Monday, 17 February 2014

Vectrex console and 32-in-1 cart!!! (Part One, Games 1-12) Wowzers!

The Vectrex was released in 1982, first by General Electric, then later by Milton Bradley (as my version is). It was the first and, to this day, only home video game console to use vector graphics, so by early 80's standards the graphics were phenomenal.

Every video game console prior to the 90's promised the 'arcade' experience at home despite having nowhere near the hardware capabilities. Scratchy sound, a feeble d-pad instead of a joystick and so on. Now I don't have a Neo-Geo or a MAME cabinet to compare it to or anything, but I can say quite confidently that out of all my consoles, the Vectrex is the only one that truly delivers an arcade-like experience.

Now, I'm not saying it's perfect or anything. The controller's joystick is a bit tiny, and neither it nor the buttons are microswitched or anything as arcade-y and luxurious as that, but this thing has a built in vector screen, just as many of the arcade machines of the day did.

So fantastic, my camera can't keep up with it.

Just look at it. Look at it! LOOK AT IT! It's beautiful. And the sound is just as good.

All this aside, of course, a console is only as good as it's games. The Vectrex can be as fancy-pants as it wants but if it's games suck it doesn't do much good. Fortunately, the quality of Vectrex games is generally pretty high. It had a very meager library back in the day (29 officially released games), some of which were considered to be very high quality arcade ports. One cool feature was that all consoles came pre-loaded with a game called 'Minestorm' which is an asteroids-esque arcade shooter, and a pretty damn fun one at that. Up til now, the homebrew scene for the Vectrex has been running strongly considering the relative obscurity of the console, more than doubling the size of the Vectrex library, and creating unofficial but pretty impressive peripherals like the VecVox voice synthesiser. 


 Both peripherals were way ahead of their time, but unfortunately are  pretty rare and expensive now.

In the 1990's, all officially released Vectrex games were moved into the public domain, which means there are plenty of entirely legal Vectrex multicarts out there. Most include all officially released games, and any number of homebrews and prototypes ranging all the way up to 72 in 1 carts. I have one of the more basic versions, a 32 in 1 dip switch cartridge called 'Vectrom', which includes all officially released titles except those which require the super rare 3d Imager, and Animaction, an animation program that needed extra memory in order to save data, so isn't included on most multicarts. The Vectrex also had a 'light pen' peripheral which was necessary for a couple of art and music programs, which I don't have either (although I might build my own soon), so a few of the games included are unplayable.

32 times the fun!

What I do have, however, is a collection of homebrews, arcade ports and quirky original games that really show off the Vectrex's superior graphics and gameplay capabilities. It's also worth mentioning that the Vectrex was monochrome, so used transparent coloured plastic overlays to colour the games (like a few of the very early home consoles, most famously the Magnavox Odyssey). Unfortunately, I only own one of these overlays, as I only own one boxed cartridge other than the multicart. 

I'm going to do this in two or three parts because even when doing brief reviews, 32 in a row is a lot for me to write, and a lot for you to read. Anyway, let's have a gander at some games!

#1: Minestorm

Bloody camera blur again. Just trust me it's absolutely gorgeous.

Minestorm is a great game. What's more, it's a great free game! Each Vectrex console has Minestorm built in, starting up when there is no other cartridge inserted. At heart, Minestorm is an asteroids remake, however, there are a few differences that make it a markedly different game. As the name suggests, rather than Asteroid's asteroids, minestorm has mines! A really nice animation at the beginning of each level shows a very crisp looking craft moving down the screen (with a beautiful scaling effect only made possible by the wonders of vector graphics!) dropping mine spawns everywhere. Your mission is to destroy all of the mines without being hit. The mines pop up from visible spawn points and move around the screen, destroying your ship if you touch one. Admittedly, for the first few stages this is all you get, and it's a bit too easy to be properly fun. Fortunately a few new game elements are thrown at you later on, like enemy ships that lay more mines, or a mine that fires homing missiles when hit. 


Unlike Asteroids, your ship doesn't have the same inertia 'drift'. When you let go of the accelerate button, you drift a little, but to nothing like the extent you do in Asteroids (something I have always found pretty annoying). Basically, Minestorm is a fun little shooter that anyone who likes Asteroids should love equally. The fact that it was built in to the system is also super awesome because it really exemplifies the Vectrex's ability to bring true arcade-quality games into the family home. Anyone who bought a Vectrex back in the day would have been thrilled to find a top quality game playable right out of the box.

#2 Armor Attack

That's me getting blown up :(

When I first played Armor Attack, I thought of Atari's Combat. The tank control is pretty much the same and the graphics are reminiscent of it, just with the bonus of being vector and therefore absolutely brilliant. However, I quickly realised that Armour Attack is a much deeper game. Combat is a two player only game, while Armor Attack is for one or two players. This may seem like a really obvious difference, but it actually changes the gameplay quite a lot. Rather than one enemy controlled by the other player, in single player mode you get put up against AI-run tanks and helicopters, giving the game a significant single-player challenge.  Don't get me wrong, Combat is fantastic and in my opinion one of the purest and best two player games out there, but its really nice to be able to enjoy a very similar game on your lonesome. Besides, I only have one Vectrex controller.

#3 Berzerk

Berzerk! One of my all time favorite games and the Vectrex version is probably my favorite port that I own. For the uninitiated, Berzerk is a maze/shooter game in which you move around a series of maze-like screens shooting robots and avoiding the 'big boss' Evil Otto (which, bizarrely, is a smiley face). Other than the lovely vector graphics, which I must have mentioned about 20 times by now, there isn't too much to say about the Vectrex port. I like it a lot more than the Atari 2600 port primarily because of the graphics, but also because it feels a bit 'larger'. I think on the Atari the robots are bigger and therefore easier to hit whereas the Vectrex version just seems a lot more spacious. I think the perfect version of Berzerk would be the Vectrex version, using an Atari joystick. There are plenty of homemade and hacked Vectrex controllers I've seen around the web, so I might try to do this in the future.

