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Saturday, 27 February 2016

Frak! (Aardvark, 1984)

Game concepts by DCE, OMP & BOF
Designed and programmed by Nick "Orlando" Pelling for the Acorn BBC Micro in 1984, and converted for the Acorn Electron in 1986.

Converted for the Commodore 64 by Jason Perkins, Anthony Clarke and Mark Rodgers, and published by Statesoft in 1985.

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INTRODUCTION & GAME STATUS


For a change, we have a slightly edited blog version of another RESET magazine article for you all to browse through. And once again, if you haven't read the original magazine yet, you can do so here. Now, I've been trying to put our C64 against a different machine for each Format Wars article, whenever possible, and since it's the sixth article in the series already, it's inevitable that the game under the magnifying glass should be a more obscure one. I never knew much about the Acorn computers, since we didn't get them here in Finland, but believe it or not, Frak! was one of my favourite platformers on the C64 back in the day, because it was deceivingly simplistic in its mechanics, but completely unique in certain ways. Finding out only lately, that it was originally made for the Acorn computers came to me as a bit of a shock, so of course I had to do a comparison of it as I test the original game for the first time.
Cover art from the Acorn
Electron version.

Somehow, Frak! doesn't seem to be a particularly well remembered game, even though at the time, at least the Acorn-related gaming press took it with open arms. Electron User, in particular, gave the game a 10 out of 10. I couldn't find any new reviews or ratings for either of the Acorn versions - even MobyGames didn't have a single vote for the game, so it certainly feels like an obscurity now. The C64 version only has a score of 5.7 out of 41 votes at Lemon64, so it doesn't look very promising. But, this article is about comparing the versions, not about seeing whether it's a good game or not.


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DESCRIPTION & REVIEW


In Frak!, you take the role of Trogg the caveman - or perhaps just an unnamed trogg, caveman-like creature, whose only purpose in life is to fend off hails of descending daggers, heat-seeking balloons and the evil Bunyip with his trusty yo-yo. Yes, that's right, a frickin' yo-yo. Supposedly this game takes place on another planet, where the yo-yo has been invented before the wheel, and is considered a weapon. And you might ask, what are the evil Bunyip? I can only say, they are the different kinds of groups of evil, unmoving nasties that inhabit each level, and cannot be described properly without witnessing them yourself. All this strangeness aside, Frak! is not much more than just another side-scrolling platformer with some puzzle elements, in a never-ending line of other puzzle-platformers, and it's very similar to numerous other Acorn-originated puzzle-platformers.

So you might wonder, what makes me like the game at all? Well, I'm a sucker for cheapness, and this game has it in yonks. It's a silly idea with a silly representation, and an often unforgivingly stupid playability, but it is playable, and most of all, charming. That said, it's certainly not what you would call a good game by any actual standards, but it's worth a look at, just for a couple of laughs if not anything more.


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LOADING


Originally, all the versions of Frak! only came on cassette, although it was later included on some compilations, so it can be found on disk as well. But here are the loading times for all the available tape versions:


BBC Micro, original: 2 min 53 sec
ELECTRON, v1.1: 4 min 31 sec
ELECTRON, v2: 4 min 33 sec
ELECTRON, Play It Again Sam compilation: 5 min 15 sec
C64, original: 4 minutes, sharp.


Loading screens from Acorn BBC Micro (left), Acorn Electron (3rd from the left) and Commodore 64 (right).


First and foremost, Superior Software's ACORN re-release features Trogg in a magnified form, which looks closer to how he looks on the C64 version by default. Secondly, while the original Aardvark loading screen doesn't feature any actual graphics, it at least features information on the ACORN versions' controls. The C64 loading screen features no Trogg in any form, but it does give you some sort of an idea of the in-game graphics.

