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

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Bubsy in: Fractured Furry Tales - Atari Jaguar. Is it really that bad?

 "Oh sure, let's all torch the Bubster" - Bubsy the Bobcat, 1994.

Bubsy, Bubsy, Bubsy. Just the name of this Bobcat is enough to instil hatred and spite in the heart of even the friendliest of gamers.
It's 64-bit, so it must be good, right? You do the math.

This failed mascot was created by Accolade to compete with the vastly more successful Mario and Sonic. Probably the most cringe-worthy part of Bubsy's failure is the amount of effort put in to making him the 'hip new thing'. They even had a cartoon show pilot made based on the character.

Widely known as one of the most annoying characters in video game history, appearing in one of the hardest and more generally, worst, video game series, are all of the Bubsy the Bobcat games really that bad?

Today I'm going to play the third, and probably least well known game of the series, "Bubsy in: Fractured Furry Tales" on the Atari Jaguar, released in 1994. It seems somewhat fitting, a failed mascot released exclusively on a failed system (not to say that the Jaguar is inherently bad, it just had alot of disappointing games, to say the least). So without further ado, onto the game! 

Here we go!

I've literally been playing for less than 5 minutes and I must have died about 10 times. The water kills you. If you don't hit the enemies in exactly the right way, they kill you. Cookies and balloons (because they are obviously evil villains) kill you. If you fall down too far, it kills you. Enemies throw barely visible projectiles at you, which kill you.

To put a long story short, this game is so hard it could cut diamond.

As you run around, the level of Bubsy's inertia increases dramatically after about a second. This would be fine, this kind of mechanic can be done really well, and even improve the gameplay by giving you something else to master (obviously Mario is the perfect example, but for something closer to Bubsy's inertia check out Psycho Fox on the Sega Master System) but in this case it just makes it insanely hard to time jumps. You can't stop, because you'll have to run back again in order to get enough speed to clear a gap, but if you go too fast you will inevitably run into an enemy, land in some water or some other horrible fate. To make matters worse, if you run into a wall, you become stunned. And this isn't half a second of stun, to teach you not to be so foolish, this is a full 6.95 seconds (I timed it) of not being able to move, while some arsehole enemy that you just carefully dodged slowly walks towards you to dispatch you. Heugh.

Oh, I get it. I mean, it's not funny, but I get it.

To be fair, a hard game doesn't necessarily mean a bad game. Believe it or not there are merits to Bubsy. The graphics in general are very colourful and other than the aforementioned hard-to-see projectiles, you can tell what everything is supposed to be. Everything fits in nicely with the fairy tale theme,  the first level is Alice In Wonderland (although actually, that being a fairy tale is debatable). 

You see Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, killing you with their yo-yo. 
You see the March Hare, and he's obviously late, because he kills you by running. 
You see pink flamingos, not being used as croquet mallets, but for some reason they're punks. 
Punks who want to kill you. 
You also see a huge floating cat head (presumably the Cheshire cat) which kills you... by licking you. Owie, that lick really hurt.

Keep in mind that while I am praising the graphics, I still feel I would have kind of felt let down by them back in the day. By Mega Drive/Turbo Grafx 16/SNES standards, Bubsy would have looked and sounded pretty amazing. However, this was at a time of change for home consoles, the 16-bit era was fading and 32-bit consoles had just arrived.Sony's Playstation and Sega's Saturn were blowing people's minds with crisp polygons, full motion video, high quality audio, the works. Besides, Bubsy was on the Atari Jaguar, a 64-bit system (ahem), and having 'pretty-good-for-SNES' just wouldn't have cut the cake, so to speak. Also, while the game does look quite nice paused, most of the animations are just a few frames, making most movements seem pretty jerky.

