Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Jet Set Willy: Won!

If I've learned anything about house hunting, it's that you should always, always pay for a good inspection. Even in a seller's market, do not waive an inspection contingency. Walk away if they try to pressure you into it. Last summer, "D" and I thought we found our dream house, a six-bedroom country estate complete with a beautiful backyard garden and detached guest house. Inspection showed it to be a deathtrap of code violations, malfunctioning equipment, rotting walls, pests, gas leaks, and tip-prone appliances. Sort of like Willy's mansion.

I resumed play from where I had left off before, a saved game in an easy room directly above the gates of hell (see inspection report pg. 20, Foundation/Basement Issues). This time I knew not to drop in and continued eastward to the burrow under Willy's driveway, and found getting out to be much easier once I realized that a conveyor belt which seemed to be moving right was in fact moving to the left, toward the way out.

Emerging up onto the surface of Willy's driveway, I went back to the left, where my path converged back into "The Security Guard," only now on an upper level. I do like it when these semi-linear worlds interconnect like that.

Passing over the sentries is somewhat harder than passing below them was.

The next few rooms were surprisingly doable compared to the multiple nightmarish rooms I slogged through in my first run. The stairs led up to Willy's front door, from which I entered a hall with some spike traps to jump over while avoiding a single overhead duck, leading into a ballroom with some slow-moving and easily dodged spiders. A ladder here went up to a trickier room titled "East Wall Base" where a faster moving spider and a deadly-for-some-reason scroll vertically patrolled a series of narrow ledges, and after successfully navigating those, a nasty room awaited above.

What makes this room so nasty isn't so much the difficulty, nor the demonic imagery (just what do the priests do here anyway?), but the fact that if you fall even once from a slightly misjudged jump - quite possible given the pressure of having to stay a step ahead of the demon skull - you'll probably fall to your death on the room below, which means another endless respawn-and-die loop.

But I did, after a few save-state reloads here, get the bible at the top and continue westward, where after passing through a trivial generator room, a less trivial room with a big snake-shaped corridor, and then the infamous attic, I arrived in the rooftop area above the banyan tree, coming in from the other direction.

I see a potential Google Doodle here.

Heading further up, the next few rooms above the roof were pretty tricky, but nothing unmanageable with a save state every room or two. One room named "Nomen Luni" had a bird, an alien, a robot, and a moon moving around in simple patterns, more or less spaced out so that only one would be a problem at a time. The next had a swinging rope over a conveyor belt where a single dancing rabbit guarded a collectable sword embedded in the wall, and here I figured out the rope controls; move in the direction of the rope's velocity (not its orientation) to climb down, and against it to climb up. Afterward, a room "Up on the Battlements" had me dodge stray arrows while jumping across sentried parapets, one such jump made aggravatingly difficult by a conveyor belt on the preceding parapet, making it trial and error to figure out the exact timing needed to jump onto it and then be able to hop over the next crenelation without touching the sentry.

Not shown - at least a dozen failures

Another room eclectically named "We must perform a Quirkafleeg" was otherwise uninteresting, having nothing but a rope swinging over a spiked portcullis, and a stray arrow that kills you almost immediately if you don't enter the room jumping for it. I had actually gotten to this room before by accident, by clipping through the ceiling in the room below it, which of course killed immediately me as I was now touching the portcullis and had put the game into one of its infinite death loops. The rope, however, could be climbed to the top and into a secret watch tower.

This room may look simple, but cramped space combined with your inflexible jump trajectory makes it one of the hardest I've seen since the last session. You have to jump to grab the apples without touching the vines they sit on, and the enemies make things even worse for you. Falling from the tower is, of course, a death loop condition.

The rest of the rooftop rooms are comparatively trivial. There's another battlement room named "I'm sure I've seen this before," made much easier than the first one thanks to the removal of the conveyor belt. There's a "Rescue Esmeralda" room that riffs on Ocean Software's Hunchback but merely features two spear-wielding guards moving up and down some crenelations and a slow-moving duck flying overhead that you just need to be patient enough to not jump into. The final room has a flagpole with a collectable tip that you can just run up and take - touching the flag itself is deadly, and falling here is a death loop, but once you know that, you couldn't die here unless it was on purpose.

"Rescue Esmeralda" exits downwards to the generator room, from where I traveled back to the rooftop, and then westward to more unexplored rooms. A "Conservatory Roof" tantalized with multiple seemingly inaccessible objects, and a staircase down led to an orange grove, where two oranges could be taken, but a third one was out of reach.

Falling here = death loop

Further west, the roof above the west wing held some more objects. Heading down the stairs and out the back door, I landed on a beach.

Deceptively hard. The crabs (are those crabs?) are much wider than they look, and your hurtbox width changes with your walk animation cycle.

Willy's yacht was moored here; a two-room navigation puzzle of middling difficulty. It doesn't lead anywhere, but contains a few more items to collect, so I returned home, picking up a spare hammer in the toolshed by the back door, which would have been trivial to collect if it weren't for limited lives.

Fall down and die to grab it and respawn. Or take the hard route down, climb back up, and face a nearly impossible platform jump on the return route thanks to that hanging nail.

The cold storage room that I stumbled into during my first session was just off the back staircase, and its ice crystals seem impossible to collect without dying or using several save states.

Further to the right were the kitchen rooms, where I easily ascended a series of platforms patrolled by angry cooks and emerged in a previously inaccessible grotto under the Banyan Tree containing an item. I re-ascended the tree to a vantage point from which I could access the previously inaccessible items in the orangery and conservatory roof.

One of which seems to be impossible to get without dying.

The west end of the mansion seemed pretty thoroughly cleaned, so I headed to the east side of it, picking up a few objects of low to middling difficulty in some rooms near the middle on the ground floor. Heading out the door and past the driveway, I found myself beneath a "MegaTree."

As usual, completing any of these rooms in your first few tries is damned near impossible, and getting enough practice to do it consistently seems just as unlikely.

Touching the vines here kills you.

