TERROR stalks the corridors of the spaceship Nostromo as the alien devours the crew members, inexorably, one after the other. If you thrilled to the haunting and genuinely scary movie, Alien provides an authentic recreation of the plot.
You control the crew of the Nostromo, by manipulating the characters through a series of menus. You can use a joystick to move the cursor to the various instructions. A plan of the three decks displays the current position of the character you are controlling, and reports beneath send messages concerning the status of characters or damage to the ship.
To win you must either herd the alien into an airlock and blow it into space, or destroy the Nostromo while escaping in the shuttle Narcissus.
As in the film, the characters have minds of their own and will behave accordingly, sometimes disobeying orders if they are too scared. Jones, the ship's cat, is an infallible guide to the nearness of the alien. Unfortunately, you cannot launch the shuttle without first rescuing Jones, and the cat only likes certain crew members.
Whenever doors or ventilation grilles are opened, there is a corresponding whoosh from the Spectrum, and an electronic tracker, when found, beeps if anything is moving in an adjacent room.
Although the graphics are symbolic, and the representation of the alien less than frightening, there is a tremendous tension in playing the game, and scope for extremely complex tactical decisions. When all you can hear are the sounds of the alien approaching, panic can easily set in.
Joystick: Kempston, Protek, Sinclair
Alien is in no way to be confused with Aliens, the new game from Electric Dreams. Alien first emerged from the depths of Argus Press way back in 1984. Based on the exploits of the crew of the ill-fated Nostromo spacecraft, the game, though was panned by some reviewers was generally quite well-liked.
It's now been re-released as a budget game. Obviously, Argus (pretending to be Bug-Byte) has in no way engineered the release date to coincide with movie/game promotions of Aliens, but I dare say it's possible to conceive the odd sale being picked up this way.
The game is much happier as a budget title. At full price, the product promised too much. No matter how hard you try, it's very, very difficult to promote a computer game as being genuinely scary. The harder Argus tried, the more ridiculous things got: "Warning: Do not play this in the dark."
In fact, despite some ropey abbreviations allowing words to fit on the screen (Incineratr) and some iffy graphics, it isn't too bad. You take the role of a member of the crew, Lambert, Kane, Ash, Dallas, Parker, Ripley or Brett, in a desperate bid to rescue your spaceship from the altogether beastly alien.
As the game goes on, messages will pop up on the screen, telling you that something exciting has just happened elsewhere (Ripley sees Jones the cat).
The basic idea is to track the alien through the ducts, and blow it away by whatever means are most efficient. Blowing up the ship is quite a safe bet, but everyone gets killed, and since you die you lose a few points on the competence rating.
Alien is claimed to feature a unique personality control system. What this means is, in fact, that other characters will get a bit stroppy if you leave them to defend themselves. The more upset they get, the less likely they are to agree to one of your more lame-brained ideas.
Author: Paul Clansey
Reviewer: Jim Douglas
CHRIS BOURNE TAKES A NOSTALGIC TRIP THROUGH THE BATTLE-STREWN FIELDS OF LAST YEAR'S STRATEGY GAMES
Before programmers discovered sprites, 3D graphics and continuous fire buttons, strategy games were regarded as a sort of ideal computer entertainment. That was partly based on the idea that computers were essentially souped-up calculators and partly because mainframe computers were very good at games like chess.
If you were into computers when the Spectrum was launched, you'll remember titles like Football Manager, and Flight Simulation being held up as examples of the finest programs around. These days it's more likely to be Alien 8, Shadowfire or Dun Darach, and their reputation depends in great part on graphics programming.
One of the reasons for that is financial. In their wisdom, retailers and distributors tend to see strategy games as having a narrow appeal. They are the classic sleepers which sell steadily but slowly. The trade wants the money now and lots of it. That means quick-selling arcade games, preferably with some spin-off celebrity theme attached, which hits number one in the charts in a couple of weeks and stiffs out a month later.
Many of the fine strategy/simulation games, produced in 1985, saw little exposure in the shops - certainly not in the big high street chains. That does not mean they were no good. In fact, there has been something of an upsurge in the quality of strategy games recently, and most spectacularly in the field of wargames.
