Monday, July 12, 2021

Games 278-279: Floppy Frenzy & Digger

Windmill Software is an oddity; a software studio that made arcade-style games exclusively for the expensive, business-oriented IBM PC, and did it during the first few years of the product's existence, back when it wasn't especially popular as a home computer or very well suited to these sorts of games.

Windmill's first game, made in 1982, was Video Trek 88. A variant of that ancient BASIC game Star Trek, I'm not very interested in playing it, but its color text display does illustrate one advantage that CGA had over its 8-bit contemporaries; text is very crisp, effectively rendering at a 640 pixel wide resolution, and supports 16 colors or monochrome.

Screenshot by Mobygames

Most of their subsequent games, however, utilized that notoriously ugly 4-color 320x200 mode, though they certainly did their best to make the most of it.


Game 278: Floppy Frenzy


Windmill's second game, released in 1982, on first glance looks like a Pac-Man knock-off. You guide a floppy disk around a maze, avoiding magnets and dust which, as every computer user in 1982 knew, was deadly to floppies. By laying down traps, you can weaken them and then chase down and kill them. Fail, and you get a cute Game Over animation.


On closer inspection, though, this game is a dead ringer for something far more obscure than Pac-Man - Heiankyo Alien! You go through a maze, lay down stationary traps, and have to just hope that your enemies wander into them. Apart from having to chase them down once they fall in, it's nearly identical. Did Windmill somehow get to play this Japan-exclusive arcade game, which was obscure even then? Did they arrive at virtually the same gameplay concept and execution by accident? I like to think that they might have played Space Panic and copied the formula but without the ladders and platforms, coming full circle back to a game that plays just like Heiankyo Alien.

And just like Space Panic and Heiankyo Alien, the enemies move with such randomness and indifference to you and your traps that the game becomes chaotic and defies strategy. The F1 key, used to set traps, is unreliable too - the game always acknowledges the attempt with a beep, but may still decline to leave a trap at all, simply because your floppy wasn't perfectly aligned with the invisible pixel position needed to set one down.

GAB rating: Bad. Even on the early IBM, Windmill could do a lot better than this. And they did.

Game 279: Digger

Digger, the best known game from Windmill, is a shameless clone of Mr. Do! You run around a dirt maze, digging tunnels that you and the monsters can pass through, and win by collecting all the stuff - diamonds rather than cherries - or by killing all of the monsters.

There are some differences, mostly simplifications:

  • You have a simple forward-firing bullet instead of a SuperBall.
  • The trick of pushing a moneybag just over the edge and waiting doesn't work like it does with Mr. Do's apples. They'll just fall.
  • There is no equivalent to Alpha Monsters, and no way to spell EXTRA.
  • Instead of junk food there are cherries, which also appear when the final monster spawns, but collecting simply makes you invulnerable for a few seconds. However, any monsters killed during this time will respawn, and possibly overwhelm you, so you've got to decide whether to spend this time pursuing monsters (and points) or safely collecting diamonds to end the level.
  • Moneybags break open when they fall and the contents can be collected for 500 points which is significant, but it's risky to backtrack to get it, and they can be taken by the monsters as well.

The somewhat simplified nature of Digger makes it feel even more difficult than Mr. Do!, where you had more options, both for dealing with the monsters and for gaining more lives, and the craziness sometimes worked to your advantage. In Digger, when you lose control of the playfield action, you die. Allowing the monsters to go berserk and start digging on their own will be your doom.


Windmill Software makes the best of the period PC's hardware, with surprisingly okay 4-color CGA graphics, cute little animated sprites, and a funky beeper rendition of Popcorn, though I would have liked to see 16-color composite support. As with most early PC games, logic is tied to the CPU clock, and default DOSBox settings run everything much too fast. I found 350 cycles was enough for smooth gameplay, but the Funeral March that plays when you die gets cut off slightly too soon, and 250 cycles allows you to hear the whole thing. DOSBox's timing emulation isn't 100% precise, so maybe my inability to find a perfect setting isn't necessarily the game's fault.

GAB rating: Good. Sure, it's not exactly original, nor does the system it's made for the one the best suited for it, but Digger is one of the best arcade-style computer games I've played yet.

1 comment:

  1. I suffered through many a 4 color CGA game after receiving my Tandy in 1985... fortunately, they started the using the TGA modes later in life!


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