Wednesday 18 April 2525

Greetings, Space Cadets! Welcome to Chasing The Bumblebee, a blog of shameless nostalgia for an age of home computing long since past. Primarily it's an excuse to play through every Atari ST game in approximate release order and write something about them, but you can probably expect a few diversions along the way.

Here is a list of all the games that have been covered so far, and what's to come in the near future.

You can also follow @PhilipPilf on Twitter, where exciting updates will be posted directly to your computational unit of choice by the very will of science itself.

Saturday 7 December 2013

Pacmania STE Remix

Readers of a certain age may recall that the port of Namco's arcade classic Pacmania released on the ST by Grandslam Entertainment back in 1988 was rather disappointing, afflicted with unpleasantly jerky scrolling and a tiny, claustrophobic game area. It was passable, and had some decent music from Ben Dalglish, but it was pretty hard to convince yourself you were getting the full arcade experience.

Well, now Zamuel of atari-forum has programmed his own version almost from scratch, specifically designed to take advantage of the STE's extended hardware capabilities, and the improvements are astonishing. This version not only restores the arcade sound samples and extends the display beyond the standard 320x200 resolution, but best of all it runs at an astonishingly smooth 50fps(a somewhat significant increase on the original's 25fps). However, this does mean it'll only work on ST's with a fairly hefty amount of memory - in fact it needs an extravagant two megabytes of RAM to be able to run at all. Thankfully, even if you don't have access to this kind of hardware, Pacmania is fully compatible with ST emulators such as Steem, and is worth playing to get a glimpse of what could've been achieved if game developers had actually cared about the STE at the time.

You can read about the development of this version in more detail here:
The game itself can be downloaded from here:

#4 Ultima II: Revenge Of The Enchantress

Publisher: Sierra On-Line
Developers: Richard Garriott, Robert Heitman
Year: 1985

Today's entry is another first for CTB(as the cool kids will soon be calling it, probably) - the very first RPG. It's a rather unusual version of Ultima II, published by Sierra in the Autumn of 1985 for the ST and Mac.

By the time the first Ultima title arrived on the ST, this venerable RPG series was well established, and already had a loyal following amongst PC and Apple users. It was the brainchild of one man - living nerd God Richard Garriott, aka Lord British.
Note: Not actually a Lord. Or British.

Ultima II in it's original form actually debuted in 1982. The plot follows directly on from the conclusion of it's predecessor, in which your unnamed hero saved the world of Sosaria from the evil wizard Mondain by travelling back in time and destroying his Gem of Immortality(as part of a quest which involved going into space and shooting down Tie Fighters for some reason). It turns out Mondain had a female apprentice, Minax(the vengeful enchantress of the title), who, after lying low for about a thousand years, has now decided to get back at you personally by enacting a massively convoluted revenge scheme across the whole of human history. Oh yes, and for no apparent reason this game takes place on Earth rather than Sosaria, resulting in enormous continuity headaches for people who try and keep track of these things ever since.As a result of Minax's shenanigans, the history of the entire planet has been corrupted, and aside from few sparse settlements Earth is now a barren, monster-filled wasteland. Your misson is unravel the mystery of the time gates that link each age of mankind, with the eventual goal of penetrating Minax's lair(oh, stop it) at the very end of time, hopefully surviving long enough once you get there to put right what once went wrong.
All games were this complicated in 1982. Honestly.

The Ultima series established many of the basic tropes that prevail in RPGs to this day. You spend most of your time exploring a tile-based world map, visiting towns to obtain vital supplies and clues, while battling armies of tiny but very persistent monsters in order to obtain money and experience. Other innovations, such as turn-based combat and multi-character parties, would come later in the series. In Ultima II, you're still restricted to a single player character, and fighting consists of frantically hammering the attack key(or in this case of this version, the mouse button) until your opponents are despatched. This does actually make it feel more dynamic than later entries in the series, as battles are usually over extremely quickly, unlike the slower, strategic fights in the later games that can drag on for minutes at a time.

Complex character interaction is another luxury that wouldn't arrive in the series till much later. In this game, every non-player character you encounter has a single line of dialogue, often something completely unhelpful(fighters always respond with "UGH, ME TOUGH!" regardless of circumstances), but occasionally offering a very opaque clue as to what on Earth you should be doing.

As in nearly all the games in the series, Garriott himself appears in the form of his avatar Lord British, immortal ruler of the Lands of Britannia(even though they're not actually called Britannia yet. It's a little complicated). As there are no healing items or magic in this game, the only way to restore you precious Hit Points is to visit British in his castle(which is always in the same place, regardless of which time zone you happen to be in) and get him to give you refill in exchange for a goodly portion of your hard-earned monies. What a mercenary monarch he is.

