Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Game 273: Shamus

Our next whale, Alley Cat, is one of the best known computer games of the early 80's, though perhaps better known for its 1984 PC port than the Atari original. That's the version I played in the early 2000's, thanks to its wide distribution as freeware and surprisingly good compatibility with Windows XP era systems.

Its designer, Bill Williams, created two games prior in 1982, both for Atari computers; Salmon Run through the Atari Program Exchange, and Necromancer through Synapse Software, who would later publish Alley Cat and Commodore ports of both earlier titles.

Synapse Software was, in its heyday of 1981 to 1984, the largest third party publisher of Atari computer software, originally focusing on databases, but soon expanded into computer games.

They published two games in 1981. One, Dodge Racer, is a clone of Sega's Head-On, and of no interest to me. The other, Protector, seems like a blend of Defender and Scramble, and was originally published by Crystalware, but republished by Synapse after a bit of playtesting, debugging, and polish. This holds a bit more interest to me, but the link to Alley Cat seems too tenuous to require inclusion in a retrospective leading up to it.

Synapse released several games in 1982, and the most well known of them appears to be Shamus, by a considerable margin. This game, which contains little sleuthing but plenty of shooting and is very obviously inspired by Beserk, is the title I've selected to play as an introduction to the company.


Just like in Berzerk, you run around a maze full of robots who are trying to kill you. The walls are deadly to touch, you attack in eight directions (by throwing "electro-shivs"), robots have a tendency to shoot or crash into each other, and if you tarry too long, an invulnerable, wall-passing opponent spawns and chases you, though unlike Evil Otto he can be stunned.

Where it differs, though, is that Shamus' maze is hand designed and has an absolute endpoint. Colored keys and locks mean a lot of backtracking, and the robots, which come in five different varieties, respawn whenever you enter a room. With 128 rooms spread over four color-coded zones, each one designating a higher difficulty level than the previous, with faster, more aggressive robots, a full playthrough takes over half an hour. It took me several nights to beat Shamus, but each time I made it farther and farther in, filling out more of my map. At least that was until I reached the Red Zone, where things were frantic, and here I made a single save state about halfway through. It was just enough to reach the lair of the villainous Shadow and toss an electro-shiv through his yellow keister.

The game then restarts on a higher difficulty, but I'm cool. Novice mode was hard enough.

Some observations:

  • The maps are orthogonal but non-Euclidean. Going down, left, right, and up does not guarantee you will end up in the same place you started. Trizbort was therefore ideal for mapping things out.
  • Unfortunately, there's no pause button from what I can tell. Making a map while playing on real hardware must be incredibly annoying! Even if you kill everything else in the room, The Shadow will eventually enter and chase you around, and in the later zones he doesn't take long at all.
  • Robots are more random than in Berzerk, but less suicidal. Tricking them into colliding with each other, or shooting each other, or walking into walls is very difficult. However, killing one robot often takes out another one or two in proximity to its explosion.
  • Once you kill the last robot in the room, Shamus's walking speed increases tremendously. This is very handy for traversing empty corridors quickly, but the sudden acceleration got me killed by accidentally walking into walls more often than I'd have liked.
  • Shamus is pretty generous with extra lives, which exist as pickups that look like potions, and are granted after collecting enough points, and sometimes randomly when collecting mystery tokens. But you'll need them.
  • Robot spawns are semi-random, but each room is fairly consistent in how heavily populated it is. 
  • Sometimes robots spawn very close to where you enter and you just have to retreat because there's no chance of dodging their fire. Sometimes they kill you before you even get a chance to retreat.
  • When The Shadow enters a room, any collectibles will vanish until you exit the room and return. This is especially annoying when the room contains a key or keyhole; those will also vanish until you exit and return, and you need them to beat the game. Sometimes you just can't rush your way through a heavily defended room, and you run out of time.
  • The rooms where you find the keys are semi-random. It seems like for each key, there's between 1 and 3 rooms where it might be found. The potential key rooms that don't contain keys will have extra lives instead.


GAB rating: Good. It's a bit too difficult and too long, but Shamus is overall a good take on the Berserk formula, and feels better suited to the home experience with the addition of a structured game world and end goal. It's crying for a pause button though - thank heaven for emulation!

My Trizbort map:

Friday, June 25, 2021

Games 271-272: Snake & Snake and Thunder Force

Technosoft, like many Japanese developers outside of the big third party names, is a bit of an enigma. Despite owning a Sega Genesis back in the day, I hadn't heard of them at all until 2015 or so, and when I did hear their games discussed, it was usually within Sega fan circles, discussing their efforts during the early years of the Genesis, before the SNES posed serious competition. In-depth discussion of games from the years before are rare, thanks to their unavailability outside Japan.

Thunder Force is, no doubt, their best known series; a shmup originating on 8-bit Japanese computers, years before finding mainstream success on the Genesis. This series alone isn't what compels me to look at it. The genre doesn't particularly interest me - occasionally there's one that stands out enough for me to want to play it, but most of the time they seem samey, and I've seen Thunder Force get praised much more for its soundtrack than for transcending the genre's gameplay conventions.

The impetus for this retrospective, in fact, has nothing to do with any Thunder Force game. 1989's Herzog Zwei is universally name-dropped as a crucial predecessor to the RTS genre, sometimes even claimed as the first RTS game ever, but rarely discussed with much substance. Its predecessor, Herzog, doesn't even get mentioned very much. Those games are years away, but I plan to play them both eventually. In the meantime, if I cover one game by a company, then I tend to play some of the games that led up to it, and hence I am now playing the two earliest known games by Technosoft, then called Tecno-Soft.

Game 271: Snake & Snake


From its title and screenshots, you might think this is a Snake-type game, but it really doesn't bear much resemblance to anything in that family. The principal gameplay loop is killing rival snakes, and this is done primarily by eating them; at first by whittling them down to size with your acid spit, and as you grow big enough to eat them full-sized, by chasing them down and avoiding their spit (and the deadly UFO).

Mobygames lists releases on three platforms, none that I've emulated before; NEC PC-8000, Sharp MZ-80K/700/800/1500, and Sharp MZ-80B/2000/2500. The only copy I found was a cassette image for the Sharp MZ-700; a home-oriented machine featuring a Z80 processor, 64KB of RAM, and text-based graphics reminiscent of the Commodore PET, except in color. It's a weird mishmash of specs and abilities that overall seems outdated by the standards of 1982, but exceeds earlier computers in certain ways. Strangely, it lacks BASIC ROM found in virtually every other computer of the 8-bit era, and requires the user to load it into RAM from a cassette.

Snake & Snake, fortunately, does not require BASIC.

Upon loading the game, you may read instructions, which are written in something approximating English:

Here's what it all means:

  • The goal of the game is to kill enemy snakes.
  • When you touch a snake's head, if its body is longer than you, it will eat you. If its body is the same length or shorter, you will eat it.
  • Food periodically spawns in the middle of the screen. Eat it to grow longer.
  • Spit poison on enemy snakes to shorten their bodies. They can do the same to you.
  • Red snakes are longer than you. Blue snakes are shorter than you. Yellow snakes are the same length as you.
  • Each time you kill an enemy snake, reinforcements spawn from a random corner. This continues until the "TEKI" count runs out.
  • The game ends after beating level 10.
  • A timer on the bottom of the screen depicts a snake advancing toward a stick figure. It resets whenever you kill an enemy snake. If it makes it all the way, your snake will shorten.
  • The UFO will pursue you forever, even through walls, and can't be killed. It will destroy you on contact with your head, but will destroy enemies as well.

