Wednesday 19 August 2015

ZX Spectrum isometric

The item in question.
This is a look at those isometric adventure-type games on the ZX Spectrum, where the genre originated and mostly thrived. They were popular in the mid-eighties, especially in the UK. Spectrum game development in the UK was relatively insular, so I feel justified in tracing all the influences back to Knight Lore and some of its more important imitators.

Brace yourself! There's going to be a lot of samey-looking 1-bit monochromatic graphics!

1984: The Beginning

Knight Lore introduced the whole "Filmation" concept. The Congo Bongo-esque player character could move around rooms, behind and in front of objects and act on them physically. The environment was dynamic: objects could be pushed around by players and monsters alike.

Knight Lore. Push those tables to reach the objects. 
This gave an impression of all things being treated equal within the game world, something not often seen outside Boulder Dash. Objects pushed over the edge fall, monsters change their direction when encountering objects etc. Dropping an object over a monster would create an ad hoc moving platform that could be occupied by the player. These were unprecedented elements in an action game.

1985: Ultimate holds the ball

Notable: Alien 8, Fairlight, Nightshade
Others: Enigma Force, Cylu, Chimera

Ultimate's own Alien 8 did little to alter the Filmation scheme, using the same engine with a sci-fi backdrop. Some rooms had a remote control for another drone robot, suggestive of the multi-character games to come. Nightshade introduced scrolling, but this was at the expense of more complex character-world interaction.

Left: Enigma Force. Right: Nightshade with scrolling graphics, from Ultimate
I'm listing Enigma Force here, even if it is not really part of the genre. The developers, Denton Designs, would also go about creating isometric games. This sequel to Shadowfire utilized a more direct frontal perspective, but it also employs the kind of depth-sorted masked graphics seen in isometric games. It is notable for its multi-character gameplay, speech bubbles and icon driven interaction, elements that would also re-emerge in other titles.

Cylu and Chimera are small games where the perspective element is simplistic compared to Ultimate offerings.

Fairlight, and then some more Fairlight
The most important game here is Fairlight. It eschewed the cartoon-style graphics of Ultimate games in favor of a more "naturalistic" views, built out of lines and fill patterns. Admittedly, the rooms had often less content than in Knight Lore, and the sprites were smaller. It also introduced a heavy dose of "what the fuck I'm supposed to do" style of adventure gaming, which depending on player tastes were either an improvement over Knight Lore or not.

1986: Floodgates open

Notable: The Great Escape, Batman, Fairlight 2, Movie
Others: Strike Force Cobra, Sweevo's World, Pyracurse, Gunfright, Rasputin, Nosferatu, Pentagram, Molecule Man

1986 saw a spate of isometric games released on the Spectrum. The developers had not only Knight Lore to look up to, but also Fairlight and Nightshade. Ultimate's own Pentagram seems poorly conceived in comparison to what was on offer. Gunfright, built on Nightshade's scrolling routines, at least offered an original wild west scenario. The 128k-only Fairlight 2 expanded on the first game, but offered little new. At least the forest environment showed that the rooms need not be made of rigid blocks.

The Great Escape
The Great Escape by Denton Designs was a different type of game altogether. The prisoner suffered a daily routine, which the player was encouraged to break at suitable moments in order to win the game. The Great Escape is an imaginative blend of adventure components with action elements in a clockwork world. The scrolling portions are more impressive than in Nightshade, though again the sprites are a bit tiny.

Left: Swift scrolling in Pyracurse. Right: Strike Force Cobra with some clever coloring.
Developers experimented with adding multiple characters to games, as in Pyracurse and Strike Force Cobra. SFC characters could crouch, jump and somersault, kick doors in, shoot machine gun in various directions and throw grenades. Sadly the environment was not that accommodating, as there was not that much to shoot or blow up. Certain puzzles could only be solved by co-operation of two characters. There was a hilariously detailed character selection screen, which as far as I can tell made absolutely no difference in the game.

Batman by Jon Ritman and Bernie Drummond, released by Ocean.
Building on the basic Ultimate formula, Jon Ritman and Bernie Drummond added graphical detail and little nuances to create Batman. Shifting the balance from jumping-oriented tasks to a variety of puzzles, Batman could offer a more honestly straightforward and at the same time more diverse game experience than other imitators. Batman needed to collect various items before he could even jump or carry items, and this modification structured and varied the game somewhat.

Left: Rasputin, Right: Nosferatu
Rasputin is a depressingly difficult jump-and-avoid game that makes use of the Enigma Force-style frontal perspective. Despite some impressive graphics, the game does not seem that well thought out. Sweevo's World did away with jumping altogether. The game is still quite three-dimensional, as lifts can be employed to move the character up- and downwards. The rooms are often self-contained puzzles that require careful object placement. Nosferatu is an uninspiring vampire hunt in a pretty static world.

