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Monday, 19 September 2016

Anarchy (Hewson Consultants/Rack-It, 1987)

Written for the Commodore 64 by Michael Sentinella.
In-game graphics by Michael Sentinella.
Title screen by BAY. Music by Nigel Greave.

Converted for the ZX Spectrum by Dominic Robinson.
Converted for the Amstrad CPC by Michael Croucher, with graphics by John Cumming and sounds by J. Dave Rogers.

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GAME STATUS


The fourth season at FRGCB starts off with very little effort for myself - a comparison article that was originally written for the ninth issue of RESET magazine. The moment I was made aware that the magazine's theme was Hewson, I knew I was in trouble, because I didn't know of any Hewson games that would have just two versions available, at least from which the other was made for the C64, so I had very little options from those that had no more than three, just to get the amount of printed text and pictures to a minimum. In the end, Anarchy from Hewson's low-budget range was the only plausible, and really, possible choice for this issue.

My experience with the game is fairly limited, but it seemed to have surprisingly good reviews at the time of release - for example, Zzap!64 gave it 83% and Your Sinclair gave it an 8 out of 10. At the time of writing this entry, the original C64 version had an unexpectedly low score of 6.7 from a total of 52 votes at Lemon64, while 43 World of Spectrum voters rated their version 8.06; the score at CPC-Softs was 15.75 and the review at CPC Game Reviews has a score of 7 out of 10.

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DESCRIPTION & REVIEW


A short version of the game's official description could go something like this: You have been chosen to break into a security complex of the rebels who have taken over the planet Sentinel 4, and your mission is to destroy the rebels' entire supply with the help of your A.C.E. Mk2 Interceptor unit. I guess it always has to be something elaborate in order to get you in the mood.

Screenshots from the arcade game "Raiders5" by Taito/UPL in 1985.
Although it hasn't been confirmed anywhere, it is very clear that Anarchy was adapted for the Commodore 64 from a 1985 Taito arcade game called Raiders5. Thanks to Neo-Rio at Lemon64 for pointing that out. The basic idea is the same: you control a tank-like entity in a top-down 2D maze, in which your mission is to destroy all the necessary blocks while keeping your enemies at a safe distance. Once you have destroyed all the necessary blocks, an exit will appear and you must enter it in order to pass on to the next level. While in Raiders5, you really only need to destroy certain blocks (yellow ones from the midst of light grey ones), in Anarchy you need to destroy all the destroyable blocks before an exit will appear, and you also need to get to the exit with your weapons disabled. Naturally, the game grows more difficult as you make progress, and you will also come across some special enemies along the way. Although it has only 16 levels, Anarchy offers a nice challenge.

For what became to remain Michael Sentinella's only known game, Anarchy certainly proved his talent, and left us wanting for more. If nothing more, at least it serves as a good reminder, that Hewson had great little things to offer in the mid-price range as well.

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LOADING


There hasn't been a Loading section on the blog in a very long time, but since all the evidence point towards this game having only been released on tape, we might as well take a look at the usual threesome's loading times...

C64/Hewson: 2 min 36 sec
C64/Ozisoft: 2 min 17 sec
CPC/Hewson: 3 min 44 sec
SPE/Hewson: 4 min 30 sec

Strange, usually the Amstrad version is the slowest of the lot... anyway, unlike regular Hewson games, the lower-priced Rack-It titles feature no particularly interesting customized loaders. Since Rack-It was basically Mastertronic's UK distribution label for Hewson's titles with lower priority, the tape loaders were based on the same loading scheme used by Mastertronic's later 80's releases. This would mean, that on the C64, the Invade-a-Load! loader game would be replaced by loading screens, and there would be no music either. Of course, this just balances out the three versions, but since we're not counting this into the scores, it's all the same.

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

The loading screens show the cover art in three slightly different angles and different variations of colouring, the C64 version getting it the closest to the cover art in both colouring and angle. Only the Rack-It triangle has been mirrored for the C64 loader, probably due to a lapse in attention. Since the game has no proper title logo, every version has its own version of the title.

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PLAYABILITY


Anarchy is one of those games, in which gameplay is so solid and neatly structured, it's difficult to screw it up. Essentially, all three versions are very similar, but there are some slight, almost barely notable differences. In fact, one of the biggest differences is in the control methods: on C64, you can play with a joystick in either port, while both SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD force you to play with a predefined set of keys. The keys for the SPECTRUM version are A for left, S for right, L for up, comma for down and P for fire. The keys for the AMSTRAD version are either cursors or Q for up, A for down, N for left, M for right and ENTER for fire.

