A few days ago I wrote an article about some Acorn Electron games that I think are still interesting to play after 30 years or so. The list wasn't exhaustive, so I'm going to cover a few more of them in this article.
These games cover a similar period of time to the ones in the previous article, from 1984 to 1989, and it should be easy to see how the style of games changed over the years. Although I didn't mention it before, I'm trying to only cover those games that I played in the 1980s, though there may be one or two exceptions.
This port of the popular ZX Spectrum game plays just like the BBC Micro version and this upsets some people who were used to the original. Those who played this version of Chuckie Egg first got to experience a game that's a lot smoother and more fluid than the original, allowing tricks like continuous jumps on ladders (hold down up and jump) and generally encouraging reckless, free-form play. Keeping the monochrome sprites meant that it keeps the look of the original while feeling quite different to play.
Probably the nicest conversion of Pengo to the Electron, Pengi runs in the 8 colour MODE 2, meaning that it's as colourful as you would hope without being slow to play. The niceties of the arcade game, such as the music and animations between levels, are missing from this version but, since they were generally annoying, that's no loss. There are still interludes between levels if you choose to manage to kill all the snow bees instead of lining up the ice-diamond blocks, so the game retains some of the original arcade flavour.
The way the electric fence at the edge of the gameplay area affects the snow bees is different to that in the arcade original, stunning them a bit wherever they happen to be, but especially if they are touching the fence. This version also lacks the feature where the last enemy tries to escape.
A fast-paced port of Galaga, as you would hope, the version of Zalaga on the Electron runs in the 4 colour MODE 5, but that doesn't matter too much. It features some nice music, a fancy scrolling starfield, and challenge waves. Like Arcadians, also written by Orlando, it's impressive to see what was packed into this early Electron game.
One feature is very different to its counterpart in Galaga. When the player's ship is caught under a tractor beam emitted by a boss, it is not captured by it. Instead, a second ship is automatically brought out to fight alongside the original ship if the player has any spare lives, just as it would in Galaga if you managed to rescue the captured ship from the boss. This replaces the risky strategy of temporarily losing a ship with a simple way to upgrade your firepower.
Zalaga manages to be so fast because it doesn't try to animate everything on each frame. This can make it seem a bit uneven at times, but usually you're too busy trying to avoid enemies and their bombs to notice.
One of only three games released by English Software for the Electron, Jet Boot Jack lacks the colourfulness and music of other versions, though it still manages to retain a lot of the charm. It's another early game that has a lot going on, leading to confusion for modern players who expect a simple, easily-mastered experience.
You only have to collect the notes on each level but it helps to pick up the vinyl pods to refuel. Unexpectedly, you can fly across gaps as long as you keep moving, and can activate the lifts instead of waiting for them to move on their own. Since you have to duck under some obstacles, this means there can be quite a few things to do to reach some notes, and the combination of a set of simple game mechanics leads to some interesting situations. There's certainly a lot more to this game than the screenshots would suggest.
Galaforce on the Electron is interesting because it challenges common assumptions about the machine's graphics and music capabilities. The animation is smooth and quick, the single channel music is high-tempo and complex enough to be interesting. There's even a demo mode.
It terms of gameplay, it marks the transition from games where the invaders sit in formation and dive occasionally to games featuring waves of invaders that follow different movement patterns. Where in Zalaga you improve your skill by learning techniques to combat the diving invaders, with some memorisation of the patterns they use to enter the playing area, in Galaforce it is much more useful to remember the patterns themselves because they make up the main substance of the game.
Each wave typically features more than one pattern, and there are portions of waves that are more free-form, with invaders that spawn streams of other types, as well as sections where a flagship hides at the top of the screen behind columns of defensive drones. Here Galaforce requires the player to fall back on the skills needed in classic invader games.
Not a truly faithful port of the arcade version, Yie Ar Kung Fu on the Electron misses out on a lot of the window dressing of the original game. While it may have been exciting for players on other platforms to see screens informing them who they will be fighting next, it didn't really add to the gameplay of what were often shockingly poor versions of the game.
The Acorn versions also missed out on the tedious pause that occurred every time one character struck another, presumably so that the player could savour every blow, and instead allowed you to get really stuck into the enemies. The result is more of a brawl than choreographed martial arts, but then I thought this was supposed to be a fighting game.
Some of the enemies from the arcade game are missing here but, since they're very similar to the ones that appear, it's not really a disappointment. This version instead has Feedle, an enemy who doesn't appear on-screen at all, but who throws various objects from the edges of the screen. Rather amusingly, players used to other versions often get confused when encountering this enemy.
The Electron had perhaps more than its fair share of maze/puzzle games, with the Repton series beginning two years before XOR was released. Lacking any of the action elements of other puzzle games, it's more of a cult classic than a game with any widespread recognition. Even the most recognisable elements of the game, the shields, fish and chickens, seem quite arbitrary and symbolic, like pieces on some kind of abstract chess board.
The rules are quite simple and everything is deterministic, yet it is a challenge to play. However, once you start to think in the right way – and the game is effectively teaching you level-by-level – you get a knack for solving its puzzles. Some levels are just tremendously satisfying to figure out.
The game features a replay feature for each level that also acts as a move limit since it would otherwise have to overwrite your early moves, but sadly no way to rewind or undo moves. Despite this, it's worth playing a few levels of XOR just to experience the feeling that it's slightly altered your way of thinking somehow.
It was quite a surprise to see Firetrack appear on a compilation of games late in the Electron's heyday because it was assumed that vertical scrollers like it were a bit beyond what the machine was capable of. Fans of the game tend to prefer the BBC Micro version due to its background music and general polish. The Electron version is missing a few key features of the original, but in some ways this makes it a different game rather than a lesser version.