Wikipedia says that the game had a copy protection system, which would make illegal copies to not load the game properly, but instead make the computer to play a fully polyphonic rendition of either "Trumpet Hornpipe" on the BBC Micro, or "Yakety Sax" on the Electron. Of course, having polyphonic music played during loading isn't much of a wonder to us C64 users, but since the Electron could only play a single note at a time, the 50 Hz interrupt-driven note-switching polyphony was something exciting for the Acorn fans, particularly for the loading segments. Through emulation, these wonders are practically impossible to reproduce, of course.


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PLAYABILITY


Despite the strange premise of Frak!, it is a relatively simple game to actually play. You just need to follow a few simple rules. The main objective is to collect all the keys from the level before the timer runs out. When the timer runs out, the level turns dark, making it harder to see everything, and your weapon is made ineffective. Trogg can jump straight up, left or right, but he can only drop diagonally for a certain height at max (less than his own height), so you need to learn the angle he drops in. Unfortunately, the game fails at being constant in its rules from time to time, and in certain places, you can only drop straight down.

The ladders have their own rather peculiar set of rules. Trogg can climb ladders up and down where available, but he cannot grab a ladder from mid-fall, and even in mid-jump, he tends to be a bit selective as to when he is able to grab a ladder and when he isn't. At least on the C64, he can pass a ladder when jumping, when you choose not to grab a ladder - this is not possible on either ACORN version. On the ACORN versions, though, he can grab a ladder directly adjacent to him, so when in doubt, try to enter an adjacent ladder when still standing on the platform next to it - just try to get near enough without falling. On the C64 version, the level layouts have been altered so that there is more room for error, but then there are no adjacent ladders either. Also, Trogg's position when climbing ladders doesn't automatically adjust to the center of the ladders on the C64, which can sometimes prove useful. Then again, Trogg likes to drop down from the ladders on the C64 some steps before he reaches the bottom of the ladder he's on, which can cause some unnecessary troubles - something that both the ACORN versions handle nicely, as they actually give you room for movement even after Trogg has reached the bottom of the ladder with his feet.

Your unlikely weapon, the yo-yo, is worth experimenting on, because it can go a certain length, but you need to keep the fire button down in order to make it go as far as it possibly can. Releasing the fire button earlier will make the yo-yo roll back when you want it to. The yo-yo can be used to deflect any sort of object that can harm you, including enemies, balloons and daggers, but in order to successfully deflect a balloon or a dagger, you must hit these objects with a perfect timing, otherwise the offenders will continue as they were. In these cases, it is worth keeping in mind, that when you are using the yo-yo, Trogg cannot move simultaneously, and the relative slowness of the yo-yo can prove fatal if you're not careful.


The main puzzle element in Frak! is figuring out, how to navigate through each level successfully. Apart from the first level, you should be able to solve the levels in various routes, but learning the level lay-outs and how to be comfortable in moving Trogg around the levels without too many falls can prove to be a fair challenge. Added to that, the randomly appearing falling daggers and upwards floating balloons can make your progression unnecessarily difficult on occasion. At least in the ACORN versions, you are given a fair warning of where the daggers and balloons are coming from, before they eventually do. Despite of that, on the C64, the balloons and daggers are easier to deflect and avoid for a few reasons: you can drop further way down than on either of the ACORN versions, the daggers fall in a more suitable angle for you to deflect them (note that for the ELECTRON version, this has been fixed as well), and the balloons move slower.

Something else worth noting between the three versions is the lack of unnecessary repetition in the ELECTRON version. In the other two versions, if you manage to kill a few nasties, but get killed before reaching the final key, you are required to kill all the nasties and collect the keys again. In the Electron version, you do restart the level from the beginning spot after getting killed, but everything you did before will stay as they were. There are also some exclusive special tricks in the Electron version, which allow you to start from any difficulty level and any screen, and you can even make Trogg start from a chosen spot after death, if you know how to.

