Tuesday, 29 March 2016

FANTASY WORLD DIZZY

It convinced me I wanted to get a home computer and was the first game I purchased myself, before I'd even received my C64.  I'd spend hours traversing the land again and again with the patience of a saint, but will it appeal in the same way today?  Will the pixel-perfect jumps, slow wandering and the liberal doses of trial-and-error gameplay still make me want to restart after losing those three precious lives for the umpteenth time?


It seems rather fitting to be reviewing this game at this time of the year with eggs everywhere we look.  It was playing Fantasy World Dizzy on my friend's Spectrum 128 +2 which convinced me I wanted a computer of my own.  I loved the bopping animation of the character as he stood there, the skill of jumping over that 'gator and the puzzle-based gameplay.  When it came to Christmas 1991 and my C64 was only days away from being finally powered up for the first time I used my birthday money to buy this game and so it was one of the very first experiences I had on a Commodore.

I never did get around to completing it back then and actually have only done so for the first time this year!  But that didn't stop me from coming back regularly to try to get that bit further.  I tried to explain to a younger colleague in work recently how games used to have a set number of lives and that was it; you lose them and it was game over and you were back at the beginning.  He was somewhat confused.  The Dizzy games had three lives and trying to keep a hold of them was difficult enough without the unfair tricks the games could contain, but more on that later.

That well-known start screen and the bright, colourful border in all its glory
As a much older C64 user now the first thing that struck me was how primitive the graphics are (though the C64 version's border is rather lovely) and how similar they are to the old Spectrum game I played.  Although on further investigation online it's clear it's not the straight port many magazines at the time would've had you believe.  The music is completely different, it certainly moves faster on busy screens and Dizzy doesn't turn the same colour as whatever he's standing in front of.  However, it's still clearly a port of a Spectrum game.  Apart from the lovely smooth Dizzy himself there's quite a bit of flicker in the animation of flames, water and creatures, as well as some horrible colour clashing when you place an item in front of any background graphic.  But the simplistic nature of the graphics, when done with this much character actually adds a bag full of charm when the whole package is taken into account, including the gameplay which is just as fun as it ever was.

Readers who may have played any of the Metroid games on various Nintendo systems could see Dizzy as a cracking (sorry) cute version of a similar gameplay mechanic as Dizzy sets out to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend Daisy.  You spend your time exploring the landscape, coming up blank about what to do next until you use an item and are able to see a bit more of the game.  Then within this newly discovered area you come across various objects you can take all the way back to distant places you've already visited to gain access to other areas there... and so it goes on, with the other Yolk Folk characters giving you little snippets of the (albeit incredibly simplistic) plot before giving you whatever they have in their possession.  This brings with it a satisfying sense of achievement with each newly discovered screen.  Then when you lose that last life, the fact you've seen just that little bit more will have you clicking the fire button to start all over again straight away, just to see if you get to discover a new screen or two this time.

The graphics may be simplistic but they're no less charming
A cow?  How strong is this egg?!
Don't do it Dizzy!  That's not a log!  Too late...

Playing the game isn't just a matter of collecting items and exploring the land, it also tests your dexterity and patience!  It looks very much like a children's game on the surface and indeed he was an icon to the younger players of the day, with games which were easy to pick up and get into.  But to complete it you had to learn how to get the most out of one of the series' main mechanics; that of controlling Dizzy.

He has one pace and that can only be described as a 'jolly walk', which is just fast enough to not get boring while you walk from one of the fifty-odd screens to one at the other end of the game.  But making him jump is a matter of often pixel-perfect joystick wrangling.  Press an up-diagonal and he takes to the air, somersaulting in an arc either left or right for a set height and set distance.  Becoming skilled at judging where he'll land is key to success in any Dizzy game, such as with the alligator above whose mouth opens and closes in a set pattern.  Standing with one of his feet dangling over the edge of the wall you have to time it so that our sandwich filling of a hero not only lands perfectly on the lizard's jaws but also at the right time.  One slip and you'll either tumble into the water and die or land in the throat of our bodyguard friend there and, you guessed it, die again.  This proved to be the first big test when playing back as a teen, with plenty more to come.

