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Software Review

Introduction

As I began to look through this month's collection I thought I was in for a trip through the New Arcadia. Unfortunately, as I discovered after an evening's exploration, the new games that appear in arcades haven't yet reached the Dragon, and many of the programs are rehashed versions of ones that have been on the market for a long time. I realised I should have kept my mouth shut about "yet another Invaders tape", as that's just what I found hiding at the bottom of the Jiffy bag. (I think it was planted secretly by the editor to test my sanity!)

Last month must have been the first since Dragon User started that I didn't have any new Microdeal programs to review. As I was finishing the last paragraph, an enormous parcel of its latest releases arrived from Cornwall, and these are included in this month's review. As usual, there are good ideas along with some more lightweight offerings, and one or two that are a little suspect.

Air Traffic Control (Microdeal)

After the success of Space Shuttle, Microdeal has acquired a Tom Mix program called Air Traffic Control. The display is similar to the radar sets in control towers, and shows two runways that cross each other. Small planes queue up to take off, and others fly across the screen. These are not airliners, but Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs), that can be controlled by you. After selecting a difficulty level and plugging in the right-hand joystick, the display shows the control screen, which is surrounded by various instruments. There are seven modes of operation that determine how you can control the planes, and the object is to land safely any that fly across the screen as well as launching those waiting to take off.

The joystick allows you to move a tiny square around the screen and pressing the fire button allows you to lock onto the plane you wish to control. Using the joystick to move the cursor up and down, a little menu display allows you to alter the compass heading, the airspeed and the altitude. Although it took some time to get used to the controls, the 12-page instruction manual explains most of the things that are likely to happen. The only irritating thing about it was the statement that you could watch the display until you were ready, and then press reset to start the game. Don't do this, as you lose the program immediately!

I found it was fairly easy to control planes waiting to take off, but the higher levels of difficulty have you controlling a dozen or so planes all waiting to land. Although I prefer flight simulators, this program is quite good at taxing the brain. I'm not sure how accurate a simulation it is, but the near misses are probably close enough to put you off flying to Spain for your holiday next year.

Danger Ranger (Microdeal)

That industrious American programmer, Ken Kalish (author of Phantom Slayer, Escape and many others) has been at work again. In Danger Ranger you control a small figure who has to collect 10 keys from the ends of five floors of a building (Pasha's Chamber). Using the joystick, you have to avoid such problems as Floating Urns, Radioactive Bats and Roving Eyes. You can fire a laser gun to destroy these menaces, or you can jump and duck the missiles they hurl. Once through this screen, you are faced with the Acid Chamber. This consists of rows of stepping stones and the occasional chest of treasure. Unfortunately, large drops of acid fall on your head and rise from the floor, and there are always the demons...

Although I don't feel it's his best, seeming like a more hectic version of Bonka, this game is hard to beat at the upper levels, and does show some originality.

Devil Assault (Microdeal)

Devil Assault is yet another game from Ken Kalish. It doesn't have too promising a start, but soon livens up. A horde of angry vampire bats appears, rather similar to the beginning of the arcade game Phoenix. After these, however, some rather jolly looking robots descend on you. If you can destroy these, you have to deal with some animated dustbins, each of which is called a "sproing" (I always thought that was what came between winter and summer in Australia). These sproings are nastier than the vampire bats and the robots, as they bounce up from the screen's bottom to splat you out of existence. Again, I felt there was something lacking, and it was too much like several other games. In spite of this, it's well written and fast, so if you don't have a similar tape, this one could find a place in your collection.

Space Fighter (Microdeal)

In the dim and distant past, about eight years ago, a friend of mine who worked for a company whose exact name escapes me (something like IMB, I seem to remember), showed me an intriguing executive game involving the movements of a certain Starship Enterprise. It knocked the spots off video ping-pong, provided your area boss didn't notice you playing it, but I'm sure it's long since vanished to that happy place in the skies where all old computer games finally go. When you pick up Space Fighter you could imagine that it's another arcade action special from Microdeal. If you look at the small print on the back of the bulky packaging, you will see that the object of the exercise is to destroy "the aggressive fleet of Krugon Space Cruisers which have overrun the Universe". When you discover further that you are the captain of the starship "Endeavour", and can control warp factor, "photon guided missiles" and "phasers", you begin to realise that this is a thinly disguised version of Star Trek come back to haunt us. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent (or the guilty).

