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Jumpman Review

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You wouldn’t know it at face value, but you’re on a mission to defuse bombs on another world. A world of bombs, killer robots, and a lethal pixel. In addition to a host of other horrific adversaries. It all sounds like a side scrolling action platformer or run ‘n gun. But you’d be wrong. Jumpman is one of the strangest, yet greatest puzzle games ever made. Debuting on the Atari 8-bit family of computers, it appeared on the Commodore 64 soon after, along with the IBM PC, and Apple II.

PROS: Excellent gameplay. Fun animation. Great musical numbers.

CONS: Bland graphics.

APOGEE: The Duke Nukem publisher felt the ire of Epyx.

Jumpman may seem a bit esoteric today, but there was a time when he was almost as popular as Bomberman. That’s because he starred in two of the most fun arcade puzzle games to ever grace a computer screen. As I mentioned at the start, the storyline of the game doesn’t accurately describe what is going on at face value. You really have to start playing the game before you realize that it does.

The goal of Jumpman is easy to grasp. Defuse all of the bombs in the level before losing all of your lives for big points. If you manage to do this, you’ll move onto the next level. You’ll also get bonus points for having more Jumpmen in reserve. So a high performance level is key. Created by Randy Glover, and released by Epyx, there is a wonderful use of the easy to learn, lifetime to master principles behind many great games.

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The game eases you in, with a couple of pretty simple to understand levels. You’ll go about your goal of defusing bombs, and slowly notice changes to a given stage. Pieces of scenery disappear, creating new gaps to jump over. A floating pixel will chase you down, and kill you if you get in its line of sight. But the obstacles only increase as you complete levels. It isn’t long before you see killer robots that change position every time you defuse a bomb. Or a plethora of bombs falling from the sky. Or flying saucers. Or rabid bats. Sometimes the challenges aren’t adversaries. Sometimes they’re things like moving ladders or other scenery.

Every one of these attempts to impede you can be overcome with enough practice. Over time, you begin to recognize patterns, and figure out what you’re supposed to do. But it doesn’t become a cakewalk, because actually doing what you’re supposed to still requires dexterity. When you clear a level, you’ll hear one of a multitude of cheery carnival tunes. These go along with the circus-like feel of the game’s introduction animation.

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Jumpman gives you nine lives to get through the stages. You can choose from several difficulty settings which will start at a stage where the appropriate difficulty jump occurs. You can also select Grand Loop which does all 30 levels in a row. Or you can choose the Randomizer, which plays the levels in a random order. Beyond that, you can also choose a game speed. The center value of 4 will run the game at the standard speed. The max speed of 8 is probably too fast for all but the most devoted player, and the minimum speed of 1 makes the game exceptionally slow. The speed setting is a nice option though because it can make the game a bit more interesting. The game can also be played by up to four players alternating turns.

Visually, Jumpman isn’t much to look at.  stages are made of simple shapes, and a handful of colors. Jumpman himself, is little more than a stick figure. But the gameplay in Jumpman is amazing. Moving about the levels is very smooth, and the controls are tight. One interesting thing the game does is allow Jumpman to climb anything he touches. If you go for a jump, and your hand nabs part of the scenery, you’ll climb it! There are also some cool navigational variables thrown in, in the form of ropes. Green ropes can only be climbed up, while blue ropes can only be climbed down. Between this, and the other mechanics introduced through enemy character types Jumpman becomes surprisingly deep for such a simple game.

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There are a few minor differences between the different versions of Jumpman. The original Atari 400/800 version features some really slick transition animations between levels as you clear them. It also has a pretty cool stage destruction sequence when you run out of lives, and get a Game Over.  The Commodore 64 version has a little bit more detail in the graphics department. It gives our hero a shirt, and pants through some simple colors. The music sounds a tiny bit better too. It is missing the stage transitions, and if you lose you don’t see the level explode. Instead, you get a harmonious musical number as the backgrounds, and characters slowly become the same color.

Over on the Apple II, you won’t see the transitions. Visually, it’s somewhere between the Atari, and Commodore computers. It has the Commodore’s background colors, but the Atari’s blank Jumpman. The IBM PC port was outsourced to another developer. It pretty much plays the same as the other versions although the terrible PC speaker sound, and CGA color scheme make it the worst in terms of visuals, and sound.

