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Thursday, 14 November 2013

Jack The Nipper (Gremlin Graphics, 1986)

Written by Greg Holmes and Peter M. Harrap for the Amstrad CPC, MSX and ZX Spectrum.
Conversion for the C64 was coded by Jason Perkins and Mark Rogers. Graphics for the C64 version was made by Buck Rogers, Greg Holmes and Steve Curry. Music for the C64 version written by Ben Daglish.
Music for the ZX Spectrum version written by Nick Laa.
Additional odd bits for the ZX Spectrum version by John Holmes.

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GAME STATUS

A relatively quick comparison this time, just to catch up on my imaginary quota. This game was requested by one of my band mates a while ago, so this one goes to Tero H., thanks for the suggestion. The reason why I did not make this a two-fer and include the sequel is simply, that I never got anywhere in Jack The Nipper II: in Coconut Capers, so I'm not anywhere near qualified enough to talk about it.

The original Jack The Nipper has a certain status in gaming history - not because it was in any way unique, but because it's loaded with a sense of humour rarely seen in games like these. The game has an overall respectable score on every platform it was released on: World of Spectrum users have given it a 8.25 with 93 votes, almost bringing it into the Top 100 list; Lemon64 users have given it a 7.1 with 55 votes; at Generation MSX the game has a rating of four stars out of five, with 14 votes, and at CPC Game Reviews, the game has earned a whopping 9 out of 10. Considering the game's genre, the Amstrad version actually might have a fair chance at topping our comparison this time. But let's see...


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DESCRIPTION & REVIEW

Since Pyjamarama came out in 1984, side-view arcade adventures came to be one of the biggest genres in British game development for a certain period of time. While Mikro-Gen was the originator of this particular sub-genre, many companies tried to follow suit with similar games, such as City Slicker from Hewson, Grumpy Gumphrey Supersleuth from Gremlin, The Ice Temple from Bubble Bus, Sorcery from Virgin Games, and so on. Some succeeded in creating their own variation of the genre, some were doomed to failure. Before Codemasters struck the goldmine with their Dizzy series, Gremlin had a good go with Jack The Nipper. The idea of having a naughty baby wreaking havoc all over town could've easily been derived from real life, but the character was actually loosely based on the British comic strip character, Sweeney Toddler. Just as Pyjamarama's Wally Week got his own comic strip to be published in Your Sinclair since issue #1 in 1986, Jack The Nipper got his own comic strip in April 1987.

The big difference in Jack The Nipper to other side-view arcade adventures is that it has a bit of pseudo-3D thing going on, as the screens have a sense of depth in them that you can exploit to some extent. You can also shoot some of the enemy sprites, once you have acquired the pea shooter, but since you can only carry two items at a time in your inventory, you should only pick it up when you really need it. If you drop an item from a height, it will fall down and crash, after which you will lose the item for the rest of the game, so be careful. Then again, some items are meant to be dropped at certain places, so you really need to know what you're doing. In a way, Jack The Nipper games have a certain degree of realism, but it only goes so far as to getting into trouble when breaking things for your own amusement, but nevermind that now.

Your mission, then, is to cause mayhem wherever you go in the most effective way you can think of: poisoning flowers at the park, blowing up the computers at the computer store "Just Micro", glueing false teeth at Gummo's Chomping Molars, and all that sort of thing. Surely you can think of something wicked by yourself, right? The game is completed once your naughty-o-meter has been filled. You have five lives to spare, and although nothing will instantly kill you, there's enough mischief to do that makes staying alive a real chore, when you have adult people, animals, ghosts, killer plants and other strange things coming for you. Colliding with your enemies increases your diaper rash meter, and once that meter is filled, you'll lose a life. The angrier your enemies are, the more difficult it is to avoid them, and the more effective their attacks at you are. At least you can use
the pea shooter to ease your way to some extent.