It's more of a medium speed game rather than the "high speed" arcade action that the packaging describes and the Klingons, oops, Krugons, seem rather easy to destroy; although when you realise there are in excess of 200 of them, you will understand that your task is not so easy. Ship movement is accomplished by using the right joystick, although the keyboard is necessary to alter your shields and fire phasers, and this increases the difficulty of the game, as does a docking manoeuvre that has been introduced. Hardly original, but those of you who must boldly go will find this an entertaining version of an old favourite.

Space Raiders (Microdeal)

I wish I could say the same of the next game, Space Raiders should be renamed "Editor's Revenge". If you haven't yet bought Invaders for your Dragon, you could buy this version, as it's as good or bad as any other. All alien life is there, descending about your ears in the time-honoured fashion, and like most Microdeal games, this is available with black, buff or green backgrounds. No more, please, I promise I'll get next month's review in on time... 'Nuff said!

Leggit (Imagine)

Imagine is well known for its Spectrum software, and last summer I can recall playing its game Jumping Jack. Six months later in the game of Leggit, the small hero returns to try his hand, or maybe his head, on the Dragon. If you haven't seen this game before, you'll soon find that although based on a simple idea, it gets to be quite addictive.

For some reason, Jumping Jack has been renamed Leaping Lenny, although the game in all other respects looks like the Spectrum version. The tiny headbanger appears at the bottom of the screen with eight levels above him and has to progress to the top by leaping through gaps which move along the different levels in both directions. Should he fall through a gap, he will become unconscious for a few seconds and cannot be moved. The same thing happens if you make him jump when there isn't a gap over his head. Because of his habit of hitting everything in sight with his head, a better name would have been Yumping Yossa, especially as Imagine Software comes from Liverpool. If you are nimble-fingered enough, you may reach the top and be faced with another screenful of moving gaps. The problem now is that other creatures are out to spoil Lenny's fun. Increasing in number from one to 20, planes, shotgun-toting hunters and other irritants hurl themselves against your friend. A pleasant change from alien chasing, if you can cope with the high frustration level.

Eight Ball (Microdeal)

With the increase in popularity of pub games, it's hardly surprising that computer versions should appear regularly. What is surprising is that they should sell quite so well. After all, the skills involved in a game of darts are difficult to simulate on a computer keyboard. Microdeal has just released a version of pool, called Eight Ball. Although it states on the packaging that it's in full colour, the clearest screens are seen if you choose a black background. Luckily, the stripes and spots are easy to see, so you don't really need the colours that would be essential in, say, snooker.

Setting the balls in the triangle is achieved from the keyboard, but subsequent control involves the joystick. This can position the cue, select spin and power of the shot and move the cue onto the ball. The object, as in the full-size game, is to sink all your balls and the eight ball before your opponent can. You continue your turn until you fail to sink a ball of your own colour, or sink the eight ball too early. Computer simulations are superb when they allow you to partake in the impossible or even the mildly dangerous, but that surely doesn't include pool. In spite of the clear displays and ease of playing, I feel most people would prefer the real thing. You also need two people to play the game properly - if you could have played against the computer the program would have had more point.

Pinball (Microdeal)

If you go into almost any pub in the land : from the flashiest West End bar to the tiniest country pub, the bleep-bleep and dur-dur-dur-dur of the video machines in the background remind you that we live in an electronic world. Up until the pings and pongs invaded us, the only electrical sounds were those of metallic pinballs clunking their way round the tables. Pinball from Microdeal is an attempt to recreate those long-gone days. I suppose my criticisms of Eight Ball could equally well be applied to Pinball. Certainly, the displays are clear, different skill levels are available, sounds are accurate, and the "ball" moves in a very realistic manner. There is little in the way of skill involved in playing the game, however, as the only control is the fire button on the joystick. This controls the speed of the firing bar as well as the flippers. There isn't any of the subtlety of a real pin-table, gently nudging it as you play, and there is no dreaded TILT sign telling you that you've gone too far. It's just rather boring watching the ball bounce around the screen and it is difficult not to score highly.

