Tag Archives: C64

Am I the Only One Who Remembers… Blinky’s Scary School

In the spirit (awful pun intended) of Hallowe’en, I thought I’d pen this missive about a game most people probably won’t remember: Blinky’s Scary School. A budget title for the C64 and other formats released by Zeppelin Games in 1990, Blinky was never destined for greatness, but perhaps deserves a little bit more recognition than it now has.

Blinky's Scary School
Blinky and the cauldron he will use to cause chaos and disruption throughout the realm. Well, the flick-screen castle at any rate.

The eponymous Blinky is a ghost undergoing his final exam at Scary School. The school’s curriculum seems to require a practical exam to finish the course, as Blinky is tasked with causing a fright to Hamish McTavish, current denizen of Drumtrochie Castle. Blinky has one night to accomplish his task, otherwise he’ll have to wait one hundred years for his next chance to resit the exam. Seems rather harsh to me, but presumably none of this is properly regulated by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

At first sight it’s easy to dismiss Blinky’s Scary School as a Dizzy wannabe, especially since the main character sprite looks so similar (even down to the red boots). In actuality, the style of the game is different. There is some light puzzle-solving and object collection, but this is more of a very, very light Metroidvania title, albeit minus any of the RPG elements. Blinky collects objects to create potions that grant him a handful of extra powers, such as being able to transform into a bubble and move underwater, allowing him to get to previously inaccessible areas. There’s a lot of platforming involved too, and many more nefarious beasties lurking around the castle than you’d find in your typical Dizzy title.

Graphically the game is neat, although nothing to write home about. The C64 version at least stands above the Dizzy games in that it makes better use of the hardware. It’s a flick-screen adventure, but movement between screens is nice and fluid. Blinky himself is remarkably expressive for a collection of 8-bit pixels, and the animation (where it exists) is neat. If anything, Blinky is too cute. How on Earth he’s meant to terrify anybody when he looks so adorable I’ve no idea. You’re more likely to want to pick him up and give him cuddles than you are scream at the top of your lungs and frenetically Google the nearest exorcist. He also doesn’t look anything in-game like he appears on the cover. The boxart shows what appears to be a picture of Casper the Friendly Ghost drawn by someone coming down from several days of heady drug use. Somewhere in the transition between the box and the game itself he appears to have lost all his limbs and discarded his red nose.

Blinky features many of the problems that early games (particularly budget releases) are known for. There are deaths caused by elements that can only be known about through trial and error, enemy sprites that are unavoidable due to their appearance at the edges of screens, jumps requiring pixel-precision, and more. Still, this is all par for the course given the era it comes from and everything is livable with.

Blinky's Scary School
In scenes of sheer horror, Blinky can use toilets to teleport throughout the castle. No explanation of how this works is forthcoming.

I always felt that Zeppelin wanted Blinky to become a mascot for the company and the presence of a sequel – Titanic Blink– seems to confirm that a little. Sadly I don’t think either title ever performed as well as the company hoped, either critically or financially. Reviews at the time were pretty average, I seem to recall. A shame, really, as with a little most investment of time and imagination it could have been a decent series. Still, if Bubsy the sodding Bobcat can come back from obscurity maybe it isn’t too late…

If you happen upon it via emulator or similar, Blinky’s Scary School is worth a play. It’s a diverting little game that won’t take you long to finish; I remember completing it as a kid, so it can’t be that difficult, and a ‘longplay’ of the game on YouTube sees someone polishing it off in about fifteen minutes. It won’t change your life, but it might just raise a smile.

[Pictures courtesy of MobyGames].

Burn in the Fires of Eternal Torment… Through the Trap Door (C64)

Having being playing games for longer than I care to remember, I’ve been unfortunate to play some really, really shit ones. Particularly back in the C64 era, there was some real crappy titles that were released. Things like The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space MutantsSanta’s Christmas Caper and Boot Camp (AKA Combat School) stick out for me, but the one game that always comes to mind when thinking of the utterly worst game I’ve ever played is Through the Trap Door.

Oh no, where’s Boney gone! Do we stage a rescue or go and find a better game instead?

For those too young to remember, The Trap Door was a stop-motion animated series voiced by Willie Rushton and featuring an amorphous blue blob named Berk. He was the resident dogsbody in an un-named castle, working for the never-seen-Thing Upstairs, who was constantly hungry and bellowing. Aided by the disembodied skull Boney and the spider Drutt, the series followed Berk’s attempts to placate his master whilst trying to remember (and usually failing) to keep the titular trap-door closed, lest one of the many terrifying monsters from below should escape. Which they usually did.