And that just about sums things up. Snake & Snake controls a bit awkwardly, not like Snake-style games where you move automatically and have to time button presses to turn, but you directly control your snake's head, and the body, which is largely for show, follows. Collision with walls and snakes' bodies are not deadly. The whole thing just feels very jumpy and imprecise, as you move instantly with each keypress.

The key to victory, I found, was to never pass up a chance to eat food, luring away the UFO first if necessary, and to be really careful not to die. You don't lose any length when advancing levels, so if you can lengthen yourself to the point where newly spawned snakes are shorter, you can just eat them aggressively, backing off only when food spawns, or when you start to get dangerously short from too many poison spitwads, or when the UFO gets too close.

Die, though, and you're reset to the initial starting length, and vulnerable. Returning to your former glory on the later, more difficult stages is no simple task.

Beat level ten and you're rewarded with a message.

GAB rating: Below Average. Snake & Snake isn't horrid, but it's simplistic and pretty rough-feeling, like a BASIC title, only faster than most.

Game 272: Thunder Force

Tsuuuunda foooorsu!

The first game in Technosoft's most famous franchise originated on the Sharp X1, a disruptive successor to the MZ series. Though it never achieved the domestic popularity of NEC's PC-88 line, which Thunder Force was ported to a year later, it's still considered to be one of the "big three" Japanese-exclusive 8-bit microcomputers, and made Sharp an important player in the industry.

The X1 was simple enough to emulate in MAME. Like the MZ, it lacks BASIC, but the "IPL" firmware program can automatically boot from tapes in the cassette drive, which is something I've never seen before. It even rewinds the tape automatically once loaded!


The game is hot garbage, barely playable. It's clearly inspired by Xevious with its look and feel and dual weapon system, although the gameplay is structured more like Bosconian, with 8-way scrolling and a goal of destroying enemy bases.

The first and most obvious problem is that the game moves way too fast for its poor framerate to keep up. That wouldn't in itself be a game killer - Snake & Snake's action quickly devolved into barely readable chaos, but it was forgiving enough that one could cope. Thunder Force isn't forgiving; on brand for the genre, one hit kills you. The bullets often blend in with the terrain, and low framerate robs your eyes of crucial temporal information.

Then there's the issue of your bombs. There's an on-screen reticle like in Xevious, but it isn't completely accurate. Your bombs appear to land only a few pixels away from your nose, and judging precisely where is difficult. I had better success in hitting targets by mashing the button whenever I got close, and even that wasn't too reliable.

The goal of each stage is to locate "shield bases," which is done by systematically destroying every ground target until they reveal small blue dots, which you must bomb with impossible precision.

This isn't fun or interesting, and wouldn't be even if the game otherwise handled flawlessly. The bases, though positioned randomly, seem to only appear in a select few locations which don't change level to level, so if you were stuck playing this game for months without any alternatives or anything better to do, you could finish each previously-mastered level relatively quickly. A 6 1/2 hour longplay on Youtube plays through 100 levels, and even in that one, the player commits suicide upon reaching level 101.

Once you bomb all the shield bases, the level transitions into a trippy outer space setting, and you've got to find and destroy a target to advance to the next level.

I haven't been able to pass the second level, and I don't want to keep trying.

GAB rating: Bad. Thunder Force had to start somewhere, but retrospective reviews tend to gloss over this one. The Thunder Force Gold Pack for Sega Saturn doesn't even include it. I'm sure the real reason for its western obscurity is its exclusivity to Japanese microcomputers, but it looks bad and plays worse, and doesn't really seem worth discovering, especially as its creator wasn't even involved in its sequels.

A 1984 floppy-based re-release has tweaked graphics, with bigger bullet sprites that stand out better, and if I'm not mistaken, the bombs' hitboxes are more forgiving. You get ten lives rather than four, and in this version I was able to reach the third level on my first and only try. It's an improvement, but not nearly enough to get my recommendation.

Tecno-Soft would release two more games in 1984; Plazma Line, a space flight game with primitive 3D polygonal graphics, and a backgammon game. After that, Kotori Yoshimura, the creator of both Thunder Force and Plazma Line, left the company to found Arsys Software, and Tecno-Soft's output ceases to be until 1988, when they rebranded as Technosoft and self-published Feedback, Herzog, and Thunder Force II for the new generation of home computers. Soon after, they became a console-focused developer with a strong partnership with Sega. But that's something for quite a bit later.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Game 270: Tapper

Add "bartender" to the long list of jobs that I'm definitely not qualified for.

Midway's Tapper, originally intended for bars and featuring authentic Budweiser tap handles on the control panel, tasks you to serve up mugs of mediocre beer-flavored carbonated beverage to throngs of testy patrons while scrambling to catch the empty ones that they slide right back to you. Most re-releases and retrospective compilations substitute no-name root beer in place of Bud.

With four different bars to tend, and no room for errors, Tapper becomes a chaotic juggling act. The main threat is failing to catch the empty mugs - even one dropped glass (whether an empty one you failed to catch or a full one that you overzealously slid down the bar when nobody could catch it) will cost you a life, but at the same time, failing to sling suds at the customers faster than they come in means they'll overrun your bar and slide you down it, out the window.

My best attempt got me 50,000 points, but I couldn't pass the rave, or get to the alien space tavern that awaits afterward.


My general strategy was this - when at a bar, count the number of patrons waiting for a drink, and serve exactly that many before moving to the next one. Should one bar look like an impending disaster, rush down the current one to collect whatever empty mugs I can before zipping to the new one to deal with it. One technical challenge is that you have to pull the tap for a fraction of a second to fill the mug - release too soon and the mug won't be full enough to serve. At least you can't overfill it.

A thing that makes Tapper so challenging is evident toward the end of the video - the customers are endless. You finish a round not by serving all of the customers, but by serving them all before any more can come! If more come in before you're done, which has happened just as the last customer on the screen was chugging down a glass, then it becomes a losing battle as even more will come in just as you're serving the last of them. Repeat ad nauseum.

One tool meant to help you out is tips, which customers sometimes leave behind. Whenever you collect a tip, a show starts, distracting some of the patrons for a few seconds. In practice, I found this rarely helped. It takes precious time to run down the bar and collect tips, and during the show, distracted patrons can't be served, but new ones can enter. The tips might delay them long enough for you to collect some empty mugs before they crash on the floor, but I seldom found that the situation after the show was improved from the situation before it.

ACAM does feature a real Tapper machine, located in the barroom, naturally, and the main difference in gameplay experience is the use of the tap handle controller to pour. It's a bit more demanding than using a gamepad or keyboard, but does lend the experience a bit of verisimilitude.

GAB rating: Average. Tapper's just another arcade game that I'd spend half an hour on at most, hit a wall, and then move onto something else. There's nothing wrong with it, and the premise is creative, but I can't see myself playing Tapper again unless it's on a real machine, and then only for the novelty of playing on its bar-friendly cabinet.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Game 269: Baseball

Baseball might no longer be America's favorite pastime, having conceded that ground to football long ago, but it's still Japan's. And now, thanks to Data Driven Gamer, I've played takes on both sports by video game developers in both countries.

If 10-Yard Fight was an oddly playing counterpart to my post on Computer Quarterback, then Nintendo's Baseball is a comparatively straightforward counterpart to Computer Baseball. As one might surmise from the target platforms, developing companies, and even their titles, one's a hardcore strategy sim where stats dictate everything, and the other a casual arcade-style game where strategy is minimal and stats don't even exist, as the teams and players are all identical. This one does, at least, seem to more or less follow the rules and flow of baseball, certainly with more accuracy than how 10-Yard Fight portrayed football.

