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Sunday, 6 December 2015

FRGR #1: Afrikan Tähti (Amersoft, 1985)


Adapted for the Commodore 64 by Otso Pakarinen & Jari Heikkinen. Produced by Jouko Riikonen. Based on the board game by Kari Mannerla, originally published by Tilgmann in 1951.

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INTRODUCTION & GAME STATUS


Since it's been so long since I did anything Finnish-related on the blog, for this year's Finnish Independence Day, I decided to start a new series on the blog to add some more justification for the blog's title. So, the new series is called Finnish Retro Game Reviews, which features in-depth reviews of old Finnish-made games - as a kind of extension of my History of Finnish Games entries. For my first Finnish Retro Game Review, this might seem like an odd choice, but you shall find soon enough, that there is some logic here.

You see, Afrikan Tähti is the most famous and biggest-selling Finnish board game of all time. Designed by a 19-year old Kari Mannerla in 1951, it was to be his final board game publication in a long string of other board games he had been making since he was 14 years old. The game's title on its initial release was "Kadonnut Afrikan tähti" (translated as "the Lost Star of Africa"), but was shortened to its more familiar form soon enough. The reason for this is not known to me, although I strongly suspect it was felt to have more commercial potential with a more fitting title for people's tongues. Curiously, though, when the game was translated in Swedish and Norwegian, the old title remained in some form - "Den Försvunne Diamanten" and "Den Försvunna Diamanten" (The Lost Diamond) in Norway and Sweden respectively.

Reportedly, in 2013, the board game had been translated for 16 different languages, and at the time, it had also sold over four million copies. So, given its unparalleled status in Finnish board gaming history, it was only inevitable that a digital version would be made at some point. Surprisingly, this happened sooner than expected, and in 1985, AmerSoft released their version for the nation's favourite computer, the Commodore 64. Perhaps the C64 adaptation isn't as well remembered as it could be, but at least it has a score of 6.6 from 9 votes at Lemon64. Then again, why should a board game even be converted for a computer in the first place? Just because it's possible? 

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GAMEPLAY


Afrikan tähti - the board game.
Since it has been well over a decade since I last played the original board game, I decided to reacquaint myself with it before heading into the computerized version of it. Afrikan Tähti is a fairly basic roll-the-dice type of a game, mostly aimed for children. The primary goal of the game is to locate the Star of Africa by visiting different marked locations, where you can travel either by land, air or water. Each of the big locations feature a disc, which you can flip once you reach the location with your player character item, and collect whatever is hidden within. The discs can contain three different sorts of jewels in addition to the lost Star of Africa, all of which give you a bunch of money, which is needed for travelling using airlines or waterways; but the discs can also contain a big bunch of nothing, a robber who will take all your collected money, or a horse shoe, which is worth nothing until someone else has found the Star of Africa. Since the goal is to take the Star of Africa back to Cairo or Tangier where you start the game from, the game can also be won by taking the horse shoe to either starting point before the player with the Star of Africa reaches either of them.

If only the game was that simple, there wouldn't be much of interest even for the little ones in the long run. However, there are some rules in the game that add some much-needed depth to it. Once you arrive into those big red location circles, you have the option to purchase the contents of the disc with £100, or take turns to attempt at opening the disc by throwing a 4, 5 or 6 on the die. Also, there are five specific locations, which contain exceptional rules. The first player to arrive in Cape Town gets £500. If you find a jewel from the Gold Coast, its value is doubled. If you get an empty disc at Slave Coast, you will need to stay there for three turns "for slave labour". Approaching or leaving St. Helena will have to be done by throwing a 1 or 2 on the die, since according to the rules, the island is surrounded by pirates. Then, there is a black spot with a blue circle in the Sahara desert, which is occupied by bedouines. If you get stuck there, once again, you need to throw a 1 or 2 in order to get away from there.

Apparently, some small additions and adjustments have been made a few times to the board game since its original publication, and the description above is written according to the 2005 Finnish version of the board game, so if the C64 adaptation has any dramatic differences to these rules, it might well be due to the age difference. But of course, being a computerized version of a board game, there would have to be some sort of elements in it that would have been impossible to feature in a board game, such as an AI player (any number between 1 to 4 of them, in fact), or the ability to manually control how the die falls, but neither point will bring the entertainment of playing the board game with your family or friends any closer. You also have the possibility to change the colour scheme for the virtual board by using the Function keys, if you're not happy with the defaults.

