Saturday, 23 August 2014

NGOTM: Alter Ego (RetroSouls, 2011)


Originally developed for the ZX Spectrum by Denis Grachev.

Converted for the Nintendo Entertainment System by Alex "Shiru" Semenov, with music by Richard "Kulor" Armijo, and released in 2011.

Converted for the Linux and Windows PC's and Windows phones by RetroSouls Team:
Code and levels by Denis Grachev - Sprites by Alex "Shiru" Semenov and Denis Grachev - Artwork by Rufus Blacklock - Music by Richard "Kulor" Armijo

Converted for the MSX computers by GuyveR800 and BiFi of The New Image, and released in 2012 for the MSXdev'11 competition.

Converted for the Commodore 64 by Denis Grachev in 2014.

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INTRODUCTION & GAME REVIEW

I hinted on a new series in the last entry, so here it goes. This new series is called New Game Of The Month, or NGOTM in short. In this series, I will be reviewing and comparing a (relatively) current game release for old machines, once a month, but not necessarily EVERY month. Depends on quite a lot of different things. One more thing before I begin - these new game comparisons will not feature those regularly used mathematical score things, and all the scores that can be given, will be dealt with at the very end. Now, let's get this started.

From what the RetroSouls' website can tell us, RetroSouls is a small Russian indie game developer team, consisting of one core member - Denis Grachev. RetroSouls' first known release was a retro remake of Room Ten during the summer of 2004, just a tad over 10 years ago. Slightly confusingly titled Alter Ego was not Denis' first foray into the world of Spectrum game developing, but it certainly is his best known work so far, partly in thanks to all the conversions it has spawned since its original release in 2011. The most current conversion was released for the Commodore 64 in May 2014. Who knows in which format it will be found next.

Although I mentioned the game's title to be confusing, I only meant it because it has caused some confusion among gamers on message boards, due to the 1986 classic life simulation game from Activision. Considering how the game is played, "Alter Ego" fits this game just as well, if perhaps in a different sense. On the outset, the game looks like a fairly basic, although a very nice-looking clone of Lode Runner, but don't be fooled by the graphics. You move two characters simultaneously, which could be called two sides of the same coin, hence "Alter Ego". The characters move in a mirrored fashion - sometimes horizontally, other times vertically. The movement looks close enough to Lode Runner, but you can't dig holes. Instead, your secret weapon here is switching the places of your two sides, which I think are supposed to be body and spirit separated. Both sides of your character are able to collect only one kinds of objects, and enemies and traps are all around, and you have a limited amount of switches, so you really need to put your brain at work here.

RetroSouls' Alter Ego has good reason to be one of the best known small indie retroware games of the recent years, because it just happens to be one of the most deviously addicting puzzlers of the last decade or so. Anyone with a good retro sense of gaming and a high interest in puzzle games should at least have a go at one of the free versions available, but if you can and are willing, it shouldn't be much of a stretch to pay a little money for it. Highly recommended.

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PLAYABILITY

There are no more controls to Alter Ego than the four main directions of a joystick/pad and one fire button, which switches your two characters' places. That will prove to be plenty enough, since you will really need to rack your brain in the later levels. All the versions do have a restart level button
somewhere, and the NES even has a pause mode, if you feel the need for one. The very few select  things you need to keep in mind are that the movement is always counted in blocks, not pixels, so every movement can be counted if you wish to; while you perform a switch, the skulls will not move; and the breaking bridges will only fall AFTER you have walked over to the next block. All the 8-bit versions have 25 levels, while the Windows (desktop and phone) versions have 40 levels, and have more advanced features, such as moving collectables and phantom control switches. I'm not sure about the Linux version, since I don't have a Linux machine to test it on, but I suspect it's the same as the Windows version.

Surprisingly, there are some minor gameplay differences in different versions of the game, even though the same "team" is mostly responsible for most of the versions. The controllability and enemy behaviour is pretty much precisely the same in all the versions, at least as far as I'm able to tell, but the differences are found in level design: different amounts of collectable items and differently placed
ground blocks in certain levels. I have no idea why it is so, but it does offer a different sort of a challenge for fans of the game on almost every platform.

The only version I have some playability problems with is the Windows Phone version, which has a virtual joystick thing at the low left corner of the screen, which isn't really responsive enough for my tastes. Perhaps it's a matter of adjustment. I just really don't like touchscreen phones in the first place, but it's pretty much the only way to go these days. Happily, the Windows PC version is the exact same game, so unless you really need to have your Alter Ego fix while you're riding a bus or something, think your alternatives through. However, I'd still recommend you to buy the Windows Phone version - if for no other reason, then to support RetroSouls for making fine products in the future.

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GRAPHICS

What I like about these newer games for old machines is that there are less expectations of getting the games to look and feel as modern and advanced as possible. Because the hardware is old, the new games are allowed to be as stylistically fitting for each machine as the creators see fit, or are able to produce. In this case, the original SPECTRUM version of Alter Ego takes advantage of all the familiar quirks of the hardware, and gives the player a highly enjoyable set of relatively simple structure graphics with good attention to detail and emphasis on smooth animation. The only complaint I might have had would have been regarding the all too familiar attribute clash thing, but it has been dealt with as much subtlety as possible, with the available tools.

Screenshots from the ZX Spectrum version.