You have a limited food supply which decreases continuously, and when the counter reaches zero, you health will rapidly start to deplete. In fact, in Ultima II the food situation is particularly brutal, as time continues to pass if you leave the game idle, so if you're not careful your character can end up starving to death over the course of one ill-timed phone call.

You also have little money to start off with, and earning enough for even basic subsistence is incredibly difficult. Essentially, the games forces you to rob innocent merchants in order to survive. Yes, you can literally take the food from the mouths of these poor working men by approaching the counter of a shop and using the "steal" command repeatedly until you make a successful grab. This will also alert the attention of any guards in the vicinity, who are all inhumanly strong and extremely violent, so it's important to make sure you have an escape route within easy reach. Once you make it out of town, everyone suffers a mysterious bought of amnesia, and you're free to continue your amoral lifestyle once more. Unlike the later Ultimas, where such behaviour will normally result in extremely negative karmic consequences for your character, casual murder and stealing in this game has no repercussions, provided you leave town before the locals disembowel you.

One the most baffling and hard to justify design decisions is the way in which you improve your characters ability stats. This is not done through combat or questing as you'd expect in any other game of this genre, but by approaching a totally anonymous stranger you find in the lobby of the Hotel California in New San Antonio, and offering him a bribe. If your luck is in, he will randomly increase one of your stats by one point. If you're unlucky, he will take your money and give you sod all in return. Leaving aside how you would ever even know to do this(there don't seem to be any clues in the game that might lead you to this point), you have to wonder what Garriott was thinking here. Possibly he just put this in as a place-holder, expecting to replace it with something more sensible(like the shrines in other Ultima games), but never got round to it due to rushed deadlines.

Another odd decision is that there's no way to buy items such as torches, keys and so on. The only way to get these is in random drops from thieves you kill(they're the blue stick-men as opposed to the red ones). And this includes important plot items like the blue tassle you need to commandeer a pirate ship, or the Tri-Lithium you need to power the spacecraft. But thieves can also steal these back from you, which can be especially frustrating if you lose your only tassle while on board a ship, meaning you can't disembark until you get another one.

Player, you are about to die.
The plot of the game is fascinating for just how peculiar it is, and the fact that it makes no sense on basically any level. There's a definite feeling that Garriott was just chucking in any ideas he could think of without any thought as to how this make might sense in the context of a wider mythology, because, well, there wasn't one at that point. The result is a very odd mish-mash of fantasy and sci-fi elements, anything a young D&D nerd of the eighties would think was cool at the time. A world in which you go from fighting monsters in a pseudo-medieval wilderness one minute to flying a shuttle to distant planets the next. The movie Time Bandits was also a favourite of Garriott's, so time travel went in as well, with the game's bewildering network of time gates being directly inspired by the map stolen by the dwarves in Gilliam's film.

Seriously, don't worry about this guy. You will never, ever have to meet him.
Ultima II was a laudable attempt to expand on both the gameplay and size of the original Ultima, but you're left with the feeling that Garriott's ambition was outstripped by the limits of the technology, and his own skills at the time. To put it bluntly, Ultima II just doesn't seem like a finished game, although this is possibly a result of it being rushed to the shelves by Sierra before it was really complete. So you get first person multi-level dungeons which serve absolutely no purpose - you are not required to enter them at any point during the game. A magic system that is entirely redundant, because it only works in those same dungeons that you don't have to go in. An entire galaxy of planets to explore, but only one of them other than Earth has anything worth making the trip for.

Is it actually any fun? Well, that kind of depends on your tolerance for extremely basic, repetitive gameplay. Once you've figured out what to do, you soon come to realise 80% of your game time is going to be spent steering a ship around in circles, killing a small number of monsters over and over again until you've acquired enough gold for a HP top-up or a stat boost. After a while, it just feels like you're watching numbers go up and down with barely any relation to the action on screen. It's true that sometimes it can feel good or even necessary to switch off your brain and just grind mindlessly for a few hours* - that's half the reason World Of Warcraft and it's ilk are so popular after all. The negative side of this is that nagging, empty feeling that you've just wasted a couple of hours you could've been spending doing something more productive, or at least playing a slightly more fulfilling game. Or finally posting that blog entry you've been avoiding since July. Ahem.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

#3: The Lost Kingdom Of Zkul

Publisher: Talent Computer Systems
Developers: Jon Malone, Allan Black.
Released: 1985(?)