Touching the leaves will kill you.

Seriously, how?

Ok, this one's kind of chill.

That one was kind of unfair. Also, falling here is a death loop.

After clearing this miserable area, an effort that took me five save states to pull off, I continued past the tree to the right, jumped over a bridge, and entered the eastmost room of the game, featuring a plethora of objects and no clear way to get them all without dying.

This close to the end it didn't really matter. Only one room remained to be explored, and it was pretty close to the start. The mansion's chapel awaited off the first floor landing, which I backtracked to - a nontrivial task even with it being familiar grounds, and without having to worry about collecting items on the way! This room, featuring more occult imagery, was basically a timing puzzle, as the stairs force you to walk to the top and possibly into the demon skull at the top if timed poorly.

Finally, with 83 items collected, Maria allowed me into the master bedroom, triggering Jet Set Willy's shocking twist ending.

GAB rating: Bad. If Manic Miner was a chore to play, Jet Set Willy was torturous. I like a challenge, but I didn't have a moment of fun slogging through these punishing rooms over and over again, and that was with a lax policy on save states, of which I needed exactly 42 to make it through JSW's 60 rooms. Surprisingly, the toughest rooms of all were encountered early on - I'd say that The Nightmare Room and The Forgotten Abbey were the hardest.

It's a pity too, because Jet Set Willy has something going for it. The non-linear mansion design is inspired. Its interconnected map layout anticipates one the defining properties of Metroid-style games to come, coming together in a more complete and sophisticated way than Pitfall II did the same year, and authorial design shows throughout, even if Smith's authorial design only amounts to silly non-sequitur sight gags. Willy's Mansion is just as much of a fully realized game world, if not as logically consistent, as Dracula's castle in Symphony of the Night. But Smith's player-hostile design, with unending and impossibly narrow gauntlets of enemies and obstacles, its devil-may-care attitude toward its own bugs (never mind the literal game-breaking bugs that they had to fix via magazine cheat codes, its cheap random-feeling deaths from stray arrows and invisible hazards, and its patently inadequate spare lives and its infinite death loops that will drain them all in one bad fall all but ensures that nobody will see very much of it without some hardcore cheating.

Jet Set Willy reminds me a lot of I Wanna Be the Guy, a notorious platform hell that I've alluded to before with Jumpman. JSW resembles it even more strongly, and its DNA almost certainly propagated to that game, as it directly references Monty on the Run, a similarly structured platform adventure which was also originally designed for the ZX Spectrum. I Wanna Be the Guy entertains where JSW only aggravates, for a number of reasons, as does Jumpman.

First, the sheer variety of ways both games can surprise and screw you over far outnumber Willys', and that combined with a better sense of comedic timing makes it amusing to lose. Jet Set Willy only irritates and bores with its repetitiveness.

Second, once you have these tricks more or less memorized, IWBTG and Jumpman emphasize dexterity over pixel-and-frame-precise jumping. This is both more entertaining and more empowering, as you feel more in control, and therefore more at fault when things don't work out.

Third and most importantly, these games don't expect you do do everything in one sitting, unless you play IWBGT in its impossible mode (or Jumpan in Grand Tour mode). Death doesn't make you repeat the entire game - IWBGT has checkpoints, while Jumpman lets you start on the intermediate and expert floors without having to re-beat everything before them. JSW does whenever you run out of lives, which can happen for no shortage of reasons, whether fair or unfair.

To that end, I think Jet Set Willy would have been salvaged if it had built-in checkpoints that replenished your stock of spare lives and restored you when you ran out. The infinite death loops would have to go as well - perhaps best done by respawning Willy not always in the room where he died, but at the start of the last one where his feet touched solid ground for more than a few frame cycles.

Jet Set Willy is among the most famous and popular British 8-bit games. Its direct influence is seen not just in the aforementioned Monty, but also in the long-running Dizzy series which went in more of an inventory puzzle direction. Hacked copies with custom maps are just as popular on the ZX Spectrum as custom level sets for Boulder Dash are on the Atari 8-bit and Commodore 64. I like to think that this massive mansion, most of which you'd never come within spitting distance of thanks to its insurmountable and unforgiving difficulty, led some mystique to British gamers in the day. Or maybe they just cheated even more than I did? I don't know, but I'm done with this series. Jet Set Willy II: The Final Frontier builds on the original mansion design making it even bigger, but was done without Matthew Smith's involvement and doesn't make whale status.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Game 299: Jet Set Willy

Waking up hung over in his bathtub, Willy's day is only going to get worse.

I knew long before playing that I wouldn't be capable of finishing Jet Set Willy fairly. Not only because of an infamous bug which makes the game unwinnable out of the box, in which an arrow flies off-screen, out of VRAM bounds, and into system memory where it corrupts other rooms' data, but also because its predecessor Manic Miner was already next to impossible. Jet Set Willy isn't known for being any easier, but it is known for being about three times larger, no longer a linear series of single-screen levels to clear in sequence but a sprawling mansion to explore in a non-linear fashion. Designer Matthew Smith reportedly didn't bother playtesting beyond simply beating each room individually to ensure each one was technically possible, and this lack of integration testing both explains the uncaught bug as well as these games' reputation for completely unreasonable difficulty.

Jet Set Willy does give you a starting supply of eight lives, but they run out fast. There were more rooms that killed me in excess of eight times before I finished them than there were rooms that didn't. Falling too far can kill you now, and the fatal drop distance isn't very far at all. In rooms below others, it's possible to fall to your death, only to respawn at the top of the screen and fall to your death again and again in a loop that does not end until your lives are exhausted.

Imagine a boot stamping, etc.

As the cassette inlay explains (and the cover art tastelessly depicts), Miner Willy, rich from his adventures, bought a big tall house in the middle of town and all night long he'd biddy biddy bum with his newfound friends. Waking up in the bathroom the morning after one soirée too many, the house is trashed, the Aston-Martin is gone, and the housekeeper Maria won't let him go to bed until he's cleaned up each of its dozens of rooms.

