POWER PACK 21 (June, 1992)

Commodore_Format_PowerPack_21_1992-06It’s true that 1992 was the year that the candles started to flicker on the C64 market. But it’s also true that the industry left a long series of love letters to the machine in these last couple of years. One of them, Chris Butler’s unexpected swansong Arnie, is on this month’s tape. There’s also a demo of a game based on the summer’s biggest movie and a footie sim’ in time for the European Championships in Sweden. An old computer? Yep. Still being taken seriously, though? Definitely. Here’s a look at Commodore Format Power Pack 21 from June 1992.

EURO FOOTBALL CHAMP

Football Champ was one of those games that attracted a boisterous and very noisy crowd when it first lit up Japanese arcades in 1990. It let you play dirty, zooming in on bone crunching tackles and flying fists. The portly, short sighted referee was deliberately awful, allowing you to get away with almost anything. A bug – perhaps – also meant he lost count of the yellow cards he’d dished out, making two-player mode an absolute riot. The game had a bunch of different names and teams depending on the market, finally arriving in Britain as Euro Football Champ in 1991 (you could still play as Brazil or Argentina, though). Quickly, it became known as a beat ’em up before a footy game. It ate up 10 pence pieces all summer long, as fans desperately tried to figure out how to punch, fly kick or pull the shirt off their opponents. Never seen it? It’s a joy:


As the seasons changed, news began to leak that Domark were going to put it out on home computers including the Commodore 64. The press blinked once, blinked twice and all asked the same question: how?

Commodore Format’s James Leach went to visit Teque (who’d also done C64 Manchester United Europe and Pitfighter) to find out in the Spring. “We decided before we started that the best idea would be to make the game as playable as possible first, and look at the design and feel like the coin-op second”, said the man given the unenviable task of converting the game, Abdul Rahim.

Abdul was right: too many coin-op convos try to look like the original but are completely unplayable. Lessons had been learned from Teque’s own C64 conversion of Pitfighter, unusually and bluntly summed up by CF months earlier as “weird”. So what was the big sacrifice? Here’s Abdul again:

“It proved impossible to keep the 3D version of the coin-op and make the game run quickly, so we opted for a clearer top-down view. This doesn’t affect the gameplay, except to keep it whizzing along at an excellent rate.”

Abdul’s sensible solution was perhaps the only way to covert the impossible to a C64, but the solution is also the game’s downfall: it ended up looking like any other football game and was treated as such by the public. The kicks, punches and headbutts are all in there but it’s difficult to distinguish between them and regular tackles. The computer seemingly dishes them out at random for you, too. The referee is authentically abysmal, but because the riotous feel of the arcade isn’t there it just feels like he’s been given bad AI. Speaking of which, reviews of the time picked up a couple of foolproof ways to score a goal every single time. That meant the best way to play Euro Football Champ was against a mate, who could at least stop you.

It’s a daft game to have tried to convert in the first place, really, so to slate the thing doesn’t see fair on the talented team who clearly tried to approach a C64 version in the right way. It’s clear from the preview that they succeeded in including the original’s quirks like the camera “zooming in” to have a look at brutal tackles, but by the review stage a few months later these were gone. Presumably, it’s just slowed down the action too much.

Any attempt at arcade football on a Commodore is always gonna be compared to the king of the genre, Microprose Soccer. It was re-released this month giving you the chance to banana kick, play in the rain and organise tournaments for just £3.99. Much more fun, and seven quid  cheaper too. Timing!

PACK FACT: This demo is, erm, unplayable. You load it up and watch. That’s it. But there tells the tale of this game’s limits: with no tournaments or leagues in Euro Football Champ, to give away a match for free was, in effect, giving away the entire product.

ANCIPITAL

There’s plenty an old timer will tell you that this inventive and downright silly shooter is Jeff Minter’s finest hour, at least on the ’64. Ancipital is another one that goes back to the very dawn of Commodore history, created when Jeff was one of the first people in the UK to have the machine (it’s technically a 1984 game, but it was being worked on in ’83).

You control the Ancipital, a horrifying human/goat hybrid who has to navigate 100 rooms full of clownish nasties that all try to kill you before you blow their spritey faces off first. When you defeat the enemy they smash into the room’s walls weakening them, eventually revealing exits that let you access other parts of the maze. The frantic part is that there’s a timer: you can’t head for an exit until it’s run out, so to survive you must keep blasting.

