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Wednesday, 17 September 2014

TWOFER #7: Xeno + Wibstars (A'n'F Software, 1986)

XENO

Developed by Binary Design Ltd for ZX Spectrum:
Coding by Matthew Rhodes
Graphics by Ste Pickford
Sounds by Pete Harrison

Converted for the Amstrad CPC and Commodore 64 by Nick Vincent with graphics by Ste Pickford.
C64 title screen by Jeremy Nelson.

WIBSTARS

Developed by Icon Design Ltd for ZX Spectrum:
Coding by Ste Cork
Graphics by Mark O'Neill
Sounds by Tony Williams

Also released for Amstrad CPC and Commodore 64; no further credits available.

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GAME STATUS, PLURAL

For the first two-for-one entry for this year, we have another one of my early years favourites called Xeno, and a randomly chosen game of which I had no previous knowledge of from the same publisher. Xeno is a strange tilted-view turn-based hockey game of sorts - kind of like Lucasfilm Games' Ballblazer, but from a different angle. The other chosen game, Wibstars, seems to be an arcade/actiony sort of a title with many different level types. So, there couldn't be two games more different from each other in a two-for-one retro game comparison. Both games were released for our regular threesome, which should make for a nice comparison twofer.

Back in 1986, Xeno had mostly very positive reviews on its original platform, but more mixed ones on the Amstrad and Commodore 64. Currently, the Spectrum version has a very nice 8.22 rating from 82 votes at WoS, while the Amstrad conversion has a 16.75/20.00 at CPC Softs (no review yet at CPC Game Reviews), and the C64 one has a 6.7 from 9 votes at Lemon64. Keeping in mind the relative simplicity of the game, the scores might have a fair point, but let's see.

Wibstars seems to have very little information as to its origins, but Gamebase64 lists it to have been released in 1986. This feels to be a bit contradictory to the game's overall feel, which is very Spectrumesque, and World of Spectrum says it's from 1987; mind you, MobyGames has conflicting information, having the Spectrum version's year of release also 1986. If anyone can share some light on this one, it would be very appreciated. At World of Spectrum, 7 voters have given the game a 6.57, CPC Game Reviews has given their version a worryingly bad 3 out of 10, and for the first time in the blog's history, the game isn't featured in Lemon64's library. A single MobyGames user, however, has given an average score of 2.2 out of 5.0.

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DESCRIPTIONS & REVIEWS

XENO is, as I said, a hockey game of sorts. The official description includes a very long-winded story about two men in suits pursuing an ice puck around in an improvised field in any manner they could think of on a frozen planet of Io, and finally going ahead to the year 2386, in which the game takes place. The players are now set atop ground saucers, harnessed and protected, and relatively safely placed inside a hexagonal hockey rink of sorts.

The rules of Xeno are fairly simple. The goal is to push the puck through your opponent's goal more times than your opponent does. You take turns in moving your disc in such a way that the puck is deflected in the desired direction. You may knock your opponent's saucer out of position, or retreat to cover a possible shot at goal. In either case, it is not necessary to make contact with the puck. Before you get to the game itself, you can set some variables, such as the shot time-out, the length of quarters and the computer handicap. This comparison will focus on the default settings, whichever they are in each version.

As far as unrealistic and futuristic sports games go, Xeno is not only one of the better ones, but also one of the first ones out there. Sure, it's an acquired taste, but if you give it time and practice, you just might come to enjoy it as much as any conventional sports game.

WIBSTARS is, according to the manual, a game "about the successful operation of a computer goods distribution company. The player must collect products from a central warehouse and then deliver them to his customers. The trick is to stay in business AND make a profit!" Is that unique or what?

Well, in practice, it's a fairly unused combination of familiarly playing sections. You start by buying tapes, disks and computers with 200 pounds at maximum (by using the forklift - Ghostbusters, anybody?), then move on to the despatch bay, where you need move your van to catch all the bought items which are released from the chutes above (Atari's Kaboom comes to mind). Next, you need to drive to a shop to sell the goods, which brings on a top-down scrolling avoid/collect'em-up, in which you need to drive your van around the city map behind another van, collecting tapes and disks falling from the van ahead and avoiding harmful debris. When you get to a shop, you must deliver packages to the office at the top of the screen. It's quite a challenge, once you get to it. If you complete a shop screen with money left, you can continue the game; if you lose all your money, the game ends.