It's been almost twenty years since I last completed this game, and it was on the Commodore 64, and I completed it with a walkthrough. I remember this game was more logical in its puzzles than, say, the ones from Mikro-Gen, but to go through this as quickly as possible, I'm still going to need some help, so it won't take me too many weeks with this one game. That's not to say it's a bad game - I'm openly admitting as to never being all that good with this genre, so I can't give it much of a review from my point of view, unlike so many magazine reviewers. The actual navigating bit can be a bit bothersome, if you're not used to this sort of control, but interacting with objects and accomplishing something can feel pretty good. It's a game for persistent gamers, who can handle the joystick well and their mind better. If you're like me, and just want to see what happens and do it as fast as possible, you can find a map and solution on the internet - here's one for the original at least.

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LOADING


Once again, we have some unsure entries in the loading times comparison, which are actually all of the disk versions, plus the MSX tape. The only available disk version for the C64 that I could find on the internet was a patched version, so I can't be sure how close to the original its loading time is, and I'm still not able to tell whether the Spectrum and Amstrad disks load up as fast in reality as they do on the emulators. The MSX tape was converted to WAV using the 2400 baud handling, which takes half the time to load from the slower, 1200 baud rate, and that's how I got the time for that one. So, again, because it's such an uncertain result of a half-arsed research, I will refrain myself from adding these to the final scores.

AMSTRAD TAPE: 4 minutes 26 seconds
AMSTRAD DISK: 6 seconds (?)
C64 DISK: 1 minute 12 seconds (patched)
C64 TAPE: 3 minutes 31 seconds
MSX TAPE: 5 minutes 18 seconds
SPECTRUM TAPE, ORIG: 2 minutes 38 seconds
SPECTRUM TAPE, KIXX: 5 minutes 19 seconds
SPECTRUM DISK: 17 seconds (?)


Loading screens from Amstrad (left) and Spectrum (right).


Two loading screens were to be found this time, and they come from the Amstrad and the Spectrum versions. It isn't too difficult to see the Amstrad screen beats the Spectrum's similar, but less colourful presentation by a mile. Again, this will not affect the graphics score, but in this case, it might not even have much effect if it did. Now, let's move on to more important things.

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GAMEPLAY

Controlling little Jack is, let's say, not quite self-explanatory. On the ground level, your normal movement goes by width and depth, and if you have the pea shooter, you can only shoot sideways, but pressing down the button and pulling the joystick either left or right, and you can only have one shot at a time going through the screen. You can jump from ground up by moving up and diagonally while pushing the button, and once you're above the ground level on a platform, you can jump without pressing the fire button. Picking up and dropping items are cleverly hinted at with your two pockets, so the interaction happens with pressing the keys 1 and 2 on the keyboard. Going through doors is handled by pressing the ENTER/RETURN key. Only the C64 version handles slightly differently. You can jump almost anywhere - you need only to push the button while moving. So, this means you can not use the pea shooter while moving, nor while you're on a platform, not that it would have much use there anyway, because none of your enemies will ever be in heights.

And that's pretty much all there is to it. From the three clearly most similar versions, the Amstrad plays just a bit faster than the other two, but it's only noticeable in some screens with more enemies, and usually Jack's jumping is just a bit faster.

As for the Commodore version, it's almost a completely different game, gameplaywise. There are some added features and objects, but the biggest difference of all: Jack moves very fast. This makes the game a whole lot easier in most situations, because you can easily outrun any angry mobs and other nuisances, which you can't really do in other versions - so it's not as much a puzzle/strategy game as it is an action game. Sure, there's still some puzzle elements - you have to combine two items at certain places in order to make them work, and you can't use the same key to get through the secret passages in the museum and the bank (now there's two different ones), you can do multiple things in certain screens - that sort of stuff. One rather singular effect I found really interesting compared to the other three: in the screen with the flowers you can destroy, they remain in the three other versions as some kind of ghost flowers that drain your energy and block your path. On the C64, they do go away entirely, but the man in the screen will remain forever angry at you for destroying his flowers. Afterwards, you can grow some flesh-eating monster flowers in the same screen, which you can shoot at, although they will grow back every time you go out of the screen. I'm sure there's some other similar changes in the C64 version, but that's all I could find for now.

