The Homebrew Review: @RetroGamerCD Commodore 64 16K cart 2011 comp – Part One

RGCD‘s C64 16K cartridge competition, or to give it it’s full title, ‘Retro Gamer CD Commodore 64 Cartridge Development Competition 2011′ is the first in hopefully many such competitions by the retro-themed website and publisher and as the name suggests is a competition for developers to submit brand new games in the C64 cartridge format, no larger than 16k in size.

Precise specifications perhaps but the response has been amazing, with 11 full games submitted before the deadline and many more expressions of interest if the competition runs again in 2012, which looks likely.

This Homebrew Review looks at the first six of the 11 submitted games for reasons of brevity (well, that was the intention anyway) and I’ll review the rest of them shortly after.

For completion’s sake however, the full list of games is given below and can be seen on the RGCD website.

Blok Copy (Cosine Systems)
C64anabalt (Paulko64)
Fairy Well (Wide Pixel Games)
Fortress of Narzod (TRSI)
Get Em (Endurion)
Jars’ Revenge (TRSI)
Panic Analogue (Goin’ Sideways)
Rong – Ron’s Pong (Software of Sweden)
Space Lords (P1X3L.net)
The Mollusk (Achim Volkers)
Woolly Jumper (16KB Version) (The New Dimension)

I’ve been rotating through the games constantly since they were published and broadly speaking the standard of entries is incredibly high. As ever, it feels like something of an injustice that games of this standard are coming out for free on the C64 when if they were released in the 1980s could easily have gone on to become best-sellers.

Keep an eye out on the RGCD website to see which ones gain a full cartridge release as they’ll be worth picking up to play on the proper C64 hardware.

Blok Copy

Getting right to it then (excepting the preamble above), the first game is Blok Copy by Cosine Systems, who actually first started releasing C64 games back in the 1980s. That experience shows in the very slick and colourful presentation in Blok Copy, which is essentially a puzzle game variation on a Rubik’s Cube with numbered blocks that require aligning numerically.

The blocks are shuffled at the start of every level and you must rearrange them into order.

The blocks are shuffled at the start of every level and you must rearrange them into order.

It’s a simple premise that is easy to understand but incredibly difficult to master, for me anyway. I managed to trick my way through the first few levels simply by memorising the order the blocks were shuffled in but once I lost track I quickly found myself completely bewildered.

For me personally, at this point I tend to lose interest in these games and so it proved with Blok Copy. It’s well done certainly, but it’s not quite my cup of tea. If puzzle games of all varieties are your thing then give it a bash but I’m not sure it provides anything so wildly original it’ll keep you coming back for more over other puzzle games out there at the moment.

C64anabalt

I’ve already reviewed Canabalt recently and mentioned then that another version of the flash game Canabalt was being made for the C64, that game is the cleverly titled C64anabalt.

Although the Flash original naturally looks more advanced the amount that has been packed into both C64 versions is amazing.

Although the Flash original naturally more advanced the amount that has been packed into both C64 versions is amazing.

If I hadn’t already played the other Canabalt then I have little doubt that C64anabalt would have blown me away when I first played it. The graphics are crisp and superior to the other C64 version due to the use of the colour black in providing a more clean cut look to the graphics. The music is different to the original flash and other C64 Canabalt versions but actually I prefer the one here, although it is slightly let down by the mixing as there is a jarring second of silence as the track ends before beginning again. That slight silence is enough to take you out of the game momentarily and spoils the generally excellent atmosphere the game creates.

Another drag on the atmosphere is the complete lack of sound. This is due to the fact that so much has been packed in to the game – it only has 16k to play around with after all – but knowing that another C64 version exists with sound effects creates a feeling of disappointment which probably wouldn’t exist were C64anabalt the only port on the scene.

It’s only fair to judge C64anabalt on it’s own merits though, and it does an amazing job of porting the classic Flash game over to the C64 with the gameplay fully intact. Already an updated version has been released that tweaks a few issues people have highlighted and this version will be released on a cartridge by RGCD for about £20.

I chose this game for a games night with some friends recently and everyone was really impressed with it. Knowing it’s going to be available on a cartridge makes it very tempting to buy so I’ll be able to play the game on an authentic bit of C64 hardware.

