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Thursday, 5 December 2013

Dynamite Dan (Mirrorsoft, 1985)

Written by Rod Bowkett for the ZX Spectrum 48k, and is claimed to have been converted for the C64 by himself, but this information is currently unknown. Amstrad CPC conversion was made by Dalali Software Ltd. MSX conversion was made by Mr. Micro Ltd.

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GAME STATUS

It is time to write about another game that is more regarded as a cult favourite than a real classic. Granted, the basic game mechanics are very clearly copied from Jet Set Willy and the likes, so there is not all that much different to recommend itself. But regardless of the small amount of originality, I happen to like Dynamite Dan more than Jet Set Willy, most likely due to it being slightly more possible to complete - which I never did, without a cheat mode, that is.

At our favourite haunts, Dynamite Dan has earned a reasonably good reputation. At World of Spectrum, it has a score of 8.39 from 120 votes, placing it at #42 in their Top 100. Not too far behind, 28 Lemon64 voters have given it a 7.4. Generation MSX has given it a fairly good 3 out of 5 stars, and CPC Game Reviews website has given it an 8 out of 10. Additionally, the game was awarded the best platform game of the year according to the readers of the Crash magazine, and in 2004, the original ZX Spectrum version was voted the 24th best game of all time in a special issue of Your Sinclair magazine. Let's see how they really compare, then.

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DESCRIPTION & REVIEW


As you might have guessed, if you were not already aware, Dynamite Dan is a platforming action/adventure type of a game. Your mission is to collect eight sticks of dynamite, find the safe at the center of the map built of 56 screens, blow the safe door open, steal the evil Dr. Blitzen's plans and escape on the airship you entered the building from. Although you have no weapons, as these sorts of games rarely did in those days, you have nine lives, a very accurate jumping manner and some other helpful items to collect in the building, such as extra lives, invulnerability potions and items that will replenish your ever-diminishing energy bar. A nice little touch is the oxygen tank to help you get back to the blimp if you happen to fall into the river, assuming you have picked up an oxygen tank, of course.

The map wraps around at the central lift, so it never gets too confusing. Also, to help you move from place to place, Dr. Blitzen has conveniently placed some teleports around the building. What makes planning your route a bit more challenging is that the collectable items are placed randomly for each game, so you really have no option but to play it and play it some more until you are comfortable enough with every screen.

My first time playing Dynamite Dan was probably in 1986, and back then, I played it more than I care to remember. See, I never actually completed the game fair and square. The only time I have managed to see the ending was a couple of years ago on the C64 with a cheat mode on, and I'm still unable to really describle how difficult the final bit was, inside the central safe. And that is a definite downer for a gamer that has once managed to get that far. Even getting the secret plans and escaping on the blimp is as rewarding as the ending for the two Saboteur games, so I couldn't really recommend working too hard on that goal, unless you live in 1985. See, when you finally complete the game, you will receive a secret code that you would have to decipher and call a certain phone number to win a prize to ride in the Mirrorsoft blimp. Of course, nowadays the number no longer works, so there exists no additional incentive to finish the game now, apart from getting a closure on that age-long quest of finishing Dynamite Dan.

But you see, the biggest difference between Jet Set Willy and Dynamite Dan is that this one is more enjoyable to stroll through and hone your platforming skills. And for two games of such a similar execution, that's an enormous advantage. So, if you happen to be looking for a classic platformer, or even a cult classic for an option, I'd say Dynamite Dan is one of the best options available.

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LOADING

For a change, we actually have an all-tape loading times comparison here, so it might have some effect on the final scores. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a hold of every single version there is, but at least all the original Mirrorsoft releases have been preserved. Here are the results as far as I could find:

C64, Mirrorsoft: 2 minutes 54 seconds
C64, Beau-Jolly #1: 3 minutes 20 seconds
C64, Beau-Jolly #2: 2 minutes 51 seconds
CPC, Mirrorsoft: 6 minutes 3 seconds
MSX, Mirrorsoft, 2400 baud: 4 minutes 18 seconds
MSX, Mirrorsoft, 1200 baud: 8 minutes 8 seconds
SPE, Mirrorsoft side 1: 2 minutes 41 seconds
SPE, Mirrorsoft side 2: 5 minutes 10 seconds
SPE, MCM: 5 minutes 6 seconds
SPE, Silverbird: 4 minutes 51 seconds
SPE, Circulo de Soft: 5 minutes 46 seconds