I couldn't find the box-art for the ST version, so here's the title screen.

Well, it had to come sooner or later. The Lost Kingdom Of Zkul is the very first text-only adventure I'll be covering on this blog, and I've spent quite a bit of time wondering how I was going to present it in a non-boring way. In the end, I decided to go with the most obvious choice of a screengrabby "Let's Play"-ish format documenting my attempt(or possibly failure) to play the game.

TLKOZ(as it will probably never be known) was published by the Glasgow-based Talent Computer Systems, and is another port from Sinclair's doomed QL. Talent themselves were probably better known for their "serious" titles such as QL Paint and Cartridge Doctor, the purpose of which was to rescue damaged files from Sinclair's notoriously troublesome microdrive.

I've put a question mark next to the release date because I believe the ST version came out towards the end of 1985, but I'm not 100% sure as of yet. Antic Magazine No. 9 from January 1986 carried a report from the previous year's PC World Show in London, focussing on the array of new and upcoming titles available for the ST. Zkul is listed under "FINAL", meaning the reviewer had seen a completed, marketed version of the game. Given that the PCW show took place in early November, this seems to indicate Zkul must've been available by the end of that year. I realise no-one probably cares about this but me, but accuracy is important, dammit!

Anyway, lets get started. When the game begins, you are confronted by this lengthy screen of backstory, which would seem to suggest the authors are more than slightly familiar with the works of the late Professor Tolkien:

tl/dr: The upshot of all this is basically you have decided to go into some caves and look for treasure.

There isn't a huge amount to explore in the area outside the cave. There's an apparently endless dirt track, one of those adventure game forests that causes you to get instantly lost upon entering, your mate Eldomir's hut, and that's pretty much it.

Here, after some initial stumbling about, I make my first attempt to force my way into the cavern, and am immediately stymied by the very first obstacle. How embarrassing. By the way, the "EXAMINE" command is completely useless in this game, as it always results in the same response: "The [examined item] is just what it seems."

This is one of the more novel aspects of the game - a built in hint system. Basically, when you get stuck in certain situations, you are offered the chance to trade off some of your final score in exchange for a clue as to what to do next. 

...but sometimes, it's just not worth it.

Many adventure games of this era suffered from a limited vocabulary, but the parser in Zkul seems particularly lacking in intelligence. I know I have to get the portcullis out of the way somehow, but finding the precise combination of words to do so is eluding me.

Having exhausted all my available options, I take the coward's way out via a headfirst plunge into the River Benethor...

...however, this proves to be fortuitous, as it turns out this is the only way you can reach the home of your good buddy Eldomir, who I'm sure has loads and loads of useful advice to help you out on your quest.

Or, then again, he could just be completely and utterly useless. You see, it turns out all Eldomir actually does is wait in his house for you to bring the treasure back. Something tells me this not exactly a 100% equal partnership.

Oh thanks a bunch Eldomir, you massive dick.

At this point I decide to take the Long Walk out into the wilderness, by following the dirt track at the start of the game to see whether it actually ends at any point. Spoiler: It doesn't.

You are allowed to be resurrected twice upon dying, but on the third attempt the game will throw a hissy fit and refuse to continue, forcing you to reload the whole game. What a bitch!.

Another "feature" I forgot to mention is food and water situation. In order to survive, you are required to eat and drink at certain times, effectively giving you a set number of moves to do what you have to do before you drop down dead. These kind of arbitrary time limits have always been a bit of a bugbear of mine when it comes to older games, it always feels like a needless extra element of frustration on top of everything else.

Unfortunately, I decided to call it a day on Lost Kingdom Of Zkul without even having got past the first puzzle. As I haven't really given the game a fair crack of the whip, I think I may come back to it once I figure out how to get past that wretched portcullis. It can't be that hard, can it...

Tuesday 23 April 2013

#2 - Mudpies

Publisher: Microdeal(UK), Michtron(US)
Developers: Jeffrey Sorensen, Philip MacKenzie
Approximate release date: December 1985/January 1986

As a bit of an experiment with this one, I'm including some gameplay footage to try and make thing a little less dry and text-heavy. This has resulted in this entry taking a little longer to prepare, as I had wrestle with some video encoding issues, but hopefully it'll be worth it. Maybe.