Fishy Business (Salamander)

Hot on the footsteps of Lost In Space, comes the final part of Salamander's Dan Diamond Trilogy, Fishy Business. For those of you who missed parts one and two, this text-only adventure game concerns the exploits of one Dan Diamond. He is a Los Angeles detective in the 1930s, based rather loosely on Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. In the first episode, Franklin's Tomb, Dan Diamond gets a message for help, and ends up exploring a mysterious crypt under a house. After spending some time wandering through the basement, Dan gets desperate and shoots off into Space, where he is Lost for the second game. Fishy Business uses the same screen format, a description of the present location, a current inventory and an input area where you can enter the chosen direction.

Perhaps I was thinking more laterally when I played this game, but I seemed to get started a little quicker, and the humour seemed better than in Lost In Space. To go into too much detail would spoil the fun (?) of this game, but be prepared for underwater grapplings with Princess Anemone and a location called A Whole Mess of Trouble. If you can cope with red herrings and blue kippers, you will enjoy this game (written, I believe, entirely on location in Brighton Aquarium).

Glaxxons (Microdeal)

Now back to two more arcade specials from Microdeal, Glaxxons is very similar to the start of Devil Assault, in that there's a horde of angry creatures that whirl about at the top of the screen. They break away and swoop down on you, firing missiles as they come. You start with a protective shield that disappears rapidly under the onslaught; the amount remaining is shown on a scale at the base of the screen. The only novelty in this game is the ability to cancel a missile after it's been fired. All in all, it's an average alien zapping game, with nothing in particular to lift it above a hundred and one others.

Dragon Hawk (Microdeal)

Dragon Hawk, also from Microdeal, provides a much more interesting storyline, and although you don't have the chance to change the skill level, it's a more complicated game. The display shows a screen full of flies, small birds, larvae and hawks. You control a little man, Watchful Wilberforce, who runs backwards and forwards along the bottom of the screen avoiding the birds and trying to shoot at the hawks. Before conservationists are up in arms, I should point out that one of the hawks has just carried off your friend. Freaky Freddy Flapper, and is about to drop him from a great height. If you can hit the hawk (and miss Freddy), you can rush to the side of the screen to collect a basket which is used to catch your friend before he splats himself onto the ground. As you can imagine, the game gets quite hectic, until you learn which things you can shoot and which you should avoid.

Skramble (Microdeal)

The last tape from Microdeal is a version of Scramble, called with great originality, Skramble. The screen scrolls from right to left while you fly your spacefighter over a mountainous landscape and through a cave system, avoiding enemy rockets. It is the strange convention in all versions of this game that in order not to run out of fuel, you have to bomb the enemy's fuel dumps. The display is reasonable, showing the landscape, the particular level of the game that you've reached and the number of planes left as well as your score. I found it harder to reach the upper levels, probably as I was using the joystick option which still entails pressing the space bar to drop bombs. In the end I put my Dragon on the floor, and used my big toe for this purpose. I think I prefer Whirlybird Run from Dragon Data to this version, although both have their good points. If you want a copy of this game, it's probably a good idea to look at both.

Photo Finish (Peaksoft)

When I saw Photo Finish from Peaksoft, I was afraid I was in for a run-of-the-mill horse racing game, complete with low resolution graphics. The start is certainly similar to other race games, with the opportunity to enter the names of up to four punters, and to bet up to £100 on six horses. The horses haven't yet run a race, so they have no form, and the first few races are a matter of luck. Where this game really scores is in the quality of the displays. The horses are shown in great detail, and the rails scroll across the screen. At the finish, you can choose to see a photograph (actually an enlarged corner of the screen), and the race cards gradually build up a good picture of the form to give you some idea how the bookies select the starting prices. If you enjoy the thrill of the race course, but know little more than how to select the Derby winner with a pin, then you should find this program instructive as well as fun to play.