I have to digress, is this insubordinate domestic trope an English in-joke? Jeeves would have fixed up the place by 7 o'clock and still had time to prepare some hair of the dog, and maybe bear the slightest hint of eyebrow raise. Even the gaslighting queen of passive aggressiveness Mrs. Danvers wouldn't dare to tell her employer to clean the house himself.

In case you're wondering, if you touch her you die.

Because of the aforementioned arrow bug and a few others that make certain rooms impossible, which Software Projects unconvincingly tried to claim were intentional difficulty-enhancing features before publishing POKE command fixes in UK computing magazines, I'm breaking my usual convention of playing original versions and using the "PCG fix" copy which I presume contains these fixes.

It didn't take me three minutes to reach a game-ending room. Leaving the bathroom was simple enough. The top landing, from which you may exit left to the master bedroom or go downstairs to the first floor, was only marginally more difficult to clear, patrolled by a deadly whisky keg, Swiss army knife, and razor blade. But the only place to go on the first floor was an appropriately named "Nightmare Room," where Willy turns into a winged pig and has to navigate a series of impossibly tiny platforms while dodging technicolor servants and a tired running gag. As in Manic Miner, you can't control your jumps, and you move so slow, so frame-perfect timing and pixel-precise positioning is the only way to survive here. Merely trying to get to the platform just to the right of the foot seemed borderline impossible - you can't fly, and as a pig you're just fat enough that there's no way to safely position yourself on any of the platforms between the purple servant and the foot and be safe from both of them.

Unlike Manic Miner, you don't have to collect all objects just to leave the room, so you could just ignore the mug, exit to the left with comparative ease, and keep exploring the mansion.

This room "stumped" me.

The Banyan Tree is the very next room, and I couldn't even get through it in all of my allotted tries with numerous repeat attempts. Incidentally, this is one of the rooms that Software Projects had to fix with POKEs, as in its original rendition, a solid platform overhead prevents leaping over the spinning microchip.

I soon discovered, quite by accident, that on the first floor landing, you can pass through the staircase by jumping onto it at just the right angle. This allows access to several more rooms of the mansion, but all paths eventually led somewhere I couldn't make it through, and exploring was simply delaying the inevitable. I'd have to properly complete The Nightmare Room, The Banyan Tree, and the rooms beyond at some point.

After getting yet another Game Over in a cold locker found at the end of a series of kitchens and sculleries, where I failed to come to grips with controls involving a swinging rope, I decided I'd start savescumming and relax my rules, allowing myself a save every ten minutes as I ultimately did with Manic Miner. If Smith couldn't beat it fairly, I'm not going to pretend I have a chance.

It took me three saves to grab the mug in The Nightmare Room and leave. Three. For one room. One save at the start, one save after making it under the gauntlet of servants and feet and jumping up three platforms to one between a cyan and purple servant, and one save after making two jumps past the purple servant and the foot onto a safe platform right in the middle. And each save other than the last represents ten minutes of trying and failing to clear the room from that position, over and over again. And this is just the fifth room of the game! One thing that simplifies jumping from these narrow platforms is that with the arrow keys you can now make a forward hop from a standing position, but even with this concession, this room alone was harder than anything in Manic Miner.

At least the Banyan Tree gave me less trouble. Not that I didn't have to save at the start of it too - I still got nailed on the second jump's landing by the demon repeatedly, and this is in part because your sprite's width varies with your walk cycle frame, which you don't have a great deal of control over. But when you do land it safely, you can climb up the tree to a rooftop area, or squeeze through the hole on the left and continue past a swimming pool and onward to the mansion's west wing.

Down the stairs and into the wine cellar, pinpoint precision is needed once again to descend each level, avoiding the patrolling robots who are all just tall enough that you can barely leap over, grabbing the bottles in each alcove. Once at the bottom, a secret passage to the right can be entered by jumping over the stairs at just the right distance and height to clear them without ascending a pixel too high and hitting the platform above it instead. Otherwise, the only way out of the wine cellar is to sacrifice a life and respawn at the top.

But if you weren't using save states, you might wish you did sacrifice a life to respawn at the top of the wine cellar, as the next room has even more patrolling robots, and the only way through is tedious and costly trial and error, figuring out the exact timing needed to jump over one robot without bumping into the next, or hitting your head on a robot or obstacle on a higher level. A collectable golden cross demands jumping onto a conveyor belt at the precise time so that you can leap over two robots in a row but also pass underneath a ceiling light in the split-second between, and in order to exit right you have to jump over four robots patrolling back and forth. This room probably took me more attempts than any before it, and involved another three save states.

The next room, called "The Security Guard," is mercifully simple, with nothing but a few sentries moving up and down in simple patterns. I easily walked underneath them all, leading to the right and downward to a secret passage underneath Willy's driveway in which I lost all of my lives to a red rabbit dancing on a conveyor belt. Reloading and making my way back to The Security Guard, I went downward instead, which dropped me into an infinite death loop, one clearly put there on purpose.

Let's go, Seth.

I'm not ready to give up on Jet Set Willy, but nothing about the experience has been fun yet. The labyrinthine mansion, ripe for exploration, is a wasted opportunity when every direction I go soon leads to a brick wall that I bash my head on until it eventually yields, more often than not just leading to another brick wall. As of now I've seen 22 rooms and used 12 save states, and I'm certain that without them I'd have given up having seen less than half that much.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Ports of Entry: Synergistic Software

Unknown lead platform:



First released for Amiga and Arcadia arcade system in 1988.

Ported to Atari ST and PC in 1988.

Arcadia was an Amiga-based arcade system, so the arcade and Amiga versions are nearly identical. That said, it's unclear whether it was originally intended as a coin-op game and the Amiga version is an arcade-perfect home port, or if it's more like a Nintendo VS. System situation where it was first intended as a home computer game and adapted into a coin-op one running on similar hardware.

J.R.R. Tolkien's War in Middle Earth

Released for Amiga, Apple IIgs, Atari ST, and PC in 1989.


