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Software Scene

John Scriven surveys the Software Scene

Introduction

At this time of the year many people go through a very strange personality change. Instead of getting up at the usual time and going to work in a normal fashion, they suddenly jet off to foreign parts, leap around in a most undignified manner, get stung by jelly fish, stand on sea urchins, eat food that gives them Delhi Belly or Montezuma's Revenge, and come back suffering from mild sunstroke - all in the name of "enjoying the holidays". It's hardly a good time for slaving away over a hot computer - in fact, the weather last summer was one reason given for Dragon Data's early problems. Software writers have obviously been working at top speed to put their products on the market before they too, climb into their cars and zoom off for a week at Butlins or wherever it is they go.

There is therefore a great number of programs out at this time of the year, although I would think it unlikely that many will be sold before September is through. There are some new names in this month's collection, which is encouraging, and some new ideas in the programs themselves, which makes my task more interesting. Something tells me, however, that I should invest in a set of ear plugs if the accompanying sound tracks become more strident.

Mission XK1 (J. Morrison Micros)

The last thing Mission XK1 from J. Morrison Micros suffers from is a quiet opening. As the title pages roll, the familiar strains of "Thus Spake Zarathustra" (recognisable to fans of 2001 AD and certain razor adverts) ring out in multi-part harmony. A mother ship appears at the top of the screen, and you steer your tiny craft from this down to a landing pad on the surface of the planet Zyphon. Progress is hampered by chunks of what was once the moon of Zyphon circling the planet, although it is possible to blast them out of the way with a laser cannon.

It you survive the landing, much-needed fuel is drawn up from the planet and you have now to transfer it safely to the mother ship, once again avoiding the pieces of rock.

The game is well-written, and appears quite spectacular the first few times it is played. I found that the music became irritating after this, and it wasn't possible to turn it off. (Lowering the volume on the TV naturally kills the more useful sound effects as well!) The game itself does not seem to progress anywhere, and although the asteroid belt becomes thicker as you play on, there are no continuing parts to play. I would agree that there are many other programs that are no more complicated and are very popular, but for me I'm afraid there was no magic. If, however, you want a thrilling rendition of space music, I'm sure Richard Strauss himself would approve of the sound track.

Beam Rider (Microdeal)

Beam Rider from Microdeal is yet another US import that originates from Spectral Associates. The screen is covered by more than a hundred little blocks arranged in rows. Steering a "beamer", you destroy the blocks by running over them. The speed at which you move is determined by whether there are any blocks in the direction in which you are moving. If there are, a beam shoots out and pulls you towards the block. Nothing could be that simple, however, and there are odd little problems like Spinners and Chasers that follow you around, just waiting till your attention slips.

If you manage to clear a screen before losing three men, another screen appears with the blocks arranged differently. The scoring system and rules for play are a little complicated, but soon acquired and, although the graphics are rather abstract, the game is fairly addictive. If you like Gridrunner, then this will certainly appeal to you, and is worth looking at.

Horace Goes Skiing (Melbourne House)

A couple of months back I looked at the first of the Horace series of software to appear on the Dragon, Hungry Horace. This month I received the latest translation from a Spectrum original, Horace Goes Skiing from Melbourne House.

In this program, the object is to steer Horace (with £40 in his pockets) across a busy road to a ski shop where he can hire his equipment, then back through the traffic to the other side before he can start out on the slope. The road is fairly quiet at the start, but soon reaches rush hour condition, and it's easy to end up on the wrong side of a juggernaut or one of the kamikazi motorcyclists that appears from out of nowhere. If this happens, you will have to pay out £10 for the ambulance, leaving you with less for ski hire.

Assuming that you manage to acquire your skis and return to the top of the screen, you can now help Horace to speed down the Hannekon slalom course. Trees are an obvious hazard to avoid if you value your skis, and there are the slalom poles to steer between if you want to gain points. The display scrolls up, as Horace remains in the centre of the screen, and control is achieved by either joystick or keyboard.

