Software reviewer John Scriven abandons the outdoors to start exploring micro-worlds
As winter approaches and icy winds start to howl across the country, many people are discouraged from venturing too far from the comfort of their homes. Micro owners come in from the cold to seek excitement ai the keyboard. What better thing could there be than to remain in the warm and dry while your Dragon leads you to explore the rest of the universe from a warm armchair?
I sometimes wonder if it's always a good idea to seek escape in different micro-worlds. In the not too distant future video disks will be combined with computers to provide a realistic environment in which we are not mere passive observers, as with TV and films, but active participants who can control our own destiny. Perhaps the Brave New World of "feelies" as well as movies is closer than we imagine. I can imagine a scene where all our experience is obtained from some processor- controlled video. No longer any need to visit castles - the machine takes us there; no need to fly - the simulator does it for us. The ultimate conclusion is that we won't need bodies - the internal, cerebral experience will be enough.
If you think I am overstating the danger, then think back to the last time you became so involved with a program that time, meals and other people disappeared totally from your mind. Most of my friends who use computers are pleased to escape from them into the country or on to the beach, but there are one or two who show the danger signs; glazed eyes, computer language creeping into normal conversation, excuses as to why they can't come out in the evenings. Still, I expect they said the same about Caxton when books first appeared!
This month's selection includes several programs to produce glazed eyes, though not all for the same reason. As usual, the quality varies enormously. If only the software improved at the same rate as the packaging.
First on my screen was Space Shuttle from Microdeal. Consisting of a more elaborate version of a flight simulator, the object is to pilot the shuttle through a complete mission. The display initially shows a weather report - side winds on landing can create problems - and then countdown begins. The screen now shows a central band of window, with a bewildering array of instruments below and status reports at the top. The view outside is of clouds that soon give way to stars as you gain in altitude.
At this stage you leave the launch rocket and have some control over the shuttle. Use of the joystick enables left/right and up/down movement as you steer towards the correct orbiting position. Things increase in complexity at this point as you attempt to rendezvous with a satellite. As well as the joystick, you have to alter the retro strength to change your velocity. Once you are close to your target, the doors have to be opened, the robot arm extended, and the satellite placed neatly in the cargo bay. Surprisingly, this is the easiest task of all.
As the doors close, you can fire forward thrusters to begin your descent through the atmosphere. The motors shut off and you control the final glide using only the joystick. Instruments are necessary in the initial stages, but soon the runway appears through the window and the landing can be achieved visually.
After you land successfully - or crash - a debriefing report tells you where you went wrong during the mission. As you are a trainee pilot, each stage has predefined limits for success - for example, you are not allowed to attempt to put the shuttle into orbit at a height of 10 feet above the ground. If you are outside the limits or you take too long, the stage is aborted automatically and the next begins. Points are awarded according to your skill at each manoeuvre.
A well thought-out game. Space Shuttle encourages you to reattempt the difficult sections and improve on your score. The game is reasonable value at £8, the instrumentation clear, and the outside view about as good as can be achieved on a Dragon.
The packaging includes a 15-page training manual that explains each stage clearly and gives assistance in control movements. The packaging is rather strange - a block of expanded polystyrene the size of a video-cassette holds the cassette and the booklet. Once you take off the clear wrapper and the paper cover, there is no cassette case, and you either store the cassette on its own allowing dust to enter, or wrap it up in the large chunk of white plastic, which looks untidy.
A firm that has gone for mini video-cassette cases for their packaging is Premier Microsystems of Croydon. It produces a range of games and educational software that caters for all tastes.
Maths Games contains four programs to improve mental skills. They all follow the same format, simply numbers appearing on the screen that have to be operated on in the head and the correct answer entered. The addition program, for example, shows number sets like 2 + 5 + 7 + 3 + 12 + 8 for a few seconds... These disappear and the correct answer has to be input. If correct, a fresh set of numbers appears, plus an extra number, so this is a test of memory as well as mental agiility. Although I have reservations over the educational value of such programs, it certainly provides plenty of practice. I feel that it wouldn't appeal to those children who would benefit from it most, however, as there are no complementary graphics. The multiplication program is a lot better, as it shows a number of dots in two boxes that have to be counted before being multiplied together. I also liked the division program, which gave alternative answers to a problem, and also allowed a lot longer to work out the answer.
Although Dragons aren't common creatures in classrooms, these programs could offer extra help to parents. It's a shame that the displays could not have been livelier - children are more likely to retain knowledge if it's acquired in an enjoyable way, and these programs, although efficient, tend to be a little boring.
