Thursday, 22 March 2012

Moon Patrol (Arcade) - Retro Review

Game: Moon Patrol
Format reviewed: Arcade
Released by: Irem/Williams/Midway
Also released on: Atari VCS/2600, Atari 5200, Atari 800, Apple II, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Commodore VIC-20, MSX, Gameboy Color, Dreamcast*, PlayStation 2* (*on Midway compilations)
Available now on: Nowt

The name of this game is Moon Patrol! They call it Moon Patrol!
You're playing Moon Patrol!
From a distance, the moon appears to be a bright white ball of rock, with grey bits. Pictures sent back from the manned lunar landings suggest that when you're up close and personal with it, it's still a bright white ball of rock, with grey bits. It also appears to be covered in rocks and craters. But, that's about it. There's nothing else there. Of course, we now know that the lunar landings were faked. Yep, there's no way that flag can be waving on the moon's surface, and where are the stars in the photographs? And there's more technology in a Nokia 3210 than there was in the Apollo spacecraft. The only obvious explanation is that it was all made up. And, now we're in the 21st Century, and we're all wise to these government conspiracies and suchlike, we can disprove things that we once took as being fact.

Where is this all leading? I have no idea. Somehow, it was going to link into a lookback at the video game Moon Patrol. I was going to say something about the moon landings being genuine, but the photographs being fake, and that's why conspiracy theorists have wet dreams about finding flaws in them. Yep, the photographs were fake, because rather than the moon being the dull, white-grey, rocky and cratered world that the photographs suggest it is, it's actually a multi-coloured world populated by hostile aliens, landmines and all kinds of problems. NASA didn't want us to know this, as it would cause all kinds of chaos here on Earth, so they faked the photographs and videos that we saw. Irem, somehow, got hold of the real footage, and ten years after Man's last trip to the Moon, they created a game based on the exploits of the Apollo astronauts, a game based on the truth. Moon Patrol was it's name, and patrolling the Moon was the game.

Spaceships and craters, oh my!
In Moon Patrol, you control a moon buggy, an exact digital replica of the lunar rover that hitched a ride on Apollo 15, 16 and 17. This buggy bobbles around the uneven surface of the moon, and is able to jump over craters or small rocks. To obliterate large rocks, you can shoot them. This gun also shoots upwards, destroying any menacing enemies hoping to crap a missile onto your head.

Levels are split in areas, marked by ascending letters of the alphabet from A to zee. Each time you die, you are taken back to the start of the last letter you reached. Every now and again, you can have a break when you reach certain areas ("E", "J", "O", "T" and "Z"). If you have got to them in record time, you get a bonus. If not, you get nothing.

Moon buggy has transformed into a rainbow splodge.
His wheels are flying out of control. Oh no!
Moon Patrol was one of the first games to feature funky parallax scrolling. Back then, it must have sent the kids wild. Hynotised them even. It does give the moon a sense of depth, something severely lacking in those faked photographs taken in the Blue Peter studio. It also has a constant background tune playing throughout the game. Fortunately, the tune isn't at all annoying and complements the game very well. Accompanying sound effects are also implemented into the game well, not too loud or too annoying, fitting in with game's action. Going back to graphics, as a special mention must go to the moon buggy's wheels. The way they bounce up and down the contours of the Moon's surface, and fly out in all directions when the buggy explodes is all quite amazing. Even now in 2012. Yep, there's more realistic damage effects on that 1982 moon buggy than there is in Gran Turismo 5.

This confrontation looks interesting.
It's not just in looks and sounds that Moon Patrol shines. The gameplay is also great. You have to concentrate both on what's ahead and what's above you, and the actions of what's above you can effect what will shortly lie ahead of you. If certain enemies shoot a bullet at the surface, they will leave a crater. So, you have to be prepared to shoot down the enemy, and ready yourself for a jump over a crater. Oh yes, your attention will be pulled from one direction to another within seconds. It reminds me of being at home with the wife. What do you mean, you want me to put the bin out? You've just told me to clean the car? And paint the spare room? Yes, there's lots going on at the same time, and things can get quite chaotic. Game Over comes frequently. However, it doesn't ever really feel unfair. Something I harp on about a lot is how fair a game is. Some games can be extremely difficult. Sometimes this is down to them having dodgy controls, or unfair deaths as a result of unseen traps or leaps of faith. Other times, they are just because they require skill. In these games, deaths only happen as a result of a player's mistake, not due to the game's bad design. And Moon Patrol is one of those fair games. It's challenging in parts, but it's fair. And that's important.

