Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Game 407: Graham Gooch's Test Cricket

"After Nintendo Soccer, we tried to play a Commodore 64 cricket game, and boy were we in trouble."

"Because neither of you know how to play cricket?"

"Because neither of us know how to play cricket."


We tried, but I gather, in retrospect, we weren't missing a whole lot by not knowing what we were doing here, because like a lot of other computer sports games of the day, Graham Gooch's Test Cricket appears to be a pretty simplistic and barebones simulation, and more or less plays itself if you let it.


The first game published by U.K. software house Audiogenic Software, the company could be seen as a continuation of Supersoft or of Audiogenic Ltd depending on how you interpret their history. Rather than try to puzzle out which predecessor company's extensive back catalog of pre-1985 Commodore games to retrospect, I settled on neither and went straight for Test Cricket.

I did read the basic rules beforehand, which are not explained in the manual. Presumably if you're buying this game, you already know. For the benefit of readers who, like me, have only had exposure to baseball (barely 5% of my readers are from countries where cricket is more popular than baseball), I'll offer a brief, probably inaccurate summary of how it works.

The goal, like baseball, is to score more points than the other team does. Teams alternate between batting and fielding - the fielders bowl the ball in an attempt to eliminate the batter, the batter hits back in an attempt to score points for his team. But while baseball has rapid eliminations and challenging score conditions, cricket is exactly the opposite. Strikeouts are not a thing, and runners are not vulnerable; batters are primarily eliminated by striking the wicket behind them, and most professional players can score upwards of 20 runs per out. In baseball, three outs ends the half-inning and causes the teams to switch. No such luck in test cricket - the half-inning only ends once all eleven batters are eliminated, and this can literally take all day. A full two-inning game can last up to five six-hour days.

Mercifully, Graham Gooch's Test Cricket doesn't demand you play all week, as you can also play single-inning games with limited overs. Unfortunately, the shortest game is still 40 overs (240+ bowls) per side. We got bored and stopped playing after 11, long before I had my turn to bat.

I haven't even said anything about what it was like to play, and I really can't say much at all. The match is always England vs. Australia. Each player selects their team from the available roster and assigns roles, and only their names are shown - the game offers no stats to help you make your decisions. There are two modes of play - arcade and simulation - and the main difference is that in arcade mode, you control the batter semi-directly by pressing the joystick fire button to swing, and must time it correctly in order to connect. In simulation mode, this happens automatically, but you can direct the batter's strategy with secret joystick commands, and in both modes, you can cycle players in and out of the action between overs to manage fatigue. Bafflingly, only simulation mode is allowed with two players, and I can't see why. The system has two joystick controllers!

Apart from that, there's really no interactivity. You bat, if you hit correctly then you'll see a little animation of runners crossing the field, and you'll see some game stats between overs.

GAB rating: N/A. This is more of a hands-off simulator than a game you actively play, and holds zero interest to me as someone who doesn't even care about popular American sports, let alone cricket. But as a sim, it seems very limited compared to, say, SSI's Computer Quarterback and Computer Baseball.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Game 406: Soccer

This past weekend, I was in downtown Boston, visiting my friend "B." It was absolutely pouring, and we spent the evening playing obsolete sports video games, when neither of us have cared about sports in decades.


In the above video, I play USA, "B" plays Brazil.

Soccer is the first game credited entirely to Nintendo's internal studio Intelligent Systems, though it has none of the team's signature traits yet, feeling much like Nintendo's earlier bare-bones sports titles. At least this one has a halftime show.

Does soccer even have cheerleaders?

The game was a struggle for both of us. One of the biggest control issues was selecting players to pass to or switch control to - in theory, using the d-pad selects a target teammate in the direction pushed, highlighting them and allowing you to pass or take control, but in practice it often just refused to highlight the right teammate, causing us to pass to the entirely wrong one. And teammate AI is chaotic and often useless when left to their own devices.

Occasionally one of us would foul with an illegal pass, and we'd have no idea what actually triggered it. The manual notes that software limitations prevent Nintendo Soccer from completely and precisely implementing official IFAB rules, but we'd still see offside penalties despite not passing the last defender.


The screen also does not scroll smoothly, but only scrolls when the ball reaches an edge of it, making offense a frustrating exercise in blind advancement - you don't get to see the goal or its defense situation until you're already very close to it!