Two 8-bit games were released based on the series. The first – simply named The Trap Door – was published in 1986 by Piranha Software. Written by Don Priestly and featuring his trademark ‘giant sprite’ style, The Trap Door was actually a pretty good adventure game. A little slow, perhaps – particularly in its C64 conversion – but entertaining and very reminiscent of the TV series. Most games of the time based on TV shows bore very little resemblance to their subject matter (*cough* Thundercats *cough*), but The Trap Door did make you feel like you were playing an episode.

Two years later, the sequel – Through the Trap Door – was published. It was shit.

Part of me just wants to end there, but I feel I should elucidate a bit. The concept behind Through the Trap Door was actually a pretty good one. Who amongst we children who watched the show back in the now rather dim and distant past didn’t at one point wonder what exactly was beneath that trap door? The story (such as it was) saw Boney being kidnapped by some skeletal-bat-thing and taken beneath the trap door for some no-doubt nefarious purpose. It is thus up to Bert and Drutt to venture forth and rescue their friend from the clutches of the aforementioned skeletal-bat-thing that I don’t think had a name.

And it’s here where the problems start. Mainly because this is where the game starts.

A giant green bat-thing, a yellow frog-thing that’s supposed to be a spider and a white key-thing that is, for some unexplained reason, hovering high in the air.

The biggest issue I have with the game are the controls. As total mismatches between game style and control schemes go, I don’t think there is a better example than this. Bert controls exactly as he did in the first game – slow and clumsily. This wasn’t as much of a problem in the original Trap Door as that was more of a puzzle adventure game, where careful consideration was crucial. Through the Trap Door is much more of standard platformer, with a few puzzle elements scattered throughout. There’s a lot of avoiding enemies and make pixel-perfect jumps, and the big, fat (though admittedly nicely animated) Berk sprite just isn’t up to it. Controlling him feels constantly like you’re trying to convince a reluctant hippopotamus to climb some stairs.

But Berk is a dream to play as in comparison to Drutt. The little gray spider is here (again, as in the first game) reimagined as a yellow blob that looks more like a frog than anything else. He moves faster than Berk but – and here’s the rub – he is constantly moving by himself, normally to chase down one of the worms that frequently appear on the screen. Even when you’re controlling him, he has a mind of his own, and one that seems to have a predilection for falling down giant pits. Which is rather unfortunate, really, as what seems to below the trap-door are a lot of pits, along with terrible collision detection. I’ve seen people complaining about the annoyances caused by Trico in last year’s The Last Guardian but trust me, he has nothing on Drutt. Play as him for longer than six seconds and you’ll want to smash the keyboard to smithereens. But don’t, kids.

Controls aside, the other main problem with Through the Trap Door is just that it’s so damned hard. To clarify that a bit, I’m not complaining here about the difficulty itself – a lot of good games are hard – but with this game the toughness comes through the fault of the game rather than purposeful design and the need to acquire a particular skill-set that you build up over the course of playing. Through the Trap Door is hard because of the awful controls and the fact that it’s so utterly obtuse. I never made it past about the fourth screen, but having watched a complete playthrough on YouTube I can say that there is just no way I would have been able to figure out some of the puzzles as a kid, even assuming I’d had the patience to make it all the way through (which I haven’t even now).

You wouldn’t believe how long it took me to get Drutt to stop on this ledge without either running off-screen or leaping into the pit.

Perhaps worst of all the crimes the game commits, though, is how it squanders its premise and how utterly disappointing it is. Some games are never going to amount to much; at no point was infamous Atari title ET: The Extra-Terrestrial ever going to be anything other than a steaming pile of dung. There are chinks of light here that suggest this could have been more. The graphics, simplistic backgrounds aside, are crisp and well-animated. The game is, for the time, reasonably sizable. But it’s all for naught, as all the bad things get in the way. You’ll never appreciate the graphics because you’re be too busy swearing at the screen as Drutt starts running to the left even though you’re telling him to go right. You’ll never see most of the game has to offer because your frustrations will stop you from making it too far.

Yes, Through the Trap Door is, on reflection, the worst game I’ve ever played.

Probably.

[Thanks to MobyGames for the cover image for this blog. I couldn’t get the loading screen to appear in my emulated version… Taken from http://www.mobygames.com/game/c64/through-the-trap-door/screenshots/gameShotId,276794/ .]

Burn in the Fires of Eternal Torment… C64 Thundercats

If you were a child of the ’80s like myself, you will remember Thundercats. Ohboyohboyohboy, Thundercats was fantastic. It had everything you could want in a cartoon series: action, cool characters, a brilliantly scary bad guy, Cheetara (although perhaps only later was that quite so appealing). And, of course, it had that theme tune. For these who can’t remember, this is how every episode of Thundercats started off:


I mean, honestly. Everything about that (well, apart from Snarf) just screams excitement, adventure and other cool things. Even now just watching it makes me tingle weirdly inside, and not just from the sight of Cheetara doing all those gymnastics.

