Friday, 28 March 2014

Goodbye Blog!

Ok this time it is for real but don't despair! I've recently set up my own personal website to promote my articles as well as published extra content and exclusive features. I have already started to migrate material across to the site and will continue to do so over the next few months.

So please feel free to wander over to www.wizwords.net and have a look!

Thanks!

JD

Monday, 20 May 2013

Revival Retro Gaming Show 18/19th May 2013 at Wolverhampton


Here's my pics and comments for the fantastic retro gaming show Revival that I attended last weekend.


This marvellous wall of gaming goodness greeted each attendee.

Next to it was an Atari 7800. The game is Ninja Golf, a fantastic game where after taking each shot, you had to battle your way to the ball!

Next to the 7800 was the dear old Jaguar, here showing off the impressive Missile Command 3D.
Into the next room now, and an Intellivision and Atari 2600. RetroRik (and close relative I assume !) are having a go on Soccer.
Into the main room now, and there weren't many pinball machines, but they still proved popular.
This grand old arcade machine entertained me still.
RCM were present with an impressive display of rare machines.
A Spectrum +2 signed by various luminaries of the time.
The classic Amidar.
I'm not sure if they were an official part of the show, but I spotted these board games in a corner.
I am still in awe of the divide. Had to try a few classics on it.
30 years ago I didn't "get" Maze-a-Tron on the Intellivision. I still don't.
There were many sellers including this one, Rockrabilia. The Spectrum resting on its polystyrene was a rare early model and fetched an eye-watering £150!
The Halo ring was back.
Some classic arcade machines. I'm still useless at them all!

There was only one native Mega-CD game provided and it happened to be one of my favourites!
The horrible mushroom on top kind of ruins it, but here's the otherwise sexy Mega-CD/Megadrive Mark 1 combo.
A couple of shots of the TI-99
A poor Virtual Boy, sitting unwanted and unloved in a corner, its games lying beneath it liked spewed detritus.
The fruitcade was back (courtesy of Videogame Carnival), although not sure Track and Field games were good for the fruit.

There was an awesome VR unit present at the show into which anyone could climb. Pushing the top bottom on the "gun" made you walk forward.
The small screen on the left shows what the user can see.
Wall Pong was popular again as part of Matt Brown's Videogame Carnival.
As were the giant gameboys!
Overall it was a great show.  A big thanks and well done to Chris Wilkins (Boyo) and his team.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Remembering Deathchase Extras: Interview with Eugene Kiyanov

For the final part of the Remembering Deathchase article extras, Eugene Kiyanov gives his thoughts on his Deathchase remake, the excellent Dark Rider for iOS. Please bear in mind English is not Eugene's first language!

"Hi,
My father was a hardware engineer and when I was 5, he made one [a computer] from raw microchip, it also has a custom box.

It was a cassete tape, when i first time run death chase, it also has lot of beeping while its loaded, and image on screen was generated row per row. 

From a technical viewpoint, the game was great, because it's try to make a real 3d feeling, and using only 8 colors, they do all best.

there is two reason why i start make it:
first: I start remake it in 2008, at this time there is nobody even trying to make some 'endless runners', and i think, it was a great idea make something 'endless' .
second: i have a small child and i also have a zx emulator on my phones, and surely i have deathchase rom for it. one time i saw my child playing it, and i think - i also was young when i first saw deathchase, and now my child also saw that, and he love it, but now that game can be much better ( visually ) than before.

After few weeks of development, i wanted to make great story line, and that where problems starts. I underestimate all work, all voice actors i need, artists, etc. so, after one year, i saw that some guys released 'Dead Runner'  - it has almost same concept, as deathchase, except, it dont have enemies, dont have levels, but you should run over forest.  So i decide - if i will wait more, i never release it, so, we cut off all cutcenes, helicopters, comics scenes, and make 'something simple endless'. "
 
Thanks to Eugene for his time. For more info on Dark Rider, click here: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/dark-rider/id331546183?mt=8

Friday, 26 April 2013

PC Gamer Magazine Lookback Part 1: Issue No. 4 March 1995

Ah, 1995. Microsoft were in the process of unveiling a brand new games-friendly operating system, the Playstation was beginning to trounce all other gaming machines and PC magazines came in two flavours: CD-Rom and Floppy disc versions.

PC Gamer was always my favourite and at the time these discs were very important. Unbelievably, many computers were still not connected to the internet, so the plethora of playable demos that adorned each issue's CD were of huge interest.

But what of the mag itself? Written by a clutch of experienced late 20's to 30-somethings, many who had cut their teeth on 8-bit magazines from the previous decade, the content was cheerful yet professional, varied and colourful. And most importantly, there were no dry features on the copious technical aspects of owning a PC - like Crash magazine 10 years earlier, this was unashamedly all about the games.