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Each room has a brilliant name and enemy that’s entwined with early ’80s gaming and youth culture: for example, “Is This You?” is a nod to computer piracy. The aim in the room is to zap the computer disks and avoid the skulls. Other parts of the game see you dashing around screens filled with Rizlas and lighters, Doc Martin boots and the disembodied head of Neil from The Young Ones (“allow Neil to show himself and then blast him with a Yin Yang”). It being a Jeff Minter game, there’s also enough psychedelia to warrant a serious epilepsy warning and – of course – all sorts of weird gravity stuff to play about with when you’re wandering the maze. That’s for you to get to grips with and enjoy for yourselves, though – along with the string of surprises Ancipital keeps giving. It’s really great stuff, and it’s here on Power Pack 21 in full. Jeff Minter’s own personal best is 83% and 3.4 million points – beat that!

PACK FACT: The protagonist is taken Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia Trilogy.

!EPILEPSY WARNING!

ARNIE 

The Commodore 64 world thought that Chris Butler’s immense 1991 drive ’em up, TurboCharge, was his swansong for the machine. Chris had been behind pivotal Commie moments like Ghosts & Goblins and Commando. Famed for getting the very most out of the machine and going heavy on beautiful, thoughtful presentation, TurboCharge seemed like his natural 8-bit conclusion. Its lengthy intro includes overhead satellite shots of the landscape you’re about to smash through, and the roads themselves feature over 20 different kinds of vehicle. There’s a real sense of speed as helicopters swoop from above and even the light on the road changes. It feels like the culmination of a Commodore 64 career; a showcase of one of the scene’s biggest talents. That, given it was 1991, was that.

But here, nine months later in the summer of ’92 came Arnie. It was without warning, and it cost just four quid from Zeppelin. The first most of the C64 world knew about it was when this short demo appeared, and to this day it’s pondered whether or not it really is the Chris Butler (more of which in a while). Here’s the deal:

Once you hit fire to start the game, a helicopter drops you into the jungle and flies off. You grab your AR-15 assault rifle and begin to shoot the merry hell out of everything, with the ultimate goal of  defeating a demented General. And that’s it.

Each of the baddies in the rain forest and military camps you encounter don’t actually shoot that much at you. But there are tons of them – plus tanks, helicopters and soldiers manned in guard posts. The interesting thing is that sometimes the best route through is patience. By not shooting at everything, you can usually take stock and plan a way through the carnage. The thing to do is to take it slow through the weaving roads but keep moving, lest you get over-run by enemies.

You can pick up new weapons by killing off any soldiers you see flagged up in pink. Usually it’s something cool like a flame thrower or even a rocket launcher. They’re really important for destroying bigger stuff like tanks.

Arnie takes “One more try” to extremes, ‘cos you usually learn something every time you’re killed off. You just want to keep going back – and can there be any greater achievement for a game? The isometric graphics are cool, even if some of the visuals are a bit small and disproportionate. And the sound effects, though initially kind of weedy and seemingly inappropriate, somehow kind of fit the game. They’re very video-gamey and just work. The explosions when you finish off something huge are particularly satisfying. The only thing you could really pick at as its length: it’s very short, but then it’s a budget offering. The fact it leaves you gagging for more speaks volumes for  its quality.

So to the big question, then. Is it him?

“It’s definitely THE Chris Butler”, says C64 expert Frank Gasking of Games That Weren’t. “The whole game has that style of his … even the title screen seems to be similar to Thunderblade/720…Oh, and the high score too!  It’s the same circular selection process. I really do honestly think that Arnie takes a lot of routines from 720 in particular! Nice bit of code recycling.”

And what about the game’s timing, so soon after TurboCharge? “Something like Arnie would have been quick for him to knock up (maybe only in a few months or less), especially if he was chucking together old routines.”

So there you go. Arnie – definitely by THE Chris Butler. And definitely one of the best games of 1992.

PACK FACT: This was one of 1992’s best sellers, and spawned a hurried sequel. Not by Chris, and in spite of CF‘s  glowing review not really that much cop. 

SOUTHERN BELLE

This agonisingly accurate steam train sim’ lets you drive an engine on a C64 interpretation of the London to Brighton line of the 1930s. When Hewson put this out for the first time in 1986 – ” live out your dreams” – it came with a document that explained how real steam trains worked and if you’re going to play Southern Belle properly you’ll need it. It’s worth stopping here to say that the game was aimed at middle-aged folk who’d grown up loving the real thing post WW2 and they saw it as absolutely wonderful, a true chance to play out their childhood fantasies. Younger players could turn off a lot of the options and just concentrate on tooting the whistle and keeping the coals fired up.