You move your tank in the four main directions only, and you can only shoot in the direction you are going. The levels are built of various types of destroyable blocks and single-type undestroyable ones, and you can only shoot the destroyable ones from a distance of at least one block between you and the block you're about to destroy. In later levels, you will also come across blocks that will respawn elsewhere in the level after having destroyed them once. There are a couple of different kinds of enemies roaming around, depending on the level: regular drones that can be rendered inactive for a while by shooting at them, and special security droids that cannot be destroyed or made inactive, and who will center on your location and follow you as straight as they possibly can. This will render them somewhat deceivable, but you still have a time limit you have to take into account.

There are practically only two differences that set the original apart from the two conversions. The first one you will notice from the C64 version having a title menu, which allows you to change the number of players and your tank's acceleration speed from three possible choices - slow, medium and fast. For some reason, these also correspond to novice, intermediate and hard difficulty levels respectively, although I couldn't find much difference in them that way. For the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions, you only get a single player mode and fast acceleration speed, which on the other hand is quite enough for most of us.

The second difference is more important. The C64 version uses smooth push-scrolling method, which activate a few blocks from the edge of the screen. The other two also use push-scroll, but it is made to reveal a bigger chunk of the map at a time. On the AMSTRAD version, this isn't that much of a bother, but the SPECTRUM version has all the informative bits spread to all four corners instead of having them nicely lined up below or above the action screen, and so the score panels and all those sorts of things take up space you would need to see what would be happening in front of you. For example, in level 5, you might run into a regular enemy droid at the bottom right corner of the level, because it hides behind the score panel. I'd say that's a huge minus, which is unfortunate, because otherwise the SPECTRUM version plays very nicely.

If you want to nitpick about details, there are some minor changes made to level layouts for the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions compared to the original, which I haven't really noticed having any real difference to the gameplay balance. Also, the regular enemy droids might have a somewhat better AI, but it's difficult to tell without being a coder. But, were it not for the exclusive options on the C64, I'd say the C64 and AMSTRAD versions play just about similarly enough to call it a tie between them, while the SPECTRUM version is let down by the info bits' locations. As it is, though...

C64 - 3
CPC - 2
SPE - 1

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GRAPHICS


Anarchy. For anyone aware of the word's connection to the punk rock scene and the always fun to draw circle around the first 'A' letter in the word, the styling has become almost inseparable from the word. Perhaps there is something of a similar idea present in Hewson's Anarchy's plot, but how has the spirit been represented here?

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


Not that well. Only the C64 version features the anarchy signal in some cheap digital imitation, but I guess it can be considered as a modern, machine-built clean rendition of an anarchy. The rest of the title screen is kind of busy with the flying drones and every line of text in their own separate boxes, and the official Hewson logo in the middle of it all. The CPC title screen is a bit boring, with no actual graphical content, apart from a special font used for all the text, and a light blue box around the Hewson copyright bit. The SPECTRUM title screen is almost as boring, but it does have a more Hewsonesque title logo, kind of reminiscent of Cybernoid and the like. All the rest of it is just text in another new font, but there's a lot of more colour used here than in the AMSTRAD version.

"Get Ready" and menu screens, left to right: Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64.


Before you get to play, the C64 version gives you some options, as shown here in the screen with the blue background. The other two versions don't have an options menu, but they give you a small breather between each level with a traditional "Get Ready" screen instead.

Screenshots from levels 1 and 3, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.


Once the game actually starts, the most immediately notable graphical difference between the three versions is the screen size. On the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM, this has some actual importance, because neither of them have proper scrolling like the C64 version does. As it is, the C64 version's screen size falls between the other two, with the SPECTRUM version having less width and the AMSTRAD one having more. The way the C64 version's scrolling works is that your tank pushes the screen to either direction from the middle area of the screen, until it reaches either end of the level, whereupon the tank will move freely around at either side of the screen, depending on which end of the level you happen to be at. The AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions will force you to move closer to the far edge of the screen before the screen flips about half-way forwards, which leaves less time for you to react to any enemies. As the SPECTRUM version also has all the info bits slightly inside the action screen at each corner of the screen, your view is often blocked as you push the screen into either possible direction.

Design-wise, the SPECTRUM version can be considered the prettiest of the lot, but if you're like me and can sometimes have problems seeing things in environment where everything blends together, it's not your ideal version then. Both AMSTRAD and C64 use wider pixels, but the AMSTRAD version has more suitable colours for the game. The thing is, the AMSTRAD version doesn't have much of visual effects. Once you have destroyed all the necessary blocks from a level, the other two versions acknowledge the opening of an exit by some visual effect - on the C64, the background pattern starts scrolling, and on the SPECTRUM, the lights will fade off and on until you reach the exit. There is none of that on the AMSTRAD, and all the other animations have been left to the most essentials only. One of the most entertaining graphical differences actually has to do with animations - in the SPECTRUM version, an enemy that has been disabled, will starts showing signs of life by making the cross sign on the box spinning, while in the other two versions, the box with the cross sign flashes red and white.

Screenshots from levels 5 and 6, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.