But the real fundamental problem here is that NES Soccer is slow. Players awkwardly dribble the ball like small children just learning the sport, pushing it forward a bit, running up and pushing it again, which makes crossing the field clumsy and boring. Shooting goals is the nail in the coffin - it is so slow that we were able to block shots with our goalies ever single time, and I don't see how assists could accomplish anything but give the goalie even more time to react.

Just to test against the theory that maybe we were just bad at offense, I played against the computer at maximum difficulty, and made no attempt to keep the ball away from my goal. I still blocked it every single time.

The level 5 AI also made an offside pass and two out-of-bounds kicks as my whole team stood still and laughed.

GAB rating: Bad. It's not completely broken like Tennis, but the only thing fast about NES Soccer is how fast its annoying little problems add up, and a soccer game where you'll never score until the final penalty kick session feels pointless.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Game 405: Jump Jet


Jump Jet, listed on Mobygames by its 1988 Amiga release title Harrier Mission, simulates author Vaughan Dow's day job as a Sea Harrier FRS1 pilot. Flying a single-seat, single engine, subsonic jet fighter capable of VTOL thanks to its angled thrust nozzles, you must launch from your carrier, locate an enemy fighter, pursue and destroy it, and return to the carrier and land on it safely.

Getting this to work correctly was slightly tricky. First, there was the issue of realizing that no Commodore 64 game called Harrier Mission exists. Jump Jet is the correct title. Second, I found two disk images floating around. One of them refused to load. The other had completely unintelligible speech, and I couldn't quite put it out of my mind that this wasn't right, or that something else might be wrong too. But ultimately I wound up playing a T64 tape image, which loaded much faster than the disk version, and offered clear-sounding radio chatter (mostly "Mayday-mayday-mayday. I'm bailing out!" given my piloting skills).

The Sea Harrier's distinguishing characteristic is its angled jet nozzle, which may be oriented in four directions:

  • Vertical, used for VTOL and hovering. At this orientation, pitch controls forward/backward movement rather than altitude, and banking controls lateral movement without turning. Thrust power will control rate of climb.
  • 45°, used to build airspeed from hover. Thrust power controls rate of climb and forward acceleration; pitch and banking don't do very much at all.
  • Rear-firing; only effective when airspeed exceeds 180kn, otherwise transforms your jet into cannonshot. Handles like a conventional jet with maximum level speed of 600kn; pitch controls altitude, banking turns, and thrust controls acceleration.
  • 45° reverse, used for rapid deceleration. 

This is definitely more of a flight simulator than Dow's previous Flight Path 737. Gameplay is still stratified into phases, but where Flight Path 737 immediately ended the trip when you didn't follow procedures correctly, Jump Jet simulates the flight physics just enough to make you face the ramifications of your failure. When it can't do this (stalls are still not a thing, for instance), a warning light flashes, and too many of these will abort the mission.

A multilingual manual offers five pages of English instructions - this affords more detail than the two pages of terse liner notes offered by Flight Path 737, but is still a bit inadequate for explaining exactly what you need to do. There is also some flat-out incorrect information; the manual says that the skill level is selected by the computer and automatically advances upon a successful mission, but you have access to all five from the start. I had to trial and error my way through the first two, and faced a showstopping difficulty on the third.

Below is a walkthrough of skill level #2, "Flight Lieutenant."


Way easier than taking off from a runway. Pretty much the only way you can screw this up is by forgetting to lower the flaps first. The manual notes that a real Sea Harrier is equipped with 6,600 pounds of fuel, full arms, and must take off from a ski runway, but in this simulation, we only have 5,000 pounds, four missiles, and can take off from rest.

  • Press F to lower the flaps.
  • Press 3 to fire the jets vertically.
  • Hold '+' to increase thrust to maximum. At >75% power, you will ascend, and the silhouette over the landing zone shrinks.
  • At 50ft, the scene changes.


Takeoff, scene 2


  • Press 2 to fire the jets at 45°. You'll move forward, away from the carrier, almost immediately.

Sea flight


Here, the game switches to a first person sim-like perspective, and it looks kind of nice at first, with its animated waves, clouds, and horizon. But then you notice the cheapness of it all; there's almost nothing to look at here, banking doesn't tilt the horizon, which simply goes up and down in response to your pitch but is unaffected by altitude. Even Hellcat Ace on the Atari, a game I noted for its primitive pseudo-3D visuals and gameplay, was more convincing than this!

Your goal here is to locate the enemy fighter, which is represented by a triangle on the radar. The only other object here is the carrier, which spawns at a random distance and orientation from your origin even though you just took off from it.

