Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Games 385 & 386: Pool & Steve Davis Snooker

This is it - the finale of Data Driven Gamer's 1984 phase; a humble pair of ZX Spectrum billiards simulators by author Michael Lamb, published through CDS Software.

I spent a weekend afternoon playing with my wife to wrap up this phase, which began just over two years ago now. We're both lousy, but this is an instance where we're about equally lousy.

I used the emulator Spectaculator rather than my usual choice of Fuse for Currah μSpeech compatibility. More on this later.

Game 385: Pool


Pool, the first and simpler title, aspires to simulate a game of pool, but the rules aren't like any version of pool I've ever played.

  • Six colored balls start on the table, three blue, three red.
  • You get three lives, and on each life, three strokes to pot a ball.
  • Blue balls are worth a base of 20 points, red balls a base of 10.
  • The base value is then multiplied by the number of remaining strokes, and multiplied again by the number of frames elapsed so far. So for instance, if you pot a blue ball on your first stroke, during the first frame, it is worth 20x3x1 = 60 points.
  • After potting a ball, you get three strokes to pot the next.
  • After all six colored balls are potted, another frame is played, incrementing the multiplier.
  • Fail to pot a ball on the third stroke, or pocket the cueball, or fail to strike a colored ball, and you lose a life and control goes to the other player.
  • Once all players lose all of their lives, the game is over, and whoever has the most points wins.


I don't know if this lives-based approach has any sort of connection to English pool variants, but I'm speculating that Michael Lamb isn't emulating any particular rule set and just figured "three lives, advance to the next stage" was standard video game operating procedure.

We played several rounds, and below is a recording of two of them. I break as player 1 in the first game, and go as player 2 in the second.


And, well, we had some fun! It's a pretty basic game, with a simplistic but serviceable physics model and reasonably smooth ball action, though the old Spectrum was never the mightiest gaming machine and it shows here, with crude animation and sometimes flickering ball sprites.

I have to note - aiming is a bit tricky. Your aiming cursor circumnavigates the edge of the table, leaving it up to you to visualize line-of-sight from the cueball to the cursor's tip to figure out precisely where the cueball will strike and at what angle. I get that it's meant to simulate aiming with the cue, but the top-down perspective doesn't make it terribly intuitive.

GAB rating: Above average. As I said, Pool is a basic and pretty bare-bones package, but it's nice to not have a bazillion options and just be able to jump into a game with some confidence that the author set the parameters according to what he thought would be most enjoyable, if not necessarily realistic. Mobygames lists a baker's dozen commercial billiards games for the Spectrum, and going by Youtube footage, this is one of the better ones.

Game 386: Steve Davis Snooker


Not featuring world snooker champion Steve Davis' likeness or personality anywhere except the tape cover, Lamb's premium follow-up to Pool topped the UK charts for years on Davis' name and implied endorsement. That, and this product is actually a pretty good simulation considering the Spectrum's modest abilities, though that it also supported every computer popular with the British - Atari, Commodore, Amstrad, BBC, and even the MSX - certainly didn't hurt!

As I alluded earlier, Steve Davis Snooker is also one of a handful of games to support the Currah μSpeech module, so you can enjoy Stephen Hawking quality voice quips like "Ladies and gentlemen, quiet please!" If you can even understand it. I don't know how popular these modules were - the scant support makes me suspect not much - but for this one I used the trialware emulator Spectaculator as one of the few that supports it.

It's immediately obvious that this is a more sophisticated simulation than Pool, but we had a problem - we don't know the rules of snooker! The manual - really just a few paragraphs in the inner cassette cover, covers some of the rules, but it's incomplete. Fair enough, honestly, as I expect anyone buying this in the 80's would already know, but that doesn't help me much.

From playing and reading official rules, I gathered the basics, but there are still some aspects that elude me.

  • You alternate between potting the red balls and the rest of the colors.
  • After potting a red ball, you score a point and must select the next ball before making your next stroke.
  • After potting a non-red ball, you score its value (between 2 and 7 points) and it is replaced in its original position. You must pot a red ball next.
  • Once all red balls are gone, the rest of the colored balls are played in sequence (yellow, green, brown, blue, pink, black) and removed once potted.
  • Fail to pot a ball, and your turn ends.
  • Foul shots end your turn, award your opponent a 4 point minimum, up to 7 points depending on the value of any illegally struck ball, and if your opponent wishes, they may force you to take the next shot. 