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Jumpman was also followed up by Jumpman Junior, which is really a companion version of the game. It was made for Commodore 64, and Atari 8-bit users who didn’t have a 5.25″ Floppy drive. Being a cartridge game makes it one of the more sought after games for collectors. It’s pretty much exactly the same game as Jumpman, except it has only 12 stages. At the time cartridges didn’t have as much storage capacity as the floppies, and cassettes did. Still, for many retro fans,  it isn’t the full Jumpman experience unless you have both games. It was never available for other computer formats, although it was ported to the Colecovision.

Long after Randy Glover left the game industry, A programmer named Dave Sharpless ported the game, and it’s expandalone to MS-DOS under the title Jumpman Lives! The game was published by Apogee in 1991. The thing is, that while Epyx had long been a shell of its former self, it was still around. The remake caught the ire of Epyx, and Apogee would cease selling it immediately. Epyx wouldn’t be around much longer though, after getting out of bankruptcy, and focusing on Atari Lynx development the company was sold off, and dissolved.  Jumpman Lives! Is a fairly rare computer game as a result.

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In the end, Jumpman, and Jumpman Jr. are games that really deserve more recognition than they get. At least when compared with other retro games. Things may look more like a carnival than a space station, and the bombs may look more like flowers. But once you get past the rudimentary look of everything you’ll be engrossed in one of the most addictive puzzlers of all time. If you can find the original floppy disk, the cartridge based companion edition, or even the unlicensed, unofficial, Apogee remake, give it a go. Jumpman Junior was also included in the C64 DTV, as well as the recent Colecovision Flashback by AtGames. So if you don’t have one of these old computers or consoles, there are other legitimate ways to add this masterful game to your collection in some capacity.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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Beach Head II: The Dictator Strikes Back Review

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These days, there are all kinds of wonderful death match experiences. From Rise Of The Triad onward, First-person shooters have given players hours of competitive multiplayer. But back in the golden age, not as many games did this. Oh sure, there was the quest for the high score. However, many games had you on the same side, or alternating turns while competing for points. But when Beach Head came out it had a novel idea. Combining several games resulting in a really fun campaign. The sequel took that idea on step further.

PROS: Well crafted. As fun today, as it was when it came out years ago.

CONS: Last stage can go on too long between two great players.

MEDIC: The voice samples are some of the most memorable quips in a video game.

Beach Head II is one of the best competitive multiplayer games ever made. Released two years after the original game, it made one little change to its formula. This completely changed the dynamics of the game in this sequel. Instead of alternating turns, this game casts one player as the heroic army, and the other player as the dictator’s evil forces. The core concept is intact. There are a set number of scenes, each acting as its own arcade style game. Once that game is played, things move onto the next game, and so on. This tapestry of games, makes for an overall campaign, and storyline. Beach Head takes place during World War II. But the setting in this sequel is more contemporary.

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The first stage is an invasion. Player one air drops a squadron onto the shore, and from here they have to storm the Bastille. Player two has to do everything in their power to keep the heroes from getting inside, by using a giant turret. As the second player fires down upon the walls, the first player has to move combatants one by one, to the entrance. They can scale walls, or run down toward the next set. If they get to the bottom, they’ll succeed.  The more combatants they can get down to the bottom the better prepared for the following stage. This is also the moment you’ll see something else that makes the game memorable. This is one of the earliest computer games that implemented voice samples.

When one of the allied combatants get shot, it plays one of four samples. These are looped so the deaths will vocalize the same pattern of phrases. Even still, these are pretty great for the time, and are still pretty memorable. There are other samples that play in later stages too. Now one may think the odds are against the allied forces, and they are. But the heroes can throw grenades at the dictator’s turret. A successful throw will destroy it for big points, and the soldier will make it in, as a replacement turret spawns in.

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Stage two sees the allies taking control of the turret, and firing into the dictator’s military installation. Here the object is to provide prisoners cover as they try to shuffle along, and escape. The person playing dictator, can summon tanks, combat jeeps, a bomb expert to set traps, and even a guy on a roof dropping rocks onto the prisoner. Points are awarded to the allies for every successful rescue, while the dictator gets points for successfully murdering prisoners.

The third stage is a helicopter escape mission. The allied player loads the chopper with liberated soldiers, and attempts to get away. It’s a shmup level, but the dictator can control the many vehicles in an attempt to shoot down the chopper. If they’re successful the round starts again, with the allies trying to shuttle out any remaining prisoners. Obviously the allies get huge bonus points if they can successfully dodge all of the dictator’s assaults.