As with most other computer adaptations of board games, the hands-on experience will be very much left behind, but if you don't happen to have a board game version of Afrikan Tähti at hand, this is a good way to learn the basics of it. Perhaps even learn a few Finnish words at it, if you don't happen to be one of our Finnish readers. Apart from the possibility of typing in each player's name, the game is completely joystick-controlled and menu-driven, so there shouldn't be other obstacles at playing this game than the language barrier... so, here's a quick run-through of the menu items:

Pelaajia / Number of players: 1 to 4
Ihmisiä / Human-controlled players: 0 to 4
Konenoppa / Machine-operated die

-> Oma noppa / Self-controlled die
Aloitus / Start game
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Kartanluku / Read the map
Nopan heitto / Throw the die
Pintatie / Travel by land
Lentotie / Travel by flight
Käännä / Turn (the disc)
Seuraava / Next (player)


That should help you get through the game rather nicely. If there's anything left unclear, perhaps the Graphics section will help you through the rest of it. But I shall have to end this section by giving you an opinion, since this is a review instead of a comparison... so, what I do like about the playability of this virtual Afrikan Tähti is, that it's fairly quick at what it is, and easy to play due to the text-based joystick-controlled menus. The only thing keeping the pace a bit down is the way the die rolling is handled, but otherwise, it's a nicely paced game, with a surprising amount of attention to detail. That said, it's still a family-oriented board game on a computer - how would you feel about it?

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GRAPHICS


There is no point in comparing hand-drawn artwork with early computer graphics, since anything approaching real handmade artwork on computers only came about in the 1990's when the 16-bits really took off. But one can definitely give a fair look at how the artwork has been reinterpreted for the C64, and how well the graphics compare to other games of 1985.


Title screen
Four randomly chosen colour schemes + the two different menus.
Of course, you get the obligatory title screen, which gives a nice little reminder that the game was early on translated for our neighboring countries. Graphically, it's nothing particularly special - it just shows the title drawn in basic characters, and the credits are written in a nice custom font on each side of the title. The only really showy element is the Star of Africa at the bottom left corner, making a subtle shining effect occasionally.



Here are a few examples of how you can adjust the colours in the game. F1 changes the border colour, F3 changes the colour of both land areas and the menu background, F5 changes the colour of the sea and some shading bits in the decorative bits, and F7 changes the colour of the flight path markings and some other shadings. Once you're in the game, you can also change your characters' colours with F2, F4 and F6. Naturally, all 16 colours of the C64 palette are choosable for all the switches.
The complete computerized map of Afrikan Tähti.

It is a bit surprising, that apart from a couple of missing steps, the whole map is pretty much covered in the C64 adaptation. Of course, the travel lines look very angular and the amount of detail has been very much diminished, but you would expect that sort of thing. I'm surprised they got in as much of details as they did. But they managed to make the player characters look more like little pixelated people, instead of basic knobs that they often used in board games back in the day. Naturally, you cannot see everything at once - the whole map takes about two and a half visible screens horizontally and vertically, but that much can be accepted, if graphic details are wanted.

Finally, I have compiled here all the items you can find in the game, which are then shown at the bottom right corner of the screen. All the jewels have some sort of shiny animation, but the rest of them are as still as you see them here.

Items in the game, left to right:
the Star of Africa, a ruby (£1000 each), an emerald (£600 each), a topaz (£300 each),
a horseshoe, a robber and an empty disc.
There isn't much of use talking about the map scrolling in here, but it does scroll, and quickly enough too - fairly smoothly even. When it's your turn, the screen automatically scrolls to your location, and your character does even a bit of flashing so you can notice it better. So, everything necessary has been taken into consideration here. Rolling the die doesn't look like much, but it's functional and adequate, and is always located next to the player's name, who happens to be rolling at the moment.

All in all, it's a fairly good and even faithful representation of the board game, even with some hardware limitations. Solid effort, and extremely good for two guys with no previous experience in game developing.

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SOUNDS


Considering this was Pakarinen & Heikkinen's first commercially released game, Afrikan Tähti contains huge amounts of brave programming tricks that these two young men had to learn on the go. Although the gameplay and graphics are nice enough, it's the music and sound effects that grabbed my attention the most - although it might have to do with the fact that this is an adaptation of a board game, so you only have your imagination and programming skills as the limit.

There is a theme tune that is played in the title screen, but that's about all the real music you're going to get. It sounds curiously much like some earlier songs by Devo combined with something from Sparks, which I'm guessing the two developers must have been listening to at the time. For a debut commercial effort, the tune features surprisingly many elements - percussions, bass track, melody track, and a few exciting uses of filters.

All the rest of the soundscape in Afrikan Tähti is more or less sound effects. What I mean by "more or less" is, that some of the sounds are short little bits of melody that play when you find a topaz, diamond or whatnot - each of them has their very own sort of little ditty. Also, both travelling methods feature their own sound effect - a whooshing noise for air travel, and a repeating tap-tap sound for going by land, as if moving the character piece one step at a time. So, while there is no music playing in the background, the sound effects are numerous enough to make up for it, and really, this is the preferred way for this sort of a game.

