RSS icon Home icon
  • Rick Dangerous (Microprose/Core Design, June 1989)

    Posted on April 6th, 2010 keving 3 comments

    Among the many reasons I love the 8- and 16-bit European game industry: British Telecom owned a game publisher for four years — and a pretty good one, too.

    Said publisher was purchased by Microprose in 1988, delaying the release of Rick Dangerous by about half a year while everything was being figured out post-sale. This gave the developers at Core Design time to port this game to six different computer systems, every major one of the day — PC, Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and Amstrad CPC. It’s a testament to Core’s skill that every one of them control so well and “feel” the same despite the radically different hardware involved. (This was Core’s first game chronologically; Rick co-designer Simon Phipps went on to spend five years designing Harry Potter games for EA.)

    It’s hard to say why I like Rick so much. It’s a very formulaic platformer, and one that relies a lot more on memorizing stage layouts than having serious action-game skill. Rick dies all the time from unseen traps or unnoticed blowdart turrets, and the only way to see the ending is by trial and error, memorizing each stage until you can pull off every jump and crawl and ladder-grab perfectly. Zzap!64 and Amiga Power both slammed the game for this in their reviews, and I can’t blame them.

    But there’s something else Rick has, something difficult to lay one’s finger upon. I’d pin it down to “console-style response,” I think. It controls great on every platform, with none of the odd little unfair delays that were sort of part and parcel of computer games back then. It’s not that other 8-bit titles didn’t have responsive controls and quick gameplay, but something about Rick makes it feel far more console-y than a lot of other European computer releases of the time. Try it for yourself — any platform will do — and see if you agree with me.

    And if you’re going to try it out, why not use Rick Dangerous 128+, a brand-new version released last Christmas for the Amstrad? The French coders behind it claim it’s the best 8-bit version of Rick ever released, and I’ll have to agree — it’s got all the extra content from the Amiga and ST versions (about a third of the game was cut to fit into the 8-bitters), it’s quick and colorful, and the enemies make the cutest shriek of horror when you fill them full of lead. You’ll want to use the WinAPE emulator to play it.

  • The Amazing Waldemar, King of All Polish Game Pirates

    Posted on February 9th, 2010 keving 7 comments

    I spent the past few minutes reading this interview with one Waldemar Czajkowski, a man who made a living in late-era Communist Poland selling and distributing compilations of pirated Commodore 64 games.

    He had a pretty spiffy small business going at the height of it, producing thousands of tapes and distributing them all over the country in his Volkswagen minivan. The operation was successful enough that he was able to buy a new car and condo with the proceeds — nothing to sniff at considering how far a zloty got you (or didn’t) at the time.

    Waldemar’s biggest problem? Procuring the cassettes to meet the demand for his game compilations, no small feat in a regime that didn’t exactly smile upon people recording things by themselves:

    In the first years of my business, getting any clean cassette was a real art! There was only a possibility to buy only already recorded tapes. If any of the music band from Poland during 1988-1990 period has won the Golden Plate, including the sale of cassettes, I can say that it is partly caused to me! [laughter] When I had some connections I’ve heard that in Szczecin on some street there is a shop selling haberdashery, where you could buy the cassettes! [laughter] Seriously! In the haberdashery! I went there and stood in the queue. At the counter I’ve asked for audio cassettes, thinking also, that for the moment the saleswoman will kick me out, but she came with a question: „Which ones? 60-minutes, 90-minutes long? [laughter] In such strange places I had to buy tapes for my production! When there was the possibility of placing an order in Stilon, it turned out that it was necessary to come with a lot of formalities, to write applications and wait for weeks to process the application. There were problems, for example questions like „Who are you? What is the company?”. Hence, in Stilon was really hard to order something.

    Waldemar kept his C64 pirate business going until 1994, when Poland finally got around to passing modern software copyright laws. He spent a few years afterward selling legal software, but — predictably — sticking with the law led to smaller profit margins and he eventually gave it up in 1997.

    Read the whole thing — it’s in kind of fractured English but is an endlessly fascinating peek into a scene people like me never had a taste of.

  • Weird Dreams (Rainbird/Microprose, 1990)

    Posted on November 17th, 2009 keving 6 comments

    I know I mostly talk about Japanese games on this blog, but the Commodore 64 was actually my chief gaming system until — not making this up — 1993, when I finally managed to connive my parents into getting me a cheap used PC clone on which I could play Wolfenstein 3D at about 15 frames per second. I was happy. Not for long, however.

    The result of this is that I am intensely familiar with the entirety of the C64 games library, mainly ‘cos starting around 1990 (when I was the ripe old age of 12) I discovered BBSes and began to pirate games at a level so intensive that it arguably wouldn’t be duplicated until Napster was introduced. Hopefully some imaginary statute of limitations can keep me from being prosecuted by Microprose and all the other 8-bit publishers of the past, nearly all of which are long since defunct or bought out by other, more powerful publishers who are themselves defunct.

    I went through a lot of software back then (which, of course, is all available to me now at a few keystrokes thanks to the GB64 project), but even now I remember Weird Dreams for all the, er, weird dreams it gave me. Nightmares, really. Seriously, this game, alongside Uninvited on the NES, tormented my middle-school soul immensely and made me afraid of the dark long after I should’ve been. Sorry, Mom/Dad/the dog.

    I think the creepiness of the game is actually enhanced by the blocky 8-bitness of the C64 version I played. The “preferred” platform for this game was obviously the Amiga, and that version is a graphical tour-de-force, but the C64 version I lovingly downloaded from “Ironfang Keep” or “Virtual Reality” or some other similarly-named BBS in the northeastern US is a bit more cryptic. The original game comes with a novella that explains the whole story (basically, Steve, the guy you control, is seduced by his satanically-controlled girlfriend to gradually go insane within his dreams), but of course I knew nothing about that, having ruthlessly pirated this thing around 1991.

    This video makes Weird Dreams look easy, but imagine you just leeched this game off some BBS in 1991 and have no information on the thing outside of the name. Sure, you can beat the game in eight minutes if you know how to do everything and have robotic hand-eye coordination, but if you don’t, then you get stuck at individual sections for days. I remember it taking me a month to figure out that the soccer ball was an item that could be used for things. Ultimately I got stuck at the point where the wasp attacked you inside the hall of mirrors. I thought I needed some other item besides the fish to defeat the guy; I didn’t realize that I just needed to hit it fifteen times (30 in the Amiga original) to defeat it. Stupid, stupid pre-teen gamer nerd!

    The C64 version, being a C64 game, has next-to-no real ending. The Amiga version has a bit more substantial of a closing (and one that’s downright creepy, actually), but nothing too substantial plotwise. I posted the C64 vid ‘cos, well, I never owned an Amiga. Sorry.

    PS. Looking at the video again as I edit this: Jesus Christ, Barry Leitch’s rendition of Country Gardens is one of the creepiest C64 tunes I’ve ever heard. I’m gonna have nightmares all over again tonight, I’m sure of it.