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Software Review

Aliens, insects, vultures and a karate expert - an intrepid John Scriven tackles them all to bring you this month's software review.

Introduction

As the evenings draw in and it gets too cold to lie on the beach, or even in the back garden, micro owners thoughts turn once again to cosmic pastures. Feeling somewhat guilty that I had been neglecting arcade addicts, I have spent the last two weeks immersed not in the sea, but in a large pool of games software. (Ah, the dedication!)

As it's a year since the Dragon first appeared, one would imagine that the quality of software would have improved. This is certainly true in most cases, although one or two suspect tapes still come my way. From a purely patriotic point of view, it seems a shame that many of the programs still emanate from the other side of the Atlantic, presumably conversions of Tandy Colour Computer originals. These are often streets ahead in smooth screen movement and speed of response.

Katerpillar Attack (Microdeal)

An example of this is Katerpillar Attack from Microdeal. Another Tom Mix special from the States, it is a good copy of the arcade game Caterpillar. This electronic larva appears at the top of the screen and descends a line at a time. If you shoot it, it splits up and where individual pieces have been, mushrooms appear - these need to be hit several times before they disappear. Occasionally spiders leap down on to your head, but they're not too difficult to avoid. As a copy of an arcade game, it is well written and should provide a lot of amusement particularly if you are a fan of "Gardener's Questiontime".

In case it should appear that any bias creeps in here, I think I should point out that every time I collect a fresh pile of review software, there's always a high percentage of Microdeal cassettes. This is due solely to the enormous number of programs they produce - at the last count, it was well over 50 - so it's hardly surprising that I end up reviewing many of theirs.

Occasionally at Dragon User, we get sent a tape from someone new who has perhaps written only a couple of programs. If you've done this, and fail to see your cassette reviewed, then sometimes it's a more gentle way of saying that it's really not up to the general standard. The alternative would be to pull it to pieces in public. Although tastes are bound to vary, the quality has improved a great deal in the last few months, and we are quite willing to be be very scathing about any software house dealing in tacky goods.

Storm (Microdeal)

Anyhow, back to the games! One of the best I've seen recently is Microdeal's Storm, an adaptation of a less common arcade game. The opening display resembles a spider's web with a rectangular box at the centre. As the game starts, the web is seen to be a 3-D view of a pit, with aliens climbing the walls. You can rush madly round the top firing down at them until you run out of ammunition, or you can steer around carefully increasing your score and the level of difficulty. You choose your starting level from 1 to 15, but as the game progresses, you can apparently rise higher than 75.

The instructions are very clear and the game is different enough to warrant consideration if you have £6 to spare.

Racer Ball & Scarfman (Microdeal)

If you don't need originality, then Racer Ball or Scarfman may satisfy you. They are both versions of Pacman. The stories are the same, only the titles have been changed to protect the innocent! Scarfman has only one level of difficulty, but the joysticks seem more responsive than on Racer Ball; you can also use the keyboard if you prefer. Racer Ball has 15 levels of difficulty and has a "teleport" facility that deposits you at the top of the screen if you become trapped at the bottom.

Dragon Invaders (Microdeal)

And now for something completely different for those of you who have spent the last five years holidaying on a small planet just to the right of Alpha Centauri, I would like to announce an exciting new video game known by the highly original title of Invaders. In this game, waves of aliens creep down the screen while you try and...

To relieve the yawns of boredom from the other 99.98% of the readers, however, I must refer you to the history books - Dragon Invaders from Microdeal is available complete with eight skill levels, Close Encounters theme music, flying saucers and two-player option. If you are sadistically inclined, you could give it to your granny for Christmas or sell it to a Russian tourist as an example of the latest Western secret weapon.

