The full name of this game is Starman Jones in the Caverns Of Chaos in an attempt, methinks, to somewhat tenuously grip the shirt-tails of the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom franchise. And this is certainly a curiosity item for the little Dragon 32, a monochrome platform game so like Manic Miner that you'd be forgiven for believing the same code must be powering the two of them. You control a monochrome man who can walk left and right and jump, and who has to avoid various nasties in a search for five keys on each screen. Collecting the final key opens a door at the top right of the 'cavern' and allows you to progress to the next one.
So far, so drole I suppose you're thinking. The opening screen of Caverns Of Chaos also gets off to an unimpressive start by describing itself "In the begining"! However, once you grasp the joystick and begin playing, the rather fiendish nature of the cavern designs quickly wins you over. Cosmonaut Jones is a nimble so-and-so, and deft flicking left, right and up will see the vast majority of the baddies successfully avoided. Well, for the first few caverns anyway. As you may be able to glean from the screenshots, and in something of a departure from the usual Manic Miner/Jet Set Willy fare, as progress continues the baddies get not only faster and more intimidating, but physically bigger. For example, don't tell me that a shiver of fear does not creep up your spine on reaching screens such as 'Beware of the Killer Gorilla' - where your spacesuited hero comes face to face with a lumbering ape 150% bigger than he is!
Now, those familiar with Miner Willy's exploits should really be salivating by this point, especially if you've never before heard of Caverns Of Chaos. Because although there is no getting away from the fact that Caverns Of Chaos is a Manic Miner clone, it's not a clone in the sense that, say, the zillion million versions of Pacman are clones. The twenty caverns which Jones must traverse are imaginatively themed, the sprites are wonderfully animated and the lives and difficulty level set at just the right level to allow the player to make slow but steady progress. The ultimate aim of the game, although this is not actually explained in the inlay notes, is to complete the last cavern, board your spaceship and exit the planet entirely and I can (probably exclusively) reveal that Caverns Of Chaos also has a rather spectacular endgame sequence that you will see if you get there. Well, spectacular for an 8 bit game, anyway. (Remember, this was an era where many hours of patience were often rewarded with the message 'Well done!' and a flashing cursor!)
What is particularly nice about Caverns Of Chaos is that real care seems to have been taken with the placing of platforms and conveyors. Whilst sprites change (seemingly compulsorily) from one screen to the next, certain key elements remain constant. Walls and the conveyors always look the same - meaning you never land on a platform only to find it is fatal to the touch! - whilst the authors let their imaginations run riot with practically every other inclusion. I counted over forty different baddie sprites in total - including mutant periscopes, black holes, creepy crawlies, evil ice creams, dancing Chinamen, pacing toy soldiers, gliding angels, ghosts, clocks, egg-timers, scissors and, on one memorable cavern, possessed Z80 and 6809 ROM chips. Oh, and fans of the film Alien won't be disappointed either - the famous Alien makes an appearance too. Clever, that, because this is set in Space, innit?
Collecting the keys must usually be done by following a set route across the screen, and learning that route by trial and error so that you can complete the cavern quickly and relatively effortlessly is the mini-objective. However, I did find that it sometimes only seemed possible to get a particular key by sacrificing one of the (generous) nine lives awarded; forced to jump into a patrolling baddy in a sort of 'suicide-charge'. A nice touch is that, when you are killed before completing a cavern, the keys you have collected remain in your possession; they don't have to be collected a second time.
That said, the difficulty level is high by modern gaming standards. Screens such as "The Terrible Toy Box" border on the impossible, even if you have retained all of your lives before reaching them. Loss of your final life means a quick return to the title screen - and you then have to begin again from cavern one. I suspect this will be very frustrating to many. Help is at hand by means of the in-game cheat however, which is operated by typing the following word on the title screen: PIGLET. Note that you have to hold down each key for about a second to make sure it registers. After which, start any game as normal then simply press E to advance to the next cavern. Using this cheat allows you to practise any screen and, for some of you, will probably mean you play the game a lot longer than you otherwise would. Nice as the early caverns are, being forced to complete them over and over again just to see what the game will throw at you if you manage to make it to the later levels isn't wonderfully appealling.
Something I also personally find appealling about Caverns Of Chaos, although I'll be the first to admit that this might simply be a "me thing" is this: If you know the Dragon 32 machine architecture then you'll be aware that there are no lower case characters and the only way to produce them is to define 8x8 CHR$ definitions in one of the graphics modes. As a reader who has seen the BBC Micro/Electron character sets a million times over, it was interesting to see that the authors have quite blatantly copied them over to the Dragon for this game in their entirety - even using them on the title screens! Caverns Of Chaos looks and plays like a BBC game rather than a Dragon one!
In keeping to the Miner Willy theme to a T, Caverns Of Chaos has no colour, no sound effects other than a spattering of notes when your spaceman jumps and a bouncy (and quite cool-sounding) music in two channels on its title screen.
For all I know, the game's authors, P. T. Thomas & B. M. Burrows, were big stars in the world of Dragon 32 programming. If they were not, however, then they deserved to be. Caverns Of Chaos is not only a brilliant Dragon 32 game, it's a brilliant 8-bit game. Period. Play it.