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.

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