Monday, March 30, 2020

Game 168: Choplifter!

Just... how was I supposed to dodge that?

After playing four derivative, uninspired, and really flawed Apple II arcade games by Broderbund, I was a little worried for Choplifter!

Turns out this is not only the best Broderbund game yet, this is also the best arcade-style computer game I've played yet, even if there is a luck-based performance ceiling. And despite taking some obvious cues from Defender, it would be wrong to think of this as Apple Defender; unlike so many contemporaries, it was designed from the ground up as an original concept, and not as a programming exercise to re-create a popular arcade game on the 6502-driven Apple II.

Regarding emulation, I found that the WOZ disk image doesn't work on current versions of MAME, which is the only Apple II emulator I've seen that properly supports analog joystick input. The 4am crack worked just fine, though.

The back of the manual details a plot that's simultaneously self-aware ridiculous and uncomfortably close to the current events of 1982. The evil Bungeling Empire (we'll see them again) has captured 64 United Nations delegates and holds them hostage for unspecified but surely nefarious reasons. A rescue attempt is underway, by smuggling a choplifter into a nearby post office, heavily armed and capable of transporting 16 passengers at a time (plus two backup choppers, which may only take off should the first one fail for some reason).

At first you'll catch the Bungelings off-guard, with only a few tanks to deal with, which are no threat to your chopper whatsoever as long as you're in the air. They'll shoot in your general direction regardless, and their fire has a tendency to hit hostages. Your ATS fire, thankfully, can't harm the hostages (low-angled ATA fire, unfortunately, can).

After the first rescue, upon your return to airlift the next batch, they'll scramble jets, which are nearly impossible to deal with in any way except evasion, and will easily blast you out of the sky if you aren't alert, skilled, and at least a little bit lucky. After the second rescue there will be drone air mines, which move slowly but will track your chopper relentlessly, and mostly make your life miserable when contending with combined forces. And after the third, at which point there should be no more than 16 hostages left, the drones will fire bullets too, and tanks and jets will spawn even more aggressively. You'll be under massive pressure from hostile vehicles coming in from all directions, opportunities to safely land and pick up the last stragglers are few and short-lasted, and the slightest miscalculation, badly performed evasive maneuver, or unlucky blindsiding by an off-screen jet can destroy your chopper, killing everyone aboard.

I didn't think it could be done on the Apple II, but Choplifter is beautifully animated, and in a way that you don't see in arcade games of the time. Your chopper pitches and yaws as you fly it up, down, forwards, backwards, and rotate it to face the tanks in the foreground. It bounces on the landing gear when you make a hard landing. When you crash or take a hit, the fuselage implodes on itself as the wreck burns. Enemy jets spin into U-turns, entering the background or foreground before they return to your plane and fire missiles at your tail rotor. Hostages run around in a confused panic as the world burns around them, some of them waving to get your attention, some of them running right into enemy fire, and others making a mad dash directly toward your helicopter, even parking themselves directly below it. As the manual puts it, "don't land on the hostages. That kills them." All of this visual splendor comes at a cost, as the frame rate tanks into the single digits when there's a lot of action on the screen, especially when there are several hostages running around.

Choplifter controls beautifully too. What took me most by surprise is that this game makes full use of the analog joystick - I had only played Apple II games on a keyboard before, and it feels a little surreal to see an early 80's sidescroller with analog movement! You'll want to take advantage of this; using a keyboard deprives you of a lot of nuance over the slightly tricky chopper controls, which are just physics-driven enough to make it a satisfying challenge to pull off graceful, controlled, and often death defying maneuvers. Lift is partly counteracted by gravity, just enough that you'll need to throw the joystick partway vertically to hover in place, or you can Flappy Bird your way across the field, letting inertia carry you forward in short, choppy bursts.

My best attempt rescued 58 of the hostages, and there were a lot of lucky near misses. For each lucky near miss in this run, there were probably at least five runs that ended because of not so lucky non-misses.

GAB rating: Good

Choplifter looks, controls, and plays great, but there's one thing that made me want to keep coming back that you don't often see in arcade games of the era. It has a definite end point. Defender and other games can go on forever, challenging you to last longer, finish more levels, and get a higher and higher score. Choplifter has no scorekeeping except for the number of hostages rescued, and once all 64 are rescued or dead, the game ends. Even after I figured out how to reliably live long enough to reach that point, I wanted to keep trying again to see if I could save more next time.

Granted, luck does play a big role in how many you save past 48 - there's only so much you can do keep them from running into enemy fire, or to deal with off-screen jets ruining your day. So many runs ended with an off-screen jet popping into view without warning and immediately blowing away a chopper full of the last passengers. There are techniques that help manage risk - I learned quickly, for instance, not to fly at full forward speed once the Bungelings scramble jets, because you'll probably just fly right into the path of their missiles with no time to react. But I don't believe there is any technique that ensures your safety. In any event, very few games of this era were both challenging and completely fair about it.

That's the end of my Broderbund 1979-1982 retrospective. I had hoped to find out if playing a selection of their best-selling and most important predecessors would shine any light on an evolving style. I'm not quite sure that it did - while Digital Antiquarian's article about Choplifter mentions that Broderbund was instrumental in helping Dan Gorlin to fine tune the experience, especially with regards to the controls, I don't see much parallel in their earlier products. The Galactic Saga games are altogether different types, the arcade-style games licensed from Starcraft and other Japanese developers appear to have been created independently, and there's little information at all about David's Midnight Magic. These are the games that solidified Broderbund as the leading publisher of arcade computer games, so at the very least, it's not surprising that Choplifter would appeal to them.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Games 166-167: Early Broderbund

Doug Carlston’s Galactic Empire and its follow-up Galactic Trader were moderate successes by the standards of 1979 personal computer games, and had been distributed through multiple channels, rather than by the exclusive publishing deals that dominated the industry not long after. In 1980, concurrent with the release of Galactic Revolution, he and his brother Gary officially founded Broderbund Software, initially with the purpose of self-publishing Apple II conversions of the Galactic trilogy, which later became a tetralogy with the Apple-exclusive Tawala’s Last Redoubt.

The brothers soon met with Japanese Apple II developer Starcraft, and struck a deal to license and distribute their games in the US. Their arcade-style games seem like a clash of style, completely unlike the text-heavy, data-heavy management sims comprising the Galactic Saga, but late in 1980, one such game became Broderbund’s biggest hit yet, occupying a high slot in the software charts well into 1981.

Apple Galaxian

There’s little reason to play this unauthorized computer conversion today, in an era where the categorically superior arcade version has been long playable in MAME.