The BBC Micro version requires the player to visit each level twice: first to knock out the power supply, then to attack under the cover of darkness. Scrolling is smooth, if quite leisurely, and your ship has its own inertia which you need to take into account. On the Electron, you only encounter each level once. Scrolling is still as smooth, but the pace is quicker, and your ship is more responsive. So, it's less of an experience, though possibly more accessible if you just want to boot up a game and play a few levels.
The technique used for scrolling is interesting because it involves pushing the graphics down the screen by switching screen modes at progressively lower places near the top of the screen, then resetting the displacement and changing the screen start address so that the next row becomes visible. The stars in the background are presumably moved upwards in terms of absolute screen memory locations so that they appear to scroll downwards slower than the landscape.
Another late compilation release of an older game, Imogen is a puzzle platformer featuring a wizard that can transform into other creatures. None of the levels are particularly difficult in terms of either puzzles or dexterity, though some later levels are tricky to get right. Rather, the difficulty builds up over the course of a game as you run out of the limited transformations you are allowed to make.
There's little to choose from between this version and the original BBC Micro version. The order of levels is different and it lacks the different coloured icons of that version.
Imogen is interesting because each level is loaded into memory as required, containing data for the structure and sprites, along with code to handle the behaviour specific to that level. In that way, the game features a set of replaceable executable modules. Some other games on the Electron featured a main loader that ran other programs containing different parts of an overall experience – this was especially common in sporting simulations – but they never seemed to manage it in such a seamlessly integrated way as Imogen.
Exile is widely regarded as one of the two most technically impressive games on the Acorn machines; the other being Elite. Although offering less than the other versions, it's still interesting to play it on the Electron just to get an appreciation of how remarkable it is that it was made for the machine. From the sampled speech in one of the game's loaders to the physics engine that governs how the world works, Exile extended the limit of what was thought possible on the Electron.
The restricted palette adds a certain austere atmosphere that the BBC Micro version doesn't have. Nice touches like the stars that are visible from the planet surface remind me of old astronomy books I browsed as a child. The sounds, particularly that of the teleportation effect, are haunting in a way that the twinkling sound of the BBC version just isn't.
As a completeable game, Exile is a gruelling experience. You probably need to put in hundreds of hours to get anywhere near the end, and get very lucky with how the creatures in the game behave. It helps to know that you really have to “play” the limitations of the game engine in at least one place, though plausible solutions for many puzzles have been proposed. Imagine trying to attempt this game when quickly saving your position to try something daring involves partially resetting the Electron, loading a quick-save tool to save to cassette, then spending around 20 minutes reloading the entire game again!
As a result of the above hardships, it's best to treat Exile as a sandbox, loading in some previously saved game files or emulator snapshots and interacting with the physics and inhabitants of the world. There are also cheats for the BBC Micro version that let you choose what you start with in your pockets and what you fire from different weapons. Since the game engine treats all objects as individual instances of predefined types, this means that you can even “fire” instances of creatures, enemies, the arch-villain or yourself! This level of generality and flexibility was previously unheard of in a game of this complexity but, at the same time, it may have been what made the complexity possible in the first place.
Many articles have been written about Exile and much more could be written here. It's worth experiencing it on the Electron just to see what the pinnacle of gaming looks like on that machine.
Released as Skirmish after plans for an official release of Joust fell through, this game is a solid conversion from the arcade original. Although slightly slower than the BBC Micro version, and with more limited sound effects, everything else is the same. The graphics mode (MODE 2) is not faithful to the resolution of the arcade game but that's not much of a problem, especially when many other home computer versions failed to manage something that even slightly resembled the original.
It's nice to see an Electron version of an arcade game that manages to keep so many features of the original when players would have accepted far fewer just to get a conversion to play. Perhaps the quality is due to its release so many years after the original game when the author had learned to squeeze the most out of the machine — earlier versions of Joust on other machines seem so underdeveloped in comparison.
I've written about Clogger in a previous article. Like XOR, it's a scrolling puzzle/maze game without the action elements of other games in the same genre. However, Clogger managed to deliver the full-screen, four-way scrolling experience on the Electron that BBC Micro users were used to seeing.
Apart from the scrolling, the use of colour is excellent and really suits this game well. The idea of mixing jigsaw puzzles with the more usual maze-based puzzle elements makes this game stand out from other similar-looking titles and you could certainly spend many hours working out solutions for the many levels provided. As with XOR, the lack of an undo feature is annoying but understandable given the era this game was made in. As with the better-known Repton 3, additional levels were loaded as needed, though the lack of a level designer at the time meant that there wasn't a way for players to make and play their own creations.
There were few original games of this type released after Clogger, so we can consider it the high point on which the genre ended during the commercial lifetime of the Electron. Later work on an unreleased extension to the Repton franchise would result in a new game during the extended retro lifetime of the machine.
I'm sure I'll be reminded about other games I've forgotten as I mull over the ones I've already listed. All of the games I've mentioned are ones I can imagine returning to, even if only for a few minutes. Many others that are also technically impressive or highly recommended in general didn't appear on this list because I personally don't find them interesting to revisit for any length of time. If you grew up with computers from this era you probably have your own list of favourite games, or a list of those that you think other people may find interesting. My own list of favourites includes a few not on this list that I don't think many others would enjoy as much as I do, nostalgia being what it is.
Copyright © 2017 David Boddie
Published: 2016-10-17 13:41:26 UTC
Last updated: 2017-06-30 17:11:33 UTC