INTERFACE GAMES ARE FAST BUT NOT FURIOUS
John Gilbert reviews the ROM cartridge software currently available.
The Sinclair Research Interface Two has had few kind words said about it and that it is not surprising. The add-on is supposed to give the Spectrum the ROM potential of the Atari games consoles and computers into which you can plug ROM cartridges which will load games into the machine directly on power-up. It should have been the ideal add-on for users who want a quick-load device and no messing with tape recorders or even Microdrives.
The main difficulties with the idea are that the software available consists of reproductions of arcade games which are already on the market and that many software companies have been deterred from producing software for the interface because of the conditions attached to ordering.
At the moment companies have to order batches of 1,000 cartridges in a sector of the market which is not fully-established. It is a risky business even for a company as established as Melbourne House or Psion. The situation could develop so that Sinclair is the only company producing the ROM cartridges. It certainly has the monopoly now.
The first ROM packages, together with their colourfully-styled display boxes, to arrive on the market were titles which already existed on the cassette format in the Sinclair software library. They included Planetoids, Backgammon and Space Raiders which are all from Psion.
The packages, one of which appeared originally on the ZX-81, are not particularly innovative or awe-inspiring and they are certainly not the kind of titles which would be expected to be produced when bunching a new peripheral for a prime-selling microcomputer. It is as if Sinclair could not wait to get Interface Two out of the way and so complete its obligations for peripherals for the Spectrum. One reason may well have been that the new QL machine was occupying its thoughts.
Backgammon featured as the only mind game in the first release, the others being held back because the Psion games were the quickest to produce. It is a pity that Backgammon was first instead of the chess package, which was left until later - chess has a far greater appeal to the majority of home computer users. Fortunately there was a gap of only two months before Chess was released and it has proved to be one of the better software packages in the launch.
Space Raiders is a painfully slow version of Space Invaders and could just as well be bought on cassette more cheaply. There are three spaceships with which you can fire at the aliens which amble across the screen.
Once you have finished one screen of the game, and that is not difficult, you will progress to the next level which is just as difficult or easy as the first. That makes the game a push-over and there is little challenge to tax even the newcomer to the arcade game scene.
Like most of the games in the range the price of the program on cassette is only £5 but the ROM version costs almost £10. Considering that the software does not show off either the graphics, colour or sound of the Spectrum to best effect it does not seem advantageous to buy the ROM version.
Planetoids is another arcade game with a familiar theme. Your spaceship first appears stationed at the centre of the screen and asteroids start to close in on it. You must try to destroy them and avoid the ones you miss. Alien spaceships make your task even more impossible.
The standard of the game is reasonable for the market, even though it was first produced in late 1982. The graphics are better than the original Atari version of Asteroids. The ship and the planetoids have been given a solid, almost three dimensional quality.
The program has a wrapround screen which allows your spaceship to go off one side and return on the other. That causes a strange effect when your ship fires across the screen, as the missiles will disappear off one edge and reappear somewhere else. The rogue missiles could even cause you to have some nasty accidents shooting at yourself.
Those packages comprised the ROMs available at the launch of Interface Two and there was a considerable wait until the other ROMs were launched in December.
The new packages include some old favourites from Melbourne House, already in the Sinclair software library, and some releases introduced by Ultimate Play the Game.
The Melbourne house offerings feature the clown of the software scene. The newest Horace adventure is not on ROM but it is pleasant to see Hungry Horace having a re-birth and Horace and the Spiders on ROM.
For those who know nothing of the Horace myth he is a little round, Pacman-type creature who has the habit of annoying everyone he meets.
Each of the games has a cute plot and Hungry Horace sees the round man taking the part of a Pac-man. He is, however, no ordinary powerpill eater. He has to eat the flowers in the park and avoid the keepers who will throw him out if he is discovered. If you go through one maze into another there will be more surprises and if you are adept enough you may start to think that there is no limit to the number of mazes in the game.
Horace and the Spiders is slightly different Horace has to dodge the spiders to gain points before he can reach the main part of the game which takes place in a cobwebbed house. You must destroy the spiders and their webs if you are to win the game.
The Horace adventures are a pleasure to play and it is good to see them in a format where they can be loaded immediately you feel like a quick game.
The range of Ultimate games is also worth having on cartridge, although they could be bought more cheaply on cassette from that company.
