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Friday, 12 June 2015

Skate or Die! (Electronic Arts, 1987)

Developed and released for the Commodore 64 by Electronic Arts: Programming by Stephen Landrum and David Bunch. Graphics by Michael Kosaka. Sound effects by Christopher Grigg. Music by Rob Hubbard and Kyle Granger. Product management by Kelly Flock. Associate producer: Don Traeger. Technical support: David Maynard. Art director: Nancy L. Wong.

Converted for the Apple //GS by David Bunch, Michael Kosaka and Michelle Shelfer, and released in 1988 by Electronic Arts.

Converted for the IBM-PC compatibles by Arti Haroutunian for Sculptured Software, and released in 1988 by Electronic Arts.

Converted and released for the Nintendo Entertainment System by Ultra Games in 1988.

Converted for the Amstrad CPC by Kinetic Designs team: Mike Talbot, Tim McCarthy, Doug Trower, Richard Cheek and Sarah Day. Released in 1989 by Electronic Arts.

Converted for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum by Kinetic Designs team: Mike Talbot, Stephen Landrum, Tim McCarthy, David Bunch, Sarah Day, Drew Northcott and Richard Cheek. Released in 1989 by Electronic Arts.

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GAME STATUS


Although this might look a bit dubious to feature another Electronic Arts game almost immediately after the previous one - only separated by a newer game - it's only natural that I follow my December comparison of Ski Or Die! with the original game in the series, Skate Or Die! as my extended summer break is soon about to start. For many, this is the better game of the two actual sports titles, so I'm sure some of you have been waiting for this one.

As we're coming to June, the current ratings and scores at our favourite websites are as follows: 8.4 from 132 votes at Lemon64 (#50 in the Top List), 4.44 from 9 votes at World of Spectrum, 4 out of 10 at CPC Game Reviews, the NES version has a C- rating at Questicle, the editor rating at Abandonia is 4.0 while 3893 readers have rated it 2.8, and at MobyGames, the Apple //GS version has an incredible 4.7 from 3 votes, and just to get a wider opinion on the NES version, there is a score of 3.6 from 19 votes at MobyGames. Curious, but let's see...

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DESCRIPTION & NON-REVIEW


Just like Ski Or Die!, the predecessor is a multi-event extreme sports game, but this one takes place in a warmer environment. Similarly, there are five events in the game, all of which have a skateboard as the primary - nay, the only accessory for movement. Two of the events take place in a half-pipe, one in an improvised one (a swimming pool), one takes place in the back alleys of the city and the fifth one is a downhill race. Most of the initial gameplay elements are pretty much the same as in Ski Or Die!, but just for the sake of not taking the easiest route out of this one, I'll do an abbreviated walkthrough of it later on.

As I mentioned in my Ski Or Die! comparison, I never really got into the earlier game that much, but that's very likely because I never really played it in my youth, and I haven't had that much exposure to Skate Or Die! since. So once again, I will be leaving any review stuff for later on, and make my opinions known as I make progress with the comparison.

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LOADING


Skate or Die! was clearly designed to be played from a floppy disk, so any existing cassette versions would feel a bit unlikely or unwise. But much like all the Epyx sports titles, Skate Or Die! did appear on cassettes as well, and so some of the unluckier (and less wealthy) gamers had to make do with tapes. Unfortunately, the Spectrum users had no other choice, so just for their sake, I will see if they have any chance with the loading times...

AMSTRAD, original: 1 hour 4 minutes (total)
C64, original: 17 minutes 32 seconds (total)
SPECTRUM, original: 29 minutes 39 seconds (total)
SPECTRUM, Dro Soft: 20 minutes 19 seconds (total)

Well, the Dro Soft version isn't too bad, but still loses to the original C64 tape version a bit. But half an hour is still a fair amount of total time compared to the Amstrad's massive time-waster that is the cassette version. I have never seen any cassette version of any game before that would have over an hour of data to load in total, so it's an achievement of sorts, and gives this section an unexpected importance. Way to go, Amstrad!

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PLAYABILITY


Controls for each version are pretty much what you would expect them to be, but since this is a multi-event sports game, we must be thorough and take a look at all the events as their own separate entities. Naturally, the menus work the same way as they do on Ski Or Die! - just move the cursor around Rodney's Skate Shop and click on things to do stuff. Also, moving around in the skate park (outside Rodney's) happens by pushing up and simultaneously controlling your skater dude left and right to turn in said directions.

I shall go through the event in a similar order as with the other game - counter-clockwise from left to top right. The first event in this order is JOUST, which takes place in an emptied swimming pool with a rounded bottom. The camera angle is sort of 45 degrees (or thereabouts) from about 10 feet above the other end of the pool, and the jousting area can be counted from the edges as six tiles from the nearest fully shown one towards the far end. This doesn't help much while actually jousting, since the pool itself hasn't got much to check your position from in any version, so you will just have to learn the speed of your sideways movement by experimentation. The basic idea is to knock your opponent off his board with your jousting stick, which will only be in your possession for the amount of time it takes for the one that has no hold of the jousting stick to turn five times in the half-pipe before it swaps on to the other player, and vice versa. You can perform some ledge tricks on your skateboard to adjust your position better, and get a better aim. When you are wielding the jousting stick, press the attack button when you are near your opponent to hit him with the stick. The match is won by scoring three times.

