Sunday, October 17, 2021

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

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

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

Game 289: Lancaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Game 290: Will Harvey's Music Construction Set

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


  1. Most eclectic product pairing ever! Really fascinating to hear about these "games" that only ended up making their way to the general public because they basically met a specific need of the developer's.

  2. Had lots of fun in my childhood playing with Music Construction Set.

    (I also enjoyed Zany Golf, but I could never quite beat it, kept getting to the last hole.)


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