#4 Blitz

Get yer tackle out!

I'm not really sure what I can say about Blitz. It's an American Football game. Considering the very basic graphics used, the layout and the pitch are actually very clear. You are a team of Xs against a team of boxes. The yard lines are clearly marked, the ball is visible and the big goal-ish things are also there. I still have the same problem as I always do (which makes me remarkably underqualified for reviewing an American Football game) in that I have literally no clue what to do. I know I need to get my guy with the ball up to the end of the pitch, and maybe kick it over the big goal-ish thing. Pretty much like rugby but with helmets. But words like 'Safety' and 'Good' keep flashing up on the screen and I have no idea what they mean.

If I knew about American Football, I would possibly enjoy this, but as it stands it's just a confusing mess.

You get some neat little tunes when the other team gets a 'good' though.

#5 Star Castle

This one is like a cross between Yars' Revenge and Dingo Dile. (In fact, Star Castle has apparently been cited as an inspiration for Yars').

Next year I'm asking Santa for a backwards port of Crash Bandicoot on the 2600.

Well, okay, it's not exactly like those things. There's no streams of data flashing across the screen and nobody offers to make you toast (for better or for worse) but you'll see what I mean.

Basically, you have to destroy the enemy ship in the middle, behind it's concentric revolving barricades. However, if you destroy an entire circle of barricade at the same time, they all regenerate. This feature makes what would otherwise be an incredibly easy game into a real challenge, especially when you have enemy homing bullets to watch out for. Once you do break through all the barriers, you must shoot the central enemy ship, and you get whisked off to the next level with higher difficulty.

All in all your just a... nother prick behind some walls!

I can't quite put my finger on it but I really feel like I should be enjoying this game more than I do. It's challenging, it's fast and frantic, and it's definitely fun. I'm starting to realise that while the Vectrex's graphics are stunning, having the correct overlays to add a bit of colour to the games would probably improve the experience quite a bit. That said, this is a fun game and a worthy addition to the Vectrex's library.

#6 Cosmic Chasm

This is a weird one. It hit me as surprisingly complex for a game of this age, having a map screen and multiple pathways. The idea is that you are a drilling bomb-placement ship that is making it's way to the center of an evil planet to blow it up. You need to choose the best route to get to the center and blow away any 'planet protectors' that lie in the caverns on your way through, then plant a bomb and run back out through the caverns to the surface of the planet. 

Despite a slightly awkward control scheme (down to the slightly odd Vectrex gamepad) Cosmic Chasm is a
pretty addictive little game with a moderate level of challenge. Once again I need to praise the vector graphics, with large numbers of enemies on screen and fairly intricate room shapes. The Vectrex deals with this incredibly well, something that I can't imagine any other console of the time doing.

#7 Heads Up

Imagine if FIFA games had a wireframe-stickman mode. That's Heads Up. And to be honest, it's pretty damn good. I'm not geat at football games really and because of this don't tend to particularly enjoy them, but it's still easy to see that Heads Up was a pretty great attempt for the time. The control is fairly fluid, with buttons to change player, pass and shoot. I actually had quite a lot of fun playing this, but there are some shortcomings. The Vectrex being monochrome means that rather than having different colours, the two teams are you (the stick men) and them (the slightly less bright stick men, with a hard-to-see cross on their chests). This is not helpful. Also, you cannot control the goalkeeper, which is quite annoying. The AI isn't great and there's no offside rule or anything fancy like that, but Heads Up is a very solid effort, way surpassing anything I've played on the Atari 2600, or any cartridge based pong-like console. It would surprise me if there were a better football game available at the time, even in the arcades. I reckon it would actually be a decent time waster if played 2 player.

#8 Hyperchase

Dem trees.

Ever wanted to drive a car at stupid speeds despite the fact that it's turning is so sensitive that even nudging the steering guarantees your death? Well now you can! 

Hyperchase has potential. Like most Vectrex games it looks fantastic. There's smooth perspective shifts and fast moving images that just wouldn't be possible on other home consoles of the 80's. While the core gameplay hardly differs from the most basic racing games you could get on 'tv game' pong-ish consoles, there are a few differences (as well as, of course, the graphics.). Hyperchase has gears, changed via buttons 1 and 2, which can be hard to reach while steering. This is a well implemented mechanic but once in higher gears and therefore higher speeds, it becomes too easy to crash due to the finicky steering.

Hyperchase isn't terrible, but slightly disappointing. Anyone who bought this back in the day would probably have been annoyed that they didn't get the vastly superior port of Pole Position instead (#25 in this list).

#9 Fortress Of Narzod

Here's an intriguingly unique game! Fortress Of Narzod is a shooter, but a very odd one. Rather than just shooting a bunch of aliens at the top of the screen, as is most shooters of the time, Narzod has you shooting up a series of crooked canyons towards a fortress (which, yeah, aliens come out of, but bear with me).

Pew, pew, pew. Pew.

 "But Adam, oh, Adam! How does one shoot 'dem baddies if the canyon is all askew?" I hear you cry. Well, kiddies, the secret of Fortress of Narzod which makes it interesting is the rebounding bullets. I can't think of any other game from that era that uses this mechanic in the same way. Sure, games like Combat and Outlaw do use rebounding bullets but not in this sort of 'aimed-double-ricochet' manner. Because of this, you also have to watch out for your own bullets flying back at you, making Narzod a fun, intense and fast paced game.

#10 Polar Rescue

Polar Rescue is really cool (heh). It's also the first properly 3d first-person perspective game in the article! Wahey!