Another gripe I have with this game is that one of the main game mechanics (which it took me quite a while to even get to) is really bloody annoying. You have to go through a door, which takes you to another door in a different area of the stage. Unless you know the levels really well, you're going to get lost super easily. It's almost like you need to make a map as you go to save yourself from confusion. To make matters worse, when you die it's likely that you are going to be sent back to a check point before the last door you went through, and for the most part the areas don't look all that different from each other, leading to yet more confusion.
He looks like an arrogant twat, because he is.

After I finally managed to get to the second chapter of the Alice in Wonderland stage, I managed to fall down a few wells, die a few more times, get lost among a load more doors, and then I found... a flashing t-shirt? I've found a few shirts with numbers on, giving me extra lives, but what could a flashing one do? Great Scott! Invincibility! Finally some reprieve! I must say that after spending so much time scared of going anywhere near enemies in case they kill me, suddenly I can run into any enemy and destroy it. I go slap-happy and run into anything I can see, I've gone flashing-shirt-crazy! It wears off... death.

Okay , so after over two hours of  playing, getting pissed off, taking a break to write some stuff down, playing, getting pissed off, taking a break to write some stuff down, playing, getting get the idea (plus more than a few game overs, yikes!), I have finally reached the first stage boss, and it looks insane. The mad hatter is in a huge spiked teapot tank, shooting lethal steam at me. 

Bet he'd make one hell of a cuppa...
What is this strange feeling? I'm not sure about 'fun' per se, but a small sense of accomplishment after finally getting this far? ...and I promptly died. I didn't even think to pause and take a picture, the above photo is nicked off the internet. Oh well, I'll get there on the next life, right?

Damn. Game Over. Damn, damn.

This game has broken my will. I tried to get back into it, and breezed through the first part of the first level, then got back into the same old cycle of death. Maybe I'm just no good at this game, but I can't bring myself to play that same stage anymore. Even worse, the manual says there are continue-points that let me restart the game at the beginning of that level. I only went through one in the first level anyway. Boo.

Honestly, when you stay alive long enough to get a decent bit of exploring done, this game actually has a small amount of fun value to it. When you think you're about to die from running into an enemy, then the enemy inexplicably dies, there's a small feeling of victory. I almost feel like once you completely memorize the levels, get the inertia-control down to a t and get over the fact that you're still going to die a lot, this game may even be slightly enjoyable. I feel that if there were an 'easy' mode, and a few tweaks were made to the game's physics, Bubsy in: Fractured Furry Tales could have had potential to be a genuinely good platformer, but it was just off in too many places. 

Fortunately, one of the few redeeming factors Fractured Furry Tales has is it's password system. Even if I'm not good enough to beat the first level, I can at least have a peek at the rest of the game.

The second set of 3 chapters are set in Jack and the Beanstalk. There are wasps (which were also, for no real reason, in Alice in Wonderland, too) , ants and nights in shining armor. Nice imagination, guys. To be fair, in this level there is one character I really like the design of...

That's a snail, and it's shell has a little chimney. And when it pokes it's head back inside it's shell, it puts out a little 'out to lunch' sign. Is that not the cutest thing you've seen in the last 5 minutes? No? Well go back to playing with your stupid cat/dog/child then, I'm happy with a cartoon snail.

The next stages' theme is Arabian Nights, although how much this actually has to do with Arabian Nights is somewhat suspect. When the manual says 'Busby and the Arabian Nights' I think they meant "We've done a castle level and a jungle level, we'd better do a desert level now". Crikey, anyone would think there might be a water level next! (wink,wink).
Anyway, these levels have everything you would expect from a desert level. Snake charmer-ish music, blokes with big turbans swinging swords, lizards, vultures, snakes, cactus people...

... glass bottles with legs that randomly jump out of the sand at you? Okay, so that's a new one.

That cactus is wearing sneakers, for sneaking!

I actually played the desert levels for a while. There were a few fun new ways to get around, floating platforms that appear when you hit your head on them (quite annoying) and tents you had to bounce on. The bouncing was almost fun, but you would always have to reach some tiny gap and there would be enemies or other hazards waiting to catch you when you fall. Did I mention that this game is hard? 

