Sunday, 17 July 2011

New to me: Number 4 - Boulder Dash (Commodore 64)

Boulder Dash's rather ugly title screen
Boulder Dash is one of those games that, for my entire life, has somehow eluded me (or is it evaded? It's probably neither). For unknown reasons, it's a game that I've never played despite it being released numerous times on numerous systems. So, I've decided that now is as good as time as any to dig it out (ho-ho!) and give it a go. The closest I've probably come to playing anything like Boulder Dash was a game called Rubble Trouble on my Acorn Electron. I say probably as, although I've had the game since the late 1980s, I've never managed to get it to work. I must have spent literally hours of my life staring at the"Bad Program, Rewind Tape," error message in the hope that I could just get past the bit on the tape that was causing the problem. For all I know, Rubble Trouble is nothing like Boulder Dash.

If you like the colour brown, you'll love this.
I've chosen to play Boulder Dash on the Commodore 64. This is because it was one of the systems it originally came out on*, and the Commodore 64 is a computer that I haven't had much experience of, so I might as well show it some love now. Plus the C64 has largely been ignored so far on my little blog thing. And also, C64 Boulder Dash is the only version currently available for purchase (it's 500 Wii Points on the Virtual Console - I think it was released on it back in 2008, but it'll probably still show up under new releases seeing as Nintendo nowadays only see fit to release a VC game if there's a full moon on the second Thursday of the month. And that's usually some crappy one on one fighting game for the Neo Geo).

Every now and again, the path will have this weird pattern in it. I don't have any idea why.

More fun with rocks and diamonds.
The aim of Boulder Dash is quite simple. You control Rockford who must collect diamonds hidden in caves. To get to the diamonds, you must clear a path. Littered around each cave are also boulders, and clearing a path below them will cause them to fall into it. Clear too much ground and you'll have a boulder avalanche on your hands. If any falling rocks, or even diamonds, come into contact with Rockford, he dies. Also populating each cave are what are apparently fireflies and butterflies and a strange green ooze. The fireflies and butterflies are lethal on contact, but butterflies produce diamonds when destroyed which is essential for completing some levels. The fireflies simply leave a 9x9 space when destroyed. The ooze will become diamonds if it gets prevented from growing any larger, again necessary for level completion. It'll become a load of boulders if it gets too large.

9 diamonds all for me!!!
To look at, Boulder Dash is nothing amazing. As a game from 1984, its graphics are quite primitive and aren't attractive, but seeing as they are meant to depict rocks and dirt, they actually fit the context of the game quite well. The colour palette changes for each level which ensures that you sense that there is a transition from one level to the next and gives each level its own feel.

As for sounds, the title music is quite unique, not memorable in the slightest, but again seems to fit the game. There is no in-game music, although having now played versions that do have music during gameplay, I prefer it without. Rockford sounds like he's sniffing his way through the levels, rather than digging the dirt out of the way, although the falling rocks have a satisfying rumble and crunch to them, and falling diamonds have a nice tinkling effect as they fall. Like the graphics, the sounds aren't amazing, and don't demonstrate any of the funky effects that the Commodore 64's fabled SID chip was capable of, but they really do fit the game.

Looking at this screenshot, you wouldn't have a clue what you need to do.

Those square things next to the diamonds are fireflies. Oh yes.
It's in the gameplay that Boulder Dash shines. The game is instantly playable but quickly becomes challenging. You need to combine skill and strategy to complete each level safely but within the tight time limits. The game is perfectly balanced in this respect. You can't tackle each level like a bull in a china shop, but you can't take too much time making up your mind where you want to go next. It's all about knowing when to pause for thought to plan your route and when to take a risk and plough through the dirt. Death never feels unfair as it is always caused by your own actions. Each enemy has their own attack pattern, and it doesn't take long to understand how to avoid them, and also how to use them for your own advantage. The movement of the ooze and slime is also quite random, meaning that you will have to rely on reflex skills to tackle them, rather than remembering how you've played the levels before. And although the concept of the game remains constant throughout, each level feels very different and throws a new kind of challenge at you. On the Commodore 64, the levels scroll smoothly and Rockford moves responsively, which all contribute to making the game extremely playable.

For a relatively early game, Boulder Dash packs a great variety of gameplay elements into it. It's a great combination of a puzzle game and an arcade style game and everything in it just feels right. I think what makes the game quite appealing, and could be quite an interesting topic of research, is the whole idea of being able to be destructive, but at the same time to collect as many diamonds as possible. Quite often, not all the diamonds are required to complete a level, but I think it could be quite interesting to see if an element of greed might encourage people to attempt to get them anyway. It's no wonder that the game is still regularly rereleased today, and it makes me wonder why it's taken me so long to discover it.