The fouls are serious business and also my biggest point of confusion. From what I can gather, fouls include:

  • Failure to strike a legal ball
  • Striking an illegal ball
  • Pocketing an illegal ball
  • Pocketing the cueball

We played a round, which took about an hour to complete, and "D" won. Our initial impressions were that this is a better simulation than Pool, but it wasn't as much fun for us, though this isn't the game's fault; we just don't like snooker.

I'd show you the video of our match, but frustratingly, the emulator ate the recording! I suspect emulating the Currah module might have had something to do with it. Not only was video proof of "D"'s victory spoiled, but so was proof of a particularly awesome shot that Stephen Hawking declared a foul for reasons neither of us understood.

But we played again, opting for a 'short' match with ten red balls instead of fifteen, and this time I filmed with OBS instead of Spectaculator's built-in recorder. We got better (not good, just better), and consequently enjoyed it more. We even played a third match.

Below is a recording of both recorded matches, with several minutes of time spent aiming edited out. She goes first in the first match, I go first in the second.


Some further observations:

  • Compared to Pool, Snooker features a bigger table, smaller balls, and more of them. This invites a lot more opportunity for crazy physics tricks, and impressively, it runs fast and smoothly, with less flicker than Pool. Almost every strike, bounce, ricochet, and cascade feels plausible.
  • Control is improved very much. The aiming cursor is placed anywhere on the table using that weird QAOP scheme, so you can be completely sure where you're aiming the ball at. It even moves with nonlinear acceleration, so you can move it from one side of the table to the other quickly and then make pixel-precise aim adjustments. Power control is more granular, and you can put spin on too, which wasn't supported in Pool.
  • There is a very annoying air raid siren sound as you move the cursor. Thankfully it can be turned off, but not without resetting the game first. We did this on our replay.
  • I do like the 'clink' sound when a ball hits another.
  • The Spectrum's limited color palette is a bit troublesome. The yellow ball blends into the green table, at least to my eyes. Brown doesn't exist, so the brown ball is drawn with red and green stripes. Blue and pink are fine, but I personally struggle to distinguish them.
  • The green ball poses a particular problem as the system only has one shade of green, and the table itself uses it, so a green ball on top of that would wind up being invisible. The solution used is to draw a while outline, but still, it's often difficult to spot, and looks strange on its starting position overlapping the black lines on the table.
  • Color clash in general is more frequent than it was in Pool.
  • The game keeps track of your largest score in a turn (your "break") and should it be high enough, prompts you to enter your name for the high score table. Davis himself tops it with a nigh table-clearing 30 points.
GAB rating: Good. I'm not a snooker fan, but even I can tell that this is a solid and well-polished simulation of it, which is something that I've never said before of a game that lies outside my own comfort zone. And I think that speaks enough of its quality to put it in the ivory deck.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Game 384: Castle Adventure

Our next and final whale of 1984 is Steve Davis Snooker, a ZX Spectrum billiards sim published by British software house CDS Software. As their sole whale credit, this is the only time I expect to be covering anything out of their label, so in my usual fashion I've opted to begin with a small selection of early games leading up to it.

I'm going to have to emulate a ZX81 again, aren't I?

Game 384: Castle Adventure


As I have no indication of CDS's precise chronology beyond copyright years, I've chosen to start with 1982's Castle Adventure for no reason except that it looks the most interesting. Their other products of the year, all ZX81 games, consist of an unauthorized Breakout port, a Head-On clone, Connect 4, Othello, and an Avalanche-like paddle game.

The manual tells us that the goal is to find the castle's hidden exit and leave with as much energy as possible, and that enemies including a dragon, cobra, dwarves, goblins, and spiders will try to stop us. I've dealt with worse; let's go.


We're off to a bad start already, as Castle Adventure seems to mix up east and west! But let's go south.

Great, let's get the sword!

Boo hiss. I restart and go east this time.

Uh-oh. How do I leave? I try going west.

