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Thursday, 4 June 2015

NGOTM: Sir Ababol (The Mojon Twins, 2010)

Originally developed for the ZX Spectrum 48k by the Mojon Twins: Concept and story by anjuel, maribip and zemman - Graphics by anjuel and kendrook - Programming by na_th_an - Music adapted by anjuel from the original "Romanic" MOD chiptune by Mekola - Powered by La Churrera by the Mojon Twins and splib2 by Alvin Albrecht - Originally published by Ubhres Productions in 2010.

Converted for the Amstrad CPC by na_th_an in 2010.

Converted for the Commodore 64 by Woodmaster in 2012, with in-game music and sound effects by Conrad/VRZ, tape loader by Enthusi, tape loader music and end screen music by Linus/VRZ.

Converted for the Nintendo Entertainment System by Shiru in 2013.

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DESCRIPTION & REVIEW


Let's start this month with another entry in the New Game of the Month series. This time, we've got our second game by the Mojon Twins to compare, with our usual threesome joined by a conversion for the NES, and one other surprise.

I was introduced to this game by purchasing the Mojon Twins 3-in-1 tape for the C64 from Psytronik some time ago. My expectations were nil, since I bought the tape pretty much for getting UWOL in a physical format, and two additional games from the Mojon Twins for the same price didn't seem like a bad deal. My first impressions of Sir Ababol were not very good. Another flip-screen platformer where you need to collect a bunch of items while merely avoiding colliding with either enemy sprites or more solid hazards. And yes, that's basically what Sir Ababol is, but it does have some tricks of its own.

An abbreviated version of the game's backstory goes something like this: Sir Ababol, a young 11th century crusader has over a series of unfortunate accidents lost his sword and himself somewhere in the Monegros' Desert. He decides to ask directions from a local farmer, who then requests for a bunch of ababol flowers before he can help you on your way. The full story can be found at the Mojon Twins' website, but I can assure you, the story has little effect on the gameplay. Essentially, from the story, one can come to understand that Sir Ababol is very jumpy and can fly a good distance if he gets hurt. At least, if you connect the dots from the gameplay mechanics to the backstory, this could be considered a plausible explanation. But more on that later on.

Honestly, after a fairly good deal of repeated playing, I'm still not particularly impressed about this game. But I was surprised to find there are some dramatically differing optional versions around, particularly the NES version and the Deluxe edition for the ZX Spectrum. With plenty of practice, Sir Ababol does become less annoying to play, but for some gamers, the problems could prove to be too much to overcome. Since it doesn't actually offer anything that hasn't been done before, I cannot really recommend Sir Ababol to everyone, but it does deserve its own share of exploration, as I'm about to demonstrate.

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PLAYABILITY


Some retrogaming website reviews have compared Sir Ababol to Castlevania, Metroid and Mega Man, but I have yet to find anything resembling those three games, apart from it being a platformer. Some much closer resemblance can be found straight from the Mojon Twins' catalogue, since many of their games have been made using the same tools, but if one were to namedrop some old games that felt similar to Sir Ababol, I think the Dizzy series wouldn't be too far off. The thing is, Sir Ababol does have a particular feel to it that cannot be traced much further back in time than 2009, which has to be considered a good thing.

The controls are very simple, even by platforming standards. You just walk left and right, and then you can jump to an adjustable height, depending on how long you push the up key or joystick direction; and naturally, you can jump diagonally as well. The jumping mechanic is very reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. or Giana Sisters, if you will, in that you can easily adjust your jumping height by how long you keep the direction/button pushed; but this is effective with a slight delay, which can be a bit irritating at first, but you will get accustomed to it. Another notable thing about the jump is that it feels like there is less gravity than usual, because your knight will rise and fall slower than, say, Mario or Giana.

