Tag Archives: Commodore

Commodore 64 mini-guide, and a concert I went to.

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Sorry for being a little bit late this week. I was able to see a fantastic concert for the first time in many moons. I had to take full advantage of that fact. I got to see The Dollyrots for the second time ever (They don’t get out to New England very often), and it was awesome. An area band, Chaser Eight opened for them, and had an absolute killer set. Then the Dollyrots got on stage, and crushed it too. If you’ve never heard either band, and you like rock n’ roll, do check them out. Chaser Eight is pretty great, with elements of Alt-Rock, Glam, and straight up rock. It just works. The Dollyrots on the other hand, are an amazing Pop Punk trio led by Kelly Ogden, and Luis Cabezas. They have a really great blend of the sound of the early Rock groups like The Ronettes, and 1970’s Punk bands like The Ramones. Over the years they’ve grown as musicians but the roots are still apparent. It was a great show. Both bands were very approachable, and kind. They hung out with everyone at the bar after playing for a bit, and visited with fans like family you love, but don’t get to see all of the time. It was awesome. If either comes to your area, go see them. If they’re in your town as you’re reading this, just stop reading, and go see them. What are you waiting around for? Go!

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Okay, you’re back? Good. I hope you had as great a time as I did. Anyway, lately I’ve talked a lot about the mighty Commodore 64, its library, and a great C64 peripheral. It’s one of the best platforms of all time. It was sold more than any other computer in its day, and there are a plethora of great games on it. With those, the demo scene, and even a few great bands using its sound chip, you may have thought about getting one. As a lifelong fan of the computer, I can point to some facts, and information you’ll need to know if you’re going to collect for the C64. Now this isn’t going to be the most in-depth look at the platform. There are books that go into the detailed information over the course of several hundred pages for that sort of thing. But these are some key things to look for, and some things to be aware of. There may even be a few things that intrigue a casual reader. So feel free to read on.

First of all, there were a few models. The first version is often called the bread bin model. This came in a couple of variants. The silver label variant is the earliest version, and is sought after by the most devoted Commodore fans. These have the logo in a silver style paint. The drawback with this variant is it has a 5 pin DIN connector for video, where the later models (which had a rainbow of colors next to the logo) used an 8 pin DIN connector for video. Later models also added support for S-Video which is a major jump over the stock RF cable, and switch box that all models can use. The image will be much cleaner, and clearer. Provided of course you track down one of the cables.  After the bread bin model, Commodore released the C64c, which has many of the same updates as the rainbow variant of the bread bin. It also has a couple of chip refinements, and a redesigned bezel.  It should also be noted that while you gain the S-Video, and slightly better power connector in later models, you lose the ceramics for heat reduction on chips. To remedy this, later models have a metal shield inside to draw some heat, but this still isn’t always an effective solution. In Europe some later models didn’t have a metal shield, but a metal coated cardboard one, which trapped heat in some cases.

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Aside from the revisions to the standard Commodore 64, there were alternate versions altogether. The SX-64 was one of the earliest portable computers, as it had a built-in screen, and floppy drive. These things weigh a good 20 lbs. though, so they’re not portable in the sense you’re used to.  In Japan, there was a short-lived version of the C64 called the Commodore MAX. But this cut some functionality. So it didn’t compete on the games or business end, and quickly disappeared. There was also the C64 Game System. But this cut out all of the computer aspects of the computer to play cartridge games. Unfortunately this also broke compatibility with most of the game library as by 1990, the best titles were on tape or diskette.  All three of these variants are considered collector’s items. But unless you just have to have a conversation piece in your collection, I would focus on a regular C64 instead. These alternate versions can also be expensive.

The one noteworthy alternate Commodore 64 is the Commodore 128. This doubled the amount of memory in the computer, and could run all of the C64 software. The catch is it has to be run in C64 mode, as some of the revisions to the hardware led to some incompatibility in 128 mode. But the 128 did well with business, and productivity users, as there were applications that did take advantage of the extra memory. There were two versions, the standard C128, and the C128D. The latter made the keyboard an external peripheral, and included a built-in 1571 floppy diskette drive. The C128D can get expensive as a result, as finding one with a working drive is getting harder.

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There are a couple of risks involved when getting into the platform. But these can be mitigated if you’re wise enough to do a couple of simple things. First, when you find a potential C64 purchase, confirm it is working. If it’s a store, they should be willing to hook it up, and confirm it’s operational. Second, make certain the Power Supply Unit not only works, but is in great shape. The PSU actually has two rails inside. One powers the motherboard, and most of the system, while the other powers the sound chip. As a means to control costs, it is encased in a resin material. However there’s a chance even a working PSU can overheat. Depending on the problem, a bad PSU can fry components inside the computer. That’s why it’s imperative you get a plug-in as pristine condition as possible. You’ll want to make sure it sits out in the open where heat can escape, and if you’re paranoid, you can always have a small desk fan blowing on it. Also keep in mind some of the later bread bin releases may have heat issues from the cost reduced RF shield. These are mostly in PAL territory releases. But again, keeping things cool can help mitigate a problem.

With that out-of-the-way, you’ll want to start gaming. But what else will you need? This depends a bit on what territory you’re in, and whether or not you plan to do any importing. Since I’m in the US, I’ll focus on that, but I’ll touch a bit on other parts of the world in a bit. When the C64 arrived on the scene, games for it started out on cartridge. They had about as much space as the ones found on consoles that were out at the time. Not every user had an external drive right away either, so it made sense for publishers to put games on cartridges. Some of the earliest software also came on cartridges, and this even includes diagnostic software, which may or may not work depending on the hardware issue. If applicable you can turn on the computer with a diagnostic cartridge, and it will let you run simple tests to determine if a chip has gone bad.  But this isn’t always a sure thing, since some hardware failures won’t give you anything other than the blackness of space on your screen. More on that later.

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So a lot of the earliest stuff was out on cartridge. Activision ported many of its console games to the C64 including H.E.R.O., Beamrider, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, and River Raid. But there were a number of great games on cartridge. Eventually however, publishers found alternatives that gave developers more space at a lower cost. The first of these were cassette tapes. Games, and other programs could be published on audio cassettes. These were also cheap, and so many titles started being released on cassette.

In order to run these programs you’ll need a datasette drive. These are basically old school cassette decks. If you want an in-depth look at how these worked, I highly recommend this video from the 8-Bit Guy. In European territories this is the format nearly all of the biggest titles came on, due to the lower production costs. There is one thing for newcomers to be aware of though, and that’s long load times. A lot of larger games on tape can take minutes to load. In the grand scheme of things it isn’t that big a deal. Even today’s console games can take eons to load if you’re playing them off disc, rather than installing them. Still, if you’re short on patience, you’ll need to learn to gather some if you need to run a game off of cassette.

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In North America, prices of writable media began to fall after a while though, and so many games began the move to 5.25″ Floppy Diskettes. these eliminated the storage concerns for a long time. When they cropped up again, many developers simply made games that took multiple disks to get through. To play these games you’ll need a 1541 or a 1541-II floppy diskette drive. There were a few aftermarket drives as well like The Enhancer 2000. In the USA, nearly every notable game came on floppy diskette. Even games that were previously released on cartridge or cassette tape. Most games released on floppy take a lot less time to load over cassette releases. However they’re not quite as fast as one would hope due to a slow port speed. To help with this, there are a number of Fast Loader cartridges you can get. These take some of the load off, and do shave some time off of loading. Again, 8-Bit Guy has a great video on the specifics of how this worked that I won’t go into here. Just know, that an Epyx Fast Load cartridge, or equivalent is something you want if you’re going to play games on Floppy Diskettes.