The second event is a RACE, which takes you to the first downhill spot, which is similar to most downhill skiing events in winter sport games, as the track is set on a road built on a hill with some naturally occurring dangers as well as bridges and other man-built hazards. The idea is to skate your way down in one piece, get across the finish line as quickly as possible, and collect some bonus points on your way by performing tricks and skating across dangerous obstacles and whatnot. The special moves here are jump (fire + forward) and duck (back), and slide turns (fire + left/right).

Next up is an event called JAM, which is another downhill-type of an event. You skate against an opponent through a back alley featuring plenty of hazards, such as fences and air vents, which you must avoid bumping into. The biggest score here is collected by hitting your opponent and outrunning him, but you can also run over soda cans and bottles, as well as perform tricks in bigger jumps to collect more bonus points. The amount of finishing bonus you will get is determined by your overall performance - the time you spent, the times you fell and all the other bits. The special moves here are kick (fire + lean away from the direction you're facing and diagonals for low, mid or high kicks) and punch (fire + lean into the direction you're facing and diagonals).

Both downhill-type events feature an option to change your control method. The regular method makes you control your skater to the direction you hold the controller towards, as in right is right and down is down. The goofy method, as the game calls it, is actually a more logical one - up is forwards, left and right make your skater turn accordingly to his orientation.

For the last two events, the game takes you to the ramp, also known as the proper half-pipe. In HIGH JUMP, your only goal is to build as much speed as possible and jump as high as you can on the side of the half-pipe where the measuring pole is located, and then return safely to the starting platform by pressing the fire button after you have approved your performance. There is a limit of five passes, within which you must set the score. Your job is just to vigorously waggle the joystick/pad while your skater is in the half-pipe in order to get as much speed built up as possible, and press the button to accept your score after landing.

In FREESTYLE, you need to build up as much points as you can within 10 passes, after which your skater will automatically finish his run and climb upon the platform. You can bend your knees and build up speed in the bends of the half-pipe by pressing the fire button, and speed is definitely required for the more advanced tricks. The game manual shows you all the tricks, so why not consult that. In fact, the whole game manual can be found at Stadium64, so if you're not familiar enough with the game and have no original in your possession, do take a good look at the game page at the Stadium64 website.

Since the C64 version was the original, I will be making references to it while I compare other versions to it instead of just describing the original first. And I shall start with the A2GS version, because it's the easiest one to start with, as well as the first conversion in a chronological order. From what I can tell, there is very little different in the APPLE conversion compared to the original, apart from it being a pain in the neck to get to play properly on a Windows-based GS emulator. The game is clearly supposed to be run on a 2.8 MHz setup, and played with a proper joystick, but for some reason, I couldn't get any joystick to work on KEGS for this game, nor get the 2.8 MHz setup play without making the controller constantly jammed in the down-right corner. So I slouched through the game on 1 MHz setup, which was painful, but I got the differences checked up well enough. The only notable difference that I could find was in the JOUST event, which has more room for you to move around in, and the depth perception is somewhat better than on the C64. It's still not very good, however, since there are no shadows in the pool. Also, the slide-turn in the DOWNHILL RACE event isn't as effective as it should be, but that's pretty much all I could find. I'm very much tempted to lower the score for the A2GS version merely because it's so difficult to get it working properly on Windows-based emulators. It's just something I don't know how to fix by any other way than having a real machine to play it on, and the latest version of a Windows-based A2GS emulator is from about 8 years ago. Not very promising.

Before I move on, I would like to point out that I asked a friend of mine to try getting the game to work on Sweet16, which I have often seen mentioned as the best A2GS emulator out there, but only available for Macs. So, this friend of mine got the game to load up on the emulator after a bit of struggle, but he couldn't even get past Rodney's, so I'm counting on you readers to test and comment on this issue, if you have any more luck. Preferably with real hardware.

The DOS version isn't too much different from the previous two. You can choose to play with either keyboard or joystick, of which joystick is the preferred choice, but the keyboard controls aren't bad either. On modern hardware, though, it's difficult to get the game to play in optimal speed, but it's relatively easy to get it working in playable speed. The two most notable differences are, perhaps, the strange choice to swap the forwards direction in the event selection screen, which is now down instead of up, and that in the HIGHJUMP event, you need to speed up by circling through the joystick's (or cursor's) directions instead of waggling left and right. The DOSbox emulation speed affects the ramp events the most, which can be a bit difficult to play any faster than in the original speed, but otherwise, I have very little to complain about.

On the NES, the differences start early on. For starters, you can't choose the colour of your skateboard, not that it matters an awful lot, but it does feel like a slight lack of depth in the skateboarding culture. In JOUST, you need to get three points instead of just two to win, and the area of movement feels a bit restrained compared to the original. Not too much, but notably so. In DOWNHILL RACE, performing slide turns is not as effective as it is in the original, but otherwise your skater moves a bit sharper. DOWNHILL JAM is a bit quicker and easier to play, but it has lost some of its violent nature at the same time for those exact reasons - in the original, there is a bigger focus on doing acts of violence against your opponent than racing to the finish line. I suppose this is because Nintendo is a family-friendly company. If possible, I would say FREESTYLE has been executed too well for its own good, because the animation is perfectly fluent and quick while at it, which makes the air tricks harder to handle, since you need to be exact in your performance - this is not a Tony Hawk game, that's for sure. All in all, it's not too bad, since most of the differences here make the game easier to play. Unfortunately, since NES games are played with old and awkward pad controllers by default, and Skate Or Die! was designed primarily for joysticks, some of the events will be painful to get accustomed to. If you can get a hold of a proper joystick on the NES, this is one of those games that might benefit from one.