Since there are no weapons, but a small number of enemies will still be occupying every screen, chances are that you will be taking plenty of hits. The enemies move around in a similar fashion to how they do in some of the earlier new games that I have written about - namely, UWOL, Teodoro no sabe volar and Ninjajar; they just hover their set routes either vertically, horizontally or diagonally from point A to point B, and you can do nothing except jump over them or take hits as you pass them. And that is where the game's rather curious trick comes in. If you have no choice but to pass through an enemy, you need to make sure the said enemy is travelling in the same direction you are going to as you go through it, because the hit will make you bounce off into the direction the enemy is going towards. In other words, if you hit an enemy while it is coming towards you, you will bounce off a mile backwards. Same thing applies when an enemy is moving up, down or in any diagonal direction. An interesting gameplay mechanic, which can be of some use at certain points.

The main idea is to collect all the red flowers that look a bit like roses, but are called ababols. Some of the flowers are hidden behind closed gates, for which you need to collect a key. Collecting keys and ababol flowers will leave spaces for occasional energy bonus items that look like chicken drumsticks, which you can collect the next time you enter the screen where a key or a flower was before you picked one up.

Interestingly enough, the gameplay is largely similar for the SPECTRUM, AMSTRAD and C64 versions, although the AMSTRAD version feels a bit slower than the other two, but not so much that it would be bothersome, and the original SPECTRUM version has an annoying side-effect: a slight pause for every time you jump. But it's the NES version where things really start getting interesting, and very likely one of the reasons why there was a Deluxe version of the game made later on for the SPECTRUM.

First of all, the NES version is now side-scrolling instead of screen-flipping, which makes the platforming more natural for an NES environment. Really, this would be reason enough to call it a different game, but there's more. Sir Ababol can now kill enemies by hopping onto them, like Mario or Giana would. He can also jump through some platforms that were very much solid and unpassable in the original game, giving you much-needed freedom of movement. The chicken legs have been changed to appear as their own separate objects in different places around the game map, instead of showing up in spots where keys used to be, which is only to be expected, since the game isn't room-based anymore. Not everything is as peachy as it could be, however. As the original game was designed as what I think of as an elemental block based platformer, where all elements are of the same size, the NES conversion still features much of the same basic elemental setting, even though much of the areas have been modified to suit the side-scrolling maps better. In other words, while most of the difficult to jump through bits have been cleaned up and made more comfortable, there are some leftover tight spots that can be incredibly aggravating to get through, and even with emulator savestates, it took me 10 minutes to get through one particular spot to get to the final key in the game. But considering all the tight spots in the three other versions, it's not too bad. But as it is, it's a completely different experience, and most likely the most comfortable choice for most gamers.

So, what's all this about a Deluxe version, then? Gameplay-wise, it features new watery areas, where you must dive and search for more items, and you can also get a hold of magic boots that will allow you to stomp the monsters like in the NES version. To make things less comfortable, you are given a small number of lives to start with instead of a good deal of energy, and before you get your hands on the magic boots, all contact from enemies and other hazards will kill you. However, some other kind of balancing has been made to get the comfort level more humane - the collision detection is now loosened up a little, so the element blocks will not be in your way as much as before. There are some bugs I found in the DX version - the worst one so far being that there is one gate which allows you to get a key from the room to the left of it, but after you come back from the room, the gate is back down, and you need to waste the key you got from the room to get back out of it. Unless it's a new gameplay element that I don't understand the point of yet. Still, all in all, Sir Ababol DX is certainly a much better game than the original for all the reasons it was made, and well worth taking a look. And to know why the DX version probably needed to be made, you might have to play the original too.

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GRAPHICS


This is where the game actually shines, which might give you some incentive to actually attempt to complete the game. Basically, it's the usual high quality that the Mojon Twins games exhibit almost by default, but there are some little surprises, as well as some big ones in store for this game. As usual, a new game comparison has no loading section, so we shall have to start the graphics comparison with the loading screens.

Loading screens, left to right: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64 (Psytronik).


As the DX version on SPECTRUM features the same loading screen as the original, and the NES version features no loading screen for one obvious reason, these three are all there are. The Mojon Twins released the game as a cassette image for the ZX SPECTRUM, as both disk and tape for the AMSTRAD CPC, and a .d64 disk image file for the COMMODORE 64, and apart from the C64 version, the game had a loading screen. Only when the C64 version was published by Psytronik, another loading screen got thrown into the mix. This screen can be found in both tape and disk releases from Psytronik.