Once you have all of those in order, you’ll probably want to look into controllers. Most games took advantage of joysticks, though many also had keyboard binds. Almost any controller with a DB9 connector will fit the ports. Atari 2600 joysticks, Sega Genesis pads, and so on. However, it is NOT recommended you use a Sega Genesis pad, because the Sega Genesis pad draws more power than the controller ports need, so there is the chance you can blow a controller port in the process. So it’s best to stick to controllers built with either the C64, or Atari 2600 in mind. My controller of choice is the Slik Stik by Suncom. But there are no shortage of joystick options. Note that some games still utilized two button schemes, at a time when nearly all controllers were one button controllers. The work around most developers went with, was using the space bar.  Depending on the title it may take a little getting used to. In slower paced games it’s rarely a problem, in action games, you’ll want the joystick right in front of the computer so you can easily press the space bar when you need to.

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Now the thing to remember is, this is still a computer platform. So you can do more than game on it. In fact if you’re willing to learn the Commodore variant of BASIC, you can code your own homebrew games for the machine. Which a lot of people did. So you may even have fun tracking down old, defunct Commodore 64 themed magazines. Some of them have been archived like the entire run of Ahoy!. Not only do you get the sensation you feel when looking at an old Nintendo Power, you get programs. Long before the advent of getting a CD full of demos with your game magazine, computer magazines had program articles. You could type in these programs, save them to a diskette, and run them whenever you wanted. Many of them were written entirely in BASIC, although some were written in machine language, and you typed them into a HEX editor program. But you could save them to diskette! Some of these were really good too, like Mystery At Mycroft Mews, where you had to go around a town as detectives, solve murders, and bring the right suspect to trial.

Aside from gaming, there are a wealth of old productivity, and business programs you can find, but honestly, they’re not really going to be much value beyond the history. It is nice to see the original Print Shop in action, or some of the word processors of the time. But you’re probably not going to send your masterpiece novel to a literary agent on a 5.25″ Floppy these days. Still, you can still find old dot matrix printers, and the ribbons though they’re getting scarce.

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But in the more interesting range you can find things like the Koala pad, which is one of the earliest graphics tablets. You could draw with a stylus, and save your art to diskette. There were a bunch of clones that came afterward. But if you draw on a modern Wacom graphics tablet, and wonder where the earliest versions of the tech came from, their infancy took place on 8-bit home computers. You can also find the original 300 baud modems, that let users connect to services like Quantum Link back then (LazyGameReviews did a wonderful video on that service.) But these days, there are homebrew network cards, and browsers tinkerers can invest in.

One of the craziest things I have in my collection is the Hearsay 1000. A cartridge, and software combo that reads whatever you type, back to you. In a kind of creepy robot voice. The software is far from perfect, it doesn’t account for pronunciation, so it can only read things as they are spelled. So if you type in the name “Barbara” it will say it back as “Bar-Bar-A”. But this is where stuff like Dragon Naturally Speaking got its start. Building off of this early tech, or properly doing what it was trying to. If you find a Hearsay 1000, don’t use it while playing games with voice samples. It will yell “HEARSAY ONE THOUSAND!”, and then crash the computer. Then you’ll have to turn it off, disconnect the module, and turn it back on. Then load your game again. Considering you’re going to wait a while for Ghostbusters to load again, best to know that up front.

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Of course not too long ago, I reviewed the SD2EIC. This is a must own peripheral because you can make disk images, or download images of stuff you own to an SD Card. It’s also great if you do happen to have old disks with personal files on them, and want to save those along with your other programs. Plus the load times, are dramatically cut down.

One also needs to take into account the difference between PAL, and NTSC territories If they plan on importing. A lot of really great games including some of the best were exclusive to Europe. While most of these are playable on a North American C64, the speed differences can often lead to all kinds of glitches. Random characters popping up, graphics showing up in grayscale rather than in color, some extreme cases will involve lock ups, and crashes. One can convert their computer via modifying it, but this isn’t recommended if you don’t know your way around altering a circuit board. My advice is to either deal with the glitches if you import a game or follow the purist. Purists will import a PAL C64, peripherals, and either a PAL monitor or else using a scaler with their HDTV to run a native 50 hz signal from the computer. You’ll also want a power converter as the electrical outlets, and standards are different. If you’re in a PAL territory, and you want some of the NTSC exclusives, you’ll see similar issues. So again, purists will want to import an NTSC setup, and use a power converter.

While some of this may get a little complicated, it is worth the plunge. Once you have a fully functional C64 setup, there really isn’t anything else like it.  The unique sound of its sound chip (known as the SID) is popular to this day. The wide, and varied library gets you a large variety of original games, multi platform games, and arcade ports. As is the case with every platform you’ll find a lot of good games, some truly great games, and a fair number of bad ones. I highly recommend visiting Lemon64 for its wealth of information, and its game archive. Plus they have a very helpful community if you do run into issues. Thanks to them I discovered a wonderful hobbyist who does repairs, and builds a lot of high quality homebrew accessories, and power supplies. When my C64c gave me a dreaded Black Screen Of Death last month I got in contact with Ray Carlsen, After some back, and forth messaging I ended up sending him the machine. Having some background in PC repairs, and upgrades I had taken it apart, checked the motherboard, found no bad capacitors. The fuse was intact, and working. I didn’t see any corrosion on chips. But I had no way to test them, and I was stumped. Well he was able to determine I had a minor issue with my power connector, and that my PSU was on its way out. He installed a breaker to prevent the components from frying from a bad PSU. I also ordered one of his homebrew PSUs. When the computer came back, not only was everything working the way it is supposed to, but he somehow got it looking much newer than when I had sent it in. Now he isn’t a traditional business, so he doesn’t do bulk jobs. Don’t go looking to send him 50 broken C64 computers. That isn’t what he is about. But he’ll charge you a fair price to fix a single machine, and take a look at some of his PSU models. With the originals drying up, it can’t hurt to have a spare.

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The Commodore 64 may have been a home computer, but it was one of the most important platforms in video game history. It’s where many games went after the infamous crash in North America, and even after the rise of the NES it still retained a viable market share. In Europe it was also a major contender throughout the 80’s, and 90’s. Although there are some things to be aware of if you want to begin collecting for one, it can be a rewarding experience. Prices fluctuate constantly, but expect to spend between $50 – $150 for a working model with a good PSU. With that alone, you’ll be set for any cartridge games. But chances are you’ll want some of the higher profile releases. A 1541 Floppy drive will set you back about $50. There are deals out there to be had, but many of the cheap ones aren’t tested, so you may be buying a worn out drive. On the budget end though, Datasette drives are fairly inexpensive. So keep an eye out for one of those.