Up to the point where you need to deliver the packages, Wibstars has some unique entertainment value, and is even rather nice. Once you realise how evilly random the lift is in the screen, you will wish to bite your own head off before trying it ever out again. The only way to ever make some "safe" progression in the game is to use an emulator and play with savestates. I hate to cheat, but in this game, it seems to be imperative. For the first few minutes, Wibstars is a good idea. Unfortunately, the game trips on its own foot at the last minute, and is ultimately a huge letdown.

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LOADING

Once again, we come to a clash of the tape-loading titans. Indeed, apart from the Amstrad version of
Xeno, the two games were only ever released in a cassette format. Judging by the loading time of the
Amstrad tape of Xeno, the disk version was sorely needed. Still, the disk is apparently a properly
rare item, and I'm not really sure if it's anything other than an unreleased prototype - CPC Softs
has a picture of the said disk, if you want to have a look. Anyway, here are the tape loading times
for both games, coupled with a bunch of loading screens.

XENO
Amstrad CPC - 7 minutes, sharp
Commodore 64 - 2 minutes 31 seconds
ZX Spectrum / original - 3 minutes 22 seconds
ZX Spectrum / Mind Games - 5 minutes 13 seconds
ZX Spectrum / Kidsplay - 3 minutes 34 seconds
ZX Spectrum / Bug-Byte - 3 minutes 24 seconds

Xeno loading screens, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.

WIBSTARS
Amstrad CPC - 5 minutes 12 seconds
Commodore 64 - 3 minutes 57 seconds
ZX Spectrum - 5 minutes 4 seconds

Wibstars loading screens, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.


Quite clearly, the C64 wins on both occasions. Whether it makes the game any more enjoyable or not is another matter entirely. As usual, this bit has no effect on the final overall results, and are only
here to make a point, which has been mentioned many times before.

As for the loading pictures... well, I kind of like both of the Amstrad loaders better than the other two. In Xeno, the C64 picture is butt-ugly and looks like you might be up for a space shooter, and while the Spectrum picture looks clearer of the other two, the Amstrad is more stylish (at least for me) and has even more futuristic and actiony feel to it than the Spectrum picture. In Wibstars, all of the loading screens try to look like the cover art, which is a noble cause, but is rarely successful enough. Here, the Amstrad version gets the closest in colouring and the overall feel, although the Spectrum screen looks more detailed. But hey, each to their own.

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PLAYABILITY

XENO

In many ways, comparing Xeno reminds me of my earlier comparison of Bump Set Spike. There is one version clearly different from the other two, and this time it's the Spectrum version... and boy, what a difference! For the sake of storytelling logic, I shall tell you of the other two first.

On the COMMODORE 64 and AMSTRAD CPC, Xeno plays very fast, but both are severely lacking in that certain model of physics that playing on ice should have - inertia. The lack of proper 3D graphics modeling (oops, was that a spoiler?) or even the aiming line makes the gameplay fairly hectic, which I have no problem with. The so-called 3D physics modeling in the two conversions is what makes all the difference, and this is where the Amstrad version gets clearly dropped from the competition. All the lines of movement are predesigned for the puck, and there are only a handful of them, so your aiming has very minimal effect on what is going to happen. At least the C64 version is actually playable in that regard, but it still looks and feels a bit iffy. To further kick down an already beaten conversion, I came across a funny little bug in the Amstrad conversion: if you can manage to send the puck down to one of the lowest corners of the ice rink, you can also send it over the walls to the audience, wherein the puck shall stay until the quarter is finished.