Wargames have as long a tradition as any sort of computer entertainment. If you've ever read the hefty instruction books for classic wargames of the past - Avalon Hill's Afrika Korps you'll understand why. Those rules tended to read like a computer program with complicated look-up tables for cross-referencing dice throws, gridded maps and strict sequences of actions within a given turn of play. They also took hours to play.
The computer is supposed to take all the argument of table-top gaming out of wargames. It quickly does all the adding up, it doesn't cheat, and it can handle secret moves easily.
Unfortunately, most wargames never turn out like that. Graphics tend to be based on unrealistic grids, the rules appear over-simple, and the computer generally takes a vast amount of time to think about the moves.
One such game, which in other respects might have deserved success, was ATRAM. The name stands for Advanced Tactical Reconnaissance and Attack Mission, which turns out to be a NATO exercise in which the RAF and USAF battle it out using Harrier jump jets. The idea neatly sidesteps the obvious problems involved in trying to flog a game based on bombing the daylights out of Port Stanley.
The game is a computer-moderated boardgame with a glossy magnetic board and stylized pieces that you slide about as if you were a real NATO general. Unfortunately, the computer part is less fun. The only excuse for the program is to handle the boring bits like keeping track of how much fuel each jet has consumed.
The author is clearly fixated on jargon, which makes the rules almost unreadable, and all moves are keyed-in in a jumble of letters and numbers. It is so easy to make a mistake that you'll never be entirely sure whether you're playing the game properly. Headbangers and retired Harrier pilots only.
A much better two-player wargame is Confrontation from Lothlorien. Confrontation is a wargame system which allows you to design your own maps and, within reason, choose the composition of your armies. That allows you to play at a tactical or strategic level. The flavour is essentially modern, with armour and mechanised infantry supported by footsloggers, artillery and air units.
To go with the system, Lothlorien has also released a set of four scenarios ranging from a fictional WWII invasion of Kent to guerilla warfare in Afghanistan and Angola. We found the Egypt-Israel scenario most interesting in that the open terrain left units extremely vulnerable without air support. The organisation of such support requires capturing and defending a chain of airstrips in order to reach Tel Aviv or Suez depending on which way you're going.
Nevertheless, Confrontation is still slow. The same cannot be said of Overlords, another two-player game from Lothlorien. Loosely based on an old boardgame favourite, Campaign, it is played across a large area of fairly basic terrain. The concept is abstract, involving footsoldiers, generals, and the Overlord. The objective is to capture strongpoints - ownership of which generates one piece per turn. The fighting is equally abstract, based on the number and strength of the pieces in contact with the enemy.
Both players play simultaneously, and the game is so fast that you'll almost certainly need joysticks - preferably one each. The pieces whizz about the screen and that leads to a magnificent confusion as both players simultaneously attempt to outflank their opponent.
By and large, it is the epic battles of WWII which command the keenest attention from programmers. Battle for Midway is a strange hybrid from PSS, and incorporates arcade sequences. The Battle of Midway was a crucial turning point in the war against Japan, when the US sent a force to smash the invasion fleet.
The PSS game falls into two parts. First, locate the course of the three arms of the Japanese forces. Having done that you must send out strike forces from your aircraft carriers to bomb them.
When battle is joined you get the chance to zap the Japs using a joystick, which rather spoils the point of a supposedly realistic wargame. The author claims it simulates the fog of war, or some such nonsense.
We found the game easy to beat - it's good to see the computer taking an active part in a solo game for once, but the graphics are primitive and not very clear. A year ago we might have had more praise, but there are better games around.
Much better, in fact, and the star of the bunch is undoubtedly Arnhem from CCS. CCS, like Lothlorien, specialises in strategy games. For years CCS games were worthy rather than exciting, and almost always written in super-slow Basic. With Arnhem the company has finally struck gold.
The game follows the thrust of the Allied armies across the Rhine against fierce German opposition. The main idea was simple enough. The British were supposed to hurtle down country roads to Arnhem while American paratroopers were dropped on the bridges ahead to hold them for the main advance.
Of course it wasn't as simple as that, and neither is the game. There are a number of levels at which you can play, until you get to the full battle. A time limit is set, and if you don't capture the bridges quickly enough you lose. The German task is therefore to hold up the advance.