Okay, we're now going to look at another Microdeal game, but before we get into that, just take a look at this truly horrific cover art:

Unadulterated nightmare fuel.
Gahhh! Thankfully, the clowns that feature in the actual game are marginally less disturbing. Mudpies is another old game repurposed for the ST, but this port seems to have had a little more effort put into it than Lands Of Havoc, thank goodness. The original was only available for one relatively obscure system, the Tandy Color Computer(CoCo), and was itself based on an earlier arcade title released by Atari themselves, Food Fight.

The reason Atari weren't releasing their own arcade titles for the ST at this point is slightly complicated. Following the disastrous videogame market crash of 1984, what remained of the company had been effectively split into two entirely separate entities; Atari's arcade division(Atari Games) was now mostly owned by Namco, whereas the home computer division(Atari Corp.) was now in the hands of Jack Tramiel, former head of Commodore. The restrictions on Atari Games' licence meant they couldn't sell anything with the Atari name on in the home market. However, they could licence games for release under a different brand, leading to the creation of the Tengen label, who would go on to release titles for pretty much every system going. Including the ST of course. Later on, Tengen became embroiled in the infamous Tetris copyright case, but that's a whole other story.

Mudpies was the second ST release from Microdeal, and came out in either the winter of 1985 or spring of the next year (Compute! Magazine reviewed it in their December '85 issue, the earliest review of an ST game I've been able to locate so far).

You control Arnold, "a mischievous 12 year old boy who's sense of humour sometimes goes astray," according to the instructions. Uh-huh. Arnold is a somewhat reckless young urchin who's thoughtless shenanigans during a trip to the circus have landed him in some pretty serious shit. He's trapped in a nightmarish maze of circus tents, trying to avoid the pummelling he is due to receive from an endlessly respawning army of clowns who haven't taken particularly well to his anti-social behaviour.

The object of each room is simply to reach the exit to the next room before the tide of clowns finally overpowers you, making sure to pick enough discarded junk food on the way in order to hold off starvation for a little while longer. It seems there is apparently no way out of this hellish circus, because as soon as you successfully traverse the seven or so screens, you just end up back at the start to do the whole thing all over again. Coming into contact with a clown or their projectiles results in a cute little animation of two paramedics carrying you away on a stretcher, although it seems like these guys must hate you as well, as they just dump you right back in there once you've been patched up.

Graphics-wise, there's not an awful lot to shout about. The game sprites are very small and flickery, and don't animate particularly well, but we should bear in mind that this game came out very early in the Atari's lifespan, at a point when programmers were still trying to work out what on earth to do with it - getting any game up and running at all was something of an achievement, so we should probably cut the programmers some slack.

That's about all there is to it, really. Mudpies is a surprisingly fun little game, but I couldn't imagine it keeping your attention for very long, due to the lack of variation in the "levels". Once you've played all the way through a couple of times(which takes less than ten minutes), you'll have seen the entire game. The only reason to keep playing beyond that is to improve your score, and even that's not especially difficult. Even with my distinct lack of l33t gaming skillz, I was able to beat the creator's high scores in very little time at all.

Here's some gameplay I recorded earlier:

Friday 19 April 2013

The Computer Chronicles - Amiga vs ST(1985)

Now, now here's a thing: 

This is an episode of the long-running PBS series The Computer Chronicles from 1985, discussing the newly launched Atari ST and Commodore Amiga. if you can get past the slightly drab presentation style, there's some pretty interesting stuff here. For one thing, you get to see the Atari and Commodore marketing guys make their sales pitch. Atari are up second, and I'm pretty sure you can detect a slight hint of panic as they've just seen what they're up against - hence the emphasis on the ST as a kind of budget price Personal Computer rather than a games machine.

If nothing else, this does serve to underline some unfortunate issues with the ST's design, which often led to it coming off the worse of the two in performance terms. The Amiga had unique custom designed chips for handling graphics and sound, but in order to beat it's competitor to the marketplace, the ST's build included a certain number of cheaper, pre-existing components. For instance, the Yamaha chip that handled all the ST's sound was a slightly modified of version of the same one that had been in the Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, MSX, etc. Essentially, the Atari was a 16-bit machine with the sound output of an 8-bit. The more skilled programmers would eventually get some pretty impressive sounds of it, and of course the ST's ability to output to a MIDI module made up for it some ways, but it was always something of a handicap that Atari users had to put up with.

While this reliance on "off the shelf" components may have given Atari the initial advantage in sales terms, it would come to hurt them badly in the long run, as the poor old ST just couldn't keep up with the demands of increasingly complex games.