If you have only played one of the two versions above, the SPECTRUM original will feel a bit slow at first. However, you will have a better chance at aiming your shot while the puck is still on the move, and the aiming accuracy actually makes a lot of difference here, since the 3D- and physics-modeling are so much better here. But I'm not saying it's actually slow - it's still really rather quick, just slower enough to be comfortable to play. Unfortunately, the game is still far from being perfect. The puck might get stuck in the wall for quite a long time occasionally, and not all the angles you swing yourself around will bounce off according to the laws of physics, but it's still quite a lot better than the other two.

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


WIBSTARS

Again, one version differs quite a lot from the other two, and this time it's the Amstrad version, but let's start with the SPECTRUM version, since it's supposedly the original. Now, for what it's worth, I would just like to point out that there is nothing wrong with the controls - they are very responsive in all the versions, and since you only have four directions (or eight in the driving section) and one fire button to use, there's not much that could go wrong. Therefore, it's all in how the levels are made for each version.

You start the game by choosing some computing equipment worth of 200 pounds, although you don't necessarily need to spend all the money at once. This happens by using a forklift, and you can only choose one item at a time. The forklift will automatically move the chosen item to the loading bay car, and if you're playing the AMSTRAD version, you will have to make some more maneuvers with the forklift to get to your next chosen item. Also, on both C64 and SPECTRUM, when you run out of money, the forklift will automatically exit, while on the AMSTRAD, you will need to exit manually regardless.

Next, you will witness a surprisingly elaborate cutscene of the chosen items being delivered to the loading bay, where you will come down on a lift and step into your van to pick up the items. This item-picking section doesn't really have any notable differences, except for perhaps some variations in the randomized order of item drops. I didn't much that much thought to looking at it.

Once you get on the road, you will always be driving behind another van, belonging to a competing distribution company. Somehow, the idiot ahead left his back door open, so the competing van is dropping all sorts of debris while intentionally blocking your way by changing lanes all the time. Happily, some of the drops include tapes, disks and even computers, so you can pick them up by driving over them, which adds to your inventory. This section differs in quite a lot of ways, particularly the city map is different in all the versions, although it doesn't really affect your gameplay much at all. The way your van moves around on the screen differs a bit: although the way the car moves is just as digital in all the versions as you can imagine, the movement speed is slightly varied. But most notably, the AMSTRAD version handles the debris dropping completely differently to the other two versions, dropping masses of debris at a time randomly instead of giving a more natural flow. This makes it more difficult to navigate through and around the debris, and you'll very likely be taking more damage due to this. Also, this has more to do with graphics, but the ALL debris in the Amstrad version is of the same colour, even the collectables, so it's more difficult to pick them up if you don't know where to look.

Finally, the platform stage is the most different all around in all the versions. The SPECTRUM and C64 versions differ from each other only in speed, really - the more notable differences are in graphics, as in all the other sections. In the AMSTRAD, however, the conveyor belts move the items much quicker than in the other two versions, which can be both a good and a bad thing. The lifts, by contrast, move a bit slower than in the other two versions. Finally, the walk from your van to the first conveyor belt is half a screen longer on the Amstrad compared to the other two, making the already greatly bothersome level even less enjoyable.

I have no qualms about calling the Amstrad version easily the most unplayable of the three, but I would say that in the case of the other two, it's each to their own. So, we shall go with a tied first place.

1. ZX SPECTRUM / COMMODORE 64
2. AMSTRAD CPC

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GRAPHICS

XENO

As much as the SPECTRUM version differs from the other two in playability, it does so in graphics as well. Interestingly, it is the only version that has no proper title screen, and instead the main menu has been shoved on top of the play screen, which might give you some nice sparks of expectation. The C64 version's title screen is basically the same as the loading screen, but with a text scroller at the bottom. It also has a separate main menu screen, which works fine for what it is, but feels a bit unimaginative. On the AMSTRAD, the title screen is the same as the main menu screen, which is a singularly uncomfortable thing to use and behold. A big, unique XENO logo moves around on the screen, changing its primary colour every 5 or 6 seconds, and taking up so much space, that when you choose to go through the game options, it takes only a little more room than the text scroller (which, by the way, could be considered too quick for most normal people to read), so you can only see one option at a time, making it necessary for you to go through every single option before you can get out of it. Also, unless you have an original version of the game, you need to read through the title screen's scroller to know what buttons to push in order to get anywhere. Really not good.