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The final stage sees the leader of the allies facing off against the dictator himself. Each on a pier facing each other. They throw knives at each other. After landing a few hits the victor will see their opponent fall into the sea. This battle goes on for ten matches. This is where the game’s one major flaw comes into play. The final battle can go on far too long. Once you have two evenly matched players, they can easily duck out, sidestep, and otherwise dodge dagger throws. A 30 minute match up of fun, can quickly become a several hour affair due to the last battle. In hindsight Access Software should have made this a two out of three falls match.

Be that as it may, the final battle is still a lot of fun thanks in part to the nice animation, and splendid sound samples. Hearing the dictator exclaim “YOU CAN’T HURT ME!” is a pretty rewarding experience. Once all of the modes are done, the final score is tallied letting you know which army was victorious.

Aside from the voice samples, the sound effects are really good. Explosions, gun fire, and other sounds are all a cut above most other games of the time. There is also a really nice chip tune of the US Marines theme song. Visually the game still holds up pretty nicely. The sprites all have a great use of shading techniques to portray details. And while not every thing is graphically impressive, it does an awful lot, with a little.

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Now in addition to the full on campaign, you can play the individual stages instead. This is nice if you really enjoy a specific level more than the other ones. But for most who go back, and play this one, going through the campaign together is really what makes things fun. One can also play through the game on their own as the allies. There are three difficulty levels, and the higher you go the more punishing it is. The highest difficulty is notoriously difficult, as the computer will rarely make a mistake. If you have nobody to play it with, it’s a fun ride. But the real entertainment comes from competing with a friend. I spent many Saturdays, and afternoons playing this with my brother, and friends from school back in the 80’s. It was one of the most fun multiplayer experiences on the Commodore 64.

But Beach Head II was also published on other computers of the time. If you collect for the Apple II or Atari 400/800 line, you can also find this game for those platforms. If you happen to live in Europe, you can also find versions for the Amstrad CPC, and the ZX Spectrum. No matter how you play it though, this is one awesome head to head game worth picking up if you have the chance.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns Review

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Last week we looked at one of the most important games in history. It was one of the first platformers. One of the best early console, and home computer games. It was also one of the best games to debut on the seminal Atari 2600.  So a sequel was only natural. Unfortunately, the great video game industry crash meant that a lot of people never got to play it when it came out. Which is a shame because once again, David Crane’s Pitfall Harry, performed a few more major firsts.

PROS: Improved visuals, added music, effects, and more!

CONS: In some ways, this is an easier game.

SCORPIONS: Even deadlier now thanks to a glitch.

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns is not only one of the best games on the Atari 2600, it is one of the most memorable experiences to come out of the golden age of video games. This is partly due to it being one of the earliest games to have features we take for granted today. The object of Pitfall II is also a little bit different here. In the first game, you’re trying to figure out a path through a jungle that will lead you to all of its treasures. All under a time limit, on two lives. All while doing it in the shortest time possible, with the least amount of mistakes.

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In Pitfall II, Pitfall Harry has to find a very specific diamond ring, as well as rescue his niece Rhonda, and pet mountain lion Quickclaw who have gotten themselves trapped in a cavern. These characters were first introduced in the Pitfall cartoon. So their appearance in this game could make the show canon. At least in the eyes of some. Gameplay is built off of the core of the first Pitfall. You still have a flip-screen mechanic when going left to right. But when going vertically the game adds scrolling into the mix.

It isn’t even something you question. It just feels like a natural extension of the game play. While you won’t be swinging over ponds, tar pits, and jumping on crocodile or alligator heads you still look for treasure. Sure, saving your relative, pet, and getting that diamond are the main goal. But if you want any hope of a perfect score you need to find every last gold bar too. Pitfall II also introduces a checkpoint system.

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These days, many games have checkpoints. But back in the days of names like Atari, Coleco, and Commodore the concept was rare. On home computer platforms you could save your progress in some RPGs. or your high score in some arcade ports. But checkpoints were especially rare on computers. They were non-existent on consoles. The fact you don’t have to start the entire game over if you make a mistake in this game was sorcery at the time. It also doesn’t have a count down, which may make you calmer.

