Saturday 29 June 2013

The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain (ZX Spectrum)


Crystal Computing

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The sudden runaway success of FF coincided conveniently with home computers experiencing the same boom, in particular the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. It’s hard in retrospect to grasp the concept of a computer with 48K of memory (or a monumental 64K in the case of the Commodore!) being the pinnacles of achievement in personal computers to date, but that was the case in 1984 when the ZX Spectrum arcade adaptation of the first FF book appeared on the shelves in high street stores everywhere. I remember this game coming out. I also remember having no interest in it at all at the time in spite of being an avid Spectrum user. I was a purist - FF came in book form and shouldn’t be messed about with, but I did succumb a few years later and borrowed the Spectrum version from a friend. As with all Spectrum games, this came on cassette and you had to sit through the “bleurgh, blip, bleurgh, gizza, gizza, gizza” sounds accompanied by the epileptic-fit inducing dancing coloured stripes up the side of the loading screen for the customary few minutes and then wait and see if it instantly crashed as soon as you started playing it. Surprisingly, this game was unusually reliable as Spectrum games went and rarely packed-up on you as you tried to play it.

The cassette inlay features a cropped version of just the dragon from the cover of the original book as well as the original text font so you can comfortably expect this to be a faithful adaptation of the book but in arcade form. A pretty exciting idea, although you do wonder how 48K of memory, about twenty-odd different BEEP command sounds, eight colours, and only one possible on-screen text font will ever possibly cope with what would have to be a pretty elaborate programme. As soon as you start playing, it becomes apparent that the programmers have addressed these obstacles by ignoring the book completely and attaching the title to a totally unrelated arcade maze that plays like a slightly better version of their earlier highly-acclaimed (and almost identical) Hall of the Things Spectrum game.

There are certainly some connections to the book, but these are no more unique to WOFM than to any other generic fantasy game. You have to work your way through a big maze, fighting orcs, spiders, and slime moulds (whatever they are), collecting 15 keys on the way. Eventually comes the showdown with the Warlock himself and then you nick his treasure. So at least the climax is the same, even if it’s dumbed-down to just a pretty tough fight minus all the card deck, old/young Zagor, etc interesting intricacies of the book version. As a slight variation, you carry a sword and a bow and can switch between these at will, which makes it possible to kill both up close and from a safe distance, which does add playability.

There are some nice touches to this game, considering it came early in the home computer era, so massive spectacle can hardly be expected. There is, after all, a giant leap for mankind in terms of technical achievement from Pong to something like Halo, and this game sits about 5% of the way in! Each time you restart the game, the maze is randomly generated so no two games are alike, which is a big advantage over the linearity of the books and makes replay an almost unlimited possibility. It also makes this game very difficult as you have to start totally from scratch every time and, with 15 keys to find, this is a lengthy undertaking akin to the big map Spectrum games where you had to find stuff like Atic Atac or Jet Set Willy (and even these don’t re-arrange themselves every time you start over.) There is a touch of realism in that the encounters don’t just shuffle from side-to-side along a line of pixels. They will actually try to attack you and will chase you around the maze, which is quite clever and realistic in the context of what was possible at the time. Plus, the creature combats are very difficult because, before you’ve had time to select your weapon, the spider or orc will have eaten up half your Health while you think about what to do and find the right button on the keyboard, and it’s with the keys that this game really becomes complicated. There are so many controls (all very close together on the keyboard) that you either need to be an octopus or have a second player helping you to stand any chance of being able to move, un-sheath your sword, fire your bow, open a door, etc and get your mind and fingers working in harmony enough to play smoothly. You know that when the control instructions fill the whole screen you are going to struggle a) to remember even half of them, and b) to be able to execute many of the moves to be able to get anywhere.

Another nice bit of programming is that the screen scrolls in all four directions, rather than being a screen at a time that jerks over to the next page when you exit stage left or right like so many games of the era do. Apparently, the programmers only had three weeks in which to code this game so, credit where credit is due, this is put together very well in terms of actual game mechanics and the limitations of the era.

The cassette’s inlay card proudly boasts that this is “a fantasy game with revolutionary graphics” but the fairly simple human sprites, spider sprites, and orc sprites, along with zig-zaggy red walls, on an otherwise featureless black background are hardly going to take the world by storm (even in 1984.) Frankly, the similarly-era’d Horace games actually had more impressive graphics than this and the on-screen appearance would remind me of the Spectrum game Tiler if it was set at night. Marketing has a lot to answer for and anyone expecting anything remotely resembling a computer visualisation of Russ Nicholson’s book art is going to be bitterly disappointed. Indeed, anyone expecting an adaptation of SJ and IL’s FF book will also be pretty unhappy with this game!

This was the only attempt to make a proper full FF arcade game for the Spectrum/Commodore, with all their future FF adaptations being more traditional text adventures with fairly perfunctory screen images to accompany the written words, so credit has to be given for trying something more interactive and playable, rather than just putting the book’s pages onto the screen which is a bit pointless really as you might as well just read the (better-illustrated) FF books instead. This game was available in just cassette form or in a “Software Pack” with the book also included so you could experience both the written and the arcade versions. This must have been a fairly weird experience as the two are so unrelated (other than the actual goal) that there are basically no connections in terms of environment, events, or encounters, other than the tenuous link that orcs and spiders (and Zagor) appear in both so the pack pretty much gave you two different games.

On the plus side, from the abstract angle of Spectrum games of the era, this game does have some functionality that was rare at the time. From the perspective of an adventure game, it is very different from the fall-back of just transferring text to the screen and, even if it is just a blank maze containing nothing more than doors, three types of monster, and keys, it is a welcome departure that suggested there was more to come - for many, the pinnacle of this concept would be Gauntlet which even came with add-on levels on further cassettes to keep the game and your character moving on in a more free RPG style.

Sadly, approaching this as a FF-related computer game, there is little to recommend as it could have been released with just about any other fantasy-style title and you would be none-the-wiser as to what it was meant to be. The first release in the Puffin Personal Computer Collection just comes across as a blatant cash-in on FF's success and is basically just a computer game that has nothing to do with FF whatsoever.

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