Screenshots of the Amiga version show 32 colors while the rest use 16, suggesting to me that they are converted from the Amiga version.

There's also the question of the 8-bit versions by Mike Singleton. Mobygames describes them as simpler versions of the 16-bit game, but CRPG Addict thinks the 8-bit design is the original, while Synergistic added RPG elements to their 16-bit version. Which is it?

Conan: The Cimmerian

First released for Amiga and PC in 1991.

Released for PC CD-ROM in 1992.

The Amiga and PC versions look identical to me, which I think suggests Amiga as a lead platform as it means the game doesn't truly take advantage of VGA hardware. I don't know if the 1992 CD-ROM release confounds this issue though - was this a tacked-on enhancement, or was it always intended?


Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance

Released for DOS and Windows in 1996.


It's always tricky to tell whether a DOS/Windows game was coded for DOS or Windows first, especially when both versions came on the same disc.

Select chronology: 


Apple II era:

Title Date Contemporary ports
Dungeon Campaign 1978-12
Wilderness Campaign 1979-6
Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure 1980
Crisis Mountain 1982 1983 port to Atari 8-bit

16-bit era:

Title Lead platform Date Contemporary ports
SideWinder ??? 1988 1988 release on Amiga and arcade
1988 ports to Atari ST and PC
The Third Courier DOS 1989-10
J.R.R. Tolkien's War in Middle Earth ??? 1989 1989 releases on Amiga, Apple Iigs, Atari ST, and PC
Low Blow DOS 1990
NY Warriors Amiga 1990 1990 ports to Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum by The Big Red
Software Company
1991 port to PC
Conan: The Cimmerian ??? 1991 1991 releases on Amiga and PC
Homey D. Clown DOS 1993

32-bit era:

Title Lead platform Date Contemporary ports
Thexder Windows 1995
Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance ??? 1996 1996 release for DOS & Windows
Hellfire Windows 11/24/1997

Friday, November 19, 2021

Ports of Entry: Epyx

Unknown lead platform:


Temple of Apshai Trilogy

An assembly-language remake of Temple of Apshai and its expansions.

First released for Atari 8-bit and C64 on September 1985.

Released for Apple II on October 1985.

Released for PC on July 1986.

Ported to Amiga, Atari ST and Macintosh throughout 1986 by Westwood Associates.

James Hague's list says that the Apple II version was based on Atari code, which weakly suggests it as a lead platform. But it would be strange if this one game was Atari-based when Epyx was very much a Commodore house at this point.

World Games

First released for Commodore 64 on September 1986 by K-Byte

Released for Amiga and Atari ST on December 1986 by Westwood

Released for PC on December 1986 by Designer Software

Released for Apple IIgs on November 1987 by Epyx

Released for Apple II on December 1987 by Designer Software

Released for Amstrad CPC, MSX, and ZX Spectrum on 1987 by Choice Software


I am almost certain that World Games' lead platform was C64. Wikipedia says so, but there's a fly in the ointment on Mobygames, where K-Byte is credited with porting it to the C64. But porting from what? Nothing came out earlier, and the only contemporary platform that doesn't imply a port is Apple IIgs. Again, it would be weird if Epyx used the Apple IIgs as lead platform just this one time, and also weird if it was delayed over a year while several outsourced ports came out, but it wouldn't be impossible. More likely Mobygames is wrong here, but I can't be completely certain.

The Games: Summer Edition

First released for Commodore 64 on September 1988.

Released for PC on October 1988.

Released for Apple II on November 1988.

Ported to Amiga and Atari ST on 1988 by The Code Monkeys.

Ported to Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum on 1989 by Sentient Software.

I'm 90% sure C64 is the lead platform. Epyx historically ported games to the Apple II, not from it, and the PC versions' credits specifically credit the team with "IBM Version" work, while the C64 version's credits do not specify "C64 Version" work, which I interpret to mean C64 was the baseline platform.


4x4 Off-Road Racing

First released for Commodore 64 and PC on September 1988 by Epyx and Ogdon Micro Design.

Released for Amiga on November 1988.

Released for Amstrad CPC on 1988.

Ported to MSX on 1988 by Erbe Software.

Ported to ZX Spectrum on 1988 by U.S. Gold.

Released for Atari ST on 1989.


C64 seems the most likely candidate, but we can't rule out the possibility that by late 1988 Epyx had moved on to PC or Amiga as their lead platform.

Select chronology: 


Commodore PET era:

Jon Freeman stated in an interview that all of Automated Simulations' early games up to Crush, Crumble, and Chomp were initially programmed on the TRS-80 except for these two.

Title Date Contemporary ports
Starfleet Orion 1978-12 1979 ports to TRS-80 and Apple II
Invasion Orion 1979 1979 ports to TRS-80 and Apple II

TRS-80 era:

Title Date Contemporary ports
Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai 1979 1979 port to Commodore PET
1980 port to Apple II and Atari 8-bit
Dunjonquest: The Datestones of Ryn 1979 1979 ports to Apple II and Commodore PET
Dunjonquest: Morloc's Tower 1979 1979 ports to Apple II and Commodore PET
1980 port to Atari 8-bit
StarQuest: Rescue at Rigel 1980 1980 ports to Apple II and Commodore PET
1981 port to Atari 8-bit
StarQuest: Star Warrior 1980 1981 ports to Apple II and Atari 8-bit
Dunjonquest: Upper Reaches of Apshai 1981 1981 port to Apple II
1982 ports to Atari 8-bit and PC
Crush, Crumble and Chomp! 1981 1981 ports to Apple II and Atari 8-bit
1982 port to VIC-20
Dunjonquest: Curse of Ra 1982 1982-1983 ports to various computers

Atari 8-bit era:

In an interview with Computer Entertainer, August 1983, designer states that Jumpman was converted from Atari to C64. James Hague's list of programmers credits J. Fenton with converting Pitstop from Atari to C64, while Jim McBride is credited with doing it the other way around.

