Software’s getting better all the time, says CHRISTINA ERSKINE (erstwhile Editor of Popular Computing Weekly in this analysis of The PCW Show. But, she adds, Spectrum programmers must fight the 16-bit machines on their own ground.
A TENTH BIRTHDAY is something of a milestone and one expects that at the tenth PCW Show organisers were hoping for something special to mark that anniversary. My own impression — which has lasted since the show and through reading other press reports of it — is that they got it.
That’s not in the sense that there were amazing new launches of incredible machines which took everyone by surprise, or even that, despite some palatial stands, the show looked awe-inspiring. It’s simply that the overall quality of software appears to be on the up and up.
This impression is partly formed through comparison with last year’s show. At the 1986 PCW Show, a number of the major software companies contented themselves with videos of the licence from which the game would eventually be written. Consequently, many visitors were left with no clear idea of what the finished products would look like.
This year, maybe because the companies had simply got their acts together or maybe because the show took place two weeks later, there was much more emphasis on showing the games themselves.
Obviously, when you see a demo on video of forthcoming titles, without having a chance to actually play them, you don’t get a full idea of how lasting a game’s appeal is or whether the screens that aren’t demoed are as challenging as those that are, and nor will you know about any small bugs that may crop up — but it’s a damn sight better than not seeing the game at all.
Two things struck me especially about the software on display the nature of licensing deals has changed, and the sprites (particularly character sprites, but really graphics overall) are getting bigger and better.
Licensing deals first. Two years ago, when licensing deals were starting to make the news, some of the films (or whatever) destined for micro conversion were frankly inappropriate, and it showed in the finished games. Back To The Future (an Electric Dreams game), for example, may have been an enjoyable film, but is the story of time travel tied in with a plot of your future mother falling for you really easily adaptable to a computer-game format?
Now, however, the deals look much more carefully thought-out. For a start, companies are looking more closely at cartoon characters, and toys, whose nature is much more suited to computers and also to many of the people who will want to play them.
Thus we have Captain America, Lazer tag and 720° from US Gold’s new label GO! — licensed from Marvel Comics, Mattel toys and the coin-ops respectively. And, of course, US Gold itself also has Out Run, the Sega arcade game which everyone seems to be tipping for Number One this year.
I believe that the Christmas Number One is more likely to be one of the staggering compilations we’re promised. Compilations, too, appeared to have really grown up at this year’s show; gone are the days when a compilation was a good way of selling off back catalogue and getting rid of dead stock. This year there are some mouthwatering goodies on offer.
Take Solid Gold, from that ubiquitous lot in Birmingham, for example. If you don’t have Ace Of Aces, Leaderboard, Infiltrator, Winter Games and Gauntlet already, how could you resist that lot from US Gold at £9.95 on tape?
But the compilation to really go for this autumn must be Ocean’s Game Set And Match (covered in CRASH Issue 45). Ocean has evidently decided that no other company should ever feel it necessary to release a sports simulation again. Game Set And Match has no less than ten sports over a four-cassette package (also available as four +3 disks), including Daley Thompson’s Supertest, Hyper Sports, Jonah Barrington’s Squash and others just too numerous to mention.
Add to this Elite’s 6-Pak Vol. 2 (see CRASH Issue 44) and The Elite Collection, and Ocean’s Magnificent Seven, and you can see why the software houses are no longer thinking of compilations as an afterthought.
Then there are those sprites. Games like Rainbird’s Dick Special on the 16-bit machines and Trantor — The Last Stormtrooper from US Gold (reviewed this issue) feature large, colourful animated characters which are a far cry from the blobs and two-pixel heroes to which 8-bit-machine-owners had become resigned.
Finally, the number of companies putting their resources into Spectrum disk versions of new games is encouraging. OK, so it’s not a particularly radical step to duplicate onto the Amstrad three-inch disks as well as onto cassette, but it all helps demand for the +3 itself, which in turn will keep the Spectrum alive and kicking as a current machine — and it always did need a standard disk drive anyway.
The quality of 8-bit software is improving after some months of stagnation and paradoxically this has something to do with the emergence of 16-bit micros (Amiga, Atari ST) and games consoles. For the consoles, notably the Sega games machine, there’s some excellent arcade-style software, with some faithful coin-op conversions that mainstream software houses trying to produce arcade originals on the computer must find extremely frustrating.
Because it’s so much easier to create good graphics on the Atari ST and Amiga than on the 8-bit machines, their games naturally look and sound better. 8-bit (Spectrum, Commodore, Amstrad) software will continue to be produced as long as the huge and steady user base remains. But if Spectrum software has tiny jerky graphics, feeble sound and weak story lines, who can blame users for upgrading — or moving sideways to a dedicated console — en masse? To keep their market, the software houses must provide quality, for now computer owners have a real choice.
So if you’re planning to hang on to your Spectrum for a good while yet, you could do well on the software front. Despite the number of STs and Amigas demonstrating titles at the show, despite whiz-bang demos of Acorn’s Archimedes, and despite the undeniable interest shown in the games machines, The PCW Show indicated to me that it’s a bit early to announce the death of the 8-bit machines.