Monday, June 19, 2023

Spikey in Transylvania

What, no Lucky Eddie?

Spikey is a Viking who crashlands near a village called Transylvania after suffering horrendous weather conditions in the North Sea. He has no weapon or shield but has kept hold of his helmet - just to maintain that Viking look. Weirdly, his shipmates have been rounded up and locked away in a dungeon - so it's our job to free them. Thankfully, the cell keys have been scattered about in many different places. All we have to do is find them and free our comrades. Easy.

Is it just me or does Spikey look an awful lot like Hägar the Horrible? Anyhow, Spikey in Transylvania comes from the same Code Masters stable as the Dizzy series so it's hardly surprising that it looks quite familiar for both gameplay and visuals. Released in 1991 and programmed by Dave Clarke who sadly, didn't seem to create a whole lot more for the ST.

Hey, wanna see some screenshots of the earlier puzzles? Of course, you do! So gander at this lot...

Farmer Piles!!! It's like something from a Carry On movie. Brilliant!

The pixel art in this room is amazing. Love the cauldron, the wizard, and the king's painting!

So what's the plan?

Our adventure begins in a village of a few houses, including a pub and a very hungry farmer. After escaping from one of the houses, our task is to gain entrance to the castle where our friends are held captive. Surely an impossibility, as it's guarded by a really mean soldier (hmm, why not try bribing him with cash). If you've played any of the Dizzy games before then you will already know what to expect as you help Spikey scour many rooms for carelessly-discarded prison keys.

Things begin simple and, if I'm honest, remain simple throughout. For example, the first puzzle is escaping from a house - the front door has no handle but look, there is a doorknob on the floor. This is the level of difficulty for most of the puzzles and I enjoyed that a bunch because they never came with baffling/vague clues - or a solution that made no sense.

Yep, that's the level of the difficulty which isn't bewildering but very entertaining. It's time for more screenshots...

I wanted to take this screenshot as the dog approached to take a bone. But he was quicker than me!

Bored, eh? I think he needs a Walkman to listen to. Showing my age now, right?

Explore, examine, scrutinize!

Once inside the castle, it's a myriad of mazes but nothing too overwhelming. And I liked that a lot. Getting around is very easy and makes exploration perfect. Once again, there are puzzles to solve but nothing mind-blowing. For example - a drink for a thirsty guard, ghosts will flee from the Cross, and you should wear Wellington boots in the mud. The only puzzle I failed to instantly solve was with the cannon - which was dead simple and something I didn't even consider!

Walking around the village and castle areas is never too troubling but there are still some dangers to look out for. Spikey only has four lives and each has a finite amount of energy that depletes when coming into contact with angry soldiers, rats, ghosts, dripping acid and so on. Sadly, health replenishment is scarce (very scarce actually) with only the odd pieces of chicken or bread left lying about. Stay clear of rotten foods that will only make Spikey feel a lot worse.

Unlike the adventures Dizzy endured, Spikey can walk left/right but cannot jump. Instead, he moves diagonally in/out of the screen which is pretty cool. Sadly, it's not perfect as you can occasionally get stuck on objects or walls. The inventory is a cinch, just hold fire and move up/down to pick up/drop and left/right to select what object you wish to use. Dropping most objects near another character will solve that puzzle as they will automatically collect it and reward you.

This isn't a huge game but it's big enough for a pub, which is never a bad thing. Check out these beer swiggers...

The local Wetherspoons! My kinda place. But then everyone stops and stares at me! Creepy.

Hmm, weren't there some gloves carelessly left lying about?


The graphics are by Jonathan Smyth who also did Cj in the USA and Cj's Elephants Antics. As you would expect, they are gorgeous and would look perfect in any cartoon with a colourful design. The backdrops are good but it's the characters that feature stunning details - I loved the beedy-eyed rats who watch Spikey. Sadly, there is little animation which, I'm not too bothered about, but it would have been nice to see a roaring fireplace rather than a static flame.

The audio fairs differently with a choice of chip music or sound effects that can only be chosen on the title screen. The music is by Ashley Hogg (again, who worked on Cj in the USA and Cj's Elephants Antics) and is absolutely superb. Sadly, there is only that one tune which loops around constantly during play. If you opt for sound effects instead then you shall hear Spikey's footsteps along with a ding when interacting with objects. And that's that. Bit disappointing tbh.

Here is one of the cells holding a shipmate so hurry up and find all the other keys! Then everyone can party...

This is one of many cells holding our mates. Simple task - find the keys!

This is the end screen - just to prove I did it!! Sorry for the spoiler :p

The CryptO'pinion?

I have thoroughly enjoyed playing Spikey in Transylvania! However, it's not a big adventure and there isn't enough food available to replenish his energy. Also, the puzzles are quite easy (even for me) and I completed the entire thing in just a couple of hours! I cannot imagine fans of Dizzy, Elf, Spellbound or Stormlord will be impressed by that?