So, yes, Moon Patrol is a great game. It's fun, addictive, challenging, and for its time, technically impressive. It was converted to several machines, although I've never actually played any version other than the arcade, so there's potential for a Conversions Comparison at some point. This game, along with Phoenix and Pac-Land, was one of the very first arcade games I played, so it has a special place in my heart, and I'm pleased that my decision to revisit the game hasn't changed my opinion of it at all.

RATINGS:Presentation: 9
Graphics: 9
Sound: 9
Playability: 9
Overall: 9

Okay, I might be a bit biased due to this game being one from my childhood, but I really do like it!

As is becoming standard now, here's a video I've put together to demonstrate Moon Patrol in action!

Friday, 16 March 2012

Marble Madness - Conversion Comparisons: Number Two

3D games - they've always been the holy grail of games developers; something they've sought to perfect for decades. Nowadays, they've pretty much cracked it, but over the years, we've seen many attempts to take gamers into a third dimension. Amongst them, there were holographic games in the early 1990s from Sega, who also released 3D games for their Master System a little earlier along with 3D glasses, Nintendo with their migraine-inducing Virtual Boy, and with their eyesight-destroying 3DS of current times. But, one style of 3D games that has been around for years and is still around to this very day is the isometric game.

Oh yes, isometric games are games which are actually 2D but look three dimensional due to their dual perspective thingymagic. Or something. In the 1980s, there were such classics as Batman, Head over Heels, Knightlore and, er, Super Trolley. Into the 1990s, and we had Populous, Sonic 3D Blast, which was neither a blast, nor strictly 3D, a crappy sequel to Cool Spot in which the dot in the 7 Up logo went to Hollywood, and Mario RPG and Land Stalker. Around the turn of the millennium, it was becoming clear that isometric games went well with "God"-sims, with games like Theme Hospital, Sim City 3000 and The Sims all using isometric graphics. Today, all manner of lifestyle role-playing games, usually involving farms or cafes or shops or looking after pets populate Facebook and app stores, and in many cases, they're isometric. But one isometric game stands out amongst the rest as the most iconic isometric game there is. That game is Marble Madness, an Atari arcade game from 1984.

In Marble Madness, you take control of a marble, guiding it through a series of mazes to an exit. In your way are traps, enemies and falls. And that's pretty much it. Keep control of your balls, and you'll be fine, but if you let your balls drop too many times, you'll come a cropper. Marble Madness in the arcades featuring Escher-styled levels and a strangely eerie soundtrack which reflected the surrealness of the game, adding immensely to its atmosphere. It received conversions aplenty. But, how well did it convert to the various platforms out there? Let's find out as we compare the comparisons from worst to best.

1. Worst Version: ZX Spectrum
This version of the game is pure crap. On the Spectrum, the game was released twice - first as a Construction Kit and later as a deluxe edition. In either version, the game allows you to guide your marble through various 3D isometric levels, but they're completely different to the arcades. There's no scrolling, so once you each the bottom of a screen, you have to wait for the next one to appear, thus breaking up the flow of the play and sometimes leaving you in a position which results in endless deaths until your time runs out. The game doesn't capture any of the arcade game's atmosphere and just serves as a pile of steaming shit. And what the hell is going on with the music during gameplay? What gets me is the gushing reviews of it from the time. Your Sinclair seemed to think that Amiga owners would get almightily upset by this hunk of dross. Seriously?