Since both SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD conversions were made by more or less the same team from Kinetic Designs, you would logically expect the conversion results to be similar. Which they very much are, only there is no disk version for the SPECTRUM, which is unfortunate. The differences start at Rodney's, where you have no possibility to choose the colour of your skateboard, which will prove a logical choice later on. Outside Rodney's, the controls are opposite to the DOS version: up is forwards, but clockwise and counter-clockwise have been swapped. You will soon notice that the overall experience of the game is notably slower than the original, even on a disk, although not because of the media format. Most of the events play quite a lot slower than in the original, particularly those that feature scrolling - the DOWNHILL events. Those two are also incredibly difficult to control, since you only get the most necessary diagonals to direct your skater into, and the steering speed is sludgy at best. The SPECTRUM version is only marginally less horrible than the AMSTRAD version. Also noteworthy in the RACE event is that the slide-turning is missing from both versions. The ramp (or half-pipe) events suffer from a similar slowness and lesser quality of the animation, but the gameplay actually benefits slightly from it, since you can see your skater's alignment easier with the smaller amount of animation frames and you have more time to adjust with the slower gameplay. Although, whether that's a good thing or not has to do with each player's own opinion and skill level. The JOUST event has been made a bit differently, with the jousting match being scored in a somewhat tennis-like manner. You can get up to two points, after which you could either win the whole match, or if your opponent gets tied with you, you could fight for an advantage point, after which you win or get back to the tied place. Otherwise, the animation is again slower than in the original, and there is less room for movement in the pool, but I think I like this tennis-like scoring idea better than the original, because it gives you more opportunities.

As I have now thoroughly acquainted myself with Skate Or Die!, I can form an educated opinion about it. I still think it's not quite as versatile as Ski Or Die!, but it does offer just as much replay value and playable events, and it is easy to understand how Skate Or Die! became such an influential game for later games to be developed. The original version on the C64 is the most balanced version of the lot, but there are some aspects to it that have been made arguably better in other versions, such as the Joust event in the Kinetic conversions and the Downhill events on the NES. The A2GS and DOS versions are almost as good as the original, if you manage to play them in correct speed. Unfortunately, I have to put these versions in some sort of an order. The two Kinetic conversions will have to share the last place due to their horrible slowness and certain omissions from the game. The NES version would otherwise be good, but you have to get yourself a Nintendo joystick, which aren't too easy to find these days. The remaining two versions share a similar problem of getting the game to actually work to your liking on emulators, but apart from that, on proper hardware they should be quite as playable as the original. So, as long as my problems remain unfixed, the scores for this section will be as follows:

1. COMMODORE 64
2. APPLE 2GS / DOS
3. NES
4. AMSTRAD CPC / ZX SPECTRUM

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GRAPHICS


This game was released around the time when EA started focusing on presentation rather than playability, and it shows, although not nearly as much as it would a few years later on.

Loading/title screens. Top row, left to right: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, NES.
Bottom row, left to right: DOS CGA, DOS EGA/Tandy, Apple //GS.


Already from the title screens, we can see the level of commitment put into graphics here, although you can't really see everything without a video or loading the game up yourself. The original C64 title screen gives us an animated EOA logo and the three names mentioned left of the skater, which scroll through the greyscale colours you see in the rhythm of the arpeggio melody in the theme tune. Also, the colour of the words "Skate Or Die!" change between white and red with a similar idea, as if someone should be shouting the words as they change.

Apart from the NES version, none of the other versions feature any visual effects, and even there the European version doesn't feature everything there could be. The North American release was published by Ultra Games, who included their logo where Palcom's logo is in the European version, and the text ULTRA is flashing red and white until you press the start key. Also, the said text scrolls yellow and white really fast.

Other obscurities you can see from the title screens are the rather strange liberties in the AMSTRAD version's title logo and the really awkward colours, the missing trademark and the similarly missing exclamation mark from the SPECTRUM version. But the level of quality is strangely obvious from the first screen already. Luckily, though, this is not as easy as it looks from here, so we shall have to move on.

At Rodney's - the main menu. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Apple //GS.
Bottom row, left to right: DOS CGA, DOS EGA/Tandy, NES, ZX Spectrum.


Look, it's Rodney Dangerfield! Yeah, he looks a bit younger here, as he is supposed to, since this one is the earlier game of the two, but considering he was already 66 years old at the time, this game must have taken place in the 1960's, or perhaps the young Rodney had stepped into a time machine and found himself in 1987, selling skateboards and stuff with a new fashionable hairdo.