Due to the BBC MICRO and ELECTRON's graphical ability related differences, the ELECTRON version was made monochrome in order to reach the same video speed as what is on the more able BBC MICRO. This freed up some RAM, making it possible to feature extra levels, bringing the total to nine against the BBC Micro version's three, and C64's six. The Electron version also features a screen designer, which isn't featured in either the BBC original nor the C64 conversion. Speaking of graphics, the C64 version feels very different due to the way it looks, but practically, it plays very much the same, apart from what I've already mentioned.

In addition to the basic set of levels, the game features different difficulty levels, all of which alter the gameplay in some unique fashion. At least on the C64, you get to play the levels in mirrored mode, meaning that the levels (not your controls) are now backwards; next, you get to dodge bigger balloons and later on, swinging balloons, and finally, Trogg goes slow-motion. According to Wikipedia, the BBC version features a 90-degree rotated version of the three-level loop, another rotated loop with black-and-white graphics, and also a loop where the display is being flashed on and off in three second intervals. I couldn't find any information on the Electron version's difficulty levels, nor could I get to witness them myself, as getting through the nine actual levels was quite enough for me, thank you very much.


Regardless of my lack of further experience with the game, I think it's safe to say that the ELECTRON version is the most easily accessible one, and offers the most content as well - not only in the number of basic levels, but also in the form of a level editor. The C64 conversion is the smooothest one around, and is in some ways easier to play than the original, but in the ways that the C64 version tops the BBC MICRO version, the ELECTRON version strangely does it even better.

1. ACORN ELECTRON
2. COMMODORE 64
3. ACORN BBC MICRO

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GRAPHICS


Although Frak! definitely oozes mediocrity from its every pour when it comes to playability, it's the graphics that make it such a charming and silly game to experience. Again, they're not all that impressive, just goofy enough to draw you in, and keep you hooked at least until you have seen all the game's graphics in their basic form.

Title screens and high scores. Top left: Commodore 64. Top middle and right: Acorn BBC Micro. Bottom: Acorn Electron.


Both ACORN versions show the cast of characters in the title screen, but the title screen only gets shown once after the game has loaded, which is right after the game has loaded and before you start the game. Unlike on the C64, where the title screen features the high scores table, the ACORN versions have a separate screen for it, which on the BBC MICRO has the colouring of the level you last played, and the ELECTRON version sticks with the blue version (with the "Frak!" speech bubbles) due to memory restrictions. The C64 title screen looks quite busy with the constantly scrolling grey background grid, all the differently coloured balloons floating up, the flashing hand-cursor and the text scroller at the bottom left corner.

Although the C64 conversion is the only one of the lot that has a "Get Ready" screen that shows up after each death, I don't really think showing it here would serve much purpose, since it doesn't have graphics as such. So, we shall move on to the first level.

Screenshots of level 1. Top left: Acorn Electron. Top right: Acorn BBC Micro. Bottom: Commodore 64.


Level 1 is constructed from ladders and platforms in such a way, that the elements form the word "FRAK!" - a suitable enough start for the game. Although you wouldn't expect it to be so, the level design is slightly different on the C64 compared to the ACORN versions. Not only are you able to drop from the second-to-rightmost platform on the letter 'A' to the rightmost one, but the bottom right platform of the letter 'A' is wider and features another enemy, and the topmost ladder from the letter 'K' is taken off for the C64 version as well.

As for the graphics themselves, I think it's pretty obvious without me saying it, but still: the ACORN versions only scroll left and right, as the graphics are in such a completely different scale compared to the C64 version, as to make it possible to show everything necessarily vertically. The C64 version features wide pixels and a small action screen, making it necessary to scroll the screen in all four principal directions. In other words, it's very blocky, but multi-colour, and while the scrolling is very good, your field of vision is sadly restricted. At least you can shoot the yo-yo further from what the screen actually shows. The ELECTRON version's graphics differ from the BBC MICRO version by being monochrome (well, the info panel also looks slightly different), and the scrolling is segmented instead of being constant push-scrolling.