Still, the one drawback to checkpoints in Pitfall II is that it makes the game much easier. There are also unlimited lives. So really it is impossible to lose. As long as you can get to the three main targets you can beat the game. To alleviate this sticking point, the game still has a monetary punishment for mistakes. You see, like its predecessor you lose a lot of money if you have to go back to a checkpoint. In fact, the further ahead of the last checkpoint you touched (a small cross on the ground you walk over), the more money you’ll lose. You also lose money if you fall, and land on your feet. So if you miss a jump, and land two or three levels lower (you can change your trajectory a few pixels by trying to move as you fall) your score gets lighter. You gain money for finding gold bars. You gain money for hitting each of your three metrics.

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Though there may not be a clock winding down to a Game Over for you should it get to zero, there is a clock. The game times you for your overall performance in hitting your three metrics. Which makes Pitfall II a speed runner’s challenge. Whereas before, the challenge was getting it all done in less than a half-hour making no mistakes. Now it’s about finding every last bar of gold, your ring, pet, and niece in the quickest time possible. Also without making any mistakes. Because you want to be the one with a perfect score in the shortest amount of time.

So while beating Pitfall II is easier than beating Pitfall, Pitfall II is actually harder when you put the restrictions of a speed runner on yourself. Because the dangers are not very easy to avoid. The very first enemy you run into will dash your hopes. If you fall into a hole early on you’ve missed the first bar of gold, and a perfect score. Playing the game with the mindset of a classic gaming champion can potentially keep you playing this game for years.

Visually the game sees a respectable jump over the first game. Little graphical details like the indents, and grooves on a boulder pop up immediately. The wider variety in enemies is also noticeable quickly. There are killer birds that I’m convinced were analyzed deeply by Konami’s designers. Because Castlevania’s Medusa heads fly in an eerily similar pattern. You also have bats to deal with, electric eels, and of course the classic mutant scorpions that are just as big as Pitfall Harry.

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And little glitches don’t break the game but add new challenges. If you climb a ladder to find there are scorpions above, and below you sometimes being in just the right place on the ladder will make them pace right where you need to climb off of the ladder. Sometimes the wave in the pattern of the flying birds may change, meaning you have to quickly realize where the arcs in it have moved to.

Of course, Pitfall II let’s you explore at your own pace. So when you’re first starting out, you may miss the diamond ring, or Rhonda on your first pass. Congratulations. The game doesn’t end, a little creature forces you out of Quickclaw’s cowering space. Now you have to go explore again. If you do beat the game, Harry jumps about with excitement as the theme song speeds up again.

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Speaking of music, Pitfall II was such a massive game at the time, that David Crane engineered a sound chip that is embedded in every copy of Pitfall II. The game squeezes every last bit of processing power out of the Atari 2600, and to even play music during it, would have been impossible otherwise. So Pitfall II is one of the earliest video games featuring some sort of tech being piggybacked onto its ROM cartridge. Something we wouldn’t see much again for a while. This can almost be seen as a precursor to Nintendo’s MMC chips used in some NES Game Paks.

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns was also ported to a wide variety of platforms. The Commodore 64 version is one of the better known versions being redone from the ground up by Tim Shotter. The end result is a nearly 1:1 experience compared with the 2600 version. The Atari 800 version, and Atari 5200 version were given an additional subtitle called Adventurer’s Edition because the coder Mike Lorenzen added an entire bonus cavern as well as a second ending for those who beat the game, and then beat the bonus cavern.

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These versions look a little bit closer to the 2600 version than the C64 version does, though the C64 version gets a slight edge in the audio thanks to the superior sound processing power of its SID chip. Pitfall II also saw versions on the Colecovision, Apple II, TRS-80, and the IBM PCjr. One of the most interesting ports of Pitfall II is Sega’s. Sega got the rights from Activision to make their own version of the game for arcades, and for the SG-1000 console in Japan. This version is less a Pitfall II port, and more of a blend of Pitfall, and Pitfall II: Lost Caverns.

Of course every one of these ports has its own charm but the Atari 2600 original stands out due to its historical significance. That said, if you collect games for any of the platforms it appeared on, Pitfall II is a game you should pick up, and play.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Pitfall! Review

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To some, this is going to seem pointless. To others, there may be a bit of intrigue. David Crane was one of the original pioneers at Activision. Long before it was the behemoth it is today. It started life, as one of the original indie studios. Looking to come up with something original on the biggest console of the early 80’s, Pitfall! became one of the biggest hits to ever grace a system of the era.

PROS: A classic that still holds up today.

CONS: Some versions don’t have the most responsive controls.

GATORS: Nearly four decades later, they’re still one of gaming’s most nefarious enemies.

