Friday, 14 March 2014

TWOFER #5: Action Biker + Bump, Set, Spike! (Mastertronic, 1985/86)


Action Biker (1985)

Atari 800/130 and Commodore 64 versions written by an unknown programmer ; Music by Rob Hubbard ; ZX Spectrum version written by M.J. Child

Bump, Set, Spike! (1986)

Commodore 64 version written by Ken Grant ; Title screen by Sean Grant ; Music by Rob Hubbard ; ZX Spectrum & Amstrad CPC versions written by Paul Ranson with graphics by Peter Ranson ; Spectrum title screen by Ray Owen

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INTRODUCTION & GAME STATUS, PLURAL


For a change, I will take a look at two games I have had very little experience previously. One of the reasons for doing so is because I have been requested of these two games, and the other is because it's time I educate myself further on these two questionable Mastertronic classics. For another Two-for-One comparison entry, this time I will take you back to its original form, as it was done in the first Twofer with the two Gremlin games - mostly because one of each games' versions differ so completely from the other two that I saw this as a nice opportunity to get back in that form.

Action Biker, or as the full title goes: "KP Skips presents Action Biker with Clumsy Colin", is a wholly strange item. As many of Mastertronic's earlier titles, there is no information on the C64/Atari version's programmer anywhere, but considering the game's age and style, I would hazard a guess it was made by either the Darling brothers or Shaun Southern, but no one can tell for sure, other than the programmer himself. The Spectrum version of the game is a completely different experience, and we know it's creator. Action Biker has become almost famous for dividing the gamers' opinions on it, and I'm fairly certain that this will only be confirmed with this comparison. The C64 version has gained a surprisingly good score of 7.1 from 103 votes at Lemon64, although it has also been decorated with a poop icon, as it has also made it to the Top 100 worst games list at #95. The Atari version has a score of 7.7 at Atarimania, from a total of 77 votes. The Spectrum version has gotten a rather low score at World of Spectrum, with 4.9 from 31 votes. So, I would not exactly call it a highly regarded game, generally.

Bump Set Spike, which has three additional names to mark each version - Mastertronic Volleyball, Doubles Volleyball and International Volleyball - is another wholly strange item. On the C64, it looks and feels much like the other sports games from Ken Grant - International Hockey (a.k.a. Slap Shot) and Five a Side. I had never really heard of this volleyball game, before my friend Bob mentioned it to me a few years ago. At first, it didn't really impress me one bit, but it did stay in my mind for some reason. Now, I will make myself take a better look at it, with the other two versions to compare on the side. At Lemon64, the game has gotten another fairly low score with 5.1 from 22 votes, but since there are so little voters, it hasn't been included in the Top 100 worst games list. The Spectrum version seems to have even less fans: 16 voters have given it 4.38 at World of Spectrum. The Amstrad version seems to be even less known, as even CPC Game Reviews website hasn't had a review of it, so I'm guessing it can't be much better from the other two.

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GAME DESCRIPTIONS & REVIEWS

*Action Biker*

On the Atari and C64, Action Biker is a 360-degree scrolling isometric collect'em-up with a bit of racing at the end of the game. Your mission is to collect a number of items of motoring equipment, which allow you to do a drag race at the end of the game. The items are represented by flashing red-and-white icons that look not entirely unlike one of those blue flashing lights on top of old police cars. You have to watch out for your fuel gauge, though, but you can go back to your spawn point to fill your bike if the need arises. It's a harmless bit of fun, budget entertainment, worth having a go at every now and then.