This is the CD-rom edition from March 1995.

On the cover is flight sim Flight Unlimited, Looking Glass' excellent rival to Microsoft's Flight Simulator.
Interestingly, PC Gamer gave the game two scores: 81% if you play the game on a bog-standard 486 which "runs like a tortoise on caffeine" to 93% if you own one of those "plush pentiums".

Also touted on the cover is an 8-page report on an American PC gaming exhibition called the Consumer Electronics Show - or CES for short. Any excuse to get to Las Vegas...

As you can see, there's a wide variety on the cover disc with demos of classic Lucasarts adventure Full Throttle, Id's Heretic, Mortal Kombat II and Kick Off 3, as well as a range of shareware games and extra levels.







Tir Na Nog was a famous 8-bit game from Gargoyle. With the help of Liverpool's Psygnosis, a remake was heavily previewed in this issue with input from Gargoyle's Greg Follis. The few screenshots on display provide a view of what looked like an interesting game, with an odd design seemingly based on the original, but with more point and click elements. Sadly, it wasn't to be and the project was abandoned early into development.
On the next page was a preview of a game from another old developer, Digital Integration. Unlike Tir Na Nog, however, Apache did see release.


Into PC Gamer's coverage of CES now as "where are they now" candidates Tia Carrere (Wayne's World) and Christian Bocher (Melrose Place) star in Virgin's cd-rom sci-fi extravaganza The Daedelus Encounter. Spread over 3 discs, PC Gamer are guardedly optimistic on the game, despite already nurturing a healthy disregard for FMV-laden efforts.






On this page the PCG boys highlight their favourite games of the previous two months. There's a nice breath of genres here: the destructive NASCAR Racing rubs shoulders with Westwood's RPG The Legend of Kyrandia 3, survival horror Alone in the Dark 3 and a brace of Sci-fi adventures in Wing Commander III and X-Wing Collector's CD.






Into the reviews section now and here's PCG's withering account of CDRom game Cyberia, another much hyped FMV-style game with pre-rendered backgrounds that played like a dog.

As I mentioned earlier, the PCG crew were already tiring of these sort of games and sci-fi adventure Cyberia did nothing to change their opinion of the genre.

Quotes include: "A worthless extension of Dragon's Lair"; "The backgrounds are by and large bland"; "Is it real or is it a game asks the advertisement. I hadn't noticed it was either."

Industry verteran Gary Penn gave Cyberia a poor 34%.




On the next page we have the review of Gametek's Hell. Incidentally, I've always loved the way PC Gamer gave one word titles to their reviews - although it has led me to get confused as to the name of the reviewed game on occasion!

Here they use the word "Soulless" to perfectly sum up a rather boring and empty game that secured a then-rare 18 rating thanks to half a second of bare skin.

Gary Penn was the "lucky" reviewer once more. I'll leave you with his amusing parting paragraph: "Those with anything approaching a life and in search of an entertaining diversion in the form of a strong story or even - gasp - unusual interaction should try something more stimulating, like counting out a million grains of salt." Miaow!

On a related note, Penn's fellow veteran Phil South wrote the adventurers journal column for PC gamer back then, and he rails in a similar fashion against the common FMV and prerendered games of the time that limited interaction so much that the player almost became a spectator in some grainy DTV endurance test.

He praises the freedom of movement of the FPS genre (in particular Doom and also the third-person Ecstatica) as a means by which the adventure and RPG genres can possibly expand into, skipping games akin to those above.







Finally a good game!

This is PCG's review of the outstanding Descent. Another sci-fi themed game, this shooter gave absolute freedom of movement, causing many players to get disorientated as you piloted your vehicle through the complex areas.






As it's still the mid-nineties, the internet has still not assumed the gargantuan presence we take for granted today.

This is shown more than anything by the "Diagnostics" section of this issue. In other words, tips.

Today you just look on IGN or one of the other exhaustive gaming websites for clues on how to beat games. Back in those days, the tips pages were God!


This is an advert for the largely unknown Operation Body Count, from US Gold and Capstone. Despite boasting many interesting features (controllable allies, destructible environments), the game reviewed poorly, mainly thanks to using the Wolfenstein engine, a year after Doom had blasted into everyone's consciousness. As a result, journalists were less than kind to its dated visuals despite the new features and the game was largely considered one of the worst first person shooters around at the time.

In an age of FPS ubiquity, at least Capstone tried to do something a bit different!






