Monday, October 25, 2021

Games 291-292: First Star's first games

Coming up next in the whale watch is Boulder Dash, one of two games that its developer First Star Software is best known for. The other, Spy vs Spy, appears later the same year. This post concerns the earliest games by First Star's most directly involved founder, Fernando Herrera.

Scan by Atarimania

With a background in architecture and industrial engineering, Herrera was an early adopter of Atari computers, quickly learning how to write software, which he published through Swifty Software, a one-man publishing house operating as a Long Island schoolteacher's side hustle. First creating programmer's tools, and then a vector-based graphics editor, the program that caught Atari's attention and kickstarted his career was My First Alphabet, a BASIC program that he originally wrote for his 3 year old son, who had suffered from cataracts since birth. My First Alphabet was added to the APX catalog in late 1981, and won the first Atari Star Award, a quarterly cash prize of $25,000 awarded in recognition of the best submission to the catalog. With this award came publicity, prestige, more sales, and inspired the namesake of the company Herrera would soon found.

And ass-kissing.

As for My First Alphabet, there's not much point in evaluating it with a critical eye. The engine draws pictures of things line-by-line, in the same style as Sierra's adventures, and prompts you to type the letter that the thing begins with. Sometimes, instead of letters, you have to count glasses of milk and type the corresponding number key. Correct keypresses are rewarded with shows of color and music. Some children's software holds adult appeal, but this one doesn't, and I can't imagine it impressing any toddlers today.

One curiosity is that the main menu holds a "graphics editor" option, which prompts you to insert disk 2. The original release through Swifty Software would have come with this disk, and the APX catalog sold it separately, but alas, neither version has been dumped, so it remains unavailable.

My First Alphabet was re-released as a regular Atari product the following year, and this version features mostly different pictures and things - for instance, instead of an apple, there's an animated airplane, instead of counting glasses of milk, you count clowns, and the "graphics editor" option is removed.

 

In 1982, Herrera submitted one of his games from Swifty's arcade lineup to APX, to less acclaim, but perhaps more substance for the modern gamer to digest.

 

Game 291: Space Chase


For a change of pace, your goal is to conquer the galaxy rather than to save it. To do this, you fly your ship over every planet in the galaxy while chased by pursuing TIE fighters, and if one of them touches you, then as the game says, only cosmic dust will be left. You can get them off your tail by dropping nuke mines, but they respawn infinitely. In most cases, it's better to fly off the edge of the screen and wrap around to the other side, forcing them to approach you by the long route. Planets may also be destroyed by accidentally or purposefully allowing TIE Fighters to fly over them, which removes them from the screen but also denies you points for conquering them.

In between levels, you can restock nukes, setting your stock to either 125, 25, 5, or 1, but I can't see much reason why you'd want to set it to anything but 125, even if they aren't all that useful. You may also turn your shields on and off, but all your shields do is protect you from your own nukes, while also cutting your points earned in half. I don't think I ever touched my own nukes even once.

GAB rating: Below average, and that's generous. Space Chase is amateurish stuff, too simple to sustain interest for long, and looks and plays pretty rough. But I've seen worse, even from professional channels.


Later that year, Herrera partnered with Hollywood producers Richard Spitalny and Billy Blake, and founded First Star Software, a name referencing Atari's Star Award.


Game 292: Astro Chase

 

SINGLE THRUST PROPULSION could cause a minor resolution in programming video games and computer games, boasts the back of the box. What does it mean? It means you can move in one direction while shooting in another, but it also means you have no way to make your ship stop moving, ever. Robotron: 2084 did the same thing much more elegantly the same year, and didn't feel the need to self-aggrandize the feature or even call attention to it, simply allowing the dual joystick' labels to inform you of their respective purposes.


Astro Chase certainly looks nice, anyway. You couldn't beat the Atari for color depth until several years after its release, and Herrera puts it to good use in a way that isn't comparable to anything I've seen from its era, even in arcades. Cut-scenes in between sets of waves return you to earth, where ticker-tape parades may or may not march in your honor, depending on how far you get.