So, it's another case of which style of playing suits you the best. The C64 version is by far the quickest, and most fun to play. The other versions make you think more on your moves, and they are slower to play, but fun in their own way. Amstrad seems to have the best of both worlds - it's slightly faster than the other two of the three normal versions, and it still requires the player to think a bit more. The Commodore version has more to do, though, and has some elements in it that the other do not. Only the MSX version is a bit of a let-down, because I was expecting it to be at least a bit different, but it's too close to the Spectrum to be considered interesting. But because it plays as well as the original, they'll have to share the spot. Also, because the C64 and Amstrad have such a different combination of good elements, I'll have to tie them as well, because it's all about opinions. So, this is how they line up:

1. AMSTRAD/C64
2. SPECTRUM/MSX

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GRAPHICS

Let's start with comparing the title screen, which in some cases acts as a controls menu simultaneously. Clearly, the C64 version has the biggest title logo, and there's even some shiny effects in it as well - but that's not all: the screen also has a nice, long scroller text, telling you who did this product. The other three have very little info in comparison, and even less graphics and animation, although some of the texts have a little bouncy animation.

Title screens, left to right:
ZX Spectrum, MSX, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64


When the title tune has been played to its end, the title screen turns to a little demo screen, where little Jack walks from right to somewhere in the middle, whistles and turns back, leaving a taunt of sorts. In the three regular versions, the screen is just a regular, white, nondescript street bit with no attributes whatsoever, and Jack's messages are either "When you're ready!", or "Come on play the game! You're not a wimp are you?". The Commodore has a very much enhanced version of this skit: Jack gives you one of three messages: "When you're ready!", "Come on play the game!" or "You're not a wimp are you?", and the background screen is taken randomly from the game itself. While this is happening, the scrolling text continues to scroll under the action screen.

Jack's taunting bit during the theme tune pauses.
Left to right: ZX Spectrum, MSX, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64
Since the game originated on the Spectrum, it's not really a surprise that the game was not very colourful. Good and sharp hi-res graphics, yes, but there was very little colour in the game. Having the well-known attribute clash problem, the best option was to have no multiple colours to speak of, if you wanted to avoid it. Of course, having more colours might have affected the playability as well as the visual credibility.


Screenshots from the ZX Spectrum version.


The MSX seems to have a direct line-to-line copy of the Spectrum original, so it doesn't really surprise you anywhere - only the palette is a bit different, but that's natural.

Screenshots from the MSX version.


Luckily, the Amstrad conversion has some interesting colour choices, most notably the split screen background colour, which makes the below half look very neat. In the action screen, there seems to be a maximum of four colours at once, which is still a whole lot better than on the Spectrum and MSX with their maximum of three colours, although in most screens only two colours are used.

Screenshots from the Amstrad CPC version.
Of course, it comes as no surprise that the C64 version adds a whole lot of colours, while changing some hi-res graphics to lower resolution sprites. Even though the game is basically a flick-screener, the more colourful and interesting backgrounds, the new objects and higher playing speed is a joy to watch. There's even a sliding effect when the screen changes, so there's much more to see here, even if some of the things are not quite as pretty as in the other three versions.

Screenshots from the Commodore 64 version.
Once more back to the differences already mentioned while talking about the intro bits, the game over screens are similarly done to how the Jack's taunting screen was between the theme song pauses. This happens no matter how well you perform, so that's as boring on every platform. Although, if it weren't for the differences in intro screens (and  thus the game over screens), the Amstrad version could have tied again with the C64 version. As it is, it's only a very close second.

Game Over screens, left to right:
Commodore 64, MSX, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum
1. C64
2. AMSTRAD
3. SPECTRUM/MSX

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SOUNDS

The theme tune is a short polkaesque piece with a nice, playful melody. In the original Spectrum and Amstrad versions, it doesn't sound very good, though - it has no natural complexity and even the last bit sounds wrong, like it was either supposed to continue somewhere or they just forgot to fix the last chord. Ben Daglish took the theme tune and made it sound more like proper music on the C64.

