Tag Archives: Retrogaming

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/ .]

I Didn’t Get Where I Am Today Without… Frontier: Elite II

Back in the dark age of computer games, when having a ‘multi-screen adventure’ was something to shout about on the back of a cassette tape inlay, along came a game called Elite that changed peoples’ perceptions of the possible. It’s hard to understand the impact the game had at the time, but if you just look at the influence it still has some thirty-odd years later, you might begin to grasp its significance.

Okay, okay: it doesn’t look great these days but you had to be there. I have no idea who Len is, incidentally.

I did play the original Elite (I had a copy on the NES, of all things) but it’s the sequel, Frontier, that I remember most fondly. Released in 1992 on the PC, ST and Amiga, Frontier basically took everything that was great about the original – the freedom, the expansive Universe – and dialed it up to eleven. Freed from the memory constraints of 8-bit computers, author David Braben created in Frontier a game that featured a singular open world (well, galaxy technically) long before the likes of Grand Theft Auto came along and popularised the concept.

You could travel to Earth, Barnard’s Star, Arcturus and thousands upon thousands more places that I can’t remember the names of, on a map intricately plotted based on real observations of the Milky Way. Apparently, anyway: I’m too stupid and ignorant to know if they were lying.

What really made Frontier stand out for me was the setting. Like many of the ‘big-box’ titles of the time, Frontier came with an extensive manual and also a copy of ‘Stories of Life on the Frontier’, a separate collection of short stories that provided some insights into the game’s world, particularly the conflict between the two galactic superpowers of the Federation and the Empire. Throughout the game you could choose to ally yourself with either faction (or both, if you wanted to be a double-crossing sneaky sneakster), completing missions for them that would raise a rank with them that was separate to your ‘Elite rating’ that gives the series its name. Higher faction ranks resulted in more dangerous missions which would reap higher monetary rewards. A bit like real-life, really, but with more lasers.

In truth, there wasn’t actually that much to do in Frontier. There were lots of missions available through the bulletin boards of the game’s various space stations and planetary bases, but the variety of these was limited to a few different types, such as ferrying passengers, delivering packages or assassinations. This didn’t matter, though: it seemed that there was a universe of possibilities through your TV screen. The procedural generation Frontier employed (again, long before the term was in common use) was clever enough to allow you to suspend your disbelief, and make it feel that everything was hand-crafted. If you’re interested in the technicalities of it all, go and look at jongware.com who have some great articles exploring it.

Bulletin boards were always full of missions and images of ugly people in strange hats.

The Amiga version that I played is, like many early 3D games, almost next to unplayable now for the modern palate. The graphics, which at the time seemed revolutionary, now look so abstract with their lack of texture mapping and horrendous jagged edges that its like being in an explosion at a geometry factory. On the hardware I played it on as well, the frame-rate can plummet in planetary locations to figures you could count on one hand, if not one finger. Space combat – honestly, never Frontier’s strongest aspect – now feels barely controllable.

None of this really matters, I guess: Frontier was amazing at the time and helped cement my love of science-fiction. I distinctly remember reading and re-reading the manuals and fiction book, buildinmg up a world in my mind. This was a game designed in some ways for the teenager, with free time coming out of their pimples. I’m not sure, even if it looked and controlled better, that I’d have the patience to play this nowadays. Frontier and – I assume – its successors such as the modern Elite: Dangerous – are games that reward a time investment that I just couldn’t commit to now.

For a time, though, Frontier was to me the greatest game ever made. Well, maybe apart from Super Mario Bros. 3. And that intro sequence will stay with me forever. I haven’t got my own video of it, so here’s one by YouTuber Trypsonite:

Note: All images in this post are from MobyGames.

Am I the Only One Who Remembers… DreamWeb

As a grizzled old man, I’m fortunate enough to remember the early days of video gaming, and looking across the gamult of its history, you can see easily a pattern that represents the growth of a man. From the early infantile days of Pong to the modern age, which in some ways seems like an early 30-year-old, clinging on to the last strands of youth. As with most things, if you look hard enough you can see the metaphor.

Lying firmly in the awkward adolescent phase is DreamWeb. The game tries so hard to be edgy it lacerates itself. As if to prove just how goddamn adult it is, the original game came packaged with a ‘Diary of a Madman’ book providing some backstory to the game, written in an authentic crazy-man scrawl font. You can tell it gets crazier towards the end as the font gets bigger AND THE AUTHOR STARTS WRITING IN CAPITALS, A PRACTICE LEFT SOLELY TO THE MENTALLY UNBALANCED. The game features violence, gore, swearing and even a sex scene.

Yes, a sex scene. In a 1994 video game. It is precisely as titilating as you would imagine.

Which is odd, because in the cutscene before the DreamWeb was shown to be circular. Time to go back to Geometry 101, red-cloak-wearing-dude.

DreamWeb tries so, so hard to be cool that, in doing so, it forgets it has to be a video game as well. In my pre-blog research I’ve seen DreamWeb described as ‘one of the greatest cyberpunk games ever made’. It isn’t. It barely manages to be one of the greatest games called ‘DreamWeb.’

Eden is your improbably-named girlfriend who really could do better for herself than a bartender who thinks he’s the ‘Deliverer’.

The gameplay consists of scanning your mouse over the fairly samey-looking overhead dystopia, using the games magnifier to find pixel-wide interactive areas. There are puzzles to solve and people to talk to, of course. You play the part of Ryan Cantrememberhissecondname, who is either a mentally unhinged psychopath or the one chosen by the mystical eponymous DreamWeb to save the world. Which, of course, he just happens to do be brutally murdering several people. Apparently they going to commit some heinous event at some point, or something. It’s hard to care, to be honest. There’s some interest to be had at the start in plotting the initial assassinations, but you’re stuck on a very linear path and there’s no scope for improvisation. This is an adventure game, ultimately, and you do what it tells you to. By the time you reach the latter stages of the game, everything seems so rushed that you half suspect the developers got a bit bored with it all too.

The problem with dystopian near-future worlds is that they can be very difficult to get right without appearing trite or unbelievable. DreamWeb doesn’t, to be fair to it, fall into this trap, but the unfortunately the world it presents just has no soul. Even with the decently-written ‘Diary of a Madman’ backstory taken into account (which obviously you shouldn’t, because it’s not in the game), it’s not fleshed out enough for you to care about the detail. But then, there isn’t an air of intrigue or mystery about it either. The characters are mostly anonymous or, particularly in the case of the protagonist, hard to care about. There was never a sequel, and I can’t imagine than many would to revisit this world.

She’s probably wondering if she’ll ever get a job in a better game.

Today, DreamWeb is pretty much forgotten. If it is remembered at all, it’s because of the sex scene – a first for a ‘mainstream’ game at the time. I seem to recall that, when it was released, that was pretty much the main selling point too. Nowadays it seems remarkably tame; nothing more than a shuffle of fleshy-coloured pixels.

If you’re after a retro steampunk adventure, seek out the likes of Beneath a Steel Sky or Westwood’s brilliant 1997 Blade Runner game instead. Leave DreamWeb where it belongs: in the broom closet of forgotten games.

 

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.