, she kidnapped Morkin, son of Luxor the Moonprince, the main character, took him to Icemark, and Luxor, an army of a thousand riders, and a couple of friends travelled between lands in order to rescue Morkin and bring an end to the threat of Doomdark’s family once and for all. (This story was told in detail in the excellent novella that accompanied the game.)

But the game was amazing. Instead of the “us versus them” of LoM, this game had several different races, with hierarchies of command (lieges and vassals, and their vassals, and so on), who moved around by themselves, waged war, and all that was mostly unpredictable. Every lord had characteristics, like being good, or evil, or reckless, or brave, or cowardly, or slow, or treacherous, and so on. The villainess, Shareth, also had her own goals, recruiting lords and their armies to her cause.

How unpredictable was the game? So much that, sometimes, Shareth herself was killed in battle, far away from you. (no, that didn’t end the game – you also had to rescue Morkin, and return to Midnight, remember?)

A far cry from today’s largely scripted games, isn’t it? And, unfortunaly, an idea that was never seen again, as far as I know. The villain is either stopped by the hero, or isn’t stopped at all. I know it makes things more epic, but… Doomdark’s Revenge, with its unpredictability, made me feel that, while I could affect the world, it didn’t revolve around me. (The other extreme of that equation, by the way, is a typical MMORPG – where, sure, the world doesn’t revolve around you, but you also can’t affect it in any lasting way, because the world is more like a “playground”, and it must remain mostly the same for other players. “Look, but don’t touch.” ((since I wrote that part in 2005, there have been some advances in MMORPGs in that respect, one of them being the idea of “phasing” parts of the world, so that, say, if a town is destroyed during a quest’s storyline, it stays destroyed for players who have already gone through that quest; those who didn’t, see it as intact. What happens is that the game actually sends them to different, but similar, areas.)) But I digress.)

Comparing it to its predecessor, the game has, in my opinion, both advantages and disadvantages. The complexity of characters and relationships are, of course, great, and so is the unpredictability, and the fact that there are no defined “good” and “evil” sides: everyone but Shareth is theoretically recruitable, though they are only amenable to being so by characters with similar traits; in other words, a good, brave and loyal lord will have no chance to recruit an evil, cowardly and treacherous one (though in this particular example, you may wonder why you’d ever want to…). However, it is precisely the fact that every character but one is recruitable that, in a way, works (in my opinion) to its disadvantage: it makes waging war a waste of time. Anyone you’re fighting is anyone you could be recruiting (even if you don’t currently have a character capable of doing so). This makes Doomdark’s Revenge less involving in terms of strategy than Lords of Midnight, where waging war and plotting a good strategy was necessary, and a big part of the game — even if you happened to be trying for Morkin’s “destroy the Ring Ice Crown” quest.

Also, some features appear to be unfinished or at least useless, such as the weapons and items you can pick up (I don’t think I ever used them to any actual effect), or the underground tunnels, which (with the exception of one of them, needed to get to the otherwise unreachable place where Morkin was captive) had little or no use.

Another feature I miss from LoM is that lords used to fight enemy armies; here they just fight other lords (though they can be killed by armies). It was fun to hear, in the after-battle report, that “Luxor slew one hundred and twenty of the enemy. His riders slew…” 🙂

Anyway, as with virtually every Spectrum game, you can get it (legally) at World of Spectrum. I also recommend Chris Wild’s excellent Doomdark’s Revenge resource.