2. Gameboy Advance
The conversion to the Gameboy Advance is actually the newest version, being released in 2004, 20 years after the arcade original. And although it accurately copies the arcade game's graphics, which you'd expect it to do, it gets everything else wrong. Sound-wise, the music is a little too funky and completely misses the importance of the finesse of the arcade original's score. Even so, it's all about the gameplay, innit? Unfortunately, Marble Madness on the Gameboy Advance plays like a dog. In the 20 years since its arcade debut, your marble has become quite arthritic, and guiding it around the levels is a chore. It judders and jerks as it slowly moves in the direction you want it to go in. Most of the time it doesn't even want to go in that direction and just shoots off at a random angle. Getting anywhere with this game is pure frustration. And you can't use the excuse that Marble Madness doesn't translate to the small screen, as well shall soon see. Avoid.

I don't know anybody who would have had a computer running MS-DOS in the mid 1980s, but if they did, they would have been able to purchase Marble Madness for it. Not that they would have wanted to. The game features a rather interesting colour scheme, one channel music which sounds awful, and fiddly controls. They aren't too sluggish, but keeping your ball under control is quite a challenge. Bleurgh!

4. Amstrad CPC
This is a similar version to the Spectrum one. What stops it from being right down there at the bottom is the fact that the graphics feature a little bit of colour, the Spectrum's terrible "music" isn't included, and it doesn't feel quite as frustrating to play. It's still a hideous game, but there are worse versions.

5. Atari ST
This version isn't too bad graphics-wise, which you'd expect seeing as it's a 16-Bit version, but elsewhere it isn't great at all. Especially when you consider how well the game was converted to the Amiga. Controls and collision detection are rubbish, with your marble falling off platforms when it is clearly safely situated on top of one, and other places where it appears to be able to float in mid-air, when in fact it should be dropping to the ground. Despite this, the game is not too difficult to get through (although the video of me playing the game a little later doesn't suggest this!), but it just isn't that much fun.

6. Commodore 64
This is actually a similar version to the Atari ST version, obviously with 8-Bit graphics. However, in this version, the marble handles better, and the game seems to play a bit more fairly. The ball feels more like it is rolling rather than sluggishly dragging itself around the levels.

7. Commodore Amiga
This is one of the Amiga's earliest games, and is a great conversion of the arcade original, getting released only two years after the arcade game's debut. It is the best of the home computer ports, featuring accurate reproductions of the graphics, pretty good music and fairly good controls. Not bad at all.

8. Sega Master System
Deciding what should take position 8 was a close call between the Sega Master System and the Nintendo Entertainment System versions. In the end, I decided that the NES version just about pips the Master System version. The Master System version is fun to play, with good graphics and okay music. The controls are alright too, although there are occasions when the marble seems to go out of control.

9. Nintendo Entertainment System
The NES version was converted by Rare. Despite the technical differences between the NES and Master System, this version is more polished all-round and plays more like the arcade game than the Master System version. It also gives you a choice of control method which is quite handy.

10. Nintendo Gameboy
This is a fantastic version and it is truly remarkable how the arcade game was minaturised and squeezed into the little screen of the Gameboy. It looks and sounds great, and plays really fluidly. Whereas some of the games feel a bit of a chore to play, this is actually great fun.

11. Sega Mega Drive
Easily the best home version of Marble Madness is the version released for the Mega Drive. It is pretty much a straight conversion of the arcade game, looking, sounding and playing as close to the original as possible. This verson also features difficulty level settings to make the game easier or harder for you.
Rumour has it that there were actually two versions of Marble Madness released for the Mega Drive. The one everybody knows about is the version released by Electronic Arts for the US and European markets and as described above, it's a fantastic conversion. However, apparently Tengen released a Japanese version, which is even more arcade-perfect. Unfortunately, the game goes for a fortune on eBay, and isn't available as a ROM to be played through an emulator, so finding out whether it is different and/or better than the Electronic Arts version isn't easy.

In conclusion, there were numerous conversions of Marble Madness for a variety of systems, ranging from totally awful yo absolutely terrific. The downside of all versions is that the arcade game was too short, with only six levels, and none of the conversions add anything extra to the arcade game. It might be that the Mega Drive version comes out as best, but did the original price tag of £40 actually represent good value for money? Plus, the arcade game wasn't really that much fun, was it? More annoying than entertaining.

As an extra treat, seeing as I'm now getting a little better a capturing video and putting it on YouTube, here's a video comparing each of the versions above!