Next up, as I had foreseen (admittedly I may have seen it in the manual) is a water world. The name of the world is 'WaterBubsy' I'm not entirely sure if that was supposed to be a pun on WaterWorld or some other crap, I mean WaterWorld is hardly a fairy tale, or if they had run so low on ideas that they literally just named the world what it was. Water + Bubsy = WaterBubsy.

There's a reason everyone's least favorite level is the water level, especially in platformers. Gravity normally goes sort of floaty and you have less control of your character. Mario, Sonic, Turtles, Banjo, you name it. If it has a water level, it's bound to be considerably harder than the other levels. I assume this is the same for Bubsy? Nah. Nothing changes. Bubsy has an air bubble drawn around him, but the gameplay stays exactly the same. To be honest I'm a little disappointed. Mainly because Bubsy is hard enough to control anyway, and I wanted to see how badly they could mess it up. I guess one good decision made while making this game was to not make anything even more difficult.

Darling it's better, down where it's wetter, take it from meeee

Again, the enemies are just standard under the sea fare. Seahorses, Mermaids, Sharks... Bomb dropping Hamsters in submarines. Eh, Okay? I think they might have just picked one 'zany' character for each level. Punk flamingo, Snail House, Bottle Legs, Sub-Hamster. Actually, it's pretty lame. It's like they knew they knew that the game didn't make sense, so they just lobbed in some half-baked character ideas as filler. They made them zany and wacky because kids love zany and wacky, right? Oy vey.

Right-o only one set of stages left now, and it's Hansel and Gretel.

Custard pie? Lemme have it!
I'm not sure which the zany character is here, there's a pie throwing machine. A Never Ending Pie Throwing Robot, if you will. There is also a man made of forks. That's it. There are two unique enemies that I could find on this stage, the rest are wasps and inanimate objects. Cookies (again!) falling chocolate and milk bottle lids are the hazards here. 

One good thing about this level is the milk bottle tunnel system. The tops of milk bottles pop off and you have to get in the bottle before the cap comes back down. You can then travel through layers of cake. I mean, it still doesn't make the level great, but it's a nice touch.

And this is as far as I'm willing to go. I've been playing this crappy game all day and I just have no desire to try and get through to the bosses and actually complete it. I have a feeling that if I tried it would either take years, or I would die or go insane.

True, Bubsy in: Fractured Furry Tales isn't the worst game I've ever played. Some (albeit very small) parts of the game are actually fairly enjoyable, and when you've been grinding at a level for an hour, then finally complete it, that's a great feeling. It's just a shame that it has to be preceded by an hour of depression, really. 
There are some nice graphical touches here and there. Most of the worlds and their backgrounds, with the fairy tale theme remind me of some of the Mickey Mouse games. I don't mean that in a nice nostalgic way, though. They just make me think "Oh god, why am I wasting my time on this when I could be playing 'Castle Of Illusion' or 'Mickey's Wild Adventure'."

If I forced myself to say one more positive (well, neutral) thing about this game, it would be that the soundtrack is fine. Not good, not bad, just fine. Distinctly not-memorable, but certainly nothing that got too annoying, even when I had to play the same level over and over.

And now, here's a guest speaker for the final verdict:

Spyro does not approve.

Well if Spyro disapproves, then so do I.

Is Bubsy in: Fractured Furry Tales really that bad? Yeah, it kinda is. 

Cheers for reading, 
Dusty Old Games.

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More reviews to come in the next few days, so don't worry about running out of reading material!

A quick look at the Usborne Guide to Computer and Video Games (Published 1982)

"Computers are fun." reads the blurb. I think it's safe to say that statement still holds true today.

"The Usborne Guide to Computer and Video Games - How They Work and How To Win" was an invaluable font of information in a time when most people's knowledge of the inner workings of computers didn't extend past 'magic'.