Movie from Imagine.
Movie brought stylish graphics and an original storyline about 1930s gangsters. Graphic user interface, pistol shooting, melee fights, typed speech bubbles, free-roaming characters, thrown object "physics", Movie seemed massive back at the time. Yet the icon controls made the gameplay an excruciating experience. To throw a punch you had to enter the icon mode, select the fist icon and press fire. Ditto for firing the pistol. No key shortcuts either.

It seems 1986 brought a lot of sophistication to isometric games. However, ZX Spectrum games were often faux-complex, with sprawling empty maps and unnecessary objects to throw the player off the scent. One buzzword was "icon-driven", despite the fact most of the games would have worked better without. Isometric perspectives and graphic interfaces made good screenshots in magazines, but the games themselves could be surprisingly sparse.

1987: The genre starts to age

Notable: Head Over Heels
Others: 3D Game Maker, Bubbler, Martianoids, Hydrofool, Greyfell, Get Dexter

1987 saw both the pinnacle and the nadir of the isometric phenomenon. On the one hand we have the much-lauded Head over Heels, a game which took the best elements of Batman, scaled and revised into a tight puzzle-oriented game. On the other hand we have 3D Game Maker, an editor for creating formulaic, often substandard isometric games, which I will not name here.

Head over Heels
Head Over Heels combined a couple of good ideas that had been floating around. Isometric games were usually notorious for their sprawling maps, and the bit of episodic structuring HOH gave was very welcome. Sweevo's World had already introduced kind of multiple selectable "worlds", but these were simply different starting points that did not really compartmentalize the game. Strike Force Cobra and others had shown that multiple character cooperation could add new types of puzzles. HOH showed restraint in having only two characters with genuinely distinct abilities. Thus, Head Over Heels tempered many past elements into a more balanced whole.

Left: Bubbler Right: Martianoids
Bubbler and Martianoids are not strictly isometric adventures, but should be noted as they were published by Ultimate. Bubbler is more of an arcade game (Like Marble Madness or Spindizzy) with fast scrolling and puzzle elements whereas Martianoids clearly follows Alien 8 with the standard Ultimate graphical flair. It plays on a flat landscape, though.

Hydrofool. Note that we are underwater now, playing that Gollum-esque character. A bit of a gimmick, really.
Hydrofool was a sequel to Sweevo's World. Even though the rooms are underwater, the character could mostly swim in a defined flat "plane", which sort of makes me suspect it's Sweevo's World all over with just overhauled graphics.

1988: The last significant isometric Spectrum games

Notable: Inside Outing, Where Time Stood Still, La Abadia Del Crimen (The Abbey of Crime)
Others: Phantom Club, Super Hero, Last Ninja 2

1988 saw only very few inspired isometric games. The super-hero themed Phantom Club is worth mentioning mostly because it was authored by the same people as Movie. Despite good running-and-somersaulting animation and improved technical routines, the result is not as inspiring as Movie. Last Ninja 2 was converted from the C64, skipping the first part altogether.

Left: Detailed scenery in Inside Outing. Pretty much everything can be moved. Right: Phantom Club boasted some bold color choices.
Inside Outing is another conversion from Amstrad. The game has a thankfully simple goal of retrieving a bunch of diamonds inside a crazy mansion. Rather than go for a huge amount of empty rooms, the spaces have an unprecedented amount of objects which all interact. The screen update is still fairly fast, boasting some sophisticated isometric routines. It looks better on Amstrad/C64 - with colourful graphics - finally showing that the Spectrum might not necessarily be the only platform for the genre.

Left: La Abadia Del Crimen. Right: Where Time Stood Still
Where Time Stood Still is a kind of successor to the The Great Escape, and although aficionados would be satisfied, one could say it was mostly same old. Much like in Denton Design's earlier effort, Enigma Force, there are four player characters crash-landed into a hostile environment. Icon control, speech bubbles, food/fatigue levels, arcade action and whatnot. Although a technical tour de force for the 128k Spectrum, the game is surprisingly devoid of content.

From Spain, the Umberto Eco-inspired La Abadia Del Crimen is also an adventure game, again more comparable with The Great Escape than any other game, what with the daily routine in an isolated environment. I have not looked much into it though, but the Spanish-speaking speccy world holds it in high regard. For the English speakers, there is an unofficial translation, The Abbey of Crime.

It's all a matter of perspective

After all the imitators and seeming improvements, it is striking that Knight Lore/Alien 8 actually did most with the "new" perspective. These games had functional jumping, avoiding and route-planning based on three dimensions rather than two. The puzzles required object placement and retrieval, again thought out in 3D. Newer games could modify these elements, but would not deviate from the basic formula. And if they did deviate, it usually resulted in making the perspective less meaningful, reducing it into a visual gimmick.

