Monday, September 26, 2016

Xeroxmorphs in Dittoland: the medley edition

What do you do if you can't find enough to say about any one particular game and your enraged, cigar-chomping editor is hammering on your door demanding 10,000 words before yesterday? Cheat, that's what! Welcome to Copycat Cabaret.

Blonde Ryu takes on brunette Ryu in this 1996 Poundland exclusive from Thomas Ip. The big question is, would a ginger Ryu kick both their butts? Also, does ‘Just For Men’ hair dye improve your karate skills? Perhaps we'll never know...

Fighting Warriors (to distinguish them from say, Knitting Warriors, I suppose) is a two player, abridged homage to Street Fighter II. It only comprises one distinct, selectable character and two special moves, a hurricane kick and hadoken pilfered from the granddaddy of 2D, one-on-one brawlers.

Ryu and Ryu clearly aren't seasoned travellers; they never set foot beyond the sun-drenched patioed dock you see here. If, as it would appear, the inanimate water is actually composed of solid concrete that would explain why they struggle to get out and about. The stuff can really chafe on your propeller you know. Awfully inconvenient to say the least.

In its defence, there are a nimiety of different manoeuvres and sampled speech to spice it up, five levels of difficulty (the AI lands blows that deplete more of your energy per hit as you progress) and it all hangs together very nicely indeed for an AMOS game. These don't typically have the most illustrious reputation for top-shelf quality programming so this makes for a refreshing change.

Alan Carter must have thought all his Christmases had come at once when in November ‘93 he was lucky enough to have his PD platform game, Batdog, featured on Amiga Computing's coverdisk.

For a bat-dog hybrid the eponymous protagonist looks remarkably like Sonic, who I believe is somewhat of a hedgehog if Sega are to be taken seriously. It also occurred to me that the character may actually have been based on Miracle Bat, Miracle Games’ beautifully drawn, though non-existent Platformer that Wasn't.

That aside, it's a solid - if unremarkable - runny, jumpy, gold-ring-collecty AMOS affair with pinball inspired bonus levels, and little else in common with Sonic otherwise.

The music was kindly contributed by The Shamen, Intellect 3000 and Michael Jackson, which was jolly decent of them.

The game’s credits make reference to a sequel being in the works. Sonic is still tapping his feet in impatient anticipation.

“Show us your chopper!”, Dominic Diamond innuendoed goadingly. Storm Eagle was A. Smith’s very literal response… probably.

It's a 1993, shareware, vertically scrolling SEUCK game that has clearly been heavily influenced by SWIV. The colour palette, audio and level of graphical nuance is distinctly lacking, however. Stick with the gen-u-ine article.

The Cartoons or Sleepwalker? It's tough to wedge a length of cheese wire between the two in terms of mechanics. Nevertheless, Loriciel’s 1993 clone does introduce the ability to fly, use weaponry and go shopping for useful gizmos, adding another dimension to the gameplay.

The aim of the game is to guide 'Toons', your hapless charge, through the treacherous landscape clearing his pathway of obstacles and adversaries as you go.

Much like Sleepwalker, ‘Super Angel’ (that's you) can't directly manipulate the demented Lemming towards safe harbour. Instead you must predict his next move and prepare the route ahead by laying out the red carpet, so to speak.

Wholesale plagiarism is a pretty shady practice to begin with. Here Loriciel demonstrate it's possible to sink even lower by duplicating a charity game without donating any of the proceeds to Comic Relief. Nice.

Andrew Fereday, not content to Xerox SWIV once, did it four times with his Raid series of SEUCK titles. Each release ups the doppelgangery ante in terms of graphical and auditory familiarity, and true to form, they're all as hard as titanium nails.

Raid I was included on coverdisk 10 of Amiga Power’s February 1992 issue, while the sequel reared its SWIVely head the following month. I suspect coverdisk 11 would be the place to look.

The same developer was also behind the low-rent SEUCK Xenon II clone, Serene... and Serene II, and… go on, see if you can guess.

Pretending 'y’ is a vowel; the number one giveaway clue that you're dealing with a Polish game.

Twin Spark Soft’s 1995 Gods imposter, Atlantyda, is a woeful substitute for The Bitmap Brothers’ classic puzzle-platformer. It brazenly ransacks the medieval-esque backdrops, beefy, metallic sound effects, key collecting/switch-flicking mechanics, and yet somehow forgets to inject one crucial element… gameplay!

Without a doubt the worst aspects of the game are all those that appear to be original. That is, the protagonist's weapon, the flick-screen scrolling, the ill-fitting enemies (mostly bald Tango caricatures wearing matching blue jogging gear), the gold-plated interpretation of Arthur from the Ghosts 'n Goblins series that serves as the main sprite, and his unfathomable propensity for falling through trap doors into inescapable pits!

