Sunday, 25 August 2013

Rebel Planet (ZX Spectrum/CBM64/Amstrad/BBC/Acorn)


AdventureSoft UK Ltd

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The 5th of the six original adaptations of FF books for home computers appeared in 1986. Like Seas Of Blood before it and Temple Of Terror after it, RP was released in versions for the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad, BBC Micro and the woefully underpowered Acorn Electron. The latter two efforts were text only with no graphics, whilst the Spectrum, CBM64 and Amstrad versions were split-screen with graphics on the upper half and text on the lower.

You have to wonder exactly what the point is of a FF book adaptation for pc that turns out to just be rolling text on a screen with no visuals, so the BBC and Acorn attempts gain little from the conversion, other than the inconvenience of having to load the game, followed by having to stare at a screen and punch your moves into a keyboard until you either win, lose, or get a migraine. The three versions with graphics work far better, as would be expected, and the graphics are actually quite effective given the era. OK, they are a bit pixely and maybe a little over-the-top colour-wise, but they do suit the atmosphere and setting of the piece and are certainly more varied than the book version’s fairly insipid artwork. To my eye, the Commodore graphics are a little “softer” and less garish on this game than the Spectrum/Amstrad versions, but each to their own with this as I do find the Spectrum graphics from the mid-80s onwards quite harsh anyway. At least each change of location has its own image so the graphics change a lot and move with you, which is a nice touch and draws you into the proceedings (even though it would have been far more effective in the 80s as we are used to much more realistic graphics now.) As a neat touch, on some screens small animations even occur, such as on the bridge of your ship where a sense of forward movement is created by Elite-style stars travelling towards you. This works very well indeed.

The adventure itself is not a literal transplant of the book to the computer which is good inasmuch as it avoids a dull re-tread of familiar material with the added novelty (in 3 out of 5 cases, at least) of colour graphics with a few moving bits. Instead, this is a free and loose re-working whilst the overall mission and general themes are retained. Only three planets are involved (the decadent Radax is missed out) which removes most of the socio-political material that appears in the book, but you do get to explore your ship and there are several key items dotted about it, plus there is the challenge of negotiating the airlock every time you get in or out of it, which adds some playability. It took me ages to even work out how to get out of the ship, so this is clearly an extra added layer of thinking and realism that has been included so we need to be grateful that this little feature was programmed as the ship is hardly featured in the book version (save for the final trip to Arcadian.) The same basic premise is carried-over from the book so you are trying to achieve the same thing which gives the comforting feeling that this really is a FF computer game and I’d imagine most of its market was from FF fans so a link was necessary to avoid it seeming like a meaningless cash-in on the FF brand. However, the plot flow is suitably varied from the book to make it a worthwhile playing experience, without seeming like a duplicate with nothing new to interest you and encourage you to re-play.
In terms of gameplay, this has a lot going for it, although it is not without its snags. There is a very specific order of events needed to complete the game and it will take dozens of plays and re-plays to come even close to finding the true path. Whether anyone has managed it without the solution in front of them I can’t say, but, even as a seasoned FF player, I cannot see that many people would crack this given how convoluted the solution is. A complex game is a welcome challenge (although text adventures were notoriously difficult anyway) and there is much to discover in this game so the challenge level is good if a little weighted against you in terms of having to fathom out some tricky actions. A great inclusion is cause and effect (a feature of the book version as well) where an earlier action can/will impact what happens later on. The difference with the computer version is that it remembers what you’ve done and penalises you instantly once you reach the affected stage (eg: if you avoid the UFO at the start you get arrested as soon as you’ve found your way out of your airlock and into the first spaceport.) In the book you could cheat and pretend you hadn’t committed whatever misdeed means you are now in trouble, but the computer game knows and is remorseless. A nice piece of cheat-proofing that teaches you not to attempt the offending move again next time! This is also a clever bit of programming for the era and adds realism and fluidity to the proceedings.

Finding the solution definitely requires considerable thought on the player’s behalf (maybe more so than many of the books and other FF computer games where you can kill your way through a fair chunk of what you come up against) making it extremely difficult, but rewarding when you manage to crack each part of it. There is considerable realism in some of the fiddlier bits such as the constant need to get out and put away various items (remembering to remove your key card from the on-ship drinks machine and needing to keep hiding your laser sword are particularly thorough inclusions), but this also means you spend a lot of time keying in moves which does give something of a “stop-start” feel to it all. The ship sections can seem especially awkward in this sense as you key loads of commands in without achieving very much and progress throughout the game overall is slow. To compound this, there are some episodes where the time it takes you to decide what to do and punch it in is the same amount of time it takes whatever you are up against to decide it’s lost patience and “pulverise” you, as the game puts it. A big plus, however, is that this also adds a real-time feel and urgency to the game (you are on a covert suicide mission after all and will get rumbled if the authorities suspect you are up to no good) and the feature where you have to remember to check your energy levels and eat to avoid “energy depletion” is very realistic in this sense.