In chronological order, Jet Pac was the first game Ultimate produced for the Spectrum. In it you play a spaceman whose task is to deliver and assemble spaceship kits and to collect valuable treasures on the way. You will be faced with all kinds of odd creatures which you must avoid and destroy to complete your task.
The other games from Ultimate are Pssst, which involves a robot keeping away the bugs from a sunflower, and Cookie, which involves a chef bouncing ingredients for a cake, avoiding the nasties in the larder and keeping clear of the bins. Both games are arcade standard in quality and benefit from the ROM treatment.
The only mind game in the second release of ROM software is Chess. It is the original cassette version which has existed since the title was launched, with no changes. That is surprising since Mikro Gen, the original manufacturer of the game, has produced an upgraded version.
The game is standard so far as computer chess goes with options for playing or setting-up the board to play in particular situations. There are 10 levels and the highest, nine, takes several minutes to make a move. Each move for both you and your opponent is monitored in seconds, minutes and hours on a chess clock above the board on the screen.
The future of the ROM interface is still uncertain and many software houses are unsure what they will do in the way of supporting it. It seems unlikely that any large-scale production of programs on Sinclair standard ROMs is planned in the software industry and Sinclair could be in the unenviable position of having a monopoly of ROM software.
Sinclair Research hopes to produce some language and utility packages for Interface Two but the company still has no idea which language or utilities will be available, or when. It is likely that a ROM version of Micro-Prolog will be available soon but no firm date is being given even for that step forward.
The indications are that it will be the last interface for the Spectrum. The buffer at the back of the board will support only a ZX printer and Sinclair has given no intention of producing more peripherals for its home market machine. It would therefore seem logical to support the interfaces it already has as far as it can and to promote the use of those devices as much as possible. As far as Interface Two is concerned it has crept on to the market with more of a whisper than the bang which was expected.
A game whose claim to fame is the cartoon-style character Horace who has to eat the plants in a park maze and escape before the attendants catch him. It was the first game in which the character was more important than the plot. The graphics were, and still are, outstanding with the predominant use of sprites for character images, a technique which had not been used before.
The game is a logical progression from the arcade Pacman; the latter had no software equivalent on the Spectrum because Atari was not interested in the small machine.
SINCLAIR RESEARCH OPENS ITS SPECTRUM SOFTWARE LIBRARY
John Gilbert assesses the new major range of cassettes and finds they do not compare to the machine's qualities.
When the Spectrum was launched, Sinclair stressed that a software library containing business, household and games cassettes would be released soon.
The first batch of tapes was launched at the Personal Computer World Show in September. The launch was billed as one of the great attractions of the show. Spectrum owners were looking forward to putting their machines to good use. Unfortunately, unlike the Spectrum computer, the new tapes are disappointing.
The Spectrum library, with a few exceptions, seems to be a repeat of the ZX-81 range of tapes launched in early 1982. The new software library comprises several sections which include the Fun to Learn series, Pastimes and Games. There are also several cassettes, such as Bio-rhythms and Vu-calc, which stand alone.
There is a set of five games cassettes. Each contains four 16K games which have been written for Sinclair by ICL.
The games are very simple and it is easy to lose interest in them in a very short time. Several of them, such as Martian Knockout, Invasion from Jupiter, and Galactic invasion, are all based on the same principle - guessing the velocity at which you have to fire a laser cannon at a group of marauding aliens.
The game consists of entering the guessed velocity and pressing NEW LINE. That becomes incredibly tedious after the first 10 minutes' play. The rest of the games are either of the Invader, Mastermind or maze types.
Daylight Robbery is not only the phrase which might be used to describe some of the new software but is also on the Games Three Cassette, although it has slightly more depth to it than some of the others. The player moves around a maze full of safes. For every safe which can be cracked the player will have the amount of money in it added to the total score.
The only danger encountered with entering the safes is that the player must dodge the guards in the maze. The game is enjoyable for a short time but it plays rather like Pacman and is much less addictive.
Of the five games tapes in the series so far, Games One seems to be the best value. It contains one of the few games which will last longer than five minutes. Labyrinth is an adventure maze game in which the player must fight monsters to find hidden gold in the maze.
Each of the games cassettes costs £4.95, which is somewhat expensive for what they contain. It would have been better to have sacrificed quantity for quality on this occasion. The illustrations on the insert cards are of good quality but people expect better games for the price.