I couldn’t find a way to play this game with the keyboard, or find any manuals online. It appears to default to paddle controllers, and works in a strange, non-intuitive way. The paddle position determines your space ship’s position, but doesn’t directly control its movement as in Pong or Breakout. Rather, it’s as though the paddle controls where you want the ship to be. Turn it a little bit to the left, and the ship moves a little bit to the left and then stops. Turn it all the way to the left, and the ship will keep moving to the left until hit hits the left edge of the screen. Turn it back to the center, and the ship will move right until it hits the center of the screen, and then stop. In all cases, the ship only has one movement speed – turning the dial faster does not move your ship faster. This system feels like a clumsy alternative to keyboard controls rather than a one intended for the game, but I simply can’t find a way to play with the keyboard.

Joystick controls are even worse! You hold left to move left and hold right to move right, as expected, but release the joystick and your ship will return to the center of the screen. To be fair, I suspect Apple Galaxian doesn’t natively support joysticks and this is just the emulator’s way of emulating paddle input with a joystick, so I won’t fault Apple Galaxian for this, but bottom line is you don’t want to play this game with a joystick.

Controls aside, hitting the enemies is considerably easier than in the original game; they don’t oscillate, and the hitboxes just seem to be bigger, to the point where it’s not uncommon to hit two enemies with the same bullet. But this goes both ways; dodging enemy fire feels much more difficult, and with fewer enemies in the initial phalanx, it doesn’t take long at all before they get extremely aggressive. The net result is much harder than Galaxian, but I’m sure the crummy controls have a lot to do with it, and if there’s a way to enable keyboard controls that I just haven’t discovered, then it would be much more doable.

I find it a little astounding that such a blatant copy of a game, down to lifting its title, could have been a high profile commercial release even in this era so often characterized by ignorance and/or indifference to copyright laws. Was the Japanese computer game market simply too small for Namco to take notice? How did Broderbund manage to avoid Atari’s infamously aggressive litigation? And how did it not occur to Starcraft or Broderbund that plagiarizing someone else’s game so thoroughly might be legally actionable, or at the very least not cool? Doug Carlston allegedly claimed he had no idea of Galaxian’s existence, but I’m dubious. Not just because Galaxian had been out in the U.S. for the better part of a year, but also because ads like this existed:

Later printings were retitled “Alien Rain,” but did nothing else to hide this nearly wholesale asset lift.

Apple Galaxian might have been a strong selling title in its day, but it’s just not interesting to play when Galaxian exists. I give it no GAB rating and no number.

Apple Panic

Released in 1981, Apple Panic was both another best seller and another wholesale plagiary, this time of Universal’s Space Panic, sometimes described as the first platformer.

This intro currently does not animate correctly in AppleWin!

I spent a lot more time puzzling over the credits than I did playing the game. Who is Ben Serki? Google tells me nothing that can’t be gleaned from this title screen. What is Cosmos-Okayama? A Google search for that suggests a “Cosmos Hwy” running through Okayama prefecture.

Digging a bit deeper, I found an ancient Usenet thread claiming that when you beat level 48 (ha!), you are dumped to this message:

       START ADDRESS = $7000

So it appears that Apple Panic was almost certainly originally made in Japan, and one online source even credits it to Starcraft. This would make plenty of sense, but if so, why isn’t the name seen on the packaging as it is on Apple Galaxian and other later titles that they published through Broderbund? And either way, how did this game programmed by two Okayama engineering students wind up in the hands of Broderbund? Who is Ben Serki, and what does “Cosmos-Okayama” mean?

In any event, I didn’t spend much time playing. Certainly not enough to beat level 48 and verify the hidden credits screen myself.

I didn’t like Space Panic at all in the first place, and everything I disliked about Space Panic is even worse in Apple Panic. It’s ugly and controls even more badly, with the shovel controls frequently failing to do anything at all until your feet are exactly on the correct pixel where digging is allowed. Keyboard controls work natively, but use a weird feeling setup, one common in early computer action games, where rather than pressing and holding a direction to move, you tap a direction once to begin moving, and tap the space bar to stop moving. The AI seems even more erratic than the original, to the point where it’s very unlikely that one of the mutant apples will get you unless you walk very close to one on purpose or if you start the level right next to one. At the same time, waiting around for the apples to randomly wander into your pit traps is incredibly frustrating, and trying to play aggressively is just asking to be eaten.

Once again, I don’t find this game interesting enough to rate or number.

Game 166: David’s Midnight Magic

At last, an original game! Sort of. It's a pinball video game with a table design based very strongly on Williams' now classic Black Knight.

Photo found on Pinterist, sourced to

I've mentioned before that I'm not really a pinball fan, that the tables all feel kind of samey to me, and that pinball video games don't really provide what I'm looking for in a video game. Nevertheless, this was one of Broderbund's biggest titles in their early days, so I played it.

The game requires paddle controllers, which kind of makes sense. There's a pinball-like action button on the side of each controller, used to activate the flippers, and the right knob controls the launch plunger. I don't know how the Apple paddles feel, but my Atari paddles have a squishy feel to the buttons, not at all like the clicky action felt on real pinball tables, and the fact that the buttons are both on the left sides makes it a bit awkward to hold both at the same time with easy access to the buttons. Playing for a long time is fatiguing. On top of that, this setup is not congenial to shaking the table, which requires freeing one hand from a paddle in order to hit the space bar.

GAB rating: Average. As we'll see pretty soon, pinball simulations on the Apple II were fashionable in 1981-1982. I'm not the ideal gamer to critique these games, but this one was functional but basic feeling. As a sim, it doesn't try to do anything that can't be done on a real physical table. And as a sim, it falls short of replicating the feel of a real table. Flipper action feels a bit mushy, the physics model seems to lack momentum and precision, and everything about it just feels kind of okay.

Game 167: A.E.

Another Japanese computer game published by Broderbund, this one was, along with Choplifter, one of Broderbund's best selling products of 1982. Developed by Programmers-3, famous today as Compile and best known for the Puyo Puyo series, Gary Carlston claims he had to talk them into releasing it commercially; they had discarded this project thinking it not good enough to sell.

The back cover states that "A.E" is Japanese for "ray," as in the type of cartilaginous fish. The word I think they're referring to would be more conventionally romanized as "ei," but "A.E." works as a rough English-friendly phonetic pronunciation of it.

A one page manual provides a backstory and gameplay instructions.

Scan provided by Mobygames

It's actually kind of nice to see that for once, the stakes aren't that high.

A.E. comes on a double-sided disk, and the first side apparently is only used for the slickly animated title screen (and for booting & copy protection).

But I only see two programmers.

The second side contains the game (plus a nonplayable demo mode if you boot from it), and it plays  like the bonus rounds from Galaga, with one huge gameplay difference. Your shot does nothing on impact, but it explodes, Missile Command-style when you release the fire button, destroying anything that flies into its blast sprite.

The other standout feature is the elaborate backgrounds. You just didn't see things like this outside of adventure games - even arcade shooters of the time used repetitive tile backgrounds and not one-off artwork like this. They're not just static backgrounds either, and the first stage makes the most use of the pseudo-3D perspective. The A.E. emerge from the horizon, fly far off into space, come back closer, fly behind the towers, and loop around to the front, before swooping down close to you and flying right back into the horizon again.