Normally, these games don't particularly appeal to me, especially old ones. These 'flight sim' style games just never really hit me right, but those on the Vectrex just seem cleaner and more fluid. Polar rescue sees you as the pilot of a submarine, presumably by one of the poles. The screen shows a radar which you use to hunt down enemy ships and a large viewing port. Air bubbles, floating rocks (why?), mines and enemy ships all look really nice and scale smoothly, as can be expected of the vector graphics. The opening and death animations are both very impressive and show off the power of the Vectrex's graphics .

I don't know whether I'm just not good enough at the game to get anywhere or if there isn't any rescuing to be done. It seems to just be roaming the waters shooting anything you find. If that is the case, it's a pretty basic game, but the 3d graphics are impressive enough for me to be happy with this one.

It's repetitive but it's quite fun.

#11 Rip Off

Gimme back my triangle! :'(

While being rather simple, Rip Off is one of my favorite Vectrex games. You control a little spaceship guarding a bunch of shapes in the center of the screen. Enemies come onto the screen from any side and try to nick them and you have to shoot them down. Once they're all taken away, it's game over. There's no super-awesome special attack or anything else tucked up it's sleeve, Rip Off is just simple fun.

#12 Scramble

For some reason Scramble always comes out super blurry compared to other Vectrex games.
Scramble is a great, great game. I actually had no idea that it was a fully fledged arcade game, having only previously played the Tomy LCD desktop game. Obviously, the Vectrex port is a vast improvement (not to snub the desktop game, mind you). Scramble plays like a mix of Defender and Gradius. According to Wikipedia, Scramble was once considered by Konami to be the first in the Gradius series.

Basically you fly over land and through a series of caves shooting rockets that take off from the bottom of the screen. You need to keep an eye on your fuel (the bar on the bottom of the screen) too, bombing fuel depots in order to refill, which makes total sense. Both this, and the constantly changing environment and enemies keeps Scramble fresh and entertaining. It really makes me want to play again and get a little further than the last time.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

SMS review #2: Alex Kidd in Miracle World!

Greetings!Welcome to the ball-bouncingly exciting second installment of my Sega Master System collection reviews: Alex Kidd In Miracle World!

I neglected to mention in my last post that Master System consoles were also interesting because some versions included a pre-loaded game. In the most common Master System model, the game 'snail race' could be activated by starting the machine with no cartridge, and pressing a combination of buttons. This was a very basic game in which you just had to get a snail from one side of a maze to the other in a time limit. Other models of the original Master System included Missile Command, Hang On or Safari Hunt.

On the Master System II some of the later models had Sonic the Hedgehog built in. Mine however is an earlier model, as it has Alex Kidd in Miracle World built in. Released on cartridge in 1987 and built-in in 1990, Miracle World is the first in the Alex Kidd series, and of those I've played, probably the best.

Alex Kidd in Miracle World is a colourful and cartoony platformer with certain somewhat whacky and bizarre elements thrown in. I can't say I particularly liked Miracle World at first. It might have been the slightly 'floaty' physics or the tiny range of your attack, but it took quite a while of getting frustrated before I really got to grips with the game's control system. Once you get the hang of it, it actually works fairly well although your character, the titular Alex, does suffer from 'one-hit-death' syndrome which can be quite annoying. For instance, using your aforementioned tiny  punch attack it can be fairly hard to hit some enemies, but seemingly very easy for them to hit you. This is all the more annoying because you are only given three lives, and no continues. Hardcore. However there is a cheat mode which makes things considerably easier. Pressing up and button 2 eight times at the game over screen allows you to continue from the beginning of the level with three lives again, as long as you have collected enough money. This makes picking up as much money as possible imperative to get anywhere in the game, otherwise you just get stuck going over the same few first levels.

Knob head more like.

Speaking of which, at the end of each stage you have to face a henchman who challenges you to a game of Janken (that's rock, paper, scissors to me and you) and you must defeat him best two out of three. If you fail, you lose a life. Lose all three lives, go back to the start menu. Ugh. It took me a few play-throughs up to the first henchman to realise that they always choose the same thing (I'm an idiot, y'see). So I had spent an hour or so playing over the first stage for no good reason. Harrumph. I'll admit, I had to look up the Janken choices to avoid the same thing happening again. As much fun as Alex Kidd is once you're into it, not progressing is not fun, nobody wants to play the same few levels for hours on end.

Once I got past this wall of dying, I actually started having real fun in the game. There's still plenty of frustrating deaths, and even without the Janken matches getting in the way I still got a bunch of Game Overs. Frustration aside, Miracle World becomes quite addictive once you've played for a while. It's quite hard, and especially with the aforementioned control problems there are a few platforming segments that are really quite tricky, but nothing that seems impossible. It's also quite gratifying in the way you get a sense of progression. You move through an overworld map through island, jungle, cave and castle, and the levels and enemies (mostly) reflect this in a very colourful and inviting way. Sure, there's a few out of place enemies, like the little lettuce-looking monsters in the caves, or the fires inexplicably covering half of the castle, but they help give the game a bit more of its bizarro character. Just by the graphics of Miracle World you'd think it would be a kids game, but the difficulty says otherwise. Maybe I'm just really bad at it though.

The variation of transport also help keep Miracle World from becoming stale. Alex can not only run, jump and swim like any other platforming hero, but also ride a motorbike, sail a canoe or fly a helicopter. You can buy these in certain shops throughout the game but they aren't essential, adding a bit of replayability. One area traversed in a helicopter is far different to the same level by foot.