  • Press 'R' to enter radar mode. Note that this will take flight control away from you until you exit radar mode, so don't do anything stupid like entering a dive before doing this.
  • A cursor will appear on the radar screen. Use the joystick to .slowly. move it onto the triangle and then press the fire button.
  • The enemy fighter will be 'selected,' and its distance to you will show on the radar.
  • Wait until your speed accumulates 180 knots, if it hasn't yet.
  • Press '1' to activate rear-firing thrusters.
  • Press 'F' to raise your flaps.
  • Press 'U' to raise the undercarriage.
  • Use the joystick to pitch up until you have attained at least 1,000ft of altitude. Do not let airspeed fall below 180 knots - reduce your pitch if it falls too low.
  • Use the joystick to level.
  • Use the joystick to bank and rotate to face the enemy's direction, and then level.
  • Approach to a proximity of 5 miles.




Here things become a real horror show of programming shortcuts as you finally see the enemy flit about all over your screen like an ant on crack. You see, the enemy plane doesn't fly in pseudo-3D space with any sort of attempt at modeling flight physics, but is merely a sprite that moves around your 2D screen space, moving up or down as it pleases, but never leaves your screen no matter how you maneuvers. You, unfortunately, still have to obey flight physics, which is why you'll want to approach with a somewhat high altitude; aiming downward makes you dive, and the enemy can't crash into the sea, but you can. A simple distance parameter causes the sprite to enlarge once the gap closes. The goal is to get the sprite inside your reticle and pull the trigger, which instantly destroys it. If the distance closes to 2 miles, it destroys you. Disengagement is impossible; you kill or be killed, and if you run out of missiles, tough luck.

The trick here is to use the reverse thrusters. Can't close the distance if you're moving backwards!

  • Press 'M' to turn on your missile sight.
  • Press '4' to engage reverse thrusters.
  • Use the joystick to get the enemy into your sight.
  • Fire.

Return to carrier

  • Press 'M' to turn off the missile sight.
  • Press 2 to fire the jets at 45°.
  • Press 'R' to enter radar mode. Again, make sure you aren't diving or banked, or this will go badly for you.
  • Use the joystick to move the cursor onto the carrier and press fire.
  • The carrier will be 'selected,' and its distance to you will show on the radar.
  • Use the joystick to bank and rotate to face the carrier's direction, and then level.
  • Wait until your speed accumulates 180 knots, if it hasn't yet.
  • Press '1' to activate rear-firing thrusters.
  • Reduce pitch, and approach carrier to a proximity of 5 miles. Level before altitude reaches 200 feet.

Carrier approach


This part was probably the most difficult to figure out. You've got to get very close to the carrier and enter a hovering descent, but the graphics and display don't make this easy to judge.

  • When the carrier comes into view, bank to center it.
  • Approach with an altitude as close to 200 feet as you can.
  • When somewhat close, level the plane and press '4' to activate reverse thrusters and rapidly decelerate. The exact distance will depend on your approach airspeed - you want come to a stop close to the carrier, but you don't want to overshoot.
  • When airspeed approaches 0, press '2' to activate 45° thrusters and reduce thrust power.
  • Adjust your thrust angle and power as necessary to inch forward.
  • Once you are very close - the carrier should be close to the bottom of your screen but not off it, press '3' to activate vertical thrusters and set power to 75%. You will decelerate and hover.
  • When airspeed reaches 0, reduce thrust. You will descend.
  • When altitude falls below 200ft and the game thinks you're close enough, the scene will change. You may still need to adjust thrust angle to get closer.



This part is tricky - almost certainly the most difficult part from an execution standpoint. And on higher difficulties it is so much worse.

If you enter this scene going more than a few knots, it's entirely possible that you might just fly away from the carrier before you have a chance to do anything, which aborts the landing and returns to seaflight mode, causing the carrier to magically spawn somewhere at random again! Yes, this happened to me, and it is frustrating.

  • Press '3' to activate vertical thrust.
  • Set thrust to 75%.
  • Use the joystick to pitch and bank to maneuver over the landing zone until you are directly over it and in a steady hover. This is very sensitive.
  • Press 'F' to lower flaps.
  • Press 'U' to lower undercarriage.
  • Reduce thrust. You will descend.
  • At 30 feet, the scene changes.



  • Increase thrust to 75%.
  • Use the joystick to pitch and bank to maneuver over the landing zone until you are directly over it and in a steady hover. You may lose altitude while doing this, and may need to increase thrust to avoid landing too soon, but easy does it - you don't want to climb too high either.
  • Reduce thrust below 75%. You will descend and land.