As could be expected, the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions are the least detailed, mostly due to having less space on the screen to feature any more objects than necessary. Some of the omissions affect the number of things Rodney can say, such as "Semper Fi or Die!" when you take the cursor to his U.S. Marines tattoo. In the SPECTRUM version, Rodney looks little like Rodney, and more like a purple alien with a sailor tanktop and a green mohawk instead of purple or blue. The AMSTRAD version of Rodney looks more like he has a black eye instead shadows, and the horribly small screen size makes it impossible for anything to really have a chance to look good. So, I'm having a hard time deciding which version of these two looks worse. Both of them look very unattractive in their own ways, but I think the SPECTRUM version takes the shortest straw here with its clearly worse anatomic correctness and the horrible font for the two GO items at the bottom. And I do hate the awful colours there.

Closest to the Spectrum version in terms of colour is the CGA DOS version, which has less of it, but has a much better screen resolution, which gives the DOS version an ability to feature plenty of more graphics on the screen. The CGA mode also has something more in common with the Spectrum and Amstrad versions: you can't change the colour of your skateboard due to obvious limitations, even though the CGA screen features the menu item there in the background. It's also the only screen from this lot that shares the same problem with the High Scores statue in the Spectrum version: it has no shadow.

Sure, the C64 version looks rather bad compared to the A2GS version, or even the DOS version's EGA mode, but Rodney on the C64 still looks a helluva lot more than Rodney on any of the other 8-bits, and features the most details from any of the 8-bits. The most annoying thing about the NES version is not that it looks so horizontally squeezed (which it does), but that everything in the background has such a decidedly rectangular look, most notably Rodney's speech bubble, which takes away the space from one poster from the background.

The Sign-Up screens. Top row, left to right: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, NES.
Bottom row, left to right: DOS CGA, DOS EGA/Tandy, Apple //GS.


In case you missed it previously, here's an interesting little continuity error for you: all the 8-bit versions have a "Sign in" board in the main menu, while the DOS and APPLE versions have a "Sign-up" board. Once you have clicked on the board, though, every version says "Sign-up" for whatever reason.

Also interesting is that the Sign-up tables mostly feature a similar look to that which is shown in the little picture of the Sign-up board at Rodney's. Only the SPECTRUM version of the Sign-up screen looks different from that which is shown at the skate shop, although it wasn't that much ornamented in the first place. The AMSTRAD version at least looks its part in being as unshowy as it can. All the rest of the lot looks much like they should, but the A2GS version has the "Sign-up" text changing colours like a neon sign or something.

Skateboard colour selection screens: Commodore 64 (left), DOS EGA/Tandy (middle) and Apple //GS (right).


Only three versions of the game have a possibility to change your skateboard's colouring (or coloring, as it is spelled in the U.S.), and none of the three look exactly the same. The original version has a bigger list of choices, but the DOS (EGA) and the A2GS versions have some actual style in the boards, as they likely would in reality. The DOS version differs from the APPLE board selection screen in that it has a greyish background that looks like a sidewalk or something, while the APPLE version only has a black background. Also, the DOS version's selector cursor is a flashing asterisk, while the APPLE has a small red circle with a white dot in the middle of it - something very much akin to what the C64 version has. The C64 version has the advantage of showing your skater on top of the selected board, which is also nice.

Outside Rodney's. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Apple //GS.
Bottom row, left to right: DOS CGA, DOS EGA/Tandy, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.


Once you decide to go either compete or practice, you step outside Rodney's Skate Shop and get on your skateboard. None of the 8-bit versions of the game feature the "Rodney's" neon sign, but it was included for the A2GS and DOS conversions. The sign flashes purple and black, so I'm guessing at the time it was considered a waste of space and resource for the 8-bits, since there were so many other things taking memory already.

Considering what have we given by each version so far, this screen continues the tradition as expected: the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions have the least amount of detail, but the SPECTRUM version drops all the colours here and focuses on getting the shapes and text bits as clear as possible - so it's monochrome greyscale. That weird and funky font is now used for the event names, but it's not as disturbing as previously at Rodney's. The AMSTRAD version has curious changes made to the event names, at least here in this screen - RACE has been changed to DOWNHILL, and the actual Downhill sign has been removed, and HIGHJUMP has been turned into HI JUMP.

Curiously, the C64 version is the only one of the possible ones that are constant with the colour of your skateboard. As you saw earlier, I chose the purple board for all versions where available, but when you get outside Rodney's, the A2GS and DOS (EGA mode) versions turn your board to default turqoise, although the board colour is fixed again for the events. So we have another continuity error for those of you who care about these sorts of things.

Joust - opponent selection screens. Top row, left to right: Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, Apple //GS.
Bottom row, left to right: DOS CGA, DOS EGA/Tandy, NES, ZX Spectrum.

Of course, the events are where things really start getting interesting. Even JOUST, which has perhaps the least amount of graphics of all the events, has quite a lot to offer in terms of differences. It starts by selecting your opponent, which are Poseur Pete (easy), Aggro' Eddie (medium) and Lester (hard). All the other versions have at least a picture and some text to go with each personality, but the AMSTRAD version features only a name, which might not tell you anything if you have never played the game before, and you are not very fluent in English. The SPECTRUM version shows a monochrome picture of each of your opponents, and a slogan of sorts underneath each picture, which are derived from the original quotations, except from Lester's quote, which has been kept in its entirety.