Finally for this issue, the regular subscription offer which, as befits the time, is staged into cd-rom and floppy disc. There's some pretty decent games too with Warcraft, Alone in the Dark 2, Dawn Patrol and Cannon Fodder 2 all available for nowt should you decide to subscribe to PC Gamer...

That's it for this issue, I'll be back with the highlights from another issue of PC Gamer soon.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Remembering Deathchase Extras: Interview with James McKay


For Retro Gamer issue 114's Remembering Deathchase anniversary article, I interviewed three programmers who were inspired enough by Mervyn Estcourt's classic to create the own homage and small excerpts of
each appeared in a boxout. Here's the second full interview, with James McKay author of Deathchase: Dragon 32 and Tandy 16k.





At the time of writing, Retro Gamer issue 114 is still available from the Imagine website: https://www.imagineshop.co.uk/magazines/retro-gamer-issue-114.html

JD: When did you first see/play deathchase?
JMK: I was a latecomer to the game. I first got it on a magazine covertape, which WoS reveals to be YS issue 90: Beaut Box 5 in 1993! Back in 1983 there was just my older brothers' Atari 2600 to play. I didn't get a computer until early 1985 (a Tandy Color Computer 2, 16K) and then I got a Spectrum 48K+ in late 1985, so I missed Deathchase the first time around.

JD: What do you like about 3d Deathchase and why do you think it is so popular even today?
JMK: It has a very immediate playability. You dodge and shoot, but it's mostly the dodging. The action is just the right side of stressful. So, it's a very delicate balance between stressing your reaction times and allowing you to progress. That covers why I like it and probably why everyone else likes it!

Forest Patrol

JD: Why did you decide to convert it to the dragon?
JMK: The first computer I owned was the Tandy Color Computer 2 (16K), as I mentioned. It's 99% compatible with the Dragon, from the machine code game-writing perspective (just ROM calls and the keyboard are different). So, first of all, I really wanted to make a game that would work on my (long gone) Tandy 16K and (due to the similarities) it makes perfect sense to make the game work on the Dragon too. (My previous game, Glove, required a minimum of 32K so I wanted to try again).

One of the key problems with both of them was that they didn't get full software support, so there are a lot of good games that didn't get released for them. So, I really wanted to see if the CoCo/Dragon could've handled the 8-bit classics, had support been more feasible in those days. (I have a big list of games I'd like to see converted, which I'll probably never get around to).

Thirdly, Richard Wilson (aka The Executioner and author of the WinAPE emulator) had reverse engineered Deathchase and made an Amstrad CPC version. Having the source saved the big task of doing it myself!

JD: Was this tricky to do and what compromises did you have to make?
JMK: I'm quite good at converting assembler source from one CPU to another, so that was fine. An instruction-by-instruction manual conversion. The other hardware differences were more of an issue.

The CoCo & Dragon are clocked at ~0.89 Mhz (or ~890 Khz, if you want to put it that way). A fair bit slower than the Spectrum's Z80, even with the 6809 executing its instructions in fewer cycles. I had to optimise some sections to keep the speed up.

I had the choice of a monocrome screen, which could reuse the Spectrum graphics but would only allow either black & white or green & black as the colour schemes. I decided to go for the 4-colour modes instead, even though it meant that I had to rework the graphics in a lower resolution.

Then there's the crazy fixed palettes... As a result "Day Patrol" and "Night Patrol" became "Forest Patrol" and "Arctic Patrol". The "Arctic Patrol" sky is magenta instead of cyan. As there's no hardware method of remapping colours, I'd have need more RAM to recolour the sky, but there just wasn't any space left in the 16K. There's also a bit of masking around the rider's helmet that I don't do for space reasons.

Finally, the original game just hammers the hardware without any timer, so I had to guess the timing of the game and the pitch of the sound effects.
"Arctic Patrol"

JD: If not answered above, how does your version differ from the original?
JMK: To summarise:-
1. Runs in a 4-colour, 128x192 mode, so different graphics.
2. "Day Patrol" and "Night Patrol" became "Forest Patrol" and "Arctic Patrol" due to the odd, fixed palettes.
3. The sky is magenta in "Arctic Patrol" because of a combination of the fixed palette and a lack of RAM.
4. A bit of masking is missing from the rider's helmet.

Apart from that (and using the wibbly analogue joysticks) any Deathchase player should be able to get the same feel as the original.


My thanks again to James for his time. For more info on his remake follow this link: http://www.indigobanquet.adsl24.co.uk/coco/deathchase/deathchase.htm



Monday, 22 April 2013

Remembering Deathchase Extras: Interview with Richard "The Executioner" Wilson

For issue 114's Remembering Deathchase anniversary article, I interviewed three programmers who were inspired enough by Mervyn Estcourt's classic to create the own homage and small excerpts of each appeared in a boxout. Here's the first full interview, with Richard Wilson, author of the WinAPE utility and Deathchase: Amstrad CPC.

