Friday, July 28, 2023

Game 374-376: Missed arcade golden age classics

Our next whale, Tecmo's 1984 title Bomb Jack, is a lesser one that's probably more famous for its ports to the 8-bit microcomputers in Europe and its NES sequel than for the original arcade release.

The early arcade works of Tecmo - then called Tehkan - are informed by some golden age classics which had been moderately successful in their day but failed to secure much historical legacy, and didn't make whale status. For this post, I am covering these games for the first time, as ancestors.


Game 374: Head On


Developed in 1979 by Sega & then-partner Gremlin Industries, Head On is, in a word, stressful. 

Driving a car around and around a course of concentric encircling lanes, your goal is to collect all of the dots while a rival driving around the course in the opposite direction tries his darnedest to crash into you, for some perverse reason.

Similarities to Pac-Man are impossible to ignore, though without any solid evidence that Iwatani took cues here, I'm content to assume them coincidental. But while Pac-Man's mechanics afforded the player occasional breathers from the manic chase - power pills, escape tunnels, and AI patterns that alternate between "pursue" and "scatter" on an interval, Head On offers no respite from its suicidal chicken game. Wind up in the same lane as the red car and miss your opportunity to change lanes, and you crash. Change lanes too late, and you crash. Change lanes too early, and the red car changes lanes right with you and you crash. Misjudge your own lane, or misjudge which lane the red car is going to take, and you probably crash. Fail to enter the lane-changing zone at just the right time, which gets increasingly difficult to reckon as the round drags on and the red car gets faster, and you probably won't be able to avoid a crash.

There's a puzzle-like element seen here determining the optimal route to hit all of the dots without crashing. The red car's AI is simple and almost entirely deterministic, reacting mainly to your changes in position by honing in on it. You can accelerate, but at top speed you may only change one lane at a time while at standard speed you can cross two, which is often necessary in order to survive.

I only managed to reach the third round once, where you go up against two cars instead of one. I didn't last long at all - in fact the entire game lasted not even two and a half minutes. Even this meager victory was neither enjoyable nor rewarding.

GAB rating: Bad. Head On is too simplistic, too stressful, and too punishing. Pac-Man may or may not have been influenced by this, but either way, this just isn't it.

Game 375: Rally-X


Released by Namco a few months after Pac-Man, Rally-X is ostensibly another maze chase game, but unlike Iwatani's pizza-shaped sensation, openly takes after Head On, though it more resembles Pac-Man in all ways except for theme. Racecars chase you through a maze - a four-way scrolling maze far bigger than Pac-Man's single screen - as you try to collect ten flags scattered throughout.

The large maze makes all the difference here, and frankly it isn't for the better. Skillful twisting and turning - or use of the smoke screen weapon - can put several screens of distance between you and your enemies, which was obviously impossible in Pac-Man, but since the screen can't show you the whole maze at once, and the game speed is much faster, you can't really develop Pac-Man's type of complex evasion strategies either. Here, enemies pop in from off-screen, your only advance warning being a small radar display showing their approximate positions, and will crash into you under a second.


Scoring hasn't got much nuance either. Doing well in Pac-Man requires developing tactics to clump ghosts together so you can eat them all in one go, but here, you're rewarded mainly for efficiency - finishing quickly and with minimal use of smoke screen gives you a larger bonus for remaining fuel. The only other factor is a special flag which doubles the value of all subsequent ones, worth up to 4,500 extra points if you collect it before all others, and it is absolutely not worth spending time prowling the maze to find it and ensure you get it first.

Retrogame Deconstruction Zone offers an insightful and more thorough comparison that I recommend for further reading.

I made it to round 6 in my best attempt before getting bored. I'd have stuck with it longer back when I was playing 1980 whales, but for whatever reason I just don't have as much patience for these early arcade games as I used to.

GAB rating: Above average. This is fine, definitely a better game than Head On, but it's no Pac-Man.

I should note - in 1981, Namco followed up with New Rally-X, which is a big improvement over the original. I prefer the original game's earthier colors and music, but New Rally-X plays more fairly, with a gradualized difficulty curve, mazes with fewer dead-ends, fewer cars, and the special flag is highlighted on the radar, making it actually viable to go for it early instead of just hoping you luck into it (a new "lucky" flag supplants that niche). I do think it errs a bit on the easy side - reducing the vehicles makes it takes longer for things to get challenging - but slightly too easy is better than unfairly hard.

Game 376: Phoenix

Phoenix might be the most notable of these missed classics. There's an air of mystery about it. 