The most interesting differences in graphic/character design can be found in the A2GS version, which shows Aggro' Eddie having more like an early 1990's grunge-look than the Billy Idol look he's usually going for. Poseur Pete usually looks like a cheap Elvis impersonator, but in the A2GS version, he looks more like the poser he is probably supposed to be. Other interesting redesigns can be found in the A2GS and DOS versions, where each name starts with a different-looking letter, and Lester's quote has more splashy punk look to it, like a proper graffiti.

Jousting screens. Top row, left to right: Apple //GS, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64.
Bottom row, left to right: DOS CGA, DOS EGA/Tandy, ZX Spectrum, NES.


I'm probably one of the few who think this event doesn't look very good in any version. The reason why I think so is because the game takes place in a swimming pool that has roughly the shape of a half-pipe, and such a shape is not very easy for anyone to draw, particularly a pixelated version of one, and even more particularly when the pixels do not give much of a chance for drawing three-dimensional shapes. Additional to this problem comes the fact that there should be some sort of shadows for the players to see where they're going, and the shadows should at least somewhat follow the shape of the pool. Unless of course there are various sources of light that make the shadows practically vanish. But I'm assuming this event is played in regular daylight, since that is what most of the versions look like.

None of the versions have any notable shadows from which you could actually follow the real location of either player, so at least in that, they're all starting from the same line. From the 8-bits, the SPECTRUM version is the only one where the pool has a clearly indicated shape at the bottom. You can see some slight attempt of forming a circular area at the bottom of the pool in the C64 version, but it's difficult to see when you're focusing on aiming at or away from the other player. Only the APPLE version looks the most like it's supposed to, and all the others that haven't been mentioned yet, have pretty much failed to get the rounded shape for the pool's inner area clear.

The player animations aren't in as big a role as they are in some of the other events, considering that any tricks you might do have very little meaning when it comes to your performance. The most important thing regarding the player animations is the way you move through the curved bits of the pool, and whether or not you are able to see where in the pool are the players actually located. This, of course, is directly related to the above mentioned colouring of the pool, but the player sprites have their own important role in this. Again, the APPLE version has the most accurate animations for the players to follow the shapes of the swimming pool, so it wins this round easily. The SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions have slow animation and overall movement, which makes it sort of easier to follow the action, but it looks like the players are following a slightly differenly shaped pool than the one they are in. Contrarily to what you would expect, this makes it easier to follow their movement than that of the players in the C64 version, which while more accurate, has more gentle curvation of the pool according to the players' animations, which makes it more difficult to judge their positions. Also, since the C64 has a perfectly good animation speed, you need to focus much more on the players than what you would normally do by following their position according to your surroundings. The DOS version suffers from the same problem. There is something rather important missing from most versions, however: the indicator for you actually doing something with the jousting stick, which in the C64 version shows as flashing. Only the EGA DOS and NES versions have this effect kept in, and in the other versions you will just need to trust that your fire button is actually working.

You might have noticed the big "Skate or Die" decoration in the AMSTRAD screenshots in the above screens. It's just that: a decoration to take up some usable space. The reason for having something like that is to take away focus from the fact that the action screen is very much smaller than in the other versions, because - and this is just a hunch - the game would be even slower than it already is. There have been earlier examples of such cases on the blog, and the reason for the action screen's size reduction is simply the need to make the game run as good as it can. This decoration is also shown in the next two events.

High jumping at the ramp. Top row, left to right: Apple //GS, NES, Commodore 64.
Bottom row, left to right: Amstrad CPC, DOS CGA, DOS EGA/Tandy, ZX Spectrum.

Happily, the rest of the events are easier to describe and compare. The next two events are taken from the opposite side of the event selection square, and are played in the ramp, sometimes referred to as half-pipe. I suppose they went with ramp just because it was easier to fit onto the sign.

There are two basic models of the ramp: wooden and metallic. As a rule, the 8-bits feature a metallic ramp, and I suppose the SPECTRUM version also features a metallic one, but since it's greyscale for the most part anyway, it's difficult to tell. The most notable difference in the SPECTRUM ramp is its shape, which is less steeply curved and has less flat space in the middle than any other version. Well, the NES version has perhaps even a smaller middle bit, but it has a squeezed look anyway due to the screen resolution, and so the curving of the ramp is steeper than anywhere else. And yes, the APPLE and DOS versions feature a wooden ramp, which looks brilliant on the A2GS, but feels a bit awkward and not all that wooden in the DOS version.

Since there is much more to talk about in the background graphics than the actual ramps, I shall dig into that bit now. First off, the audience. The C64 original features a nicely random group of skateboarding enthusiasts gathered behind the fence, while further back, a smaller group of passers-by are ignoring the event. All the people there wear attire of random colours, and overall the background has a feel of surprising amount of liveliness, as some people's hands and the flags are moving. Neither the APPLE nor the DOS version have any action in the background at all, which is a bit curious considering everything else: there's more colour, more detail, more people, more everything - except movement. Even the NES version has similar attention to a lively background as the original, even though there are only two colours chosen for the audience attire. This is where the relative monochromeness of the SPECTRUM graphics pay off, because there is some movement in the comparatively small and organized audience, which is a nice surprise compared to the  AMSTRAD version, which has plenty of colour, but no movement at all.