Baseball is among the first Nintendo games made specifically for the Famicom. Its launch titles, which I covered a few months ago, were all ports of their major arcade platformers, and the year also saw two educational spinoffs, and Othello and Mahjong cartridges, which may be based on Computer TV Game and Computer Mahjong, respectively. Only Baseball appears to be a Famicom original, unless we take the view that this game is just an adaptation of Gunpei Yokoi's Ultra Machine.

As Baseball supports two players - it would be weird if it didn't - I played a game with "B." We played the U.S. version, which as far as I can tell differs from the original Japanese version only by team names, showing TOP/BOT on the inning display, and by measuring pitches in mph instead of km/h.


I went with the team "A" and he picked "P." Athletics and Phillies, maybe? The only difference it makes is the uniform colors.

The core mechanic of Baseball, as in the sport, is the duel between the pitcher and batter, and everything else is peripheral. You don't even have any control over the fielders except for passes, and the runners similarly act on their own, though they can be manually advanced. The pitcher pitches with the A button, special pitches can be selected by holding a direction on the d-pad beforehand, and the batter bats with a well-timed A press.

Once the ball flies, the runners advance based on the situation - aggressively when there are two outs, cautiously on grounders, sticking put on flies, while the fielders go for the ball on their own, sometimes to a hilariously inept effort. Once someone catches it, it may be passed to a baseman with the B button, holding the corresponding direction on the D-pad first (down for home, right for first base, etc.). Runners may likewise be manually advanced with the B button, first holding the direction corresponding to their starting base (or down to advance them all), and may attempt steals by doing this early.

"B" trounced me thoroughly in an 11-5 game. I'd like to think that I got unlucky with poor-performing outfielders that I couldn't control, but fact is, he pitched a better game than me, and my fielders had more chances to screw up. He was especially fond of "pitching around," and too often I'd instinctively chase and miss a pitch I had no chance of hitting, turning a ball into a strike. Consequently, he got more chances to score, and did.

Here's a montage of the game's worst moments of Keystone Cops grade fielding.

 GAB rating: Average. I'm not a baseball fan, so this game wasn't going to rate very highly in the first place, but we both enjoyed the game while it lasted. It's obviously pretty simplistic, lacking stats, pitcher fatigue, or much in the way of strategy, but nevertheless, Baseball gets surprisingly good mileage out of its two-button control scheme. It's easy to pick up and play, offers a modicum of strategic depth, and it gets engaging when the bases are loaded at two outs. I just don't expect the simplistic fun would withstand a replay, and surely there have been far better casual baseball games released in the years since.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Games 267-268: Evolution & B.C.'s Quest for Tires

Sydney Development Corp is a relatively obscure Canadian developer, not even having their own Wikipedia page, and now known mainly for their collaborations with Sierra On-Line and cartoonist Johnny Hart.

For this post, which is likely the only time I'll discuss the company at all, I played their first two games. The first is 1982's Evolution, a self-published collection of six speciation-themed minigames with about as much devotion to accuracy as Pokémon. This take on orthogenesis ties in nicely to the source material of their second and most famous title, published by Sierra in 1983: B.C.'s Quest for Tires.


Game 267: Evolution

The premise behind Evolution immediately makes me think of Maxis' 2008 title Spore, in which you evolve a single-celled creature into a complex life form through a series of arcade-style minigames and then develop a tribal society into a space faring empire. It's obviously far simpler, and lacks any kind of strategy phase or creature customization, but there are still enough parallels that I have to wonder if Will Wright played it back in the day.

Going by Mobygames release dates, Evolution was likely made first on Apple II, and ported in-house to ColecoVision, Commodore 64, and PC in 1983. I expect the Commodore 64 and ColecoVision ports to be more capable, but we do originals when possible here.

Starting off, there's a riff on Donkey Kong.

These are all modern species!

Stage one has you control a single-celled organism, scooping up pellets while avoiding predators in what seems to be inspired by Pac-Man, though without any maze it more resembles Williams' Bubbles.

Loose controls and sloppy collision detection, two themes we'll see a lot throughout this post, plague this stage, but overall it's fairly easy. Pressing the joystick button activates a shield at the cost of some energy.

Biology nitpick: They didn't even spell "amoeba" right! And although amoebas diversified hundreds of millions of years ago, amoeboids only evolved into other amoeboids. Multicellular life has an entirely different ancestor.

In the next phase you play an amphibian and must catch flies while avoiding fish.

This one's pretty frustrating. Randomly moving flies take some luck to catch, and this isn't helped by your slow-moving frog and poor hit detection. Avoiding the fish as they descend is easy enough, but then you've got to either jump over them or wait for them to surface, and you can get eaten if you try to jump over one and it suddenly rises mid-jump.

Biology nitpick: Are we a tadpole or a frog? If this is underwater, why can't we swim? And how are the flies flying underwater? I don't think these are supposed to be diving flies.


Stage 3 is rodents, in a Dig Dug-like game.

Digging slows you down, but if you can carve out a stable loop then it's pretty easy to not get eaten by the snakes as you just run around and collect cheese until the level ends. In a pinch, you can leave up to three mouse droppings, which are fatal to snakes.

Biology nitpick: If humans haven't evolved yet, how can there be cheese?


Next there's a Frogger inspired game of building a beaver's dam.

This is probably the best minigame. It's basic, but it works. The alligators' movements are hard to predict, sometimes some of them follow your latitude, sometimes they move randomly, and sometimes they move in patterns. You can't count on manipulating their paths to create openings, so you've got to slip between them while you can.

Biology nitpick: It's pretty uncommon for alligators to prey on beavers. Lucky thing for the beavers, because gators swim much faster.

In stage five, you control a gorilla and throw rocks at monkeys trying to steal your stash of oranges.

Once again, poor collision detection makes this frustrating. But you've only got to nail five monkeys to end this round, so at least it's over fast.

Biology nitpick: Oranges are indigenous to the Indochinese Peninsula. Before human cultivation, native monkeys ate oranges, but gorillas didn't.


Finally, there's the human stage, a Berzerk-inspired shoot'em up where mutants threaten to kill the human race.

This is the second best game, and though the controls are choppy and the gameplay slow, the collision detection is shockingly good compared to what came before it.

Biology nitpick: Mutation is integral to Darwinian evolution. "Mutants" wouldn't so much murder the human race with lasers as they would outcompete and outlive us and become the game's next phase.


Kill all the mutants and you're rewarded with a beeper rendition of Gonna Fly Now and an ending cinematic.

Then you are returned to the amoeba phase and repeat the whole process on a harder difficulty.

GAB rating: Bad. I was never a huge fan of these minigame compilations. Sometimes they manage to be more than the sum of their parts, but this isn't one of them, and these parts range from poor to barely tolerable.


Game 268: B.C.'s Quest for Tires

A video game adaptation of Johnny Hart's long running comic strip B.C., this is best described as an early runner platformer in which you neither play as B.C. nor are you searching for tires.

B.C. was simultaneously released for Atari computers and ColecoVision, and shortly after released for the Apple II, Commodore 64, and IBM PC. In my post about Venture, an anonymous commenter mentioned that ColecoVision is likely the original target platform, as the Atari and Commodore versions are credited to Sierra's Chuck Benton (the author of Softporn Adventure!), rather than a Sydney Development employee. This is the version I'll be playing.