*Apparently, Boulder Dash first came out on the Atari 800. However, as that computer was pretty much non-existent here in the UK, I've decided to ignore this fact.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Retro Review: Toki: Going Ape Spit (Mega Drive)

This is the Japanese titlesceen. I can't find the PAL version.
Toki is one of those arcade games that wasn't particularly well known or even well regarded but which seemed to get ported to just about every computer and console known to man. Most of these were straight conversions of the original, attempting to replicate the arcade game to the extent that each respective platform's technology would allow. However, Sega's Mega Drive version was different. Instead of releasing a conversion, it looks like Sega released an interpretation of the arcade game. Quite possibly, the game's programmers had never played the original and based their version on some screenshots they'd seen in a magazine.  Still, seeing as the arcade version had its faults, maybe a re-imagining of the game wouldn't be a bad idea.
Toki: "Fancy a ride on my disco stick?" 
First though, the story. As I've never been one for reading manuals, I usually use the contents of the game to understand its plot. This is quite fortunate as I don't have a manual for this game anyway. So, according to the game, the story begins with Mr Toki standing in a field of flowers with his scantily-clad lady friend. He doesn't appear to be wearing much either. However, before Toki gets the chance to get his end away, the sky suddenly darkens, the music goes crazy, and a mysterious building appears in the background. Oh no! What's worse, a giant hand then grabs Toki's bird and whisks her away to the newly erected mysterious building.. And to kick a man while he's down, a strange wizardy person appears, turns Mr Toki into an ape, and then vanishes. Toki, now in his simian-form, walks off the screen probably wondering what just happened. We are then treated to the game's title screen. The title music is chirpy and cheerful which seems kind of inappropriate given the tragedy that has just unfolded before our eyes. If there was an Ofcom for video games, I'd write a letter of outrage to them. The game's options are fairly standard, although it is possibly to give yourself a ridiculous number of lives (9 lives, 7 continues) and set it so you get a new life every 7000 points. Which is what I always do.
Worst Date Ever...

One of the first of many annoying triangle rocks
So, onto the game. At first, things don't start off too badly. Toki moves responsively to your commands, and it isn't long until you come across power ups to upgrade his spit attack. These power-ups are varied and are also quite plentiful and seem to do quite a bit of damage. And it all starts off quite fun. However, it's also not long until you come across some initial frustrations, such as stupid spikey triangle rocks that keep appearing. It's impossible to jump over them, so you have to destroy them by firing at them. One or two wouldn't be an issue, but having them appearing regularly and for no real reason is just annoying. It's not as if getting rid of them requires any real skill other than being able to fire at them. All they do is stop your progress for a few seconds. This initial frustration then leads to other frustrations. Toki doesn't seem to be in a rush to rescue his damsel in distress and plods slowly through the levels. He also can't jump very far, and gets killed every time something touches him. This wouldn't be too bad though if you had a fair chance of avoiding some enemies. Unfortunately, you don't. Sometimes, you only discover that something is waiting to kill you when you've already begun your jump into it. Enemy avoidance becomes something of a memory test rather than a test of skill.

Most of the levels are standard platform stuff with little variation between them. There is the obligatory water level and ice level, but most of the rest are fairly similar. Water levels have always been a pet hate of mine, but fortunately they're piss-easy in this game and are done within a matter of minutes. The ice level though provides quite a challenge and is both fun and frustrating at the same time. You'll be glad you've done it when you've, er, done it.
Toki's science-defying breathing fire under water trick
At the end of each level is an end of level boss. Most levels (possibly all) feature three rounds followed by an end of level baddie. Early ones are very easy to defeat. Towards the end of the game, they get quite difficult, and you'll find that you'll probably lose most of the 100s of lives you've built up on them.

I like Toki... and I like Boomer. But which one's uglier. There's only one way to find out....

An example of the game's exciting colour scheme on level 4
One of the other problems with the game is that it is quite samey. There isn't much to differentiate the style of one level from another, even despite there being water and ice ones. Graphics are dull and murky throughout. It's as if the graphic artist had a constant hangover and couldn't cope with any colour brighter than dark blue, dark grey, dark green or dark brown, and their varying shades of darkness. There is one level featuring bright fire lakes and suchlike which he probably did after having a sober day. That said, the graphics aren't horrible - they just aren't exciting, and as they don't differ much from one level to another, you don't real feel that you are really progressing through the game and getting any closer to its end. The music also causes this effect too, as the same tune plays for every level, apart from on the water level and for the end of level baddies.
Level 2 features many unexpected pitfalls.
Toki: Going Ape Spit isn't a terrible game, nor is it a great game. The game is frustrating in parts but it isn't unplayable. It's not the most attractive of games, but it probably doesn't need to be. Does it improve on the arcade original? Nope. Playability-wise, I'd probably say it's on par with the original, but it's a different game that uses the arcade's characters and ideas. I would have thought that the reasoning behind re-doing the game was to iron out some of the faults of the arcade game. Unfortunately, this wasn't done. It was just that the same problems were replicated in a different game and, to be honest, I would have preferred an actual conversion of the arcade game on the Mega Drive as I'm sure the console would have been up to it.


I would have included more screenshots from the later levels of the game, but I couldn't face having to replay it anymore to get some which is a shame as they do improve a little as things go along. However, did you ever wonder what happened to that ugly kid out of Magic Pockets? The one the programmers called Kid? Well, it looks like he became a transvestite and appears as an end of level baddie in Toki. Take a look for yourself!

Kid from Magic Pockets in his Burger King jacket

Kid's new job. End of level boss in Toki.