This concise and colourful little book is surprisingly informative given it's size. While it doesn't go particularly in depth to any subject,  it does cover everything from tabletop electronic games, arcade games and chess computers, to guides to micro processors, a little coding tuition for the ZX81 computer and a quite entertaining look at 'the future of games' (I'll come back to that in a bit). 

It manages to keep from being boring by, for instance, rather than looking at the inner workings of a word processing unit, using diagrams and descriptions of some popular arcade games, handhelds, micro computers and toys of the time. Astro Wars, Gakken Galaxy Invader 1000 (of which I have a short review here), Missile Command, Battlezone, the ZX81 and many more are depicted, making this book quite accessible, given that the average reader would be likely to have had one of those machines at home, or at least played one in an arcade.

'How to win at Pac-Man'.... Eat them up yum, yum?

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this book is the 'How to win at...' columns on most of the video game related pages. While most of them are useful, telling you how to get bonus points, when to use your attacks for the most impact, etc. I really like the 'How to win at Frogger' column, which pretty much (albeit in quite a few more words) just says 'get to the other side, don't die'. Very useful, Usborne, very useful indeed.

As much as I like to take the piss, this book is genuinely useful. There's some stuff in it that I didn't know, like exactly how computer chips were made, and there were even a few games mentioned that I had never heard of! (Stratos and Swarm).

The sections about toys are also interesting for me. Toys like Bigtrak, Merlin and Simon are covered and while the last two are definitely games of some sort, it's easy to forget how closely games/toys of this type are related to the video games we know and love. Just because there isn't a graphical output, doesn't mean that it isn't a fun game.

Probably the most historically interesting part of the book is the very 80's view of the 2000's in the 'future gaming' pages. Unfortunately, no hoverboards or robot servants, but the premonition that by the year 2000, we will be able to play chess with someone hundreds of miles away seems a little off the mark. They also predicted that rather than the single player or 2 player games of the 80's, we might be able to have up to 8 player games! I wonder how the writers would react to seeing some of the circa year 2000 MMORPGs like Neverwinter Nights, Ultima Online or Everquest.

Online Chess, the precursor to Xbox Live. 'Check mate, n00bfag!'

 The Usborne Guide to Computer and Video Games is, of course, completely irrelevant now. However, that doesn't mean that it's pointless. What I get from reading this book is a strange rush of nostalgia for a time before I was even born. I guess that's why I enjoy collecting games from this era too. The excitement surrounding what was still a fairly new technology (for consumers, anyway) is portrayed in this book in a way that modern reviewers and writers like me can't convey. A real blast from the past.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go and play some long range chess.

Cheers for reading,
Dusty Old Games.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Acetronic MPU 2000 System & Games Review

The Acetronic MPU 2000 was released in 1979 by Acetronic (duh) in the United Kingdom. It was technically compatible with Interton VC-4000 software, however the cartridge slots and cartridges were different for each machine so you couldn't take an Acetronic cart and plug it straight into an Interton machine. The Interton VC-4000 was quite popular in Europe at the time.

There is very little information available online about the Acetronic MPU 2000 so hopefully this review will give a little bit of insight to anyone looking to learn more about the machine. Unfortunately I only own 3 games: Invaders, Air/Sea Attack and Follow the leader/Electronic Music. Because of this, I will review the system and games in one go. 

Acetronic MPU 2000

The system itself is fairly plain looking. There is a panel on the front with an On/Off switch and Load Programme, Game Select and Start buttons. The Load Programme button is needed because unlike most cartridge based consoles, the cartridge needs to be loaded into RAM before it can be played.

This is quite unusual, the Interton VC-4000 family (as the Interton and similar machines like the Acetronic are known) are probably the only home consoles ever to have this feature. I say probably, because as I mentioned before the information available on these consoles is quite sparse and in places ambiguously worded.

