From Ultimate’s classics to the cute and quirky Head Over Heels, we’ve had our arcade adventures in the strange 3-D of isometric perspective.
But, says WILL BROOKER, some of those first tentative steps in the new dimension work better than today’s glossy games.
Way, way back when Hungry Horace was still a national hero, 3D Ant Attack sneaked out under the Quicksilva label. Its Softsolid graphics of the walled desert city Antescher were hailed as astounding, and 3D Ant Attack wedged itself firmly into Spectrum history as the first game with truly three-dimensional views.
The next isometric blockbuster was Vortex’s Android 2, released in the spring of 1984. In gameplay it’s just a 3-D version of the old arcade game Beserk, but the graphics (which CRASH gave 96%) brought it up to this magazine’s Game Of The Month standard.
Programmer Costa Panayi followed this up with the impressive TLL — a fighter-plane simulation with a carefully worked-out dynamic playing area. There’s not a lot of game behind it, but the flying is enough.
The Softsolid technique was soon followed by the first 3-D ‘adventure movie’ — Hewson Consultants’ The Legend of Avalon. Its adventure element is a bit dubious, and the term ‘arcade adventure’ would be disputed for years after its release, but the game was a great success with its colourful, pseudoisometric graphics.
In 1985 the spate of high-quality isometric games continued: Ultimate’s classic Knight Lore was followed by another Vortex game, Highway Encounter, and the next technical advance was Filmation 2. An Ultimate invention, this allows graphics of Knight Lore’s quality to be scrolled smoothly over a large playing area. Filmation 2 was used for Ultimate’s Nightshade, but was soon knocked into a cocked hat by The Edge’s Fairlight.
Even back in the golden year of 1986 there were unimaginative clones which sometimes threatened to swamp all the review pages with their identical, and by then extremely boring, isometric screens. But some games brought a breath of fresh air to the already tired genre: the humorous Sweevo’s World from Gargoyle Games, Ocean’s surprise hit M.O.V.I.E., and Hewson’s Quazatron. A Spectrum version of the Commodore 64 hit Paradroid, Quazatron amazed everyone by being superior to the original.
Not so original but also well-implemented was Ocean’s Batman, and Quicksilva’s Glider Rider deserves a mention along with Design Design’s Rogue Trooper for taking a gamble and nearly succeeding.
Last year Ocean had a megahit with Head Over Heels, M.A.D. had a budget Smash with Amaurote, and Gargoyle brought out the first (and probably last) Hydromation game, Hydrofool — the sequel to Sweevo’s World. CRL’s 3D Gamemaker utility now enables everyone to rewrite Knight Lore, and last November saw the first real isometric adventure, Incentive’s Karyssia.
Of course, whether isometric perspective presents a ‘true’ 3-D view is arguable — the player in these games is ‘positioned’ somewhere up in the air, outside the playing area, so any game using the technique looks forced, like a technical drawing. Though its representation of object and rooms may be highly effective, if we’re going to nit-pick we can’t say isometric perspective gives a realistic view.
But the technique has proved perfectly satisfactory for countless games, and it’s pointless to damn them all for lack of realism.
More significantly, it will be interesting to see if the market for isometric graphics ever dries up, and if the public will one day reject the genre as outdated and overused, just as it once refused to accept any more Pacman clones.
87% Issue One
‘One day, one year, one hour,’ says the introduction, He and She arrived in the walled city of Antescher, ‘the signature of a long dead race, the city lost from the world of men for days without number.’
But the Ants of Antescher now have your partner (either He or She — unfortunately, this admirably nonsexist feature is undermined the program’s always calling you a ‘hero’), and your job is to rescue him or her with the help of some heavy-duty grenades.
Complete one level and the foolish girl (or boy) goes and gets herself (or himself) captured again, but this time further away from the starting position. Well, that’s life...
Back in late 1983 when nobody worried about glaring white backgrounds, UDG-sized graphics and poor sound, 3D Ant Attack was a wonder to behold. But even if you overlook these faults the fact remains that there isn’t much gameplay, and what there is soon grows repetitive. Next to modern software, 3D Ant Attack looks rather dismal.