The first conversion was made for the NES, and many graphical enhancements were made while at it. There are now more graphical themes for levels (one for every 5 levels instead of 3 themes for the whole game), and instead of falling stars in the background, the stars are now animated to blink, and in turn, the water is now animated. Also, your phantom now slides along instead of changes the placing by block, and instead of blinking black and white, now has a bluish multi-shaded outline/aura. Even the breaking bridges have now been enhanced to have the falling bridge pieces actually fall behind you. However, most notably, the amount of colours utilised here makes the NES version look like a 16-bit game in comparison to the original.

Screenshots from the NES version, featuring the unique pause mode.

The MSX conversion by The New Image follows Shiru's NES version very closely, as far as the colours and themes go, but the background animations are missing. To make up for it, your phantom has a more electric feel about it.

Screenshots from the MSX version.

From all the currently available 8-bit versions, the COMMODORE 64 version came out the most recently, and has another very different look to it. The character animations are again more similar to what they were on the Spectrum. Instead of having animated stars in the background, there are now solid patterned wallpapers, themed accordingly to the rest of the colours for each area. However, the water bits are subtly animated again, and uniquely, all the grass growing from the terrain is animated.

Screenshots from the Commodore 64 version.


Finally, the WINDOWS (and Linux?) version takes yet another approach to the graphics, which sort of combines all the good things about both Spectrum and NES versions, and adds in some effects that none of the 8-bits are able to produce. It's only natural that this version looks the best, but I will say that all the versions out so far have their own specific sort of charm to them, and play mostly to their advantage.

Screenshots from the Windows/Linux/Windows Phone version.

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SOUNDS

Comparing the audio bits for this game, and many games of today with versions for retro hardware, can only be unfair. For instance, the 48k SPECTRUM can only perform as well as it's hardware allows, and the modern retro coders all seem have an expert knowledge of the hardware and coding languages to make the most out of what's available. It's not a particularly new and inventive thing to get some kind of multi-channel music out of the beeper - in fact, it's a fairly common feature nowadays. Still, the original game only has one tune, which plays in the title screen, just after the game has loaded, and shall not be heard again until you reload the game. That said, the tune is nice and catchy, if a bit jarring due to the effects used in the main melody, which makes it sound slightly out of tune - kind of what you get used to hearing in old Atari games. The in-game sound effects are very basic walk-tapping, "exploding", thump-noises for picking up the collectables, and a simple "trrrrrrr" noise for switching places.

In this particular sense, the COMMODORE 64 version feels a bit unfinished. There is no theme tune at all, and the sound effects are, although more melodic than on the Spectrum, less particularly attached to the game. All the little melodic effect bits sound like being played on a banjo or something, and some certain notes feel a bit off-key.

Of course, we have to keep in mind that the two versions above were made by just one person. The rest from this lot were made by one team or another, with proper chip musicians on board. Kulor's soundtrack for the NES version is already leagues above the original. Not only do we get a more specifically fitting set of sound effects, but a brilliantly classic Nintendoesque bunch of tunes play on top of the effects as well - one tune for each area and a new rocking theme song that sounds better than most classic Nintendo tunes.

The MSX version, as suggested earlier, has all the same tunes and some of the sound effects that are on the NES version. It just happens to miss the percussion track for all the tunes, and the sound effects can only be heard when the music goes quiet enough (or more precisely, a channel opens up for them).

Finally, the modern machines version. From what I can tell, the upgrade isn't much more than a slight upgrade from the NES soundtrack - it actually sounds almost like a SNES version of the same soundtrack, which is very fitting for the overall look and feel.

So, it might seem a bit obvious that the modern version is the way to go, but somehow, I feel that the original theme tune on the Spectrum is more fitting for the game's slightly ominous nature. Otherwise, more is more, and bigger sounds better.

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OVERALL


Obviously, any fan of any particular retro machine that has a version of this game available, should definitely try it out. Although the Windows/Linux version is easily the best with the most content and best sounds and graphics... if I were to pick a favourite, I would have to make it a tie between the Spectrum and the NES versions.

As this is a new concept for the blog, I have to give different sorts of scores. So, instead of the normal math form, the new games' comparisons will be given a proper scoring based on their values (as I see them) in all areas.



I wholeheartedly agree with what James Monkman said in his review of the original game in 2011, in that the original version doesn't really offer as much entertainment value as it could, if the game were expanded on to the 128k Spectrum to feature a full soundtrack, and perhaps a password system. That, on the other hand, would call for an additional set of levels, if at all possible. Also, the C64 conversion feels kind of naked without a proper soundtrack. But still, considering it's a first effort for the machine from Denis, having done all of it by himself, it is a very impressive one.

DreamWalker:Alter Ego 2 (ZX Spectrum)
Happily, Alter Ego has gained a sequel earlier this year, which kind of overrides the need for an enhanced version of the original game (although it still would be nice). The sequel is called DreamWalker: Alter Ego 2, and it uses a new multicolour engine called Nirvana, which truly is an astonishing thing to behold. The gameplay is very much the same, but the graphics are much more impressive than in the original game, and there is even a 128k version with a proper AY-chip soundtrack, so if you have already enjoyed the first Alter Ego, go to RetroSouls' website and download the sequel. All the versions of the original game can be found from there anyway, aside from the Windows Phone release, and the MSX conversion, which can be found at the MSXdev'11 results page at number 2.

That's it for now, hope you enjoyed it! Unless the new retrogame coders give me a hard time about giving them free advertising space, expect another one of these next month. =)

Comments, suggestions and corrections are very welcome.

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