I'm aware that these tales of helicopters and lettuce men and rock, paper scissors matches seem pretty nonsensical, but it all makes sense when you hear the story. You have to save your brother from this castle because he's been kidnapped (or, KIDD-napped HAUAHUAAHAHAUAHA!) by the evil Janken, who wants to force everyone to play rock, paper, scissors or something. Somehow beating up loads of fish, birds and frogs is going to help you get him back. Oh, and you have to eat a burger at the end of each level. Story telling genius. I really don't know what the story is, and I don't really care. Alex Kidd in Miracle World is an immensely frustrating but beautifully colorful jump n' punch (I'm totally coining that phrase, btw.)  If you can exercise extreme patience, its an odd but interesting experience. If you can't, you're missing out, but there are plenty of better 8-bit platformers out there. Alex Kidd in Miracle World is good, but it ain't no Mario.

Cheers for Reading,
Dusty Old Games.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Hello again! & Sega Master System Collection review #1: Action Fighter!

Hello all!

Its been a while. Like really, a bloody long time, but I made a new years promise to myself that I would get back to writing reviews. I know it's the end of January, but hey. LET US REVIEW!

I'm setting myself a task here, to review every Sega Master System game I own (don't worry, it's nothing like complete, we're talking ~50 games) in order to get myself back into regular writing and also to force myself to play one of my favorite consoles that I really don't make enough time for. 

Uni work must come first unfortunately, but I'm sure I can cut out some procrastination and squeeze in some awesome video game reviews instead!

Here's to getting this bloggy thing back on the road! Cheers!

A brief introduction to the SMS:

The Sega Master System, as I'm sure most of you are aware, was Sega's first cartridge based home video game console to have a worldwide release, and was one of the few major competitors to Nintendo's NES system in the 8-bit era. There had been the previous Sega SG-1000 released only in Japan and Australia/New Zealand, and it's successors the SG-1000 II and SG-3000, which were just improvements on the original model. The SG-3000 had a built in keyboard and worked more like a computer than a stand alone games console.

In 1985 came the Sega Mark III, a true home console with backwards compatibility with most of  the SG series, which served as the basis for the Master System.

Masterfully crafted by Sega

The Master System was released in the UK and Europe in 1987 with the above design. One quirk of the original Master System model is the ability for it to read both cartridge and card based games. Sega had first introduced the card game media type with the SG-1000 and a 'card catcher' peripheral, the Master System's built in card reader was almost identical. Unfortunately, I will be reviewing the games on my Master System II, which lacks the card reading ability.

Surely that's a card-inal sin, right? right!?

Fortunately, however, a) I don't own any card based games at the moment; and b) the later Sega Mega Drive has backwards compatibility with the Master System via a Base Convertor peripheral which does have a card slot, and I happen to have one. Noice.

Anyway, enough about the history of the console. It was Sega's answer to Nintendo's NES and it was a bit nifty. I never had any experience with one as a child, but in the last few years I've become attached to it. Sure, I play my NES more but there's something special about this, too. It might be the squishy d-pad, or the annoyance of having to get up and press pause on the machine rather than on the controller (why?), but there's something about this console that plays a jammin' riff on my heartstrings, and hopefully I'll get that across in these upcoming reviews. It seems to make sense to start at the beginning of the alphabet, but whether I actually do this series in alphabetical order remains to be seen.

Without further ado, here's #1!

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Commerce Conflict Barcode Battler Handheld

Straddling the gap between the toy, trading card game and handheld video game markets, Commerce Conflict: Barcode Battler from Tomy and Epoch is a strange beast. Released in 1991, despite being very popular in Japan, it just never took off here and has been lost as another obscure footnote in handheld gaming history.

The basic concept of the game is a card battle, an even more simplified version of Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh, Magic or whatever else. In some senses it is deceptively simple, and in other ways it is a deep and complicated amalgamation of video game, interactive toy and oddly artistic commentary on consumerism in western society (alright, that might be reading into things a little too far).

The unit was supplied with a number of cards. Some were warriors and wizards, the good guys (with stupid names like Jam Bam and Beast Feast). Some were enemies (with awesome bad guy names like Droome and Baguza), and some weapons and power ups. The way you use these cards was by scanning a the card's barcode using a reader on the bottom of the device.

This may sound pretty pointless...What's the point in scanning a card into a device, when reading the stats off a card would be just as efficient, and probably a lot cheaper? Crap gimmick, right? Well, yeah, right, but also wrong.

The machine provides a random number generator affecting how much damage you do, whether your attack lands or misses, etc. which gives the game a bit of variation. More importantly, though, users are encouraged to go out and scan their own barcodes from household items. The manual carefully covers it's arse with this though, saying that it sometimes might not work. Or, you know, might just never work. It seems that the barcodes need to be exactly the same size and length as the ones on the supplied cards. Equally, it may be that the codes have to be from the early 90's, in which case sod off, I don't have anything from back then that I'm willing to cut up. I've tried cereal boxes (Krave, because it's the biz), magazines and various food packets but nothing modern seems to work. I do have one card that whoever had the Barcode Battler before me made... but that doesn't work either. Eesh.

Other than the whole problem with the console's main gimmick not working, it's actually a half decent game in itself. It's very simple to play and genuinely pretty fun. The storyline in the manual is pretty naff, though.

Far off in the Barcode Nebula (apparently on a clear night, you can see it west of Orion's belt) The Sacred Keys made from Regista Stone (Register, like the thing you scan barcodes on, get it?) have been stolen by forces of evil. You have to go through a series of 5 'Light Worlds' defeating each world's unique clan, in order to defeat it's boss to get the Sacred key back. Once you get 3 keys you go on to the next 'era' and do it all over again... 4 times.

