Wednesday, 20 February 2013

New Arrival

Just bagged myself a Spectrum Plus 3. Always wanted one of these, and after a few days play, I now realise I should have got one much sooner – it’s brilliant.

There are a few scratches on the casing, but it works 100% and I am really pleased with it so far. Got a few blanks discs too, plus a few disk games, but I am spending a lot of time converting some of my own games across to disc.

I ordered a scart lead which produces a really nice picture and the only bad thing I can say is that the sound is a bit poor. This is a known problem with these machines and there are fixes outlined on the internet, but as yet I am not confident about doing them!

For me, the Spectrum +3 was the computer I always wanted but never had  for a number of reasons, mainly because it came too late in the Spectrum's life span. It was released in 1987 at which time more powerful 16bit computers like the Amiga and the Atari ST were already available, wowing the public with their superior graphics, sound and storage options.

It was also not a real Sinclair computer, Sir Clive having sold off his prodigy to Alan Sugar’s Amstrad in the previous year.

So this machine was the best bits of the Amstrad range of CPC’s – the keyboard, connectivity and built-in storage plus the best bits of the Spectrum, Massive games catalogue, easy to use and a thriving copying culture.

The machine itself was larger than previous machines, nearly twice as big as the rubber keyed version and a third larger than the Spectrum Plus. The 3 inch drive was the same as the one in the CPC range, capable of holding around 170k per disk across two sides. The drive only had one read/write head, so the disk had to be turned over to read the contents of the other side.

Speed wise, it was a huge step up from tapes, loading a typical 48k game in around 3-5 seconds depending on how it was presented – loading screen etc.

There are single keys for certain characters like quotes or delete, and the familiar keywords of the 48k days are no longer to be found apart from the odd, well used command like LOAD. If you switch to 48k mode though, they are still present – but 128k basic offers a much better typing experience – you don’t have to look for commands on the keys, just type them in fully.

Connectivity wise there are two joystick ports for Sinclair joystick on the left hand side, next to the reset button. At the back there is the normal ZX expansion port – featuring some annoying changes that means some peripherals no longer work. There is also an expansion for an external disk drive. There is a video out socket that allows the use of scart cables – a big improvement over RF, which is also still available if required. and finally there is an RS232 serial port that can double up as a midi port and also an auxiliary port.

There is an audio socket to load and save to tape, so you can still load in all you old games.

On the down side, every Plus 3 had a built-in sound fault. Sound via the television was distorted due to an error on the PCB. There are various ways to fix this issue that can be found on the internet, but I am not brave enough to attempt them sadly. The other common fault is the drive belt. This often decays leaving the drive inoperable. Luckily you can still get replacement belts and they are not too difficult to fix.

Loading and saving to disc was nowhere near as complex as using the ZX Microdrive, there was no strange command s to remember. Loading and saving used the same commands as tape, but because the A drive was the default storage system, the Plus three used that. Simple.

My plus 3 has been permanently setup right beside my PC since it arrived, and I have spent many a good hour converting my games across, saving them to disc and building boot menu’s. It’s everything I wanted my Spectrum to be in the 80’s and although it isn’t a Sinclair machine, it still has that special something.

See the video review in episode 14

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The Spectrum Show #13

Finally, after having to re-capture all of the video again and then re-rendering it out (see previous post for details!) Episode 13 of The Spectrum Show is complete.

In this episode we go back to March 1984 for the latest Sinclair news and top selling Spectrum games.

We follow the adventurers and trace the Adventure game from humble beginnings to animated graphical challenges.

We review some older games and take a look at a newer title.

As always, best viewed direct in YouTube because we are in HD now… enjoy. 

Friday, 1 February 2013

Adventure Gaming Roots

Adventure gaming began in 1976 when William Crowther created the very first text-based game,  written in a language called FORTRAN. The game was loosely based on a large cave that he had explored as a caver and was created on a PDP-10 mainframe. Shortly after, Don Woods found the game, and with Crowther's blessing, expanded it into what now is known as Colossal Cave, the grandfather of all adventure games.