Spelling from Premier attempted to confuse me by including a maths program first. Basically a simple four rules test, it displays the figures in a large form and you put ticks or crosses next to the answer. There is no attempt at graphics, and it was not much fun to use. This was followed by the main program, Spelling Test. Spelling programs always present difficulty in presentation. Either the word has to flash on the screen, or there has to be an accompanying sound track of the word, or alternative spellings have to be shown. Premier have chosen the last route, giving a choice of four spellings for each word. Difficulty levels vary from 1 to 6, easy words being holiday, people, etc, and hard words begin at the level of ecstasy, rejuvenate, etc. The words are held in data statements, so a parent or teacher could substitute any words, including foreign or scientific words as necessary. While not being tremendously impressed with the program, I found it perfectly competent and worth considering if practice in spelling is considered necessary.
Plant Ecology from Premier tackles a learning situation in a much better way. While teaching about energy levels, sunlight, soil fertility, etc, the format is that of a "Kingdom" type game. The environmental conditions are shown in a table, listing sunlight, temperature, rainfall, competition and wind. Beneath is shown your condition, from roots and leaves, through flowers and seeds to the number of new plants produced. You can supply energy to different parts of your plant through the seasons, and the object is to survive and produce as many new plants as possible.
Natural disasters occur, such as weed killer spills, as well as more pleasant happenings like surprise gifts of fertiliser. Each strategy employed also has a display of your plant, complete with the roots, leaves, etc, that you possess at that stage. This program would liven up a botany lesson, and promote discussion if used with a group of children. I'm not sure how much pure plant knowledge would be acquired using this program, but reasoning skills would be sharpened as different approaches are tried.
Adventure Plus is the only adventure game from Premier. It is a text-only version that allows you to explore a house picking up various objects. The room descriptions are rather brief, and though some of the problems take some time to solve, it does not compare with Dragon Data's range of machine code adventures. The vocabulary it recognises is rather limited, and there are irritaiing requirements such as having to type GO NORTH in full each time. Although I wasn't very impressed by this game, it was no worse than the Microdeal series and could well appeal to adventurers in search of fresh ground.
When I first loaded Spider, the only arcade-type game from Premier, it didn't look too promising. The display is very simple - an eight-sided web, two spiders and a fly. The object is to move your spider (the large male one) over the flies to satisfy your voracious appetite. Unfortunately, the female spider has an even greater hunger for you! Female spiders being what they are, they don't have much use for you afterwards, and you disappear from the screen. You also disappear if you don't eat enough flies. As I played the game, it was clear that it was better than I had feared, but it is still not really up to the impressive packaging.
My favourite program from Premier was Cribbage. I have not seen any versions of this traditional card game for any other machine, and it was surprisingly good. Briefly, the game is as follows:
Each player is dealt six cards, of which two must be thrown away. The next card in the pack is turned up to show its face. The four discarded cards make up the "crib" which is placed to one side. Using the retained cards, the players take it in turns to place cards in a pile, adding up the value of the pile all the while. Runs and doubles score points, as does making 15 or 31. The total must not come to more than 31. If it does, then the totalling starts again. When all eight cards have been played, the players try to make 15 from their own cards (including the upturned card on the pack). They take it in turns to add the crib score to their own. Scores are usually kept on a wooden board with holes in for matchsticks. The winner is the first person to move his or her matchstick around the board.
The display is very clear, with the cards shown along the top of the screen, and the reaction times are fast. Although not as much fun as playing in the back room of some country pub, this is an enjoyable game and what's more, it was played fairly. (Cribbage seems to bring out the worst in humans!) Perhaps this signals a return to traditional pub games on computers. I shall keep my eyes peeled for the first Shove-Ha'penny game on cassette.
Although the Dragon has a reasonable number of commands to access the sound chip, Dragon Basic does not allow a large number of different effects. It is necessary to use machine code to exploit the full potential of the machine. An alternative solution is to use a program such as Dragon Composer from Microdeal, which effectively extends Basic by allowing you to enter complex melodies into DATA statements. In this way harmonies can be written, and quite complicated melodies incorporated. There is a selection of tunes already prepared as a demonstration, and the result is impressive.
The melodies that you enter are compiled into machine code by the program, and the machine code file saved separately. This is how music can be used in your own programs without the need for complex routines or extra memory. There is an accompanying 28-page booklet that goes into considerable detail. This is just as well, because although the program is menu-driven, it is still fairly complex and needs a lot of work to achieve results like the demo tunes. The price is a little high at £15, but if you want a versatite sound synthesis system without expensive add-ons, this will probably fit the bill.