Then, you’ll be ready to pick up some C64 games! Just like on retro consoles, some games are cheap, and common. Some are rare, and expensive. A lot of times you can make out well, by buying lots. A lot of games don’t require anything beyond a floppy diskette, cartridge or cassette. But there are games that have manual protection. So do some research on a title before you buy it. For example, you’ll want to look for complete copies of certain RPGs as they require a code wheel, or manual as a means of copy protection. (IE: Type in the first word in the third paragraph on page 13.) Plus it’s nice to have the manuals, and keyboard overlays for flight sims, RPGs, or point, and click adventure games. Action genres usually didn’t have these vast control schemes requiring hot keys. But a handful did use manual protection so make sure the game you’re interested in isn’t one of them if you’re looking at a loose copy.

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Also be sure to keep your disk based games in sleeves when you’re not using them, and don’t let them get too hot or cold. Definitely keep them away from magnets, as that will corrupt the disk, and destroy your game. It was a lesson we children learned quickly back when home computers were first gaining prominence.  Finally, the Commodore 64, and other computers of the era were powered by variants of Microsoft BASIC. So you’ll need to know a few basic (Ha, ha!) commands. The most important being LOAD”*”,8,1 which for all intents, and purposes tells the disk drive to load the first file on a disk (Usually the executable) into memory. Then when the computer says ‘READY” you can simply type “RUN”, press RETURN, and fire up your game.

That should about do it this time. But keep in mind how many great things the retro games, and computing scene keeps pumping out for the mighty C64. Here’s hoping the new motherboards, network cards, card readers, and even homebrew games continue preserving one of gaming’s most iconic platforms.

 

 

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SD2EIC Drive Review

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It’s no secret I’m a huge Commodore fan. As a child in the 80’s, I started gaming on the seminal Atari 2600. It’s a timeless system for many reasons, and I still fire it up a lot today. But when my father came home with a Commodore 64 bread bin it quickly became the de facto platform in our household. When the company redesigned the computer, and sold a cheaper junior model, my father bought one, and donated the old one to relatives. But from the moment I saw Forbidden Forest running off a cassette tape the first time, I was hooked.

Through the years I played tons of awesome games on it. It wasn’t until I was a Junior in High School that we would move to a modern MS-DOS X86 PC. Because that is how versatile the King of 8-bit computers was. The C64 launched in 1983, and wasn’t discontinued until 1994 when the company went out of business. It’s fondly remembered as a games machine, because it’s where many companies went during the console market crash, and where many indies that became today’s majors got their start.

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It was a big deal here in North America, but it was even bigger in Europe. There are countless games that never officially made it Stateside.  So the platform is also an importer’s dream. Provided of course you’re willing to wade through the landmine of PAL Vs. NTSC concerns.

But whether you’re a North American or European Commodore 64 owner, there’s no denying that over time some of our floppies, and cassettes are slowly wearing out. A lot of our disk drives, and datasette drives are going kaput. With only so many in the wild, it’s going to get harder, and harder to rebuild our beloved collections. But fear not! Thanks to The Future Was 8-bit there is a way to keep the memory alive, on the original hardware.

PROS: An SD Card reader that emulates Floppy, and Cassette drives exceptionally well!

CONS: Not quite everything is compatible.

BUT: Far more than enough is compatible.

At first glance, the SD2EIC just looks like an SD card reader in a cute 1541 floppy drive shaped casing. But it’s no ordinary SD card reader!  This device emulates an actual 1541, and datasette environment. It plugs into either the tape drive slot or the floppy drive slot (depending on the version you order), and the serial DB port.  From here you can put in an SD card with your Commodore 64 program files , and run them natively on the computer!

This can be done a few ways, you can download images (assuming you own the programs in question), or if you have the means, you can back up your files to a computer, and then transfer them to a card.  You can also migrate disk images from the 1541 floppy drive to the SD2EIC. This is a little bit more involved, since you’ll need a couple of extra cables, and you’ll need to find a Compression software that works with the platform. Once you’re set up though, you will be so glad you have one of these.

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The device utilizes a file browser software file you can download which lets you go through a DOS like directory system. This makes it easy for you to organize files, and set them up in an order you feel most comfortable with. The documentation included with the SD2EIC gives you a pretty detailed set of instructions on using it. For basic file browsing though, it is pretty straight forward. You can navigate using either the CRSR Up/Down key, or a joystick in port two. If you don’t feel comfortable configuring the software, you can order a preconfigured card with it. The card has the file browser, and a bunch of programs on it.

If that weren’t enough, the device also has three buttons on it which are used when using programs that require multiple disks. This is handy when running a game or other program, that would normally involve flipping a diskette over, or putting in the next diskette when prompted. Here you have forward, backward, and reset buttons which you can press in these situations. Two of the buttons also act as the power, and load/save LEDs on the 1541 floppy drive. It’s really cool, and a nice touch to an already great experience.

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The SD2EIC can read all kinds of C64 file images. It can run D64, T64 files as well as PRG files. Again, it can also run them sequentially. But the device can also save files. This makes the unit very attractive to budding BASIC programmers. If you know your way around code, you can use this in lieu of a floppy diskette drive. This is a great way to save your projects without fear of a 1541 drive dying, or your diskette wearing out, and your data going with it. Plus even a relatively small SD card can house thousands of programs, and files due to the small file sizes on a typical 5.25″ Floppy Diskette. It’s compatible with both NTSC, and PAL machines too, though if you put PAL files on your card, and run it on an NTSC machine you’ll likely experience the same random glitches, video issues, or occasional crashes you would if you were to run an imported game on floppy.

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One of the things that really impressed me was the build quality. Most commercial SD card readers, even ones made by big industry names can be flimsy. The SD2EIC I received is superb. It’s built with plastic made by recycling broken Commodore 64, and 128 computer cases. It’s sturdy, and even the cabling feels secure. It isn’t something you can be careless with, but it can withstand shuffling around your set up.

There are a handful of minor issues with the drive. The first is that you do not want to accidentally grab the wrong controller if you have two of them plugged in. Doing so will exit you out of the program, and drop you back to the BASIC prompt. The second is that the SD2EIC doesn’t emulate a 1541 drive at 100%. That’s because the 1541 floppy drive is powered by another MOS 6502 CPU just like the stock Commodore 64 computer. So there are a handful of programs that won’t work due to being written in a way that utilizes the 1541 floppy drive in a specific way.

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Nevertheless, I can still tell you that the SD2EIC is a must own peripheral for any Commodore 64 collector. The wealth of pros outweigh the cons of a few incompatible programs out there. Especially when you consider just how versatile it is. The ability to run backup images alone, is something that should put this on your radar. With 5.25″ diskettes drying up, breaking down, and working 1541 drives dying from old age, this is a very welcome peripheral for preservation. Plus, budding indie developers have a means for their BASIC, and Assembly language projects to be stored on a modern format.

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It’s amazing how many wonderful homebrew products keep coming out for this legendary machine. Over the last three decades there have been Ethernet cards, a web browser, and even a new motherboard! But this drive is going to be more, and more sought after as time goes on. And, as these are made from recycled Commodore computers, you may want to get one before they dry up. It is truly a must own peripheral for anyone interested in Commodore.