Before getting on board (you are so into this – Ed), the game makes you choose between a “timetable” service (stopping at each station) or a non-stop journey. There’s also a “problem” run for hardcore enthusiasts which tests your ability to deal with random difficulties. Finally, you can try to crack the speed record for London to Brighton.

Whichever you choose, you’re judged on economy (the fuel and all that), safety (there are strict speed limits on certain parts of track) and timekeeping. The screen puts you behind the engine with a view of controls and the track ahead. Everything is in black and white and one-frame-per-second 3D wireframe-ish stuff. There’s some satisfaction in finally chugging off, and you’ll recognise landmarks at certain stops (Battersea Power Station, for example). As you continue your journey there is enjoyment in getting hands on with the whistle, fire, regulator, brakes and fire doors. You’ve pretty much got full control if you want it. But it’s soooo s-l-o-w, and there’s only one track, ‘course, so it’s probably not something you’ll come back to. There’s nowt wrong with Southern Belle, but it’s a game of its time and made for a super niche audience. The only real laugh is when you “forget” the brakes and crash at Brighton station, to be honest. “Cheaper than a model train set”, said ZZAP! at the time. True. But definitely not as much fun.

PACK FACT: There’s a follow-up to Southern Belle called Evening Star. It’s more of the same on the Bath to Bournemouth line.

THE ADDAMS FAMILY

This is an interesting, work-in-progress version of Ocean’s penultimate Commodore 64 game. The 1964 black comedy TV series was back in fashion in the early ’90s thanks to a 1991 reboot starring Back To The Futures Christopher Lloyd and a young Christina Ricci. The video game’s story picks up from the back end of the movie which sees the fam getting evicted from their creepy mansion. To make it worse – or conveniently, if you’re making a platform game – Morticia Addams, Pugsley Addams, Wednesday Addams, Granny Addams and Lurch have gone missing. Taking charge of Gomez Addams (that’s Dad) you have to find and save your family, defeat a confused Uncle Fester and kick the evil attorney out of your home (modern – Ed).

Ocean put this one out as a platformer on pretty much every format at the time, with the SNES version getting particular praise for its Mario-esque collectables, open map (go where you want) and quirky atmospherics (there’s Thing, the disembodied hand, scuttling about for example). On C64 the screens flick rather than scroll, but there’s still a biiiig map to explore with doors to get through and keys to unlock ’em – you know the sort  of thing. You bounce on the heads of skulls, spiders and ghosts to bump them off and there are spikes, pits and weather elements like mini tornadoes to deal with too.

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It really is  ridiculously tough (and the demo’s tougher), but James Leach still rated this platformer at 92%. It’s Marmite, for sure – but look at those visuals. Great looking thing. Here’s the full review.

This demo lets you wander around outside the family mansion, where you’ll die. A lot. The Addams Family on C64 is a far cry from the cuddly 16-bit Nintendo incarnation. It is Jet Set Willy levels of hard, and this cut down Power Pack version is even tougher ‘cos as well as being utterly silent – no sound at all – it’s missing the finished game’s energy mechanic. So one hit, boom, you’re gone. Even CF‘s instructions warn you that being just one pixel too near to a fiendish puddle of water will kill you, and asks anyone who’s actually finished the demo to write in.

The full game is best played if you plan every screen and you map every key, but even then it’s better with an infinite energy cheat. Go easy on yourself like that and you’ll be able to enjoy some gorgeous visuals, clever puzzles and console-ish energy. CF rated it at 92% this month, but this one’s got plenty of what the kids are calling haters. Is this game unfair or just tough? Let us know how you get on with it.

PACK FACT: Deep within the code of the Speccy version, the game’s programmer had a bit of a moment. He rants about burglars, car thieves and how he’d like to see the return of the death penalty. 

SUMMING UP

Worth it just for Arnie. You can easily spend weeks coming back to it, having a quick  blast and get your money’s worth out of this month’s cassette. Ancipital is a fine coder’s finest moment, and design nerds will love poking around an unfinished Addams Family. As for Southern Belle, it’s easy to take the mick but at the time it was praised for standing out in a sea of shooters and puzzle games. The C64 was still popular enough to carry something so niche in 1986 and you’ve got to understand that one in the context of the time. Decent month, we reck. CF

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