However, ignoring these quibbles, this is extremely enjoyable and very addictive. So I loved the progress I made right from the start. The puzzles are logical without any irritatingly pointless solutions which meant I continued on and loved every second. So how can I say anything terrible about a game that gave me so much pleasure? I cannot.

Before you view my map (click it), grab this cool puzzler for either a floppy disk or a hard drive and enjoy...

Friday, June 16, 2023

Simon Butler

Earlier this year I was fortunate to buy ARC's Defender II in mint condition and I shared a photograph of it on Twitter. Now, I'm not generally a fan of social media but it got many likes and even a response from none other than Simon Butler! Yep, the fella who designed much of the awesome graphics for this fantastic shooter. Not to mention many more ST games.

For me, talking to anyone from the 16-bit industry is always a surreal moment. Think about it, these are the people behind the games we bought and played. Not only that, but years later we get to meet and chat with these legends. It's weird, but a nice weird. ;-)

Simon worked on a number of games over the years and is credited for many Atari ST games: Addams Family, Gazza II, Platoon, and Star Breaker (I need to review these games!!). Wait, there are even more under his belt which I've already featured right here on AtariCrypt: 9 Lives, Elf and Badlands Pete. A mixed bag alright with one thing in common - awesome visuals!

Personally, I found Simon to be frank and straightforward, yet humble and possibly unaware of the joy he's provided with his pixels. I would like to thank Simon for kindly taking the time to chat and I hope y'all enjoy this interview?

Simon Butler - The Interview

Hello Simon, please tell us a little about yourself

I entered the games industry in 1983 almost as it began. Imagine software was in its infancy and my best friend Steve Cain was head of the art department there. He asked me to help on a project, Pedro’s Garden even though I had never done any game graphics before, but who had? I did two days of work and was paid a ridiculous amount of money. Regardless of my regular calling into the Imagine office to see friends, I never thought that this was going to be my career for the next forty years.

I made my way through the 8-bit days, working at independent development houses and finally found myself in-house at Ocean Software. While there, I honed my craft, such as it is until I got itchy feet and wanted to work on the 16-bit machines. At the time, this was not on the horizon for Ocean, so I quit and went to work with Steve Cain again at his new company Frames. It was here that I first encountered the Atari ST.

Was it fun working for Arc and Ocean?

It was just a job. It didn’t matter who I worked for, and the only real exception was that bigger studios gave you a more concrete sense of permanence, while smaller teams lived from day to day and the spectre of it all falling apart was always looming at the edges. I did my fair share of freelance work from the spare room in my house as this was par for the course for a solo pixel pusher. (I love that description, pixel pusher! -Steve)

Not the best game in the Atari ST's catalogue but the comical sprites are exceptional.

What software tools did you use?

I rarely sketched on paper by this point in my career as I found it almost as quick to simply doodle on the screen. So the software I used was Degas Elite which wasn't as powerful as the tools found on the Amiga, but it suited me. And I thought I was more than reasonably proficient at the time.

Did you enjoy creating back then?

I enjoyed creating the graphics for Nine Lives as I was given carte blanche to do what I wanted. Even though the project was less than amazing on release due to an appalling push scroll.

I loved every minute of working on the Addams Family, regardless of the main platform being the Snes, but I beavered away on my Atari ST at home and in the Ocean office like a madman. I had total freedom, and I just threw out sprites like there was no tomorrow. It was one of the very few occasions in my career where every day was an absolute joy. (This shows because the Atari ST game looks so beautiful - Steve)

Addams was fun from start to finish and I still have one or two examples of the work I did to this very day...

Yes, I had to ask him for proof!!! These two Addams Family animations are simply awesome.

Star Breaker is really cool. No?

I was still using Degas at that point. It was a title for ARC games and at that point I was working for Frames, another company formed by Steve Cain. I vaguely remember all manner of graphical restrictions on this one so unsurprisingly, I was less than happy with the finished product.

What happened with Gazza II?

This was a title I worked on for the laughingly names Active Minds. We were up against the clock from day one and the game design was virtually non-existent as such. We did the best we could while also working on Total Recall. It was one of the worst-managed companies I have experienced and that is saying something.

What involvement did you have with the underrated Platoon?

I did the design for Platoon while at Ocean. They sent me to London to watch a private viewing of the movie months before it was released! I did storyboards for every level and oversaw production on each version. It received good reviews at the time and is one of the titles I am most proud of being involved with.

Platoon is a really good game I thought. Must play it some more and get a review done!

What involvement did you have with Elf?

My involvement with Elf was merely the bitmaps between levels, so I can take no credit for the in-game graphics. They were certainly impressive, but I personally felt the game was lacking in certain areas, but others thought otherwise. Either way, it was yet another title on my CV.