For one, no other game of its era, or indeed any era, quite looks like this, with so many sprites moving around the screen in erratic unison, animated so fluidly, and yet a bit jerkily, being somehow both evolved years ahead of its time and not quite up to par for its time. This surreal look and feel, motivated by the unconventional technique of using animated background tiles in lieu of hardware sprites to draw everything (a technique which Galaxian also utilized but committed to less fully), is difficult to appreciate when looking back from games of 1984, but we need only compare it to Rally-X to observe just how different Phoenix looks from anything else in its generation.

We also don't know for sure who made this game. Mobygames credits Amstar Electronics (their sole sitewide credit!), but a trade magazine sourced on Wikipedia notes Amstar as the manufacturer of the U.S. cocktail table version as a counterpart to Centuri's upright cabinet version. There are many early and obscure video games whose developers are unknown, especially from Japan, but Phoenix may be unique among them as a multinational hit, which brought its respective manufacturers money and fame and spawned a strong selling console conversion and multiple imitations.

Phoenix's Galaxian-inspired gameplay unfolds in a loop of five stages, and is possibly the first of its kind to.

In the first, things indeed look very much like Galaxian. Small, flying aliens, more resembling bats than the Space Invaders of old and with a slick wing-flapping animation, flit about the screen and swoop down to attack. Unlike Galaxian, these are no simple, predictable dive-bombing passes, but chaotic dances that makes it even more of a challenge to hit them.

Aliens that make it to the bottom tend to linger there for a little while, where they may try to kamikaze your ship, or just hover above at a close range so that hitting them is easy, but avoiding fire should they shoot as you pass below is nearly impossible, making it risky to pass. To help the odds a bit, you have a shield, but it's difficult to use defensively as like so many other shields, by the time you realize you need it it could be too late. It can be used offensively to ram them, but this carries risks too - it immobilizes you for the duration of the shield's pulsations, and sometimes it doesn't even work and the enemy or its shots go right through the shield and destroy you!

The second round is just a repeat of the first round, but you have double the firepower. Both rounds have some tricks to score extra points, but it's peanuts compared to what you can get later. Except for one trick which I've never been able to pull off and is probably a glitch - shooting three aliens in rapid succession during the right animation frames gets you a massive 200,000 points!


The next round introduces the phoenixes, large, swooping birds in an eternal cycle of fluidly animated birth, life, and rebirth. Until you shoot a laser up their smug little beaks.

Despite their predictable motion patterns, it is difficult to hit them at any part of their sinusoidal flight paths except at the very crests, which tends to put you in the corner where you are most vulnerable.

Some decent points can be scored here by clipping the birds' wings before finishing them off. The payoff is random and not worth taking unnecessary risks to pursue, but if the opportunity presents, go for it.

Round 4 is just a repeat of round 3 except the birds are pink.

The final round is an attack on the mothership, whose outer hull and inner shield must be blasted apart before landing a shot on the purple commander. You've got three zones of death here - the center, where the mothership fires, and as usual the corners, where you can only escape in one direction when things get hot. The flier support will do its best to drive you into these danger zones!

This fight offers the real jackpot - 8000+ points - and it's risky but well worth it, even if you lose a life in the process. The mothership descends throughout the stage, and each pixel it advances not only makes its bullets harder to dodge, but also shields the fliers from your own bullets, making them deadlier as well. To score big, you must allow it to descend to the lowest point possible before landing the killing shot!

One pixel higher and you get nothing.

Easier said than done, but the best method is to punch away at the center hull early on while it's still possible to dodge the return fire, and then chip away at the rotating shield from the edge where you're safer, and cannot accidentally hit the commander. Kill the fliers when you can - the more you can kill, the less you'll have to deal with while waiting out the mothership's final descent.

I was only able to clear a single loop before feeling done with this game - once again, I think I'd have had more patience and more will to improve had I covered this game years ago rather than now.

GAB rating: Above average. In a way, Phoenix feels like an evolutionary dead-end, building on Space Invaders and Galaxian in areas that the industry wasn't quite ready for. It's a visual spectacle, and offers a gameplay variety that anticipates Gorf of the following year, but I can't help feel the overall experience is a bit unpolished. Galaxian consistently rewarded precision and strategy, but the chaotic enemy movements and sometimes unreliable hit detection make Phoenix feel random and frustrating. And the longer a round goes on without thinning out the enemies, the worse it exacerbates. It's worth playing, but it isn't my favorite.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Below the Root: Won!


The Erdlings' cavern is a dark, claustrophobic maze, and before you can even enter you'll need some wissenberries and a spare token to bribe the guards. And then you'll need a lamp to even see where you're going.

I went in with one, and found a spare at the first junction.

I explored, mapping things out as I went.