Sometimes, though, the backgrounds clash with the action, making it hard to see what's going on. This led to a lot of deaths.

What even hit me? A.E? More like B.S!

There are eight stages that progress farther out into space as you drive the A.E. away from earth, and each is beaten by clearing three waves, eliminating all of the A.E. before any of them can exit the screen. This is basically impossible to achieve without knowing their flight patterns ahead of time. They fly very fast, you fire very slowly, forcing you to lead them, and even if you know exactly where they are going it feels very difficult to precisely control where your shot detonates, leading to a lot of near misses. The A.E. don't return fire nearly as aggressively as Galaxian/Galaga enemies, but when they do shoot, it's often at close range, which is where you'll have the easiest time hitting them, but also have basically no chance to dodge a shot, if you can even see it!

To finish the final stage, at which point it loops back to the first, I had to use save states at the beginning of each stage so that I could see and memorize its patterns without having to restart from the beginning each time I failed. I did, however, manage to beat the eight stage on my first try, which I am quite proud of, even if I did lose all of my lives there.

I've edited out my countless failures in this video to keep the runtime well under the hour and a half it took me to finish the game.

GAB rating: Bad.

I started hating this game around stage 3, and the more I played it, the more deeply I hated it. Programmers-3 might have been wrong to think that this game wouldn't sell, but their mistake was underestimating what the public of the time would buy, not in undervaluing the quality of this product. It looks interesting, even striking, though I'd could hardly call it pretty, but there's about five minutes worth of gameplay here, padded out by an unfair difficulty overcome through rote memorization and tolerating a lot of unfair deaths.

So far I haven't been loving Broderbund's early efforts. Apart from the Galactic games, which have their own issues, all of their best-selling titles were poor imitations of arcade-style games, with A.E. doing the most to distinguish itself from the real thing, but not enough. Even when considering that the real thing would cost 25 cents per play, it's hard for me to think paying $45 for an inferior version of an arcade game would have been a good deal. To get my money's worth from any one of these computer games, I'd have to play it 180 times! No thanks. Choplifter's next - hope I like this one better!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Game 165: Galactic Empire and the road to Choplifter!

A big part of what I do here involves retroactively looking at a company’s early catalog, working my way up to their first breakout title through a selection of their prior works and influences. The very first whale of Data Driven Gamer – “Breakout” appropriately enough – led me down a rabbit hole of even earlier Atari games, and we could see their style emerging and groundwork laid for later games as well. I’ve retrospected over a dozen developers in this way, whose names can be seen off to the right as cloud labels.

That’s all and well when discussing developers, but is there also value in exploring the back catalogs of publishers? It’s easy to view publishers as a pragmatic force, important for funding and distribution, but largely irrelevant or even destructive to the creative process. I simply don’t care, for instance, that Atari was the U.S. distributor of Dig Dug and numerous other arcade games by Japanese developers. The version of Dig Dug that most of us would play nowadays is 100% Namco, and predates Atari's involvement.

Sometimes, though, a set of games may have a semblance of continuity through the publisher, despite having no individual programmers in common. We’ve seen that Avalon Hill, for instance, published Chris Crawford’s Tanktics, Gary Bedrosian’s B-1 Nuclear Bomber, Midway Campaign by an unknown programmer, Tom Cleaver’s Galaxy, and Daniel Lawrence’s Telengard, and all of these games feature wargame-like mechanics, had been available on cassette tape format for a wide variety of 16-32KB microcomputers, came with in-depth manuals, and were all programmed in BASIC and distributed in such a manner as to be easily modified by end users. It’s hard to think that this is a coincidence – I’m sure that although these games were all created by different people, Avalon Hill intended some consistency of quality to go with their brand.

This brings us to our next whale, Choplifter! designed by Dan Gorlin, and published by Broderbund. We cannot use this as a launching point for a Gorlin retrospective - it's his first game that we know of, and none of his later games make whale status. Apart from a few years working at Broderbund and involvement in a 3D remake in 2012, video games did not play a major role in Gorlin's storied career.

It may, however, make sense to use this as a Broderbund retrospective instead. In its heyday, Choplifter was marketed and seen as a Broderbund product, as were later games such as Lode Runner, Karateka, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, and of course Prince of Persia. How much would playing previous Broderbund games help us to better appreciate Choplifter and other games to come? I intend to find out.

Although Broderbund is known as an Apple II publisher in this era, their first product originates as a TRS-80 game, Galactic Empire. This is not to be confused with Tom Cleaver's Galactic Empires,  released the same year 1979, of which I will be making several comparisons to. Broderbund's earliest releases as a publisher also include several games by Japanese microcomputer developer Starcraft, whose breakout hit Apple Galaxian solidified Broderbund's status as a force in the burgeoning Apple II software market, but also rocked the boat for obvious reasons.

Two important games of 1981 include Apple Panic, credited to Ben Serki (his sole credit), and David's Midnight Magic, by David Snider. The former, an unauthorized adaptation of Space Panic, was undoubtedly an influence on Broderbund's famous Lode Runner. The latter is an Apple II pinball game, a category that's soon going to be populated with the likes of Raster Blaster, Pinball Construction Set, and Night Mission Pinball.

In 1982, the same year as Choplifter, Broderbund published A.E. to a fair amount of success. Today A.E. is notable as the first product by Japanese developer Programmers-3, better known now as Compile. We'll be covering more of their games quite a bit later.

For now, though, here's my road from Galactic Empire to Choplifter.

Galactic Empire's 8-page manual explains that our mission is to conquer the galaxy, noting that FTL travel is physically impossible - we will need to go into cryogenic hibernation to endure the years needed to travel interstellar distances, and even then we only have 1000 years to achieve victory. Conquered planets will add to the strength of our empire, but careful planning and logistics will be needed to complete the mission in a timely manner, bearing in mind that time also passes at a rate of 4 real minutes per ingame year when not hibernating or traveling.

This is a 4x game! And one that's eerily similar to Galactic Empires' singleplayer mode, down to the emphasis on logistics. The biggest difference is that here, you have a centralized fleet, and can only issue orders from the seat of your flagship, giving it almost an RPG-like feel. Your resources - soldiers and credits - are collected from territory planets through conscription and taxation, and these actions can likewise only be performed from orbit. There is simply no system for receiving tributes from the far-flung reaches of your empire; you must go there and collect yourself.

Ships are built on sufficiently advanced planets and you must be present to place orders, but you can place orders well into the future. Because large fleets take time to build, and you may not want to wait around for them to complete, you can give the shipyard instructions to send completed ships to meet you at a different system - if you can plan ahead that far! You can even give time-sensitive orders - for instance "wait 10 years, then build four fighters and one transport every year over for the next five years, and send them to Kgotla when they're finished" is a valid order Just be sure that you're at Kgotla within 15-20 years to collect them, because after five years of waiting, individual ships will run out of supplies and be lost. Ship prices fluctuate, but are paid in advance at current prices.