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OVERALL


There aren't all that many board game adaptations for home computers or consoles, and there is a reason why there aren't more of them around. A board game - any board game - is something that requires your presence in a completely different way than a computer game, particularly in these days. It requires quite a lot from a board game to become a good candidate for adapting for any computer or console, so it could be considered some sort of a privilege that this particular board game was considered as such. Truthfully, it's not a bad adaptation - in fact, I'd say it's one of the better ones around. It plays quickly enough, it looks good enough and offers some nice (if unnecessary) options, and has some very nice sounds. But I shall have to base my score on the game's age and the quality of other commercial games at the time...

GAMEPLAY      7
GRAPHICS      7
SOUNDS        8
REPLAY VALUE  4
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OVERALL       6.5


And that's pretty much how it was rated at Lemon64, how about that. Now, if you're still interested, and you happen to be able to read Finnish text, or have the luck to have a translator (someone better than Google), here's a nice article on the making of this game.

C64: Star of Africa / Stern von Afrika (1994, Mindeye)
Interestingly enough, Amersoft's release of Afrikan Tähti wasn't the only computerized adaptation. As late as in 1994, a game production company called Mindeye was working on a new version of the game in English and German, but due to Commodore's commercial demise, Star of Africa (Stern von Afrika) was shelved and not to be seen until 2014, when Games That Weren't tracked the game down, and made it available for the public. My first impressions of this game were: too slow, too much scrolling text that you can't skip, and the icon-based menu controls were a bit unclear without a manual. So, I would definitely recommend the Amersoft game over this one.

So, there you have it - the first Finnish Retro Game Review on FRGCB. Hope you enjoyed it, because there will be a good number of these coming up. Thanks for reading, see you next time!

8 comments:

  1. "Den Försvunna Diamanten", as it was called in Sweden, was my favorite board game. I just love the look of the map and the markers, especially the gems. Shimmering oh so splendidly! Also, the game is fast paced and always exciting. The C64 adaptation looks great. I'll definitely have to try it :) The later version looks less enticing though.

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    1. Yeah, happy memories with the board game! =) Glad this review got at least some attention, as I was a bit uncertain whether this sort of thing would be appreciated. Too bad the C64 version is nearly impossible to find as original, but at least it's available at the Gamebase, if nowhere else. Definitely worth trying, if you don't let the language get in your way, or the fact that it's a pretty straight board game adaptation. Hope my translations prove to be helpful. =)

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  2. Very helpful! With the menu terms translated I find it really straightforward to play - it probably help that I played it so much as a child of course.
    The Swedish C64 blogger Jimmy Wilhelmsson has come with some new rules to the board game here (in Swedish though):
    http://spelpappan.se/2011/11/nya-regler-till-gamla-bradspel-den-forsvunna-diamanten/
    I haven't tried out those rules though. Maybe for Christmas when I can get my hands on the game at my parents' house. Till then, I will enjoy the rather excellent C64 version :)

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  3. "The game was early on translated for our neighboring countries" - hm, are you forgetting that Swedish is one of two official languages in Finland, even though the number of Swedish speaking are in minority?

    Actually, if I recall correctly Swedish is not an official language of Sweden, it just happens to be the most spoken language so far, so in that respect Finland might be the only country in the world where it holds an official status.

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    1. Well, I might have forgotten it, but the Swedish translation was targeted primarily for Sweden, as I recall, so it didn't even cross my mind. Besides, a lot of Finns (nor you, apparently) don't seem to care to remember that our indigenous Sámi people (of which I'm half-blooded) also speak their own languages, which collectively is another one of our three official languages, so is it any wonder that being 600 km away from the area where most Finnish-Swedes live, I might have forgotten that language status? =P Funny, I didn't know about Swedish not being an official language there. Go figure.

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    2. Good point. What would Afrikan Tähti be in Sámi? Google Translate doesn't seem to cover that language. However Glosbe does support Northern Sámi which is the biggest dialect with more than 15.000 speakers. It has multiple suggestions. Násti if it is a star in space, diila if is a diamond shaped romb, láse if it is a glass window and so on, perhaps even diamánta which looks like a loan word. Since the game uses both star and diamond in different translations, either of these may apply. :)

      Now I got curious if there are *any* retro games in Sámi. Unfortunately it isn't easy to look up, since Sami also is a common name in some games.

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    3. Regarding any retro games in Sámi: not to my knowledge. I'm pretty sure I would've known about them at the time, and besides, there was no custom Sámi font for any computer, and C64 would've been the most likely candidate for such, if any. If something was made, it never got published, else it would have been a big deal in the 80's.

      My guess would have been Afrihkkán Násti, but who knows. Diamánta is definitely a loan word, but it could've been used just as well. Who knows. =)

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