Monday, 21 November 2016

Pop*Star Pilot: A Review

Pop*Star Pilot is an old-fashioned sideways scrolling shoot-em-up for the TRS-80 Color Computer 3 recently released by accomplished 8-bit game author Nickolas Marentes. Nick's development blog for the game can be found here.

To give you some perspective on where I'm coming from, I've been a huge fan of shoot-em-ups since the days of Space Invaders and Galaxian. My love of the genre stops short, however, of the so-called "bullet hells" that have been churned out endlessly in more recent years. For me, a shooter is more about positioning, precision and forethought rather than mindlessly dodging a raining curtain of sprites whilst simply holding down the fire button for the entire game. For me, perfection of the genre was Xevious, a game solely responsible for my lackluster uni results.

I've always been a fan of Nickolas Marentes' games, ever since I first encountered Donut Dilemma on the TRS-80 Model I. Particularly on the Model I, game authors had to focus on game play above all else, and Nick was no exception; his games were up there with the best the platform had to offer. Nick went on to develop for the TRS-80 Color Computer, and its obvious that the machine struck a chord with him because he's just released a new game - the subject of this review - for it recently!

Needless to say, when Nick announced the impending release of Pop*Star Pilot, and after reading the development blogs and seeing the screen shots, I knew two things; I was going to buy a copy of this game, and I was only going to play it on real hardware to get a 100% authentic experience (OK, I admit I was never going to use those awful Coco joysticks, and opted instead for a StarCursor digital stick and the Sega Gamepad Adapter, something Nick himself recommends for the game!)

I won't go into the back story - for those interested and/or want some eye candy, see here - but suffice it to say that you're piloting a prop left-to-right through a scrolling landscape armed with just a gun of sorts and your reflexes, popping balloons - as you do. Good retro arcade games don't need a back story; just instructions on how to start the game and 2 minutes play time to figure out the rest!

The graphics are what you'd expect from an 8-bit arcade game, and this game showcases Nick's talents as an 8-bit artist. Very polished, right from the animated title screen, with just the right amount of 'busy' on the screen so as not to distract you from the task at hand. Great use of colours - it's a very pretty game - and it would be easy to believe that it was produced by a team in one of the more established software houses on the 8-bit consoles back in the day.

Of course graphics are secondary to game play, and I'm happy to say that Nick has delivered in this department too! Smooth scrolling and precise 8-way movement; you never feel that the mechanics of the game have let you down. A nicely crafted difficulty level rewards persistence, without creating frustration at impossibly difficult points of the game. There are, naturally, a few points in the game that you will die at the first time, and you need to work out a strategy for moving past them, but that's a pretty essential element in this genre and it doesn't take long to progress through them. After that, it comes down to your planning and your reflexes.

A good game tempts your greed with increased risk, and Pop*Star Pilot includes this element too, rewarding sequences of hits that sometimes requires forgoing other shots and dodging, and maneuvering into dangerous positions for that big score.

What I want from a game is a firm belief that I can beat it, but one that doesn't quite let me do it, at least not without a reasonable investment of my time. Getting that balance just right avoids a game that is either too easy, or so difficult that you'll never see Stage 3. It's still a little early to tell with Pop*Star Pilot exactly where it lies for me, but I will say it's definitely not the latter. I suspect I will get my money's worth from it before I conquer it!

UPDATE: After another hour or so playing it tonight, I finally made it into Zone 5 with sufficient tokens to unlock it. Zone 5 takes the difficulty up a notch, and I lost (IIRC) 4 lives in reasonably short succession. I feel I'm really getting the hang of the earlier stages now, and looking forward to tackling the last zone again next session!

I couldn't honestly say, however, that the sound is this game is more than simply adequate. There's no title tune or in-game music, and what sounds there are, are rather basic. I can fully appreciate the reasoning behind this, and suspect that Nick's priority was maximising the length of the game. Whilst I truly appreciate sound in games, and agree some sound is definitely required, I've never really been as hung-up on them as some, and I can't say that the basic sound in Pop*Star Pilot diminishes my enjoyment to any significant degree.

Now to the warts. There is one bug in the game that I have encountered on two occasions, having played a few dozen games; I actually lost 2 lives at once on Stage 2. Nick has admitted that he had seen this bug during development, but had believed that it had disappeared. It's a trifle annoying, particularly if you're heading to a new high score, but thus far the frequency hasn't soured my experience and I wouldn't choose not to recommend this game because of it.

I was surprised by the lack of explosion graphic when your plane is destroyed. Rather than being vaporised in a ball of exploding fuel, your plane simply flashes as it scrolls off the screen. This seems out of place given the polish on the rest of the game. Not sure if it's a by-product of the non-violent nature of the game, or another technical trade-off?

My last niggle is the lackluster Game Over screen and the lack of (multiple) high score tracking and/or initials entry. You could argue that a list of high scores and initials is largely irrelevant on a home computer system, but together with the simplistic game ending it does contrast with the rest of the game. Perhaps it wouldn't be as noticeable (or even expected) on a lesser title?

I do have one suggestion on the game play for Nick - after reading the instructions I was under the impression that the bonus for popping sequences of white balloons would continue until the sequence was broken. In my opinion that would have been the way to go, tempting greed for higher and higher rewards and correspondingly more risk. As it is, after my last round of plays tonight, I'm still undecided whether chasing the bonus actually results in a higher score, particularly when you frequently forego more points than the bonus is worth. Or maybe that was Nick's intention all along?

UPDATE: If the gods are smiling on you, and you get a good run of white balloons, it's defintely worth the effort. However it's equally possible that they will prove quite rare on occasion, and you could be putting yourself at risk, and dodging valuable points chasing an elusive bonus.

Enough negative, I don't want to leave readers with the impression that this game isn't worth every penny. I would caution anyone from the generations after me though, this is a simple game, but for those that grew up in the 8-bit era, this is exactly what we want from this type of game. No bullet-hells, no screens full of power-ups, no dying and losing all your weapons so that your game is effectively over after your first ship. Progression that rewards practice and forethought, a sprinkling of surprises and a few choices to make, this is a quality 8-bit shoot-em-up on a classic platform in 2016 that would have been a hit back-in-the-day!

If you haven't done so, order a copy from Nick, so that he may be encouraged to write another game!

Thursday, 3 November 2016

The Making Of Kong

Tonight I found myself with snippets of free time between tasks; not so much conducive to extended concentrated effort - such as development - but I did want to at least advance one of the languishing projects...

With all the excitement of the impending commercial release of the Neo Geo flash cartridge (no, not mine unfortunately), I decided to dust off the Neo Kong project and bring it up-to-date with my latest tools and 'best practices' that I've honed during development of Lode Runner and Knight Lore on the Neo Geo.

Specifically, I merged it into the Retro Ports SVN repository and updated the makefile to make it more... well, nice. I won't bore anyone with the details, but the build environment is a little easier to set up and maintain now. I'm not completely happy with the makefile yet, but at least both cartridge and CD targets build and run under MAME now, and there's no need to use another emulator.

The last time I touched the code was 3rd Feb 2013 - fast approaching 4 years ago!!! I was surprised to discover that I am actually assembling with the NEODEV kit assembler; I have been under the misapprehension in more recent times that I was using AS68K.. bit rot in my memory banks! That being so, I'm considering attempting to port it across to AS68K since I'm not linking against any NEODEV libraries.

All that said, I still have Lode Runner, Knight Lore and Space Invaders for the Coco3 to finish too!