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Softcat Micros
S. Brockelhurst
Utility: Visual/Screen
ZX Spectrum 48K

Max Phillips
Chris Bourne

Go on punk, make my Sprite... Animator 1 s not a cult sci-fi 'n' gore video starring some Clint-clone. But it is a sprite-designer come art package with a similar sort of butch machismo about it.

Softcat Micros claims it's a pro-tool for programmers and artists - not your wimpy mouse-driven arty-type trendy sort of program at all. This means two things. First, its capable of some amazing stuff that you can't do (or at least can't do easily) with any other package. Secondly, it has that raw, unshaven feel about it that makes it a bitch to learn and a devil to use.

Programmers are supposed to like that sort of thing. And, so the theory goes, it's far more important to have features you need than posey pop-up menus you don't. Given what Animator 1 crams into the machine, its a fair trade off.

Basically, it's a drawing package like Melbourne Draw or Art Studio or The Artist or Paintbox (remember that?). But it also has the ability to save parts of the screen as a series of sprites - you can create all the different frames of a sprite (face left, right, up, down, legs open, close, punch etc) at once and then instantly play them back on screen to see how they'll look in your finished game.

The drawing facilities are copious to say the least - lines and circles (with rubber-banding), definable brush widths, airbrushes, frills, shading and patterns, mirror, rotate and so on. Its easily a '2nd generation' package like Art Studio - golden-oldies like Melbourne Draw are a real hard slog these days.

The program is controlled strictly from the keyboard (no joystick - let alone mouse) using Q, A, O and P to move the cursor, plus keys for draw and erase and a high-speed move key. Other options are shifted keys - Z, X, C and V are used as extra shift keys in addition to Caps Shift! Some keys call up pop-up menus listing further options.

So, no way will you master this in a morning. And even after a lot of practice, you'll still keep going back to the rather stodgy manual. But ace game players will rapidly discover that they can't half work at a fair old pace once they've mastered the keyboard controls.

Like all good 'programmer's' utilities, it's short on messages, badly error trapped and has some very strange bits. Ask to fill a shape with colour and it replies "CORRUPT SPRITES ?Y/any". Pardon me? What did I say wrong? Thing is it needs the sprite memory to do the fill calculations - if you reply "N", it'll swap a chunk of memory off the microdrive and keep your designs in one piece. Okay in practice - but definitely a bit odd the first time you meet it!

Of course, designing sprites is one thing - it's no good if you can't use them in your own programs. Animator 1 does not provide any sprite generator software at all for you to use - the idea is that you save off the designs you've created and then build them into your own program.

If you're a Basic programmer, what you end up with is effectively a vast bunch of UDGs and little chance of quality high-speed animation. If you write in code, you can take the bit-maps of the sprites (byte-wise or character-wise, left-to-right, top to bottom) and incorporate them in your own routines. If, like most people, you find this format is too simplistic, you'll need to write a conversion program to get the sprite data the way you want.

Alternatively, it may be possible to customise Animator 1 how you like ... the Basic parts are accessible and Softcat may be able to help you set up what you need.

All this means that Animator 1 is a very handy design and doodling tool for serious users who are sick of pen and paper and don't already have home-made programs for doing the same sort of work. And if you're that serious, you'll probably already have the microdrives or disk drives that you'll need to make full use of the program - Animator 1 should be transferable to any storage device you've got because all the tricky Save/Load bits are in Basic. Clever that!

So if you're new to the game and just want to do pretty screens, think hard about Art Studio. If you reckon the sprite-animation bit would be handy, have a good look at Animator 1 - as the saying goes, it's pretty rapid!


Screenshot Text

Sprites are designed in the top-left corner of the screen - anything from 8x8 pixels to 256x192 (yes - that's the whole flippin' screen!)

The rest of the screen is a drawing area just like the sprite-design corner. So you can use Animator 1 as an ordinary drawing package for title screens and so on. If you work on three full-screen sprites, you can even work on three screen designs at once - try that with Art Studio!

The Grid option displays a dotted outline of the sprites you're working on - and switch it off when you're just designing screens...

Almost as wonky as the text in Frontlines - you can positively torture the character set, pulling text this way and that, squeezing it down to 64-column size, writing up walls...

The Magnify window shows an enlarged portion of the area you're working on; you can move it around the screen or switch it off if you don't need it.

The sprite menu, includes the current sprite size and number plus the maximum number of sprites you can have. If you're screen designing, you can use the sprite memory to hold ready-made shapes and stuff from earlier work.

Get this; this is a drawing screen just like the work screen but it's got all the hatches (patterns), airbrush, brush, UDG and character set designs on it. Change any of them with the usual brush to create your own user-defined patterns, characters, brushes... whatever. Your new designs are ready when you go back to your drawing and sprites.

Get the feeling you can move the screen about? Many of these work on just the bit-map or the attributes or both. Try this - load up your fave title screen, slide the main character on it, hit the Sprite menu and store it away. Instant kidnapped sprites! It's a shame though that many of these options are full-screen only - a little Art Studio windowing would be dead useful...