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Now it should be noted there are other ways to get the SD2EIC. You can buy the circuit board, and daughter board from NKC Electronics. It’s nice if you’re good at assembling your own casings, and doing your own electronics assembly, or repair. But going with this specific one makes things very convenient. Plus the use of recycled computers to make the attractive casing is a nice touch that keeps them out of the landfill. I know I’m repeating myself, but it’s true. TheFutureWas8Bit has really outdone themselves with this one. Whether you’re a long time fan, or new to Commodore. Get yourself an SD2EIC from them. You won’t be sorry. Even the care put into the shipping packaging will astound you.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Toy Bizarre Review

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As we get closer to Christmas, this year I’ve found myself going through my library, and replaying old games. Part of this is due to nostalgia. The years of childhood Christmas memories. Gaming with friends, and family. It’s great being able to experience some of this old stuff in my collection, and it’s also great being able to share those experiences with others. Seeing how we are in the holiday season, we’re looking at a holiday themed game.

PROS: Frantic, and enjoyable.

CONS: Long load times.

NEAR EXCLUSIVE: Only saw release on two computer platforms.

Toy Bizarre lives up to its namesake. It centers around toys, and it’s bizarre. The game takes place in a toy factory where the automation has gone awry, creating killer toys. If the box art is any indication, it also happens to be Santa’s workshop. So Toy Bizarre also appears to have a bit of Silent Night Deadly Night embedded inside.

Each level of the factory is a single screen affair, and right away you’ll notice the gameplay is a little bit reminiscent of Nintendo’s Mario Bros. But only slightly so. In Mario Bros. You would punch floors from below creatures to knock them upside down so you could then bump them off the screen for points. Here, you’ll have floor layouts, and entrances similar to the ones in Nintendo’s platformer, and there’s some bumping things off-screen for points. But there’s a lot more going on than that.

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One major thing you’ll find are little valves throughout the level. If left unattended they eventually inflate balloons. If you don’t pop the balloons in time they will float to the top of the screen, and pop. If you let the balloons pop on their own the explosion will summon different kinds of toys. Touching these toys is fatal. In order to remedy that you have to get them to land on specific surfaces. While they’re on these surfaces, you can quickly jump to a switch that will temporarily deactivate the toys, so you can destroy them. Each level has a certain number of balloons to be destroyed while the punch clock winds down. The faster you can do this, the more time you have left at the end, which also gives you more points.

One strategy a lot of people will also go for on their quest for a high score is to shut off valves. This is an excellent strategy to employ. However there is yet another hurdle the factory throws at you. Remember those cheap wind up walker toys we’ve all had at one time or another as children? You know the type. They have a key or knob sticking out of their back, you twist it as far to the right as it can go, then set it down. The toy then walks around until it either falls off of a table, or collapses on itself.

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Well imagine if there were a giant, life-sized, killer toy android that worked that way. Because apparently, Santa Claus invested in one of them in his toy factory. This automation has also gotten the HAL 9000 virus, and decided that you need to die for it to complete its mission. Not only do you have to avoid this thing at all costs, The android will turn on any valves you’ve previously shut off, allowing for more balloons, more killer toys, and less time on the clock. There are even bonus stages called Safety Checks where you have to shut off all of the valves before the android can turn them back on. And the android will manage to get a couple of then on. In later safety checks you’ll sometimes contend with multiple androids.

If all of that sounds confusing, fear not. It becomes easy to understand once you’ve played the game for a few minutes. Once you understand it, you have yourself a very addictive, and entertaining holiday puzzle-platformer. But it gets better! Because every stage has a different layout from the last. Where in Mario Bros. the only deviation were new enemies to figure out how to defeat, in Toy Bizarre you have to also learn maps.

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One saving grace are power ups called Coffee Breaks, where you literally grab a cup of coffee, and everything stops. During the coffee break you’re basically invincible, and you have a few quick seconds to clear everything before the balloons, toys, and evil androids get back to work. If you’re good enough at Toy Bizarre you can start to loop stages. Again, being an arcade puzzle-platformer you’re not in pursuit of an ending, but a high score.

The game was designed by Mark Turmell who did a number of computer games for Activision. One of the best being Fast Tracks, which I’ll have to get around to doing a review for. But Toy Bizarre is another Activision game from the era, that isn’t as fondly remembered as the heavy hitters they put out on the Atari 2600, and other platforms of the time. Which is a shame, because almost everything about the game is spot on. It holds up in almost every way. The hit detection is great. You’ll rarely have a moment where you hit an enemy, and can’t believe it was a possibility. Due to the kind of game it is, later stages do tend to put in more, and more obstacles that the majority of players find difficult to overcome. But it doesn’t feel like your deaths are cheap.

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And while visually one could argue it doesn’t look as nice as Mario Bros., one can’t deny it is a cut above what one would find on average back then. It still looks nice enough. It does a lot with the simplicity. Factor in the ominous song that plays between rounds, and you’ve got some eerie atmosphere going on in a soulless toy factory. The only major problem with Toy Bizarre are the load times. Activision released the game on three formats for the Commodore 64. Datasette Cassette tape, 5.25″ Floppy Disk, and Cartridge. The cassette version by far has the worst of the load times. Most tape games can take several minutes to load into memory, but this game is insufferably long on tape. The Floppy Disk version is nowhere near as bad, but still takes longer than a lot of other games on disk. Which is weird considering just how small the game is, even for the time. The cartridge version is obviously preferred in this regard. But keep in mind that cartridge versions of C64 games can be harder to find since most users had a Datasette drive or a Floppy drive. That doesn’t necessarily make them rare, but they can be uncommon. As such expect the cartridge version to set you back more than the other formats.

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The game also came out for the ZX Spectrum in Europe. I don’t have either the computer or that version of Toy Bizarre, so I really can’t compare the versions. Though the game was published by Mastertronic in some territories outside of North America. No matter how you slice it though, aside from terrible load times, Toy Bizarre is one of the best Santa themed games to be experienced. If you have a working C64, track down a copy. The only other way to find it, is if you can track down the Activision Commodore 64 15 pack collection for Windows 95. Which can be a hassle to get running on a modern PC.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

Retro World Expo 2016 Recap

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Last year’s inaugural Retro World Expo was a rousing success. It gave fans in New England a chance to meet YouTube celebrities, gorge on classic gaming, and mingle with thousands of fans. Not to mention the droves of exhibitors who showed up to sell their products. It was a great time last year.

Well, that success translated into an even better convention this year. This time the event took the course of a weekend, rather than one single day. Again, there were some great guests. Returning from last year, were  many of Retroware’s finest. Creators Lance Cortez, and John Delia were back, along with”Pixel” Dan Eardley, The Gaming Historian (Norman Caruso), and The Game Chasers. But joining them were Pat “The NES Punk” Conti,  the creators of Stop Skeletons From Fighting, and Mortal Kombat’s own Daniel Pesina.  Josh Tsui also made an appearance. He was one of Midway’s Mortal Kombat 4 designers. These days he heads up Robomodo, a small developer known for mobile. But they’ve also done some of the later Tony Hawk games.

But there were even more guests! Nick Mueeler, and Ste Kulou were there. They began HD Retrovision, a company known for component cables for old systems. They returned this year with Robert Neal of RetroRGB fame. They were there educating fans on signal types, cable types, the differences between them, and performance.