You may also send scouts to investigate systems and then return, and the "return" planet needn't be the place where they started. After all, they take years to fly out, return, and it will take you more years to fly to a new destination - you might just want to save some time by picking a rendezvous point closer to the action. Once sent out, you cannot read their reports or give them additional orders until you rendezvous.

Fighter and transports, once they have joined your fleet, will never leave it. Transports hold 100,000 men each, which are enlisted from your territories, and may be ordered to make planetfall for a ground invasion to conquer a neutral planet, but only if your fleet is in orbit, and only if you have fighter superiority. Bad things happen if you accidentally invade a planet that you already control.

I started off playing version 1.00, but discovered this version had some really nasty bugs - purchased ships would vanish, the combat display was glitch city, and during my first dogfight, it crashed.

Not a good look, Doug.

So I abandoned the initial version and tried v1.14, which behaved better, didn't crash and supported on-disk saving, rather than the cumbersome tape saving that took forever and never seemed to work right when loading.

The galactic map. Z-coordinates are not shown, Y-coordinates are inverted.

I started off as I naturally would - gathering data! The onboard computers give you the coordinates of the galactic systems, which I punched into an Excel spreadsheet, though two other vital statistics - planet population and technology level - may only be learned through scouting. There are 20 planets in total, and each one begins with a different letter of the alphabet, for simple, single-keystroke correspondence. Galactica, your imperial seat, has a population of 400 million, and sophisticated technology which allows for building space ships.

I ordered scouts to the five closest planets and back, collected 400 credits in taxes, and enlisted enough men to fill 80 transports - equivalent to 8 million. It would take 20 years for my scouts to return, so I had some time to kill. I placed an order for 36 more fighters, 9 more transports, and 15 more scouts, which used up most of my money and would take twelve years to complete. I then waited in cryogenic hibernation, making sure to wake up every five years to collect my ships and receive reports from my returning scouts.

A note concerning math, Galactic Empire measures ground forces in terms of hundred thousands, as this is the number of men that fit on a single transport ship. Moving forward, I will, anachronistically, use the vinculum numeral C to denote these numbers. 80C means 80 times a hundred thousand, or 8 million, enough to fill 80 transports.

By year 21, my ships were built and my scouts all returned, giving me information on these planets:
  • Utopia - 2LY away, over 400m population, sophisticated technology
  • Proyc - 8LY away, over 1b population, sophisticated technology
  • Zoe - 8LY away, under 100m population, primitive technology
  • Yang-Tzu - 9LY away, over 1b population, sophisticated technology
  • Novena - 10LY away, over 400m population, sophisticated technology

Yikes! Four out of five planets were badder than Galactica.

I set a course for Zoe, the only weak-sounding planet of the five.

I attacked and it fell pretty easily, though at a significant cost to my troops.

I collected some meager taxes and recruits -  only 54 credits and 5C worth. I tried Utopia next, and their fighter defenses scrambled and obliterated my fighter squadron, leaving my flagship defenseless.

Game over, man!
After a few more false starts, and finding that the galaxy is randomized each time you restart, I made headway. If you play, my specific notes on the galaxy's systems will not likely align with yours!

Galactic Empire is strange about how you gather resources. You can tax and enlist from a planet once per visit, and it doesn't matter how long it's been since your last visit. You can tax Galactica at a rate of one credit per million population, embark to a nearby neutral planet, immediately return, tax again, and repeat for as much money as you like. Galactica will never go broke. If you can go back and forth between two planets under your control, that's even better. Enlistment has some diminishing returns since doing so at the maximum rate decreases population by 2%, but you're likely to run out of space for men long before this becomes an issue. Conversely, you can tax and enlist from a planet only once per visit. Galactica will have nothing more for you, even if you wait there for years, until you leave and return.

In my case, the galaxy generated a planet Javiny only one lightyear away, so I could effectively tax and enlist every two years, buying transports on Galactica with all of my money, until I accumulated 200 filled transports, representing 20 million ground troops. This was enough to conquer Harkon, an atomic age planet of 528 million, defended by 145C ground troops, but I lost 150C in the process.

A side note here, it is utterly infuriating how Galactic Empire sometimes parses a single digit as a completed number when you intended to type two. For instance, one time I wanted to enlist 80C, but after typing '8' the game decided to accept that as the input without waiting for any further keystrokes. Arghh! Also annoying but more forgivable is that pressing Esc will instantly quit the game - not a big deal if you can remember that "R" is always used to back out of menus and never "Esc," but muscle memory's a bitch.

My victory on Harkon was costly - you don't get your transports back after a fight, so I was left with 50 filled transports, no empty ones, no place to put recruits, and no ability to build new ships on this atomic-age planet. So, I collected taxes, returned to Galactica and repeated the trick of ping-ponging between it and Javiny, taxing the former while building more ships and continuing to scout.

An oddity I discovered during this time is that a planet's capacity to build ships resets when you leave and return; normally it can only process one order of five ships per year, and this limit will hold if you wait it out in hibernation. Let's say it's year 1, you're on Galactica, and you place ten orders. Galactica will be building ships from years 1-10 (and you get your first immediately), at a rate of one order per year. But now let's say you leave and return by the year 5. You'll receive your 25 ships, and Galactica is still scheduled to build ships from years 6-10. Place another 10 orders now, and something strange happens - these orders will be scheduled not from years 11-20, but from years 5-14! And this will not disrupt the existing queue. Galactica will effectively process two orders per year during the years 5-10, getting your 20 orders done in 14 years. This makes no sense from a narrative perspective, but is a handy trick.

A much less pleasant oddity I also discovered is that the engine can only handle a queue of 35 orders. That's not surprising in itself; memory was limited to 16KB for the entire game and any variables. The nasty part is that if you place orders for more, the queue gets truncated (rather, the excess orders keep overwriting each other until only the final one is in the queue), and your money is still spent.

The orders for years 73-76 wouldn't fit in the TRS-80's memory.

This whole exercise took about two hours. By year 80, my last scout returned, and in a few more years my ship orders wrapped up. I recruited enough to nearly fill them.

At this point, I saved, and tested the defense abilities of all remaining planets, based on my current strength of 310 fighters and 532C ground troops. From these tests, I found I was strong enough to conquer any neutral planet, but certainly not all 18 of them. With data gathered, I made these observations.