The controllers are wired into the console, which is really annoying because you can't replace them easily. They are quite nice, however. The whole controller is a fairly chunky thing, but I think I have fairly average sized hands and it fits quite comfortably for me.

You have a large 360° analogue joystick which feels pretty smooth to move around, if a bit loose. That could be to do with the age though. You have two red fire buttons and also a 9 button keypad. I much prefer this keypad to the one on the Intellivision controller, as you have proper clicky buttons on the Acetronic instead of the crappy squishy ones on the Intellivision. Some games such as Electronic Music come with an overlay, in this case telling us which buttons supposedly correspond with each note.

The only big problem I have with the controllers are the cords. Why would anyone ever use a twirly cord? If the cord was straight, I could sit twice as far from the telly and I wouldn't keep accidentally pulling the console towards me. Harrumph!

The Acetronic cartridges are bulky compared to other cartridges from the era. Here's one next to an Atari 2600 cartridge for comparison:

Would you rather play Space Invaders, or slightly larger Space Invaders?

The large '27' is the release number in the series of the massive library of 34 games available for this console. It took a while to find, but here is a full (I think) list of games compatible with the Acetronic MPU2000.

Games (I'll probably be comparing to Atari a lot, you've been warned)

First up is Invaders, or INVADERS as the cart says, but I didn't want to shout at you.
As you might have guessed, it's a Space Invaders clone. It's not the worst I've played but it's definitely not the best. One of the first things you'll notice is that the graphics are chunkier than the Atari 2600 version. Personally I actually think that these chunkier graphics have a bit of charm to them. Cute chubby barricades,  I just wanna squeeze those cheeks!

On the other hand, what is up with that formation? You're not going to invade anyone in diagonal lines, are you? Another peeve is that there is none of the classic "dun, dun, dun, dun, dun,dun,dun,dun" going on. More of just a 'bep,bep,bep,bep'. The shooting sounds are quite satisfying PEWs though, so it's all good.

The variant game types are also pretty uninteresting, not that I would expect anything mind blowing from an inferior Space Invaders clone. I do find it quite amusing how they doubled the number of 'games' on the cartridge by having 'Daylight Invasion' and 'Night Assault', which just switches the colours.

Air/Sea Attack

This one is very similar to Air-Sea Battle on the Atari 2600. Again, I think I might prefer the graphics on the Acetronic version. It didn't come out too well on the photos, but the Acetronic has really vivid colours, which is awesome. 

The gameplay, however, is worse than the Atari version. There are fewer game modes and it just isn't as much fun.
Having said that, it is a closer clone than Invaders was, and is a good substitute for Air-Sea Battle. If I didn't have an Atari, I would be perfectly happy playing this game.

Follow The Leader/Electronic Music

This is the main reason I bought this system, I really like making noise with old equipment. The 'follow the leader' games are a sort of Simon/basic music tuition software hybrid. I could see this being a fairly useful tool for younger children back in the day, getting them to learn basic musical theory while also having fun.
The real gem lies in Electronic Music, however. Here is a clip of the built in tune 'When the Saints come marching in' to give you an idea of what it sounds like:

I love it! I love it I love it I love it!
Horrible, harsh bleeps are where it's at! Move over, Guitar. If I had my way, every cool kids instrument of choice would be the MPU 2000!

All in all, the Acetronic MPU2000 was an interesting copycat of various other home video consoles from the 70's. It's the little charms and oddities about this system that make me enjoy it. There's a reason it fell into the dark chasm of obscurity, though...

...Other than a little program that makes bleepy sounds, the games were just a bit crap.

Cheers for reading,
Dusty Old Games.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Mid 2000's McDonald's LCD toys!

Alright, alright, I know it doesn't sound that interesting, but bear with me.

In the mid 2000's McDonalds released some Game and Watch style games using characters from well known video game series like Sonic the Hedgehog, Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot.
These were given away with Happy Meals. At the time I was around 12 or 13, and probably a bit big for Happy Meals, but I remember specifically forgoing larger, tastier meals just to get my hands on some crappy LCD games!

