Fat Pixels, Fun Times: Great Vic-20 Games

I wanted to do a bit of a balancing entry to the one I did yesterday where I took the piss out of several bad Vic-20 games, lest I give the impression that I am a complete curmudgeon and that the Vic was incapable of hosting great games. For all its limitations the Vic was actually a great little machine, reasonably fast with some decent graphical capabilities if you didn’t mind pixels the size of house bricks, sturdy and reliable with a good keyboard (my original Vic-20 still works just fine to this day).

There weren’t any sprites or aught, so it was either use character mode or if you were super clever, write software sprite routines instead. Memory was at a premium too, but cartridge games didn’t use up any RAM for code and so were often able to produce decent games even within the constraints of the system’s 5.5K of unexpanded RAM.

Let’s kick off with one of my personal favourites, “Spiders of Mars” by Peter Fokos.

This is a fairly simple left/right Defender style scroller, characterised by its nice fluid movement (a rarity on the Vic) and escalatingly hectic gameplay. Objects in the game move fairly slowly, but as you work your way up through the levels the screen becomes filled with a metric arseload of baddies and insidious floating dust-mines. There was no autofire so one had to keep up a rapid firing cadence with the old thumb, something that was quite painful on the joysticks of the day.

My original Spiders of Mars cartridge went to one of my brothers along with one of my old Vics and I remember him saying even as late as the end of the 90s that he’d occasionally still drag out that old thing and play a game of SoM. The game stands up well to being revisited in emulation and remains a simple, fun and challenging blaster.

Interestingly enough the author Peter Fokos still works in games, but now he works for God and has done a Jesusly interpretation of Dance Dance Revolution called Dance Praise. But I’m sure he wouldn’t've got kicked out of Heaven for this excellent Vic shooter.

Next up: Omega Race.

This is a conversion which surely shouldn’t have worked out at all. Raster conversions of vector games tended to look ugly at the best of times, and the Vic’s gigantic pixels should have made this look like smeg. Instead it came out rather well – the aspect ratio of the pixels makes everything look a little odd, and yes everything’s blocky, but the motion is fluid and the ship turns and moves smoothly in a way that would have made S. Munnery weep if he’d had any shame. The rotation seems a bit quick and the thrust control a bit touchy but upon finding the actual arcade game some years later and playing it I can tell you that’s pretty much how it was on the coinop too. Presentation is great too, with a nice attract mode just like in the coinop, the option to use paddles or joysticks, and even to change the colour of the graphics. If you can get over the chunkiness and sound effects that only mildly make you think of Hoovers you’re in for a jolly nice and challenging arcade conversion.

Next: Predator by Tom Griner

This is a peculiar one, by Tom Griner who was for a while my stablemate at Human Engineered Software. Tom was quite prolific on the Vic and whereas his early games were often a bit crude (as were those of all of us I think) you could see that he was developing a remarkable degree of technical skill as he went along. By the time of Predator I think he was just about the best coder there was on the Vic. Sometimes the actual gameplay wasn’t that great but technically he could make the Vic sing. He was evidently a big fan of Eugene Jarvis and Robotron as will be evident when you look at this game – check out the proportional font work, the style of the hiscore tables and the enemy explosions – dude loved him some Jarvis that’s for sure. Beautiful presentation, technically lovely.

I was actually briefly in touch with TEG some years later when I was living in the US – we emailed briefly while he was working at Silicon Graphics, but then he kind of dropped out of touch after making some comment about how he didn’t approve of my “lifestyle choices”. Lordy knows what that was about.

But yes, a fantastic Vic-20 coder, no doubt about that.

Next up: something from a company not known for their Vic-20 presence…

Jetpac by Ultimate (or ACG as they were still known at that time).

Call me a heathen but I still think Jetpac was the best thing Ultimate ever did – you can keep the maze exploration things that came later and especially all that dreadful isometric stuff that was a massive triumph of tech over gameplay. Jetpac was frantic, fluid shooting action, borrowing a bit from Defender in style, tremendous fun to play on both the Speccy and in this Vic incarnation. It’s a bit flickery and chunky but who cares when it’s this good to play.

No need to say much more than that about it really, so let’s moo-ve on to:

Jelly Monsters, Commodore’s *ahem* unofficial clone of Pac-Man for the Vic. It may look a bit odd as due to screen space limitations they’ve left off the outer edge of the maze border entirely, but look past that and you’ll see how good this clone really is. Remember the Vic had no sprites, so they’ve implemented impressively large and smooth software ones, allowing the gameplay to be fluid and smooth-flowing. I’d go so far as to say this is one of the best conversions of Pac-Man on any of the 8-bit systems, including the “official” Atarisoft conversion which was OK but not nearly as good. It certainly puts to abject shame all the endless character-mode clones that the smaller software houses did (I myself bought the Bug Byte one which had the Pac-Man with the continuously flapping lips and I remember trying to convince myself that I didn’t really mind that it moved in huge character sized steps and was really difficult to get to go around corners properly; a delusion which did not survive once I laid eyes on Jelly Monsters).

Predictably enough Atari didn’t like this at all, and Commodore were forced to rework it into something involving satellites floating round a maze, which was still very nice (being based on the same code) but lacked the charm that the original had of being just an awesome home version of Pac-Man on a system that not many would’ve thought could sustain it.

To further illustrate the gulf between small tinpot software houses doing rubbish character-mode versions of arcade games and a decent developer with the advantage of working off a cartridge, remember that dog awful abomination Crazy Kong from Interceptor that I mentioned last entry, and then check out:

Donkey Kong on the Vic-20, the official (and excellent) Atarisoft conversion. Yes, it’s chunky as hell, because it’s in Vic-20 multicolour mode with pixels the size of Lego Duplo, but it’s again one of the best home versions of DK on any 8-bit system nonetheless, containing all the levels except the pie factory as most home versions back then did, but including intermissions such as the How High Can You Try screen and Kong falling off the girders on the rivets stage. Gameplay is fluid and well implemented making it fun to play and a credit to the Vic. Really jolly good. And you don’t keep turning into a green thing.

Finally let’s have a look at an excellent conversion of a simple game:

Commodore’s Vic Avenger, which was an unofficial but remarkably close clone of Taito’s Space Invaders. The screen looks a little bit cramped, as due to the Vic’s lower resolution than the coinop there’s not as much space for the Invaders to march left and right, but apart from that this version is probably a closer copy than most of the 8-bit versions. It was faithful enough that those of us who knew certain techniques that worked in the arcade version (like counting 22-14-14 to maximise the points you got for shooting the saucers, and the Execution Method where you culd exploit a bug which meant Invaders right on the lowest row close to the ground couldn’t shoot you) could apply exactly the same techniques on Vic Avenger and they’d work.

So yeah, the Vic may have had not much memory and got laughed at for having fat little pixels but in the right hands it was capable of some great games and fantastic arcade conversions, some of which could even be considered to be best in class when compared to other much more expensive 8-bit machines of the day.

There was still a load of wank out there too, mind, and I’ll be back to take the piss out of that some more in the not too distant future. But I’ll also be mentioning some more of the great stuff too. Got to be fair to my old mate Vic :) .

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