Pensing from a distance clues me to stay that way.

More ladders. Are we in Spelunker?

A lot of spiders crawl around, but they can't do much except tear your shuba.

Three tokens and an elixir, nice!

The spirit bell alerts me to a door I can already see.

Beyond a door, Vatar gave me a vision, and another spirit boost, bringing me to 37 points.

Soon after, my last lamp expired, and I was trapped in the dark! I had no choice but to "renew" and teleport back home.

Thankfully, I had found seven tokens while exploring, which I took to the lamp store in Broad Grund, collecting another bunch of wissenberries along the way. I bought four lamps - all I could carry - then continued east to the Star Grund shops and bought a vine rope, first dropping my last ration of bread which had been so much dead weight ever since I learned healing magic.

Wrapping around yet again, I rested up and re-entered. Naturally, the guards had to be bribed again.

Four lamps got me pretty deep into the cavern, even as I mapped out uncharted territory.

This time it alerts me to a door I can't see.

The spirit rises, even here.

Raamo lives!

I kiniported up, and spoke to brother Raamo, who feared falling (come on, I fell a hundred or so times just getting here!), so I offered him my shuba.

And that's the end of the game, though I hadn't found a way to get the temple key and explore Temple Grunds properly.


I couldn't be satisfied without accomplishing this, so I looked at an FAQ for the first time. Here I learned the magic wand's unrelated purpose - it serves as an unbreakable bramble-cutter, replacing the trencher. It can also be used to kill animals, or even people, but this permanently affects your spirit level! So never do that.

But as for getting the temple key, to get the key, you need permission. And to get permission, you have to enter the temple! So how do you do that?

Climb to the highest branch on the neighboring Star Grund. Lengthen the branch with magic as far as it will go. Then jump and glide on right over the gate!

Stealing keys = bad, but jumping a locked gate = good?

One screen upward, D'ol Falla could be found inside a building called Vine Palace, and told me to find her lost key, and the lost chamber.


An attached building had more sealed gates, impassable by kiniporting.

Before going to seek the key, I explored the grunds. Up in the trees, I found one more elixir, as well as an assortment of the usual ropes and berries.

More interestingly, a knothole led way to a temple key. A different one from the key stashed further below, apparently.


I entered the temple with this key.

Though you could just kiniport inside.

Inside the inner cloister, I met Raamo's mother, for a clue and more spirit boost.

Now she tells me. All those regular lamps wasted for nothing!

You can probably predict the rest. I hopped off a branch from the Temple Grunds to descend to the floor, collected D'ol Falla's key, and returned, using the temple key to re-enter.

D'ol Falla's key opened the lost chamber.

Inside, I collected the spirit lamp.

And with that, I was pretty sure I'd seen everything, or at least enough of it that exploring more would not likely be worthwhile.

GAB rating: Good

I like platform adventures. We've seen a bunch of them in the 1984 phase of Data Driven Gamer, and this is the best one yet, thanks to its big open world and satisfying exploration.

It isn't perfect; controls can be needlessly frustrating at times, bad stuff like exhaustion, getting kidnapped, or having stuff break on you can happen through little fault of your own, terrain can often be difficult to "read" which leads to a lot of missed jumps, and the world is honestly too big compared to the amount of stuff to do in it. The visuals and sounds are kind of basic for a Commodore 64 game. The plot, offered as an epilogue to Snyder's Green Sky trilogy, seems a bit lame too - spiritual leader and hero Raamo went missing, and then we found him underground, apparently.

But perfection isn't required for a harpoon - being better than other games in the "good" category is. And Below the Root, which continually compelled me to seek out hidden areas, uncover secrets, and locate Green Sky's animals and spiritual leaders to advance the plot and learn new magic powers, accomplished that. I give it a general recommendation, a harpoon, and a place in the ivory deck.

My final map:

Monday, July 10, 2023

Below the Root: Mostly above the root

You can pense the bunnies!


The healing magic and spirit boost granted by the Wise Child nearly eliminated one of my frustrations with Below the Root; I was no longer at constant risk of running out of stamina while exploring, far from the closest known bed, and could simply restore both rest and food anywhere in the field at the expense of a comparatively large spirit pool. I'd still need to check my status frequently; the meters still deplete fast and without warning, but exploring far from home suddenly became a lot more practical than it had before.

Healing magic also seems to make food fairly irrelevant. Food and rest deplete at the same rate, so it is unusual to need food and not also need rest. Sleeping restores both rest and spirit, at the cost of food, but now I could just cast a post-nap heal instead of eating a post-nap meal.