Vultures (J. Morrison Micros)

Those of you who are willing to boldly go, etc, etc, may find some interest in a game from J. Morrison Micros (they produce the excellent Bonka). This game is cafled Vultures. A group of these evil creatures starts in invaders formation at the top of the screen. They then proceed to swoop down with the one aim (and a very good aim it is too) of dropping something unpleasant on your head. Collision tactics will not work, as they take you with them as they explode. Should you manage to blast this lot 1o kingdom come, some harmless looking eggs hatch out to drop more galactic guano on your head. As with all games of this nature, you cannot win, and the game continues until you finally run screaming from the room. Quite a pleasant entertainment. I thought.

Cosmic Zap (Microdeal)

When faced with a pile of new software, I often divide it up into adventure, simulations, gambling games, and so on, and many arcade games get put in a pile mentally labelled "Cosmic Zap". I therefore wondered who was kidding who when I discovered this month a game purporting to be the real Cosmic Zap.

In fact, its a reasonable program combining features from several games. Your task is to defend a stargate in the centre of the screen. Aliens attempt to use the stargate to get to your home star, and you have to prevent them from this form of stellar gate-crashing. A better name for the game would have been Cosmic Bouncer, though maybe this would have the wrong connotations in America, where the game originated.

After destroying several of the aliens, death satellites appear that float gently round the centre. The screen colour can be selected from a palette of black, white or sickly green, and you can choose difficulty levels from to 15. Although a simple game at level 0, at level 10 it soon becomes a test of how strong you joystick is as you try to defend your base in four directions at the same time. In spite of stealing my title, it's still quite a good game.

Attack (PSS)

Attack, from Personal Software Services, puts you in the role of a prison guard on the planet Koventri, Having once been to a place with a similar name. I have every sympathy with the fleeing prisoners (Oh dear, more abusive mail from the Midlands!). Your job is to prevent the aliens from escaping. The screen display is very reminiscent of Defender, except that if you fly beiow the level of the hills, you will crash. Although you can see the approaching rescue craft on the upper screen, you need fast fingers before you can score highly. Although not offering all the features of a full Defender game, it is well written and very fast.

Space War (Microdeal)

Space War is a more complicated game to learn than many of the others. Apart from having to ward off alien ships that home in on you, and a Death Star on one side of the screen that you must ultimately destroy, a black hole has positioned itself dangerously close to where you need to manoeuvre.

Using a joystick, you have to find the Achilles' heel of the Death Star where it may be successfully annihilated. The most difficult skill to acquire is steering your craft around the screen as it appears to obey Newton's Laws of Motion far more accurately than most micro space vehicles. Once accelerating in one direction, it cannot be stopped unless you point it in the opposite direction and use the thrust control as retro-rockets. This game is certainly worth looking at if you are tired of run-of-the-mill space games.

Ninja Warrior (Programmer's Guild)

My award for the most original game of the month has to go to Ninja Warrior from Programmer's Guild. In this excellent game, you, and up to five other players, control some figure wearing a judo suit. The ground scrolls beneath his feet, and you can use a joystick to slow him down, speed him up, or make him jump in the air. The "fire" button controls a sharp Karate kick that he performs.

To gain a white belt, the landscape is littered with boulders that he can jump over, but a higher score is achieved by kicking them to dust. If he survives with toe-nails intact, the tests for higher grade belts present him with fires to jump over, pits to traverse and even arrows to catch. Eventually (so they tell me!), your warrior becomes a black belt. For me, this was a highly entertaining game, using a novel idea, smooth graphics and good sound. I hope future programs from Programmer's Guild will be as good.

After tackling the enormous pile of arcade action, it was pleasant to relax with a few gentler games for an evening or two.

Death's Head Hole (Peaksoft)

When I was somewhat livelier at weekends, and before my wet-suit finally disintegrated, I used to enjoy wriggling through muddy passages deep under the Mendips. I was therefore interested to find amongst some adventure games one entitled Death's Head Hole Set in the Mendips, you are one of the unlucky rescuers who have to try to extricate three lost cavers trapped somewhere inside this system. Clearly written by someone with speleological experience, all the usual fun things are present - choked passages, rock falls and sumps.