Title/Menu screens from Commodore 64 (left), ZX Spectrum (middle) and Amstrad CPC (right)


I suppose it's clear enough from the previous section, what I'm about to say here, but let's repeat it just for the sake of repetition. Since the game is viewed from, if you get the analogy, from the commentators' booth (or just the top row of the audience), it should have some sense of depth - give it a three-dimensional look, if it cannot be really 3D-modeled. Easily the closest to having a proper feel of depth has been achieved on the SPECTRUM, the version of which, as far as I know, is 3D-modeled. This can be observed both in the way the items look like when they move on the field, and the manner itself in which the items move on the field. It's not perfect, but from these three, it's easily the best one. Perhaps the AMSTRAD version looks the prettiest, but it's also the least  3D-modeled of the three, having more than enough impossibilities of movement in play. It also has the most monochrome feel of the lot, having only white, black and two shades of blue, one of which takes most of the area. Compared to that, the original has a lot going for it - you simultaneously get white, yellow, grey, black, cyan; and in the case of the main menu screen, also red and blue are on the screen. It shouldn't be much of a surprise that the C64 version is the most colourful, having 7 simultaneous colours during play already, and adding 3 or 4 more colours with the main menu and title screens. It's not much of a consolation, when the 3D-modeling is only about half as good as in the original, if even that, and the game looks blockier and more basic than the other two versions. Luckily, the game does play a lot better than the Amstrad version, so the 3D bit works quite a bit better here.

Xeno in-game screens: Commodore 64 (left), ZX Spectrum (middle), Amstrad CPC (right)


One of my favourite features in the SPECTRUM version is the scoreboards at the sides of the ice rink, which show you the current game status and occasionally some Quicksilva advertisement scrollers. Whenever a player scores a goal, the scoreboards will display the word "GOAL", and whenever a new period begins, or a new face-off is played after a goal, the scoreboard at the top will show you a flashing status update. On both the AMSTRAD and C64, you get a flying blackboard that rolls around for a while when arriving and exiting, and the blackboard is not any more showy than the scoreboards on Spectrum - indeed, they are even less impressive when you see all the information they display. Fortunately - and uniquely - for the C64'ers, you also get a time display above the action screen, as well as the scores, although when you get status updates after every goal and period, the above score display is a bit useless. So, all of the versions have the status display bits somehow wrong - incomplete or obtrusive or whatever. Spectrum's scoreboards are the most enjoyable, but are missing a time display.

Xeno scoreboards: Commodore 64 (left), ZX Spectrum (middle) and Amstrad CPC (right)


Whenever a goal is scored or a period changes, you get a transitional animation of sorts. The C64 version has a singularly boring light blue "curtain" that rises and falls quickly and leaves you without any sort of memory of it having ever happened. Although it serves its purpose well enough, it's boring and unimaginative. By contrast, the SPECTRUM version has a weird mosaic sort of fade-out, but it is also quick enough not to get tired of it. The AMSTRAD version has adopted the Spectrum mosaic fade-out, but it looks slightly different, as if the graphics would somehow melt and draw to the right while doing the fading effect.

Screenshots from transitional animations: Commodore 64 (left), Amstrad CPC (middle) and ZX Spectrum (right)


So it's a surprisingly diverse lot this time. The Amstrad version is the prettiest, but the least colourful; the C64 version is the dullest, but the most colourful; and the Spectrum version is the most functional and takes a good middleground in every aspect. Due to the functional 3D graphics, however, the Spectrum version takes an easy win here. Because of the differences in the Amstrad and C64 versions balance each other out, I feel like giving the two a tied second place.

1. ZX SPECTRUM
2. AMSTRAD CPC / COMMODORE 64


WIBSTARS

This one is a bit of a mess, but contrary to what you'd expect from such a declaration, the game's graphics are rather easy to walk through. To begin with, the main menu screen is ultra-simplistic in all three versions, and give you no indication of anything you should be expecting. As simple as the SPECTRUM screen might look, it's still the most advanced of the three.