In the past few years I've re-collected 8 of these for next to no money, and a few of them are genuinely fun. So here's a few short reviews of them!

Sonic Series
Sonic Racer

This ones pretty bashed up, but still works.
Its your basic LCD racer, move from side to side, dodging other traffic.
Not much fun. Meh.


Knuckles Baseball

This one is actually pretty good. You move Knuckles up and down to catch the balls being hit at you. Some balls will curve, some will stay straight, others will be faster and the pace of the game speeds up as you carry on. For a free LCD game, this does the job.


Tails Football

This is pretty much the same as the Baseball one but vertical. I think I prefer this one because the graphics are slightly easier to discern what they're supposed to be, also I'm English, therefore Football>Baseball in most instances. This is also pretty good fun.


Sonic... Sonic?

This is an odd one. There is a screenshot of Green Hills zone on the background, and you have to guide Sonic over blocks of grass and collect rings using the jump button. It's like a super lo-fi version of the actual Sonic games, unfortunately it doesn't work very well and you can't really tell what's going on. The outer case for the game is quite nicely molded though, so at least there's that going for it.


Shadow Basketball 

This one I almost really like. You have to throw the ball past some defending robot things into the net. You get 2 points per hoop and each level ends at 20 points. There are 5 levels which have increasing amounts of robots who are actively defending more often. It's quite cool to have levels in these kinds of games that do something other than just speed up.

However, I don't think it's possible to 'die' in this game. Every time you play you will end up winning, because no matter how many times the defenders catch your ball you can keep playing, and you don't even lose points or anything. This makes the game pretty pointless and kind of ruins it for me. I know it was meant for kids but there is literally no challenge.


Crash Bandicoot Series 

I've only got the one of these: 

Crash Racer

 Pretty much the same as the Sonic Racer one, it's a bit naff. On top of that, rather than a normal LCD screen, it's got one of those ones with a big white bit at the back that you have to hold up to the light to see through. True, it allows the screen to be in colour, but who wants to hold this up and show the world that you're playing crap Happy Meal toys from nearly a decade ago?

Well, okay, me... but still.

2/10 - worst of the bunch

Spyro Series

Spyro Shooter

Shoot those birds/dragons Spyro! Collect them gems Spyro! That's all there is to it, and yet it's kinda fun.
After collecting a certain number of gems the speed increases. The gems are dropping from the sky while the birds/dragons are approaching from the side so there's a bit of multi-tasking going on on Spyro's part.
I quite like this one, for a happy meal toy anyway.


Spyro Solomon's Key?

I thought I would leave the best til last, this one is actually really good. Like if it was released as an LCD game back when LCD games weren't so cheap they could be given away with fast food, some people probably would have bought it and enjoyed it.
There are 3 corridors, each with a Rhynoc (or possibly a Gnorc, it's quite hard to tell with such tiny graphics) that moves around.

These enemies kill you if you touch them, unless you have charge mode on. When you have collected enough gems in a stage a little icon of Spyro's head charging appears in the top right hand corner, meaning you can move through enemies for a short period.

You can move between corridors in gap spaces and you have to collect gems in order to reveal a key and a door. There are 5 levels of increasing difficulty, unfortunately this just means speeding up the movement of the enemies and the rate that the gems disappear, rather than adding anything new to the already fully featured game (considering how small and cheap it is). It is also pretty easy, although more of a challenge than most of the others that I reviewed here. I suppose it was made for kids, it should be easy really.

Anyway, I've genuinely had quite a lot of fun with this one. I kept it next to my loo for a while because it takes about 3-5 minutes to complete, which is about right for toilet time (unless it's the morning after a beer and curry night).

10/10 As far as free Happy Meal toys go, this is the best one I've ever got.

 Cheers for reading,
Dusty Old Games.