With higher difficulties, you must destroy multiple targets before landing, and the manual says there is a lower tolerance for warnings but I found this is incorrect; you fail after nine regardless of setting.

But the true difficulty factor is the weather. Being jostled around during seaflight is bad enough, but on levels 3 and above, you also have to fight the wind while landing. And I found this impossible.

Crashing your jet into the deck? That's six demerits.

GAB rating: Below average. Jump Jet is more ambitious than Flight Path 737 and gamier, so I feel I can evaluate it as a game, but the core here is bare bones compared to games I've called bare bones.

It's too bad, because there's some promise. The VTOL aircraft is cool. The presentation isn't half bad, with pleasing colors and animation. Ingame speech is pretty decent quality, the instruments are clear, readable, and well laid out, and the multiple perspectives involved with takeoff and landing, which itself is something I haven't seen in any earlier combat flight sim, are a neat touch.

But there's not enough to do here, and the flight simulation is half-baked and unconvincing. Air combat is pathetic - like an arcade game from the 70's, but honestly, I can't even think of one of those that doesn't look and feel better. Compare to Hellcat Ace, from three years earlier on Atari hardware, where the horizon tilted as you banked, up to two enemies could be present at once, and they at least seemed to follow the same flight physics as you, able to climb, dive, and maneuver off-screen and behind you. I called that simplistic.

It will be awhile before we return to Anco Software for a bona fide whale, and I'm not sure I feel all that enriched by this retrospective series, but hey, they can't all be winners.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Game 404: Flight Path 737

The green rectangle is just for show; instruments tell you everything.

The first of two Anirog games by professional jump jet pilot Vaughan Dow, Flight Path 737 is a flight simulator in the same sense that Activision's Space Shuttle is - very little of the physics of flight is actually simulated, but rather a simplified model of the procedure is, which you must follow to taxi, take off, ascend to a safe height, pass over a mountain range, and descend into a valley beyond and land on the runway safely. Do anything incorrectly and it is an instant fail, with a sometimes confusing abort message to announce your mistake.

"Accent to slow?" What? Ohhh... you mean ascent too slow!

Make no mistake, this is not an easy game. You will be needing to watch your airspeed obsessively. The safe speed range for any given phase is tight - deviate from this even a little bit and you fail The optimal speed range is even tighter, and on higher difficulties you cannot afford to stray from this or you will hit the mountains, or miss the runway, or just run out of fuel. There's no autothrottle; only keystrokes to adjust in 10 or 20 knot increments, and it increases or decreases on its own with pitch, drag, or, on higher difficulties, random engine fires. While climbing or diving, you'll need to adjust it constantly, and that's all the while keeping an eye on your other gauges and remembering everything else you need to do.

Gameplay is semi-realtime; with PAL timing, the game accepts one keystroke command and/or joystick direction per second, and instruments update at about this rate. It takes some getting used to, but it gives airspeed adjustment a tick-tock rhythm; one tick it goes up by five knots because you were diving, then you hit F5 and the next tock it goes down by five, and you repeat until an event happens.

A complete run takes no more than ten minutes, and six difficulties are offered, which I completed in sequence. "Part-time" is where things started getting really difficult.

Difficulty Mountains Runway Engine fires Landing tolerance Crosswinds
First solo 5000 feet 3 miles No Moderate No
Stunt pilot 6000 feet 3 miles Yes Moderate No
Part-time 7000 feet 2.5 miles Yes Strict No
Experienced 8000 feet 2 miles Yes Strict Yes
Professional 9000 feet 1.8 miles Yes Strict Yes
Test pilot 9200 feet 1.5 miles Yes Strict Yes


Below is my first and only successful "test pilot" run - the only such video on Youtube to my knowledge. There were many unsuccessful runs.


I did find that the cassette inlay instructions are a bit confusing and sometimes incomplete. Discovering the correct procedure took some trial and error, and in the process, I rewrote them for my own benefit.

Remembering the safe airspeed rules is paramount. You should always be paying attention to the ASI indicator, and always maintain a safe speed, no matter what else you are doing.

  • Airspeed must never fall below 160kn.
  • Airspeed may not exceed 200kn while the flaps are down.
  • Airspeed may not exceed 250kn while the undercarriage is down.
  • Airspeed may not fall below 180kn while the flaps are up.
  • 180kn-200kn is the only safe range for raising or lowering the flaps.