Screenshots from level 2, left to right: Acorn BBC Micro, Acorn Electron, Commodore 64.


Level 2 is where the differences in level design start to show up properly. Whereas the C64 version follows the original quite faithfully, the ELECTRON version deviates quite radically from it, but they're all different enough in closer inspection.

Otherwise, the only notable difference can be seen on the C64, where there are now some different colours than what the BBC version is able to produce, namely brown. The only colour that changes in the BBC version is the background colour - everything else is just the same old yellow, black and purple. Still, the BBC version does look better on the whole.

"We've done it!" cutscene after having completed a level; left to right: Acorn BBC Micro, Acorn Electron, Commodore 64.


Once you have completed a level, a message is printed into the middle of the screen, saying "We've done it!", and Trogg exits the stage right. In the BBC version, the background stays in the back, while in the ELECTRON version, the background vanishes. The C64 version throws a very different looking setup of the same idea at you, featuring probably the biggest pixelation of Trogg ever seen in action.

Screenshots from level 3, left to right: Acorn BBC Micro, Commodore 64, Acorn Electron.


Further levels only give you similar variations in graphics - different looking enemies, different colours, different looking platforms and ladders and such. Considering that the BBC MICRO version only has variations of three levels, it logically follows that it has the least graphics to offer. Thus, the C64 version offers the most variations in colour and even enemy design, while the ELECTRON version only excels in the number of layouts.

After the bonus timer runs out, darkness falls. Examples of such occasion from random levels, left to right:
Commodore 64, Acorn BBC Micro, Acorn Electron.


What could be considered the final point of interest here, is that the screen turns dark when the timer runs out. That's all there is to it, really - the background colour changes from whatever it is to black, and everything else remains as they were. On the BBC MICRO and C64, this effect only gives them a more colourful feel, while the ELECTRON version somehow feels even more monochrome than it already is.

All three versions have their pros and cons, as always. The BBC MICRO version has the prettiest graphics overall, although it has some flickering issues - as does the ELECTRON version. The ELECTRON version features graphics of similar quality, but has very little in terms of colour (at least, at one time on screen), and the segmented scrolling feels a bit strange at first. The C64 version has the biggest and blockiest graphics of the lot, but also has the most variety in colour, and easily the smoothest scrolling. Strangely enough, the best option would be to play the Electron version on a BBC Micro, so the game speed would improve, and most of the flickering issues would diminish notably. Still, in their natural habitats, here's how I would line up the three versions:


1. ACORN BBC MICRO
2. ACORN ELECTRON
3. COMMODORE 64

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SOUNDS


Frak! isn't one of those games that you play because you want to hear good music or great sound effects. And there is a simple reason for this: because the game's soundtrack is not very interesting. Even in the original, the music is kind of generic, although very energetic (more so than the game itself), early 80's arcade-like music. Yes, there's a new tune for every one of its three levels, but it's all single-channel beeping and can hardly be called impressive. At least there are some bleepy sound effects that are played on top of the single-channel music, so it's not quite as cheap as it could have been. But as I hinted earlier, the cheapness factor is certainly high in this game, and most of it gives it a certain sort of a charm.

Of course, the ELECTRON version does it even cheaper - it's all single-channel beeper sounds, as if you were playing a really old DOS game or something. The music is still there, and the sound effects are there, but sound more basic and the sound effects take priority over the music. I'm not sure why, but for this game, I find it more fitting. It doesn't sound as good, to be sure, but it fits the overall cheapness of the game better. But for the sake of logic, I shall give the BBC version more value. In both ACORN versions, you can toggle the music on and off by pressing Q and S respectively during play.

The C64 version starts off with no music by default, which can seem a bit curious. The music can be toggled from the main menu, but after playing the game for a few minutes, you might want to choose the quieter option. Not because the music is so awful - it isn't really. It's easily the best version around, when it comes to the quality of the music and sound effects (more channels, better sounds), but the music still feels way too hectic for the game, as it does in the other two versions as well. There are a bit more sound effects in the ACORN versions, but the C64 version has the best music, if you feel like listening to it. And the sound effects aren't that bad either, there just aren't that many.