Xenon III by Harry Hart should possibly be granted a free pass because it doesn't pretend to be anything other than a Xenon clone, an unofficial sequel in fact. Plus, it's a competent effort, especially given it was made by one person with an amateur’s 'design a game’ toolkit.

Apparently I'm not the only one who thought so…

“Astonishingly, Xenon III is written using Palace's SEUCK. Without doubt the best SEUCK creation to date.”

- Amiga Format issue 14 (September 1990)

It captures the feel of Xenon in an understated, 8-bitty kind of way, though I haven't got the moggiest clue what the cat meowing sound effects have to do with the price of fish.

Surely no-one would notice if a little-known publisher such as MicroProse ripped off a small-time, second-rate franchise like say, Capcom's Ghosts 'n Goblins? They clearly thought it would fly under the radar when 'Fire and Brimstone' was unleashed in 1990.

Developed by Vectordean of Robocod fame, this version swaps the main sprite for the Norse god, Thor, setting the mythological clock back several centuries, and introduces a smattering of magic potion based puzzle elements. Nevertheless, it remains G'nG in wolves’ clothing. The critics called a spade a spade, and - on the whole - still awarded it reasonably respectable scores.

Mark Gallagher's frenetic ‘Smash TV: The Rip-Off’ - released in 1992 - wears its heart on its sleeve. There's obviously no attempt at subterfuge, just straight-up recreation for the hell of it… and what a recreation it is!

It's scrolling is silky smooth, and the control method is more logical and easier to get to grips with than Ocean's original port. You simply hold down the fire button to lock your gun in position, and release it to fire in the direction in which you're moving. Pity it's only a one level demo.

Galaxya Software’s 1994 puzzler, Aardvarks, is fundamentally Lemmings sprite-swapped with, go on guess, I dare you. Notably it stars the aardvark nemesis poster boy, Cyril Sneer, from the ‘80s Canadian Racoons cartoon.

It plays reasonably well, but it certainly ain't pretty. If you squint a bit, it could easily have passed for an official Lemmings prototype a couple of years before the punk rocker rodents took the world by storm.

Astrokid in the Battle of Planet Funk, released in 1996 and developed by Living and Electronic Dreams, comprises a menagerie of divergent mini games bolted together to form a unified game.

The one landing it firmly in XiD territory is the opening Operation Wolf mode crosshair sequence, which flagrantly hijacks one of Project-X's distinctively stylish backdrops.

The fonts deployed and the aesthetics of the menus and mission briefing screens have been swiped from the same source.

Moving onto the shoot-em-up stage, your spaceman sprite looks like a cross between Tin-Tin and the leading man from the PD game, ‘Dithell in Space’.

Forest Dumb by APC&TCP is like a box of chocolates… a mouldy, festering, Polish one that in 1998 was already well past its use-by date.

With a swift glance at the screenshots it should come as no surprise to learn that it's a shoddy Superfrog clone, complete with tedious coin-collecting mechanics. This driving force was dull enough when Team 17’s original was fresh and shiny. Five years down the line and protracted by ramping up the target quota exponentially it becomes excruciating.

Rather than the frog prince, you play as a jungle sprog sporting a leopard skin leotard. The pixel jockey responsible for drawing him clearly couldn't decide who he's supposed to be. In the game itself he's a white kid with brunette hair, and in his health status avatar he's Jethro from Micro Machines, an Afro-Carribean kid with black dreadlocks!

Otherwise all the elements you would expect are present; secret tunnels, coiled springs, platforms that fade out when stepped on, killer bees and other insect foes.

Each and every time Jungle Jim despatches an enemy he exclaims with a “yo!” and a series of comic book style speech bubbles emerge. Written in Polish these translate to 'bounce’, 'boom’ and 'bang. That gets a tad annoying after the 79th time it assaults your lugholes.

It might have been a half decent platformer if it wasn't so derivative. The finely detailed and competently animated hand drawn sprites show attention to detail and an artistic flair, and some of the adversaries are quaintly novel. Is that a tortoise with a Mohican hairdo and an oversized safety pin through its shell.

Another attractive Polish platformer tarnished by copycattery. Miki, developed by MarkSoft and inflicted upon an unsuspecting Amiga community in 1996, ‘adopts’ the main sprite from Woody's World and pilfers the hardshelled bugs from Toki.

IP thievery aside, it does have an interesting art style that makes it stand out from the crowd. More specifically, certain areas of the sprites e.g. the protagonist's face have been selectively monochromatised. It's a fairly common Photoshop filter trick these days, but I don't recall seeing it too often back in the early nineties.

You know Jamie Woodhouse's Qwak? The cutesy, fruit-collecting platformer starring an armoured duckling and published by Team 17 in 1993, that one? Well guess what Quackers by Michael Pratt is a cheap imitation of. Yep, got it in one. Pick any prize on the top shelf.