Thundercats was pretty massive in the 80s; perhaps not up to the popularity levels of Transformers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but certainly there weren’t many kids who hadn’t watched it or owned some of the toys. And, of course, in the 1980s where there was a successful cartoon series and toy line, there was also a home computer platformer.

To give it it’s due, for the standards of the time this wasn’t an awful game, it was just – in the context of the show – utterly, utterly disappointing. Just go and watch that intro sequence again. Go on, I’ll wait for you. Now watch this:


I mean, honestly. It’s just shit, isn’t it? How disappointed would a 10-year-old boy be having rushed back from the shops tape in hand, to sit around waiting for the game to load for 30 minutes only to be confronted with this? Well, as one of those 10-year-old boys (at the time. Not now, obviously) I can tell you: very.

The game, released by Elite Software is a clumsy mess of a title, with stupidly high difficulty, frustrating controls and an utter lack of purpose. There’s a bit of variety with some of the glider sections, but these are so difficult to control and play they make those infamous tunnel bits in Battletoads seem forgiving in comparison. In the quick emulated replay I did for this post, I couldn’t get far enough to get to one of these bits, but luckily the nice people over at MobyGames haven’t lost all of the muscle memory they accrued for the title, so there’s a screenshot below. Looks great, doesn’t it? No. No is the answer.

He’ll be dead in approximately five seconds.

It’s only whilst writing this that, having stumbled upon the Wikipedia entry for the game, I discovered that this was never meant to actually be a Thundercats title, but is actually a hastily-reskinned game called Samurai Dawn. This goes some way to explaining why it just isn’t very Thundercats-y, some graphical motifs aside.

Ultimately, Thundercats is not a very good computer game. Okay, okay: this was 1987 and standards were different then and, perhaps, nothing could really come close to the expectations I had from the cartoon. But still, the license deserved better. And still does, really. A quick Google suggests that the only other released game based on the franchise is a 2012 Nintendo DS game, which takes its cues from the prematurely-cancelled 2011 cartoon reboot (which, incidentally, if you haven’t watched then you should: it’s great) and, apparently, is also shit. Jaga will be turning in his grave.

On… Treasure Island Dizzy

Some twenty-six years ago I went to the local newsagents and picked up a game that would change my life. That newsagents was down the road, and that game was Treasure Island Dizzy.

Treasure_Island_Dizzy_1

If you had anything to do with UK 8-bit home computer scene you will be aware of Dizzy: he was an anthropomorphic egg with an penchant for somersaults and puzzle-solving. Treasure Island was the second game in the series, released to an unsuspecting world in 1989. It’s hard to overemphasise how obsessed with Dizzy I became: something about the games, their cartoon-esque environments and characters spoke to me in a way that few other games at the time did. And it all started for me back with Treasure Island.

Looking back at the game now, it’s hard to understand quite why it struck such a chord. Some things – the Pyramids, the music of Mozart, Ghostbusters – have survived the test of time and remain as wondrous now as they were at their point of creation. Treasure Island Dizzy is not one of those things. Hailing from a time when the rules of game design were still struggling to creep forth from the primeval sludge of an 8-bit assembler, TID is full of things that just wouldn’t make it past a focus group today.

Take the end-game. After spending hours working your way through puzzles that vary from the obvious to the obscure, you get to the game’s last screen only to be told that to pass the final obstacle you need to collect thirty golden coins. The likelihood is that, by this point, you will have collected some but not all of these, mainly because a large number of them are hidden behind objects in the game world that look exactly the same as everything else. Without a guide to assist, the only way you’d ever find them all is by attempting to pick up every single bit of screen estate in the game. I’m struggling to think of any decent reason, save artificially extending the length of the game, why this was put in.

Couple that with the game’s single-life system (something which turns out to have been the result of a late-game bug that couldn’t be resolved in time for release) and you’ve got one of those recipes for frustration that old games often exhibited.

Having said that, there are some stand-out moments that stick in the mind. Finding the snorkel and realising that there’s a whole other island to explore is pretty cool, as is the underwater exploration.

The former residents of the island had created a complex treehouse village, lifts and randomly left snorkels lying around.
The former residents of the island had created a complex treehouse village, lifts and randomly left snorkels lying around.

I played the Commodore 64 version, which was ported by Ian Gray, and in similar style to a lot of budget releases from Codemasters it was a pretty poor conversion. I’m assuming it was a port of the Spectrum version (though it may have been the CPC), and aside from getting rid of some colour-clash and added some admittedly good music there isn’t much that takes advantage of the Commodore’s better graphics. To be fair, though, there is a charm to the art style. It’s not quite the ‘cartoon adventure’ that the marketing promised, but it’s pretty close given the restrictions of the hardware.