Nice, I crashed it!

Going north,


Too bad I don't have a sword. I flee and go west.


I bet I know what to do with this!





Four more unexplored rooms. I check them out one by one. North first:

Then east.

Two swings of my sword and all I have to show for it are 40 lost energy points. I flee and go west.

Not good! I run again and go south.


Going back to the dark room,

Sword time!


Back downstairs, I enter the code.

Alas, I died here. But it took me little time to reach this point again, with more hit points, and I cut through the web with my sword.

Finally, a puzzle! You must move across the chessboard, using knight movement patterns, while avoiding the dwarves who move one space in any direction.

This took me a few tries, but the key is to plan your route, working backwards from the exit so that it gets the zig-zagging out of the way sooner rather than later, when you're close to the exit and in the corner where you have little room to maneuver.

One solution

This puzzle is infuriatingly luck-based, as the dwarves move randomly, and catch you if they are even adjacent to your position, diagonals included. You'll probably have to make a risky move at some point and just pray that they move away from you.


Next you get a sliding tile puzzle, and there's a 50% chance that the randomly generated setup is unsolvable. But tries are unlimited.

Next, a maze.


There's a bit of perspective weirdness as the view is overhead but also rotates 90° when you go left or right, but the old wall-following technique gets you out eventually.


Hmmm, ten directions, you say? Start with "1."

Ah, this is Hunt the Wumpus, isn't it? But I don't have my crossbow.

After some wandering around, I determine the maze layout is nonsensical but deterministic, though its purpose is unclear. "Left" increments the location by 2, "right" decrements by 3. Exceptions: going right from rooms 1-3 takes you back to the entrance, going right from rooms 39-40 also takes you back to the entrance, and going left from rooms 39-40 takes you to room 5.

Room 32 is marked the "end of the maze" but otherwise behaves the same as any other room.


Returning to the entrance, going direction '2' informs me that I need a gold key. '3' takes me to another chasm.

Well, I know better than to try to jump it. I go back.

Direction '4' takes me to a black door with no indication that it can be opened. '5' prompts me to enter a "blue code." '6' takes me into another maze, but this one has a plasma gun in room 32.

'7' takes me to an encounter.


Good news - I have a plasma gun of my own. Bad news, I have no idea how you use it, and after several wrong guesses and much lost health, I retreat and try direction '8'.

Maaaybe I should come back a bit later. I go back and try '9'.

I'm still not sure how to use the plasma gun, but wrong guesses don't cost me energy this time. 

I try '10.' It's a locked door and I need an emerald to open it.

I go back and enter '8'. Seven steps forward and I see a code.

Heading back to the start, my energy is getting critical. But I go to '5', and the code is accepted, giving me a black key. This unlocks the black door, granting me a torch. This scares away the goblin, giving me the gold key, which opens another door where I find a crossbow!

I get it now. I didn't find a plasma gun. I found a plasma bolt! But my energy is so low now that when I go to the dwarf, he kills me before I can fire back.

So I have to restart the whole game and work my way back.

[20 minute later...]

I struggled a bit with the chess game, but eventually made it back. And I let the dwarf here have it!

The wand lets me get the emerald.

And the emerald lets me leave.

GAB rating: Below average. What I find most interesting here is how quickly I thought I had this amateurish game figured out. Within a few minutes, it looked for sure like the game consisted of eight rooms, each with a simple lock-and-key puzzle in one form or another, and once I entered each in the right order I'd win and could just drop a bad rating and move on. The whole experience reminded me think of BASIC adventures that I'd code in an afternoon and never touch again.

But after entering the final room with the explosive lock, the game kept going. It didn't go on long - the whole experience lasted about an hour and a half, including the restarts, and much of it was spent cropping screenshots and writing notes. But there's just barely enough substance here for me to not hate it.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Game 383: Paperboy

You may not like the news, but you have to admire the boys who deliver it, bleeps out Paperboy through its distinctive Speak & Spell voice synthesizer by Texas Instruments. With a luxurious double-resolution, 64-color display, a popping suburban aesthetic reminiscent of The Sims, a convincing soundscape of flying newspapers, shattered windows, car horns, brakes, deadly crashes and other fanfare, frequent spoken witticisms by the paperboy himself ("need a passenger?" quips paperboy after colliding with a carelessly driven hearse), and a funky stereophonic beat with just enough cowbell, Paperboy, if nothing else, might just be the best-looking and best-sounding game I've covered yet.