While there's no evidence of sprite animation (they simply glide across the platforms), it looks and sounds the part, and the floaty controls are responsive enough. It does, however, leave you wondering, what's the point? The original was practically perfect and this PD version couldn't hope to improve upon it. The feeble end of game cyclops bird boss and non-existent finale don't do much to challenge that sentiment.

Here's a synopsis taken from the PD Soft index to flesh out the details:-

“Aliens have invaded Duck World and have possessed various inhabitants of the planet, including Santa Claus and King Duck. The game has 20 levels split up into 4 worlds. These worlds are Brick City, Christmas Land, Outer Space, and Duck World.

On level 5 of each world there is an end of world baddie. In these levels you are given continuous fire power to rid the evil aliens. If you destroy the alien in a quick enough time you will receive a gem, if you collect all 4 gems then defeating King Duck on level 20 will no longer be impossible.”

Meet ‘Star Boy’ by F1 Software. It nicks the James Pond sprite from Robocod, sound effects from Magic Pockets (every time you jump!), and music from… nowhere (there isn't any).

Well, technically it doesn't exactly rip the graphics from anywhere. It would be more accurate to describe them as shabby approximations drawn in a blocky, colour palette restricted C64 style.

Like the real thing it blends shoot-em-up stages (employing Robocod's open top, one seater plane) with traditional platforming action. You'd never guess this was released in 1997… if I hadn't just told you.

“War has never been as deadly”. Has a game's tagline ever spelled out ‘cheap rip-off’ more succinctly than this?

Watchtower was cobbled together by CyberArts in 1996; well into the Amiga's pensionable years, and so there's really no excuse for the AGA-only title to be quite this primitive.

It plays like the coin-op, top-down shooter classics, Commando or Ikari Warriors, yet looks suspiciously like The Chaos Engine and lifts the best sound effects from Cannon Fodder, while not doing any of them justice.

Would you believe this was a commercial release with a bloated £30 price tag, and produced by a team of 8 people?

The only thing harder to swallow is that the developers didn't dress in khakis and run around a field brandishing plastic toy guns to promote it.

Well I'm spent for another issue… and the research only cost me a fiver! *ba dum tsh*

If you're an Amiga twin separated at birth, get in touch and you could be featured in the next XiD.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Episode 61 - Lotus III The Ultimate Challenge

Download Mp3 (right-click and Save As)

Thanks to our supporters: Sebastian Kiernan, Rob O’Hara, Paul Harrington, Laurent Giroud, Jonas Rullo, Kolbjørn Barmen, Tapes From the Crypt,  Adam Bradley, Chris Foulds Will Williams Daniel Bengston, O’Brien’s Retro and Vintage, Chad Halstead, and Brent Doughty! 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Amigo Scour 'Next' coming soon

The Next; for all those occasions when you can't remember which issue you're up to...

The Oliver Twins Story

This week I was extremely privileged to be given the opportunity to have a sneak peak at a draft copy of the upcoming Oliver Twins 'early years’ biography.

I refuse pointblank to promote anything I don't wholeheartedly believe in, so here I am giving it a well-deserved, two-thumbed plug. Spoiler: they’re pointing skywards and I'm wearing a cheesy grin complete with toothy lens flare.

Chris Wilkins and his interviewees have done a tremendous job of charting the twin's whirlwind ride from schoolboy, bedroom programming entrepreneurs to self-made, multi-million copy selling business moguls.

What's heartwarming is that despite their fame and fortune, the pair, often described as two of the nicest people in the games industry, have never lost touch with their roots. On the contrary, they look back on their early years with genuine affection and humble gratitude. Perhaps this goes without saying; would this book have even got off the ground otherwise?

This unique window into the twin’s Magical Kingdom highlights their successes and failures, the inspiration behind their creations, and the challenges faced and conquered along the way as the cream of British gaming rose to the top of the Gallup charts. Their scintillating fairytale-come-true should be more than sufficient to convince any aspiring developers that with dogged determination and exceptional talent, anything is possible!

What's remarkable about the Oliver Twins’ meteoric rise to prominence is that they got there entirely under their own steam. They didn't have a tyrant of a dad wielding a sturdy belt like Michael Jackson, as tenuous as the parallel may be.

No prizes for guessing which game this photo
 was taken to promote!
Their motivation to achieve came from within, and dad, Malcolm, was initially reticent to encourage their enthusiasm for coding in case it fizzled out as swiftly as the 'fad’ arrived. He thought university would be a safer bet, but had the foresight to let his sons at least try the path less traveled first. Clearly a decent guy who only had their best interests at heart.

The twins also sacrificed their childhoods, albeit through choice, buried their heads in a Dragon 32, and later a BBC Micro B and Amstrad CPC, and didn't come up for air until they were well into their twenties. The volume of their binary output during that period is immense, and much of it had languished in the undocumented twilight zone of history prior to the brother’s lid-lifting pursuit.