Jeff Minter's game Gridrunner has been released under the banner of Salamander Software. A fast-moving machine code game needing one joystick, this consists of a grid of approximately 27 x 17 lines, down which move search squads (this part is similar to Caterpillar). You control a base over the bottom hall of the screen and attempt to destroy the squads before they reach the bottom of the screen. It you remain in one place for too long, X/Y zappers will line up on you and fire plasma beams. Other obstructions are caused by pods appearing in your path. Although I found it a little tiresome, some of my friends think it's great fun and it's very popular among arcade freaks. Apparently this is one of the best-selling games in the States, if that's any recommendation.
Yet more arcade games seem to be streaming out of Microdeal. The latest releases include The Official Frogger under licence from Sega. The graphics were a little disappointing, being rather on the "chunky" side, and as most people have the equivalent game, it's probably appearing too late to do well. As usual, you have to guide frogs up the screen avoiding traffic, snakes, crocodiles and diving turtles. If you like the game and don't have a version yet, then this does have the option of fast and slow games, and joystick or keyboard entry, and you can always say that yours is the version all the others are based on.
Microdeal have also released another Tom Mix game - this time it's his version of Golf. You are allowed to choose clubs, direction and when putting, distance. There are various obstructions in the course such as ponds and bunkers, and the green shots are shown to a larger scale. I still prefer Salamander's version to this one, and the graphics are rather disappointing compared to most games that originate from Tom Mix.
A game from Microdeal that I prefer to the Salamander version is Grand Prix. In Microdeal's program, it is the Moroccan race track that is used. Rather than show you the whote circuit, you only see the road just in front of you. As with some arcade versions, you get a bird's-eye view as other drivers wobble about in front of you or slither into you from the side. Control is by means of the joystick, and it needs a very gentle touch to avoid the other traffic. In spite of the well-defined cars and the smooth scrolling, I found it wasn't really in the addictive class, and certainly not as good as the latest racing simulators that are appearing in arcades at the moment.
A game that was rather more entertaining is Cuthbert Goes Walkabout. Apparently, Cuthbert finds himself on a lunar landing pod, waiting for the Federal Chief to arrive. His job is turning on lights at the corners of a 7 x 5 grid. Invading Moronians wander around after him. Each square he walks round lights up, and the object is to light up all 35 squares. As you are given five Cuthberts, the game isn't too difficult, but each fresh screen contains more Moronrans. If you are quick, you can jump over them, but if you're too close to the edge, you disappear off the edge of the screen. This is an original idea skilfully executed, and is my favourite from the selection of new Microdeal programs.
Dream Software is a new name from Northern Ireland. They supply a tape called simply Dragon 1 that contains four programs.
Golf presents a nice 3D view of a hole at the start, but from then on, it's text only (plus sounds of the ball whizzing through ihe air?), which is a disappointment. You can select clubs and putter strengths, but the game isn't too interesting to play.
Poker uses low-resolution graphics for the display, but is a simulation of a gambling machine rather than a game of cards. As you play against the machine, and there is hardly any skill involved, there seems to be little point in this type of program, but I suppose it's cheaper than a real machine.
Connect Four (that's how they spelt it!) does not actually play the game - it merely uses the screen to display the pieces and checks to see if someone has won. Unfortunately it's not mug-trapped very well, and crashes if you put too many pieces in a column, or if you accidentally enter a letter instead of a number.
Fruit Machine has much better graphics, using the high- resolution screen for the display. You have $4 at the start of the game, and there is a hold facility. Again, my comment would be why bother playing a fruit machine with no chance of winning or losing? The cassette is only £4,95, but I would rather pay twice that for one good game than four weak efforts. The only use for it might be during a party when you're bored with pulling crackers.
Last month I was particularly impressed by a program called Ninja Warrior from Programmers' Guild. This month I have been looking at two other games from this new software house. The first is called Pacdroids and is loosely based on Pacman. It is considerably more advanced, however, as you can lay mines in the path of your pursuers. The mazes increase in complexity as you progress, and once again, the game is fast and smooth in action. You can use either joysticks or the keyboard for control, and up to four players can use the game at one time. Although it lacks the originality of Ninja Warrior, it is good value and is more interesting to play than a standard Pac-type game.
Protector only permits the use of the keyboard for control, and in fact uses six separate keys to move your craft. The first display consists of a menu of options and explains the use of the controls and the scoring system. As the game starts it is seen that this is a version of Defender, complete with aliens kidnapping innocent citizens, smart bombs and mutants. There is a display at the top of the screen to show the approaching hordes from both sides, and you can fly in either direction. This is a reasonable version of Defender, but I still prefer their Ninja to the more derivative games.
Perhaps there is a lesson in this. Arcade manufacturers rarely expect a game to last more than six months unless it's really special. In the micro marketplace, there is always room for originality rather than endless copies of old games. Larger software houses are beginning to realise this, and as well as programmers they often employ "ideas people" to think up original programs. It would make a pleasant change to see even more of them each month.