Gameplay is reminiscent of Irem's Moon Patrol, but with a bigger focus on set pieces. As caveman Thor, you ride your stone unicycle through nine distinct stages, dodging and jumping over hazards until you reach Cute Chick, who's being held inside a cave by a dinosaur.

It features four difficulty levels, typical of ColecoVision games, but the best I could do was to beat level 2, which is in the above video.

The first stage just has you hopping over pits and rocks. You can control your speed, and the faster you go, the farther you jump, which you can extend by moving mid-jump. 40 seems like a good balance; go slower and the timing is stricter, go faster and the time you've got to react is shorter. You do need to jump sooner than you think; the pits in particular are wider than they look.

Next you have to duck under branches and jump over logs. I hate this part - the branches don't even look like they're part of the foreground and it's hard to tell exactly where the hitboxes are and where you need to duck to pass them, and the logs are almost invisible to my color-deficient eyes. I don't know if they pose a difficulty to true trichromats, but I have to focus on the grass really hard to even notice them, which is impossible when there are lots of branches.


The third challenge is Fat Broad, who will try to club you as you cross her turtle bridge. This is pretty easy on difficulty level 2, as the second turtle never submerges. You can just wait there until it's safe to jump to the third.

Next you cycle uphill a volcano, jumping over pits and rocks, just like before, only uphill, and with the occasional rolling rock.

At the top of the volcano, there's more stuff to jump over, but you also need to chase Dooky Bird and match his speed so you can catch a ride over the mouth. You don't want to be going too fast as you enter this stage, as Dooky Bird will come in faster than you.

Going downhill, I found that sometimes moving laterally mid-air works, but sometimes it doesn't, so it's best not to try. The pits are deceptively wide here; get anywhere near the edge of one and you die. Jump early instead. Keep your speed up here, not just because it makes jumping over the pits easier, but you'll need the speed to make the leap at the end.

I got robbed of a life here because the game buffered my jump input as it transitioned to the chasm, making me jump way too early. At least this is the funniest death animation in the game.

Beware falling rocks! The trick here is to slow down. The slower you ride, the slower the rocks fall.

Another turtle bridge, this time guarded by a happy dinosaur. This time, the turtles sink, but the dinosaur isn't as much of a problem as Fat Broad.

Finally, you race through a cave, jumping over stalagmites and ducking under stalactites. It's very easy, and Cute Chick waits for you at the end.

The game then repeats on the next difficulty, where obstacles are more frequent and your minimum speed is higher, but I couldn't get past Fat Broad on this level. Here, the second turtle does sink, and after several failed attempts to get through, I gave up.

GAB rating: Below Average. It's an improvement over Evolution, but I didn't have a good time. The controls and collision detection are inconsistent, the graphics are ugly, and like that other ColecoVision whale Smurf Rescue, there's just so little to see here - there's more variety and challenge, but it still only takes five minutes to see everything.


In 1984, Sydney Development had their most productive year, releasing the following:

  • River Raid, ported to ColecoVision
  • B.C. II: Grog's Revenge
  • WizType & WizMath, based on Hart's Wizard of Id comic strip, also released through Sierra
  • The Dam Busters, initially for Coleco's ill-fated Adam personal computer, then ported to ColecoVision and other platforms


Afterward, in 1985, they released their last two games, Desert Fox and Fight Night, both of which were initially published for the Commodore 64 in the UK by U.S. Gold. Sydney Development just sort of disappears from history after this point.

Designers Rick Banks and MaryLou O'Rourke joined (founded?) development house Artech Studios in 1986, whose first game was Killed Until Dead, and Banks has many credits to his name with Artech, but O'Rourke's rap sheet just stops there.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Game 266: Antarctic Adventure

In 1983, a joint venture between ASCII Corporation and Microsoft published a standard architecture for 8-bit Japanese home computers, which had such a fractured market and confusing mess of incompatible models that it made the cutthroat stateside market look straightforward. Dubbed MSX and featuring the same CPU and video hardware used in ColecoVision, over 20 manufacturers, including Mitsubishi, Sony, and Fujitsu, had their own MSX-compatible machines. It didn't exactly succeed in becoming the national standard, and barely made a dent in NEC's dominating market share, but thanks to a strong degree of consistency and compatibility across models in its own series, and to prolific work on the system by arcade juggernaut (and future third party console force) Konami, the MSX enjoys some worldwide fame even as the NEC computers and the many games that they played remain internationally obscure. Incidentally, the MSX is much simpler to emulate, and its library friendlier to English-reading audiences.

Antarctic Adventure is one of Konami's first MSX-compatible computer games, and despite the ingame 1984 copyright date, is cited as a 1983 release by both Mobygames and Wikipedia. I played the original Japanese version, as the level set appears to be different from the European version, and everything I need to read is in English here anyway.


This feels a lot like Sega's Turbo from 1981, but slower paced (never mind that your penguin waddles across Antarctica's coast at 17km per second), and less abrupt feeling with its graphical transitions. Instead of dodging erratic drivers, you dodge stationary holes in the ice.

Antarctic Adventure looks really nice for a computer game of its era, with a somewhat convincing 3D perspective and a well animated penguin, but two gameplay problems hurt it. First, it's repetitive, even for an arcade-style game. You have holes. You have crevasses, which always spawn in front of you, usually forcing you to jump over them. You can collect flags and mackerels for points. You have those damned seals that always pop out of holes at the last second before you slam into them at mach 50. That's it - there's only so much you can do with this toolset. And the whole time, you're listening to a 30-second muzak clip on infinite repeat.

Second, much like in Turbo, crashes feel unavoidable. Even though the pits and crevasses are stationary, the draw distance is poor enough and hitboxes sketchy enough to be a problem at any decent speed. Too often, the penguin would stumble over hole that looked to be nowhere near his feet, or be forced to jump over a crevasse at full speed, only to land in another that popped-in before there was time to adjust speed, or to smack into a seal that popped-out mid jump when it was too late to change course. You could always run slower, but you'd have to be moving pretty slowly to ensure that you can react to everything, so I found it better to run at top speed most of the time.

At the very least, the time limit is pretty generous, and despite bumping into things all the time, I had little trouble clearing the first nine levels. The final level, though, is a beast, twice as long as any other, and dense with hazards. Finishing that one took several tries and I had to mostly abandon the point-scoring pickups, which usually spawned too far out of my way. Real mastery of the game, one suspects, would involve memorizing each course, knowing exactly when and where you'd need to slow down and exactly how much, and where to position yourself so that you can dodge or jump every hazard and collect every flag and fish.

GAB rating: Average. Antarctic Adventure is an inoffensive, pleasant looking bit of arcade-style fun, and only overstays its welcome a little, but like many arcade games, the lasting value isn't there. After beating the tenth level, the game loops back to stage 1, and after accomplishing this (and recording the video of it correctly) I just didn't feel like playing any more.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Game 265: 10-Yard Fight

I was a little surprised when my post on Computer Quarterback, an inscrutably abstract two-player Apple II simulation of a sport I have zero interest in and almost as little knowledge about, sustained well above average reader interest.

So now, here's a football arcade game with direct player control and some very weird interpretations on the sport's rules. There is only offense, only one receiver is available for passing plays, your dash is more like a relaxed walking speed at barely a yard and a half per second, interceptions are penalized with yardage loss, scoring a touchdown beats the "level," the clock is all but guaranteed to run out well before you hit the end zone, and once it does, you've got to gain ten yards every single down or lose the game.


The above video cuts out the first two levels which represent high-school defenders and isn't very interesting to watch (or play). Subsequent levels represent a college team, professional team, and finally a Super Bowl team.