The loading screen is similar for all three versions - a pixelation of Sir Ababol as illustrated in the cover art. If one were to compare the loading screen to the cover art, one might notice that the colouring isn't exactly spot on in any of the versions, but the SPECTRUM version gets the amount of colours somewhat right, and it has the best overall look anyway. Both AMSTRAD and C64 screens look a bit messy due to the larger pixels, but the darkness of the original picture does come across better in both versions - perhaps more so on the AMSTRAD.

Title screens. Top row, left to right: ZX Spectrum (original), Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64.
Bottom left: ZX Spectrum (Deluxe). Bottom middle and right: NES.


And here are the title screens, which for most cases is exactly what you see here. I could take some points away from the SPECTRUM original for having a typo on the title screen, but since I'm not actually doing regular scores, I shall let it pass. The C64 version has the title logo animated to make waves similarly to... well, many examples come to mind, but most of you would probably remember a similar effect being used in Ghouls'n'Ghosts. Also, the NES version has a separate boot-up screen, which shows the Mojon Twins logo rising from the bottom to the center of the screen, as well as brief credits and thanks at the bottom.

Screenshots from the first screen in the game. Top row, left to right: ZX Spectrum (original), Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64.
Bottom left: ZX Spectrum (Deluxe). Bottom right: NES.


It's always impressive to see when a game's conversion has been managed to make look as much like the original as possible, and with the AMSTRAD and C64 versions, the Mojon Twins have performed beautifully. In fact, one could easily argue that the conversions look better than the original, depending on which sort of a mood the gamer appreciates more at each given time.

The SPECTRUM original features greyscale sprites and most of the background graphics, while the solid elements (ground and walls) are more colourful, and the ababol flowers are red and green. The DX version gives a green colour to all the grass, which makes the skeletons and other ground-based enemies half-green as well, but it drops the cyan numerals from the score bar at the top of the screen.

For the AMSTRAD conversion, the graphician has gone for a very dark mixture of red-and-grey, at least for the overworld bits. It gives the game the sort of feel that old silent movies have when the otherwise black-and-white screen is shown through a colour filter. It feels very different, but not bad. The shading has been made particularly well, even compared to the original, and it makes this version feel more advanced in a way.

The C64 version goes for a much more colourful rendition throughout the game, which usually means that much of the details have been lost in translation. In this case, the lack of detail is shown in all the solid elements, which have been made to look quite a bit different precisely due to the problem with the bigger pixels. Happily, all the sprites have been made from two overlaid objects - an outline and the coloured bits, which makes all moving things look particularly nice. The most glaring difference to the other similar versions is that the sky is dark blue instead of black, which gives the game a slightly happier tone. Also, opposite to every other version, the grass is animated to move, as if there was a wind blowing. Makes this version feel surprisingly much more alive than the others.

I have to admit, I wasn't expecting anything like this, when I booted up the NES version. Pretty much everything looks so much different that you will have a hard time considering this being the same game as the others. The game map has been tweaked with to the extent that some items are placed in areas that have to be searched for more diligently, and many of the room layouts have been radically altered to suit the otherwise more adaptable side-scrolling map. Some of the monsters have been relocated or removed completely, but you will likely be concentrating on their new design, which is less cute, but decidedly more NES. Whether that's a good thing or bad, is entirely up to each player to decide, for I cannot. Even the background is much more decorated now, thus making the closest point of comparison the C64 conversion. The only thing I'm not very keen on here is the size of all the sprites, which look bigger than they are. Think of Sir Ababol and all the other sprites as big as him the same size as those tombstones, and you'll do fine.

Screenshots from the first underground area of the game.
Top row, left to right: ZX Spectrum (original), Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64.
Bottom left: ZX Spectrum (Deluxe). Bottom right: NES.


Continuing with the NES version, once you get to the first underground section, you'll begin noticing the extent of how different the map layout is, as it has no need to be room-based. In some ways, it's better, but it can also take something away from the game's original flow. A matter of taste, I would presume.