JD: Hi Richard. Why did you choose Deathchase to remake?
RW: I had read a lot about Deathchase being one of the most famous games on the Spectrum and knew it was missing from the CPC. At the time I was looking for a relatively easy project and thought the conversion would be fairly straightforward.

JD: What do you like about the game (if you do!), either technically or as a game?
RW: I've always been a fan of racing and driving games and wanted to do one of my own. Deathchase ran fast on the Spectrum, so I thought I'd like to find out how the 3D engine worked. The engine itself is quite a simple idea and well implemented. Not strictly proper 3D, but when the trees are coming towards you at the pace they do, it doesn't really matter.

JD: What was the process of breaking down the code like, and how long did it take?
RW: Breaking down the code requires a good disassembler (I used WinAPE) which can keep track of data areas, a lot of patience and a good knowledge of Z80. The process took me a couple of days.

JD: If you can explain (in as much layman terms as possible!) how the process worked?
RW: The game (and every game for that matter) is divided into 3 parts: Code, Data and Variables. In a modern game, those parts may be well defined and in different areas, but in an old Z80 game, generally they are mixed together, so the first task is to determine what's actually code and what's data and variables.

Once you've got the code separated from the data and variables, you can then go about finding out what each code routine does. You look for hints like setting registers to point at areas of the memory or input-output range which are used for the display or sound devices, then work out what each routine does, either just by just looking at the code or stepping through it with an emulator. You can also look more closely at the data areas you've found to determine if they make up some form of graphics or sound data. It's generally easiest to start with small routines and work out what they are doing, then see where they get called from.

A good example of this is the print_b routine in the deathchase.asm source code. You know the Spectrum character set is in ROM at #3C00, so it's easy enough to work out that the routine takes a string and draws it on the screen. Deathchase uses this routine extensively to display almost all messages, so when it gets called you can work out what part of the game it's from. It's used to show the score, the level, the GAME OVER message and so on.

It's a long process to work out what ALL the routines do, but then comes the last step: re-writing the bits that won't work as specified on the CPC. For example, the print_b routine for the CPC calls draw_char which is quite a bit more complicated than the Spectrum equivalent, but does the same thing.

JD: What do you think of Deathchase's status as one of the most iconic games on the Spectrum?
RW: I think it's well deserved. It's technically quite impressive to get any form of 3D engine running so fast, and it's the speed which makes it so playable.

JD: And what do you think it does to deserve that mantle?
RW: Getting that sort of performance out of a 3.8MHz Z80 is always impressive and always requires some serious coding tricks. I modified the engine itself very little to run on the CPC, and it needed some slow down loops in there to bring it back down to a playable speed. The game itself is quite simple by today's standards, but it's the simple ideas that work the best so long as you have the playability and re-playability.

My thanks once more to Richard for his time. More soon!

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Remembering Deathchase: Extras


Still out in the shops is Retro Gamer issue 114 which contains my article celebrating the classic ZX Spectrum game Deathchase.

The aim of the article was originally intended to be developer and publisher input of the time accompanied by whatever extra material I could find on the game. Of course, ideally, a full exclusive interview with the Deathchase's author would have been the main attraction, but that wasn't to be...

Ultimately, however, an excellent interview with Micromega's Neil Hooper became the focus of the piece, bolstered by some enthusiastic comments from reviewers of the time. As a result, I had quite a lot of material left over which I am now posting here.

First up we have Robin Cooke-Hurle, Neil's colleague at Micromega. Thanks again to Robin for his time.

JD: Hi Robin. Tell me, did you ever meet Mervyn Estcourt?
RC-H: Yes I did meet Mervyn, and actually negotiated the commercial arrangements with him. What he did was so outside anything I could do that I was slightly in awe of him. He was not very easy to deal with, because he seemed to think that if we were happy with a deal then that must be a sign that he was being taken to the cleaners. However I think we did reach agreements which were fair to both sides, and I’m told had a big impact on his life, and we never tried to hold him in with exclusive options on the next game or anything.

JD: What did you think of Deathchase when you first saw it?
RC-H: Mervyn did three games for us, Luna Crabs, Deathchase and Full Throttle, in as far as I remember that order (Neil will know). The real ground breaker was Luna Crabs, which as far as I recall was the first Spectrum game ever to feature 3D graphics. I was staggered by what he did (it is hard to remember today how na├»ve the games market was) and could not imagine how it could be done inside 16K – and still can’t!! When I saw Deathchase and then Full Throttle I was therefore more or less ready for them, and saw them as an evolution. I was though thrilled that we had another Mervyn Estcourt game.