The question of typing in commands is a sticking-point for this game in more ways than just the sheer time involved in doing it. The blurb boasts that the game can understand 400 words which is impressive for a mid-80s game, but the way it handles vocabulary is inconsistent at best. Some commands need to be lengthy and very obvious in their meaning before the game lets you do them, whilst others can be simplified, and there is a lot of trial and error involved in figuring out which are which. In some cases, there is an inconsistency in how these are handled and as far as I can tell at least one of the words listed in the instructions doesn’t work at all. The game is well-known for its vocabulary bugs (although the CBM64 version seems to be more forgiving with this than the other versions) and this can mean that some of the more obscure or involved moves can take forever to fathom out, making the game even harder in this respect.

Whilst the book was undeniably tough, the binary solution mechanism was incredibly difficult to even notice, let alone get your head around. In this version, the binary is played down (thankfully) and whilst the all-important access codes are still in binary, there are only two of them and they are far more self-evident when your contacts give you them, which is something of a relief when you consider that simply getting out of your own ship is an obstacle to be overcome in the computer version!

One of the most FF-like features of the previous (bar WOFM) FF computer game adaptations was the dice-roll generator where big animated dice appear on screen and randomise numbers in front of you to add an element of RPG-ness and familiarity, as well as giving you a fair chance of success or failure. In RP this has been removed which is a plus and a minus: on the up-side, this makes it feel more free-flowing and more like a traditional real-time computer game as opposed to a RPG where you are regularly reaching for the dice to decide what happens next, but the downside is that you are at the mercy of what the game decides to do to you next and combats do seem like non-events as you either just kill your foe or quickly die without anything really happening in between. But, as the key here is stealth and cunning, you could also argue that combat is surplus to requirements and this does mirror the book where fighting is not encouraged and killing something almost always complicates and hinders your mission.

As this game appeared in the period when computer games came in double cassette boxes rather than the smaller type, the larger packaging afforded by this is very nicely put together. The cassette insert replicates the book’s cover in full and the wrap-around spine and back cover parts are in FF green (with FF logo) to make this feel like it really is part of the FF cannon (only this and the subsequent Temple Of Terror would be presented in this way.) An A4-sized insert explaining the background to your mission and the various control commands helps you to know what it is you’re trying to do and how to go about doing it and the package overall has a quality look to it. As was often the case with the later Spectrum/CBM64/Amstrad games, there is a loading screen image (of a green Arcadian’s face) for you to look at whilst you wait the three or so minutes for the game to load up and, whilst this doesn’t actually do anything, it does set the scene and all this together shows that a lot of effort has been put into the presentation of this game, which I, for one, appreciate.

As a point of note, this was the first FF computer adaptation to not explicitly use the Fighting Fantasy Software branding. Yes, the FF logo is on the back of the box insert and is on the cassette itself, but as Adventure International had gone bust part way through this game’s creation, AdventureSoft UK (the developers) joined forces with US Gold and this became the brand that would eventually distribute Rebel Planet. It also caused a complete reorganisation of the release schedule of the FF computer adaptations, as RP was meant to be released AFTER Temple Of Terror. The actual development schedule was also drastically revised, with the planned Appointment With FEAR and Demons Of The Deep being abandoned completely in favour of Sword Of The Samurai.

Rebel Planet is probably my favourite of the six original FF computer games. It replaces gamebook style touchy-feely features such as dice generators with a greater emphasis on causality and real-time urgency and survivalism. The little touches of movement in some of the imagery adds realism and the variation on a theme makes this seem not so familiar that it is old news whilst avoiding being so tangential that it bears no resemblance to the source material. It is challenging and interesting enough to quickly get you hooked, even if the command system takes ages to master and some of what you have to do takes a long time to work out. All things considered, this is definitely a worthwhile game to play and is far from just a home computer cash-in.

1 comment:

  1. Fumbling with the airlock was a feature in Strange Odyssey, the 6th game released by Adventure International. I recall it being pretty good for an early text adventure.