(click to enlarge)

You may think with one variety of walking pace and jump it'd be easy to judge such things but when you know the slightest error could mean game over it's nerve wrecking stuff.  Below are two other scenarios in the game.  The first is a fire-breathing dragon who you have to get close enough to in order to use a certain item on him (I won't spoil which one for those who want to figure it out for themselves when playing the game) but in order to do so you end up standing by the tree for ages counting his flames and the head bops between blasts, trying to decipher a long pattern and when to take your chance.

Below that is the screen which probably caused more broken joysticks than any other game of the time.  The Dizzy Hawk flies back and forth across the landscape and you simply have to figure out how to get by in both directions, as you'll need to traverse this screen a few times.  With cloud cover it should be easy, right?  Ha.  There is a solution which is simple in hindsight but taxing when you first come across it:

Fried for breakfast it is then!

From here at my desk I can hear the collective "That bloody bird!"
amongst readers of a certain age.
The Dizzy Hawk throws up one of the niggles I have and that's one of trial-and-error.  It might seem natural to think once the bird goes behind cloud cover you can make a run for it, or rather a jolly walk for it.  But which cloud?  There's a big one so that makes sense, but is it the right answer?  What about when coming back the other way, and how do you get that coin?  It might sound like it'd be a simple matter of working it all out in advance before making your move, but there's a nasty amount of lives lost on this screen (make the wrong move and you can't run away, the bird will get you!) and don't be surprised if it's the reason you start the whole game again at least once.

Trial-and-error, as well as unavoidable deaths which I'll get to below, are nasty ways of prolonging a game, artificially raising the difficulty level on those first few plays.  It still happens in games today (I always found the Splinter Cell games had too much trial-and-error for my liking for example) but thankfully it is kept to a minimum in this game.  But the fact it's there is still frustrating at times.  Once you get the solutions and battle through these bits they become great fun to traverse every subsequent time as they still require skill.  But it would've been much better to have been able to use that skill to work out what to do in the first place, rather than through initial sheer will and luck.

One room which is a perfect example of how the creators took the trial-and-error idea and created an actual great puzzle around it won't see you lose any lives, but it may make you wish it would just so you could get out and come back to try again later instead:

I wouldn't be surprised if some old CRTs have this burned onto their screens

There are certain bricks above there which are platforms, but others are low ceilings while others simply block your way and the only way to find out which is which is to walk and jump and see what happens.  But piece-by-piece you figure out the lay of the land and can start building it in your mind until you have Dizzy perfectly placed, pixel-by-pixel all the way around the maze.  All in order to collect one coin!  But as the full completion sequence requires you to get them all it has to be done.

So yes, there can be some frustrating moments which eventually lead to skilful, fun joystick use and the same ideas are also used to great effect elsewhere and lead to lengthening the game in a completely fair and entertaining way.  But what about those unfair deaths I mentioned?

Well as I said near the top there were only three lives like in most games of the day and where the Dizzy games could fall down was the sometimes unfair ways you'd find yourself going all Humpty Dumpty and face starting all over again through no fault of your own.  The game doesn't scroll, instead flicking from one screen to the next as you walk off the edge of each one, and walking off the edge is one such example of what can happen.

The next screenshot is the corner of a room you walk into.  Dizzy has come over all ballet dancer here and as you can see he's balancing precariously over a fall on the tips of his toes.  The first time you walk into this room in the game you instinctively keep on walking and instantly fall into a pit of spikes.  Unless you happen by luck to have gone a different way in the castle and had seen the pit first there's simply no warning and on your first play-through this could end up being your last life, resulting in early frustration:

Mr. Motivator's early morning workouts on TV-AM had paid off

I don't want to come across too negative as these games are ridiculously fun to play, but these few niggles are the things others bring up constantly online these days as reasons to why they seem to hate Dizzy with a scary passion.  But they're just that; niggles.  They put you on edge for the rest of the game, making each new screen and every leap an exciting discovery.  Sure, you'll lose a few lives and will curse the game and rightly so.  But you'll also click on that button and start again.