JD: How did the game sell?
RC-H: As far as I remember very well, though not as well as Full Throttle, which was phenomenal and topped the charts for some weeks.

JD: What do you think made it so special?
RC-H: Aside from the overall storyboarding of the games, which I guess Mervyn also did, the thing which impressed me enormously was how beautifully smooth it was.

JD: What do you think of the game today?
RC-H: I haven’t seen it for probably 25 years, but I still feel a slight sense of awe at Mervyn’s skill.

JD: It was well reviewed, especially by Crash, although Sinclair User were a bit unfair about the casual violence in the game. Did this bother you?
RC-H: Not at all – in fact I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it. It was obviously stylised, and was far more about skill and reaction times than anything else.

JD: Finally, Deathchase is regarded as one of the finest Spectrum games ever - and under 16K! How proud of this are you?
RC-H: I’m simply grateful that we had the opportunity to publish those games, which combined with others by Derek Brewster, Tony Poulter and others funded our development in to a commercial software house (Taxsoft) which ended up as the biggest supplier in the UK of taxation software, and was sold to Sage in early 1999. However Mervyn should be and I hope is proud of it, as should Neil be for shepherding the marketing so well, and also for managing what was at times a tricky relationship.

Next up we have Steve Wilcox of Elite fame.

JD: Do you remember first seeing Deathchase (perhaps in your shop) and if so your first impressions?
SW: My earliest memory, which may be false, is of it being ‘Game of the Month’ / ‘A Crash Smash’ in an early issue of the Newsfield magazine. That was generally a sign of a fine games, in those days.

JD: What do you think makes the game so great and enduring?
SW: It’s those early reviews, the not insignificant sales (both as a full-price and as a budget title) and the loyal and lingering fan base that maintains its appeal.

JD: What do/did you think of the game from a technical and/or software house angle?
SW: Graphically it was not that stunning (even in its day) but it clearly entertained. It’s what Ocean’s later release “Street Hawk” could and should have been inspired by.

JD: Who did you deal with to get it on your £2.99 classics label?
SW: I wish I could remember. We have a copy of the game on a ‘£2.99 Classics’ cassette in the office. When I get a moment I’ll take a look at what the inlay card says, that will remind me. We’ll also have the contract, deep in the vault.

JD: Why would you like to re-release it now?
SW: It’s amongst the ‘Top 100 Most Requested’ games by owners of our ZX Spectrum: Elite Collection apps.


Jim Bagley, coder of legendary Spectrum games such as Midnight Resistance and Cabal, also gave me his thoughts on Deathchase:-

"Yeah, of course I remember 3D Deathchase, who wouldn't it was a fantastic game, I'd love to do a remake, that's how much I like it. I remember first seeing Deathchase, way back, at my friend's house, it couldn't have been that long after it came out, it was fantastic, driving through the trees in real 3D (real as in back then real 3D haha). What makes it so great is the 3D feeling with the trees getting bigger as get closer to them, and the skill involved in navigating the trees at high speeds, whilst also shooting the baddie bikes!

From a technical angle, I absolutely adored the game, big massive tree sprites coming at you and enough to make it look like a forest full of trees, and it ran at a decent enough rate too, and sound! I still play it on the odd occasion, now and again, so rate it quite highly out of all the Speccy games."

Finally, here is the Retro Gamer forum boxout which sadly didn't make it into the final article:-

From the Forum

adippm82: For a 16K game it was incredible, just such a simple, seat of the pants game, great to put on for a few minutes, and that's what I did for a few years, and still occasionally do now.

Spector: It was reviewed in the first issue of Crash and the quality of the 3D effect and use of colour meant Deathchase wouldn't have looked out of place in the magazine had it been the last.

Markopoloman: Although I am not the Speccy's biggest fan, I thought Deathchase was very nicely done. It gave a good feeling of speed and had that very important 'just one more go' feel.

SirClive: The pure simplicity of the controls and game dynamic, coupled with great graphics and fast moving action make it an absolutely astonishing game for a 16k computer.

Matt_B: I'd say that it's massively overrated; the gameplay is very shallow and the graphics a cheap trick that was obvious to my 13-year-old self at the time

Sputryk: WATCH OUT FOR THE TRE....



Later this week I shall post the full interviews of the three people I interviewed for the Remakes section of the article, Richard Wilson (CPC), James McKay (Tandy/Dragon 32) and Eugene Kiyanov (iOS).