When the 16-bit computers hit big time, the isometric genre was seen as decidedly 8-bit and was not tried that often on the bigger computers, just as the whole British style arcade adventure died a quiet death. Sure, many games utilized the perspective but were not part of this action adventure genre. When polygon graphics became feasible, games like Tomb Raider and Super Mario 64 could offer similar thrills without locking to a particular perspective. Perhaps something of the DNA of the isometric lives in the modern 3D action game.

Genre stupidity:

-Four way controls in an apparently free 3D environment? Urgh!
-Randomly moving enemies. Holy hell, the games are difficult enough as they are.
-Huge slowdown. When the going gets tough, it gets tough on the framerate.
-Faux complexity. Empty rooms, clunky interfaces, non-functional objects, sterile characters.

Genre greatness:

+A sense of mystery and exploration based on visibility and "locked out" game areas
+Fun experimentation with the physical object behavior and the game world
+Clever and satisfying puzzles enabled by the isometric object engine

Friday 7 August 2015

Sinclair and the 'Sunrise' Technology

The book Sinclair and the 'sunrise' technology from 1986 is an account of Sinclair's rise and fall in the micromarkets in the 1980s. The book is written sufficiently late to include every noteworthy Sinclair project, yet early enough to be truly contemporary. (The Cambridge Z88 came later, for example.)

It is an interesting document of the struggle to acquire the money, know-how and resources that enabled the eventual production of the Sinclair home micros. I was surprised how small Sinclair's companies actually were. Clive arose from mail order analog radio equipment and amplifier business, DIY geek stuff basically. The book maintains that professional advertising and Clive's calculated presence helped nurture an image of a vastly more competent and large-scale operation than it really was.

The text is sufficiently well researched, although sometimes it seems only a few key interviewees supply the most crucial characterizations. What seemed less professional is the way the authors appear to constantly take small swipes at Sinclair. The authors are intent on showing the machines were not a result of Clive Sinclair's direct involvement, yet at the same time point out that the bad details in them (e.g. membrane keyboards) were a result of Clive's single-mindedness. This is already somewhat contradictory. Many of the products' shortcomings relate to the design insights that made the products possible in the first place.

There seems to be slight misrepresentation about the relation of design briefs, the broader conditions and constraints that inform the outcome and the "actual designing" of the technical work. This does not mean that Clive designed or invented the products - yet outcomes are a result of a broader landscape within with the engineering and industrial design choices were made. Clive's personality and business goals, for good or for worse, were instrumental in setting the engineering and design targets.

Funnily, Clive is lambasted pretty much for what Steve Jobs has been lauded for: being a shrewd, vocal and single-minded in following his visions. The difference is that from the viewpoint of big business, Steve Jobs succeeded and Clive Sinclair failed. However, as the book lays it out, it was never really Clive's fate to succeed in a big business way.

When belittling Clive's achievements, it can be asked what would have happened if Clive Sinclair had not arrived at the scene at all. Reading between the lines, the authors think it might have been better for the industry. Clive and the Sinclair brand filled a void at the time: The UK "wanted to believe" there was a new field in which the nation could excel and compete. To the authors this was largely an illusion and Sinclair's worst crime was to undermine UK investors' trust in an emerging field.

At the broadest the book is a critique of Thatcherism, using Sinclair's failure as an example of misguided policy of supporting small companies as a cure to a dwindling economy and unemployment. In fact, seeing Sinclair's career as an instrument of Thatcher's policies is the most troubling outcome of the book to this politically naive reader/speccy fanboy. However, this may also be a bias in the book. Clive's relatively small-scale dabbling in technology might also be seen as a-political.

The Sinclair products, despite their failures were quite indicative of the gadget life the 2000s would eventually become: mobile screens (the flat-screen TV), laptops (tiny computers) and electric transports/scooters (C5). However, as the landscape and infrastructure for such products did not exist, the Sinclair inventions remained rather isolated and superficial demos of what might be. Nevertheless, there still remains a certain prophetic aura about them. It's not that any one of them is particularly novel, but taken together they give an impression of some un-realized Sinclairlandia that never came to be.

As the book suggests, Amstrad is probably the real success story of British computers, but here I must also say that Amstrad is somewhat boring. Who cares about Alan Sugar? Many of the computer legends were quite unmemorable characters. I'm not saying the spectacled red-head was a great role model or a hip character. Yet he and his products brought a kind of color to the otherwise drab field. Thus, "print the legend", I say.

(Thanks to Markku for the book. Here are his views in Finnish.)

Ian Adamson and Richard Kennedy, Sinclair and the 'Sunrise' Technology. The Deconstruction of the Myth. Penguin Books.