Fairy Well

Fairy Well is an adventure game that sees you take the role of a fairy in a well. But wait, it’s not all bad. From such humble seeds doth a mighty oak grow. For Fairy Well displays a depth and ambition that far outstrips many of her 64k ancestors to the extent that if I didn’t know already it was only 16k in size, I would never have guessed.

The game starts with a brief introduction, four Princesses of the Forest have been kidnapped and you must rescue them all. Each Princess is held in a different location and to free them you need enter a dungeon and find three crystals before entering the well within the dungeon, which leads you to the Princess. It’s only a brief explanation but it does enough to create the setting within a high fantasy world of fairies, kings and princesses. When space is at a premium it’s enough to get you going.

A brief introduction sets you on your way...

A brief introduction sets you on your way...

You get to choose from three different characters, each with different skills. One has infinite flight, but with a short-range attack and a weaker health. The second has limited flight but a more powerful attack and the other is, as you would expect, a balance of the two. They’re called the Knight, Queen and King but it’s a bit odd to play as the King or Queen given the quest text suggests they’re the ones sending you on your quest.

Inside the dungeon you must explore dozens of screens (I’m unsure if they’re randomly generated or not but they feel like it as there’s so many of them) looking for the crystals and the well. While searching you find keys that open treasure chests, these you can use at the stone marker points, which for some reason represent shops. Here you can buy extra health, power shields and more keys. You can also buy an area map that I can’t figure out how to use(!).

Once you have the three crystals and get to the well, you go to a boss fight to free the Princess. If you survive that (and you only have one life in the entire game) then the Princess is freed and returned to her parents.

But that is only the first level. The King and Queen Fairies send you next to a temple to free the next Princess. The game has four such levels, all identical in style but changed through new enemies and different colour schemes. A classic tactic used right up through the Megadrive era (think Streets of Rage) that is downright essential when trying to squeeze such a lengthy game into just 16k of memory.

Small atmospheric touches like the grotesque on the wall add to the atmosphere.

Small atmospheric touches like the grotesque on the wall add to the atmosphere.

While it may sound repetitive to go through numerous dungeons of a similar style, it truly isn’t. The size of the area to explore in makes it easy to get lost in the game, both literally and metaphorically as you hunt for crystals and the difficulty curve makes it just difficult enough that you have to pay attention to your enemies movements while not being excessively easy or difficult.

Ultimately though it wasn’t the gameplay that got me hooked on Fairy Well, it’s the style, music and the scope of the game that drew me in and kept me playing.

Graphically it’s not the best or most innovative game ever, but it’s solid and well done throughout and does just enough with the limited memory size to evoke a dingy dungeon or ancient temple. Roots break through the brickwork and water drips from stalactites, small touches that do a lot to provide the right visual atmosphere of the deep underground.

Meanwhile the music is truly fantastic. Subtle, atmospheric and slightly melancholic, for some reason it reminds me somewhat of Shadow of the Beast, another game that does a fantastic job of creating an atmosphere based on the overall package of graphics, music and  the high fantasy storyline before you even get to the gameplay.

Unlike Shadow of the Beast though, Fairy Well has gameplay that matches its presentation and the overall package is truly amazing when you consider it’s only 16k.

It’s a classic case of how less can be more when it comes to games. There is just enough of everything to combine and create a great game. Nothing overreaches itself and yet nothing feels undercooked, like a good book there is just enough description to allow the gamer to use their imagination to fill in the gaps. Taken together it just provides an incredibly well-rounded gaming experience.

Of all the RGCD competition entries this is the one I’ve gone back to repeatedly and looked forward to playing again the most.

Fortress of Narzod

Fortress of Narzod is a 2009 conversion (converted to cartridge format for the RGCD competition) of an old classic shoot ‘em up arcade game of the same name for the Vectrex system. I always think of the Vectrex as coming from the era before the Spectrum and the C64 but actually it was a contemporary system that died in the video game crash of 1983.

At first glance then, I thought Fortress of Narzod looked incredibly basic. As we all know though, appearances can be deceptive. Actually Fortress of Narzod is a clever and original take on the shooter arcade genre, playing with depth perception and wall boundaries to create a fun and quite challenging game that is easy to pick up and play but also encourages the player to use a little thought to plan the best methods for success.

Don't let the basic appearance fool you, Fortress of Narzod requires more technique than your standard early arcade shooter.