The game plays like a multi-scrolling but otherwise simplified Defender, where you have to protect the earth from 32 waves of Mega Mines and increasingly powerful interceptors. You can start on any wave from 1 to 24, but if you really want to win, you'll need to start on the easiest rounds to rack up as many extra lives as possible. That said, if even one mine gets through, the earth is destroyed and you lose them all.

Navigating the stage can be pretty frustrating, as an invisible force-field keeps you from straying far from earth, which is a good thing, but the fact that it's invisible means you get bounced back without warning while trying to pursue a mine just out of reach. Equally frustrating are the difficult to spot stars, which serve as obstacles even though perspective rules would dictate that they are several astronomical units away from the plane of action.

Energy is limited but replenishable in a suitably annoying way - refuelling stations placed in the far corners of the playing field mean you risk Terran annihilation by merely visiting them, and the longer you stand by, filling up your reserves, the more you risk the earth's destruction in your absence. Better to refuel at the end of a wave when there's only one mine left and you have some idea of where it is. You can get virtually unlimited energy, but one hit from an enemy and you lose it all except for the standard 1000 units that you'll always spawn with.

GAB rating: Average. Ultimately, Astro Chase didn't entertain me nearly enough to stick with it all the way to the end, and the twitchy controls and odd gameplay mechanics made for a bit of a learning curve, but I did have some fun for the brief period of time between getting its controls and exhausting its gameplay possibilities.

 

Coming up next is Boulder Dash, the first game of 1984 that I'm genuinely excited to play for the first time.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Games 289-290: Lancaster & Will Harvey's Music Construction Set

Likely thanks to the fact that Electronic Arts, much like Microprose to Sid Meier, plastered his name on the boxes of nearly all of the games he designed, I recognize Will Harvey's name and can list most of his works (The Immortal, Zany Golf, Marble Madness C64, etc.), but until now I haven't played any of them.

This post is about his first two games; Lancaster, which he developed independently at the age of 16, and Will Harvey's Music Construction Set, which he made the following year for EA, becoming one of their biggest hits of 1984.

Game 289: Lancaster

Why "Lancaster?" I don't believe this game, ostensibly a Galaxian-style shooter, has anything in particular to do with any real-world municipality called Lancaster, nor the English dynasty, or any of the ships, aircraft, weapons, or sports teams named after either of these things.

The premise - strange, bubble-blowing bugs invade the earth, and you shoot lasers at them. These bubbles, colorful and deadly to the touch, bounce around the arena and will eventually hatch into more bugs, and there's nothing you can do to prevent this, though you can control this somewhat by shooting at them yourself to force them to hatch one at a time, so that you don't have to deal with a dozen hatchlings all at once. There's also a color-based metagame where you can destroy the colorful bricks below you by dropping the corresponding bubble on top of them, and be rewarded with an extra ship each time you clear the row, but it's hard to do this while dodging bugs, and the controls involved are clunky.

I made it to level 7 before losing my last life. The below video starts at level 6 so as not to bore you to death with the easy starting levels.


Lancaster is best played in MAME for its superior joystick support, but as of this writing, MAME corrupts the WOZ file whenever it tries to save your high scores. When you play with a corrupted WOZ file, the game freezes when it reaches the high score screen. So keep a backup.

Tech-wise, Lancaster moves at a decent framerate and speed considering the platform. At roughly 15fps, it's hardly on par with Atari or Commodore 64 games, but for arcade action on the Apple II, this is about as good as it gets. Weirdly, there appears to be some sort of tile-based attribute clash going on when the bubbles overlap each other, even though this isn't an Apple II hardware feature! Lancaster also features ingame music through Mockingboard support, which is something I've never seen before outside of the Ultima series. And it's also one of the few games I've seen to support analog joystick input, though the execution leaves something to be desired.

The controls in general are a bit strange. I've seen worse, but these aren't great. First of all, the joystick doesn't even register until you press the fire button once, which is a bit confusing if you don't know this and are just trying to start the game, and wonder why your ship won't move. Analog movement feels pretty choppy when you aren't pushing the stick all the way in a direction, and the deadzone where you don't move at all is huge, while the zone for moving but slowly is small and unstable-feeling. It winds up feeling more like having a 16-direction stick than true analog control.