  • Press F1 once to increase ground speed to 20kn.
  • Press V to lower the flaps.
  • Use the joystick to correct runway heading. Center once aligned.



  • Press F1 eight times to increase ground speed to 180kn.
  • Pull joystick back to increase pitch and take off.



On all difficulties except first solo, engines can catch fire any time from here until the final approach! Pay attention to the FW indicator and if it lights up, immediately stop what you're doing and hit 'E' to extinguish it. Then adjust your throttle to recover any lost speed.

  • Increase pitch to +5.
  • Maintain airspeed between 185kn-200kn.
  • Once altitude passes 300ft, press F to raise flaps.
  • Press F1 to throttle up.
  • Press A to raise undercarriage.
  • Press F1 repeatedly to reach 410kn.
  • Press F3 every two seconds to maintain 410kn airspeed.



  • Once altitude is within 400ft of the mountain tops, use joystick to level pitch.
  • Press F7 repeatedly to lower speed to 180kn-200kn.
  • Press V to lower flaps.
  • Press Z to lower undercarriage.
  • Use joystick to correct runway heading. Center once aligned.
  • On higher difficulties, it may be necessary to begin RH alignment early and multitask.


  • Once 'GW' light turns off, you have cleared the mountains. Depending on how long it took you to perform RH alignment, this may have already happened.
  • Use joystick to lower pitch to -5. Airspeed will increase 5kn per second as you dive. Let it approach 200kn, but never exceed it.
  • Press F5 every two seconds to maintain airspeed.
  • When the altitude is about equal to [distance*100], press F7 once and raise pitch to just one notch below level.
  • On test pilot mode, you will be very lucky if this is above 500ft. It's entirely possible that you completely pass the runway during descent! In which case, too bad.


Final Approach

  • Reduce airspeed to 160kn-170kn. Maintain during final approach.
  • At 10 distance, an ILS light flashes.
  • At higher difficulties, this has probably already happened.
  • White means you must lower your pitch.
  • Red means you must raise your pitch.
  • Green means you are on track to land.
  • Once green, set pitch to -1.
  • At higher difficulties, crosswinds interfere with your RH. Adjust accordingly.


  • Once altitude reaches 100ft, increase airspeed to 170kn-180kn.
  • Once altitude reaches 0, immediately level pitch.
  • Press R to activate reverse thrusters.
  • Press F7 repeatedly to reduce speed to zero.



GAB rating: N/A. More of an education product than a full-fledged game. Like other computer flight simulators, I don't feel it makes a great deal of sense to evaluate this as I would a game designed to entertain, but I don't get the impression that this is the most polished or most professionally-developed product out there. Microprose's Solo Flight outclasses this in every regard imaginable.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Games 401-403: Early Anirog Software

Sometimes, Data Driven Gamer's early company retrospectives are the most personally rewarding part of the blogging experience. I get to experience the seldom-played formative products of a culturally significant brand, and see how it would lead to the games we know and love.

Other times, it's a company I'd have otherwise never heard of, whose major products are games I've never had interest in, and the only reason I'm playing them to begin with is to ensure there aren't any gaps in my knowledge.

Such is the case with Anco Software, originally known as Anirog Software, which sounds like a corruption of "Analog" but is named after founders Anil Gupta and Roger Gamon. A major British publisher best known for the Kick Off and Player Manager football series, Anco published over a hundred titles during its 20 year lifespan, making it comparable to big U.S. publishers like Broderbund. But while the name Broderbund evokes the image of numerous computer game classics, Anco evokes none for me. Selecting titles representative of their early output is difficult!

At least, as it appears to be, Anco favored Commodore computers over Sinclair early on. Good, I say - I'd much rather emulate a VIC-20 than a ZX81 again.

Game 401: Cavern Fighter


An utterly dreadful clone of Konami's Scramble. The controls, which use the p/l/;/. cluster to move are uncomfortable and I can't image they're much better on a real PET or VIC-20 keyboard. The space bar, when it works, fires missiles and drops bombs at the same time, but with the game's broken collision detection, either are just as likely to pass through your target as they are to hit and you can't fire again until both of them have left the screen.

At least the game's pretty easy... on the easiest setting. Crank it up and it gets near impossible, though only because the speed increases and the controls don't get any more lenient.

GAB rating: Bad.