Each "level" starts with the kickoff and first return run, where your team moves in a tight, unshakable formation.


This already feels weird and I don't even follow football. Everything's just so... slow, and the play mechanics are odd. Your team moves in perfect synchronicity, following the quarterback's lead, and to keep the defenders off him you've got to jostle around the whole team so that individual players block the pursuers, incapacitating both for a few precious seconds.

Should one catch up to you, wiggling the joystick will shake him off, but getting caught by two or more players will end your run, and because the defense always moves faster than your own pokey gait, you're certain to get mobbed eventually. The computer loves doing comically long "Superman" tackles, which can't be shaken off, and being tagged four times will also result in an instant tackle.

You'll want to gain as much yardage as you can here, obviously, but thanks to the way 10-Yard Fight works, performing poorly can completely ruin you. On the college level's second half, you effectively get 30 seconds of running time, and after that runs out, just one unsuccessful play can mean game over. Every ten yards you don't gain here is a fight that you'll have to win later on.

The plays are quite basic. Your only strategy option is where to position your receiver, who runs across the field until the snap. Forward passes are pretty risky; even when there's an open zone, defenders move erratically and can close the gap and intercept faster than you might think, which will cost you a disastrous 20 yards. The safest choice is usually to do a lateral pass and run as far as you can with it, though as time starts to run out, you may need to play things not so safely.

Pass or throw, though, there are no long yardages plays. You run slower than a typical New Yorker walks, and even if you break through the lines, you will get dogpiled.

Score a touchdown and you'll earn thousands of points and get a "kick or run" bonus game, with a chance to score another 1000.

Kicking is easy. Running seems impossible.

Then the cycle repeats, but it becomes harder, and crucially, the running time becomes pretty stringent, each round giving you fewer seconds than the round before it.

One peculiarity that shows up on the harder rounds, owing to the time limit, is that sometimes it's beneficial to scuttle a play, giving up a few seconds so that you can retry with more favorable conditions. For instance, suppose it's 1st & 10, and there are six seconds left on the clock. If you go for the play, it's do or die; your time will run out, and then you either make your ten yards or you lose the game. Or you could deliberately try to get tackled before time runs out, maybe gain a few yards, and then have a second chance to gain the rest of them, hopefully against an easier defense formation.

I made it to the "pro" league, where you get 25 seconds in the first half and 20 in the second.

GAB rating: Below Average. 10-Yard Fight is weird, slow, shallow, primitive, and not a whole lot of fun. The defense is erratic, sometimes changing its directions mid-charge instead of going for an easy tackle, and my best plays felt more like they exploited strange AI behavior than that I employed good skill or strategy. I almost want to rate this "bad," and yet I found myself strangely compelled to replay it and figure out how to not completely suck at it, which must say something considering I don't even like football.

10-Yard Fight had a 1984 re-release called "Vs. 10-Yard Fight," which despite the name has nothing to do with Nintendo's VS. System, and allows a second player to control one of the defenders while properly alternating offense and defense. An NES port in 1985, based on the Vs. version, somewhat expanded defensive options, and being the system's first football title is likely the most widely played version of the game.

I am curious if 10-Yard Fight might have influenced the later, and much more fondly remembered Tecmo Bowl series. From what I've seen of it, it seems very plausible that 10-Yard Fight walked, so to speak, so that Tecmo Bowl could run.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Game 264: Spy Hunter

Arcade games always lose something in translation to the home experience. The days of watered-down NES ports are long behind us, but even today's cycle-accurate emulation can't replicate the feel of being at a physical machine with controls and cabinet artwork designed specifically for the experience of playing one game.

This holds especially true for games like Bally Midway's Spy Hunter, where the controls are unique and the control panel is integral to the gameplay. The machine features:

  • A steering yoke with four triggers in its handles
  • A button in the center of the yoke which lights up when its function is available
  • A pressure sensitive throttle footpedal
  • A two-gear shifter stick
  • An LED dashboard displaying your armaments

The yoke is poorly simulated by a gamepad, let alone a keyboard, so in preparation not just for Spy Hunter, but for the driving games to come, I bought a USB steering wheel. It won't work well with all driving games - a lot of the early ones like Night Driver, Turbo, and Pole Position use free wheels that measure turning speed rather than distance turned, but for Spy Hunter, whose steering yoke drives a potentiometer, this is a reasonable approximation. The wheel has face buttons which can be mapped to the triggers and center button, and the accelerator pedal is, well, an accelerator pedal. Spy Hunter's weapon dashboard is simply displayed as a HUD overlay in MAME - not quite as attention-grabbing as the real thing, but functional enough.

There's just one non-straightforward thing to configure here, which is a common issue to several driving games in MAME. The shift stick here is a toggle switch, either low gear or high gear, with no neutral position. MAME, by default, maps this to a toggle button, which you tap to toggle between the gears. This is fine for most people, but if you've got a wheel with a stick shift as I do, this isn't ideal.

To change this, load the game, and then (temporarily) map the Gear Shift control to something you'll recognize easily, like the 'G' key. Quit MAME, then go to MAME's cfg directory and edit the "spyhunt.cfg" file. Look for the XML element that controls Gear Shift, which you might only be able to identify by the keymap you just assigned.

<port tag=":ssio:IP0" type="P1_BUTTON2" mask="16" defvalue="16">
    <newseq type="standard">

All you need to do here is add toggle="no" to the port element's attributes.

<port tag=":ssio:IP0" type="P1_BUTTON2" mask="16" defvalue="16" toggle="no">
    <newseq type="standard">

Then you can load the game again, and remap Gear Shift to one of your gears, so that you can naturally shift up and down. In my case, I picked 4, and now gear 4 means "high" and neutral (or any other gear) means "low."

If you want the inverse, so that neutral means "high" and your mapped input means "low," just edit the cfg file again and add the word NOT to the input element.

<port tag=":ssio:IP0" type="P1_BUTTON2" mask="16" defvalue="16" toggle="no">
    <newseq type="standard">


Spy Hunter basically wants to be every James Bond car chase scene in video game form, and reportedly even played a synthetic version of the Bond theme in an early build, only to be replaced with Henry Mancini's Peter Gunn theme when they couldn't get a license.

As a muscle car-driving spy hunter - or are you a spy being hunted? - your mission is to simply survive as long as possible, driving down series of roads full of hostile drivers. Armed only with a pair of forward-firing machine guns, these will be adequate for the first few seconds of play in which you'll likely only encounter hostile cars from behind who are easily taken out. Only black cars should be shot at; anyone else is a civilian and will cost you points. Eventually you'll pass by a van and may call it for support by pressing a flashing button - enter the van and you'll get a new weapon, either an oil slick or smoke screen for dealing with enemies behind you, or anti-air homing missiles for shooting down helicopters.

Around the same time as getting your first weapon - likely earlier unless you get lucky, your enemies will get deadlier, and start spawning behind you, following in pursuit. "Switchblade" cars with slashing hubcap mechanisms straight out of Goldfinger will blow out your tires. Armored vans impervious to your gunfire will ram you off the road, or into traffic, or sometimes just total your car by merely connecting. Shotgun-toting enforcers in limousines will attempt to pull up beside you and shoot a 12-gauge hole through your radiator, or wait for you on the shoulders. Sometimes a blast instantly destroys you, sometimes it does nothing, and I'm not sure if it's possible to determine what causes it.

Among the least enviable situations is when any of these are hot on your tail without an oil slick or smoke screen in your arsenal, as trying to get them to pass you is extremely risky, and going fast enough to outrun them without fatally slamming into something ahead of you is quite difficult. The best tactic seems to be to switch into high gear and using the throttle to regulate your speed, keeping ahead of them but not getting out of control, which is easier said than done even with a steering wheel and pedal setup, and probably not feasible without one.