Two of the cassettes in the library mysteriously are labelled Pastimes but would have been better-placed in the Games series. They include a Mastermind game called Secret Code; a memory game Kim; and a puzzle, Magic Square.
Magic Square is interesting for a time but soon it becomes just another trivial observation game. The computer displays a square filled with rows of letters of the alphabet in a jumbled sequence. One space in the square is empty. Letters can be shifted around using the blank to place the alphabet in the correct sequence.
Kim also displays a square but with numbers in it. The numbers disappear one at a time in a random sequence and the player must guess which letter has disappeared each time. Again, the game is interesting but becomes dull and repetitive after a time.
The games on the two cassettes do not warrant the title of Pastimes as they are too repetitive and because of the lack of depth the player may soon begin to feel disappointed. Pastimes cost £4.95 each.
The Fun to Learn cassettes provide the user with a series of question-and-answer races on various subjects. With only one exception the graphics capabilities and sound facilities of the Spectrum are not used to full advantage. Neither is there a real reward at the end of the tests to induce the user to try again.
The cassette which redeems the whole Fun to Learn series is Geography. The computer displays maps labelled with numbers and the user has to guess which numbers correspond to towns and countries displayed below the map.
The idea behind the cassette is good and the map display is reasonably detailed. The cassettes in the Fun to Learn series are £6.95 each.
The Bio-rhythms cassette from ICL is also very good value. The program will plot bio-rhythms and also calculate the critical days for the intellectual, physical and emotional cycles. The graphics are fairly good but the display is confusing when all the cycles are plotted on one graph.
The best cassettes in the range have been produced by Psion. They include Vu-calc, Space Raiders, Planetoids and Hungry Horace, a new Pacman-type game.
Space Raiders is an addictive space invaders game. The only thing wrong with it is that it is too easy to achieve a high score. Scores of 10,000 have been reached in less than 10 minutes.
Planetoids is an above-average asteroids game which is very difficult to beat for any length of time. The asteroids are displayed in 3D and the players'ship is easy to move around the screen. The game is more difficult to beat, faster, and much more fun than Space Raiders.
Hungry Horace is an ideal game for young children. It uses the Pacman mould but is a great improvement on the popular arcade game. Horace is a large purple blob with arms and legs. He wanders up and down the maze-like park eating everything in his path and avoiding the guards who try to capture him. He can scare away the guards by ringing-the alarm in the maze. If he can reach the exit he enters another sector of the maze and continues to the next exit.
The game is difficult but after a time a degree of skill can be developed in evading the guards. The mazes become more difficult as the game proceeds and we managed to reach only the third section of the maze. Hungry Horace costs £5.95 and is well worth the money.
The cassettes in the new Sinclair range can be split into programs which can be played and enjoyed again and again and those with which the user will easily become bored. There are no really outstanding cassettes in the range so far, although Planetoids, Bio-rhythms, Space Raiders and Hungry Horace can be recommended.
These games have the depth in them to be played for months, while the others may leave the Spectrum owner disappointed. All the cassettes mentioned use 16K memory. Further details about the range can be obtained from Sinclair Research, Camberley, Surrey GI15 3BR.
LEADING THE PAC
New and varied life-forms now inhabit the Pacman maze. John Gilbert investigates.
Pacman is part of what the video historians like to call the arcade maze craze. The game is set in a maze where a hungry little round creature eats dots and power pills scattered through the corridors. The monsters are ghosts which hunt the little man and will eat him if he is not agile enough to escape.
If, however, the Pacman eats a power pill it can chase and eat the ghosts. The original game was introduced to the home computer market by Atari, primarily on its VCS video system and then on the 400 and 800 computers.
The first versions for other computers, variously called Puckman, Gobbleman and Scoffer, arrived shortly afterwards and since then new versions have been released almost every month.
Not surprisingly, the ZX-81 did not escape the craze. The authors of Zuckman, from DJL Software, claimed that it as the first version of Pacman for the ZX-81. The game runs in 16K and is written in machine code, which gives the scrolling routines and Pacman a smooth movement. That is something unusual on the ZX-81, as most games flicker slightly.
The game adheres as closely as possible to the original and the limited graphics of the ZX-81 do not matter much. One snag with playing the game on the ZX-81 is the membrane keyboard. Moving a Pacman round the screen using it can be difficult but not impossible.