1. COMMODORE 64
2. ACORN BBC MICRO
3. ACORN ELECTRON

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OVERALL


Of course, it has to be kept in mind, that the ELECTRON version is the latest one to come out of the three, which gives it a fair amount of time for further development after the initial BBC MICRO release, and even the C64 conversion. Although it's clearly inferior to the other two in some aspects, it also has the most content and the most comfortable playability, and to me, the lack of technological advantages on the Acorn Electron only seem to emphasize Frak's mediocrities in a good way. This is a rare feat indeed, and I can only recommend it at least as much as the other two. But since my blog uses a blindly mathematical way of calculating the scores, this is how the three versions line up:

1. ACORN ELECTRON: Playability 3, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 6
1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 6
1. ACORN BBC MICRO: Playability 1, Graphics 3, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 6


Whatever you do, don't trust the scores. Try all the versions out by yourself and be the judge. My favoured option would be to play the ELECTRON version on a BBC MICRO, but of course I have a soft spot for the blocky C64 version because it's what I grew up with. It has to be said, though, that on both the Acorn computers, Frak! should be regarded as a classic, and for us C64'ers, it is nice to share some history with something so peculiar, yet so mediocre.

Screenshot from the unfinished Commodore Amiga conversion,
as shown in the CU Amiga magazine's August 1991 issue.
It has been reported, that there was an Amiga conversion in the making in 1991, but from what we know, the 16-bit version only ever reached an early preview status. Some screenshots and information was released in the CU Amiga magazine in August 1991, but that appears to be all there is to it at the moment. The only remake I'm aware of is a straight port of the C64 version by John Wells, from 2006. Frak! was also supposed to have a sequel, but Orlando gave up on the idea, since it would have been "too far out"... whatever that means.

That's it for now, hope you enjoyed it! Remember to also have a thorough read of the most recent RESET magazine, if you haven't already done so - plenty of great reading material, as always! Next time, we're already in March, and then it's time to re-focus back on blog-exclusive material again, so until then, pip pip!

3 comments:

  1. "Orlando" also made another game called Firetrack, which was also released in these same three platforms. It's a shoot-em-up in the style of the old arcade/NES game Star Force (which Warhawk for the C64/Atari was a clone of). The BBC version even has loading music along with 2 loading screens (with an intro in between)!

    FYI, there's an emulator pack for Japanese computers avaiable at this link - http://fullmotionvideo.free.fr/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=1614

    Software and games, along with documentation, can be found in this link - https://archive.org/details/@neo_kobe_team

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks cubamanuel! I've been experimenting with some X68000 emulators and others listed in the Neo Kobe document, but with no luck so far. I hope this will save me further trouble - some comparisons I've been planning for the near future needed something like this, so any help with this stuff is very much appreciated, so thanks again. As for Firetrack, if that was a suggestion, that one is something I won't be touching in the foreseeable future, since my blog is already planned until the end of June, and I have no idea what happens then, but I'll put it on my list, in case I manage to start a fourth season at some point.

      Delete
  2. Here's a few tidbits to help you with file extensions:
    NEC PC-8801:
    d88 - floppy image
    t88 - tape image

    Sharp X1:
    2d - floppy image
    d88 - floppy image
    tap - tape image (Not to be confused with the C64 .tap format)

    Fujitsu FM-7:
    d77 - floppy image
    t77 - tape image

    NEC PC-9801
    hdi - hard drive image
    fdi - floppy image
    d88 - floppy image
    fdd (convert to either fdi or d88) - floppy image

    Sharp X68000:
    dim - floppy image
    xdf - floppy image
    hds - hard drive image

    ReplyDelete