Now remember I said the game is pretty fun? It's pretty fun for a little play session. However, each clan has 10 members, and any one of them could have the key. You need at least 3 keys to advance, although the manual actually recommends going to the other light worlds too, to level up your warrior. And you have to do this all 4 times. This means you could have to battle a total of up to 120 enemies to win the game, and if you really want to level up (which may actually be necessary to complete the game) you could fight up to 200 battles. Each battle takes a few minutes so you could be looking at 600 mins for a really full game. Yup,10 hours of handheld LCD gaming. That's pretty hardcore. If you wanted to go serious hardcore mode, you could complete the game with all 6 characters... and then there's all the barcodes you could find around the house... and then there's an entirely separate mode when you play against the far stronger enemies supplied in the box! Blimey. I bet there's someone out there who bought this thing in 1991 and is still having a great time playing it.

Looks pretty exciting, right?
The actual gameplay is a simple turn based battle. You can either choose BATTLE (attack) or POWER (use your power up card, which could be a weapon, some life points or a defence booster). You can also use Survival points, which recover your life points, or if you are a wizard character, you can choose from some spells to either attack, reduce the enemy's defence, raise your defence or replenish health. It's a fairly standard trading card style game.

However, while some may argue that the incredibly repetitive gameplay let's it down, there is a fair amount of variation available. I haven't been playing this long enough (and I doubt I ever will) to bother to use the save feature, but still whenever I start a new game it is interesting enough to play for a while again. This is because the game will start you in a random Light World against a random enemy from that clan. While this isn't the most exciting game mechanic ever, when you couple it with the fact that you can choose from 6+ slightly different characters, and also 2-player with your friend, it gives it a certain amount of replayability. Don't get me wrong, I'm not about to sit down and complete the quest, but I have  played it and mildly enjoyed it more than once. Considering that when I got this I thought I would hate it, things haven't gone too badly.

Whenever you're feeling down in the dumps, just think  "at least my name isn't Jam Bam".

All in all, is the Barcode Battler a good gaming system? Not particularly, which is probably why it flopped. However, it's not as bad as it seems at first glance. There is a limited amount of fun to be had with it, and considering the fact that it's a toy for kids, hearing that there's some fun to be had from an adult (albeit a childish one) has to say something. Perhaps I just enjoy it because of it's weird oddball-ness.

Really, though, it wasn't that far off the mark. In fact in some senses, the Barcode Battler was actually very much ahead of it's time. Nintendo released it's quite similar E-Reader for the Gameboy Advance a full 10 years later in 2001, releasing classic Nintendo games and unlockables for current games on scannable cards. That peripheral also sold badly, but still, it shows that the idea of scanning stuff was still in the works in the new millennium. More recently, I have noticed at a few seaside amusement arcades something called Dino King, which I think runs on the same kind of premise. You collect and trade cards, and then battle them at the arcade machine. Equally, QR codes are still a thing (even though most people seem to have forgotten them) and there is an undercurrent of people playing QR code 'treasure hunt' games, where you go around finding QR codes and scanning them with your phone, revealing the clue to the next code.

That said, these newer gaming devices/techniques haven't exactly made waves, in fact they have pretty much flopped as hard as the Barcode Battler itself. I would like to pretend that the Barcode Battler is a fantastic forgotten gem of the gaming world that completely changed gaming as we know it, but that would be a complete lie.

In reality, the Barcode Battler is could have once been described as rad, dope, wizard, cosmic, wicked and a myriad of other shit 90's lingo, but overall, much like those phrases, it's really just a pile of pap.

Thanks for reading,
Dusty Old Games.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Caveman Capers - Acorn Electron

Who here loves tape-based gaming? Me! I do!

If for no other reason, the loading time gives me time to make a cuppa. Actually, it gives me time to cook a pizza. In fact I could probably go to the shops, buy all the constituent ingredients for a pizza, study cookery under a top chef, win Masterchef 3 years in a row, and cook a pizza in the time it takes for the average tape-based game to load.

Fortunately, in this case the game is worth the wait. Caveman Capers from ICON was released in 1984 for the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron computers, and it is one of the simplest yet most addictive games I own for the Electron.

This woman appears to have a cat's bum sticking out of her elbow.
You are Ogg, a caveman with a very imaginative name, who has just found a new mode of transport: Kickstart the Turtle! You have to get Ogg and Kickstart past a plethora of obstacles to the phonebox, so Ogg can tell his wife (who, according to the box art, has a massive pair of tits and a face like a slapped arse) that he'll be late for tea. While this isn't the dumbest story I've ever heard, and there are a lot of dumb stories when it comes to cheapo tape games, it is still pretty ridiculous. Anyway with arcade style games like this, you don't need a story, it's the gameplay that counts.

Claiming to have 60 levels (although I doubt I will ever get that far), Caveman Capers is a simple yet challenging little game, which plays like a cross between Wonder Boy and Moon Patrol. Sounds pretty good? Good, because it is pretty good!

If I must...
Basically, you control Ogg with the Z and X keys to go left and right, and pressing return makes Ogg jump. It's as simple as that. However, there are ditches, snakes, pterodactyls, mushrooms and what is probably the weirdest looking Brontosaurus you'll ever see trying to trip you up and sent Kickstart flying. Oddly enough it's not the animals or ditches that get me, it's the mushrooms that I have trouble with. I'm not sure I've ever played a game where a mushroom turns out to be the main antagonist... usually they're such fungi's! ...I apologise for that one, sorry.

As is usually the case with arcade games, you'll have a hard time getting past more than a few levels without a certain amount of level memorisation and determination. I've been playing for an hour and haven't got past about level 9 or 10. Since starting writing these reviews I've begun to realise that perhaps I'm just not that good at video games. Or maybe I just pick out the hard ones. Maybe I'll cover something that I'm good at at some point.
Game Over... because playing a game while taking a photo is harder than it sounds.

The graphics in this game aren't astounding, but they are fairly decent. In fact, considering how limited the Electron was (in this display mode, only 4 colours are available), the graphics and animations are really quite good. I can't say I feel like I'm enveloped in a prehistoric world as I play, but they do get the job done.