What's even more difficult is when hostiles are both behind you and in front of you. It's no good to just barely keep ahead of the pursuit - the foes ahead of you will close in. You've got to shoot them if possible and dodge their wreck at high speed, or throttle up and try to pass them. Nor is it any simple task to pull into a weapons van while several switchblades and armored vans are on your tail.

Owing to the unforgiving difficulty (and high price - a game costs two tokens by default), Spy Hunter has a grace period of 110 seconds in which you have infinite lives, and only after this time expires is it possible to get a game over. Unfortunately, this doesn't do much to help if you can't survive that long to begin with, as losing your car means losing all of your weapons except for the limitedly useful machine guns, robbing you of your best chance of surviving long enough to get a rear-firing weapon. Especially infuriating is when, right after pulling back onto the road from losing a life or collecting a weapon, a random vehicle just comes in out of nowhere and crashes into you. Deliberately staying on the shoulder until speed picks up can somewhat offset this risk, but it doesn't always work.

My best attempt scored over 50,000 points and made it to a motorboat section, a gameplay mode not seen in the demo loop. Here, your car turns into a gunboat and you have to deal with helicopters and sea mine layers. This part, in theory, seems like it should be easier going, as there's less enemy variety, and the helicopters are less deadly as their bombs don't leave any dangerous potholes in the river, but it's also pretty monotonous and gets boring once the novelty wears off.

GAB rating: Average. On the plus side, Spy Hunter looks nice, with its realistically proportioned and animated sprites, the control scheme is novel, and its high concept is well realized. But the difficulty factor is more frustrating than challenging, and success and failure often feels dependent on luck. Blowing up because a car just randomly came out of nowhere is irritating, as is being forced into car chases without having any suitable weapons at hand. It's also, honestly, quite a repetitive experience, with most of the possible scenarios playing out in a five minute session.

Spy Hunter had a sequel in 1987 which by all accounts was terrible and will not be covered or otherwise acknowledged in this blog. A reboot series began in 2001, followed by another reboot in 2006, and another in 2012. The most widely played rendition, though, was probably an NES port developed by SunSoft the same year as its maligned arcade sequel.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Games 262-263: Tax Dodge & Archon: The Light and the Dark

It was almost the start of the 1983 phase of Data Driven Gamer when we covered the first games of Automated Simulations. By 1981, its co-founder Jon Freeman had developed a slew of BASIC games that had principally targeted the TRS-80 but also found ports to Apple, Atari, and Commodore computers - the D&D-inspired Dunjonquest series of dungeon crawlers, a multitude of spinoffs, the StarQuest series, and movie monster simulator Crush, Crumble, & Chomp! By 1981, Freeman quit, having grown tired of the limitations of BASIC and unable to convince his partner to see things his way.

Freeman and his wife Anne Westfall, an Automated Simulations programmer, founded "Free Fall Associates" in 1982 and co-produced Tax Dodge, a Pac-Man inspired arcade-style game for Atari computers that took advantage of its comparatively advanced graphics, sound, and speed, being coded in machine language instead of the interpreted BASIC code that propelled those lumbering simulations of their earlier years. Ironically, Automated Simulations would soon after head in a similar direction without Freeman's involvement, also focusing on arcade-style games in machine language for Atari computers, such as 1983's seminal Jumpman.

As for Free Fall, Tax Dodge was a flop, and they found themselves in the same place that several other stories of 1983 have ended up - Electronic Arts. Joined by designer and fellow Automated Simulations alumnus Paul Reiche III, they developed their first games for EA, starting with the one that would become their most famous title of all, Archon.


This post covers those first two games by Free Fall Associates.

Game 262: Tax Dodge


Jon Freeman wasn't shy about inserting his neoconservative views into his work. StarQuest: Rescue at Rigel was a thinly veiled metaphor for the Iran hostage crisis, where the "High Tollah" have taken prisoners and you play a space commando and perform a daring, guns blazing rescue mission. In its follow-up Star Warrior, the backstory launches into a weird lecture on the virtues of anarcho-libertarianism. Through the monster biographies of Crush Crumble and Chomp, he's eager to tell you what he thinks about constituted government, gay rights activists, and the Knicks.

Tax Dodge, then, makes its politics the entire theme of the game, but the metaphor is a silly bit of fluff as you navigate a maze of earnings, deductions, accountants, inflation, audits, and tax havens while chased by black-hatted IRS agents who will take your money if they catch you. Every fiscal year gives you an earnings quota, and if you don't bring enough gains to your tax shelter by April 15th, you lose. Supposedly this was meant to be a critique on overly complicated U.S. tax codes, but the metaphor doesn't hold up to much scrutiny. Merely paying taxes in this game is dead simple compared to real life - all you need to do is have money, and the IRS comes and takes it. It's tax avoidance that the game makes complicated, and contrary to its intentions, comes across more as a satire of convoluted, how-is-this-even-legal schemes available to moneyed individuals than it does of the tax code itself.

Tax Dodge features true 4-way scrolling, which wasn't even common in arcade games by 1982. Jr. Pac-Man, released the following year, only had horizontal scrolling. Running into offscreen taxmen is a seemingly unavoidable problem. Thankfully, they only take some of your money, and will not be able to take any more until they return to the IRS building on the maze, and you can bump into them a few times and still win the level.

Unfortunately, there's only one maze layout which repeats infinitely. Which isn't to say that every stage plays exactly the same - there are a variety of level gimmicks that rotate level for level. I couldn't find a manual, so I'm not sure what they all do, but ones that I saw include:

  • Deductions act as a buffer. They won't count toward your money quota, but if you have any, the IRS will take these from you before they take your earnings.
  • Inflation costs you money as you run across it.
  • Red tape slows down everyone crossing it.
  • The accountant costs you some money and turns you into a ghost for some reason. This state will protect you from a single taxman encounter.
  • Tax court costs you money whenever you run through it. I'm not really sure if it does anything else.
  • The lawyer charges you a one-time fee and then lights up, like the accountant. I don't know if it does anything good.
  • Audits pop-up around the IRS building from time to time, and stay there for a little while, costing you money if you pass through them.
  • The Constitution appears in some levels, but I have no idea what it does here or what it's supposed to mean in context. Freeman is familiar with Article I Section 8 and the Sixteenth Amendment, right?
  • COURT also appears sometimes in place of the Tax Court and like red tape, it slows you down.
  • Tax havens are safe spots where you can rest without any risk of being caught by the taxmen, but you can't stay there forever as the clock keeps ticking.

The game starts getting pretty difficult around level 4, which is where my video above starts. I made it to level 8 in my best attempt.

GAB rating: Average. It's okay, I guess, but there's no reason I'd want to play this over Pac-Man, which was competently ported to Atari computers the same year. The changes to the formula don't really make it better, and ultimately this just feels like a Pac-Man reskin despite Freeman's ambition to be more.

Tax Dodge didn't bring in quite as much taxable income as Freeman had hoped. He blamed Atari's younger crowd for not "getting" it, but I don't buy it. Tax Dodge isn't especially complex or deep, it's just got a lot of shallow but obscure little rules. I think so much more could have been done with the theme too - why not implement tax brackets, so that the higher your earnings, the more they take? How about preferential rates on capital gains? Where's my Roth IRA? Never mind tax havens, how about a spot on the map for Deutsche Bank? I'd like to see offshore investments, charitable donation credits, profit shifting, and maybe a two-player mode where you can partner with Ms. Tax Dodge and pursue split-income subsidies and those sweet, sweet dependency credits. If you're going to insist Tax Dodge is more than just a Pac-Man clone, at least try to make me think like a tax dodger!