Spectrum and MSX gamers will have to do without an in-game tune, but the in-game tune on the Amstrad is a strange 9/8 loop of four bars that sound like a twisted version of a nursery rhyme or something. Normally, I would love a bit of progressiveness and tricky sounds, but this is just grinding. Luckily, you can turn the music off by pressing M on the keyboard, and you're still left with the sound effects, which are similar to what you get on the Spectrum and MSX. So, just for having a tune as an alternative, even though it's not very nice, the Amstrad version earns a good bonus.

Naturally, with Ben Daglish on board this one version, there's nothing to do but win. You start off the game on C64 with nothing but sound effects, which are very fine, but if you want to hear an energetic and groovy tune that goes well with the energy of the game, you need to collect the Walkman (tm) and headphones to have both simultaneously in your inventory. Then, the music will begin to play and the sound effects will go away. This, I do like to listen to, sometimes even while I'm not playing this game, that's how good it is.

For this one occasion, I can separate the MSX version from the Spectrum, because it does have a certain difference. The Spectrum sounds come from the beeper, making it sound almost like any other Spectrum game, but the MSX has its own distinctive sound, even though everything is basically the same as in the Spectrum. It just sounds better.

1. C64
2. AMSTRAD
3. MSX
4. SPECTRUM


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OVERALL

This is another one of those games that will only divide the gamers. I can't say whether this is one of those games that should be regarded as one of the more important games to have this effect on retrogamers in particular or not, but I can say that each party will have their own opinion on the matter. Some people will always have their strange preferences to one way instead of the other. Mathematics will never lie, though.

1. C64: Playability 2, Graphics 3, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 9
2. AMSTRAD: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 7
3. MSX: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 4
4. SPECTRUM: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 3

To be honest, I really wasn't expecting this result - I'm usually kind of taking sides with the original version, because it's the original, but this time I was really hoping the Amstrad version would take the cake. And had it not been for the amazing soundtrack on the C64, it would have had a tough competition with the Amstrad. The game originated on the Spectrum, though, so there might be something still worth looking for, but this is more of a quick checklist for the gamers who have never played Jack the Nipper and want to have a quick go at it. I'm giving you the easy way out here, so go on, be a wimp, see if I care. It's a very good game on all platforms, but the most instantly enjoyable one really is on the C64. So whichever machine you happen to own, this game is not a bad piece to own in your collection, but don't base your choice of machinery hunting on this.

Anyway, as already mentioned, Jack The Nipper had a sequel, which is also a very nice game, but I confess to be utterly bollocks at it on all platforms, and I will not write a comparison of it. If someone else wants to jump in and do me a favour, you're very welcome.

That wraps it for this time. Comments, corrections and suggestions are always welcome, so as little Jack would say: Don't be a wimp! ;-)
Thanks for reading, see you next time!

3 comments:

  1. Playability 1 for the Spectrum version? 1 for the graphics? No, no, no. At least 2 for playability and graphics (but for that little bit of color only) in my opinion :-)

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  2. Nope. The Spectrum version plays a tad slower than the Amstrad version - some clear slowing down going on with jumping, particularly when there's too much other moving sprites in the room. Graphics... well, it's your opinion, as you pointed out, but you can't deny the Amstrad version has more colour, therefore it earns that one point more. I will not change anything based on an opinion, nor because it's more impressive on that particular machine. The points are given not based on the machine the game is played on, but rather for each game version's own merits as far regardless of the machine as possible. But thanks for the interest.

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  3. Funnily, the CPC version doesn't really have "more colours" on screen, but while spectrum/MSX would put the monocolour on the playfield to dodge character colour clashes, CPC makes full use of its 4 colours with no attributes, and even add a raster between playfield and info-zone to have an extra colour on screen. This really add extra playability and visibility, sadly many speccy ports wouldn't even re-do the graphics like this.

    hey, should go for the Dizzy series by the Oliver Twins.

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