Unbeknownst to many fans of their progeny, Andrew and Philip produced a number of titles without credit so as to avoid upturning the Codemasters applecart which launched their careers. At least one other game was published under a tributary pseudonym; the real name of a friend who dreamed of getting into the business at the time. All is divulged in the book.

Someone is going to find themselves extremely busy updating the Oliver Twins’ Wikipedia page when it's released!

An even more momentous revelation concerns the balance of development duties within the collaboration. Referring to their 'design a game' competition entry, Gambit, Philip explains, “I designed it and Andrew typed it in”. It's not remotely true, but it's a gem of an anecdote!

Of course Dizzy gets his moment in the sun. In fact he occupies the largest chunk of the book as you might expect; there were 13 titles created based on his Royal Egginess after all!

We're clued in on his origin backstory, how the name was decided upon (though that was no great mystery to begin with), the inspiration behind the Yolkfolk, and why - several years before idle animations were in vogue - he would never stay still.

The intriguing minutiae of Dizzy's evolution following player feedback throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s is dissected. The mistakes, the breakthroughs, the critic's reception, the 'what ifs’. It's all vividly laid bare.

Then there are the little-known Dizzy Tie-ins That Weren't. Spin-offs that struggled to get off the launchpad because they weren't deemed sufficiently lucrative during a period when Dizzy-fatigue had begun to creep in.

Everything from his blood type to favourite pizza topping is scrutinised. Dizzy aficionados will be in seventh heaven!

Back then Codemasters teetered tenaciously on the edge of a grey area of legitimacy. They had no qualms over ruffling Nintendo's feathers, whilst simultaneously profiting from their ubiquitous platform by refusing to pay the obligatory license fees.

But before the Aladdin Deck Enhancer, which enabled the use of cheaper, unlicensed mini cartridges, the ‘Codies’ poked the hornet's nest with the Game Genie peripheral. The inordinately popular device gave rise to the unauthorised proliferation of game hacking and cheating, and landed the company up to their necks in litigation.

Did they emerge from the year long legal battle unscathed? If you're not familiar with the saga, I won't spoil the surprise.

Worth the cover price alone is the publicity snap of the twins looking sultry and brooding, their shoulders draped with dot matrix computer paper beside the caption, “Philip and Andrew Oliver: the software industry's answer to Bros.”. Priceless!

Fellow programmers certainly won't be disappointed. Panda (that’ll make sense all in good time) don't hold back where geeking out is concerned; the twins’ idiosyncratic brand of coding linguistics is explored, the techniques, obstacles and workarounds elucidated.

What may otherwise seem dry and tedious to those of us who don't speak BASIC or Assembly code is presented in terms even laypeople can wrap their heads around and enjoy. Even so, any anachronisms are neatly counterbalanced by more humanist, touching or comical anecdotes. From very early in their careers, the brothers found themselves at home embracing the media spotlight, and thus are today accomplished raconteurs.

Whilst this is no frivolous, coffee table, picture book, it is chock full of relevant illustrations. Many of which have never been seen before beyond the immediate Oliver family. Possibly not even by them for several decades given that the book has been the most significant loft raiding escalade since Anne Frank was ousted!

You see, the brothers kept everything, the paraphernalia for each game secured and archived meticulously in its own folder like a retro gaming time capsule primed for future generations to exhume. Included in the book are handwritten and drawn design documents, instructions to artists and musicians, magazine advert mock-ups, maps, cheat sequences, receipts, press clippings, and photographs. Even the cutlery Dizzy used in the egg and spoon race he aced when he was just a wee ovum, probably.

For anyone who grew up on a diet of rubber keys, the Sugar daddy, Space Invaders, Pacman and the iconic beige breadbin, The Oliver Twins Story is a seductively elegiac, meandering sojourn down Simpler Times Lane by way of Bygone Era Street.

I reluctantly reached the end with a tinge of melancholy, left wondering, “What happened to me? Whatever happened to you? What became of the people we used to be?”

Sunday, September 18, 2016

A Guided Tour of Mothman Festival 2016

Let Aaron show you around!

A spooky teaser this way comes

Meet Boo!, the eponymous hero of MicroProse's regrettably unreleased, multi-platform cartoon scare-em-up. With the witching season almost upon us, you're in for a real (trick or) treat.

This exclusive, previously unseen VHS footage reveals what might have been under more favourable market conditions, and had the promising game been in the works a year or two earlier.

In my upcoming 'Games that Weren't’ article, I'll be chronicalling Boo!'s curtailed development story, and speaking to the talented team who made it hap… well you know what I mean.

Along the way we'll discover what went wrong, and why it's a crying shame the game is more likely to remain an apparition than drop a Putty Squad shaped bombshell.