As for the player animation, we can easily divide the versions into two groups: those that have fluent and fast animation, and those that don't - namely the two Kinetic conversions. Although the smaller amount of frames and slower animation gives you a better chance at aligning your tricks correctly, you have to admit, it doesn't really look as good as if the animations were fast and smooth.

Screenshots from the Freestyle event, left to right: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, DOS EGA/Tandy, DOS CGA.


For the FREESTYLE ramp event, the measuring stick has been taken off the other side of the ramp (or the other way round, if you like to think more logically), but the graphics are very much the same otherwise. Without the measuring stick, your skater can now climb on that side of the ramp when he finishes his set, if his final pass is accepted on the left side of the ramp.

More screenshots from the Freestyle event, left to right: Commodore 64, NES, Apple //GS.


The reason why I took two screenshots for this particular event was that some of the versions did not feature all the fall animations featured in the original. As you might have guessed, it's the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions that are missing at least one particular animation - the one featured in the failure pictures from all the other versions.

Screenshots from the Race event, left to right: DOS CGA, Tandy, EGA, Commodore 64, Apple //GS.
Click to view in full size.


Time for another very interesting curiosity here: for most of the game, the DOS version is just regular CGA and EGA. There is also a mode for the Tandy Graphics Adapter, which for the most part looks exactly like the EGA mode. In the two Downhill events, however, the TGA mode looks like a badly pixelated version of the EGA mode. Also, there is a curious bug at least in the version I've been using for this comparison, which turns the CGA mode into a strange colour mode (which features white, black and two shades of blue) from the minute you load up the RACE event. And this mode sticks until you restart the computer. Very curious. I have tested this on an actual MS-DOS based machine, so it's not a fault with DOSbox.

Comparing the DOS version and its three modes to the original makes even the most advances graphics mode in the DOS version look more or less lacking in colour. Contrarily to what some of you might expect, the only bit of brown on the C64 version is the light brown skintone of your skater, which is an interesting contrast to the DOS version's brown wood colouring for the dock at the end of the level, as well as the skater's darker skintone. The APPLE version enhances the colours in all the flowery bits, throws in more detail for practically everything - even the flags, and goes even further with changing metal things into brown wooden things along the track.

More screenshots from the Race event, top to bottom: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, NES.


Both SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD go with a very monochrome look this time, apart from the info bits and decorations on the side. All black and white in high resolution for the action screen allows for more detail, but unfortunately, the smaller size of the screen hasn't helped much in the scrolling and animations, which are both slow and dropped to only a few frames of animation to work with. Depending on whether you like your glorious monochrome action spoiled with a splash of red or a good slice of green and some other colours thrown in the mix, each Kinetic version offers a choice of sorts. But personally, I enjoy some colour in the action as well. The NES version offers a similar option to the EGA DOS version, but someone forgot to draw the flowers in. At least the action is just as fluent and speedy as in the original, as long as you play the C64 version in NTSC mode as it was originally intended.

Screenshots from the Jam event, left to right: DOS CGA, Tandy, EGA, Commodore 64, Apple //GS.
Click to view in full size.

Similar differences can be found here as in the previous event, except that the CGA mode in the DOS version does not give you any trouble regarding colours this time. In this case, it's easier to see that the C64 original has elements in it that can be compared to the Tandy and EGA modes in the DOS version - in both good and bad, as well as some that have been enhanced for the A2GS version. The only thing from the original that has been completely left out of the conversions is that the police car lights have more than just blue and red as the flashing colours. And I guess it goes without saying, but the A2GS version features some details in the backgrounds as well as more detailed character animations that cannot be found elsewhere.

More screenshots from the Jam event, top to bottom: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, NES.

Similarly to the previous event, the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions go for the monochrome mode here. And again, while all the characters, surroundings and items look good in hi-res, the scrolling is horrible and there are less animation frames as you would hope for. Of course, with no colour, all the graffiti has been cleaned up from the walls, but as a nice little surprise to make up for everything, there is no police car waiting for you at the end of the level, but a drunkard kneeling by a bunch of broken bottles and trash cans. At least, that's what I think it is. The NES version succeeds well enough at copying the original look of the back alleys, but the character animations are a bit lacking.

High score tables. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, NES, Apple //GS.
Bottom row, left to right: DOS CGA, DOS EGA/Tandy, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC.


At last, we come to the end of this section, and what better way is there than to view the high score tables. Well, I would say there are plenty of better ways, but since this game offers no ending ceremonies of any kind, this will have to do.

As with most other high score tables, there isn't a whole lot to say about this lot. The basic idea is a notice board kind of a thing, I suppose, which didn't really get that well visualized in the original, nor any of the other 8-bits. Mind you, the coloured frames for each event is a lot better than having no frames at all, or just a basic red box on blue background. But each version's high score tables do their job well enough for what they're meant for. The APPLE and DOS versions, of course, do the notice board thing much better with each scoreboard attached on the wall with pins, as well as that "Push button to exit" notice using a dodgy hand-written paper, which looks brilliant for the part.