Title Date Contemporary ports
Jumpman 1983-3 1983 ports to Apple II and C64
1984 port to PC
Jumpman Junior 1983-7 1983 port to C64
1984 port to ColecoVision
Gateway to Apshai 1983-7 1984 ports to ColecoVision and C64
Pitstop 1983-11 1983 ports to ColecoVision and C64

Commodore 64 era:

Title Lead Platform Date Contemporary ports
Summer Games Commodore 64 1984-5 1984 ports to Apple II and Atari 8-bit
Impossible Mission Commodore 64 1984-8 1984 port to Apple II
1985 ports to PC-88, Sharp X1, and ZX Spectrum
Pitstop II Commodore 64 1984-12 1984 port to PC by Synergistic Software
1985 ports to Apple II, Atari 8-bit and TRS-80 CoCo
Summer Games II Commodore 64 1985-5 1985 port to Apple II by K-Byte
1986 port to PC by Designer Software
Temple of Apshai Trilogy ??? 1985 Same-quarter releases on Apple II, Atari 8-bit, and C64
1986 ports to 16-bit computers
Winter Games Commodore 64 1985-10 Simultaneous release on Apple II
1986 ports to various computers
Super Cycle Commodore 64 1986-7 1986 ports to Amstrad CPC and Atari ST
1987 port to ZX Spectrum by Canvas Software
World Games ??? 1986-9 Same-year releases on Amiga, Atari ST, C64, and PC
1987 ports to various computers
The Movie Monster Game Commodore 64 1986-10 1987 port to Apple II
California Games Commodore 64 1987-7 1987-1988 ports to Atari 2600 and various computers
Street Sports Basketball Commodore 64 1987-10 1987-1988 ports to various computers
The Games: Winter Edition Commodore 64 1988-5 1988-1989 ports to various computers
Impossible Mission II Atari ST 1988-5 1988-1989 ports to NES and various computers
The Games: Summer Edition ??
1988 Same-quarter releases on Apple II, C64, and PC
1989 ports to various computers
4x4 Off-Road Racing ??? 1988 Same-quarter releases on Amiga, C64, and PC

The Games: Summer Edition has same-year releases for Apple II and DOS that are not credited to other companies. I am assuming that none of these games used the Apple II as a lead platform, and while it's possible that Epyx had moved on to PC as their lead platform by late 1988, the team that made it is specifically credited with making the IBM PC version, while the C64 team is simply credited with making the game. So I am pretty confident that C64 is the original version.


Post-C64 era:

Title Lead Platform Date Contemporary ports
Chip's Challenge Lynx 1989 1990 ports to various computers
California Games II DOS 1990
Battle Bugs DOS 1994

Monday, November 15, 2021

Game 298: H.E.R.O.

It's the end of an era at Data Driven Gamer, as today, I'm covering the final Atari 2600 whale, and possibly revisiting the system for the last time. Activision's H.E.R.O. is by no means the last game on it; there would be new first-party releases as late as 1990, but by 1984 the venerable platform's ecosystem, once domestically synonymous with home video games, was in the throes of market recession. Furthermore, it was becoming undeniably dated, and clever programmers could only do so much to overcome its inherent limits. Atari's own follow-ups, the 5200 and 7800, had failed to make comparable impacts, in part due to the 2600's oversaturation. Nor would their 8-bit computer line make up the difference - it had been quickly losing sales ground to the Commodore 64, which was on track to become North America's de facto 8-bit computer, and which Activision themselves would soon switch to as their main focus.

H.E.R.O., short for Helicopter Emergency Rescue Operation, casts you as R. Hero, a mad scientist/tinker type fellow on a mission to rescue miners trapped in a cave-in. Equipped with his own rinky-dink homemade equipment - some dynamite for blasting through walls and debris, a helmet-mounted lasergun for zapping deadly cave critters (and, if the dynamite runs out, cutting through the walls), and, most crucially, a helicopter motor assembly strapped to your back which, when mastered, allows controlled descent, hovering, and flying through the mine shafts - you must navigate 20 areas of progressively increasing complexity and difficulty, reaching the miners at the end. How you actually rescue them after reaching the unplumbed depths of their locations is a mystery.

Using my typical rules, I finished all 20 levels in five segments. The later levels get hard. Once you beat level 20, you'll cycle through pseudo-randomly selected levels until you either run out of lives or attain a maximum score of a million points (good luck).


At first, H.E.R.O's caves take on a puzzle-like nature. Linear, and yet mazelike, you'll have to figure out just how to get through each screen in a way that avoids hazards and minimizes use of dynamite, as levels often require every stick you've got.

Just slip through the second shaft from the left, blast the rose-colored divider wall, kill the bat with your laser, and drop down the shaft on the right and keep going all the way down to bedrock.

The puzzles can only get so complicated - it's not exactly Boulder Dash, or even Sokoban. It's just mazes with an effectively finite number of walls you can bypass. The real challenge rears its head just over halfway through, when H.E.R.O. starts demanding fancy and impossibly precise flying technique, made so much more difficult by deliberately fiddly controls. You see, the helicopter motor takes some time to spin up enough to generate lift, and when the controls are released, it takes some time slowing down before you descend. It's like the helicopter controls are affected by horrible input lag, only this is quite purposeful.

The levels, then, keep coming up with new ways to challenge you almost up until the end. One moment you have to time a descent to avoid being crushed by a moving lava flow, the next you must hover through a tight passageway with a low overhang above you and a swimming tentacle monster below you, and the very next moment you ride a raft through a river, zap a spider hanging from a red-hot ceiling, and rev up your motor at just the right time so that you take off from the raft before it reaches the end of the river, but not any earlier where you'd fly right into the ceiling. And that's just one level! The linear series of challenges can feel somewhat like Pitfall, but far more varied and mechanically difficult.

No spare lives and you've got to dip below the overhang without landing in the water. If your glide becomes a lift you'll touch it and die. Stall and you'll drown. And your rotor's spinning on fumes. Godspeed.