The Spectrum version of the game is a top-down maze collect'em-up, in which your mission is to supposedly collect similar items as are to be found in the other version, and then find your friend Marti and take him to the spaceport. To make your mission more difficult, you have no idea at first, which houses you are able to enter; you have a REALLY limited amount of fuel in the tank, and apparently there are only two petrol stations in the whole map; the maze-like town is filled with other bikers and cars, not to mention oil puddles which you cannot steer clear of - you just have to push on through with as much power as possible in order to lessen the amount of damage on your way. But you don't have just any regular energy indicator - you are actually dreaming this whole thing, so any damage you take translates to a decreasing of your sleep-energy. You can regain some sleep-energy back by eating Skips scattered all around the map. Added to all that, your game will end at 8 o'clock, as your clock alarm will go off at that point, so you really need to be quick in your actions. So, the long story short, there is a lot more to this game, than there is in the other Action Biker, but considering the amount of dangers around every corner, and the amount of time you need to put into actually getting any idea where to find anything in the game, it hasn't got much to recommend itself. And I haven't really even begun on describing the playability yet...

*Bump Set Spike*

Just to say Bump Set Spike is just another volleyball game would certainly be an understatement. As it is a doubles volleyball game, both sides of the court have two players, which might take some time to get used to.

On the C64, the game can be played in a single-player mode, in which you switch between the two players on your side of the court, or in a two-player competitive mode, or in a two-player co-operative mode, in which you and your friend can play on the same side by using two joysticks. By contrast, in the Amstrad and Spectrum versions, you can only play in a single-player mode. Also, while the Amstrad and Spectrum versions are graced with an isometric view, the C64 has a strangely tilted side-view of the court. To go any more beyond that, I will have to continue this over at the playability section.

Volleyball is very much a team sport, so in order to get the most enjoyment out of Bump Set Spike, you would have to play the C64 version with a friend. The other version isn't too bad either, but is severely lacking in options.

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LOADING

Although there were some disk releases of these games, the primary medium of delivery was cassette. Therefore, I will once again show you each tape version's loading times, along with all the loading screens. As a bonus, the C64 users had a freebie release with Your Commodore magazine, which made loading the game immensely quicker, but had no loading screen whatsoever, unless you count the black screen with blue stripes and the game title with the basic font at the top of the screen a proper loading screen. But for the final overall scores, I will only feature the original releases as
optional score additions.


*Action Biker*

ATA: 12 minutes 25 seconds
C64 ORG: 6 minutes 35 seconds
C64 YC: 2 minutes 11 seconds
SPE: 6 minutes 56 seconds

Action Biker loading screens. Top left and middle: Commodore 64. Top right: Atari 8-bit.
Bottom row: ZX Spectrum.

For some reason, Action Biker's creators have been a bit extravagant with the loading screens. The Spectrum version has three screens to load through, and the Commodore 64 version (at least the one from Mastertronic) has two, with some blackness in between the two screens. Atari's loading is as boring as you can get, up until somewhere after the 10 minute mark, when the screen starts changing colours. Even then, it's still boring.

*Bump Set Spike*


C64: 4 minutes 39 seconds
CPC: 5 minutes 12 seconds
SPE: 2 minutes 53 seconds

Bump Set Spike loading screens, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.


And here we have a more traditional threesome. Ken Grant's games used to have a more simplistic approach to the loading screens, particularly in the sports titles, and this is no different. The other two, however, have the ability to set you in some sort of mood for the game.

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PLAYABILITY

*Action Biker*

From the two different games bearing the same title, let's start with the one on the Spectrum. For starters, the controls are utterly horrible. You control your bike by pointing in the direction you want to travel to, but you have a turning cycle that takes quite a while to get used to. It doesn't help at all, that you can't start turning your bike before a corner, because your bike will only stop against the neighbouring building. Sometimes, even when there seems to be some empty space between the actual corner and a building, you still can't turn until you hit the turn precisely. This wouldn't be such a problem, if your bike didn't actually act like a bike, and you didn't have to wait for it to stop, accelerate and turn with a certain amount of time and effort. This becomes increasingly irritating, when you realize that you have to actually know when to slow down (for the oil puddles), and that there is quite a lot of traffic in places, which you must push through, because you have no option to dodge them. Some relief from the monotony of the game's actual action bits comes in form of your need to enter houses and search for items, which can be managed by pushing the fire button in front of the said houses, but it has to be done at an exact spot. Had the gameplay not been so bad, this might have actually been a rather interesting game.