What about your role in Defender II?

I was working on another title at the time and, through this project, I was somehow brought in to do a few bits on Defender Two. I have vague memories of doing spaceship animations, but whether they found their way into the game is anyone’s guess. I do know that the title screen is mine as I spent a lot of time trying to emulate the style used in the logo for a hair-metal band I liked back then. I was quite happy with the result.

Elf is an adventure of epic proportions although it appears not so for Simon!

Who inspired you?

There were pixel pushers I thought had done a sterling job on this title or that, but I never aspired to emulate them, nor did I feel I was in competition. As I said before, it was a job. I pushed pixels and if my art manager was happy and the salary cheque cleared every month then all was fine in the world of Simon Butler. A very mercenary view perhaps, but I had a family to provide for and artistic integrity doesn’t pay the bills.

Any funny tales to tell?

I have plenty of funny stories from my tenure in the industry, but any that might be ST related seems to have disappeared along with my hairline! (Yikes, I never expected that reply - Steve)

Badlands Pete. The visuals are marvellous and I love the tones with their dusky palette.

Do you still have that Atari ST?

I cannot recall how I managed to acquire my Atari ST that served me so well in my 16-bit freelance years but I do know that I sold it to a friend. These days, I have no old hardware as I am vehemently anti-old school.

I see them as dust hoarders that have no place in my life. As the years have mounted up I have slowly de-cluttered the parts of the house where I stored vinyl, cassette and CD albums, movies on VHS and DVD and what few things I have from “back in the day” are all stored digitally.

Any final words to share?

Since 1983 when I stumbled blindly into pixel pushing I have continued to do exactly the same thing, push pixels. I am still professionally involved in game development and, if truth be told, have taken time off from doing spot effects for my latest game in order to answer these questions. There have been highs and lows, but this whirlwind ride is something I never planned and would not have missed for the world.

I’m a gamer and a game creator and this is not only something I am eternally grateful for it is a badge of honour I will defend against the Johnny-come-lately types of the YouTube brigade who profess to be historians of my past. If anyone is playing anything from the ST era that bears my name I can only apologise.

We tried our best, but if it makes you smile, then we got it right. (Got it dead right I'd say - Steve)

Sunday, June 04, 2023

Rock 'n' Roll Clams

Ugh, I hate seafood!

Rock 'n' Roll Clams is a music-themed arcade game released in 1994 by Caspian Software, a time when most of the (gaming) companies abandoned us for the PC with its lifetime of bugs & patches. Thankfully, the mid-90s were a great time for independents who still had fuji passion - Impact, Bloodhouse, Top Byte, STeam, UDS, etc. Respect to all.
Tidbit time! A year later Caspian unleash Zero 5, a fantastic 3D space shooter for the STe/Falcon. Wanna read more about that? What about an interview with the developer? You better click here then!
Humorously, I've planned to feature this bizarre game for over two years and I've had a desktop folder containing a draft with notes and dozens of screenshots. What's taken me so long? Well, that's easy to answer - I suck at this game more than meagre words could ever describe! So how could I write about a game I struggle to play? (Now't new there!)

That's enough waffling on by me because we need to see a couple of crabby seaside screenshots...

The opening levels are supposed to gently introduce the basic mechanics and hazards. (ST)

Two-player mode is hilarious fun because it's so manic! (STe)

So, clams you say?

The storyline goes something like this: Casper the Clam went on a school trip to watch an orchestra with his clam friends. However, it was really boring for these ocean dwellers who wanted something better. Suddenly, they began to hear distant funky music and (this is my favourite part) needed to know more because "we owe it to Clamkind". So, off they went looking to find the source of this amazing music. However, leaving the safety of Clam Town proved dangerous.

What they didn't bank on was foolishly getting caught in the fishing net of (wait for it) Mackerel Mac! He wants to sell them to Charlie - as food - at Clams 'U' Like. Thankfully, they escaped that potential hell, so it's up to us to bring back that funky music. Help Caspar shake, rattle and roll their way from the bottom of the ocean to the Top of the Charts!

Groan... that is so bad but let's view a couple more screenshots and continue on with this insane game review...

This level features a tough design with two power-ups - that I couldn't manage to reach!! (ST)

Two-player mode has extra features, like dropping weights on heads. Or even a whale! (STe)

Sounds fishy to me!

I eagerly started my first game wondering what excitement lay ahead but that joyful anticipation soon passed as I struggled with the peculiar controls. Casper moves horizontally using a similar rotational mechanic as in Wizball. So the speed of his rotation affects the speed (and direction) of his movements to navigate down through each screen.

From what I've seen, each level is very tall with us beginning at the top. Rotate to move down through the screens, collecting all the required items before leaving through the exit which is at the bottom. All levels have their own layout but follow a similar structure with lots of platforms, routes, and nasty seaside critters to avoid like jellyfish, crabs, and spikes. Thankfully, there are checkpoints, so you won't need to restart from the beginning after coming into contact with them.