The graphics are pleasant, and information about each unit's strength can be obtained by positioning the cursor. One of the best features is the movement system. You can choose to move in open or close order - open order means you are far less vulnerable to attack but cannot take proper advantage of the roads. The game can be played by up to three players - with three, one player gets the Germans and the other two play British and American forces.
The feel of the game is tremendously realistic, with the onus placed on keeping the British moving down the roads. Arnhem is absolutely recommended and will hopefully encourage other software houses to pull their socks up and match the standard.
Less attractive, but equally fast, is Lothlorien's The Bulge - the German counter-attack on Antwerp and Hitler's last great offensive in Western Europe. It was always doomed to failure, what with narrow country lanes and terrain choked in snow. The computer plays so quickly and viciously that you'll be hard put to survive.
Although The Bulge scores over Arnhem for speed, the graphics are less clear and the strategy less easy to fathom. Lothlorien has opted for simultaneous movement, and one is frequently reduced to hurling forces willy-nilly into the fray without much regard for tactics.
A pleasing feature of both Arnhem and The Bulge is that you can issue general orders to units which they will continue to obey until you change them. That is a sensible and much more realistic alternative and saves having to move fifty pieces every turn, slowing the whole flow of play.
Moving away from wargames, another category of great antiquity in computer circles is what is known as the land-management game. An early example of the genre was Hamurabi which puts you in charge of an ancient kingdom. You are head of a population, and there is corn in the treasury.
The idea is to manage the economy - based entirely on corn - so that everybody gets enough to eat. There is enough corn to sow for next year with some in reserve in case of natural disaster.
Of course, the way the game is set up at the beginning, there is never enough, so you get to make decisions about how many people to starve to death for the greater good of the rest, and so on.
Such games are very easy to construct on computers, and if you want to write your own strategy game we suggest you try something along those lines. The secret is to construct a set of formulae governing the relationship between various factors - for example, how much food do people need? How many people are needed to sow an acre of land? How much corn?
There are very few business-type activities that cannot be simulated in that sort of way. Two famous games of this type are Football Manager from Addictive Games and Mugsy from Melbourne House, in which you play a gangster trying to run rackets with the aid of a none too loyal gang.
Sadly, Kevin Toms - Mr Football Manager himself - has not managed to follow that enormous success.
Addictive has brought out a number of games along similar lines in 1985, but none of them match the old classic.
Software Superstar casts you as a producer of games. You have to allocate time and money each month to releasing games, programming, advertising and the like. Nice touches include the decision to hype games or be honest about them, but the overall impression is dull, and we found it easy to get a hit program and reach the targets set.
Grand Prix Manager from the same outfit was equally tedious, with poor graphics to boot. Luckily CRL brought out the infinitely more entertaining Formula One - a Sinclair User classic - which we found totally compulsive.
Formula One is a full simulation of a grand prix season. Start off by hiring drivers and building cars - you have a million quid or so but it goes very fast. When the race starts choose your tyres and then watch the cars whizz past in convincing graphics. Messages inform you of the state of the track and incidents involving other cars, while a leader board keeps you in touch with the race positions.
Best of all, you can call pit stops for tyre changes, and the correct choice of timing may win or lose a race. The pit stop sequence is arcade based, and you have to manoeuvre a mechanic around the four wheels to complete it. Purists may have their doubts, but the speed of movement is linked to the amount of money you invested in the crew, and does not therefore make a mockery of the strategic element.
Formula One is a good game against the computer, but becomes really exciting when played with friends.
Almost as enthralling, although less well presented and rather more anarchic in play is The Biz, a simulation of the record industry from Virgin Games. You begin by choosing your social class - from stinking rich to unemployed - and then form a band. Hire a manager, go on the pub or college circuit and send endless demo tapes to bored record companies. If you have the money, you can cut your own discs, but beware - without the clout of the big boys behind you it may all go to nothing. The ultimate goal is, of course, to get a number one, but the road is full of pitfalls.
The game is full of subtle humour - you may reckon a dry ice machine is just right for your tacky rock band, but watch your credibility plummet. You may even get a chance to sample drugs during the game. Try it and see where it gets you.
On then to simulation proper, by which is meant those worthy and sometimes addictive attempts to portray accurately a real-life experience. The original impetus comes from the flight simulators used by airlines to train pilots, and for some time software houses only seemed to be interested in mimicking those.
