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.