Game 402: Pharoah's Tomb


This one seems based on Atari's Adventure, though at least it isn't an outright clone in the same sense that Cavern Fighter is. We need to emulate a 16kb RAM expansion to make it work, which can break other VIC-20 games that don't need it. The ingame instructions tell us that we're here to search for the ancient king's magic triangle, buried deep within his trap-filled tomb. Some creatures lurk inside which can cause harm, eventually but not immediately resulting in death. You can also starve if you take too long.

Controls are still the p/l/;/ cluster.,which still isn't great, but less awful for an adventure-type game. Too bad the movement speed is agonizingly slow. I grab the hammer - I'm not exactly sure what it does, but you can carry more than one thing - and go in.

There's a key here, which I get, and what looks like a door, but it won't open. So I keep going north.

A friendly lizard man walks around here. Well okay, he's not that friendly, as prolonged contact will kill you. But maneuver around him, using the stochastic trees to block his path, and you can leave.

To the right is a dark room.

Walking around will probably get you killed. Better not go here yet - go left instead, which takes you through a filler room with more trees, and then to a little maze.

The "Ad" pickup gets you an ad.

Going left enters another dead-end.


That 4,000 year old apple looks tasty, but the door here doesn't open yet. Good thing the door to the right opens. 

That Space Invader paces left and right, and there doesn't seem to be any way to get through without touching it. Thankfully, you pass right through it, but there's no way to query how much damage you take doing this.

Lest this isn't clear enough, your movement speed is slow, and the controls are sluggish and unresponsive. Getting through this one screen alone takes more than a minute.

Huh, this looks familiar.

Inside the castle is another junction.

Here, both doors will open, but you don't want to go into the room in the upper-left. It fills with sand, burying you. To the right is another dead-end.

The door here doesn't open yet. So we go north instead.

It's a lamp, I think. I grab it, and continue west through these caves, past a room with an easily avoided bat, and into a chamber beyond.

I have no idea what that blue thing is supposed to be, but the door here opens, so I take it. And begin the long, slow walk back to the dark room near the pyramid entrance.

Thanks to the lamp (I think), we can see it's full of holes. And more holes open up as you walk around - if one randomly opens up right underneath your feet, or they open up in a manner that makes it impossible to return to the door, sucks to be you.

I get the shovel and go back. Carefully. The shovel lets me get that... thing from the room with the sand trap, and then I can open the door in the room with the river and cross to the right.

I grab the key here.

Now, do I go into the room up north, or do I go back and see what this key can unlock?

I try the new mystery room first.

Ok, what happens if I grab the '?' pickup?

Of course. I get surrounded by frickin' lasers is what happens. Touching them kills you.

But getting the key and backtracking isn't any better. Not now.

You should have packed a lunch, Birmingham Smith.

I have no idea how to get any farther and I don't care. This adventure sucks.

GAB rating: Bad.

Game 403: Skramble

That disclaimer is rich coming from this game.


We're back to Scramble clones again - seems there were a lot of U.K. Scramble clones called Skramble, but this one is Anirog's, and this time the lead platform is the Commodore 64. At least I think it is - a VIC-20 version was also released the same year, but the C64 version is credited to Darrell Etherington, the author of the original Cavern Fighter.


And it's actually fairly competent! Or at least it seems that way compared to Etherington's last version. It's smooth for a computer game, though not quite arcade smooth. You still fire missiles and drop bombs with the same button, but at least this version is joystick compatible, and the collision detection works fine.

Skramble is not a challenging game - it has no difficulty options, and I beat the initial six-stage loop on my first try and didn't feel like continuing. It's also a nearly 1:1 replica of Scramble - itself not the most challenging arcade game of its day - right down to the stage layouts and the final challenge of bombing a tricky target by the "Anirog" headquarters. Not one iota of gameplay is original here, folks, giving me not much to talk about.

GAB rating: Average.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Game 400: Twinbee

Going a bit out of order here, TwinBee, not Gradius, was the first game that Konami developed for their Bubble System arcade board. Unlike Gradius, it has a proper two player mode. I wanted to play it with "B" in order to cover properly, but illness, weather, and more illness delayed this session, and therefore, this post.

TwinBee, much like Capcom's debut Vulgus from the year before, is a vertical shooter that draws mainly from Xevious. If anything, it copies the formula more closely, bringing back secondary air-to-surface bombs, which are guided with generous aim assistance instead of an onscreen reticle. Some of the enemy movement patterns, like the shot-evading strawberry ships, and shot-blocking spinning baseball bats downright rip off Xevious! And yet it plays quite differently, thanks to a powerup system based around colored bells, anticipating the more advanced Gradius system to follow.