Wood Hawker was back again too. You may know him from his show The Game Quest where he travels the world hunting for games. He’s even done a number of crossovers with some of the biggest names on YouTube.

Antoine Clerc Renaud also made an appearance this year. He wrote much of the Complete History of Coleco, a book about the company behind the Colecovision. As well as the Adam, and several memorable toy lines.

Eric Lappe of The Video Game Years fame was also there, as well as cover sensation Banjo Guy Ollie! Rounding things out were RF Generation who have a database archive site where you can pull up information about games for a vast variety of platforms. They also do a solid podcast.

Beyond the guests were a host of bands who played shows throughout the two days in the arcade area. Epic Game Music was the most popular, but Lame Genie, The World Is Square, and You Bred Raptors were also heard during the convention. All of the bands absolutely crushed it, gracing the arcade with driving blends of hard rock, and (in the case of TWIS) folk. On the main show floor, Radlib was playing throughout both days.

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The arcade was bursting with classics this year. Centipede, Missile Command, Asteroids Deluxe, Crystal Castles, and The Star Wars Arcade game were on hand representing classic Atari. Representing Nintendo’s arcade heyday were Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Popeye. Sega classics were there too. Turbo Outrun, After Burner, Thunder Blade, and Shinobi. There were a lot more games on hand beyond even those! Taito’s Jungle King/Hunt. Konami’s Gyruss, and Frogger. Capcom’s Final Fight, Street Fighter II CE, Street Fighter Alpha 3, Knights Of The Round, and Ghouls N’ Ghosts. Still need more? On the Midway/Williams front NARC, Mortal Kombat II, Mortal Kombat III, and Mortal Kombat IV could be seen. Namco’s Ms. Pac-Man was also on free play.

The arcade also had a pretty decent selection of Pinball machines. I couldn’t get them all listed, but the Nightmare On Elm Street machine was especially fun to play. Even though I’m terrible at pinball, I had fun failing miserably. Thanks in part to the great sound effects, challenging design, and fantastic aesthetic.

The console game room also returned, though this time it was given a different area, rather than share the floor space of the arcade with the cabinets. Again, there were a lot of great classic systems set up. Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis,  Atari Jaguar, and other old systems were prevalent. Although I didn’t see as many pre NES game consoles this year. A little disappointing for old timers like me, but the plethora of vintage arcade machines more than made up for it.

The console area also had a lot of tournaments run by Game Haven, which is this really cool LAN center in Norwalk, CT. They let you go in with friends, and rent time on computers, and consoles for tournaments, practice, or just to play for fun with friends in a local environment. So having them run the tournament ladders seemed like a good fit. There were tournaments for NHL ’94, and NBA Jam on the Genesis. A Mortal Kombat II tournament, and Super Street Fighter II tournament on the Super NES. For the competitive wrestling fan, there was also a WWF No Mercy tournament on the Nintendo 64. There was even a bonus challenge centered around the infamous E.T. The Extra Terrestrial for the Atari 2600.

Plus on top of all of these, was a Super Smash Bros. 4 tournament, which drew quite the following at the show. This one was hosted by Legacy Tournaments which specializes in regional Smash Tournaments.

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Of course there were also countless returning vendors. But among them were a couple of indie developers showing off some of their upcoming games. The first of these was a company called Giant Evil Robot. They were showing off a game called Mecha-Tokyo Rush. The version at the show was a nearly final version in a demo mode. Mecha-Tokyo Rush is an endless runner. But to set it apart from the plethora of other endless runners on the market, it implements elements of the Mega Man games. So you’ll be able to select stages, earn items from boss fights, and blast robots. But, being an endless runner you never bother with moving. The game just moves along, and you time your jumps accordingly. But you’ll do so while shooting . Visually, the version at the show didn’t look half bad. It had a decent 16-bit look to it. The full game will let players choose different characters, and items. The keys on the demo laptop weren’t ideal so I asked the representative if it would allow players to use a game pad, and I was told they may add functionality down the line. At launch it won’t. The game will be a F2P game with things you can unlock with game credit. I wasn’t given any specifics about it. The game does look a cut above some other F2P stuff you may have tried, so hopefully the final game turns out well.

The other developer booth was interesting because it was both about a documentary, and an upcoming game. The New 8-Bit Heroes is the documentary. It follows the designer of a new game called Mystic Searches, and the progress of developing the game. That designer’s name is Joe Granato. He found old design documents he made as a kid, and decided to make his childhood dream game. But here’s where things get really engrossing. The game was made to run on an NES. The NES like a lot of platforms in the 1980’s ran on a MOS 6502 processor, or variant. The Atari 2600, NES, Commodore 64, and many other platforms used it. Back then, most programs were written in assembly language, and translated into machine language. Which meant they had to be written in a language like PASCAL  or a complicated Hex system, and pretty much everything had to be coded in. Even the graphics, and sound.

These days, most games run on an engine. Many games share one. Unreal Engine, Unity, and others are used by countless games, which lessens some of the workload as an engine does a lot of background work freeing up programmers, artists, etc. to focus on other things. That’s probably an oversimplification on my part, but the point is, this makes things easier.

Anyway, during the course of making Mystic Searches, the designers quickly realized how long writing a game in  6502 assembly language was going to take. So they wrote their own Graphic User Interfaces for things. Things like placing graphics tiles. Things like attributing properties to objects. Eventually, they had enough GUIs made that they essentially built their own game engine!

So they’re going to be launching a Kickstarter for the engine. Not only will it let end users build a game with the included assets, but advanced users can import their own sprites, music, and content. It’s simple enough that an average person can make something on their own. But deep enough that aspiring developers can make something very involved. The hope is that the final revision will let people do different genres. RPGs, Shmups, Platformers, and more. But the most exciting part of all of this is that the program will allow end users to flash their games to an actual NES Game Pak!

They had a working prototype set up at the convention so that show goers could check it out for themselves. After trying it out, I was very impressed with what I was shown. I grew up typing game programs out of magazines in BASIC, or into Hex address compilers. Suffice it to say, I was pretty terrible at it. Even though technically all of the work (aside from hours typing it in) was already done for the reader.Plus playing a game, is more fun than typing in a game. But here, the tools, while still requiring a bit of learning, and experimenting, were still understandable. You don’t need to know how to code anything in order to use it. It reminded me a lot of using map editors for the original DOOM. Or games like the Shoot ’em up Construction Kit.

I asked a few questions during my time with it, and got a few details in the answers. I asked if there were any plans to have a business level license for other developers, and was told there really wouldn’t be. Anyone can pretty much buy the utility, and do what they want. The license does say however, that anyone who wants to sell a game they make with the utility cannot use any of the utility’s assets. Meaning they have to draw all their own sprites, background art, etc., as well as write their own music. The reason being that the utility was used to make Mystic Searches, and as such the assets are intrinsically tied to that IP.

But they want as many developers, and hobbyists as possible to use the product. So they aren’t looking to have the typical Business, and Consumer licenses many other software utilities do.

I asked if there was a way to import one’s own content, or even piggyback their own code onto the utility, and was told one can definitely do it. They really want the product to be as open as possible while keeping things simplified for beginners.

