Monday, 26 September 2016

NGOTM: Reaxion (Cosine, 1994)

Designed and programmed for the Commodore 64 by Jason Kelk in 1994. Music by Sean Connolly. Originally released as public domain, and published on the coverdisk of Commodore Format magazine issue 47.

Converted and extended for the Commodore Amiga by Sean Connolly in 1995, with graphics by Jason Kelk.

Extended version for the Commodore 64 re-written by Jason Kelk in 2001, with music by Glenn Rune Gallefoss. Published on the coverdisk of the December 2001 issue of Commodore Zone magazine.

Reaxion Extended converted for the Atari 8-bit computers as "Reaxion" in 2005. Programming and graphics by Jason Kelk. Music by Adam Hay and Sean Connolly.

Reaxion Extended converted for the Commodore Plus/4 as "Reaxion" in 2005. Programming and graphics by Jason Kelk. Music by Sean Connolly.

Reaxion Extended converted for the Nintendo Game Boy Advance as "Reaxion" in 2007. Programming by Christian Widmann, graphics by Christian Widmann and Jason Kelk, sounds by Rebecca Gurney. Developed and released at the Buenzli 2007 party.

Reaxion Extended converted for Javascript-abled platforms as "Reaxion" in 2012. Programming and graphics by Christian Widmann. Developed and released at the Revision 2012 party, and the final version can be found on his website.

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GAME STATUS


For my only new comparison entry for September, I chose to do another New Game Of The Month, since this was something I planned on doing before I left for my summer holiday, but didn't have the time to finish it. Anyway, this time, we're REALLY going to stretch the meaning of the word "new", but since this is still a comparison of a game originally made for a machine that was already commercially dead, the definition sort of applies. But although the original Reaxion was programmed well over 20 years ago, its most recently released conversion is "only" 4 years old.

Considering the number of versions the game has, it is surprisingly little known. At Lemon64, the original version has a score of 6.8 from eight votes, and the Extended version has been rated with an exact 7.0 from only 5 votes. The 8-bit Atari version has an even lower score of 6.0 at Atarimania, but has been voted 39 times. The Commodore Plus/4 version has the highest rating so far, with 7.5 from 8 votes. As the game is so little known, there is no entry for it at LemonAmiga or MobyGames. One might wonder, why I have chosen this title as part of the NGOTM series, then. First, because there's nothing really wrong about this game, and I think it deserves to be known better. And second, because there are not enough newer games with enough versions to make a comparison of, and this really represents one of the first of its kind. Finally, Reaxion is just about as good as any other puzzle game to prove a point in why I rarely, if ever, do comparisons of puzzle games.

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DESCRIPTION & REVIEW


Reaxion is a puzzle game played on a 7x8 grid, in which your mission is to turn off the "lights", which are basically the more cheerfully coloured tiles from the grid. Some of you will know this sub-genre as Lights Out variants. Reaxion is more precisely a clone of a Polish game called Eoroid, in which the only really considerable gameplay mechanism is, that pushing the fire button will result in the tile you're currently occupying, along with all the eight immediately surrounding tiles switch to their opposite colours. The thing is, though, you only have one life and 60 seconds to solve each puzzle. The only difference that I can tell between Reaxion and Eoroid is the grid size and the method of progression through the game, which in Reaxion is linear, as opposed to freely selectable in Eoroid.

I admit, I like puzzle games. As such, I'm not the most unbiased person to give a review of a puzzle game, but I shall say this much: Reaxion and its kin are easy games to learn how to play, but can be difficult to master. The magic in Reaxion that keeps you on your toes is really the level design, which can at times be aggravating, but often enough, you will notice learning some new tricks for your efforts, which makes these sorts of games all the better to persevere with. Perhaps it's not the most interesting concept in puzzle games, but it's definitely an enjoyable one, if you give it a fair shot.

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PLAYABILITY


Apart from what has been told above, there is very little to say about how to play the game. You control a crosshair-type icon within the grid of 56 tiles, or if we go by the official story, rods, with a joystick, or if you're playing the GBA version, the D-pad and the A button. Unsurprisingly, the Javascript version can be controlled with a mouse. The selector icon moves one rod at a time in any of the eight digitally possible directions, so you will never have a problem hitting a rod, unless there is something wrong with your joystick.

Since there is really nothing more to say about the gameplay mechanics than I have already mentioned, let's just move on to the comparison part of it all, then. First and foremost, the original C64 version has 30 levels to complete, which compared to all the subsequent versions makes it feel like an episode 1 of a shareware version. The AMIGA conversion was actually released as shareware, and once registered, would give you 69 more levels and a save/load feature. Of course, a demo version is freely available at Cosine's website, which includes the regular set of 30 levels. In addition to these upgrades, both the shareware and the registered version feature an Amiga-exclusive level editor. All the versions that were made after the AMIGA version would feature all 99 levels (hence, some would bear the additional "Extended" in the title), but the level editor is an Amiga-exclusive feature. Also, the GBA and JAVASCRIPT versions have a nice feature of getting to select your starting level from any of your previously passed levels, although starting from a later level means lost score prior to your selected level, essentially replacing the AMIGA version's save/load feature.