From the NES version, we can see what sorts of slight adjustments were made for the DX version. In the original SPECTRUM version, you could just bounce across the water and take one small hit for every collision, but as you die instantly in the NES version every time you hit water or an enemy from the wrong angle, the DX version was made more brutal with spikes instead of water. Of course, there are water sections in the DX version, but Sir Deluxe is able to swim. The other graphical change in the DX version compared to the original is the moving platform, which has been changed from a tombstone to a strange, thin little cloud-like platform.

When I saw the first underground section in the AMSTRAD version, I realized what the idea was, which is why I actually enjoy it more than the original version. The colouring is vastly different from both the SPECTRUM version and the CPC version's own overworld section, which gives this version its very own personality - a rare feat in any game with ports of this quality. There is a unique little extra animation in the CPC version here: the moving tombstone bobs a little as it moves back and forth, just as you would expect something to move on water.

Again, the C64 version is the most colourful of the lot, and it even has some little detail in the background that is not in any of the other versions. Also again, some animation is done for the water, which hasn't been done elsewhere.

Screenshots of the first gate in the game, and its near vicinity.
Top row, left to right: ZX Spectrum (original), Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64.
Bottom left: ZX Spectrum (Deluxe). Bottom right: NES.


Here's one of the small disadvantages in the NES version: the player character is always centered, so you never get a similar screenshot made as you would from the room-based versions. Therefore, you can only see that the gate looks pretty similar to the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions. On the C64, the gate is drawn in big pixels to get four colours within that space.

Another interesting point of focus is the top half of the screen, which features uneven cave-like rock formations in the ceiling area of the original and its immediate conversions, while the NES version and the Deluxe version have no rocks at the top at all. Of course, the rocks have been removed because this way, you have more space to stomp on the offending bat-creatures. Otherwise, the C64 and NES versions continue to have the most colour and detail of the lot.

Randomly placed chicken legs, left to right: ZX Spectrum (original), Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, NES.


Because the first three chosen screenshots didn't include the energy bonus item, I chose to pick up four random screens from the game which featured the said item. Sure enough, it's shaped like a chicken drumstick, and is coloured accordingly to each version's style.

Exclusive new stuff from the Deluxe version (ZX Spectrum).


And here it is shown in an exclusive area to Sir Ababol DX, beside two other exclusive bits in the DX version. I have played the DX version far enough to know there are some radical adjustments made to certain screens to make the game easier, although there are some more challenging screens added as well, most of them included in the watery bits. But these shots are rather early from the game, and only included here to wet your appetites.

Game Under. Top row, left to right: ZX Spectrum (original), Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64.
Bottom left: ZX Spectrum (Deluxe). Bottom right: NES.


I could have ended this section by showing you the ending screens, some of which are different from the others, but I shall attempt to keep your interest as high as possible, so instead, I will only say that try the NES version and any of the others in addition to that one. In the end, it's either a good ending or a Game Over screen, which in the original and its conversions was switched to "Game Under". It's still not particularly interesting, and the AMSTRAD version doesn't even show the message for more than quarter of a second for some reason. At least the C64 version wipes out the top and bottom bits of the screen before giving you the message. Again, the NES version does this bit in a completely different manner, and goes with a dedicated game over screen instead of an overlay message within a black box.

Graphically, I'd say the original SPECTRUM version was made obsolete by the DX version, although it does offer an alternative, if you're looking for one. The C64 version is probably the most interesting to look at with all its exclusive animations and colourful and still mostly high quality graphics, while the AMSTRAD version offers another unique look to the game with certain colour themes to different areas in the game. While the NES version has its own very different look, it's not as impressive as the other versions where hardware capabilities are concerned, but with such a comfortable style and expert programming to make everything work without glitching, it's still a very enjoyable experience overall.

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SOUNDS


As the official credits say, the theme tune is an adaptation of Mekola's MOD chiptune, "Romanic" from 2007. You can listen to the original at the MOD Archive, if you wish to - or if you're able to. The reason why it's called an adaptation, is because the original SPECTRUM version features a loop of four bars from the beginning of the tune, and not the whole thing. Even as such, by modern Spectrum music standards, the quality is a bit unimpressive, since it only uses two simultaneous voices, one for the bass line and one for the melody. The Deluxe version features a much more impressive and progressive version of the tune, with a percussion track added into the mix and tempo changes and everything - it's a proper tune. Neither of the SPECTRUM versions feature any in-game music, but there are some nice sound effects that are adequate to give some sort of an atmosphere. Of course, the sound effects were changed along with everything else for the Deluxe version (apart from the Game Over sound effect), mostly for a more subtle set of sounds, but I'd say most of the changes were again done for the better.