On space combat:
  • Space defense size is completely uncorrelated with a planet's size or technology level. Planets with any defenses had fleets ranging from 32 fighters to 122 fighters, with an average of 67.9.
  • Most of the time, the enemy fleets achieved kill ratios between 0.22:1 and 0.66:1, with no apparent correlation to starting fleet size. Sparta and Ootsi managed exceptional ratios of over 2:1. Alhambra and Yang-Tzu, two planets of "superior" technology, achieved ratios of over 3:1.
  • Some number of transports will be lost in the melee, but it seems highly random. At Ootsi, a sophisticated planet, their 40 fighters killed 91 of mine, plus 12 transports. At Eventide, another sophisticated planet, their 104 fighters killed 65 of mine, and only one transport. Over half of the dogfights cost me exactly 1 or 2 transports, but the rest cost me between 12 and 15.

On ground combat:
  • Defenders constitute 2.5% of their planet's population. The deviation is insignificant.
  • Planets with "over a billion" in population can in fact have as few as 900 million.
  • Expected losses do not seem to be correlated to technology level. The deadliest planet in raw numbers was Sparta, whose 228C defenders killed 389C of my landers, a ratio of about 1.7:1. The deadliest in efficiency was Eventide, whose 62C defenders killed 117C of my landers, a ratio of about 1.9:1. On average, though, defenders' ratios were about 1:1.

I estimated that I would need 800 fighters and 2000 ground troops to conquer the galaxy. This seemed doable, although that would certainly go up over time as neutral planets' bolstered their own defenses, and hopefully not to the extent that Tom Cleaver's Galaxy could so quickly overwhelm you if your plans were even slightly inefficient.

First step was to get money. I'd need at least 50,000 credits. The bigger the planet, the more you can tax it, and planets never go broke, so I took a look at the biggest planet, Novena. It had 1.6 billion people, and was 2 light years away from a fairly large 400 million population planet Ootsi, so I figured it would be a good idea to conquer both. In preparation for the invasion, I built and filled another 100 transports using the Galactica-Javiny loop.

Novena and Ootsi fell at the cost of most of my fleet, as expected.

I had 310 fighters and 630 full transports before this.

That didn't bother me, though, as I got what I came for - two large planets in close proximity with unlimited money. The Novena-Ootsi loop would take 4 years, and bring in nearly 2,400 tax credits per run, and go up over time. As an unexpected bonus, Ootsi could build 7 ships per year, more than Galactica's 5. This went up to 8 as its population increased.

I spent the next 76 years traveling the Novena-Ootsi loop, taxing them on each planetfall, and pushing Ootsi's ship-building facilities as hard as they could. By stardate 191 I had 823 fighters with more inbound, 1,081 transports, and nearly 13,000 credits - almost enough to buy another 1,000 transports at their mean price of 15 credits each.

Entering three digit numbers is much more difficult than it ought to be.

At this point, I tested the remaining planets again to see if anything changed with regards to their defenses.

New observations on space combat:
  • Not only did the enemy fleet sizes still seem random, they also had no apparent relation to the previous fleet sizes, suggesting that they are determined randomly at the start of combat. Some fleets increased, some fleets decreased, but the range this time was 38-121, with an average of 75; numbers not significantly different enough from before to suggest more than chance.
  • Enemy fleets achieved much better kill ratios this time. The sophisticated planets achieved anywhere from 0.59:1 to 1.30:1, and Sparta's was nothing special this time at only 0.85:1. The two superior planets achieved ratios of 3.89:1 and 4.56:1.
  • Transport losses were insignificant except on the superior planets, where they killed one transport for approximately every 16 fighters.

New observations on ground combat:
  • Populations increased by about 15% across the board. It had been about 114 years since the first round of tests.
  • Losses were now a bit less than 1:1 on average. Not counting tiny planets, Sparta was now the deadliest in terms of efficiency, whose 261C defenders killed 432C of mine for a ratio of 1.66:1, but for raw deaths Zoe slightly edged it out with 352C defenders killing 440C of mine for a ratio of 1.25:1.

By my new estimates, it would take 1150 fighters and 1500 filled transports to conquer the galaxy. Simple, right? I already had most of that, and more than enough money to buy the rest. It would just be a matter of building those ships and then recruiting enough men to fill them, which took until the year 240.

I was ready to attempt my final death sweep through the galaxy. It was just a traveling salesman problem to find a reasonably efficient route that hit each of the 16 unconquered planets.

An Excel-aided graph of my march to the sea

It didn't quite work. I managed 12 planets, but Sparta resisted my ground invasion. No matter, it was only SD 406, and one of my conquests, Zoe, was capable of building 15 ships per year, and by year 438, I had enough transports to conquer Sparta and the rest of the holdouts.

Barely enough.

The game ended as soon as I set a course in for Galactica.

GAB rating: Average. I am extremely impressed with what Doug Carlston was able to pull off with only 16KB of RAM, in a BASIC program that's only 200 lines long (granted, some of those lines are very nasty looking)! In terms of strategic breadth, if not depth, it puts to shame all of the 16KB Avalon Hill strategy games except arguably Tanktics, and as a singleplayer experience far outpaces Tom Cleaver's 48KB Galactic Empires.

It's also got a surprisingly slick and intuitive interface, with neatly organized windows, menus, and sub-menus, but there are some usability issues here. First of all, there's no reason not to tax a friendly planet as soon as you make orbit, so why even make taxation an option? The game might as well have automatically collected taxes whenever visiting a territory. Second, why should navigation and embarking be separate actions? If you do one, you want to also do the other. Navigation should just ask you if you want to embark now, instead of making you escape from the orders menu and manually embark. Third, although the ship building interface is very flexible in terms of letting you schedule orders for the next 35 years, and I probably could have shaved a good amount of time off if I had fully taken advantage of its powerful options for letting completed ships fly ahead of you to meet up at a rendezvous point instead of simply waiting in the vicinity for them to finish, but this flexibility makes it very tedious to use if you just want to place simple orders (Where do you want to send the first batch of ships? Galactica. Where do you want to send the second batch of ships? Galactica. Where do you want to send the third batch of ships? Galactica)....

But it's lacking a crucial element of the 4x genre that it anticipates; you don't really get more powerful as your empire grows. The best way to get money for buying ships is to fly a tax-collecting loop between two populous planets under your control, and having more isn't necessarily better. If you control the biggest binary system in the galaxy, then it doesn't matter whether you own three planets or fifteen. For most of the planets you'll just conquer them, collect taxes while you're there, and then leave and be done with them forever.

The enlisting system is likewise nonsensical from a narrative standpoint, and wasted from a strategic one. You can enlist up to 2% of a planet's population per visit. If you leave and come back, you can immediately enlist 2% of whatever was left over from the previous visit, as long as you have enough free transports. It doesn't make in-universe sense that your territories would stand for this, and it essentially means you only need one really big planet for all your conscription needs (building enough transports is a much bigger problem than filling them).

Tom Cleaver's Galactic Empires, though mechanically much simpler, at least made you more powerful with each planet you added to your empire, while also making it that much more complicated to manage your supply lines. Carlston's gameplay just doesn't evolve past the point where you make your first big conquest or two.