That's the whole point here, these games are extremely addictive and it all boils down to go old-fashioned gameplay and charm.  It might sound daft to younger readers but even today it still feels like you're in this great big cartoon world, with the characters and the imagination of the landscape sucking you in.  You just want to see more and more.  As the game moves on the puzzles require more back-and-forth wandering if you've left items behind and, while it can test the memory, they generally stay at the same difficulty throughout. However the platform-esque gameplay does become more tricky so be prepared for less Mario-style running-and-jumping, and more ever-so-slight-joystick-tapping as you minutely manoeuvre Dizzy into optimal positions before making each leap.

In suitable 1990s magazine DTP fashion, here's the full rundown
of Dizzy games on the C64
So would I recommend this game to anyone collecting Commodore 64 games nowadays?  I certainly would.  It's been a blast down memory lane of the very best kind.  It's brought back so many happy feelings but at the same time is still great fun to play in its own right.  It's simplistic nature belies a game with a good enough challenge to keep you going a while, as long as you have the patience and determination to see your small eggy chum to the end of his story.  Even then you'll find completing the game fully somewhat harder than you originally thought as you try to track down all the hidden coins and secrets within.

The big, chunky graphics make each screen a satisfying little piece of exploration in its own right, each containing just enough to do to keep you moving.  The music may be the same tune on repeat but you'll have it on constantly as it just adds to that cartoony atmosphere perfectly.  When you play it you realise that if more time had been spent converting it and upgrading it to the C64 it may have lost some of what made it all such a complete package in the first place.  But the stars here are the gameplay, the imagination and the humour.

Watch is set for four minutes, so in you jump Dizzy!
I found myself bopping along to the music, enjoying the sedate nature of a game which could also throw a curveball at any moment with a tough screen or puzzle to figure out.  It was just plain fun!  No wonder these were so successful, even though each sequel kept pretty much to the same basic formula the kids lapped them up and I might even do so now and collect them all.  Who knows?    

(click to enlarge)
Design: The Oliver Twins
Programming: Ian Gray
Graphics: Neil Adamson
Music: Steve Barrett
Publisher: Codemasters
I paid £2.99 (eBay)



Wednesday, 23 March 2016

HAPPY HUMP DAY

A few years ago a friend's mum bought her own partner a Commodore 64 for Christmas after he'd reminisced about the one he'd had as a child.  He'd gone on and on to me about a game called Hunchback II and how amazing it was and how it'd been his favourite out of all the ones he'd originally owned.  He was exceptionally surprised to receive the C64C that festive season, coming completely out of left field as the last thing he'd expected.  He was also ecstatic to see his favourite game and the original title were in the box alongside it.

However, I also remember a few weeks later seeing him playing the game on a huge TV screen and the reaction was one of somewhat subdued enjoyment.  Going back and playing old games we grew up on isn't always as we'd expect.  Sometimes while wearing those rose-tinted glasses our memories can hide a multitude of sins, or sometimes games just don't age well.  That's kind of the whole point of what I'm doing here; to rediscover the Commodore 64 now, in the modern world, not to just be another site devoted to remembering what it was like to use and play this machine back in the day.  (There are plenty of sites like that out there and they do a fantastic job already.)  In the instance of that particular C64 experiment it wasn't long before it was collecting dust again and it ended up being sold back onto eBay a year or so later.

Now, here's Smudge!:

Any excuse to share pictures of this wee man to be honest

The same family who had purchased the 64 often ask me to cat-sit when they go away for a few days or a holiday and I jump at the chance every single time.  Smudge was rescued by them from a hedge at a local golf club on a cold and rainy night last year and as you can see he's settled in rightly to his new home.  So full of personality, it's a treat for me on every occasion to spend the time with him.  But why am I bringing him up?