At the beginning of Zuckman the ghosts speed on their victim and if you panic trying to find the keys and do n0t press them properly you are liable to lose a Pacman or crash the machine. Once you have a fair idea of the game, however, it is surprising how quickly you can move the Pacman around.
Zuckman is available for £5.95 on the 16K ZX-81 and Spectrum. Super Glooper is a version of Pacman, also for the 16K ZX-81, which is retailed by Sinclair Research. Glooper's task is slightly different from normal. Instead of gorging himself with power pills he has to paint the maze. Obviously the ghosts will not tolerate Glooper's antics - perhaps they do not like the smell of paint. The ghosts will try to kill Glooper as usual but if he can get round the maze and paint all the walls you have won.
The game is very amusing and is well worth £4.95. The program will load in less than two minutes, so you will not have to wait six minutes to play the game.
The launch of the Spectrum provided software houses with an excuse to try to produce the perfect Pacman which simulated the Atari version as closely as possible but Atari guards its rights over products jealously and investigated the products of several firms in the ZX industry.
The Abbex Spookyman game is the most famous of the Spectrum versions. It also looks most like the original. Most games, until then, included only dots and power pills in the mazes. Abbex included dots, power blobs, diamonds, hearts, clubs, mean-looking ghosts and a cute little Pacman which looks like a diamond turned on its side.
The keyboard is divided into three sections with left control on the left, right on the right, and up and down in the centre. The controls are very difficult to master but, once you have done so, usually with the aid of both hands, you will be surprised at the agility you can attain.
At times the game is almost impossibly fast but Abbex estimates that the highest score possible after every screen has been cleared is 22,400. If you manage to reach 10,000 points you will receive a bonus life. We managed to go that far only once.
Spookyman can be played by one or two players. If two play they take turns to control the Pacman. Their individual scores and the highest score are included at the top of the screen.
There are two unusual features in Spookyman. The first is that you can reset the high score at any time between games; the second is that you can use a joystick. The game is compatible with the Kempston joystick and once you have seen it in action it is almost a necessity. Spookyman is available from Abbex and costs £4.95.
Gulpman is another variation on the Pacman theme. The round Pacman is replaced by a little man running round the maze and the ghosts become frowning faces which smile only when they have caught Gulpman.
The game is very complex and you can switch to any of 15 mazes in which to play. It is also possible to change the tempo. At tempo one the speed is bearable but at tempo 10 life is not worth living.
The little man can fight back slightly more easily than in other games as he approaches with a fully-loaded laser gun. If the ghosts get too close you can blast them away but only until your energy runs out. It seems as if the space age is over-running everything. Gulpman is available from Campbell Systems and costs £5.95.
Hungry Horace, from Sinclair Research, has developed a reputation as a fun game; in fact Horace is almost a legend. The game is a great improvement on the original and remained at the top of the software top ten for some time.
Horace is a large purple blob which has sprouted arms and legs. He wanders round the maze which looks like a park, eating everything in his path and trying to avoid the guards who act like ghosts and try to capture him. He can scare away the guards by using the alarm bell situated somewhere in the maze.
If Horace reaches the exit of one of the mazes he can enter the next maze and continue to the next exit. The mazes become more difficult as Horace proceeds further in his adventure and we managed to reach only the third maze. With a large amount of skill, however, it should be possible to go further.
Hungry Horace, for the 16K Spectrum, is available from Sinclair Research and costs £5.95.
Although the arcade industry in the States, and now in Britain, is declining it is good to see that games concepts like Pacman are being transferred to micros.
Some of the Sinclair versions of Pacman seem as good as, if not better than, the original Atari version. Games such as Hungry Horace are setting-up an interesting mutation in the Pacman concept. They also seem more interesting than the original version because they have added to the idea of Pacman. So far as the consumer is concerned it is to be hoped that concepts such as Pacman will not be destroyed within the industry.
DJL Software, 9 Tweed Close, Swindon, Wilts, SN2 3PU.
Sinclair Research, Stanhope Road, Camberley, Surrey, GU15 3PS.
Abbex Electronics Ltd. 20 Ashley Court, Great North Way, London, NW5.
Campbell Systems, (Dept. SU), 15 Rous Road, Buckhurst Hill, Essex, IG9 6BL.
All information in this page is provided by ZXSR instead of ZXDB