The sound,on the other hand, is pretty dismal, although I've found that to be the case with most Electron games. It only had single channel sound and the speaker was built in. I'm not sure if there's a loose screw or something scintillating whenever the speaker makes a sound but mine seems to always have a really shrill overtone to it.  Fortunately, in Caveman Capers there is an option to turn the sound off, an option that not all Electron games offer.

Basically, if you have an Acorn Electron and you like cartoony arcade action, check this game out. It's fun, it's fast, it's got tits on the cassette case,  it's not rare, it's not expensive... what's your excuse?

Cheers for reading,
Dusty Old Games

Monday, 5 August 2013

Rowtron Television Computer System Console & Games Review

In my review of the Acetronic MPU 2000 a few days ago, I mentioned that it was a member of a largely forgotten family of British and European games consoles called the VC-4000 family.

As luck would have it, my local retro games shop, M and M games (in Croydon, worth a visit if you're in South London) updated their facebook with a picture of a system 'made in Yorkshire' which looked suspiciously similar to the Acetronic. This piqued my interest so I ran over faster than light to pick it up.

Ee bah gum, it's T'Yorkshire Console Baht 'at. Ey up Eckythump!etc, etc.
After doing some research, I have found that the Rowtron Television Computer System is indeed part of the Interton VC-4000 family of games. If anything, this is a rarer and harder to find member than the Acetronic, and is quite different in appearance and general game style.I might have to start making a side-collection of these things, I love how varied the machines are while still having basically the same hardware.

Let's play like we were brothers... Let's play like brothers do!
I am going to be comparing the Rowtron to the Acetronic quite a bit, because of the VC-4000 link, but fortunately I have a lot more games for the Rowtron. I have 18 games, 4 of which are duplicates, so 14 unique games, out of 26 (I'll put in a full list later on). But are they any good? Who knows, there's next to no information about any of them I can find on the internet. So you may well be looking at the most complete amalgamated source of information on the Rowtron game library ever made! Isn't that exciting!?

Rowtron Television Computer System 

The Rowtron Television Computer System was manufactured by Teleng and distributed by Rowtron, supposedly in 1981, although I found a comment on the old computers museum page for the Rowtron that suggests it may have been available from 1979. The comment itself is unsupported, but there is so little information available on this system, and some of that information needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, that it seems enough to throw the exact dates in to the air a little. There are a few sites that claim that 21 games were available for the console, but I have proof that there were 26, or at least that there were 26 planned releases (see below: Games).

 The Console

This console is huge. I mean, really bloody big. It might not be as heavy as an Xbox one, I mean, original, and I don't have any other huge consoles like an Atari 7800 or a Neo Geo AES to compare it to, but it's big. Almost as big as the TV I'm playing it on.

But now I can't see the telly.
You can see in that picture how much bigger the Rowtron is compared to the Sega Saturn, which is a pretty hefty block of a console, too. It looks like some kind of retro-futuristic control panel for a spaceship. An odd thing about the Rowtron is that it isn't even that heavy, in fact it's insanely light. I have pong consoles heavier than this thing. Don't get me wrong, the plastic is good quality, there's nice heavy duty buttons on it and the controllers are nice and weighty, it just doesn't seem like there's much inside it at all. What would you expect from an old low-power console, I guess?

The cartridges are also massive. You know how I compared an Acetronic cart to an Atari 2600 cart, and said the Acetronic cart was huge? Take a look at this:


Other than NES cartridges (and they have an excuse, being super awesome and all) Rowtron cartidges are by far the biggest I own. They dwarf SNES carts, those weird tall EA Mega Drive carts, Jaguar carts, everything. If only I had some Neo Geo games to put them to shame.

The cartridges were packed in nicely sturdy cardboard boxes, unfolding to reveal the game and an instruction leaflet. Unfortunately, the boxes were all the same, bar a sticker down the spine telling you which game is inside. No lovely box art to admire or blurb to read, unfortunately.

UOI5VNUI U3I7U. What the hell does that mean?

Looking at the console, you would probably assume that the dark grey cartridge-slot-looking area in the top of the console would be where you plug the cartridges in. Not so, however. Rather than plonking it in the top like almost every other games console had done, the Rowtron went all Intellivision on our asses and put the cartridge slot in the side. Apparently, the reason for the not-quite-slot in the top was because of a last minute change of plan in the design stages.

Sometimes, when you stare too long into the abyss...

Having the slot at the side kind of makes sense, I suppose. Less dust will settle in there and you're less likely to drop something directly on the pin connection. On the other hand, it means you can't have your system set up with less than 3 or 4 inches leeway on the right side. When you have loads of consoles and not enough room for them (guilty as charged) that can be pretty annoying. Also, it looks like the console has grown a tumour.
I for one, embrace our new video game overlords.

My favorite part of the Rowtron's hardware is definitely the controllers. They are similar to the Acetronic controllers but so,so much nicer. The small, unmarked keys are replaced with a huge, high quality phone keypad. The buttons are much larger and nicely beveled, very ergonomic. You can tell that these controllers were made with far higher grade parts than the Acetronic ones, the keys click very definitely in, much like a phone (I wouldn't be surprised if the parts were actually straight from a phone). The joysticks are far more sturdy, but still easy enough to move around precisely. The whole controller is shaped more to fit your hand than the Acetronic and is really quite comfortable to use. The best part is: no curly wiring! Sure, the wire only reaches about a foot, but still. At least I don't feel like I'm being pulled back towards the console all the time.