Another person asked about pricing. Nothing is set in stone, so they didn’t have a finalized price at the time of the show, but they were shooting for a sub $100 mark. This would give the customer the hardware to make their NES Game Pak when they were ready. They also said they may have one SKU for just the software utility, and a separate one for the hardware. They added, that there would be a list of suppliers for the hardware so that if one doesn’t want to buy it all from the developer, they can get the hardware elsewhere if they wanted to. Mystic Searches is shooting for a holiday release, while the utility release isn’t as concrete.

I asked about any plans for retailers, and was told they were discussing ways to possibly have a program with small businesses to print future games on demand. This could take some risk away as a small store wouldn’t have to buy a case of copies of Mystic Searches or future titles. Instead the store could print as few or as many as they needed. This would be an entirely different venture than the utility they were showing off however.

If the final products turn out as well as what I saw during the show, the homebrew community is going to be very pleased. Mystic Searches is looking to be a really good send up of games like The Legend Of Zelda, Ys I+II, and Crystalis. It’s also coming out in three different Game Pak casings. A standard gray color for $40. A black color with custom artwork by Morgan Davidson will set you back $64. Finally, there’s the limited edition wood grain version, which brings a hint of Atari 2600 heavy sixer to the Nintendo Entertainment System. This one is an expensive $128 as it is hand carved. Aside from the special cartridges it seems about in line with what most other homebrew games cost.

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There were a lot of panels this year, and I managed to get into three of them. The first of which was The Gaming Historian panel with Norman Caruso. This year, he did a live entry into The Gaming Historian series where he talked about the making of the infamous Super Mario Bros. movie. He went over many things that happened behind the scenes. Tension between the cast, and the directors. The constant rewrites to the script, some of which even happened during filming, and of course Nintendo’s involvement in the film.

After the history lesson, Norman took volunteers for another game of Video Game History Jeopardy. This year I was actually selected as a contestant! Competition was stiff though, as both of my opponents were very keen. One of them could have been a professor when it came to Sonic The Hedgehog which was one of the categories. After a very exciting game came the final Jeopardy question that nobody got right. But luck shined on me when it turned out my two opponents put everything on the line, and I had put all but one dollar on the line. I suppose watching a lot of Jeopardy as a kid paid off.

After the Jeopardy game, Norman took a quick Q & A session. One of the questions that stood out was when a fan asked what had happened to The Nintendo buyout of the Mariners episode of The Gaming Historian. Apparently it wasn’t Nintendo that had tied things up. It was the MLB. But not all hope for the episode is lost, both parties are trying to work things out.

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The second panel I managed to get into was Pixel Dan’s panel. Dan is the proprietor of a YouTube channel where he reviews toys. He also goes to toy shows all around the country, and interviews toy designers, and toy company representatives about upcoming toys. In the panel he talked about some of the more esoteric toy lines of the 80’s, and 90’s. Some of the stand outs were Food Fighters, a line where food items take the roles of opposing armies. He also brought up the Rock Lords line, a subset of the Go Bots line where robot warriors turned into rocks as opposed to vehicles. He also gave overviews to Army Ants, a line of army themed ant figurines  and Computer Warriors. This was an interesting if failed line of toys that transformed ordinary household items into secret military installations, and vehicles.

Rounding things out were the Stone Protectors, a line that combined the action of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, with the classic wishing troll dolls. The end product was a group of Troll superheroes who fought aliens. The toys also had flintlock embedded in them so that when you used their action feature you could see sparks light up the gems in their chests!

It was a nostalgic look back at a time when toy companies were a lot more willing to take chances. A time when people designing toys had a lot more creative, and artistic freedom. These days companies are more risk averse since they no longer only have to compete with each other, but with game, and tech companies too. This results in a large reliance on licensed IPs like movies.

After looking at some great toy lines, Dan brought in Norman Caruso to show off the premier episode of From Plastic To Pixels. It’s a new project the two are working on, highlighting video games that have been based on toys. The first episode showcases the M.U.S.C.L.E. NES game.  They mentioned some of the games in future episodes, but you’ll have to watch the show to see what they are.

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The third panel I attended on Saturday was Pat Contri’s. Pat talked a bit about his new book,  Ultimate Nintendo: Guide To The NES Library 1985 – 1995.  In it, you’ll find every commercially produced game ever made for the console. Pat has painstakingly collected, and rated each title as well as given a rarity rating to each title. The titles don’t just end with the games Nintendo licensed. He included unlicensed games, and even the European PAL territory exclusives.

I asked him how long it took to make, because the production values ate amazing. He said it took him three years to do, and it had an impact on his primary projects like Pat The NES Punk episodes. Another person in attendance asked him if he would be doing a Super Nintendo guide. He didn’t rule it out entirely, but it isn’t anything pending right now. He did reveal however that there is a companion app being made for smart phones. The app will have the information in the book, as well as ties to online price guides.

At the end of the panel Pat selected fans to take the Pat The NES Punk challenge. There were three sets of fans put in one on one match ups. My friend Jordan managed to get into the first challenge, where he played Sky Kid against an opponent. There was an issue with the second controller though so instead the challenge was changed to Ghosts N’ Goblins. Whoever got the furthest on one life would be the victor. Jordan won this handily by getting to the first boss.

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The second challenge was a Vs. Excitebike matchup on the Famicom Disk System. The players in this round kept pace with one another going back, and forth a lot in a one lap race. The final challenge was an entertaining bout of two player Donkey Kong Jr. Math. The winners each received a digital version of Pat’s new book, and the losers won a bad game to rip on.

At the end of the first day there was also an auction for some really cool gaming items. A few of the arcade cabinets in the arcade were up for auction. After these were auctioned off, things moved into the panel room, and continued. Some of the items that went for huge money included old storefront Nintendo, Sega, and Sony neon signs. Some of these went for several hundred dollars. The first three Mega Man games were  sold, as well as the very rare Flintstones Surprise At Dino Peak NES Game Pak. This game went for $750, which is actually a little bit lower than the current average online price. I was really excited to see a boxed Commodore 128, and 1571 disk drive. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to be the winner of said computer. But it was great getting to see one  in such great condition. The winner also won an auction for the Coleco Adam computer.

After that was a karaoke session in the arcade room to close out the day.

Sunday, there were a few other panels including one with the Game Chasers. I unfortunately was unable to make it back in time for that panel. But I was surprised to see pro wrestling legend Tony Atlas walking the floor! He was very cordial, and was willing to make a second attempt at taking a photo when I had an issue with my camera. I bought a signed print from him. Really awesome experience.

I got the opportunity to talk to Pixel Dan, Norman Caruso, and Pat Contri over the course of the show as well. All of them were very kind, and very cool. If you haven’t seen any of their material definitely check it out. They’re very good at what they do. I also picked up Pat’s book, and I can say it is worth every penny. As I said earlier, it is a very impressive guide for anybody who likes to go back, and play or collect NES games.

Speaking of picking things up, there were a lot of excellent vendors at the show this year. Two Nerds returned from last year, selling some awesome screen printed glassware. Last year I’d gotten a great Samus Aran beer stein, which I use all of the time. I introduced one of my friends to their rep, and he immediately bought a Jack Skellington themed glass for his many servings of Pepsi.