Due to the futuristic, almost non-descriptive style of the graphics, it doesn't really matter much, what do all the blocks, enemies and backgrounds look like. What's more interesting is, are the graphics functional, and how appealing does the game look. The appeal factor, of course, is a personal matter, but the functionality part is mostly about how well do all the moving objects stand out from the backgrounds. In the AMSTRAD version, all the backgrounds are a bit overdecorated considering the wider pixels, but the well-balanced colouring does help the outcome. In the SPECTRUM version, the sprites are all monochrome, so they have a greater potential of blending in with the background graphics. Happily, the backgrounds have been designed in such a way that such a problem occurs only rarely. Perhaps the C64 version doesn't look the most appealing on first sight, but it has the most functional overall look.

High score tables, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.


What I find funny about old arcade-like games for home computers is that so many of them have these obligatory high score lists, even though they were rarely possible to be saved for posterity. So, when a mid-priced game like this goes a bit extravagant in the size of the high score list, particularly when the game is only available on tape, you have to applaud the game designer's audacity to have this kind of cheek. The C64 version has 15 entries in the high score list, all displayed on one screen along with the surprisingly NES-like character table to write your name with. The AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions have more sedate high score tables, but for the SPECTRUM version, someone decided to do a little tech demo feature of scrolling bars in the foreground and background, while jamming the list itself in the middle. Nice touch.

Although I left out some bits here, the important parts have been dealt with, and most of the left-out bits are merely variations on the same things. Anyway, since we're focusing primarily on the quality of graphics here, less their functionality, I have to base the scores on colours, animations, effects and scrolling.

C64 - 3
SPE - 2
CPC - 1

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SOUNDS


This is interesting. Had I not accidentally left the title sequence of the C64 version looping for quite some time due to something happening in the kitchen, I probably would not have noticed that the title screen features four different short tunes, which are played in turns. The way the loop sequence goes is, the title screen is on for about 10-15 seconds, after which the high score table is shown, and finally, another 10-15 seconds are spent on demoing the game. There is nothing particularly impressive about any of the four little tunes, but they fill their purpose, and a couple of them are even rather memorable.

The SPECTRUM version's title sequence only alternates between the title screen and the high scores table, at least until you have played the game one round, after which the game demo is shown as a replay from some part of your previous session. In terms of music, though, there is only one title theme tune, which is actually rather good and fitting for the game, and lasts for about 38 seconds. But lo and behold, the AMSTRAD version also has just one title theme tune, which is, frankly, even better and compositionally longer than the SPECTRUM tune, and loops as long as you like to hear it, because there is no separate screen for high scores, nor is there a demo mode lurking around the corner. In fact, I might take the unsafe route here and claim that the CPC version has the best music, even though the C64 has four nice, but short tunes.

But the sound effects are an entirely different matter. To me, at least, the sound effects on the original C64 version are a bit too weird, but more importantly, unfitting. Somehow, the sounds the game produces when destroying regular blocks reminds me of Donald Duck's Playground, only these are randomized, but still very similar sounds. There are some other noises as well, but none of them feel powerful or energetic enough. For this sort of a game, I would have expected something a bit more mechanical and clunky for sound effects. The SPECTRUM version has only sound effects for when you destroy anything, and they remind me mostly of DOS platformers like Commander Keen, but they're loud and effective enough to work. Also, due to their determinedly solid way of sounding, I'm more inclined to like them. The AMSTRAD sound effects are more akin to the C64 version, but your weapon has a more percussive and noticable sound to it. Now it's more like Donald Duck meets Cybernoid.

Anyway, quantity doesn't always mean quality, or vice versa. Surprisingly, the SPECTRUM version has the most fitting sound effects, and the AMSTRAD version has the best theme tune. But also, I'd say the AMSTRAD version has the best combination of both. Even though this is bound to shock many of you, I'm going to have to say the C64 version has my least favourite soundtrack, as it is the least impressive.

CPC - 3
SPE - 2
C64 - 1

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OVERALL


That didn't go quite as expected, but in the end, the results are as close to each other as one could possible hope for them to be. As it usually goes, the platform for which the game was designed, beats the conversions by some distance, but in all honesty, all three versions of Anarchy are quite playable and each of them have something to offer that the others don't have. See for yourselves.

1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 7
2. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 6
3. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 5

Naturally, you should also have a go at the arcade game of which Anarchy is a clear descendant of. Raiders5 is definitely a different enough experience not to call Anarchy a straight clone of it, but perhaps it's all for the better this way. And as usual, this is only my personal view of how the three versions compare - you should try them by yourselves and see if a version I wasn't so happy with might be more suited to your playing style.

So, there's another season at FRGCB started up with relative ease. If you want to see how the article originally looked like in issue #9 of RESET magazine, click on the link. Thanks for reading, see you next time with something very different!

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