Don't let the basic appearance fool you, Fortress of Narzod requires more technique than your standard early arcade shooter.

The aim of the game is to gain entrance to the aforementioned ‘Fortress of Narzod’, where you will do battle with Narzod and rid the world of evil, get the babe and so on. To do this you have to fight your way through several levels past waves of enemies.

The twist comes from the way the game is presented. Instead of a tried and tested top down view, the game uses a foreshortening technique so it appears you are instead travelling up a hill to the fortress wall, with the enemies descending towards the screen instead of along it from top to bottom.

This technique not only provides depth to the game but makes the enemies smaller the further they are away. This creates a risk/reward element where you can try wait for enemies to come closer where they’ll be bigger in size but also faster and more likely to hit you in return. On the other hand they’re more bunched together at the top where the path is narrower, than at the bottom where it is spread out, so each position has it’s own advantages and disadvantages.

Playing with the perspective is not the only element of Fortress of Narzod that provides extra gameplay. As you fire at the enemies coming down the hill, your bullets bounce off the walls. Obviously, it’s not the first or only game to do this, but as the path up the hill kinks like a thunderbolt, the projection of your bullet becomes harder to predict. If you find the sweet spot, you can hit the enemies at the top of hill while they cannot fire back at you in return. Hit the wrong point in a wall though and your bullet ricochets right back at you.

This encourages a more thoughtful approach to play than many early arcade shooters, as an indiscriminate ‘fire at will’ approach will almost certainly end in you being killed by your own bullet.

It’s these two elements, the foreshortened perspective and the ricocheted bullets that make Fortress of Narzod distinctive from its peers. On top of this, birds fly across the screen firing indiscriminately at you, meaning that if you do find that ‘sweet spot’ of bullet ricochets, you can rarely remain there for too long. Worse still, if you hit a bird it dies on the spot and it’s corpse blocks all shots and again you need to reposition yourself.

Dead birds turn into obstacles that block your shots, a simple mechanic that stops you staying in the same spot to fire at your enemies.

Dead birds turn into obstacles that block your shots, a simple mechanic that stops you staying in the same spot to fire at your enemies.

As for the port itself, it plays as you’d expect like a cleaned up version of how the original looks and plays, at least as far as I can tell looking on Youtube. The addition of some fantastic SID music elevates the game even further, producing a classic slice of arcade-style music equal to any commercial release of the 1980s.

Fortress of Narzod is a good example looks being deceiving and how simple twists on traditional styles can produce a game that’s stayed fresh even after all these years.

The game’s already been released on cartridge by RGCD and you can buy it for £19 including shipping. Initially I felt remakes were something of an unimaginative entry into a homebrew competition but I’m glad that this has made an appearance. It’s well worth checking out on an emulator to see if it takes your fancy, or you can view it on Youtube here.

Get ‘Em

Get ‘Em is, simply put, a Pacman clone. It’s based on the iOS game ‘Forget-Me-Not‘, which itself is supposedly based on a C64 game called Crossroads. Like a game of chinese whispers the end result seems wildly different to the original conception (which makes me suspect there me a crossed wire here) but I consider this a good thing.

Thankfully there is a bit more to it than simply being a Pacman clone but broadly speaking that’s its genre and whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is down to your own personal taste.For me personally, it’s not something I usually actively seek out and I think the only games I’ve ever played for any length of time in this genre are Gulpman, Gobbleman and Fast Food Dizzy for the Spectrum, all when I was much younger than I am now (*sob*).

Get 'Em is based on an iOS game Forget-Me-Not, which is based on a C64 game, Crossroads. Circle of retro life.

Get 'Em is based on an iOS game Forget-Me-Not, which is based on a C64 game, Crossroads. Circle of retro life.

However, Get ‘Em does have some rather nifty tricks up its sleeve to differentiate itself from the crowd. I don’t know much about the specifics, but I believe the levels are all generated using a process known as ‘procedurally generated content’. I think basically it’s a randomiser but because the levels don’t need to be pre-loaded into the programme it frees up the space for other things, which is incredibly useful when you have a self-imposed 16k time limit like this competition has.

It’s also a bonus for replayability making it such an obvious win-win you wonder why developers didn’t use it more back in the 1980s. Maybe there was a reason why, I have no idea.