Ossie (Peaksoft)

Also from Peaksoft is a highly original game designed to warm the hearts of environmentalists everywhere. Ossie is an arcade game that puts you in the role of an osprey with five hungry chicks to feed. The food is strictly self service, and can only be obtained by dive-bombing straight into the river that passes by your tree and flying home with a fish in your beak. All the while this is happening, you have to protect your nest from poachers who continually attempt to climb the tree. You start with five lives, and if you cannot deliver a fish to the nest within 20 seconds, you lose a life. Although you can fly anywhere in the upper screen, to enter the water you must fly very high, then drop like a stone by pressing the fire button. This is a challenging game, and Peaksoft is to be commended for thinking up a new setting.

Kriegspiel (Beyond)

Last month I enjoyed playing a naval wargame from Beyond Software called Up Periscope. This complex game involved moving a convoy across an area of sea, and you could choose to be the commander of either the submarines or the surface fleet. Kriegspiel is played on a similar area, but most of it is land and river. It is divided up into many small hexagons, which gives you six possible directions in which to proceed. The cursor keys move the viewing area about, and even though you can never see the whole field of battle, there is a little map on the instruction sheet. This consists of a piece of folded A4 size paper containing all the information you are likely to need printed in tiny letters.

Although it's beautifully produced in full colour, it's difficult to read, and a booklet would have been easier. The directions are clear, if a trifle complicated, and you can choose to play against another human or against the computer.

Each army has 15 pieces, comprising four heavy tanks, five light tanks, and six platoons of infantry. It is possible to recruit more men, and you can even lay minefields. It is impossible to give such a complex game the description it deserves; even the time of year plays a part with rain and snow taking their toll. The display is symbolic rather than detailed, but is perfectly adequate for this type of strategy game. Considering the price is only £6.95, this game is well written and makes good use of the screen and displays. Perhaps they'll bring out a more peaceful game next time, then they'll satisfy everybody.

Transylvanian Tower (Richard Shepherd)

When the Dragon first appeared, it had software that was written specificalfy for it, and apart from a few exceptions, not many programs could be bought in versions for, say, the Spectrum, the BBC and the Dragon. Recently this has changed, and with the growth of software houses, it's probably economic to employ someone simply to convert your best seller to run on a different computer, or even to struggle with the job yourself. Because people prefer programming on one particular machine, and are able to use its good points and disguise its little foibles, this is not always successful. One software house that has managed to make a satisfactory conversion is Richard Shepherd, which has been writing top selling maze adventures for the Spectrum for some time.

Transylvanian Tower is based on the traditional adventure theme of exploration and treasure collection. It is set entirely in Count Kreepie's tower, a miserable place inhabited by bats. There are five levels, all represented by three-dimensional mazes. At the start you are shown a plan of the maze, and you can come back to this at any time by simply pressing a key. This dungeon level is useful training in maze running, as there's nothing nasty to jump on you here. When you finally reach the exit to this level, you are transported to level two, and here is where your problems begin. There are at least 20 bats to be killed belore you can reach the next floor. If you reach the transportation point without finding a weapon, you are moved somewhere at random. If you've just discarded your floor plan, this can be very frustrating!

Eventually you confront Count Kreepie, but as every late night TV viewer knows, all you need is a clove of garlic and a silver cross, and even Christopher Lee cowers in the corner. Although this doesn't require enormous dexterity or brain power to solve, the game is fun for all ages, and shouldn't prove too frightening, even with a full moon in the sky.

Puzzler (Shards)

Shards Software has been producing interesting programs for some time, and although its early tapes didn't seem to have anything too special, the material produced shows plenty of imagination. Last month it was Pettigrew's Diary, and this month it's Puzzler. This game is a computer simulation of one of those plastic games where you move the pieces around a little square frame. In Puzzler, you can choose from three games, with either 12 or 24 pieces, changing colours, and different levels of difficulty. This gives you less time to decide on which of the muddled pieces must be swapped. If you're slow, the computer swaps for you, and the picture becomes even more confused.

You can also choose the picture to be rearranged. There are four choices, a basic flag, a union jack, a lion and a fish tank, this program is excellent in improving memory skills for shapes, and provides a challenging and novel game.

There isn't too much that's completely new this month, but there seems to be quite an assortment to suit all tastes. The programming standard is improving all the time - all that's needed are some fresh ideas.