Rock 'n' Roll Clams is actually really simple: collect the required items that are dotted about each level and then make your way to the exit. Sounds too easy? Well, no. The baddies are positioned in crafty locations, to make life as difficult as possible, and many will chase after you. Also, the level's design often makes gameplay frustrating especially when rushing to beat the timer. Yes, there's a timer! Factor in all this and the game soon becomes very (ahem) challenging.

As with anything, practice. Learn the controls and you will begin to make progress but only to a certain point, I'm sorry to say. Many levels are poorly designed with enemies you can never avoid, and other areas that are quite impossible to reach with a rotating clam! Not only that but I managed to get stuck on a few dodgy platforms and even suffered a couple of crashes. Perhaps that was down to my Mega STe (4MB/TOS 2.06) but I also had issues using Hatari. #YMMV

Yeah, I would advise that you practice, practice & practice! But cheer up, here are a couple more screenshots...

The first power-up I found is the crash hat which made Casper very macho! (ST)

Here we are racing down without bothering to actually play properly! Meh, why not? (STe)

Need a helping hand?
  1. Check out that main menu for access to a number of different starting levels.
  2. Each level has its own dangers blindly roaming about so it pays to be coy and wait until the right moment.
  3. We need pick-ups but if something is taking too long to reach, I say move on and look elsewhere.
  4. Yes, there is a time limit. I hate 'em! So collect the clocks.
  5. Hidden levels are plentiful and offer great rewards but not on every level.
  6. There are checkpoints so you don't need to re/start from the beginning. Use 'em!
  7. Each level has hats that grant special abilities: the crash helmet makes Casper stronger in all four directions but is actually pretty lame I thought. The propeller hat provides fancy flight which makes movements a lot better. Hey, is this game missing a weapon? Then look for the gun hat, if you can find it. Finally, the Viking hat is similar to the crash helmet but only works vertically... yawn.
  8. The right side of the screen looks crazy, right? But it's here you can select the power-ups (hats) by holding down the fire button. It's awkward and I was never impressed with any of them tbh. (I'm a miserable sod!)
Not much in the way of help was it? Yep, shows how much I am still struggling with this game! Screenshot time...

Another level with a crazy design, that isn't fun, so stops you from enjoying it. Am I mean? (ST)

Well, at least in this game we have smiley faces to cheer us up! (STe)

Input & Output

The joystick/pad controls are superb and very responsive so Wizball fans will immediately take to the rotational method to move horizontally at different speeds. I didn't. Anyhow, pushing upwards can help reach those items you may have missed. However, this won't compensate for the strong effect of gravity, so can only be used when not freefalling.

Visually, this is colourful and fun but also quite amateur using tacky backdrops and silly sprites. Interestingly, the Blitter is utilised so my STe performed very well and never lagged at all. Hey, it also scrolls great on the stock ST albeit with a reduced resolution. Heck, even Falcon people can play - if you're lucky enough to have one of those expensive beasts!

Now for the audio: let's begin with the effects which are nothing special and should have been more zesty using samples. Thankfully, the music fares better and supports chip (ST) and stereo tracker (STe). Sadly, there aren't nearly enough tunes so it gets repetitive. Finally, I preferred the ST's chiptunes over the grim tracker renditions (sorry not sorry).

Hey, it was 1994 so am I being too harsh? Umm, maybe. But let's view more screenshots while we think about that...

Must admit, the seaside level is the best looking of all. Don't get stuck in the sand! (ST)

Another two-player game where we just hoped for the best... most of the time! (STe)

The CryptO'pinion?

This is one of those games I desperately wanted to enjoy and play to death. I really wanted to rock through each of the levels, taking lots of screenshots, before delivering a glowing report. But, sadly, that isn't to be. Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy it to a point. However, the basic mechanics of what this game is, and what it desperately hopes to be, fail miserably.

The concept of controlling a ball - horizontally - in a vertically-scrolling world feels skewed somewhat. That method worked well in Wizball, but that's already a horizontally-scrolling game. Sadly, poor Casper is trapped in a cramped and restrictive world with infuriating enemy placement. Plus there are bugs that prevent me from passing certain areas!

Having said that, there are redeeming qualities, it plays fast and fluently on all STs with the STe being better. The support for two players is great and miles better than going solo. In fact, my daughter might have found it frustrating (sigh, that iPad generation) yet we had a great laugh simply because she couldn't control it properly - is that good or bad?

It's tough to know what else to say about this weird dollop of Clam Chowder. It's certainly unique but the execution doesn't work well for me, especially for one player. However, that may just be me being a grump? Why not grab the game (floppy disk + hard drive) and take it for a spin (sorry) yourself? Let me know what you think in the comments below!