They all look more or less the same, with an array of instruments on the lower half of the screen and a view of the horizon with occasional crude landmarks. Some are better than others for speed and ease of use, and the best are still Psion's antique classic, Flight Simulation and Digital integration's Fighter Pilot, which is rather more difficult but does allow for aerial dogfights.
DACC specialises in those features, and recently brought out 747 Flight Simulator. We've taken a bit of stick at Sinclair User for giving it the thumbs down, but I still maintain it's an unexciting production, mainly because the Jumbo jet isn't a patch on a light aircraft for aerobatics.
Real enthusiasts will probably enjoy it, it is certainly a worthy and apparently highly accurate program. If you're looking for entertainment, though, try elsewhere.
You might try looking at Southern Belle from Hewson Consultants. The program simulates the old Pullman service from London to Brighton, and you have to handle the great steam engine all the way.
Initial levels involve handling only one or two controls while the computer does the rest, but you work up to a full schedule with stops, signals, hazards on the track, brakes and handling gradients, to name a few.
It is a surprisingly fulfilling program, and the wire-frame graphics of recognisable landmarks along the track are well executed. You are marked at the end according to your accuracy on the schedule and how economically you conserved fuel.
Another unusual simulation is Juggernaut from CRL, in which you have to drive a container truck around town picking up cargoes. The screen shows an overhead view of the lorry and road, with traffic lights, status, steering and gears. The movement is slow and there are no other vehicles around - presumably you're driving in the middle of the night, council bye-laws notwithstanding. The irrepressible John Gilbert reckons the lorry looks like a Gillette GII razor. He's quite right, and although Juggernaut isn't a bad idea, the end result is rather dull.
Finally, a look at a few odds and ends which don't really fit any categories. One such Minder, a much-hyped trading game based on the famous television series.
You play Arthur Daley, the dodgy entrepreneur, and the idea is to buy and sell an incredible range of weird goods such as gold acupuncture needles while steering clear of the law in the form of mean inspector Chisholm.
You do that by seeking out dealers and wide boys, either at their warehouses or in the Winchester Club. Terry, as ever, gets to do the fetching and carrying, and can also be hired to mind you - an important function when dealers discover goods are stolen.
In essence the game is simply trading, with a large text interpreter enabling you to bargain with characters in authentic Daley cockney - it understands words like bent, or pony. Once you get into it there's rather more strategy involved. You have to organise Terry's time so goods get collected and delivered on schedule, while you need sufficient cash to pay for the next lot.
Minder is a pleasant romp and deserved to do better in the charts than it did, but would have benefited from a greater variety of incidents. Memory taken up with slang during the bargaining is fun at first but since it is really only window dressing it leaves you with the feeling that the game lacks depth.
Alien on the other hand, from Argus, has plenty of depth but is difficult to get into. It follows the tense cult movie in which a devastating alien invades a spaceship and proceeds to exterminate the crew.
The game uses menus to pick characters, objects and locations in the spaceship Nostromo, while plans of the decks indicate your position. The idea is to destroy the alien either in a straight fight - fat chance - or by escaping from the ship and blowing it up by remote control.
You only see the alien when you are in control of a character in the same room. The rest of the time you can hear it as doors and ventilation grilles slide open, or your scanner picks up the presence of a living creature nearby. That makes for tremendous tension in the play, and the one drawback is the simplicity of the graphics which works against the otherwise strong illusion of involvement. Fans of the film will enjoy it. Others may find it tough going.
We have made no mention of some of the plethora of spin-off titles in the sports arena which might come under the umbrella of simulations. Those are generally disappointing, especially in comparison with the arcade based sports games. Two, which play quite well, are Steve Davis' Snooker and American Football from Argus - which has the added virtue of not involving a famous personality. Nick Faldo's Open is a lovingly programmed simulation of the course at Sandwhich which suffers from one horrible flaw. The closer your ball is to the flag on the green, the more difficult it is to judge the angle at which you should strike it. In fact, the reverse should happen.
It is heartening to see arcade games taking on more elements of strategy in their play. Arcade-adventures such as Knight Lore or Gyron - if you can categorise those masterpieces at all - have as much to do with logical thought and planning as they do with swift reactions. That argues a growing maturity, both among games publishers and also in public taste, as computer owners look for more than a quick joystick fix from their hobby.
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