Main menu/title screens: Commodore 64 (left), Amstrad CPC (middle), ZX Spectrum (right)
Our journey begins with loading up the van, so I might as well be quick about it. From the screenshots, you can't make much of the animation-related details, so I'll get through them first. I already explained the first section's differences in the Playability section, so you already know the positioning differences. Next, the mine cart will slide across the screen and drop the items down some random hatches. Then, your entrepreneur arrives to the loading area on a lift, and enters his van. The final step of this section is to catch the items falling down the hatches.

Screenshots from sections 1 and 2, and the cutscenes between them.
Top row: Commodore 64. Middle row: Amstrad CPC. Bottom row: ZX Spectrum.


When you play the game on different computers/emulators separately, you don't really pay that much attention to all the graphical details, so it's a bit funny to notice some of them for the first time in this kind of comparison. Even though the original SPECTRUM version looks kind of loosely crafted, it still has the most detail of the lot, as well as colour - at least for now. The C64's colouring looks perhaps the most natural in comparison to the real life counterparts, where accountable, but I don't think this game should be compared to anything real. The funniest thing about comparing this game's versions has to be the Sinclair computer item in the Amstrad version, considering the C64 version clearly has a Commodore computer on the list. The Amstrad version also includes a funny continuity error in that the second screen has three chutes instead of four. Anyway, all the animations are up to this point so very similar, that it would be futile to compare them.

Screenshots from section 3: Commodore 64 (left), ZX Spectrum (middle) and Amstrad CPC (right)


The biggest graphical difference in the driving section was, I believe, already mentioned in the Playability section. I shall not repeat myself again any more than necessary, but this has to do with how the debris falls from behind your competitor's van in the Amstrad version. There are, however, some other massive differences in all the versions. First, and quite possibly the least, all the maps look very different. This has very little meaning in the long run. Second, the C64 version has no damage and item display. Third, the C64 version is the only one that has some fairly enjoyable side-of-the-road graphics, precisely because they are not monochrome, even if they are not of as good quality as the other two versions. That said, the details on the C64 are a bit lacking in comparison to the other two as well, but at least the section works as it should. I couldn't find any park sections on the Spectrum version, so I assume there aren't any. This would mean there are also less background graphics.

Screenshots from section 4: Commodore 64 (left), Amstrad CPC (middle) and ZX Spectrum (right)

Before you get to the platforming scene, you are shown a list of how much your current customer pays for all the items. I don't really think this has much of importance at all in the comparison, so I didn't include any screenshots, but it's a part of the game that some people might like to know if they ever plan on making it a proper project. As for the platforming scene, the playability differences reflect the graphic differences, as far as animations go. The amount and quality of details and colouring is a different thing altogether, and are very much in line with the rest of the graphical differences in the game. For what my word is worth, I think the Spectrum version looks the most fitting for this sort of game, but so does the C64 version in its own way. It is clear, however, which one is the original.

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

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SOUNDS

XENO

Sports games, in the 80's in particular, never had much of sounds in them. Xeno doesn't deviate too much from the form, although it does have some rather specific and recognizable noises. None of the versions have any music, so that at least saves me some work.

Let's start with the SPECTRUM version, since it's the original. Doing anything in the menu plays a specific "blip" sound, which is a fairly common sound effect for many Spectrum games. Starting the game plays the same sound that will play at the beginning of each of the four quarter periods of the game - a weird "chow-wah, chow-wah" kind of a noise, which puts you in a very alert state. During the game, your motorised disc makes a low, constant "bap bap" type of a rhythmic noise, which is combined with another, higher bapping noise for aiming your cursor. The aiming sound changes pitch by its length from your disc - lower when going further and higher when getting closer to your disc. When you launch your disc, and whenever you hit anything with it, a "blip-blip" sound is played. Finally, scoring a goal gives a weird imploding kind of a mixture of glass breaking and crowd cheering, and feels creepy. But at least it's a very recognizable set of sounds, which can't be said of all that many 48k Spectrum games.