GAB rating: Good. Challenging, often frustrating, but well-designed and never unfair beyond reason, H.E.R.O., along with that other 1984 Activision title Pitfall II, really push the boundaries of what the Atari 2600 can do, and makes for a fitting end to this years-long system retrospective.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Games 296-297: Ballblazer & Rescue on Fractalus!

These games were released in April 1985, but according to LucasArts they had been completed by March 1984, shelved when an Atari publishing deal fell through, and picked up over a year later by Epyx. As the date of completion interests me more than the date of official release, I'm playing them now instead of later.


If I had to name a single apex game developer, it would be LucasArts. Famed for their adventure library, all-time classics after all-time classics in the adventure genre like Loom, Monkey Island, and Day of the Tentacle left their mills throughout much of the 90's with impossible-seeming consistency, thanks to some of the top talent in the industry. And yet, these famous genre masterpieces can overshadow the company's other accomplishments, which, including three of the best first person shooters of their era, several good SNES action games, and of course the legendary TIE Fighter, would make them an A-list studio even without the adventures.

For a while, I assumed that Maniac Mansion, the first adventure to use LucasArt's famous SCUMM engine (and, at the time, the earliest game supported by ScummVM), was also their first game. In my mind it was the beginning of their legacy, a game that introduced point & click mechanics to the graphic adventure genre in a manner recognizable to the modern gamer, and that hadn't quite solidified their winning formula and conventions yet. The slightly prototypical nature of the game, in which characters can die and have other bad things happen to them, puzzles have multiple solutions, and there are several possible endings depending on how you reached the game's conclusion worked to both its benefit and detriment. We'd see refinement and eventual perfection over the next few years.

Thanks to Mobygames, I learned that this assumption was not the case - Maniac Mansion is predated by a non-SCUMM adventure Labyrinth. Even before that, though, there were four pseudo-3D action games. Until now, I hadn't played any of these games, having subconsciously written them off as irrelevant to the LucasArts narrative, though in truth this was very likely because ScummVM and DOSBox could not support them.

Game 296: Ballblazer

Is that... Bobbin Threadbare?

Ballblazer: The simplest, fastest, and most competitive sport in the known universe. It's basically one-on-one soccer, but made interesting, and perhaps confusing, by its sense of speed in a first person perspective.

The tiles' edges are even anti-aliased.

I expect that the pseudo-3D effect is pure trickery, using pre-rendered frame loops to convey lateral movement, and palette-swapping shenanigans for the back-and forth effect. Rotation is only done in 90 degree snap increments, so everything will be perfectly perpendicular to the horizon. Kid stuff on, say, the Sega Genesis, but on an 8-bit computer with only the most basic support for scrolling tile layers, and coming from the basic looking Boulder Dash, this is impressive.

Ballblazer's manual is long on flavor text but short on gameplay instruction. About half of it takes the form of a transcript of an intergalactic radio interview with former Ballblazer champion Arboster Kipling, who recounts the centuries-old history of the sport, explaining how its high speed, high g-force maneuvers were born in the wake of stellar warfare, and how earthlings are underdog newcomers to the competition. Typical gameplay and strategy is then described in the format of sports commentary of an ongoing match.

Game rules are quite simple.

  • At the start of each point, the ball is launched into the middle of the playfield. You and your opponent start at positions midway between the ball and the opposite goal, and the first player to touch the ball controls it.
  • Your vehicle automatically orients itself. When you do not control the ball, you face it. When you do control the ball, you face your goal.
  • Pressing the button emits a high-energy force blast. When you control the ball, this launches it toward the goal at an angle dependent on timing. When your opponent controls the ball, the force blast can knock it out of their control. Either of these actions also knocks you backward with significant force, but a push that does not come in contact with the ball does nothing.
  • Goals move left and right. Each point scored reduces some of the width between the posts.
  • A standard goal scores 2 points. Shooting the ball into the goal from outside your line of sight scores 3. Carrying it into the goal only scores 1.
  • Scoring uses a push-pull system, where once the combined score of both players equals ten, each point scored by one player also reduces the score of their opponent.
  • Victory goes to the player with the higher score after three minutes elapse, or in the event of a tie, to whoever scores a single point in overtime. Scoring ten points also awards victory, but this is unlikely to happen unless the players are mismatched in skill.


I played some rounds with "B" and recorded two of them, in which the first of them I cream him, and the second it looks like another easy victory until he turns around and pulls ahead at the last minute.

GAB rating: Above average. Ballblazer is confusing and disorienting for a little while, until you get used to its speed, its knockbacks, and automatically rotating weirdness. Then it becomes fun for a little while, but the game's just too simple to have a lot of strategy and lasting value. But you can't beat its presentation. Or can you?

Game 297: Rescue on Fractalus!

If Atari's Star Raiders was the system's original killer app, taking what we could charitably call inspiration from Star Wars (among other sci-fi properties) to make the most cinematic home video game experience possible in 1979, LucasFilm's Rescue on Fractalus comes full circle, pushing the system hard and employing its wide color palette and lots of clever trickery to make a demoscene-worthy flight sim, if not necessarily a very engaging one. The re-entry sequence alone must have been jaw-dropping at the time, first diegetically transitioning from its level select screen by way of an animation that suggests an airlock door opening, the stars fading into view as your ship comes out of hyperspace, the descent into Fractalus as its oppressively golden-yellow exosphere rises from the bottom of your viewscreen until fills your field of vision, and finally, the endless crags of Fractalus fade into view through its thick, Venusian atmosphere.

The soundscape, too, is a work of art. Fractalus is a desolate and hostile place, and though the title and high score screens trumpet a Williamsesque fanfare (one that strongly reminded me of Star Wars: Rogue Squadron), music is wisely omitted from the gameplay scenes as you glide through its harsh winds and arid crags, leaving your ears free to listen to the whines of your engine and the blasts of anti-air gunfire. As you locate pilots, the objective of your mission, the dull thuds of their footsteps against the rocky surface as they sprint toward your ship cannot be mistaken for the hollow clangs of their fists desperately banging on your metal hatch, which grow weaker and longer apart in intervals as they succumb to the planet's toxic atmosphere.