Game 263: Archon: The Light and the Dark

Read the manual here:

It's a little hard to believe that this game, a hybrid of chess-inspired strategy and competitive arcade action, represents the culmination of experience behind the voluminous Dunjonquest series and its related titles. Examined as an Electronic Arts launch title, it fits right in, with its fair complexities, production values, and immediate accessibility, but viewed as a terminus on Jon Freeman's thread, how did we get from Crush, Crumble, and Chomp to this?

Archon plays a bit like a simplified chess variant - very simplified - with the twist that when one piece attacks, the board transitions to an arena, where they fight it out in a twitchy action minigame.

Victory goes to the first player to have pieces on all five "power points," indicated by the blinking eyes, though your main avenues of achieving this mostly involve eliminating pieces until it's clear who the winner will be.

Pieces don't have the complex rules of chess; you have flyers who can go anywhere on the board within their range, and walkers who can't go through other pieces but are otherwise only restricted by range. Chess-like strategy, which Freeman dismisses as "dull," doesn't work here. You can't really "control" the board when so many pieces can basically go anywhere they please.

The strategy comes from three factors.

First, and perhaps most importantly, light pieces have advantage on white spaces, and dark pieces have advantages on black spaces. The green spaces, on which three of the five power points are located, cycle between light and dark, shifting a shade every time both players move, and the closer the color is to pure white or black, the stronger the power differential. At full white, a light piece may be able to one-shot a dark piece, and sustain up to three hits in return.

Second, each piece has different combat abilities and attributes, and they're asymmetrical for the most part. Your tough, slow-moving, rock-throwing golem might be powerful against banshees, but moving it off a white square to attack one on a neutral power point might leave it vulnerable to counterattack from a fast and deadly basilisk.

Third, each side has a powerful spellcasting unit, which guards a power point on a friendly-colored square, who may in lieu of moving, cast one of seven game state-altering spells. Each may be cast only once per game, and these spells may not affect units on power points (not even "heal"), nor may the "teleport" spell teleport a unit onto one.

I played a few rounds with "R," with me as light and him as dark.


We had some fun, but didn't find a lot of lasting appeal. The strategy doesn't run quite as deep as it seems. For instance, we learned to never move your shapeshifter onto a non-powered square that changes color, and if your opponent does, cast Imprison and attack it with a knight once the color flips to white. Magic can only do so much, and for the most part is easily undone with more magic; one unit taken out with a cheap summon elemental spell? Revive it. Did they cast Shift Time in a gambit to keep the middle power points friendly? Cast Shift Time again and now the advantage is yours.

Ultimately, whoever can fight better is the one who wins the game. Three of the power points are in the middle and on shifting tiles, which makes them difficult to hold. Two of them are on opposite sides and and guarded by powerful spellcasters on squares with full affinity, which makes them difficult to take. You either win by eliminating so many units that you can't be stopped, or you win by occupying the middle power points and landing a sneak attack on the enemy spellcaster, which requires being the better fighter anyway as they'll have full color affinity on their side. Or you win if the other player doesn't know what they're doing and leaves their own power point unattended.

Gameplay against the computer is frustrating, as it's jittery and has impossibly fast reflexes, but also tends to degrade as the game goes on. Defensive play is extremely effective, because it plays dumb at the strategic level. Just buy your time, get your good units onto friendly spaces as quickly as possible, and weather out its initial barrage of magic-aided attacks. The computer will be drawn to the neutral power points like a moth to flame and crucially keep them there even after the luminosity shifts, and that's when you attack and retreat. The main risk is the possibility of losing your spellcaster and power point to a powerful unit while all of the other power points are occupied, resulting in an immediate game over for you, but the computer doesn't do that often, and when it does, you always have the full advantage of your color on that square.

GAB rating: Above average. I remember liking this game better, but on closer examination, the strategy portion is disappointingly thin. Victory really goes to whoever fights better. Defensive play, where you move as many pieces as possible onto friendly, stable-colored squares and keep them there until you can attack at an advantage, is so effective that aggression can only beat it if the aggressor is much more skilled, in which case they'd win anyway. Mutual aggression can be interesting, but again, strategy plays little role in determining who performs better, and whoever can take out their opponent's spellcaster first, or whoever eliminates more of their opponent's good pieces while they're on wrong color, will probably win the game.

It also seems like the dark side just has better pieces. The dragon is simply more powerful than the djinni, whose only comparative advantage is slightly shorter attack interval, barely significant compared to the dragon's far more damaging fire breath and bigger HP bar. The basilisk greatly out-damages the unicorn, making it a much more effective in its role as a glass cannon despite the lower HP. Banshees kind of suck, but the light counterpart's phoenix isn't a whole lot better, immobile in its attack and vulnerable for a split-second afterward, and the dark's shapeshifter has the incredibly useful and unique trait of healing itself after each fight, making it basically invulnerable on friendly colors.

I propose that Archon could have been improved with a victory points-like system where each player gains "mana" or some other idiosyncratic quantum for each unit on a power point each turn. A player who has captured four power points gains four times as much as a player with only one. Filling a mana bar would count as an alternate victory condition. I believe this tweak would prevent stalemate conditions by forcing defensive players to contend for the power points, encourage strategic play somewhat, and on top of that, the AI wouldn't even need to be changed since it already goes for them when it has no chance of capturing all five.


Archon remains Free Fall's most well-known game, and only whale, so this is an end point of a retrospective that I started nearly a year ago with Automated Simulations' Starfleet Orion. The same year as Archon, they would also release, through Electronic Arts, Murder on the Zinderneuf, a Clue-inspired murder mystery adventure game, and the following year, Archon II: Adept. Their final commercial games were Swords of Twilight, an Amiga action RPG, and a DOS remake of Archon. Freeman and Westfall's post DOS-era credits consist entirely of online card games played through the now defunct Prodigy GameTV service. Free Fall still appears to exist, but their website hasn't been updated since 2008.

Although Archon is an end point for the purposes of this blog, and the last time I'll look at anything involving Jon Freeman, co-designer Paul Reiche III went on to have a decades-long career, and currently works at Toys for Bob, taking up the reins of the Skylanders and Spyro the Dragon franchises. Notably, he would be the lead designer for Star Control, a game that might be described as Archon in space.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Game 261: Space Shuttle: A Journey into Space

Photo by AtariAge.

I've been dreading this game. I find space physics fascinating, but my grasp on how masses transition from falling downward towards the earth to falling sideways around it is shaky at best. The prospect of having to learn actual orbital mechanics to play a game, made with NASA's consultation no less, has been bit intimidating.

I've also been quite intrigued, in a way that I wouldn't have been if this were a 48KB computer game. We've seen a simplistic and yet barely playable flight simulator crammed into 16KB on the Apple II. Space flight is inordinately more complicated, and Activision did this with half the program size, and only 128 bytes of RAM! And how are all those shuttle controls condensed into a one-button joystick plus the half-dozen console switches? How is any of this possible?

The short, incomplete answer is that there isn't that much simulation. It's mostly just following instructions - and with a manual 32 pages thick, there's no shortage of those - and errors result in fuel loss or mission aborting depending on severity. It isn't possible, for instance, to launch your rocket into the ground. It's still a very impressive technical achievement given the system's limitations, but I don't think I learned much about how spaceflight works by playing it.