Loading screens, left to right: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, MSX.
So, the only two versions to almost match the Spectrum original were both for the C64. I found a disk version for the Amstrad from one of the leading Amstrad games database websites, but it seemed like an unofficial release, so I have not included it in the list. Also, other than the original Mirrorsoft tape on the Amstrad were either somehow enhanced or didn't work at all. But nevermind that, the original is all we really need. My original MSX tape was destroyed a good while ago by a bad tape drive, but from what I remember, the tape loaded in the faster baud rate. The times were taken from a .cas file converted to two different .wav files. You see the MSX loading screen on the right side of the loading screenshots comparison above. The C64 never had a proper loading screen, which is really a pity, as all the other versions had their own distinctive loading screen. The Amstrad loading screen isn't much to look at, but at least it's there. Clearly, the original on the left is the most imaginative, artistic, and stylish.

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PLAYABILITY

Controlling Dan is a very straightforward affair - you only move left or right, and then you jump either diagonally or straight up, by pushing the jump button while moving or standing still. The jump is always the same kind, unless you happen to be climbing stairs. Using the lift is just a matter of timing - you walk on the lift and it will take you either up or down, depending on its direction. If the lift happens to be off-screen, it will arrive on the screen you inhabit after a short while, instead of moving through the whole length of the shaft. The only real dangers in terms of unpredictability are the randomly pulling magnetic vents that usually have enemies moving inside them, and you still sometimes have to move through or around them, so completing the game without losing any lives is practically impossible. But since you have nine lives, and extra lives are easy to pick up, you should have very little to worry about, if you are good enough at jumping around otherwise.

As far as I can tell, the original Spectrum version and the MSX conversion play the same. The collision detection is spot on, and everything moves in a similar rhythm. The only things that I am unable to judge on are the randomly pulling vents, and the evil doctor's safe, because I'm not all that good at this game.

On the C64, the collision detection is just slightly off, usually colliding with enemies without even actually touching them. The game also plays a bit slower than on the other machines, but it has probably something to do with the graphics, which don't have the attribute clash, and furthermore, every room seems to be drawn separately as to make it work as well as it can, for who knows what reason. This makes the gameplay even slower, because switching from screen to screen is a tad on the slower side, but you probably wouldn't even notice it, had you not played the other versions. Also, as a slightly less important side-note, the C64 version is the only one in which you can't redefine keys, but as you will most likely be using a joystick, it shouldn't matter all that much.

Dan on the Amstrad is the only one that looks remarkably different, so it might take the focus away from the gameplay, which isn't all that different, really. In fact, the only thing I can notice that is different about the gameplay is the speed, which is slightly slower than the original, but the screen changes aren't as slow as on the C64. However, I haven't been able to tell whether the different graphics have brought along a change in enemy movement ranges and all these sorts of minuscule things, so I'm guessing it's all just as it should be. If anyone out there is a professional Dynamite Dan player, and has nothing else to do in his/her life, maybe you can tell the differences and will be kind enough to inform the rest of us of all the different ranges of every single enemy in pixels. For an all-around gamer, there is no noticeable difference.

As such, the differences are so minuscule that everything will work fine for anyone who wants to have a go at it, but of course, to get the original experience, you would have to go for the Spectrum version. Although the MSX version seems to be just as good. The C64 version is the clear loser here, only by the differences in collision detection and screen drawing times.

1. SPE/MSX
2. AMSTRAD
3. C64

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GRAPHICS

Before going into the game itself, let's take a look at the menus. Here, we can already see some of the basic differences in different versions, most particularly the Amstrad conversion. But since the differences are not only graphical, I thought it might be interesting to compare them side by side in this instance. The MSX is the only version to include a demo (which only shows some different screens of the game without actual gameplay), and the word "return" instead of "enter" although the C64 certainly also has a "return" key instead of "enter". Well, these are very minor complaints, but needs to be pointed out. Another very minor complaint: the C64 version has a different font than the two other similar looking versions. But really, these are all non-existant problems compared to the blocky mess that is presented on the Amstrad.

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

Basically, the graphics in the original version of Dynamite Dan can be divided into two: the moving sprites that only have one colour in addition to black, and the more colourful items and solid blocks that are built of 8x8 characters, often of different colourings, such as red-on-cyan. Every sprite is animated in a good number of frames and in good detail, and even in places that might not even need animation, some palette runthroughs have been put in to give as much life into the graphics as possible. So, although the graphics are for the most part made of high-resolution monochrome sprites, all the other elements make the game look incredibly colourful and full of life. Indeed, Dynamite Dan has some of the most enjoyable graphics I have ever seen on a Spectrum game. Even the dreaded attribute clash has been managed to cut down to a minimum by simple things like painting Dan and the lift in the same colour, and making Dan turn into a silhuette in the flashing colour frame of the teleports. Most of the important graphics issues have been shown in the screenshots comparisons below for each machine, starting with the Spectrum one.