The secondary fire button is used to grasp the bubbles, which is useful not only for breaking bricks below but also for lifting and bouncing them so they can be shot at from underneath. The controls for this are very fiddly and make it nearly impossible to grasp them while moving, even though this is clearly meant to be possible. The timing window for grabbing them is measured in frames, your position must be exact, being just a little bit off can cause you to collide with the bubble instead and kill you, and you must resist the urge to hold the secondary button and just lightly tap it instead, because the joystick stops responding when it is held down.

The row of bricks can also be moved, but this too is quite unintuitive to execute, and I rarely bothered except for when all of the bugs onscreen were dead. By holding and then releasing fire, the bricks will follow the horizontal direction of your joystick. Firing again will release them from this mode, and if they're moving when you do this, they'll continue moving at the same speed and direction. It doesn't feel very natural, and it's not something you can easily concentrate on while avoiding bugs. I'd mostly focus on this task once there was nothing left on the screen but bubbles.

GAB rating: Below Average. Lancaster is a poor man's Galaxian with weird controls and gameplay gimmicks that don't mesh well.

 

Game 290: Will Harvey's Music Construction Set

Not a game in the conventional sense, Music Construction Set was, like many of the most successful computer software products, conceived as a bespoke solution to a problem that its own programmer faced rather than as a consumer-facing product. Harvey's problem was adding a score to Lancaster, and for that purpose developed a tool to transcribe sheet music into the computer, along with code to play it back without consuming too many of the precious CPU cycles needed for gameplay.

When Electronic Arts contracted Harvey, they were more interested in this composition tool than the game it was meant for, and after their usual supervised dotting of the i's, crossing of the t's, outsourcing conversions for Atari, Commodore, and IBM computers, and packaging it in an album-style slipcase, Will Harvey's Music Construction Set became one of their biggest hits of the year.

MCS for Apple II doesn't really use color and looks better in monochrome.

The end product is a mouse-driven, WYSIWYG product very much on-brand with Pinball Construction Set, acquired and published by EA the previous year. Notes and rests are dragged onto the two staff lines, which by default represent treble and bass piano, and a third row of accidentals, dots, ties, and octave brackets modify your pitches and durations. Further controls adjust your song's time signature and key, and slider bars adjust its tempo and the individual volumes and instrument samples for the two staves. The manual expects that you understand musical staff notation, but offers a pretty decent introductory lesson on music theory, explaining not just what each component does, but why it's there and how you'd want to use it.

Emulation, unfortunately, is a bit of a problem. Only MAME currently emulates the Echo II+ sound card needed for six-voice output and Apple mouse, which were unusual peripherals for the system, but MAME still has a tendency to freeze up when accessing Apple II disk images. AppleWin is stabler, but you'd be limited to Mockingboard sound and keyboard input.

As with Pinball Construction Set, MAME ate my work before I could complete it, but I got some footage of the construction set in action building my unfinished bagatelle. Jump to the last 30 seconds of the video if you just want to hear the product in the state as close to complete as it got.

 

In addition to Echo II and Mockingboard support, which allow six simultaneous voices over two instruments, MCS can also play on an external stereo system by using the computer's cassette port, but the sound quality is quite lousy and limited to four voices. The Apple buzzer can be used too, but this is also limited to four voices, and display won't scroll during playback as the computer's CPU time is wholly consumed by the playback process. MCS can also print out your sheet music if you have a supported printer, but printer support is limited to a handful, none of them especially common for Apple users to own.

Included on this disk as sample scores to listen to and tinker with are:

  • Scherzo from Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream
  • Pachelbel's Canon
  • Flight of the Bumblebee
  • Bach's Two Part Invention No. 8
  • Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 6, Allegro D Major movement
  • Turkey in the Straw
  • Tears on my Apple, an original by EA composer Douglas Fulton
 

I won't give this one a GAB rating, as not being a game it defies that kind of quantification, but nevertheless, this is a solid and impressive product for its time, with an elegant and intuitive interface and quite a bit more power and flexibility than you'd probably think was possible on a 48KB computer. More than that, it's fun.

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