I'll say this up front - TwinBee is better than Vulgus, but it isn't half as good as Xevious, even with a two player co-op mode. The sense of progression and difficulty just isn't there - the six stages get faster and busier, but they just feel randomly designed and repetitive, with little to distinguish one stretch of gameplay from another. Ground targets aren't nearly as big a factor as in Xevious, and there are no targets of opportunity that tempt you to go out of your way to bomb them for extra points. And apart from the Twinbee sprites, the pastel-colored visuals aren't imbued with much personality beyond "cute." Though the music's not bad.

At least, unlike Vulgus, there are bombs to add some variety, and there's a cute little mechanic involving them - if you get a hand shot off, your bomb power is cut in half, and if both hands are shot off, you lose bombs entirely until you touch an ambulance powerup, which restores both of your hands. Also, in co-op, you and your partner can hold hands, which turns your shots into powerful giant bullets, though doing this also makes you a double-wide target until you separate.

The biggest issue, much like in Gradius to come, lies with the powerup system, which both "B" and I found frustrating and confusing. Shooting clouds sometimes spawns yellow bells, which can be juggled and eventually changed into powerups by shooting them repeatedly - every five shots changes it to a non-yellow color corresponding to an ability; blue for speed, red for shields, white for double shots, and green for screen-clearing options. A sixth shot, far too easy to do by accident with a stray bullet, changes it back to yellow. Counting the shots on each bell is pretty futile, especially once you get a fire powerup of your own and shoot multiple bullets per discharge - it's better, though still very difficult, to just hold your fire once you see a color you want and grab it while avoiding enemies and their bullets.

Make no mistake, you need powerups to survive for very long. And if you do survive long, one hit will ruin your day, just like in Gradius. You lose everything, and with your pitiful default speed, you don't have much of a chance of surviving in the later levels long enough to color-cycle and snag the powerups that you so desperately need. It's not quite as murderously difficult as Gradius, but it's still far too unforgiving.

One clever bit of design is that the yellow bells are worth big points with consecutive pickups, eventually earning you extra lives. But the extra lives don't help much if you can't survive for more than a few seconds on a fresh Twinbee, so doing this is mostly about the points.

"B" absolutely preferred Gradius over Twinbee, citing his frustration with Twinbee's bells, his difficulty in seeing the bullets on Twinbee's busy backgrounds, and the repetitive design compared to Gradius' variety of set pieces. And I'm inclined to agree with these points, though the insane difficulty of Gradius harms my estimation of it.

I played one-player for a little while to see if I could get any farther, and I could, but it's difficult; solo mode disallows continues. I did find I lasted longer when I made an effort to collect red bells for shields, and to avoid the green bells for options, which are mutually exclusive. Making the screen bullet hell for your enemies is cool, but shields let you take hits without dying and losing everything and are renewable, and you can collect a three-way splitter gun from certain ground targets anyway. In fact, the game gets rather easy with the shield and splitter combo, a least until your shield runs out. Then you scramble to get a new red bell to replace it before you take another hit.

In my best run, the shield ran out just before I made it to the final boss, where I got hit and died. And then, having no opportunity to gain any power ups since there were no bells, got hit again and again and lost the rest of my lives.


GAB rating: Average. Konami's first game on the doomed Bubble System isn't much more than a manic Xevious clone with worse craftmanship, way better music, and a very flawed powerup system that would ruin Gradius with its absolutely unforgiving one-hit-and-you-might-as-well-quit feedback loop. The same system doesn't ruin Twinbee quite as badly, but there's less here to ruin.

Friday, March 8, 2024

Final Phantasie

One dungeon left, and it's only a short swim away from the starting town of Pelnor, which I teleported to, after swapping Lenny back into the lead.

I went into the castle, protected from its fear curse by Zeus's rune.

Predictably, black knights guarded the gate. Predictably, I beat them easily.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of black knights guard the rooms here. They aren't much of a threat to an appropriately leveled party with good HP management, but you need magic to kill them efficiently, and this took its toll on my once-substantial potion supply as I explored the castle. Spirits, though less common, proved costlier, often needing multiple casts of the expensive Quadruple Mindblast to kill most of them.

A devil guard

New enemy - Dragon King! He's a wimp, but sits on good treasure.

Never seen that before, but he goes down in round 2 without needing magic.

A dead-end.

But the next one, also guarded by water elemental, teleports me to the southeast corner!

More dead-ends with water elementals.

Checking out the other side, just to be sure.