Of course, Retro Games Plus was back, and if you’re ever in Connecticut it is always worth visiting their store for old games. They have some of the best selection, and pricing in the area. Level 01 was also present again, as well as one of the area Game Xchange  franchisees. These are also pretty good places to go hunting. Another area small business called 1UP was there as well. Which I can also recommend. It’s run by a husband, and wife duo who try to get out to as many conventions as possible. I’ve gotten things from them before, and it has always been in great condition.

But there were also a TON of new vendors this time around with a lot of great stuff. Some of which has generally been impossible for me to find locally. I was pleasantly surprised to find many of them had a great assortment of Atari 2600, Colecovision, Intellivision, and other platforms from the early days many of us grew up in.  My buddy Chris Trentham was there with a booth of his own. I got some nice deals on some Commodore 64 cartridges, as well as a copy of the scarce Frogger II for the Atari 2600.

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From one of the vendors (I feel bad that I can’t remember every one of them) I managed to snag a copy of Tac-Scan, and Jr. Pac-Man for my Atari 2600 collection, and I also found a great deal on the VCS version of Congo Bongo from of all vendors, a graphic design vendor called  DSquared. One of their artists, Doug Chapel was selling some Atari cartridges in addition to his artwork. We talked about VCS collecting, VCS homebrew for a few minutes. He does some nice stuff. If you need some custom art give their site a look.

While on the subject of art, there were a lot of artists among the vendors this year as well. Some of the other standouts were Justm3hStudios, an artist who does a lot of custom buttons, and sketches. A guy named Chris Vales was doing some impressive Overwatch themed work, and Tom Ryan Studios was there. I saw him previously at ConnectiCon. Another fantastic art duo you might want to check out is  East Of Haven. They had some terrific pencil work on display, and were doing commissions.

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Russ Lyman was on the floor getting some footage for his always fun, YouTube channel, and he may have received a few surprise cameos for an upcoming video. I also spent some time talking about games far worse than E.T.  with the terrific guys from RF Generation. Stuff like the Data Design Interactive stuff on the Wii for instance.

Sadly, I didn’t get to see or do everything. There was so much this year. I didn’t even mention the cosplay contest or the Table top gaming.  I really hope this year was more successful than last year, because this convention has the potential to become an annual tradition. It could also become as big as some of the other major conventions in time. It was a blast of a weekend, and with any luck at all I’ll be visiting again in 2017.

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

Atlantis Review

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Sometimes I like to go back, and jam on the games I grew up with. For a number of reasons. There’s the nostalgia. The memories of childhood Christmases, and birthdays. There’s also the fact that a lot of these games still hold up today. I can still enjoy them now as much as I did back then. Plus, it’s always nice to see people I have a few years on, discovering them, and enjoying them. Of course sometimes you might run into something from the past, you hope will stay there. But this game isn’t one of those.

PROS: Fast paced arcade action.

CONS: No matter how good you are, you will lose.

COLLECTOR’S GOLD: The extremely limited pseudo sequel.

Atlantis is a classic game for some very classic consoles. It takes the idea of Armageddon from Missile Command, and plays it out a bit differently in another setting. In this game instead of things taking place over a nation of cities during a nuclear war, it takes pace in Atlantis. You’re put in charge of defending the lost city as a race of extra terrestrial forces invade. The city has a number of important structures you need to protect.

You do this by using the three attack cannons peeking out of the sea. There are cannons on the left, and right corners followed by one in the center of the city. Ships fly above the city attacking you. In the earliest goings you’ll find the enemies aren’t much of a threat at all. They barely provoke you at all, fly slowly, and are fairly easy to shoot down. But don’t let your guard down. Because as time goes on they become much more brazen.

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There are several ships you need to shoot down. Some of the designs borrowed from pop culture, they all can become threatening. There are the Constitution class ships from Starfleet,  Klingon D7’s, and Rebel X-Wing fighters. Generally the, two Star Trek knockoffs don’t become a problem until the third pass. Each ship makes a run above, getting lower, and lower if you don’t manage to shoot it down. On the third pass, they begin firing death beams over structures. The Star Wars knock off is actually the biggest threat to you, because of its high rate of speed. It will drop photon torpedoes on buildings in the blink of an eye, too. The one saving grace is that for some reason, destroying one, kills every enemy on the screen. You can also hear them coming, as their engines make a distinct, and stressful noise.

You shoot each of the cannons by moving the joystick in the proper direction while pressing the fire button. Push left for the left cannon, and right for the right cannon. Not pushing the stick at all, means you’ll be firing the center cannon. But keep in mind, the ships will also target the cannons too. So you can actually be left defenseless. If you can earn enough points, you can rebuild your cannons. But if all of the landmarks are obliterated before you do, it is all for naught. When you have a nail-biting wave take out your last cannon, you’re forced to watch the genocide of your people in horror. But there is a little bit of hope. When you lose, a tiny ship is seen escaping the ruins of Atlantis.

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If you couldn’t tell, this game is a high score game. Which is one of the most common goals in games of the era. Still, it manages to tell a story in that burst of action, while being a fun game. Moreover Imagic also added a two player mode where each person manages a cannon, and work together to get a team score.

But it doesn’t end there, because the game was ported to a couple of other platforms, the Magnavox Odyssey 2, Commodore Vic-20, Atari 8-bit family, and the Mattel Intellivision. The Odyssey 2 version is probably the worst looking of the ports, while the Vic-20 has a much more detailed landscape. In between these are the Atari computer version. Basically, these versions are direct ports of the Atari 2600 original. But the Intellivision port actually takes a few liberties with the formula, making it feel like a director’s cut.

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There’s an obvious upgrade to the graphics, making it look almost as good as the Vic-20 port. It also adds day, and night cycles to the game between waves of enemy ships. During the battles you’ll move a cursor around the screen shooting at the invaders. You still have, left, and right cannons. Pressing the left or right buttons on the controller will fire from the proper cannon. Pressing the zero key launches a saucer you can fly about the screen to shoot down threats instead of using the cursor. But if you crash it, or are shot down you can’t launch another one until the next day cycle. This version also changes up the look of the enemy ships to Tie Fighters, and other borrowed designs. When the night falls however, spotlights look to the sky, and the threats are only visible when in the light. This, and the attack saucer are pretty impressive features considering the time of release.

The end game is the same however. Enemies will bomb the landmarks until nothing remains except for your score, forcing your survivors to flee in a derelict mothership. Ultimately, Atlantis is one of the best console games of the era. It plays to each platform’s strengths, including the computer ports. It’s fast paced, and addictive. It’s still a really fun game to play from time to time, and it’s competitive. There was also a sequel, Atlantis II that was never sold. Atlantis II is actually not so much a sequel, as it was an upgrade. Think of it a bit like the progression from Street Fighter II: Champion Edition to Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting. The same core concept is there, but everything has been sped up, and tweaked to be much more difficult.

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But Atlantis II was only made for a competition Imagic had created for Atlantis. Players would mail in their high scores in an attempt to win the rights to a vast cash prize. The top four players would be flown out to Bermuda for a chance to face each other for the money. The thing is more than four players were able to max out the score. So Imagic made the aforementioned tweaks to the game, altered the typeface on the scoreboard, and sent the winners this altered version. These players were given two days to play, and send in their highest scores again. Those winners were then selected to be flown out to a competition for the prize money.