Playing the game today makes me sad, in the way that looking back at my wedding photos does. I want the game to make me happy, to make me remember the days when life was simpler. But it doesn’t. With the passing years has come too much recognition of how games should work and play, and Treasure Island Dizzy just hasn’t got enough of them. The insta-deaths, single life, frustration of the end-game, obscure puzzles, whilst all admittedly standards of the time just don’t hold up any more. *Sigh*.

Treasure Island Dizzy: it seemed a great game a quarter of a century ago, but just isn’t any more. And that makes me want to cry.

Nightmare (without the ‘K’)

Title: Nightmare
Format: C64
Release date: 1991 (?)
Obtained: Unsure, probably around 1992-3
Place of purchase: The Guild Adventure Software (public domain)
Price: Approx. £1
Completed?: Yes

A text adventure by a chap called William Quinn, Nightmare was one of the first things I remembered buying (using pocket money via by mum’s chequebook) from mail-order firm The Guild. This was a company run by Anthony Collins that specialised in text adventures; I recall that you used to get their ‘catalogues’ on photocopied sheets of A4, and that the proprietor would hand-sign the compliments slip that came with every purchase. I’m not sure how I actually came across The Guild in the first place, though it probably must have been via Zzap! 64 or Commodore Format, as these were pretty much the only place I got games information back in those pre-Internet days.

On the other hand, I do remember how I came across William Quinn: it was a copy of LA Adventure Part I on Zzap! megatape 31. I’ll talk in detail about that game at some other point, but I enjoyed it and it made me want to play more of Mr. Quinn’s titles. Nightmare was the first other one I bought, and I enjoyed it immensely. The story was pretty simple: you wake up one night only to find that, actually, you haven’t woken up and that you’re having a nightmare. This is the sort of realisation that never actually happens during the nocturnal hours, but that didn’t particularly bother me at the time I played it. Your character was tipped off that ‘it was all a dream’ by the fact that your room was tidy; in typical game fashion, this sparks off a quest, specifically to find the bag of rubbish that once filled your room and return it back to its previous state of disshelvement.

Playing through the game again now, it still seems funny, though perhaps in a way that would have appealed more to me as a ‘young adult’ than it does nowadays when I’m an old-fuddy-duddy. This is hardly surprising, though, as I’d hazard a bit of a guess that the author wasn’t that much older than I was when he wrote the game. It suffers all the typical text adventure problems of irritating parsers and too heavy a reliance on trial-and-error to get through the not-always-entirely-logical-puzzles. The game was made using the Graphic Adventure Creator (or GAC for short) and, as such, comes with the rather annoying habbit of taking a long time to respond to commands you’ve entered, particularly if they’re not recognised. Even playing the game on an emulator at 200% speed there’s still a very noticeable wait in-between pressing the enter key and the game getting back to you. Still, you got used to this kind of thing back in the 8-bit days.

At the time Nightmare made me want to make my own text adventures, and though I never got very far with any that I started on, I think its surrealism and style of humour has had a fair impact on things that I’ve written over the years. I’m not sure that I’d actually want to bother playing it all the way through again now unless I was really at a loose end, but in fairness this is probably more to do with the style of game rather than the game itself: the text adventure is a relic of a bygone age and only the very best examples are playable today.

Booty-licious

Booty inlay
Booty inlay (this is the ZX Spectrum version, but I couldn't find the C64 one of this style).

Title: Booty
Format: C64
Release date: 1984
Obtained: Unsure, probably circa 1990.
Place of purchase: Gift.
Price: £1.99
Completed?: No.

Every time Charlotte watches the-surprisingly-not-completely-awful Jake and the Neverland Pirates I’m reminded of Booty. The only real connection is the pirate theme, of course, and it’s not even as if Booty was particularly a favourite game. In fact, I think I only played it a handful of times because I found it so soul-crushingly difficult to even get past the first screen.

The game was a pretty typical 8-bit single-screen platformer, with you cast as the character of Jim the cabin-boy (or somebody the cabin-boy, anyway) wandering around a pirate ship collecting coloured keys and treasure. Thinking about it, the ship must have had an utterly bizarre team of architects, since they came up with what is surely the most impractical layout for the interior of a sea-faring vessel. Doors that can only be unlocked with keys of a particular colour? Okay, then. Ladders placed seemingly at random throughout the ship? Erm, all right.

I do recall it being incredibly difficult, though that may have been a comment on my still-fledging gaming skills. My dad bought it for me one day back in the times when you could buy computer games from the local newsagent, not long after I got my C64 back at Christmas 1989. He used to get quite a lot of games from there for me, actually, which is why I ended up with a large number of random old titles.

Booty
It's Booty, complete with ludicrous ship layout.