As for the other, more playable game, I can't really say if there is any actual difference between the Atari and C64 versions. This Action Biker is an isometric collect'em-up in a free-roaming world, and you control your bike in a similar way you play Rally Speedway or any other 2D racing game where you need to think yourself being in the vehicle and control it with that in mind. Up accelerates, down decelerates, left and right turn your bike the way you would sort of expect it to. Fire button changes gear, once you have managed to pick up the gearbox. There are no enemies here, other than all the obstacles you must try not to hit, or drop down from too high a place. You have five lives to waste, and the game has a huge amount of items to pick up, so you need to be careful. It helps to draw or print a map, and pin down all the items in their order of appearance to make the game easier to play through on subsequent runs.

1. C64 / ATARI
2. ZX SPECTRUM

*Bump Set Spike*

Surprisingly, there are quite a lot of differences in gameplay between the two different takes on the same idea. I mentioned already about the different gamemodes on the C64, which the other version lacks, but it also has a difficulty/speed adjuster, which the other game doesn't have. On the other hand, you could view the option for speed being either the Spectrum version (rather fast) and the Amstrad version (not quite as fast).

Regarding the control differences: the C64 version is completely joystick-controlled, whereas in the other version, you need to use at least some keys from the keyboard in order to change your man - one key for each man, and a separate fire button for hitting the ball. On the C64, you change your man with the single fire button, as well as shoot and aim the ball. As for the controllability itself, there are several differences to mention. For one, in the C64 version, you can move your man in 8 directions, while in the other version, you can only move in 4 directions. Secondly, on the C64, you seem to need to place your hands on the small X, where the ball is supposed to land, in order to hit it - not your feet, while in the other version, you stand on the spot instead. Third, on the C64, controlling the X when you hit the ball is very quick and goes only through several spots, instead of going smoothly across the court, as it does in the other version. To be honest, I haven't been able to win any game against the computer so far, because I'm not very comfortable with either control method, but I imagine when you play either of the games enough, you will become proficient at it.

For now, I will have to give the top spot for the C64 version, because it has more options, and you can use all 8 directions of your joystick. The Amstrad version feels a bit sluggish compared to the Spectrum version, so the order becomes clear.

1. COMMODORE 64
2. ZX SPECTRUM
3. AMSTRAD CPC

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GRAPHICS

*Action Biker*

This is a difficult one, because the two games are so decidedly different-looking. What I can say is that the colour scheme on the C64 version is much brighter, colourful and enjoyable than the entirely too dark Atari version. Also, some of the colours look more natural on the C64, particularly the trees and the buildings. Detail-wise, there are no mentionable differences.

Screenshots from the Atari 800 version.


Screenshots from the Commodore 64 version.

Screenshots from the ZX Spectrum version.
The Spectrum version, on the other hand, looks nothing like either of the previously mentioned  games. I would say, in terms of detail, colour and overall feel, the Spectrum game looks better than the other game. Too bad it's entirely different. I will have to let it share the top spot with the C64.

1. C64/SPECTRUM
2. ATARI 8-BIT

*Bump Set Spike*

Since there are so little graphics in these games, it doesn't take much effort to show you everything there is to show in these games. So, let's start with the title screens.

Left: Commodore 64 title screen and menu. Right: Amstrad CPC title/menu screen and ZX Spectrum title/menu screen.

Instead of giving the game a proper loading screen, Ken Grant decided to show a picture after the game has loaded up, which is nice. The actual menu screen comes after the title picture, which is surprisingly graphic compared to the other two versions. The Amstrad version, at least, has a bouncing title text at the bottom of the screen in addition to the few lines of credits and instructions, while the Spectrum version only has a very primitive title screen with a scroller at the bottom.

In-game screenshots. Left: Commodore 64 indoors and outdoors courts. Right: Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum.