It's not all that difficult to put these in any sort of an order, but it is difficult to make the order look completely acceptable. The obvious losers and the obvious winners are obvious, but the minor differences are what makes the middle section so hard to decide upon. The problem is that both Tandy and CGA modes in the DOS version are clearly inferior to the EGA mode, which itself is just barely as good as the original C64 version. The NES version offers as much animation as the original, but features less in terms of colour, and sometimes details. The Kinetic versions are both very different from each other for the most part - where there's colour in the CPC version, there's higher resolution and more detail in the SPECTRUM version, but both have just as bad animations and scrolling. Still, even the detailed monochrome bits have not the amount of detail featured in the original, sometimes even precisely due to not using any colour. For this reason, I was very much tempted to give DOS version's CGA mode a place between third and the last one, but since the previous section ended with only four places in the list, I thought this might as well do so, if it helps any. Remember, the scores are merely pointers to a further idea of how the versions compare to each other.

1. APPLE 2GS
2. COMMODORE 64 / DOS EGA
3. NES / DOS TGA
4. ZX SPECTRUM / AMSTRAD CPC / DOS CGA

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SOUNDS


Let's start with the easy ones here: the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions neither have any sounds at all. Of course, this will give both of them an unfair last spot for this section, but would you REALLY wish to play a game without sounds? Oh well... it's not as if the results for those two weren't bad enough already, so whatever.

The original C64 soundtrack was at the time of release something practically unheard of. Rob Hubbard's status as one of the masters of chiptune musicians was eternalised with his use of the 6581 SID chip in the title tune, which featured samples of a distorted electric guitar, the playback of which were facilitated by exploiting a flaw in the SID chip. The tune itself could be described something like an early fusion of electronic dance music and hard rock, with heavy emphasis on rhythm, particularly with the arpeggiated melody being constant with the percussive track. I might as well throw in a YouTube link for the main title tune, if for some reason you have no idea what I'm talking about - this is the original NTSC version of the title screen.

As far as I know, the rest of the game's music was made by Kyle Granger. The dev team opted for a non-percussions based soundtrack for the actual game to make room for some sound effects to be played simultaneously during play, which I think is a good option all around. Of course, you are given no option to choose either sound effects or just plain music, but it's not much of a problem with this game.

I shall attempt to describe all the music and sound effects from each event of the original C64 version now. In JOUST, the music is a fairly simplistic-sounding high-energy tune in 6/4 time, from what I could tell, but as there is only one staccato instrument playing the single melody in the tune, it's difficult to focus on the rather quirky melody. The sound effects are mostly comical: there's a funny whistling somersault effect for when either of the players falls from their skateboard, a loud crashing thump when he hits the ground after the fall, and then there's the winning motion of twirling the jousting stick, which makes a propeller-like windy noise. The other effects are just two differently pitched small pips for swapping the stick and going down a pass.

In RACE, the music is a fairly dark 4/4 tune with a difficult minor key melody accompanied with a constant 8th-note bassline going in as much of a straight line as you would expect Cliff Williams to play, except that because the C64 needs to focus on quite a lot of other things besides looking ugly like a rockstar on stage and playing 8th notes, the music doesn't run as smoothly as it should. But at least there is some. The sound effects are less interesting than those in the previous event, but there are some pips and blops to mark some successful tricks, as well as crashes and splashes to play when you fail at landing safely.

JAM features a shuffle-rock type of a tune with plenty of dynamic crash and bash noises, which suits the event very well. For almost every action and mishap, there is a crashing or bashing sound effect of a different volume and type, and so there should be, since there's supposed to be plenty of kicking and punching, shoving, falling and breaking objects.

For the HIGHJUMP event, the style they decided to go for is somewhat reminiscent of the surf-rock thing that is featured in the Half-Pipe event in California Games, but this tune here is more focused on the chord arpeggios and the bassline than any actual melody. It's not nearly as interesting or catchy as the California Games tune, but it serves its purpose. The sound effects still aren't much to talk about: just a blip for every successful pass, a swoosh noise when you go through the curved bits, and a thump if you crash and drop through the ramp.

Last but clearly not the least, the FREESTYLE ramp event features the only in-game tune with a drum pattern. The drums are accompanied only by a single melody, which switches between low and high registers to play different melodic bits in turns. It's another tune reminiscent of California Games, this time more like the one in the Surfing event. Again, the sound effects are pretty much what they were in the other ramp event, but since there are more ways to fail here, there are a couple of different crash effects. But still, sound-wise, it's the richest event in the game.

Now that we've got that dealt with, let's move on to the only comparable 8-bit version left. Somehow, it doesn't come as much of a surprise that the NES version comes equipped with much more music and sound effects than the original. But that's the advantage of having custom-built cartridges. Too bad the distorted guitar samples couldn't be kept in here, but that's not all that much of a sacrifice, considering what you get in return. Once you have gotten to Rodney's, you will have noticed the first new and exclusive sound effect already just by pushing the Start button, and then there's a new menu tune at Rodney's. Most of the menu items feature new sound effects of their own as well - merely entering your name has some sound effects for moving the cursor and entering letters. At least the town square doesn't have its very own tune - that would be a bit too much - but it does continue playing the same Rodney tune. When you choose an event to play, the same sound effect plays that was played at the beginning of the game when you pushed the Start button.