The AMSTRAD version of the title tune is as full a rendition of the original MOD tune as I would ever hope for it to be, and it uses three simultaneous voices, of which two are similar staccato beeps and one is a quieter and longer sustained beep, which otherwise has a similar type of sound to the other two. This version is also the first one to feature an in-game tune, which slightly resembles some early silent-era horror movie soundtracks, but grows into a more powerful and modern action theme with some more percussive instruments thrown into the mix. In a way, this replaces the Game Over sound effect, which isn't played at all. But still, you can also hear the nicely different and melodic sound effects played on top of the music whenever the occasion rises. Frankly, the sound effects would be nicer even on their own than those in the SPECTRUM versions, but that's just my opinion. 

Also the C64 version features a similarly long rendition of the theme tune as well as the same in-game tune which were featured on the AMSTRAD, but Conrad the sound guy has given the C64 renditions a bit more power and effects to make it sound a bit fuller. Also, he has kept in the Amstrad version's sound effects, which is a nice bonus to go with the enhanced soundtrack, but there is a one-up in the C64 compared to the CPC: a short Game Over tune, which replaces the weird non-tune from the Spectrum versions. If you can get your hands on the commercial release from Psytronik, you will be able to hear another exclusive tune during the loading screen.

Strangely enough, music is not one of the things in the NES version that are too different from the other versions, only the short Game Over tune is a new one, as well as the little ditty that is played every time you lose a life. Of course, there is a certain unmistakable NES sound and quality to the tunes, which only works better with the clearly more NES-styled sound effects. One could argue about which version sounds the best, but I would rather judge this one strictly by the amount of music and sounds on each version, because each version sounds good enough in my ear in their own context.

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OVERALL


Considering that Sir Ababol, at least in the opinion of yours truly, more or less represents the average quality level of the retrogame developing output of what it generally was about 4-6 years ago, and has been released in a somewhat commercial capacity, I would say that the quality control we retrogamers have had for a few years now compared to that of 30 years ago is pretty damn high. Also, there is a definite advantage in not worrying about the pressure to get a finished product out and not having the opportunity to work on it afterwards, as is proven to us by the Deluxe edition.



I have given the scores based on what I know of the overall quality of what new games for old machines were about five years ago, in addition to their comparative quality to each other. It's only fair that the scores for the NES version and the Deluxe version have been given in their own context. That the scores look for the most part very much the same, is merely a major coincidence... or perhaps I just happen to like the number seven a lot. But the thing is, Sir Ababol is something between a mediocre and a good game, and none of its versions change this. I hope the scores reflect my analysis and review of the game as much as I hope it's not too offensive to either the creators or the fans.

If you're a keen collector of all things retro, here's an opportunity for you to support the creative communities, and purchase a copy of Sir Ababol for the C64 on tape, disk or cartridge. All the other versions are currently only available as free downloads at the Mojon Twins' website.

Those of you who didn't even know about Sir Ababol, might be even more surprised to find out that the Mojon Twins have made a sequel to it. Sir Ababol II: The Ice Palace was released in 2014 for the ZX SPECTRUM computers, and happily this time, there was an enhanced version made for the 128k machines as well. The game feels very much different, and plays more like a mixture between a flip-screen version of Rainbow Islands and Pengo, if that makes any sense. Well, I know it doesn't, so you'd better find out for yourself and see if you can come up with a better description.



On a final note, this is the last New Game Of The Month entry for some time for two reasons: there aren't that many new games around for old machines that would have what it takes to make an interesting, and more importantly, different experience in making a comparison, and I have only one such planned for the future. So, after this one, I shall be left waiting for new interesting new games to compare. But since there are quite a lot of interesting exclusive new games out there, I might be writing a new UG: Afterlife entry in the future...

That's it for today, so thanks for reading! Next time, back to some more old stuff.

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