At the start of this text-only adventure (except for the map - see later), you can select your equipment from a pool of lamps, ladders, diving gear, food packs and so on, and then you start to explore the system. This contains the same main passages each time you play, although the position of the lost cavers and a few small crawls change to provide a bit of variety. A random element is provided in that shovels break, you can get hopelessly lost, or the roof can collapse on your team. If you are willing to sacrifice a few fitness points, you can look at a map of the cave, and you can even listen to see if you can hear the plaintive cries of the lost ones. Eventually, but not usually until you gain experience, you find yourself on the top of the limestone once again.

It is an adventure game with a difference and, apart from being a safe way to initiate oneself into the world of caving, it is enjoyable and challenging to play.

Lionheart (Peaksoft)

Lionheart, also from Peaksoft, is an adventure game in two stages. After selecting a skill level from one to five, you have to move around a forest shown on the screen by green blobs, while collecting a force of soldiers to fight for you. Preventing you from your task is an irritating bunch of Prince John's men who always seem to get in the way. If you manage to collect at least 450 men you can set sail for the Holy Land where the second half of the game takes place.

Another map appears on the screen in low resolution blocks showing villages and caves, and a river running across the middle. Saladin's castle is on the south side, and the object is to explore the land until you have amassed even more soldiers and weaponry to atlack the Saracens.

Although fun to play a couple of times, it does not have the strengths of The Ring Of Darkness from Wintersoft. It does possess some mildly humorous (?) moments, like ihe kindly (sic) witch who asks you maths questions - her name is Maghi Al-Tha' acha.

Flipper (Microdeal)

Flipper is the name by which Microdeal refer to Othello (I wonder if Shakespeare knows what's going on?). In this version of an oriental board game you start with two green and two red pieces in the centre of a normal 8 x 8 chess draughts board. You can play with a human or against the computer and there is even an option to allow the computer to play itself. The next time you feel guilty about going out and leaving your poor little Dragon on its own, you now know what to do: just load Flipper and leave it to its own devices!

If you play against the computer, you can choose from four different levels. If you have not come across the game before, then a brief word should suffice. Taking it in turns, you place counters on the board in an attempt to have more than your opponent at the end. So that the game does not always result in a 32-32 draw, each time you trap a row of your opponent's counters between two of yours, they change colour to show they now belong to you. In the board game, the pieces have different colours on both sides and are flipped over - hence the name.

The speed of response is quite Fast, but the accompanying "computer-is-thinking" type music is irritating. If you like computer board games this one's not bad. My main complaint was that there appeared little scope for cheating!

Sound Extension Module (J.C.B. Microsystems)

The last subject for review is not strictly speaking purely software, but more of a programming aid. When computers are designed, there seem to be many criteria that are important - cost, looks, internal structure, type of Basic, and so on. Cynics would say that the needs of the customer are always left to the last, but it would be impossible to design something that was all things to all users.

The Dragon, like all home computers, is a compromise in terms of facilities and price, and offers a fair amount of what most similar micros do. It does however have a few deficiencies in specific areas and some firms provide add-ons to make it easier to achieve certain effects. The ZX81 was a case of a machine built to a price, but with so many add-ons that it was (and still is) possible to spend a thousand pounds or more to make it have colour display, speech synthesis, discs, printers, modems and RAM in excess of 1 megabyte. Dragons are capable of supporting most of these without expensive interfacing units, but one area where they could be improved is in the case of the sound output.

One firm that helps out here is J.C.B. Microsystems. Their sound extension module plugs into the cartridge socket at the side. Measuring 12cm x 10cm x 2cm, it contains the popular AY-3-S910 sound chip (as titled to computers such as the Oric), as well as an EPROM and a few bits of TTL. Whereas programming the AY-3- 8910 is possible using hundreds of PEEKS and POKES, this sound module adds a new command MUSIC to Basic which makes the entry of tunes much easier. Not only pitch and volume are variable: the envelope can be altered to make reasonable "impersonations" of different instruments in the same way as a synthesizer achieves its effects.