81% Issue 7
TLL involves navigating a landscape sprinkled with houses, pylons, cliffs and bridges in order to eliminate ‘enemy dots’. This top-priority procedure (you don’t know how dangerous enemy dots can be if you let them get out of hand) is carried out by swooping low over the ground (hence the title — Tornado Low Level).
You always run the risk of crumping your fighter against an obstacle, and once five of the dastardly dots have been wiped out a new mission begins — it’s on the same landscape, but this time those devils are hiding below bridges and in the water and all sorts of underhand places.
TLL was seen as a masterpiece when it first appeared, and its appeal has hardly diminished since. The landscape is described in effective, clean washes of colour and the fighter is well-drawn, rotating smoothly. The whole thing handles really well and though destroying evil dots is a bit of an artificial exercise the dynamics of the game come together perfectly.
Perhaps more a simulation than an arcade game, TLL would, I’m sure, still do well at a budget price.
97% Issue 39
‘The best Ritman/Drummond game yet — it’s even better than Batman!’ said CRASH. We read on: ‘cuddly’, ‘cute’.
I agree; and that’s probably what puts me off Head Over Heels. I can do without poisonous Marmite jars, stuffed rabbits, reincarnation fish and doughnuts, especially when their purpose in the game bears no relation to their appearance (why should stuffed rabbits give you extra abilities?). The scenario is unoriginal (two spies from the planet Freedom are out to destroy the Evil Empire), and the graphics look like something you see on early-teatime children’s TV (not that I watch it). Yes, they’re detailed and well-animated; yes, they’re cute if you like that sort of thing; but there’s nothing to link them all together.
As isometric arcade adventures go this is probably the best of its kind — there are lots of features, and the graphics are technically the best yet — but no way is it ‘the ultimate game’. I like mine a little less silly and with a lot more logic behind them.
94% Issue 12
‘Sheer perfection’, enthused the anonymous CRASH reviewers of way back at the sight of Knight Lore’s Filmation graphics.
The Filmation technique allows your sprite to physically interact with onscreen objects in almost any way, and with Knight Lore, the tenuously-related sequel to Underwurlde and Sabre Wulf, Ultimate’s programmers surpassed themselves.
In this thrilling instalment Sabreman (the player) must brave the castle of the wizard Melkhior to find the ingredients of the potion that will cure his sudden lycanthropy (Ultimate’s instructions take the form of an epic poem, but manage to say nearly the same thing). Fail, and you must remain the werewolf forever — but so what? He’s a darn sight cuter than Sabreman.
Melkhior’s castle is divided into rooms full of traps, structures and useful objects, all of which can be manoeuvred using Filmation. The avalanche of isometric games in this style has lessened the impact of KnightLore’s graphics. Today they seem rather plain and simple, though the old Ultimate touches still stand out (the sprite looking warily over his shoulder, for example).
The game itself is a little unsophisticated for our times, too: essentially it’s just a set of Manic Miner-type problems of timing, jumping and avoiding, and Filmation only comes in useful for making higher leaps.
Still, Knight Lore deserves some recognition for having started off the isometric-arcade-adventure genre proper — it’s just a pity the subsequent deluge was so heavy.
93% Issue 28
CRASH’s Overall comment described this as ‘a neatly finished game which does Batman proud’. But Ocean took all the Batman mythos and promptly forgot about it in an (admittedly commercially successful) attempt to cash in on Alien 8 etc — this game has nothing to do with Batman.
Even the main character graphics shows a squat little figure who looks more like a Smurf than the Caped Crusader. And the Batcave has become some sort of architectural monstrosity furnished with conveyor belts and spiked floors and populated by creatures ranging from puppy dogs to lion-headed mutants. Maybe he’s had it redone, but it never looked that way in the comics, the TV series, the films and the graphic novels...
All that aside, Batman is quite a good game. The graphics and animation are superior to Ultimate’s, and the Bat Devices and Batpills which give Fatman extra abilities add interest to the gameplay. In fact, leave out the pseudoBatman scenario and title and I’m quite content with this.