Well the family is always very grateful (even though I'm really the grateful one to get to spend time with him!) and after a recent weekend with Smudge a box was discovered with two old cassettes in it.  Unlike the rest of the Commodore gear which had been sold off these had remained accidentally hidden away somewhere and were recently discovered.  Knowing I'd bought a C64 again they've now made their way into my hands:

'New' games for me as I've never played them before
So thanks very much folks!  I got to spend a great few days with Smudge and come away with Hunchback and Hunchback II, wasn't I lucky?  So these are the latest additions to my small collection thus far and I haven't a clue what to expect, there's not even a single screenshot anywhere on the boxes.  Remember those days of going by the illustrations in advertisements and the cover art only?

(Yes, I could've simply told you about the games without explaining about Smudge, but then I wouldn't have had an excuse to share the photos with you!)

I'll be getting stuck into them soon.  Will I be discovering a previously unknown gem?  Check back for a review soon.    

Sunday, 20 March 2016

MANUAL (iOS)

An iOS feature?  Am I going all Zzap!64 already and covering other formats?  Well no, but the last post I put up showed you my attempts at taking screenshots for the blog with some pretty awful results.  I won't be going into the reason why again but if you missed out just scroll down (or click here if you're lazy).

I did say, however, that my initial idea was to splash out on a brand spanking new webcam but I'd discovered more of the settings in my iPhone's camera and realised the answer may have been lying there the whole time.  Scanning through the App Store I came across various downloads which promised much but delivered very little.  Sure, they'd slow down the shutter speed which the online advice on photography websites said was the solution to the problem but that didn't appear to be enough when I tried out their free previews.

The refresh rate of these old TVs is the problem and slowing the shutter speed down ended up being only one of a few things that needed to be done in order to stop the flickering, as well as the problems with contrast and the visible wobbly lines on the screenshots.  I definitely didn't want to go down the route of hooking the C64 up to the Mac and taking screenshots through it, as they'd end up too crisp like they did when using the HDTV, with everything looking overly blocky (even more so than normal).  I wanted to do this the old-fashioned way magazines like Commodore Format did, but modern cameras and old TVs don't particularly like each other.

But now, enter Manual:

Here's what to look out for on the App Store

Compared to the £70 webcam that was already on offer, forking out a whopping £2.29 for this was a steal.  Using a combination of slowing the shutter speed (though not as low as the websites advised), adjusting the ISO in accordance to the brightness of the 64 screen I'm photographing, along the manual focus which zooms in on whatever is right at the centre of the shot and lets you move the slider until it's perfect, I've been able to get some great results.  So I'm finally able to start reviewing games!  In fact one is already written and ready to be published this week.

Surprisingly simply to use, each one of Manual's options animates
beautifully and it offers a world of options to get those perfect shots
under any circumstances and for any subject

As you can see in the screenshot from my phone above there's many other bits'n'pieces to play with too and as I continue with the blog over the next while I'll be experimenting with it more to see how I can improve the photos further.  At the moment though I have to say the results I'm getting are pretty damned great and wouldn't look out of place in an issue of Commodore Format, and that's exactly the kind of feel I'm going for, complete with bendy screen!

Here's a comparison shot of the photo I showed you last time and the Ready screen I took with Manual:



Bit of a difference isn't it?  The first game I've reviewed is Fantasy World Dizzy and with it being mainly black with simple coloured scenery and one-colour sprites Manual didn't really need to stretch its muscles to get the results I wanted.  As other games and pieces of software are covered with much brighter screens it'll take a bit more tinkering as it did with the Ready screen above, but all it takes is a few seconds and the app compensates to whatever my 64 can output.

Superb stuff.

So if you're interested in taking some good old-fashioned screenshots from a good old-fashioned CRT for that authentic C64 screenshot look no further than Manual - here's the App Store link.    

Developer: William Wilkinson
Price: £2.29