As a result Atlantis II is actually one of the most sought after 2600 games due to the rarity. The few times they show up, they fetch upwards of a couple of thousand dollars. They’re also easy for con artists to fake because the game is the exact same cartridge as Atlantis. The only physical difference is an Atlantis II sticker thrown on the box, and cartridge. The only real way to know if the game is legitimate is to play it, and see if the numbers on the scoreboard look different.

But if you wanted to know if Atlantis saw a real sequel it did. It all centers around that derelict mothership I mentioned earlier. Atlantis would be followed by Cosmic Ark.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

 

Reposted Review: The Great Giana Sisters

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Move over Mario Bros. it’s the Great Giana Sisters

(Originally posted on Blistered Thumbs forums, then Retro Retreat.)

 

Twin sisters use the Mario bros. template without permission.

PROS: Nearly spot on gameplay, and stage design.

CONS: The key word is “Nearly”

WTF?: The cliché’ paragraph ending.

Super Mario Bros. is synonymous with Nintendo, and console platform games. Nintendo’s series has been one of, if not the most popular line of games ever made. Featuring likeable characters, challenging gameplay, and well crafted level designs. Even when Mario misfires (Sunshine anyone?), it’s still a really good game.

There have been many, many other companies with their own mascots trying to invade Mario’s turf, each with their own level of successes or failures (But mostly failures). Sega has Sonic of course, but before Sonic came Alex Kidd. Accolade tried ripping off Sega AND Nintendo when breaking out Bubsy. Over time we saw Aero, Bonk, Joe & Mac, Sparkster, and a myriad of licensed characters including those from Viacom, Disney, Warner Bros., and Television Networks. What’s so different about The Great Giana Sisters? Pretty much that it’s not very different from Super Mario Bros. Creator Armin Gessert came to a conclusion back in the mid 1980′s. Nintendo would never port it’s first party NES games to computer platforms. As such, there were no real rival platformers in that vein available for any competing console or computer. Sure the Sega Master System had Alex Kidd, but Alex would never come close to dethroning Mario. Armin instead made a Super Mario Bros. Clone that would satisfy Commodore 64 owners who didn’t have an NES. It was published in the UK by Rainbow Arts, and touted “The Brothers are history!”. It was a huge hit, and saw ports to Amiga, Atari ST, Amstrad, and MSX2. But it wasn’t long before Nintendo of Europe would take notice, and sue Rainbow Arts. Rainbow Arts lost the case, and all copies went out of production. A Spectrum port was canceled, and today boxed copies fetch a high price among collectors.

This history lesson isn’t exactly new for many people. With the proliferation of Youtube, Bliptv, and a lot of independent internet review shows out there, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the footage. But for those who haven’t I’ll continue on with the review.

The Great Giana Sisters starts out with a really iconic chiptune by famed video game music composer Chris Hulsbeck. When you start the game it opens almost exactly the way you remember the original Super Mario Bros. In fact, here are screen shots of the first screen of GGS, and the first screen of SMB.

But from there, the cribbing begins to slow down. Gameplay is very similar to SMB. Giana goes from left to right, jumping on enemies, over chasms, and utilizing pixel perfect timing to get past obstacles within the allotted time.  But there are nuanced differences. In SMB Grabbing a mushroom will turn Mario into a giant, grabbing a flower gets him fireball shooting. Getting hit shrinks him down again, and if hit in small size, Mario dies.

In GGS, Giana grabs a beach ball, which gives her a mohawk, and the ability to smash blocks. Lightning bolts allow her to shoot fireballs. Double lighting bolts get her balls to ricochet. There’s also a clock that freezes the timer, and bombs that clear enemies. 1UPS are rare, but come up as lollipops. Getting hit by any enemy in this game will kill you instantly no matter how many power ups you have acquired. Upon the next life you go back to normal losing any upgrades nabbed before dying.

Like SMB there are also warp zones to skip ahead, but these are also executed differently. Instead of hidden areas with warp pipes, there are invisible blocks (Like the first 1up block in World 1-1 of SMB) that will warp players ahead. (There is also a cheat where holding certain keys of letters in Armin Gessert’s name will warp players.). Levels are also structured much differently. Instead of 8 worlds broken up of 4 levels, GGS throws that out the window, and calls each level a world. So all 32 levels are in essence, stages.

Stage designs are eerily similar to SMB in some spots, and completely alien in others. There are some underground coin areas in some stages but instead of going down a pipe, Giana rides a hidden platform. Another major thing of note that many people gloss over is the fact that there are no underwater stages in GGS. Some stages float above the ocean, but none involve swimming, or sea enemies.

Enemy variety is also pretty akin to SMB. Owls look suspiciously like Goombas. Clams look close to the Buzzy Beetles. Bullet Bills are replaced with bees. Some of the “Fake” Bowsers are replaced with giant spiders, and Bowser is replaced with a dragon. There are other enemy types that are wholly original creations though, like the jumping suction cups, bouncing pink balls of doom, and these tiny blue monsters who can only be defeated by landing on their heads. (Any other part is instant death.)

Graphically the game is very much in line with SMB. The color palette is similar, featuring a lot of blues, reds, and greens in over world stages. Shades are used fairly closely to SMB in dungeon stages as well, a lot of white block textures, black backgrounds, go a long way to bringing that feel to the game. Musically the Commodore 64 version shines. With only 3 songs, the game still comes together well with the music lending itself in the right way. The overworld song while, not as iconic as the music in SMB, will likely play on loop in you mind long after you’ve stopped playing. The dungeon theme gives the game a more serious, perilous tone than the known music of SMB’s World 1-2.

With everything else being nearly equal is GGS a flawless masterpiece? Well, no. The game does have some minor control problems due to the floatier jumping in it, and also because of it’s reliance on a one button control scheme. During the 8-bit era most computer games did not take advantage of two button pads or joysticks because not many people had them. As such, GGS maps the jump function to moving the joystick up. The fire button is only ever used to shoot fireballs when you manage to get them. Because of this, you’ll likely blow an otherwise great round from an unintentionally botched jump. The game also has a couple of glitches in it. For instance, firing the fireballs around level exits can sometimes corrupt the background graphics, and Giana to fall through the play field, and die. To be fair one usually has to try to make that happen, but when it happens on fluke it can be really irritating.

The Great Giana Sisters is one of those knockoffs that leave the impression it was done right. So often when a successful game is cloned ad nauseam, those trying to outdo the original don’t even come close. But GGS hits all of the most important notes, leaving one to wonder why more of them fail to get anywhere near the target. Never mind the fact that this game grabbed the attention of Nintendo. If you ever do get the chance to play this classic gaming example of cribbing I suggest you take it.

Final Score: 8.5 out of 10 (Buy it now! [If you can afford it])

(Some worthy notes of post review info) After the game was pulled way back in 1987 it ended up on some public domain catalogs, where a group of people modified the sprites to Mario characters. From there it slowly faded into obscurity. Arimin Gessert stayed in the game industry after GGS. In fact he went on to found Spellbound, makers of the Desperados series. He died of a heart attack in 2009 however. Ironically his last game was a Great Giana Sisters game for the Nintendo DS. It was only published in Europe initially.