If you complete the course, there is another piste to follow - but of course, it has to be on the opposite side of yet another busy road. As you reach higher levels, it's harder keeping a true course, and there are even rnoguts - those mounds of snow caused by everyone following the same track on their parallel turns. Hit one of these awkwardly and the trees leap out to greet you!!

Horace games seem to translate well for the Dragon, and this is no exception. Presumably, we shall soon see Horace Versus The Spiders on our screens as well. Hungry Horace is a sort of up-market Pacman, and in some ways, Horace Goes Skiing is reminiscent of Frogger, although the graphics are much better. Not quite as much fun as Hungry Horace, but better than average.

Cosmic Cruiser (Imagine)

Beau Jolly, now marketing Imagine's existing stock, has an offering entitled Cosmic Cruiser which promises great things as it loads. A highly detailed graphic design of an astronaut appears as the main program enters the machine. The cassette insert is also dripping with information about the wonderful facilities that Imagine offer, sorry, used to offer their programmers, and goes into more detail about the writer than I've seen before, complete with life history and trendy photograph.

After this rapturous introduction, what of the product itself? The theme is fairly original - you are in charge of rescuing crewmen from a space station at the top of the screen and have to transport them to the safety of your cosmic cruiser. The graphics are quite detailed and the characters are reasonably life-like. All the while, the space station rotates at the top, occasionally revealing doors that can be shot open with a laser cannon from the base of the screen. As the spacemen appear, they can be collected and guided to safety.

You can choose to use either the keyboard or joysticks to control the main spaceman, or "hero" as he is called in the notes, and his movement is slow and ponderous, as if there really is low gravity. If you choose joysticks you will find that you have to use them upside down. If you use normal sticks there is no problem, but if you have the Spectra video type, you will have a little difficulty.

My first impressions were of irritation, as the instructions are rather long-winded, but once you grasp the general idea, the game improves considerably and is quite lively when the aliens start to appear. I still don't feel it lives up to the impressions on the cassette insert, although the screen shots are a good idea. With clearer instructions, the program would be worth a closer look.

Mr. Dig (Microdeal)

As usual, Microdeal has produced even more titles this month, Mr. Dig shows influences from several other games, combined in a new format, The screen shows a tunnel underground, viewed from the side. Buried in the earth are various unlikely objects, including cherries and apples. The cherries are what Mr. Dig is after, and the apples can be pushed along to squash anything in their path. Just to annoy you, there are several Meanies who are out to spoil your fun. You can run from them, fire a Power Orb in their general direction, or use the ultimate deterrent - drop an apple on their heads.

There are a few other diversions, such as Letter Monsters who enable you to increase the number of your spare men, and the odd diamond that grows in the middle of the apples. This is clearly designed for quiet, non-aggressive children of less than 10, who will doubtless turn their noses up at it, while their parents love it. At some times it resembles Pacman with you digging your own maze, and at others, a sort of fruity version of Pengon. Not a game to get too ecstatic about, but well worth the standard £8.

Touchstone (Microdeal)

A game that has given me a lot of pleasure this month is Touchstone, again from Microdeal. This is a graphic adventure for one or two players, and involves finding your way along a sideways scrolling maze collecting various treasures along the way. The adventure is presumably set in a pyramid as the documentation mentions Ankhs and the god Ra.

There are several unpleasant creatures that inhabit the maze, such as snakes, spiders and butterflies, but the fire button sends a chilling glance from your eyes (thanks to Ra) to destroy them. Some locations are friendlier than others, such as Zoom Chambers that take you across parts of the maze. Some have rather weird names, like the infamous Poof Chamber, however modesty prevents me from making any comments about this!

I enjoyed this game a lot, and would recommend it to anyone who likes adventures but finds text versions rather heavy going, You need arcade fingers as well as clear thinking to be successful. As you dash through the tunnels pursued by evil monsters, this program may make you feel like Indiana Jones, which makes me wonder when someone will produce a Dragon game based on Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Temple of Doom.

