THE PLOT THICKENS
The frantic zap of arcade software has given way to calmer play and straegic thinking. John Gilbert investigates.
THE 'ZAP EM' type of arcade game, although still around, has undergone a transformation which started in earnest in the middle of last year. Games manufacturers with an eagle eye on the industry saw that the time would arrive when arcade games, such as Space Invaders and Centipede, would fade in popularity and that something had to be added to make them more appealing.
The one aspect which games such as those already had was strategy. In games such as Space Invaders, strategy is needed to evade the aliens and at the same time fire at them. A good game will infer a strategy to the player and a good player is one who can assimilate that method of play quickly.
Software houses decided that the most obvious way to increase interest in the arcade style of game was to emphasise the strategy aspect. That is done either by putting strategy games in an arcade format or by slowing the action to accommodate structured thought instead of quick-fire intuition. The move worked well and games like Time Gate, Stonkers and Codename Mat prove it.
Time Gate reached the market shortly after the Spectrum arrived in great quantities and it is one of the first games for the machine produced by Quicksilva. The game centres on a conflict between the peoples of the free universe and the incredibly evil and ancient race of Squarm.
At the launch Quicksilva promoted it as the ultimate sci-fi space adventure and, with its 3D representation of space through the window of a fighter and the depth of story deadline, it was at that time.
The strategy of the game is centred on finding the aliens using the instrument panel of your spaceship and then destroying them. It was given added depth by spreading the Squarm through space and time so that the player has to lock-on to a particular sector in space and spacewarp there.
In some ways Quicksilva produced a game which crosses Space Invaders with the mainframe computer game Star Trek. It was that aspect initially which drew customers who wanted something different and who were ever-willing to part with their money.
Unfortunately, Time Gate is an example of how the software scene can change overnight. A few months after its release the game attracted much criticism and the Squarm have made many players squirm.
At the release, about a year ago, Time Gate was described as incredible but since then players and critics alike found that it had limitations, not least of which was the plot. The storyline is too much like a revamped version of Star Trek. Time Gate is still available from Quicksilva and costs £6.95.
Codename Mat, for the 48K Spectrum, is a new release from Micromega which could be described as an advanced version of Time Gate or an extremely good interpretation of the Atari Star Raiders. The strategy element in the arcade game is obvious, as you have to plot your way through the solar system, passing through star gates to spacewarp into another system.
The solar system is broken into sectors which have a planet or satellite as bases. The planets are taken from our solar system and include Mars, Jupiter and Earth. Each of those planets is under attack from the Myons and it is your job, as a teenager with the knowledge of the universe, to stop them.
There are two levels of play depending whether you want to use a lone ship or whether you want to be the commander of a task force. The latter is the most difficult as you can engage in several conflicts at the same time by using subspace radio, which seems to have an immediate effect on the sector you have selected.
If all your ships in one sector are destroyed, the planet could be destroyed and you have lost part of the game. If you see the situation where you could lose ships in another sector you will need to use your cunning and skill to build a battle strategy.
The arcade part of the game occupies about 50 percent of playing time and involves shooting through space and chasing the enemy fighters and motherships. It can only be described as classic arcade action combined with moments of strategic thinking to scan computer banks for information about the movement of hostile craft and about which planetary system are in danger.
Codename Mat could almost be described as state-of-the-art in software and it is close to a simulation in space-game terms. One of the most notable aspects is that the routine to generate the 3D graphics is only 200 bytes long. The compactness of the graphics routines means that the author has been able to concentrate on developing the depth and storyline of the game and that is obvious from the start.
Unfortunately, although the game is more advanced than Time Gate, the storyline is weak, as it seems to be a collection of unoriginal ideas. Luckily those ideas fuse together well and the plot stands on its own. Codename Mat can be obtained from Micromega and costs £6.95.
Manufacturers and authors have not limited arcade strategy games to the depths of space. They have also done the opposite of giving arcade games touch of strategy and given strategy games on arcade feel.
Stonkers, for the 48K Spectrum from Imagine, is a prime example of that type of game. The player is given command of land-based forces, including tanks and infantry, which are grouped in the top right-hand corner of the screen. The enemy is based across the river on the other side of the screen and to reach a suitable combat position one or other side has to cross the bridge.
When you start to play, a map of the whole theatre of war is displayed. You can issue commands to active units on the map by positioning a cursor over the map position you require.
One of two actions will occur. If you are on the big map you will zoom in to a detailed display of the location specified. If you are already zoomed in you can position the cursor over a fighting unit and by moving the cursor to the position you want it to take up, it will start to move towards that locality.
The use of a cursor to plot strategy is inventive and imagine has put much effort into the game. It should take weeks for a player to work out a plan of strategy to defeat the foe, mainly because of the immense landscape on which play takes place.
The game is a cross between the usual type of battle strategy game such as Apocalypse from Red Shift and the arcade game Battlezone. Imagine has succeeded in producing a game which combines arcade quality graphics and strategic action. Stonkers can be obtained from imagine for £3.95.
Maze games, such as Pac-man, have not escaped the eye of software houses keen to think of new plots. The munch-munch of the Pac-Man has been re placed by ponderings, such as 'Where is the treasure?' of the hero or heroine. That type of game is well-illustrated with such programs as Ant Attack, from Quicksilva, Maziacs from dk'Tronics and the irrepressible Halls of the Things from Crystal Computing, which still seems to be out-selling everything on the market.
Halls of the Things, in which the player has to collect a certain number of rings of power in a maze before being destroyed by the monsters, started a craze for the so called all-graphics adventures in which cartoon-style arcade graphics were combined with adventure plots. Most of those games take place in dungeons and feature magic and sword play. Several companies have followed the excellent crystal game, although unlike the state of play with arcade games nobody has copied original Crystal ideas as the area is so rich in concept material. Halls of the Things can be obtained from Crystal Computing and costs £7.50.
Maziacs, for the 48K Spectrum, is from dk'Tronics and is another example of the genre. It has a different graphics style from Halls of the Things which some would say is bolder and better and is more in line with the graphics which Ultimate Play the Game produces.
The plot involves finding a treasure chest in a maze which you must drag back home without being killed by the Maziacs, which can get into terrible sword fights with your player-character. To find the way to the treasure you have to make contact with the prisoners who are strung along the corridors of the maze. The fight sequences are incredibly detailed. You will again need to develop a strategy over a period of time to win. Maziacs can be obtained from dk'Tronics and costs £6.95.
To succeed, arcade-strategy games must produce an effect for the player like that produced by an ordinary zap'em game. It is the way the addiction is created which makes the difference. In an ordinary arcade game the effect is created through a need to destroy aliens and make a high score. Arcade-strategy games are different, as they rely on the user's mind. It is the strategy as well as the graphics which keeps the player returning for more.
The combination of arcade techniques and strategic thinking has made the arcade-strategy game very popular. The insurgence of that type of program means that the customer has two types of game in one and the reality of the plot, through the realism of the arcade graphics, takes the games industry one step forward. The main criticism for a long time is liable to be that the plots on which the games hang are not original enough. We are, however, just beginning to see a change in arcade style, where bang and zap are replaced by plot and thought.