The premise, like most arcade games of the day, is simple enough, and more grounded than most. Drive a morning newspaper bike route, delivering to your customers for points, and smash the windows of non-customers for a few bonus points. But watch out - you've got a deadline, the 'hood is indifferent at best to your survival, and if you miss a paying customer, or break their windows with an errantly thrown paper, or run over their flowers, they'll unsubscribe.

Photo by Jeremy Wagner


One of the first challenges was to figure out, how the heck do I control this? The real machine sports a pair of bicycle handlebars, actually a modified Star Wars flight yoke. And while a USB flight stick plays Star Wars well, Paperboy doesn't feel so nice with it. I've played with the real thing at ACAM New Hampshire, but that 40-year-old controller didn't perform too well either.

I tried using my Logitech racing wheel, and while the steering worked great, speed control was an issue. Throttle and brake pedals work well for racing games, but on Paperboy hardware, you push the handlebars forward or pull them back, and this didn't comfortably map to my racing setup.

Finally, I wound up mapping speed control to my shifter, and was happy with this.

At this point it's too late to hit the brakes.

I played this way for several days, and eventually learned how to survive for longer than a few seconds, but I wouldn't say that at any point I got good. Paperboy is difficult and unforgiving even for an arcade game. Even on the ironically named "Easy Street" route, which I never mustered the skill to graduate past from. Touching anything - curb edges, sewer grates, breakdancing teens, small remote control cars, you name it, will crash your bike. The isometric perspective makes it hard to judge your throws, hard to tell if you're going to crash into an upcoming obstacle or not, and with houses and their yards taking up a good 75% of the screen, the perspective gives you barely any room to maneuver or to see what's ahead of you.

But I managed to hold a career for a few ingame days, at which point I raced swarms of bees, swerved around dynamite explosions set by anti-gentrification saboteurs, dodged stray tires, mean cats, etc. Each day also concludes with an obstacle course to bike through for some bonus points. A full career goes the whole week to Sunday, where the jumbo-sized Sunday papers can't be thrown as far. Mine ended on Thursday, when I swerved to avoid a cat, only to slam right into a skateboarder.


Some notes:

  • Surprisingly, I found I performed better when I spent most of the time going as fast as I could pedal. This gives you little time to react to stuff, but the momentum helps carry your papers farther and more accurately this way. Memorizing the street and its day-to-day dangers is key.
  • On that note, crossing the intersection is the most dangerous part, especially when going fast. 1980's traffic stops for nobody.
  • By far the most important thing, apart from not getting killed, is delivering papers and not accidentally losing subscribers. Vandalism points are fun, but each day gives you a daily 250 point end-of-day bonus for each remaining customer, with the possibility of doubling it and getting a new subscriber if you perform really well.
  • Vandalism also has diminishing returns, as broken windows get boarded up on subsequent days and can't be smashed again.
  • You can score an extra 250 points by landing your paper right in the mailbox, but this is too difficult to be worth trying on purpose. If it happens to land there, great, but don't get distracted and crash because you were focused on this optional task.
  • Higher difficulties ("Middle Road" and "Hard Way") double and triple your points, respectively. They're also filled with threats that you don't even see on Easy Street, like the milk delivery truck, and even the grim reaper.
  • There was a bit of a missed opportunity to express the player's score as a cash value to further sell the theme of "you are a child laborer performing a crummy job for crummy pay." Imagine instead of 4,500 points at the end of the day, your route boss gives you a $4.50 paycheck plus ten cents bonus for each non-subscribers' window smashed.
  • My wife gave it a try and made it to Tuesday on her third attempt, which is a lot fewer tries than it took me.

"Easy Street," 1917c

GAB rating: Above average. I want to like Paperboy better, but it's just too frustrating for me to find enjoyable, and not quite deep enough to be rewarding. For what it's worth, I did feel motivated to play, replay, and improve my performance, but only to an extent.

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