Before taking the teleporter, I left and returned to Pelnor one last time to heal, save, and level up Minmax, who finally learned Quadruple Quickness, though as of late I had not been relying on Quickness spells very much, preferring to save MP for direct damage spells on monsters resistant to physical harm. The run's loot, sadly, had been nothing but pointless gold and gems, and only four magic potions remained.

I returned and took the teleporter, and advanced through the stone passage it took me to. An entrance to the throne room was at the end of it.

Yup, more black knights!


Three chairs sat at the north end.

I smashed the center one, and walked through the secret passage to the north, where The Black Lord fired a warning shot.

"That tickles!" - Minmax

I kept going, and he fired a few more lightning bolts at premarked spots through the corridor, until I caught up with him at the end of it.

Obviously, I picked option 1 here.

I went north first, after the wand. The ground trembled again.

I waved it, and found myself teleported.

A scroll sits on a pedestal in one corner. An old man sits in the other.

Of course I want to fight!

He awaits at the end of the fissure.

And like a palooka, he goes down in round one from a mere two castings of Quadruple Fireflash. Doesn't even get a chance to hurt us.


We are magically whisked away to Olympus.

I have to fight a few more orcs and trolls to get back to town, where the gifts are a gold fox, gold ox, and gold box.

I wasn't kidding.

The scroll I picked up is nowhere to be seen, but as for the "divine spell," everyone in the party has a unnamed new spell; #60. I cannot determine what it does.

But I was able to retrieve the scroll - and the wand too - by returning to the final dungeon, where the dungeon state had not been committed to disk, repeating the ending sequence up to the point of finding the scroll and then leaving when given the chance.

The game doesn't stop, but for all intents and purposes, it's over. If Phantasie has any remaining secrets worth discovering, then by all means let me know, but otherwise I'm done.

I think, in retrospect, that priests are the best class in the game. With MP reserves as high as wizards, access to powerful healing magic, as well as the most powerful direct damage spell, and okay melee combat, not to mention an array of debuff spells, why use anything else? Okay, so you need to have transport magic too - a monk or a wizard can fill that role. A thief might also be necessary - I never had the opportunity to see if my monk's thieving skills were adequate, and backstabbing is a nice perk. But if I were to replay, I'd try a team of five priests and a monk.


GAB rating: Average. Phantasie is mechanically fine and decently paced, if a bit simplistic and sometimes flawed. It is probably the most casually accessible RPG I've covered yet - it isn't brutally unforgiving like Wizardry, and gameplay is more streamlined than Ultima. In some ways it feels like a lost missing link between those games and Final Fantasy. But it's ultimately too shallow to really merit much of a recommendation.

The best aspect, by far, are the dungeons, which are dense with special encounters, events, and puzzles, and are attractively designed, feeling like they could be actual game world locations rather than the abstract mazes seen in Wizardry, Ultima, or the majority of RPGs out there, really. I don't think I've seen this sort of mimetic design in any game I've covered yet except the Temple of Apshai series, which were a lot more primitive, and the room descriptions in the manual did a lot of heavy lifting there.

But the connective tissue, which borrows heavily from both Ultima and Wizardry, doesn't do anything as well as either. Combat in particular just doesn't offer the sort of tactical depth it ought to; even though it seems to have more options than Wizardry, most of the spells are either useless or clearly inferior to other spells, and they cannot target specific monster groups, robbing the game of a whole tactical dimension. Of the five melee options, I got by on "slash" most of the time, followed by "thrust" against monsters that were difficult to hit. "Lunge," the most tactically interesting option, was only useful once in the entire game. I don't think this is just because of how overpowered my party became either; with weaker characters I'd have done the same things, and just needed to go back to town more often. Gear is nothing but a one-dimensional numbers game - banded plate rated 8 beats ring mail rated 7 provided you have enough strength to equip it, and there are no other properties to consider.

The Ultima-style overworld doesn't quite capture the joy of Ultima-style exploration either. Other than finding the dungeon entrances, the three magic pools, and the one-time trip to Olympus, there's nothing to discover here except for eleven identical towns and some featureless inns. The sluggish movement speed (on Apple II anyway) and constant interruptions for random combat encounters not only made exploration a tedious chore, but even made walking short distances to known landmarks a tedious chore. Ultima could be tedious too, but its world had always been ambitious, and by Ultima III it offered a grandiose world dense with meaningful content. Phantasie just doesn't reach for the stars like that.

Phantasie is overall functional, and mostly inoffensive, but we've seen better.

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