ZX Spectrum screenshots.
Following closely in the footsteps of the original, the MSX conversion differs from the Spectrum in such a small amount, that apart from the natural MSX palette, which seems to lean towards a bit lighter and greener shade, I really cannot tell if there is any mentionable difference. Only the loading screen is different, but that is more a matter of opinion.

MSX screenshots.
Although the C64 version has a problem with slightly slower screen-flicking method, the unknown converter has clearly taken advantage of the C64's hardware sprite capabilities. Here, the player character is a multicolour hi-res sprite, and looks the same even when stepping into the teleport - the same effect can be noted even in the lift, as it stays white while you stay as a multicolour sprite, and no attribute clash happens. On the Spectrum and MSX, the player sprite is the same colour as the lift because of this. Too bad the C64 version plays slightly slower than the original, particularly when changing screens, as it really makes the gameplay less fluent.

Commodore 64 screenshots.
Finally, the Amstrad conversion really looks like a different game, or at least a really different machine trying to play the same game. Sure, the game plays faster than the C64 conversion, although not quite as fast as the original, but the graphics are horribly blocky and sometimes even a bit flickery. You do have the multicoloured main sprite, but it helps very little to make the experience wholly enjoyable. Luckily, the graphics are a fairly small annoyance this time, as the game plays much like it should.

Amstrad CPC screenshots.
As the main fight is between the C64's slow screen changes and Amstrad's blockiness, I can't really decide which is worse, and so I must make them share the second place. Also, since the Spectrum and MSX only really have a difference in palette, I can't with a good conscience give either one the first place alone. Thus...

1. SPE/MSX
2. C64/AMSTRAD

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SOUNDS


Since Dynamite Dan originated on the 48k Spectrum, the original soundtrack was made to be played on the Spectrum's in-built monosonic speaker. As such, the game has some incredibly recognizable sound effects and little tunes to mark your collecting certain kinds of items and other happenings. The main theme tune is a wonderfully cheery rendition of the third movement from Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331, with some very good usage of fast arpeggios to create the illusion of chords. In my mind, this is one of the best examples of how to use a single-channel sound chip to a great advantage.

The C64 soundtrack, for once, sounds dull in comparison to the original. All the sound effects and tunes are pretty much the same as on the Spectrum, but without any of the crispness and electricity of the original, and Rondo Alla Turca is missing the cheery arpeggios. Somehow, the Commodore gamers only got a very straight, but soft, muffled and uninspired conversion.

Strangely enough, the two others don't have it much better. The Amstrad conversion sounds the most cheery of the three, but still is missing something important from the overall feel to the whole soundscape. The MSX even has some effects in a completely wrong key, and some of the effects are just not as effective. For the first time, it seems like the computer with the least sound capabilities takes the cake.

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

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OVERALL

And so we come to the final scores again. This time, I can safely say, whether the result is mathematical or not, I can completely agree on the list. Since we are now including the loading scores in the final results, we have two slightly different, if not very defining, scores.

1. SPECTRUM: Playability 3, Graphics 2, Sounds 4, Loading 4 = TOTAL 9/13
2. MSX: Playability 3, Graphics 2, Sounds 1, Loading 2 = TOTAL 6/8
3. AMSTRAD: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 3, Loading 1 = TOTAL 6/7
4. C64: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 2, Loading 3 = TOTAL 4/7

Although this list might seem a bit harsh, this is really how I feel it should be. However, all of the four contestants are very playable, and should be tried out on whichever machine you happen to own, if not even all of them. It certainly is a very good game in its genre, whichever the computer, so don't miss it.

Dynamite Dan had a sequel in 1986, which was released only on the Spectrum and Amstrad computers, and got very positive reviews, but I haven't really played it properly. Apparently it's even better than the first one, but this is the one I grew up with, and know better, and it really made for a better comparison. Apparently, the original DD even was remade for the Sega Megadrive, so I might take a closer look at it later, if I can find it, and put it in the updates list that seems to be growing lately.

Thanks for reading again, hope you enjoyed it!
Comments, suggestions and corrections are welcome as always.

3 comments:

  1. This really takes me back. It was like Manic Miner of steroids with twice the difficulty.

    It was indeed one of the best looking games on the spectrum. Clean but colourful and crispy graphics.

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  2. Did a remake of this back in 2010 but didn't finish it.

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    Replies
    1. Well hey, now's as good a time as ever! =D

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