On both Amstrad and C64, Xeno has less specific kinds of sounds for this game. The AMSTRAD version has some very long ping sounds: a high one for setting game options and controls, which also plays at the start of every period, and a lower (and longer) ping for the end of a period. It also has a variety of swooshy sounds, that do give a good illusion of playing on slightly melted ice, which is pretty much how the game feels to play as well. Hitting a wall adds an ascending beepy tone to one of the swooshes, and scoring a goal adds a descending one. An applause of sorts is played after a goal is scored, and it comes in 4 short waves. Not bad, but the ping sounds could have been shorter and somehow more interesting.

The C64 version has no sounds at all in the menu, and there are also less in-game sounds than in the other versions, so the SID chip is sadly under-utilised in this case. Every period starts with a combined ascending ping/wang sound, and the same sound is played when a goal is scored. You get no sound for launching your disc, but hitting the wall plays a loud, descending bump sound, and hitting the puck plays a watery splash/crash noise. Both sound effects have quite a large echo. So, from what I can tell, there are only 3 sound effects in this version.

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


WIBSTARS
In the sound department, each version of Wibstars goes in a really different direction. Clearly the worst is the AMSTRAD version for having no more than three sound effects during all of the game: a high-pitched "ding" sound in the keys redefining screen and in the platforming section; the van makes a motor-like noise in a couple of sections; and in the platforming section again, the lift makes a rhythmic tapping noise when it's moving up and down. That's all.

Uniquely, the C64 version has a theme tune, which is actually a rather nice one. Strangely, it plays constantly even during the game, up until you reach the platforming level. There, you will only hear some sound effects, of which there are about half a dozen - I'm not entirely sure. But it's adequate, and gives the game a unique style in a completely unexpected manner.

The SPECTRUM version has a vast array of sound effects, most of which are short blips and beeps, ascending and descending bleepy noises, high-pitched clicks, strange accelerating bleepy things which I'm unsure of how to properly describe them, and some other strange noises. All of it feels very proper and right for the game, even if none of it is exactly very specific for this game.

You would have to experience it for yourself to make any sense of it, but I'd say it's a tie between the Spectrum original and the C64 conversion due to them being so very different. The Spectrum version has easily the biggest library of sound effects, but the C64 version has a very nice tune, and an unexpected combination of music and sound effects.

1. ZX SPECTRUM / COMMODORE 64
2. AMSTRAD CPC

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OVERALL

Now that we have once again crossed the finish line, what is there left to say of the two games that are so very different? Well, I would say both games deserve their respective places in the history of computer games, although perhaps both would deserve a better look and perhaps some rethinking into a more modern format. As they are on the Amstrad, Commodore and Spectrum, they certainly deserve their current levels of recognition. So, let's see the traditional overall mathematical results...

XENO

1. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 3, Graphics 2, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 8
2. COMMODORE 64: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 4
3. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 4

WIBSTARS

1. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 2, Graphics 3, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 7
2. COMMODORE 64: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 6
3. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 3


PC: Xeno 2002 by Bankie

There are some remake attempts of Xeno around the internet, the most finished one being Bankie's Xeno 2002, which is a nice effort. It has the speed that all the 8-bit versions lack, although that can become a problem sometimes; and it also has a few nice extra camera angles. It does lack a certain heaviness of the original, and the graphics are kind of primitive and bad, but in a funny way.

Wibstars will probably remain as unpopular a footnote as it ever was, but I hope games like this would get some more attention, because I think it deserves a proper remake - not a tribute as such, but a properly good version of the same idea.

Thanks for reading again!
Hope you enjoyed that one, comments etc. are welcome as ever!

2 comments:

  1. Hello, i have just discovered your blog and i really enjoy reading it.
    I have also a comment, your blog is a bit diffult to read, you should put a little color and / or an icon to easily locate the different paragraphs, thus it will be more pleasant to read.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the comment, I'm glad you like the blog! =)
      I hadn't really thought about it being difficult to read, because I read a lot of text online that have even less easily discernible paragraphs. But I'll take a look if I can do anything about it, and test it on my next comparison.

      Delete