I think Galactic Empire could have been a much better game with a few small tweaks, memory limits allowing. Instead of having planets act as inexhaustible supplies of money and soldiers, give each planet under your control a pool of money and recruits which can be collected whenever you visit, and replenish over time. Conquering a planet should grant a one-time tribute, and each year, every planet under your control generates some additional tax revenue which you may collect as a lump sum when visiting, emptying their coffers.

Similarly, I picture each planet having a garrison which, when conquered, is initially set to 2% of the planet's population, and as the planet's population increases over time, more men enter the garrison. You would enlist from the garrison, rather than from the planet's general population, and if you enlist them all and still want more men, you either wait or you find another planet.

These changes would involve at least an additional 80 bytes of RAM - no insignificant amount when the whole game's got to fit in 16KB - but would completely transform it into a proper 4X experience where owning more planets provides a direct, tangible benefit. You would want to take as many planets as you could, and would need to figure out efficient tax routes for optimizing your collecting strategy. You'd likely also be encouraged more to use the game's powerful shipyard-routing abilities, and figuring out where you'll be in your route and when would be part of the challenge.

As it stands, Galactic Empire is very impressive from a coding standpoint, but not a whole lot of fun.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Game 164: Mr. Do!

The tangled, multiple-inheritance road to Mr. Do!

Talk about a turnaround. Right after churning out a baker’s dozen worth of underperforming mediocrity, Universal produced the very decent Pac-Man inspired Lady Bug, and the next year released Mr. Do!, a brilliantly insane Dig Dug derivative, which would be hands-down their greatest video game hit.

The monitor art, the best part of many Universal titles, is kinda blah this time.

Before playing the more familiar version of Mr. Do, I tried out an earlier version featuring a pitchfork-wielding snowman character. Sources are conflicted on whether this is the Japanese version or a prototype – either way, the only gameplay difference I could tell is that this early version lacks gobblers (more on those later), which makes it a lot easier to bag valuable alpha monsters (also more on those later). The snowman does have a neat head-asploding death animation.

The OG snowman still appears in the final version of the game, on the title screen when you insert tokens.

At first glance, Mr. Do! doesn’t look much different from Dig Dug. You’re a clown instead of whatever the hell Dig Dug is, you drop apples on the heads of dinosaurs instead of dropping boulders on the heads of dragons and whatever the hell a Pooka is, you throw a SuperBall at enemies instead of bursting their innards with a bike pump, you collect snacky cakes instead of vegetables, etc. You’re likely to notice the bunches of cherries you can collect as an alternate means of finishing the stage, as if Dig Dug merged with Pac-Man, which if collected in an uninterrupted sequence play a do-re-mi scale and award 500 bonus points. Before long you’ll also discover that enemies can easily outrun Mr. Do, and finding ways to cope undoubtedly gives this a steep learning curve.

Ultimately, Mr. Do is faster, more chaotic, and more challenging than any of its immediate sources, but also more varied, strategically deeper, and, I find, more fun.

At the crux of the differences between Mr. Do and Dig Dug are the primary weapons. Mr. Do’s ball is much more powerful than Dig Dug’s bike pump – it kills instantly, has unlimited range and navigates tunnels on its own, but also has a cooldown which gets subsequently longer each time you successfully kill a dinosaur with it, and it can be difficult to predict where the ball will wind up going if you throw it down branches or diagonal tunnels. You can become helpless if you rely on the ball too much, or if it bounces somewhere unexpected.

Task failed successfully?

The escalating delay, though, combined with the dinosaurs' quick gait, is what really means you can't rely on just the SuperBall to carry you through a level, as a novice Dig Dug player using low risk, low reward playing style could rely exclusively on the bike pump to last a reasonably long time. After you've killed three or more enemies with the ball, it will take a dangerously long time to reappear in your hands, leaving you defenseless against any enemies that get close to you. Even if you're just going for the cherries, that means walking around the entire level and probably having to kill most of the dinosaurs in the process. You'll need to kill with the apples, and the more you can take out with a single drop, the better.

There's an incredibly useful apple technique, which feels exploitative, but it's used during the attract mode. By digging a tunnel one tile's distance underneath an apple, letting it fall behind you, and then pushing it back just a few pixels into an overhang, you'll block enemies from pursuing. They'll tend to get stuck under the apple, their pathfinding routine completely broken, and when several have gathered you can push it all the way, crushing them and making your life easier.

It's not a perfectly reliable trick. Sometimes the enemies will wander away seeking another path, and if an enemy can't figure out a way to reach you, it will eventually get angry and start digging its own path, which can take a distressingly short amount of time on later levels. That said, once I had figured out how to use this trick, my average play times almost instantly doubled, and my scores tripled.

There there's the alpha monsters, who really push this game's risk/reward factor through the roof. Like in Lady Bug, you'll be rewarded with an extra life if you can spell EXTRA, and instantly finish the level to boot. This time, instead of collecting coins, these Teletubby-like creatures with letters on their torsos will spawn at the top of the screen, awarding you the letter on a successful kill. You want those letters, even if you have to go out of your way to collect them, and you can make them spawn in one of two ways.

First, every time your score surpasses a multiple of 5,000 points, an alpha monster spawns. This can actually discourage high scoring moves! Suppose you've got 9,900 points and are only 100 points away from an alpha monster - a 6,000 point scoring move would take you all the way to 15,900 points, skipping the 10,000 point mark entirely and spawn only one alpha monster. If you can, it's better to collect a few cherries, kill the alpha monster, and then go for the big crush for a lot of points which will hopefully spawn a second one.

The second method is perhaps the more interesting one. When all of the dinosaurs have spawned, they'll leave behind a piece of junk food in their lair, much like Lady Bug's beetles and their vegetables. Collecting it freezes the dinosaurs in place and spawns an alpha monster following a conga line of "gobblers" which remind me of cookie monster.

Gobblers eat any apples in their way, even mid-fall, making it risky to try to crush them. Killing the alpha monster transforms all of the gobblers into short-lived apples and unfreezes the dinosaurs - be careful that you don't kill the alpha monster when you're in a vulnerable spot. Also note that you can't spawn a second alpha monster by collecting the junk food when there's already one on the screen - this just spawns gobblers - and if collecting it takes you past the 5,000 multiple point mark, you waste that alpha monster spawn chance.

The attract mode also shows that dropping apples will sometimes leave behind diamonds, worth 8,000 points and a free game, but in nearly eight hours of play, I never saw that happen once.

GAB rating: Good

This one took some time to appreciate - there's so much going on that it can feel overwhelming and unfocused, and made me long for the relative simplicity of Dig Dug. But with practice, I came to enjoy the manic, unforgiving gameplay, the variety, and the thrill of seeing an awesome sequence of events unfold to my benefit, whether because of skill, strategy, or sheer dumb luck. Mr. Do is a great golden age arcade classic, and I award it a harpoon.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Game 163: Lady Bug

Once again, Universal ripped off a successful formula, though for once it isn’t a space game.