In the C64 version, you can choose to play on an inside court or at the beach, both of which have some nice animated details in the background, but the graphics are otherwise very blocky and outdated, even for the time of release. Strangely, the Amstrad version is the only one of the three to repeatedly calling itself Bump Set Spike, instead of Volleyball, International Volleyball or Mastertronic Volleyball, which makes me wonder, was there ever an actual title for the game, or was it added for the cover of the C64 game as an afterthought? Anyway, the graphics on the Amstrad and Spectrum versions are basically very similar, albeit in different colours. The black-and-white hi-res look on the Spectrum is more easy on the eyes, though, so it will take the higher spot. However, since there are more to be seen on the C64, it will take the highest spot.

1. COMMODORE 64
2. ZX SPECTRUM
3. AMSTRAD CPC

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SOUNDS

*Action Biker*

Since I seem to be writing a bit sparingly now, let's begin with the Spectrum version again. The amount and quality of sounds leaves you with a certain air of unsurprisedness. You get only a few brief beeping tunes for starting the game, for exiting buildings and for game over. Otherwise, you get a strangely familiar droning noise for the bike's sound, a screechy noise for colliding with cars, bikes and water, and a little tick noise for collecting Skips. It's adequate, but unsurprising.

The C64 version gives you three tunes from Rob Hubbard, of which one is played during the game. You can turn the music off, if you like, but it's really the most pleasing part about the game anyway, so I wouldn't say it's advisable. The game does have a couple of sound effects, though - the droning of your bike engine, and the occasional crash. The good thing about all of this is, that neither the music nor the sound effects collide with each other, and everything is perfectly balanced.

On the Atari, you get the same in-game tune as is on the C64, but the instrumentation is as boring as you would expect from the NES. Also, the only sound effect you will hear is a low droning of your bike, which bring no further pleasure into the deal. To be honest, the Spectrum soundtrack is more inviting than this. If you really want to play this version of Action Biker, my suggestion is to choose your own soundtrack for the background.

1. COMMODORE 64
2. ZX SPECTRUM
3. ATARI 8-BIT

*Bump Set Spike*


In turn, let's begin with the C64 version. The first sounds you will hear, are in the menu. Surprisingly, it's not music, but a short D note with two different filters - one for moving horizontally and the other for moving vertically. In the second menu screen, the same sounds go for choosing the playing field and typing in your team name. In the game, you get one very high-spirited rock tune for each playing field, in which you can clearly hear Rob Hubbard's signature use of the SID chip, the other one even being fairly reminiscent of his soundtrack for Commando.

The other two versions don't have music at all. Nor does the main menu have sound effects. Instead, you get a few rather nice sound effects for the duration of the actual game - applause and ball hitting for the Spectrum, both of which sound surprisingly fine, and the Amstrad version has been graced with an additional whistle effect for every point. Although the ball hitting effect sounds a bit worse on the Amstrad, the other two sounds make up for it well enough, and so I'm inclined to think it the better of the two. Still, good music is more entertaining.

1. COMMODORE 64
2. AMSTRAD CPC
3. ZX SPECTRUM

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OVERALL

It seems the end results are mostly in accordance to the ratings given to each game by each community, except that I cannot with good conscience call the Atari version of Action Biker really better than the C64 version. Still, both of the games in all their versions were surprisingly interesting to shuffle through. Perhaps they're not anywhere near the sharpest cutting edge of what each of these machines have to offer, but for budget titles, you could do much worse purchases in all cases. So, once again, here are the traditional mathematical results:

*Action Biker*

1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 3, Loading 3 = TOTAL 7/10
2. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 2, Loading 2 = TOTAL 5/7
3. ATARI 8-BIT: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 1, Loading 1 = TOTAL 4/5

*Bump Set Spike*

1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 3, Loading 2 = TOTAL 9/11
2. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 1, Loading 3 = TOTAL 5/8
3. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 2, Loading 1 = TOTAL 4/5

Of course, as always, you will most probably like what you have grown to like from childhood, but for a person who has very little or no previous connection to these games, I would say this is as fair a comparison of all of these games as you can possibly get.

Next time, I will take you back to the history of Finnish gaming... in a certain sense.
Thank you very much for reading; hope you enjoyed it!
Comments, suggestions and corrections are welcome as ever!

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