Pitfall! was a smash hit. It spawned numerous product tie-ins, and even a Saturday morning cartoon. When you play it, it is easy to see why. The setting was something different. Instead of a high-action arcade game, Pitfall! is a platformer that takes place in a jungle. You play as Pitfall Harry, and his goal is very simple. You need to find 32 treasures within a half-hour. On three lives.

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The thing is, while your goal can easily be surmised in a sentence, actually doing so is very difficult. There are a lot of traps, and obstacles set up to impede or completely derail your progress. Barrels slow you down, most everything else will kill you. Unattended camp fires, snakes, all add up to the pressure. Two of the game’s key enemies are some of the most iconic. The trademark scorpions, and the alligators. You can cross lakes by jumping on their heads when their mouths are closed. If they’re open, you’re getting eaten, unless you happen to land on their eyes. Scorpions show up in the underground areas, and take a lot of practice jumping over.

Each screen presents you with a challenge to overcome. Some are non-existent, displaying only a couple of holes, and a ladder. Others are the aforementioned lakes, tar pits, and deadly creatures. There are no maps. You have to go out on your own, exploring the jungle screens until you find a treasure. Gold bars, silver bars, rings, bags of money, all waiting to be claimed.You’ll notice that there aren’t any weapons, or attacks in this game. The only thing you’re doing is running, jumping, climbing ladders, and swinging on the occasional vine. Which lets out a chip tune of the Tarzan chant.

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But despite the fact you’re really only given two commands, you’ll find the game has a bit of complexity. Aside from the challenges of the many traps, is the use of the underground tunnel system. Using the underground paths will take you three screens left or right, rather than the usual one. There are also brick walls placed to keep players from abusing this fact. This also brings about an overall puzzle to the game: Finding the proper path. You have only thirty minutes to clear the game. So unless you’re going to look for a walk through online, you’re going to play the game many times to figure it out. Even once you figure it out, it doesn’t make the game easy to complete. You still have to make each jump count.

But the rabbit hole goes even deeper. Because every treasure type you collect gives you its own specific point value. Every mistake you make that doesn’t cost you lives, costs you points. Fall down a pit, lose points. Touch a barrel, lose points. This means to be truly great at Pitfall! Not only must you have a shot at beating the game, you must have a shot at beating it without making any mistakes. Moreover, as quickly as possible. This makes the game one of the earliest speed runnable games in video games. In fact, Activision, Imagic, and others gave out physical rewards to players who could prove themselves contenders. In the case of Pitfall! The best players were sent exclusive iron on patches.  These can fetch a fair amount online when they turn up. In any case, getting a perfect score of 114,000 is easier said than done.

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The Atari 2600 original version of Pitfall! is probably the most impressive due to all of the limitations David Crane worked around to bring the game to life. In his GDC panel six years ago he talked about them, and the 1,000 hours of work it took to make. Even if you’re not technically proficient it is a fascinating story to hear.  The 2600 version also plays spectacularly well, has very responsive controls, and is easily one of the best games on the system.

But there were other versions that came after. The Intellivision port is very similar, with a minor bump in graphical fidelity. It retains nearly everything from the 2600 version, though the Intellivision controller is a bit stiff, making some of those split-second timings a bit more difficult to adhere to. As such the game is among the hardest versions. Though it is entirely possible to complete with enough determination.

The Colecovision version has similar controller issues to the Intellivision version, although the visuals are even bumped up more. This version was also used as a reference for the MSX computer port. The Commodore 64 version also looks similar to the Coleco port. But the C64 version has a different color palette, better sound, and more responsive controls. Mainly because it feels similar to the Atari 2600 original.

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The game also ended up on the Atari 400/800 computers, and the 5200 console. These look almost identical to each other. The game controls better on the former, mainly because of the 5200’s notorious controller problems. Finally, there was also a release on the Apple II computer. But despite the improvements some of the other versions add in the graphics, or sound departments, the 2600 version seems to have the most responsive controls. It’s also the most common version, making it the least expensive version. It has also been re-released several times over the last 30 years. There were a few Activision Atari 2600 game collections that included the game.

Pitfall! is a true classic that everyone who loves video games should play. It’s as important to the hobby as Space Invaders, Pac-Man, or even Super Mario Bros. are. While later games in the franchise may have tarnished its branding, The original remains among some of the best platformers ever made, with its emphasis on treasure hunting, pixel-perfect timing, and inadvertently becoming one of the earliest examples of speed runs. It’s a timeless game for good reason.

Final Score: 9 out of 10