Surprise! After that poor showing last week, this game’s pretty good, and stands out from its source material once you look past the surface.

The biggest addition to the Pac-Man formula here is the revolving doors, which are barriers for the beetles but rotate 90 degrees when you enter them. Data East’s Lock ‘n’ Chase and Exidy’s Mouse Trap also had maze manipulation mechanics, but this is the best one of them all, and lends itself well to strategic gameplay. The beetles are random and stupid compared to the Pac-Man monsters, but there aren’t any power pills just lying around – just some skull tokens that will neutralize a beetle (or ladybug) that wanders onto it, and in later levels they can outrun you. You will need to make smart use of the doors to keep the beetles away from yourself and from the places you want to be.

The beetles spawn gradually, on a visible timer, and it’s quite possible to clear the earlier mazes before all four leave their home. When they do, though, a vegetable is left unguarded. Collecting it scores big points and also freezes the beetles in place for far too short a duration. Given how randomly the beetles move, they tend to converge near the center of the screen, making the vegetable very dangerous to grab. It doesn’t even make you invulnerable, and you can screw yourself if a stalker traps you in its alcove.

Could say I’m in a pickle.

An important scoring element, which seems to be somewhat pinball-inspired, is the six colored tokens that start on each board, three with letters, and three with hearts. The tokens cycle through three colors with corresponding values; red for half a second (800 points), green for 2 ½ seconds (300 points), and blue for seven seconds (100 points). Collecting a heart while it’s blue will raise a multiplier up to a maximum value of 5x, which applies to all tokens and dots, but sadly not to vegetables. In addition, collecting the letters EXTRA while green awards a bonus life and completes the level, and collecting the letters SPECIAL while red awards a wedding ceremony scene and a free credit.

For a decent score, you want to get the hearts as soon as possible, and definitely while they’re blue, to raise your multiplier to 5x before getting any of the letters. Hypothetically, the optimal scoring method is to collect the letters needed to spell EXTRA while they’re green, and collecting the rest (including duplicate EXTRA letters) while they’re red, but it is incredibly difficult to reliably snatch up the letters during the split-second of being red unless you camp by them and wait, which gives the beetles time to spawn and overwhelm you. I found it easier and in the long run better for my score to eat up dots nearby said letters and go for them when they change color, usually settling for green. I wasn’t concerned about spelling SPECIAL; it’s an uncommon occurrence that you even get all those letters in a game, and the free credit doesn’t help your score anyway.

GAB rating: Good. Uncharacteristically good for Universal, and the only Pac-Man clone, apart from Ms. Pac-Man, to give the original a run for its money.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Games 159-162: Universal’s Cosmic games

Universal occupies a strange place in video game history. The first time I heard of them, I was reading about Space Panic – allegedly the first platformer preceding Donkey Kong, and sort of free-associated with Universal Studios, who unsuccessfully sued Nintendo for trademark infringement over that game. In truth, this Universal is a Japanese coin-op machine manufacturer, and their business has historically been in pachinko, slots, and related gaming hardware, and are obscure to western mainstream video game consumers. Among arcade machine collectors' circles, they have a reputation for beautiful cabinets housing mostly lackluster games. ACAM, notably, has a Universal lineup with the entire set of titles released in the U.S.

By cross referencing lists on MAME, Mobygames, and the Wikipedia article about current holding company Universal Entertainment Corporation, we get the idea that video games were a brief but intense blip in the company’s history.

1978 to 1980 were their most productive years in terms of sheer output, dominated by a “Cosmic series” of space-themed video games seeking a piece of the Space Invaders pie. In 1981, production slowed down but quality improved, with only two games released that year, Cosmic Avenger and Lady Bug. In 1982 they released their greatest hit, Mr. Do! Three sequels followed, and then in 1985 Universal bowed out of the video games market with their final release Indoor Soccer, which saw more success as a port to 8-bit European microcomputers than it did as a coin-op arcade game. More than a decade later, a Mr. Do! remake surfaced on the Neo Geo MVS arcade system. Sources conflict on whether Universal authored or merely licensed it, but this was their only post-1985 involvement in video games until they were merged into SNK’s holding company Aruze Corporation in 2005, which in turn renamed themselves Universal Entertainment Corporation in 2009.

Scan by FlyerFever

Mobygames lists four 1978 credits, but only one, UFO, is an original, and it is unemulated. An English language flyer describes a Breakout/pinball hybrid. Hypothetically, this could be emulated in MAME someday, as the flyer advertises being powered by a CPU rather than discrete logic chips.

The three others are publishing credits for Nintendo’s Computer Othello, and Japan distribution of Exidy’s Circus and Ramtek’s Clean Sweep.

Their first title of 1979, and their earliest emulated game, begins the Cosmic series.

Cosmic Monsters & Cosmic Monsters II

You lost your gun, hon.

If UFO managed to subvert the expectation that every first-generation Japanese video game developer must get their foot in the door by completely ripping off Breakout, then Cosmic Monsters doubles down on that other expectation; that said company must follow up by completely ripping off Space Invaders. I don’t know if they had some kind of licensing deal with Taito, but Cosmic Monsters is, in MAME parlance, a clone of Space Invaders, running on the same hardware and using modified ROMs. Apart from the Flash Gordon-esque artwork and minor graphic differences, the only difference I can tell is that the UFO comes very infrequently, is easier to hit, and if you don’t shoot it down you are punished with an additional row of invaders.

This is followed by Cosmic Monsters II. I can’t figure out what makes this any different from the first one. The title screen even just says “Cosmic Monsters,” just like the first one!

Adding to the mystery, a flyer for Cosmic Monsters depicts a dial, rather than a joystick, but otherwise describes gameplay exactly as it occurs in Space Invaders, including its UFO behavior and scoring values, which are different in what I played. Meanwhile, a flyer for Cosmic Monsters II accurately describes the UFO behavior seen in both games.

On top of that, MAME calls the first game “Cosmic Monsters version II,” and the second game “Cosmic Monsters 2.” Normally that wouldn’t be noteworthy – versions and sequels are distinct concepts, but all of the incongruities here make me wonder if these are even different games.

Forgetting about MAME for a second, we have two indistinguishable games, both called “Cosmic Monsters” ingame. There exists a flyer for “Cosmic Monsters” which does not accurately describe either, but there also exists a flyer for “Cosmic Monsters II” which accurately describes both. My preferred hypothesis is that the first flyer depicts and describes a mockup or prototype that differs from the final version, which was later rebranded as “Cosmic Monsters II” with an updated flyer but without any meaningful software changes.

I can’t really think of these early efforts as games distinguishable from Space Invaders. They don’t get numbers or GAB ratings.