The game was purely text based and accepted 1 or 2 word commands to guide the player through various puzzles in a bid to collect all of the treasure within the cave and return it safely to the house. From this single game spawned every other adventure game and it was no surprise that when home microcomputers came along in the early 80’s, people would begin to write their own versions and create new variants.

Because the game was text-only meant that almost any micro could be used as long as it had enough memory to hold the parser, objects, locations and mechanics of the game. The Spectrum had several versions of the classic, notably Adventure 1 from Abersoft (later bought and published by Melbourne House as Classic Adventure) and  Colossal Cave by Level 9.

Amongst the first wave of Spectrum spin-off adventures that moved away from caves and gave the player a different world to explore were ones produced by Artic Computing. There initial set proved very popular, frequently entering the top ten despite some very dodgy actions that could be performed on a female android in one game.

The only problem often raised was that sometimes the games proved difficult, not because of the actual challenges, but because the player had to guess the correct wording to use… do you use collect, get, pick up, take… to pick up an item? This is where magazines jumped on the band wagon, and began offering help pages for lost adventurers.

Text-only games relied heavily on the imagination of the player, much the same way a book does, but with the advance of computing power, graphics began to creep in. Initially they were poor line drawn squares, relegated to a small area at the top of the screen like Magic Mountain (left) from Phipps Associates, but as time went on, they slowly improved, filling the top, and sometimes the whole of the screen.

The major jump in advancement for the Spectrum came in 1983 when Melbourne House published The Hobbit. This game completely changed adventure gaming, providing a complex parser and rich graphics, coupled with a good story and large vocabulary. Like Colossal Cave before it, The Hobbit spawn a multitude of copies – some better than others.

Adventures began to grow and well known scenarios soon arrived, taking ideas from films, comic books and television. There has always been a niche market for adventure games, and a company called Gilsoft wanted to target this group when it launched the Quill, a utility that allowed people to create their own games. This had a knock-on effect of flooding the market with text-only games. Later an add-on allowed graphics to be added… again another flood of games.

The next logical major step was animation. Not only did we get text and graphics, but now moving images too, all to enrich our experience. These usually took the form of small animated characters like those in Valhalla or scenes to move the plot forward like those used in the Scot Adams games. Slowly the textual element of adventures was been eroded until we reached a new genre… The arcade adventure.

Text input for this new genre was either reduced significantly or eliminated altogether, as the player now relied on the graphics to portray the action, with just a few text prompts to help things along.

There were still some people willing to experiment though, one notable game was Slaine (left) from Martech. Here the player’s thoughts drifted around the screen and had to be selected to perform the action. This method was quite intuitive but difficult to control without a mouse and never really caught on.

With all of these new features, the games themselves could seem restricted, especially in size, but some games just grew to enormous proportions despite the limitations of memory. Lords of Midnight boasted 32,000 views, and although leaning towards Role Playing, it was still a part of the Adventure family.

Snowball from Level 9 claimed to have 2000+ locations using clever text compressor to fit it all into 48k. To get around this hardware and memory limitation, several companies began to think about supplying an expansion unit for the Spectrum, to allow for bigger and better games. Shadow of the Unicorn from Mikro-Gen, it is the only one that actually made it to release though, coming with a 16 ROM expansion that allowing for more data to be used.

Imagine were famously working on a similar concept for their much publicised but never completed game Bandersnatch, one of the two Mega-games that have since gone down in micro computing folklore. It seemed that the limitations of the Spectrum were holding adventures back, and the genre had gone as far as it could, at least on the 8 bit machines.

Some companies, like Magnetic Scrolls and Level 9, through Firebird, still put out quality games, relying on atmospheric text and complex game play. Despite this, the adventure game days were numbered, sadly along with the Spectrum itself.

Luckily, for any avid adventure fans, the Spectrum and the genre is not completely dead. Adventures are still being released, albeit slowly, with a great mix of puzzles, atmospheric text and sometimes even graphics.

The game format came along way from its early text only days, but some say you  still can’t beat the imagination when it comes to adventures.

You are in a splendid chamber thirty feet high. The walls are frozen rivers of orange stone.
What next?

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