91% Issue 21
Nightshade just scraped into the Smash bracket, and the autumn 1985 release is now generally considered to have marked the beginning of the end for the former masters of Spectrum software at Ultimate.
The gameplay is similar to Atic Atac’s: wandering around the playing area (in this case a medieval town) destroying materialising nasties and collecting ‘super antibodies’ to kill off the four major villains. But the real star of Nightshade is the Filmation 2 technique, which scrolls the highly-detailed buildings about and lets you effectively see through the walls in a cut-away view whenever you pass behind them.
It’s become a cliche that ‘the trouble with Ultimate’s games is that they have great graphics but no game bolted on’, but in this case it’s undeniably true. Though the pseudomedieval atmosphere is strong and the characters are well-animated, Nightshade is extremely boring. It eventually boils down to searching in vain for the major villains, just for the dubious thrill of getting killed by them instead of by lesser monsters for a change.
95% Issue 20
You’re a lone Vorton droid, pushing a highly brainfrying explosive device to the far end of an alien highway to blow up an enemy base.
The road is populated by various aliens resembling anglepoise lamps and other dangerous household items (I gave them all names once but that was ages ago), and floating mines weave across the tarmac in dances of death.
Your only strategy is to block up or kill off the nasties on your first run, and then go back to get your slave droids and the bomb.
Highway Encounter’s graphics are still impressive today; as in TLL, the combination of flat background colour and detailed monochrome overlays works very effectively. All the roadside scenery is beautifully drawn, from the crops in the fields to the golden sands of the beach. The only trouble with the game is its difficulty.
I still wonder at CRASH’s comment of the time ‘it will be easy to complete and I will probably get bored with it’ — after 2½ years I still can’t clear the 30 zones and get the bomb to its destination within the time limit.
But Highway Encounter looks great (better, in fact, than its sequel — Vortex’s Alien Highway, 88% Issue 29) and would probably still sell as a budget game.
94% Issue 29
As Klepto, a psychotic young droid with a penchant for taking things apart, you have been volunteered to get the mutant droids out of Quazatron, a multilevelled underground citadel of ramps and lifts.
Klepto starts with a measly pulse laser but can collect extra weaponry by ramming other droids and entering a grapple sequence — really a subgame.
A feat of strategy and reflexes decides who wins the grappling duel. If you successfully grapple another droid you can take any available weapon. If you lose, the consequences are usually fatal. As you upgrade your weapons you can take on ever more powerful opponents, till you become the top dog — and then it’s time to move on to the next citadel.
‘Quazatron is a true masterpiece,’ said CRASH at the time, and the comment is still valid. Apart from the rather jerky scrolling everything is faultless: the graphics, the music, the FX and the gameplay. Quazatron is a successful fusion of strategy and arcade and deserves all the recognition it’s had.
79% Issue 36
This licence is based on the early Rogue Trooper stories from the comic 2000AD. Rogue is, as usual, trudging around Nu Earth, this time looking for the eight vid-tapes which show how the Traitor organised the destruction of the rest of the GIs (you have to know the strip to follow the scenario, really).
Nu Earth, which seems to have shrunk a little in the conversion from comic to computer, is patrolled by Norts and littered with ammo, med-packs — and, of course, the tapes. And Rogue’s biochipped buddies Gunnar, Helm and Bagman give onscreen advice which isn’t always particularly useful. (Gunnar rarely says anything more inspiring than ‘Let’s grease some more Nort scum’).
When all the evidence has been collected, Rogue can return to the shuttle and wait for Cam Kennedy to draw him some more identical stories (oops! that just slipped out).
Despite the extremely tacky presentation, this is an enjoyable game. It’s not hard to win, which may put some off, but it provides relaxing therapy when you need your confidence boosted a little. The graphics are detailed, varied and recognisable, and though the colour washes are used simply they add interest.
Perhaps Rogue Trooper’s strongest point is the atmosphere generated by the graphics and the comments; it is, surprisingly, the most faithful 2000AD conversion yet.