Broad Grund lay one tree over to the east, where I went to the shops and bought myself a trencher and a lamp. I then went one more tree east to Grand Grund, where I had previously collapsed in exhaustion just before reaching the top. This time, magic healing took me all the way.


Overgrowth blocks the hermit's hut, but the trencher cuts through.

The hermit granted me another 5 spirit points, a vision, and a new spell; Grunspeke. This magic causes branches to grow outward, though only a few pixels per cast, and it isn't permanent. Pensing granted a clue:
Seek a sky-nid and a dream

I continued exploring in a general eastward direction, and found more trees, more houses, more people dispensing clues which seemed more or less redundant at this point. Healing magic let me travel far between friendly beds; spirit regenerates with time, though not quite at the rate required to be able to explore indefinitely without rest - five spirit points restore five minutes worth of rest and food, and four spirit points regenerate in that time.

Silk Grund, just to the east of Grand Grund, had two huts with people that offered free tokens, and a third, grander house rested on a connecting branch offered yet more, though at this point I didn't really need them nor have room for more stuff.


Star Grund further east had a shop building where one could buy spare shubas, ropes, and bread. A man here advised me to speak to the Star, but I saw none, and couldn't find a way to ascend to the upper branches.


The longest accessible branch led to a temple, sealed off by a gate whose key had been lost according to another man here.

At the base of the tree, a house lay overrun with brambles, which I cut back with my trencher, and inside an object which looked like a knife could be seen in an inaccessible room.

I continued east by ground, cutting through more brambles, and reached the base of the first Temple Grunds tree. Vines hanged from the branches, and could be climbed to some bare branches, but no farther. One branch extended east - I jumped from it, glided down, and landed somewhere familiar.


The guarded entrance to Erdling caverns! I had wrapped around the world of Green Sky and returned to the base of Sky Grund where I started.


I had a lamp to spelunk with, but I figured it was best for now to continue exploring the relative safety above the root and continue mapping out Green Sky as much as possible. Tools such as my vines and magic would help me fill in missing gaps in the map - such as the top of Sky Grund.


After several harrowing platforming screens, during which I found an elixir that raised my stamina to 15 points (and my food/rest limits from 5 to 7 points), I reached an hut at the top of the tree, empty of all features except for a hammock.

Sky-nid indeed. I took the hermit's clue and rested here, and awakened somewhere else.

Here I found D'ol Neshom, who granted me the spirit bell, more spirit points, and the power to "kiniport" tools.

Soon after leaving this world the way I came, an obscurely placed rabbit in the Sky Grund gave me another vision.


The resulting spirit boost then gave me the very useful, very expensive power to "kinport" my own body.


I kept going east over familiar ground, filling in gaps of my map where I could, though I didn't make a ton of new discoveries even with my extensive powers. An elixir somewhere, an animal to pense here and there, but mostly a lot of empty terrain. I did find that the "knife" near Star Grund, movable with kiniport magic, was in fact a magic wand, though its use remained unknown. Lastly, gliding around the lower reaches of the Temple Grunds, I found a little alcove where the temple key had been stashed by D'ol Falla, but the game rudely told me that I needed permission to take it.

I did one last thing before preparing to brave the cavern. I allowed myself to be kidnapped by one of the evil Kindar!

Inside the prison they take you to, I found another elixir behind a wall, which I kiniported to myself, and then escaped easily with self-kiniportation to some unexplored branches above Broad Grund, where I found nothing of particular value.

Next stop - Erdling caverns.

Saturday, July 8, 2023

Game 373: Below the Root

Read the manual here:

This is another one of the relatively few games of 1984 that I've been really looking forward to playing. I first heard of it around 2003, when abandonware site Home of the Underdogs featured Seiklus, an independently-developed freeware platformer with a major emphasis on exploration, and cited Below the Root as a major source of inspiration.

This time, I am pretty sure that the Commodore 64 is the lead platform, though the overall aesthetic, with its monochromatic sprites, simple tiled backgrounds, and lack of ingame music, comes across as something you'd see on a ZX Spectrum. One could just as easily attribute this to the industry's inexperience with the platform as to the need to adapt to more basic systems. Only Apple II and PC were also supported, and those versions are credited to people other than designer Dale Disharoon.

One of the first games released under Spinnaker's newly launched Windham Classics brand, Below the Root is the canonical conclusion to the Green Sky trilogy, a series of juvenile fantasy novels by author Zilpha Keatley Snyder (no relation to Tom Snyder as far as I know) about a society of tree-dwellers with magic powers and no concept of violence, theft, or negative emotions, which I haven't read and don't intend to.