Friday 12 April 2013

#1 - Lands Of Havoc

Publisher: Microdeal
Developer: Steve Bak
Released: July 1985

British software publishers Microdeal were a fairly big player in the early years of 16 bit computing, and many of the early titles we'll be looking at here were published under their banner. Formed in Cornwall in the early eighties, they initially specialised in software for the Dragon 32 and Tandy TRS-80, but were also one of the first companies to really get on the ST bandwagon.

Lands Of Havoc, developed by Microdeal's in-house programmer Steve Bak, is the earliest known game to be released for the ST. So early in fact it was out in the shops month before Atari's new machine was officially available to buy, in July of 1985. Bak was available to achieve this remarkable feat not only because he had managed to acquire a prototype ST directly from Atari's production facility, but also because Lands Of Havoc wasn't an original game but a port of a version already released for the unsuccessful Sinclair QL range. We'll be seeing a few more QL games resurfacing in the early years of the ST, largely due to the fact that both machines had a processor in common, the 68000 chip, and thus programmers were able to port over their existing games without much difficulty.

Lands Of Havoc is a fantasy-themed maze game with some vague puzzle elements, and I do mean vague. You control what can only be described as a lizard with a beer gut, and your initial mission is to run around nine different maze areas, finding a series of objects which can only be activated by touching them in a particular order. It's up to you to find out what this order actually is, leading to much frustration as you stumble around wondering what on earth you're supposed to be doing and why none of the items you find actually appear to do anything. The game's manual is particularly unhelpful in this regard, as most of it just consists of some largely irrelevant backstory about THE DARK LORDS and THE HIGH VANISH and not actually explaining what you're supposed to do.

The boxed version originally came with nine printed postcards, each containing a map corresponding to one of the nine areas of the maze. The idea was that at the start of each new game, the arrangement of the maze areas would be randomised, and you were supposed to rearrange the postcards as per the game's instructions to reveal the new map. It's a nice idea, just a shame it wasn't in the service of a more worthwhile game.

After some persistence(and a certain amount of bloody-mindedness) I eventually stumbled on a secret library screen not included on any of the maps, containing a mystical book that finally unlocks the game's first item. From then on it's just a matter of following the direction each item gives you, until eventually you can access a portal to The Underworld. This leads on to the next part of the game, which consists of running around even more mazes(this time without the aid of maps) looking for THE DARK LORDS so you can murder them. Strangely, THE DARK LORDS when you find them aren't programmed to retaliate in any way, and just stand there completely immobile until you walk into them and they die instantly.

I have to admit, I didn't actually bother finishing Lands Of Havoc, but I'm pretty sure I'd seen everything the game had to offer, such as it was. And to be honest, I only got as far as I did due to stumbling on a cheat mode by accident - I was basically pressing every key trying to work out how to unpause the game, and when I finally succeeded, it turned out I was now completely unkillable. The difficulty level of the game is so absurdly unfair, that I can't imagine many would've bothered persevering with it without the aid of a cheat mode, in any case.

Undoubtedly the most dickish move the game pulls on you is the "instant death" screen. One screen in the whole maze, if entered at the wrong time, causes you to be completely frozen to the spot, allowing the enemies to trample you to death in a matter of seconds. And there's no getting out of it at all, it's basically an inescapable Game Over. Not cool, Steve.

So as you may've gathered, Lands Of Havoc really isn't very good. What might've been passable for an 8-bit budget title just doesn't cut it for what was at the time a full price 16-bit release, and apart from the cost, the ST version is full of problems that prevent it from being in any way an enjoyable gaming experience

For one thing, the enemies spawn way too quickly and in too large numbers, meaning the idea of actually engaging them in battle is completely pointless. You end up mostly running full-pelt from screen to screen as fast you can, hoping you can make it to the next one before taking any damage. On top of this, the controls are stiff and awkward, strangely more so under a real ST than an emulated version. Sometimes the fire button just flat-out refuses to respond, and apparently implementing the ability to fire up and down as well as left and right was too much trouble, as you're stuck with shooting along a horizontal axis.

Graphically, the game is almost entirely indistinguishable from the C64 version, and for some reason Bak only chose to utilises the Atari's four colour medium resolution mode, rather than the wider palette of sixteen colours available in low res mode. There's not an awful lot to recommend audio-wise, either. Other than a couple of barely noticeable sound effects, there is one piece of music in the game that loops continuously which becomes intensely irritating within minutes.

C64 version...
....and ST version. Genuinely quite hard to tell the difference.

Thankfully, there were much better games on the way for the ST, but for early users it must've seemed like an awfully long wait.