As I mentioned earlier, there seems to be a bit of confusion about the number of games released for the Rowtron. The general consensus seems to be 21, although I have cartridge 22 (Alien Invasion) and 26 (Monster Muncher) , the latter has a list of 26 games 'Available to fit Rowtron and Teleng television computer systems'. It could be that some of those games weren't ever released, or (and I highly, highly doubt it) I have some super-rare games that nobody thought were released.
Anyway, if anyone is traversing the world wide web looking for a full games list for the Rowtron and Teleng Television Computer Systems, here it is:

1. Sportsworld
3.Horse Racing
5.Maths Two
6.Four In A Row
8.Air-Sea Battles
10.Black Jack
11.Sporting Shotgun
12.Motor Race
13.Maths One
15.Galactic Space Battles
17.Video Pinball
18.Flag Capture/Memory Match
19.Face the Music
22.Alien Invasion
23.Home Programmer
26.Monster Muncher

Again, I can't be sure that all of these were released, but I do own number 26, with suggests that they were manufactured up to number 26.

Without further ado, I'll do some quick reviews of the games, from 1 to 26 (well, the ones I have anyway).

Cartridge number 1: Sportsworld. 

Right, so this will be pong won't it? Yup, but for what it's worth it's quite good pong. On a pink background with very bright and vibrant colours for the bats, it looks a bit garish but nice. I was somewhat blown away by the sound and the control. The sound is really varied for this kind of game. Normally the most you get it a 'bip...bip...bip' but with this you get a different beep for each bat, and for the wall, which decreases in pitch as your rally gets longer. The control is really good, normally with pong you want to be using a rotary controller, like the Atari Paddle controller, or like the ones built in to pretty much any pong console back in the day. However, the joystick control on the Rowtron is really precise, with little or no bat-flicker, which gets really annoying on old pong machines. There are then your game variations like Football, Volleyball, Netball, Basketball... pretty standard pong variations, similar to Atari's Video Olympics.
It looks super-washed out because of the difference in refresh rates in the camera and the telly, but trust me, it's like an explosion in a paint factory.

But what's this... Wipeout, Defender, Demolition? These sound new... Oh awesome! Breakout/Arkanoid clones and pong clones on the same cartridge! Madness! The blocks are just lines, rather than blocks, but these are still genuinely fun versions of the game. And you get two player modes, modes where you have to defend your wall rather than attack it in Defender, modes where you have to work together (very rare in old games) in Demolition. This is actually awesome, in fact I might even say that I would rather play this than the Atari 2600 equivalents.

This cartridge has really filled me with hope for this system, fingers crossed that the rest of the games are just as good.

Cartridge number 2: Combat. 

Once again, I'm expecting this to be a clone of Atari's Combat. The last cart managed to surprise me though, so maybe this will too. 
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? I can't tell, it's too blooming small!

No surprises, really. It's just combat. A few different tank arenas, a few different plane arenas. Unfortunately, the control here really let the game down. Unlike in pong and it's variants, where you move the joystick in the direction you want to move, combat has left and right turning the tank/plane left and right, and forward and back being thrust and backwards thrust. This works really well on the 8 direction Atari Joystick, but on these somewhat wobblier and wamblier joysticks, you end up thrusting when you want to be turning, and vice-versa. 

If I had to pick out a few positives about Rowtron Combat, it would be that, again, the sound is far better than expected and, again, the graphics are very colourful. Also, unlike in Atari's Combat, there is a large flashing explosion animation when a tank or plane is shot. Also, while the tanks seem pretty small, the shots they fire are large flashing blobs, which is quite a nice touch. People with epilepsy should probably stay as far away from the Rowtron as possible, though. 

 Cartridge number 4: Maze.

Once again, I'm surprised by a really high quality game. I mean, mazes aren't really my kind of thing, but this one is quite fun. I was expecting a simple 'go through the maze' game like that crappy Snail Maze game that was built into Sega Master Systems. Instead, while the first game is pretty much Snail Maze, cycling through the programs you find invisible mazes, mazes with changing segments, mazes with monsters (blue squares) moving towards you. You can also play all these modes two player. 

Beware the Square!

In Maze, the control seems alright. It's not fantastic and, again, would probably be better with an Atari controller. Maze isn't the most fun I've ever had, but I imagine if I was a kid in the early 80's I would probably have loved it. 

Cartridge Number 6: Four In A Row 

Do I really have to write about this? It's four in a row and it's boring. 

Why couldn't they just keep it as a tabletop game? This version is probably just as good as any other electronic Four in a Row games, I just don't see the point. 

Cartridge Number 7: Mastermind.
Unfortunately, I couldn't get this one to work. It just came up with a blank screen. I would be willing to bet, though, that if it had worked, it would just have been Mastermind, another game that should probably be left to the tabletop version. Having said that, it might have been fantastic, we don't know. Let's pretend it was fantastic. Yeah.

And I was so looking  forward to Level 2 (Solo Shapes) :'(

For the sake of documentation, this cartridge came in a Teleng case, which has a little plastic window instead of the tiny pizza box style cases that Rowtron distributed. Mastermind IS listed on the Rowtron game list though so I doubt that is the reason for it not working.

Cartridge Number 10: Black Jack 
So this is the game of Blackjack, Pontoon, 21s, whatever you want to call it. Again, this is just not as much fun as playing with your friends. I do like a few casino style games, I quite like Slot machine simulators like Pachisuro Aruze Oogoku Ohanabi (Bam! Obscure Japanese Pachislot reference!) or Ceasar's Palace, but card games should probably be kept as card games.

If you don't have any friends and/or don't want to gamble real money, this may well be the game for you! Or you could use sultanas instead of chips, then you can use your fantastic wit to come out with hilarious quips like 'I see your bet, and I'm raisin' you!' ho ho, he he, ha ha.