All the music for the events are basically the same as in the original, only feature more instruments - most distinctly a drum track along with everything else played simultaneously, thus making all the tunes easier to relate to. Only the HIGHJUMP tune sounds a bit different than you would have expected, based on the C64 version, but at least it sounds much fuller. Also, there is more focus put into the sound effects, which now feature a bit more humour as well as power. So, while the C64 version features a better rendition of the main title theme, the NES version beats it with everything else.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to hear all the A2GS tunes due to my emulation problems, but from what I can tell, it's as much of an equivalent to having an Amiga version of the game as the graphics are. It also features some new music, but unlike the NES, these are for the events instead of just an additional tune for the menu screens. Indeed, much like the original, there is no music or any other sounds for the menus. The sound effects are almost as high in quality as you would expect to hear in an Amiga game, but I'm more troubled by the music. To my ear, it sounds like the sample rate for the sampled instruments is lower in comparison to the Ski Or Die tunes on Amiga. In my opinion, the replacement tunes aren't quite as catchy or fitting as the originals (particularly when heard in the NES version), but the quality is undeniably better compared to any other version. So I'm practically forced to give this one the top spot, even if I don't agree with the composer.

I guess we all can guess where the DOS version is placed, but let's walk through it anyway. Like you would expect from a game of this age, there are only beeper sounds, which means all the music and sound effects are beepy. From what I could tell, most of the tunes are based in the original tunes, apart from the JOUST theme which sounds more like a 12-bar blues based tune, and the RACE theme which sounds like an exclusive tune which focuses on rock guitar riffs, as far as a beeper can do it. There is one rather curious feature in the DOS version, however: if you play it in Tandy mode, you will hear the main title theme in a similarly advanced rendition as the NES version. All the in-game tunes are played through the beeper still, but the sound effects are closer to what the C64 original has. Still, it doesn't really help this one get any further than it was going to, but I will have to give the Tandy mode its own entry in the scores now.

1. APPLE 2GS
2. NES
3. COMMODORE 64
4. DOS - TANDY
5. DOS - CGA/EGA
6. AMSTRAD CPC / ZX SPECTRUM

---

OVERALL


It's time to wrap this sucker up, and see how the overall scores are settled. Some of the results may perhaps be as expected, but I'm sure there are some surprises in here for some of you. There certainly were for me, so I'm hoping this might encourage some of you to dig up this game for more than just the one version you're accustomed to - that is, if you have even played it. To me, Skate Or Die! is one of the most perfect examples of the C64 in a midlife crisis: a valiant attempt at focusing on aspects of gaming that was threatening to take over by the 16-bits, and succeeding in most bits - at least better than its fellow 8-bit representatives. So, here are the mathematical results...

1. APPLE 2GS: Playability 3, Graphics 4, Sounds 6 = TOTAL 13
2. COMMODORE 64: Playability 4, Graphics 3, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 11
3. NES: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 9
4. DOS - TANDY: Playability 3, Graphics 2, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 8
4. DOS - EGA: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 8
5. DOS - CGA: Playability 3, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 6
6. AMSTRAD CPC / ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 3


Of course, it could be argued, which version has the less worst graphics from the two sharing the bottom spot, but the argument would be pointless for the most part, since neither version would beat any other version in any aspect on the whole in any case. Besides, giving one point for sounds for either CPC or SPECTRUM is being too generous already, since neither have any. As for the APPLE version winning this whole thing - I truly believe so, even with all my trouble with the emulation. It's not necessarily my fault I couldn't get the game to work properly, but it is me being careful with spending money not to purchase a computer just to make one game work as it should. It works enough on KEGS for me to realize how good the A2GS version is in reality. But all in all, each of the top four are well worth trying out. The original features the best playability, as well as the best theme tune, but I'd have to be wearing some seriously rose-tinted glasses to claim that the C64 version was the definitive version out there. It's what you're used to, and whether you put more value on graphics and sounds than playability.

Cover art for Skate or Die 2 (NES).
Too bad Skate Or Die! wasn't made for either the Commodore Amiga or Atari ST. As proven to us by the Apple ][GS version of it, as well as Ski Or Die! on both machines, it could've easily been a properly great game on all the 16-bits, because the game clearly was conceived as such. Searching through the internet gave me some hope that a conversion for the Atari ST might have been started at some point, but apart from a demo of the title screen and the title tune by Jochen Kippel, nothing else has surfaced. You can find the file from Atarimania, or if you're not bothered to fire up the emulator for this reason alone, you can also find the demo from YouTube. Nothing of this sort has turned up for the Amiga, however, so I'm not entirely sure if this demo is legitimate material from the EA team. If it's of any consolation, there was an official, if a very different, sequel made for the NES called Skate or Die 2: The Search for Double Trouble, which I mentioned in my first ever Unique Games feature back in January 2014.

That's it for now, thanks for reading!

2 comments:

  1. Wow, great comparison, great site!

    ReplyDelete
  2. The intro tune for the DOS version using Tandy graphics uses the DAC in higher-end Tandy 1000s to playback samples.

    Here's a video of the intro playing in a real Tandy 1000 RL.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8_z_CI37JE

    ReplyDelete