Castle Of Doom (Paramount)

Another adventure that uses graphics, although not in the same way, is Castle Of Doom from Paramount Software. This is basically a text adventure that uses graphics to show a 3D view of the location, usually a corridor with doors on either side and occasional objects such as chairs, tables and windows. In this adventure, you are the "chosen one" who has the mission of finding the dreaded Count Doom and destroying him. There is less tongue-in-cheek amusement than in Richard Shepherd's Transylvanian Tower, and until you have the knack, the first stage is difficult to leave. The vampire's house consists of 27 locations, and the aim is to leave this and reach Doom Town. This has 36 locations, and is complicated by Castle Doom itself, with a further 27 rooms.

Instructions follow the usual Verb-Noun format of most adventure programs, such as TAKE GARLIC or OPEN DOOR, and there is the useful addition of command VOC, which gives you a list of sound clues, so it is important to use the command LISTEN when you think something may be heard. As usual, INVENTORY gives you a list of the things you are carrying at any particular time, SCORE tells you how you are doing, and LOOK redraws the location so you can see where you are.

In some adventure games, once you have solved the mystery, there is little point in replaying the adventure. In this game, the objects that can assist you are scattered throughout the system of locations. This gives it a certain edge over predictable adventure games, although it is lacking in surprises and much humour. If you are a serious adventure freak, then you may like this program, although I found it rather dry after other adventures.

Hunchback (Ocean) & Quazimodo (Cable)

What's wrapped in clingfilm and swings from the bells of Paris? It pains me to tell you that the answer is "The lunchpack of Notre Dame". If you have the kindness to forgive me that apology for a joke, and have had your eyes open in arcades recently, you will have noticed that for some reason, the exploits of a crippled Frenchman two centuries ago have proved fascinating to many people, Charles Laughton starred in a cult movie many years ago, and the story found its way to the arcades about a year back. Hunchback is a popular game in which you take on the role of the unfortunate bell-keeper as he swings his way far above the roof-tops of Paris attempting to rescue his doomed love, Esmeralda.

This game is brought to you by two firms this month. Ocean Software with Hunchback and Cable Software with Quazimodo. After spending several fruitless hours with each, the conclusion I've come to is that both are worthy of consideration as a reasonable version of a difficult arcade game. They both have their good points, as well as their more irritating features, and I can't honestly say that one is better than the other.

I found Hunchback closer to the arcade game and with rather more detail in the graphics, but Quazimodo is easier to play in the early stages I would have thought a voice moaning "The bells! The bells!" would have provided a good soundtrack, but Hunchback has musical touches - something like the Teddy Bears' Picnic has to be borne bravely each time you play, and a sort of soft, squelching sound emanates from the TV speaker as the hunchback lurches across the screen.

For what it's worth, this title caused me more frustration as I failed to climb over the towers of Notre Dame for the umpteenth time, but the frantic movements as I struggled to avoid the arrows in Quazimodo totally destroyed my favourite Spectravision joystick, which wasn't up to the pounding involved in the game.

The object in both programs is to overcome apparently insurmountable objects such as battlements and moats to reach Esmeralda and take her to safety. On the way, you may encounter such problems as floating islands, flaming arrows, and so on, each involving its own special means of escape. If you have extreme patience either of these games is likely to give you a lot of fun as well as a pile of broken joysticks.

Grabber (Microdeal)

A game from Microdeal that has some quite original touches is Grabber. This is a maze pursuit with a difference - there are two mazes on screen at all times, and you appear as a figure on one maze. Pressing the fire button on the joystick causes you to swap between them. The object is to grab treasures, shown on each maze, and transport them to the centre while avoiding monsters who pursue you. If they are uncomfortably close, you can beam across to the other maze and continue the game there.

Unlike Captain Kirk and Mr Spock, who always avoided beaming down in the middle of a piece of furniture, you can find yourself on top of a monster in the parallel maze which tends to prove rather lethal.