Cartridge Number 11: Sporting Shotgun
 That's better, something not board/card game based. A shooting game!
It's blurry because I was shaking from the adrenaline rush this game gave me.
 This one is very similar to any other 'things scroll past and you try to hit them' game, like Air Sea Battle or Carnival. One problem I have with this is that in half of the game modes, you can't move your gunman, and in others you can't keep him still. I guess that it does add a bit of variety, but really seems like they only made these modes so they can advertise having more 'games' on a cartridge.

The guided shot modes are pretty cool though, you can move the bullet left and right after it's left your gun, a bit like in some modes of Combat.

Cartridge Number 15: Galactic Space Battles. 
This one is good. Just to let you know how good, let me tell you this: When you win a game, it plays an incredibly simplified and poop-sounding version of the Star Wars main theme. 

The first game "Space Battle"  is a surprisingly fun attempt at a 3d shooter. It's completely 2d, of course, but the enemy ships do get bigger the closer they are to you. The control for this is actually pretty good. The movement is quite quick and responsive. You just have to shoot the enemy before they get close and shoot you, but it's harder than it sounds. 

The second game is "Asteroid Landing". As the name suggests, you have to land on an asteroid. At first I was imagining something like Lunar Lander,  but no such luck. Nevertheless, this game is alright. It's certainly not as much fun as "Space Battle" but it does the job. Basically you need to be using your thrusters as you land on the asteroid and make sure you land right on the top of it. You would imagine it to have gravity, but no, it doesn't. You literally just have to press a button as you land. That said, the controls on this one seem even more responsive, so it's got that going for it. 

He's on me tight, I can't shake him!

The final game "Space Hunt" (pictured) is the same as "Space Battle" but the background is black instead of blue and the enemies are green UFO shapes rather than the Tie-fighter-ish shapes in "Space Battle". Other than that it is exactly the same, but I think I like this one more. Black space and UFOs are way better than poxy yellow planes. 

Cartridge Number 17: Video Pinball
These really old pinball 'simulations' are, in general really bad. The machines couldn't deal with ball physics very well back then and for the most part everything looked blocky and rubbish. This is what I thought while playing Video Pinball on the Atari 2600. Video Pinball on the Rowtron however, is far, far, far, better. 

...And I've been on the Pinball, and I no longer know it all...

The ball physics seem more realistic (still way off, but kudos for the effort). The bumpers and ball are actually vaguely circular, whereas in Atari's version everything was square. The control is far better too. On the Atari game, in order to flip the flippers you had to nudge left or right on the joystick. Because of the Rowtron's nice clicky button pad, 8 releases the ball and 7 and 9 are the flipper controls. This makes it far easier to use. 

I have far better pinball games to play, but I might bust this one out again sometime. It's quite fun.

Cartridge Number 19: Face The Music

A similar game called "Electronic Music/Follow The Leader" was included in my Acetronic review. This is exactly the same. I don't mean to sound too disappointed... I mean, both machines belong to the Interton VC-4000 family, so the sound output was bound to be almost identical anyway. Sigh. 

Same old, same old.

On the plus side though, I like using these controllers more than the Acetronic ones, so I will probably use this version of the program more than the Acetronic version. 

Cartridge Number 20: Golf
Golf! I have a history of liking golf games, I'm really big on them. From the Bandai Pro Golf handheld from 1984, to NES Golf, to Neo Turfmasters, to Actua Golf, to Tiger Woods PGA tour to Golden Tee... et cetera. I really like golf games. 

The rare and elusive First Hole in it's natural habitat.
I can't say I like this one. I like it up until near the first hole. I first started playing and it all seemed so straightforward. Move your guy around, press 5 to go into shot mode, press 8 to thwack the ball. Off it goes! Hurray! Then you get up near the hole and suddenly my skill at thwacking goes downhill.Whenever I touch the ball it flies off the screen. I've tried lightly tapping the button, holding it down, I've tried pressing every button on both controllers, I've tried restarting umpteen times and I still can't seem to get the ball in the hole. Also, sod's law, it's the only game I don't have instructions for. Ah well. 

 Cartridge Number 22: Alien Invasion
Is it going to be Space Invaders? 

Of course it's going to be Space Invaders. In fact, this one is identical to Invaders for the Acetronic. Same diagonal aliens, same chubby barricades, everything. 
SpAcetronic Invaders, more like!
One distinction to be made, though, is the control. Once again, the joysticks on this thing have proven to be far superior to the Acetronic. However, once again, an Atari joystick would have done the job better.

Cartridge Number 26: Monster Munchers
Sorry to end on a down note, but this game sucks. It's broken. It's obviously supposed to be a bit like Pac-Man, but it just doesn't work. Half the time you don't move the way you want to go, there's only one ghost and it runs into a corner and stops, the fruit doesn't move in the first place, there aren't any dots to eat, just 4 large batteries in the corners. The maze layout looks crap as well. 

This is it. Nothing moves except you (the green blob). What a pile of tosh. 

It's hardly a shock that they stopped making games after this, and it's a real shame to have to end on such a sour note after just warming up to the console throughout the rest of the games. 


The Rowtron Television Computer System... Was is any good? Well it's no Atari, but for home-grown British gaming, yeah I think it was alright. Having a proper look at these games made me not only appreciate this machine but also the Acetronic MPU 2000. I think that given that 2 of the programs were identical, it is fair to assume that the Acetronic would also have had some of the other, better, Rowtron games written for it, so maybe I gave it a hard review before. The Rowtron certainly made me feel better about the Interton VC-4000 family of consoles. Now that I have a collection of 2 of them, maybe I should go after the whole lot! (My wallet screams in agony).

On top of that, I actually had a lot of fun playing with this system. Some of the games were terrible. Monster Munchers certainly was. However, I think that some of the games like Sportsworld, Maze, Galactic Space Battles and Video Pinball will probably be dusted off and played again at some point in the not too far distant future. 

Cheers for reading, 
Dusty Old Games