There are six phases to the shuttle mission, and controls vary for each:

  • Launch
  • Stabilize orbit
  • Dock with the satellite
  • De-orbit
  • Re-entry
  • Final approach and landing

There are three game modes of incrementing difficulty:

  • Autosimulator - A demo mode where you don't need to touch any controls and can just watch the computer play the game for you. Partial manual controls override is possible in certain phases, but failure is impossible as far as I can tell.
  • Simulator - You have full control, but unlimited fuel. Fault tolerance is moderate - certain screwups will abort the mission, but others will just alert you to the problem and let you carry on in spite of it.
  • STS 101 - Full control, limited fuel, and all abort conditions are in effect. On a successful landing you are ranked based on how well you performed in the docking phase and how much fuel remains.

After spending a few hours coming to grips with everything, which included reading and re-reading the manual, and trying all of the modes in order with the manual in hand, I decided to do a "for real" run where I'd pursue the Mission Specialist rank, which requires docking with the satellite twice before de-orbiting, and landing safely with 3500 fuel units remaining.


Here's a rundown of the phases.


Before launching the shuttle, you must make sure that the primary and backup engines are shut down, that the cargo doors are closed, and the landing gear up. These are done by flipping the console deck switches, which normally control color and difficulty in other games. In MAME, these are mapped to DIP switches.


Activate the countdown with the console reset switch.

At MET-15 (aka T minus 15), turn the primary engines on.

At MET-4, the gauge labeled 'C' will start to move.


When it does, you need to activate your thrusters to match by using the joystick button.

At MET-0, the restraining bolts are released and you have liftoff.

You'll have two new challenges in addition to needing to continually adjust your thrusters - you have to keep the shuttle centered with the joystick's horizontal motion, and keep it on the correct trajectory with the vertical motion. The console aids this, but good luck reading it during the first 26 miles.

At the second stage, the primary fuel tank detaches and things get a bit easier. The shuttle's altitude rises automatically, and its horizontal position is confusingly controlled by pushing up or down on the joystick. You really just want to keep the dot on the line by pushing down to move it to the right as it rises, and sometimes pushing up to correct oversteer. You'll still need to keep adjusting the shuttle's thrust and centering. Errors will sound a warning horn but generally only cost you fuel.

At 205 miles, you shut off the engines. You have a good amount of leeway, but the more off you are, the more effort (and fuel) you'll need to burn to adjust.

Stabilizing orbit

Once your engines are off, the console switches to a sine-wave showing your orbit and your position along with the satellite's. Stabilizing is straightforward if you can follow directions.
  • Turn the engines back on.
  • Pitch forward to -28°.
  • Turn the engines off.
  • Open the cargo bay doors.

The game isn't really simulating orbital mechanics here. Once you reach an altitude, you're in the satellite's orbit. There's a simple correlation between pitch and altitude drift, with -28° granting stability, and you need the engines on to change your pitch.

The cargo bay doors need to be open to cool the shuttle. Is that how it actually works in real life? What happens to the cargo when you open them in space?



As I said earlier, this is the most difficult and involving part of the game. You are now chasing a satellite in a stable orbit, and to dock, you've got to approach, get very close, match its velocity, altitude, and latitude, and hold steady for two seconds. To attain the rank of commander, you've got to do this six times before landing, and it gets more difficult each time, as the shuttle drifts and the satellite jitters, getting worse with each success.

The simplest method is by using the RCS engine clusters, available when the main engines are shut off, and this is more than good enough to dock with the satellite twice. With them, you may directly adjust the shuttle's orbital vector relative to the satellite, and as long as you don't do anything outrageous, the orbit will remain stable. Turning the engines on activates OMS in which the joystick button fires the powerful rear thruster, making longer distance maneuvers more fuel-efficient. You rely on pitch and yaw for direction, but making fine adjustments is difficult and accidentally destabilizing your orbit is easy.

With the RCS engines, altitude is adjusted by holding the joystick button and repeatedly tapping up or down. As you do this, the console displays your Z-axis delta, and the goal is to reach zero. Left and right adjust the Y-axis offset. Up/down without the button held changes your velocity and shows the X-axis offset (i.e. your distance to the satellite), but does not show your velocity, which you need to keep at exactly 23.9 once dX is 0 to match the satellite. The "game select" switch cycles through the console readouts, including velocity. You'll need to periodically check all three vectors, as the shuttle drifts and the satellite can become jumpy.

The fact that the console only shows one readout at a time is pretty annoying, and makes this phase fiddlier than it needs to be. You've got to keep checking your Z and Y deltas for drift, and the quickest way to do that is by moving on those axes, which changes them and wastes fuel. I wish you could view all three vector offsets, orbital velocity, and remaining fuel simultaneously, but you've got to keep cycling through them to check. Later computer versions would replace the now-unused thrust gauges with readouts for velocity and altitude, which isn't ideal but it's better than the original approach.

De-orbit burning

Unlike other phases, the game doesn't automatically "advance" to the de-orbit burn upon completion of the previous. It's a procedure you execute when you're ready for re-entry - ideally done after docking with the satellite enough times for your desired rank, but before fuel gets too low.

  • Wait until the satellite's distance increases to 128.
  • Correct Z-axis offset to 0.
  • Set speed to 23.9.
  • Activate primary engines.
  • Yaw to -128. This makes your shuttle face backwards as it travels in orbit tail-first.
  • Pitch to -4°
  • Ignite engines until your speed reduces to 19.0.
  • Yaw back to 0, so that the shuttle faces forward again.

The first three steps have nothing to do with realism; the game simply doesn't let you de-orbit while close to the satellite. After that, reversing the shuttle's yaw allows thrust to decelerate, and the proper pitch ensures that it does not climb or lose altitude.

I am honestly not sure if this step accomplishes anything apart from slowing down and putting distance between yourself and the satellite.


After completing the above steps, there are two more steps to complete before beginning descent, which ensure the shuttle does not burn up on re-entry.

  • Pitch to 28°
  • Close the cargo bay doors.

Soon you'll rapidly lose altitude, and the trajectory console will show your descent course.

Controls are similar to the launch phase, but without the need to touch your thrusters. During the T-stage of reentry, extreme heat will disrupt your vision and instruments, leaving you flying blind for a few seconds.

Final approach

The last phase is landing the shuttle, and it's much easier than landing in Flight Simulator. All you have to do is keep the runway centered on the screen, and adjust the shuttle's pitch to keep its landing trajectory in the safe range indicated by the console. The readout shows your distance to the runway, and once it reaches zero, you may deploy the landing gear, and then simply push the nose down all the way to land.

On mode 3, you receive a rank.


As I had docked with the satellite twice and landed with just under 4500 fuel, I attained the rank of mission specialist, as planned. The next rank, pilot, would require docking four times and landing with more fuel than I managed with just two docks. I'm not really sure how you're supposed to do that, let alone attain "commander" rank by docking six times and landing with 7500 fuel, but I'm not interested enough to spend more time trying to find out.

GAB rating: N/A. Space Shuttle wasn't exactly a thrill-a-minute or even entertaining in the conventional sense, but that was never the point. I will reiterate that, despite what multiple retrospective reviews have said (often without making a real effort to attain competency), it isn't exactly a hardcore simulator nor is it immensely technical, and is more about partially replicating procedures than accurately modeling spaceflight. It's a niche product for sure, and I'm not sure it holds any appeal today beyond showing off what Activision's developers could pull off on the primitive Atari 2600 hardware, but I don't think it makes sense to rate it on a conventional good-bad scale.

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