Although this is hardly more than a double version of Pacman complete with a type of power pill, it has the makings of an addictive game - it is quite easy to begin, but rapidly becomes a considerable challenge to remain alive on both screens.

Bug Diver (Mastertronic)

Mastertronic has made the headlines recently, selling inexpensive software (price £1.99 each) and Bug Diver is the first Dragon program from its £1.99 series. In this game you dive from a little boat that speeds across the top of the screen. At the bottom you have the task of collecting bugs and swimming with them to the boat, which will gain you points. Fish swimming from both sides with their mouths open try to gulp at you if you get within their range. Although the game is rather ordinary, with a few mistakes on the packaging - for example, "enter LOAD" rather than CLOAD - Mastertronic is to be commended in bringing prices down to pocket money rather than birthday present level.

Superbowl (Cable)

Cable Software, who are responsible for some of the pile of shattered joysticks outside Notre Dame cathedral, have crossed the Atlantic this month to bring us the first version of American football for the Dragon, in Superbowl, which is apparently endorsed by the newly-formed Luton team, the Flyers, you control someone called Floyd, seen from above as he hurtles up the screen. The teams involved are the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys, and the object is to steer Floyd round the opposing team as the screen scrolls downwards.

It seems quite difficult to swerve past the padded figures as they hurl you to the ground once more, and the play never seems to be reversed, but maybe things change if you can ever get near the posts at the other end of the field. This is not a game that had much appeal to me. But with Channel Four coverage, and sixty teams being formed into a league, this is bound to find some ardent fans before long.

Mission Moonbase (Phoenix)

Mission Moonbase is another twin cassette game from Phoenix Software, and follows on from Death Mines Of Sirus and The Emperor Must Die. One cassette contains the action game, where you have to control a maniac buggy across a rough surface while avoiding Slran raiders that buzz along above you. These can be removed by a double firing laser, but potholes must be leapt to stay in the game.

Occasionally you receive progress reports on the screen, and if you reach the base, you will be given the code necessary for the second, adventure part of the game. There is no way you can dive into this section without the code, but sufferers from arthritis and joystick wigglers cramp may find benefit in the fact that Phoenix supply an emergency phone number where you can obtain the code in times of desperation.

Tubeway Army (Design Design)

Gary Numan's original group of robotic musicians went by the name of Tubeway Army, but in Dragon circles, this is the name given to a game from Design Design. On loading, it appears to be yet another version of Scramble. It is, however one of the best versions, and seems to have all the features of the arcade game.

Initially, you fly your craft across a sideways scrolling landscape avoiding rockets while bombing fuel dumps. As you reach the cave system, steering becomes more critical, and you soon have to face swarms of the enemy coming towards you. If you steer past these and negotiate the wall and the final narrow tunnel, you are faced with destroying the base before starting again. There is some synthesised speech to accompany you on your journey and if you don't yet have a version of Scramble, Tubeway Army is to be recommended.

HiRes (Oron)

The final program I've looked at is a graphics design utility from Oron Software called HiRes. Although the Dragon has a good set of Basic commands, it is easier to use a program like this to produce good drawings and these can then be used in your own programs. More useful are probably those machine-code utilities that enable you to use new graphics keywords in Basic, but this sort of program is a good start. Dragon Data produced a similar program back in 1982, but joystick control was very difficult. HiRes is a lot easier to use and can produce boxes, circles, borders and repeated shapes over the screen. The price is reasonable at £3.95. If I can drag myself away from the keyboard this month, I might even join the crowds on their way to the sun. As I lie on some distant shore I shall contemplate a world without aliens, buzzards, gorillas, Cuthbert, Horace and all their electronic friends. After a few months of varied software in large quantities, it is noticeable that the supply is starting to dry up. One hopes that this is not a pattern for the future, and that users will not be starved of Dragon fodder when they return to their micros.