Game 159: Galaxy Wars

Later that year, Universal showed an inkling of originality. Galaxy Wars plays like a hybrid of Space Race and Space Invaders. The similarities to Space Race are pretty strong, but inexact, and could be coincidental as I don’t know if that game had ever been released in Japan.

Not officially part of the Cosmic series, but the artwork is suitably sci-fi pulpy.

Rather than shooting the invaders, you launch a rocket at them, and have to dodge meteorites along the way up as well as their fire. In a glaring violation of common sense for the sake of gameplay, you lose a life if the invaders shoot down your rocket mid-flight, but not if your rocket hits them.

How nice, it says GOOD! after a successful wave.

At first I thought this wasn’t too bad. But I got bored with it long before my first (and only) game ended. Meteorite density is low, there’s not much challenge, and there’s no time pressure or competitive element here as in Space Race, which also had the good sense to end after 100 seconds of play, which is still a longer amount of time that Galaxy Wars was fun.

GAB rating: Bad. It’s playable, just boring as sin.

Their last game of 1979, “Cosmic Guerilla,” solidified that this “Cosmic series” was going to be a thing. I didn’t play it long enough to critique, but let’s just admire the artwork overlay.

Game 160: Cosmic Alien

In 1980, Universal released four games in the Cosmic series alone, starting with this one.

Oh good, now we’re ripping off Galaxian! But what’s with all the demonic imagery on the monitor overlay?

Last guy… HOLY CRAP!

I found it quite a bit easier than Galaxian – the enemies aren’t nearly as aggressive or unpredictable. On subsequent rounds you start off some rows closer to the action giving you less breathing room, but it peaks at round 7, at which point the demon starts moving across the screen between rounds like a ring girl carrying the round number sign.

I made it to screen 9 before losing my last life, mostly from losing focus out of being a bit bored.

GAB rating: Below Average. It’s like Galaxian but slower, uglier, easier, and more boring.

If that wasn't enough devil for you, their next Cosmic game is called “Devil Zone.”

And rips off Radar Scope.

I didn’t play this very much. I did briefly play the next one “Zero Hour,” and it’s a full-fledged vertical shmup, the earliest one I’ve seen yet, featuring 8-way directional movement, a rapid fire gun, and a Lunar Lander-like bonus round where you land the ship precisely for extra points. But the controls are sluggish, and overall I didn’t find it interesting enough to play in-depth. Universal also released four games unrelated to the Cosmic series this year; Cheeky Mouse, Magical Spot, Magical Spot II, and No Man’s Land. I played none of them.

Universal’s final game of 1980 is the seventh Cosmic game, and certainly the most influential.

Game 161: Space Panic

Tanktics author Chris Crawford describes this as a platformer, preceding Donkey Kong by a year. I’m not convinced for sure that it had any influence on Donkey Kong – it’s certainly possible that Shigeru Miyamoto copied its ladders and tiered-platform design, but it’s just as possible that he came up with that design independently.

What seems quite impossible to handwave as a coincidence is how this game, with its mechanic about digging holes in platforms in order to trap your enemies, so closely anticipates Broøderbund’s Apple II classic Lode Runner. Said company even published an unauthorized port as Apple Panic prior to Lode Runner.

The ladder-and-girder stage design also compels me to rethink an assumption I made recently about BurgerTime. I had once thought that its ladder mechanics must have been inspired by Donkey Kong, but its gameplay and perfectly orthogonal stage design much more strongly resemble Space Panic.

Space Panic’s broad concept of digging holes to trap aliens may have been influenced by earlier game Heiankyo Alien, but given the lack of concrete similarities between these games, and also considering Heiankyo Alien’s obscurity, this could be coincidental.

Either way, kudos to Universal for making something original. Sadly, like so many of their games so far, Space Panic isn’t very good. It looks mediocre, controls badly with frequently ignored commands, and the chaotic randomness of how the aliens move ultimately means that the best strategy becomes surrounding yourself with holes and praying that things go your way before oxygen runs out. The space monsters, which look like rejected Pac-Man designs, seem to be indifferent to the location of the player or any holes you’ve dug. They show some preference for moving your direction when on the same level as you, but otherwise just bumble blindly around the level, roaming wherever they will, which often means bouncing back and forth between two ladders for the better part of an eternity while your oxygen levels run ever closer to zero.

Later rounds introduce Bosses and Dons, who take a bit more planning to kill, as burying them only drops them a level, and to finish them off you must drop them multiple levels by digging holes directly above other holes in pixel-perfect alignment, and hoping that they wander into the holes you dug on the higher levels first (and that you can scramble up there to bury them before they escape, and without getting eaten). Improperly disposing of a ditched enemy can also promote it to the next rank.

GAB rating: Bad. It may be original, but an unforgiving game like must have reliable controls, consistent mechanics, and at least some sort of AI pattern that you can influence, and Space Panic hasn’t got any of this. It’s just a tedious, frustrating experience, one that’s frequently ruined because your space man refused to turn around, dig, or climb a ladder at the exact moment you needed him to.

Game 162: Cosmic Avenger

Heading into 1981, we have Universal’s final Cosmic game, and we go right back to ripping off other space shooters, this time Konami’s Scramble.

Like other Universal games, this isn’t an exact carbon copy of its inspiration. You do have bombs as in Scramble, but this time your speed affects their falling arc, which is tricky to master but can be used to hit ground targets well ahead of you. Speaking of which, the movement system is kind of strange; unlike Scramble, where lateral movement was limited to increasing or decreasing your forward velocity, you have true 8-way movement and can effectively move backwards to an extent, but the forward scrolling speed also depends on how far your ship is from the left edge of the screen; move as far right as the game allows, and everything will fly by at top speed. Move as far left as possible, and things will scroll fairly slowly, giving you time to react and shoot at stuff ahead of you, but moving forward will speed things up again. You can’t just hang out on the left edge all the time, though, as sometimes UFOs will ambush you from behind, giving you no time to react. Radar, possibly influenced by Defender, will warn you of impending threats from either direction, but splitting your attention can be just as dangerous as ignoring it.

Possibly the biggest difference from Scramble is that explosions can destroy things, including you. So many shmups let you blast incoming missiles at point blank range and cruise through the debris unscathed, but in Cosmic Avenger this will probably kill you, and it’s better to take them out from as far away as you can, or if it’s too late, to dodge them. Taking out a large number of targets in a chain reaction of explosions is pretty satisfying, though, and is something you don’t often see in this genre.

There are only three phases, per loop, compared to Scramble’s six, but they’re much more difficult.

GAB rating: Average. It’s Universal’s best effort yet, but weird controls, repetitive stage design, and bad hit detection combined with high difficulty hold it back.

Playing the games that make up this post was an interesting experience, even if ultimately none of them were very good. I'll say this for Universal - it's kind of impressive that they blatantly ripped off at least four games from four different developers in only three years!

We're not quite done with this company yet, and the games get better from here on.

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