Your radar proves the most useful tool for locating pilots, as the fractal-inspired terrain lines are difficult to make coherent sense of, and most of the time will obstruct your view of the surface where the pilots wait. It's not difficult at all, thankfully, to avoid crashing into the crags. You'd almost have to try to do it on purpose, and the damage to your ship isn't severe if you do. Anti-aircraft guns mounted on these crags will shoot at you, and though they don't do much damage individually, you'll need to destroy any within visual range of a landing site before attempting a rescue, or you'll be shot at like a fish in a barrel. You don't have to be exact with your guns, which is a good thing indeed given the game's low framerate, which only seems to tumble further while you're being shot at.

When you do land within range of a pilot - he needn't be in your sight as long as the blip on the radar is close enough - you have to shut off your engines to coax him out of his downed ship, and open your airlock to let him inside. Switching the engines on too early will kill him. Once you rescue your quota, you can continue flying over Fractalus to search for more or to destroy more targets of opportunity, but you may return to the mothership to increment the stage and along with it the difficulty.

The difficulty is very forgiving until the rather late stages - I started at level 4, and made it to level 22 on my first try, having played for a good two hours, and not had any close calls. A few new challenges get added gradually - flying UFOs are added into the mix, which kamikaze your ship for much more damage than the stationary guns do, the guns become more densely concentrated, fire more frequently and accurately, sometimes landing damaging critical hits, and your rescue quotas increase. By level 16, Fractalus starts undergoing day-night cycles in which night completely blacks out your visual conditions, save for occasional flashes of illumination from enemy gunfire, and you are forced to rely exclusively on your instruments. This isn't as punishing as it probably sounds.

Most famously, the pilots you rescue sometimes turn out to be Jaggis in disguise, and attempt to smash through your canopy once they get in range, and will if you don't kill them with your engine backwash quickly enough. Or, if you were foolish enough to open your airlock prematurely, they'll enter your ship and tear it apart from the inside. The former event was what caused my first death, as I, not realizing how little time you have to switch on your engines before they instantly incapacitate you, had been too lax about it, and erred on the side of not accidentally wasting a pilot.

By level 25, things get much more challenging - in fact, I couldn't beat level 25 in several tries, even as level 22 gave me no trouble at all once I knew better than to dawdle. Anti-air guns batter you from everywhere, constantly, draining your energy reserves quickly. You can't pick them off from a distance, and as you close in for a kill, you invariably fly into range of multiple other guns. Only after clearing a a fairly large radius, which can feel more dependent on luck than skill or strategy, can you start rescuing pilots, who partially refill your energy reserves on collection. Once you can start doing that, it gets a lot easier, except for one thing - the Jaggis can punch through your canopy in less than half a second now.

Below is a video of me failing level 25. I got pretty close, but fell to a disguised Jaggi in the end.

A side-note, you can improve the game's framerate by playing the XEGS cartridge version and emulating an accelerated CPU, which is configurable in Altirra. The 65C816 at 7.14Mhz resulted in a few glitches, but the game seemed to sustain its maximum framerate (which admittedly isn't that great) no matter how intense the action got. This is not reflected in the above video.

GAB rating: Above average. If I could recommend a game on look and feel alone, Rescue on Fractalus would be that game. I almost can, but Rescue on Fractalus just isn't all that engaging. Once the novelty of its technology wears off, you're left with a repetitive and simplistic shooter that takes entirely too long to offer a challenge, and isn't satisfying even when it does. Still, it's very much worth a play, just be sure to play the original Atari version, as the cinematic immersion is badly compromised on machines that don't enjoy its wider palette (like the Commodore 64).

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Ports of Entry: Konami

This list excludes the majority of games credited to Konami's subsidiaries and internal development studios (e.g. KCE Tokyo, Team Silent, etc.). Other Ports of Entry posts will cover them later.

Unknown lead platform:


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003)

First released for GameCube, PS2, and Xbox on 10/23/2003.

Released for PC on 11/21/2003.

Little information suggests a lead platform. The toon shader effect looks rather different on all console versions owing to different hardware - only Xbox has dedicated pixel shader hardware - and PC alone allows it to be turned off.

Castlevania: Curse of Darkness

Released for PS2 and Xbox on 11/01/2005.


In Japan, this was a PS2 exclusive, and the PS2 version credits Digital Zero with additional graphics work. This may indicate PS2 as a lead platform, and would be consistent with Konami's contemporary works, but it isn't strong evidence at all - and the Digital Zero credit could even credit work done converting to PS2.


Select chronology: 


Arcade era:

Title Date Contemporary ports
Space King 1978
Astro Invader 1980
Strategy X 1981 1981 port to Atari 2600
Turtles 1981 1982 handheld version and ports to various consoles
Amidar 1981 1982 port to Atari 2600 and PC-6001
Scramble 1981 1982 ports to Tomy Tutor and Vectrex
Super Cobra 1981 1982 handheld version and ports to various consoles and computers
Frogger 1981 1981 port to PC-6001
1982 ports to various consoles and computers
Loco-Motion 1982 1983 ports to Intellivision and various Japanese computers
Tutankham 1982 1982 port to PC-6001
1983 ports to various consoles and computers
Time Pilot 1982 1983 ports to Atari 2600, ColecoVision, and MSX
Pooyan 1982 1982 ports to Atari 2600, 1983 ports to various computers

3rd gen:

Title Lead platform Date Contemporary ports
Antarctic Adventure MSX 1983 1984 ports to ColecoVision and Coleco Adam
Track & Field Arcade 1983 1984 ports to Atari 2600 and various computers
Gyruss Arcade 1983-3 1984 ports to various consoles and computers
Circus Charlie Arcade 1984 1984 port to MSX
Road Fighter Arcade 1984-12 1985 ports to MSX and NES
Yie Ar Kung-Fu Arcade 1985 1985 ports to Amstrad CPC, BBC Micro, and ZX Spectrum
1986 ports to C64, Commodore 16, C64, and Electron
TwinBee Arcade 1985 1986 ports to MSX and NES
Rush'n Attack Arcade 1985 1986 ports to various computers
Gradius Arcade 5/29/1985 1986 ports to NES and various Japanese computers
Double Dribble Arcade 1986 1987 ports to NES and PlayChoice-10 arcade system
Life Force Arcade 1986 1987 ports to NES and MSX
Castlevania NES 9/26/1986 1987 port to PlayChoice-10 arcade system
Jackal Arcade 1986-10 1987 ports to Amstrad CPC, C64, and ZX Spectrum
Contra Arcade 2/20/1987 1987 ports to Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum by Ocean Software
1988 ports to C64 and PC
The Goonies II NES 3/18/1987
Metal Gear MSX 7/7/1987
Castlevania II: Simon's Quest NES 8/28/1987
Blades of Steel Arcade 1987-10 1988 port to NES
Top Gun NES 1987-11
Metal Gear NES 12/22/1987 Mobygames lists as a distinct game from MSX version
Super Contra Arcade 1988-1
Contra NES 1988-2 1988 port to PlayChoice-10 arcade system
Vulcan Venture Arcade 1988-3 1988 port to NES
The Adventures of Bayou Billy NES 8/12/1988
Snatcher PC-88 11/26/1988 1988 port to MSX
Gradius III Arcade 1989 1990 port to SNES
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Arcade 1989 1990 port to NES
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NES 5/12/1989 1989 port to PlayChoice-10 arcade system
1990 ports to various computers
Castlevania: The Adventure Game Boy 10/27/1989
Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse NES 12/22/1989
Snake's Revenge NES 1990-4
Parodius Arcade 4/25/1990 1990 port to NES
1991 port to Game Boy and Sharp X68000
Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake MSX 7/20/1990

4th gen:

Title Lead platform Date Contemporary ports
Sunset Riders Arcade 1991
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time Arcade 1991-3 1992 port to SNES
The Simpsons Arcade 1991-4 1991 port to C64 and PC
Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge Game Boy 7/12/1991
Super Castlevania IV SNES 10/31/1991
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project NES 12/13/1991
Bucky O'Hare NES 1992-1
X-Men Arcade 2/12/1992
Contra III: The Alien Wars SNES 2/28/1992 1992 port to Nintendo Super arcade system
Axelay SNES 1992-9
Tiny Toon Adventures: Buster Busts Loose! SNES 12/18/1992
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist Genesis 12/22/1992
Batman Returns SNES 2/26/1993
Castlevania Chronicles Sharp X68000 7/23/1993
Rocket Knight Adventures Genesis 8/6/1993
Castlevania: Rondo of Blood TurboGrafx CD 10/29/1993
Castlevania: Bloodlines Genesis 3/18/1994
Policenauts PC-98 7/29/1994 1995 port to 3DO
Contra Hard Corps Genesis 9/15/1994
Castlevania: Dracula X SNES 7/21/1995
International Superstar Soccer Deluxe SNES 9/22/1995 1996 port to Genesis by Factor 5

6th gen:

Title Lead platform Date Contemporary ports
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ??? 2003 Same-quarter releases for PC, GameCube, PS2, and Xbox
Castlevania: Curse of Darkness ??? 11/1/2005 Simultaneously released on PS2 and Xbox
Suikoden V PlayStation 2 2/23/2006

Monday, November 8, 2021

Ports of Entry: Parker Brothers

Unknown lead platform:


Star Wars: Return of the Jedi - Death Star Battle

First released for Atari 2600 and Atari 8-bit in 1983.

Released for Atari 5200 in February 1984.

Released for ZX Spectrum in 1984 by Sinclair Research.

Mobygames says that the Atari 2600 and Atari 8-bit versions are ports by James Wickstead Design, but if this is so, and the 5200 is Parker Brothers' original design, why was it delayed by several months? Furthermore, why would the identical Atari 8-bit version be credited to James Wickstead? It doesn't add up.

James Bond 007

Released in 1984 for Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Atari 8-bit, ColecoVision in May 1984.

Released for Commodore 64 and SG-1000 in 1984.


The many simultaneous releases give little clue to this game's lead development platform. One clue, though, is that the Atari 2600 version alone is credited to On Time Software, and all other versions to Parker Brothers. Wikipedia states that On Time Software was the contracted developer, so perhaps they developed the 2600 original, and Parker Brothers ported it to other systems?

Frogger II: ThreeeDeep!

First released for Atari 8-bit on August 1984.

Released for Atari 2600 and Atari 5200 on September 1984.

Released for ColecoVision and Commodore 64 on October 1984.

Released for Apple II and PC on 1984.


Atari 8-bit seems most likely for being first, but it isn't conclusive.

Select chronology: 

Title Lead Platform Date Contemporary ports
Code Name: Sector Dedicated console 1977
Merlin: The Electronic Wizard Dedicated handheld 1978
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Atari 2600 1982-7 1983 port to Intellivision
Spider-Man Atari 2600 1982-11
G.I. Joe: Cobra Strike Atari 2600 1983-2
Star Wars: Jedi Arena Atari 2600 1983-2
Strawberry Shortcake: Musical Match-Ups Atari 2600 1983-4
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi -
Death Star Battle
??? 1983 1983 releases on Atari 2600 and Atari 8-bit
1984 releases on Atari 5200 and ZX Spectrum
James Bond 007 ??? 1984 1984 releases on Atari 8-bit, C64, and various consoles
Frogger II: ThreeeDeep! ??? 1984 1984 releases on various computers and consoles
Montezuma's Revenge Atari 8-bit 1984-9 1984 ports to Atari 5200 and various computers
Montezuma's Revenge Atari 2600 1984-9 Mobygames lists as a distinct game from the
computer/5200 version

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