Both pictures here are of the 'first level', the random levels means no game plays the same twice.

Both pictures here are of the 'first level', the random levels means no game plays the same twice.

All the standards of gobble ‘em up games are present and correct, roaming enemies, power ups and so on. In Get ‘Em however you can also shoot at your enemies who then explode and shower the area with more things to pick up, like hamburgers. A unique twist is added though, as you can shoot bombs that explode and actually change the layout of the maze. For instance if a bomb explodes in a single line of corridor, the explosion is 3×3 squares and therefore expands the maze to produce a 3×3 square in the corridor.

It’s harder to explain it simpler than that but it does provide an extra element to the gameplay, as certain areas would benefit more from extra space than others, which provides an incentive to try time your enemy kills in certain areas to maximise the benefit of the explosion.

Even with the ability to shoot and explode your enemies though, Get ‘Em is pretty unforgiving and I’ve never progressed beyond a few levels at a time. That said this is not necessarily a bad thing given the genre. Everyone has played Pacman or a variant of it and we don’t really need to spend ten levels getting to grips with such a basic premise and boredom can quickly set in.

Get ‘Em is a nice variant on the Pacman genre and will provide a good challenge to any fans of the style. I don’t think it will convert any new ones to the cause but then I don’t think it intends to either. For fans of the style however it’s well worth a play.

Jar’s Revenge

Jar’s Revenge is another ported entry to the competition, this time of Yars’ Revengefor the Atari 2600. The original was the best selling original game on the system so it’s surprising it wasn’t ported, though by the time the C64 and Spectrum had established themselves in the post-video game crash era the game was already considered too dated (or more likely perhaps Atari wanted it kept exclusive to the system).

Jar’s Revenge looks and plays just like the original, so I’m not sure why a slight name change was necessary unless it was for copyright reasons.

The game sees you play as the eponymous hero, a Jar (or Yar), an alien insect hell bent on revenge after the destruction of one of its planets. The aim of the game is to destroy the gun on the right hand side of the screen by firing through its shields and successfully lining up a rocket strike to fly across the screen and destroy it.

Jar's Revenge imitates the look of Yars' Revenge perfectly.

Jar's Revenge imitates the look of Yars' Revenge but takes advantage of the C64's power to smooth it out.

Distracting you is a flying enemy, although you can dodge to safety by entering a strip of pixels known as the neutral zone, where you cannot fire but likewise cannot be fired at. The exception to this is the ‘swirl’ of the big gun, which builds up slowly before firing in your direction. It’s not too difficult to dodge but you do need to make sure you leave yourself room for manoeuvre in case you don’t spot it until it’s nearly too late.

That’s about it for the aim of the game, once you destroy the gun you move on to another one, and variety is provided with a different sort of shield protecting it. The basic shield is just a moving, thick wall that you must shoot through, but a different shield moves up and down with the gun in such a way that it’s much harder to simply shoot straight through it. If you get desperate you can eat your way through the shields – being an insect has to be good for something – but you make yourself that much more exposed to the swirl.

As someone who never really played the Atari 2600 and instead graduated straight to the 8-bit home microcomputers like the Speccy and C64, I feel no real attachment to this style of game. It’s enjoyable enough, but really is just an endless cycle of two very basic shield variations.

The port itself feels well done though and the intro graphics, music and smoothing out of the graphics and controls help elevate it to a proper C64 level, nonetheless the game proper hasn’t really deviated from the path of the Yars’ Revenge, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on how much you like the original. Personally it’s probably a little too basic for my tastes.

That said, I can see why it was popular at the time (I have a very low opinion of much of the 2600’s back catalogue) and if you do have more familiarity with the era than me then I recommend you check out Jar’s Revenge as it will no doubt bring back fond memories.

For myself though, especially with the strength of the competition in the wider homebrew scene as well as this RGCD cartridge comp, there are other games that command more of my attention than this one.

PEDANT ALERT: Given that the species are referred to collectively as ‘Yars’ in the original, meaning one of them is a ‘Yar’ in the singular, technically this game should be called Jars’ Revenge as it refers to the collective revenge of the entire species. Unless they have changed the species name to the specific name of the hero, who is called Jar, in which case Jar’s Revenge relates to his personal revenge and not that of his species, who may well still be called Yars. PEDANT ALERT OVER.

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