The manual explains sufficient backstory; the Kindar hero Raamo, who reunited his people with the underground Erdling nation, has gone, and the leader of Green Sky's ruling class D'ol Falla has premonitions of darkness and disaster. Playing one of five Kindar and Erdling heroes, you must uncover some kind of momentous secret that will save the world, though she doesn't give you much to go on!


Of the five heroes, I chose to play Pomma, Raamo's younger sister. Though the physically weakest character, magic power wanes in adulthood in Green Sky's world, and Pomma, with 10 spirit points, is at her natural peak in this regard. Inside her treehouse, I collect a shuba; a wingsuit-like garment, three currency tokens, and a bowl of "pan" bread.


Outside - mind the gap - a fellow Kindar woman greets us, and with the telepathic "pense" skill it is revealed she is of sympathetic disposition and communicates a tip; to gather berries from the ends of branches.

Being an open-ended world, I decided to construct a map as I explored.


I'd like to say that exploring the world of Green Sky was filled with the joy of discovery, but the truth is that it was kind of a pain in the ass. Movement controls aren't quite as smooth as they should be, sometimes speeding up or slowing down seemingly at random, and the branches you traverse are full of little gaps that look like solid, barely uneven surfaces until you clip right through and fall several screens down to the undergrowth. It creates an unhealthy distrust of the ground you walk on.


Plenty of accidental falls were also to blame on the stiff walk, the sometimes ambiguous demarcation on where platforms turn into dropoffs, and on Pomma's pathetically short hop. Sometimes I'd inch myself closer to a ledge, only to drop right off it, and other times I'd try to jump, only to find I wasn't close enough and miss the other side.

You can't really die - falls and other injuries cost stamina, and "death" just respawns you at home and costs you a day of ingame time, but going too long without food or rest will do this too. The game offers no warning when either is running low, you have to periodically check your character status, and will instantly respawn home when either runs out. This can happen often; these meters drain from full to empty in about twelve minutes, food supplies are limited, and while exploring uncharted territory you might have no idea where the nearest friendly bed can be found. Messages like "you spent a day recovering from lack of food" are kind of funny, though.

Some of the things I encountered exploring:

  • People that offer you free stuff like food and tokens, or their beds. Only once per day, though, and supplies run out.
  • Three vine ropes, which can be used to create makeshift bridges across gaps too long to jump, are found in the upper branches of Sky Grund. But you have to be very careful to crawl while crossing, or you fall and lose the rope. I accidentally ruined all three this way!
  • A monkey, high up in the trees of Sky Grund, increases spirit level when pensed.
  • At the bottom of the woods, a guard standing by a sealed cavern can be bribed with berries, and a second guard inside with a token. Further in, though, it's too dark to progress.
  • Roast lapan, a rabbit dish, and wisenberries, a narcotic plant, can be eaten, but they will deplete your spirit power.
  • Evil Kindar, more commonly found as you explore far from home, but at least one was found just two screens from home, can attack or kidnap you. An attack sends you home, costing you a day, and being kidnapped transports you to a prison hut, which can be escaped with the "renew" magic which also sends you home and costs you a day.
  • Far from home, some offer you their beds, but pensing reveals ulterior motives.
  • A shopping area at Broad Grund sold fruit, "trencher beaks," and lamps.

I also spoke and pensed everyone I could find, and took note of clues.

  • Visit the Temple Grunds
  • Seek high and low
  • Ropes will take you to Sky Grund Top
  • The elixir will strengthen you
  • Seek the forgotten chamber on temple
  • The guard eats too many berries
  • Find the wise one
  • Learn to use the spirit powers
  • The wise child knows more than I do
  • Glide from star to temple
  • Vatar lives below the root
  • Find the wise child of the garden
  • Pense the animals if you have the power
  • The hermit bestows spirit
  • Seekers need a honey lamp
  • Pass the two gates of the forgotten
  • D'ol Falla's key is well hidden
  • Perhaps the hermit will help you
  • Search the heights of Grand Grund
  • Find those who will raise your spirit
  • You should carry a rope and a beak 
  • Raamo's mother can help you.

Eventually, I found the wise child's tree house, up on a very precarious series of branches in the Garden Grunds.

This boosted my spirit up to 16 points and also granted me healing magic, which miraculously restores food and rest at the cost of spirit.

Despite some of the frustrations I've noted, and still have, with the game's various mechanics, I am so far overall enjoying the experience of exploring, mapping things out, and discovering Green Sky's little secrets. It wouldn't surprise me if my quest is already doomed to failure from wasting my finite time and resources, and that I'll have to restart before I may finish properly, but if that's so, it won't have been a waste; my map and knowledge gained will certainly be valuable the second time around.

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