A paragraph on the Amiga version's level editor, before I wrap this section up. The cursor is now mouse-controlled, but pressing the left mouse button within the grid alters the states of nine rods as it would happen in the game. The right mouse button doesn't do anything within the grid. Below the grid, you can eight different items, of which four have adjustable values - these can be altered to higher or lower values with left and right mouse buttons. There are no instructions available for how to use the editor at Cosine's website or elsewhere, and I haven't been able to determine what all the items do in the bar below the main level editor screen, but the one on the left called "cl" chooses the level, the "r" item turns everything in the grid red, "g" turns everything green, "t: 60" lets you adjust the timer for the current level, "d" lets you load and save data, and "q" quits the editor. I assume the "el" item chooses the amount of levels there will be in the game (anything up to 99), and I suppose "bn" changes the amount of bonus score you will give the player for clearing the level. Frankly, the only reason why I would be interested in using the level editor is to get to the ending screen as fast as possible, but I don't know how to get over a problem about some library file when I try to save data. I suppose the game needs to be played from a real floppy disk. Or maybe it's just buggy. Or maybe you need to actually register the game to get a working editor.

Due to Reaxion being part of the New Game Of The Month series, I shall not give it scores until we get to the Overall section. However, my explanations for the forthcoming scores are easy to write: a puzzle game, when enjoyed, requires great longevity. Tetris variations have their own particular sort of charm and infinity, but this being a strictly grid/level-based puzzle, the only way to keep you playing Reaxion is to create your own puzzles after you've beaten the game. Of course, the more levels the better, but I'm not very convinced this would keep you coming back all that often once you have beaten it. Reaxion is, at least in my case, best played on a platform, where you can play until you get bored and come back at a later date - either the GAME BOY ADVANCE version or the JAVASCRIPT version. But none of the versions are any different in terms of actual playability - it's just the number of levels and additional features that are important here.

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GRAPHICS


As with most puzzle games, graphics don't really bear much of importance in Reaxion, which can be well enough witnessed in earlier variations of Eoroid. Of course, nicer graphics are nicer to look at, and make for a more pleasant environment to immerse yourself into. Mind you, I'm actually more of a fan of the C64 version of Tetris (as released by Mirrorsoft) than I am of either of the Nintendo  variations' graphics.

Title sequences and loading screens from the original (top) and extended (bottom) Commodore 64 versions.


In the case of Reaxion and its expanded conversions, the most graphical variety can be found in the title sequences. The C64 versions already have three variations of the title sequences, including that of the Extended version. First, the original Cosine-released version of the original Reaxion with the slightly cracktroish intro screen; second, the Commodore Format release of the same game with the animated jittery IFLI of the Commodore Format logo; and third, the Extended version made after the AMIGA version, now featuring a proper loading screen and the in-and-out fade-animated Cosine logo.

Concerning the title screens themselves, it's worth noting that the Reaxion logo looks vastly different in the original and the Extended versions, and the Extended version here uses a more sedate colouring for all the other text than the original version. Both versions use the same font apart from the title logo.

Title screens from the Commodore Amiga (left) and Javascript (right) versions.

The AMIGA and JAVASCRIPT versions have no further intro sequences, only a title screen. Being the second in the line of development, the AMIGA version's title logo looks closer to the original Reaxion logo than that of the other Extended versions, and of course the JS version is one of those latter ones. However, a curious little exclusive detail can be seen in the AMIGA title logo: the extensions of the letter 'X' are flipped. The colours in the AMIGA title screen are surprisingly down-to-earth, with just shades of blue and some brown in use, while the JS title screen has more imaginative use of colours and scrolling effects - the only connection to the AMIGA version is in the colours of the title screen.

While the AMIGA version follows the original in featuring all the necessary information in one screen (and singularly, 10 entries for the high scores table), the JAVASCRIPT takes on after the GBA version (seen below), and shows the credits and high scores sequentially.

Title sequences from Atari 8-bit (top left), Commodore Plus/4 (top right) and Game Boy Advance (bottom) versions.


Since the Extended C64 version, every new version apart from the Javascript one has featured the Cosine logo to start with, but the GBA version has a rather simplified (read: colourless) version of the logo. To make up for it, however, the GBA version features a rendition of the C64 Reaxion Extended loading screen, which looks curiously much like the Cronosoft tape release cover. The GBA version is also the first one to have the third common version of the title logo, later to be shared with the JAVASCRIPT version. As for the ATARI 8-BIT and COMMODORE PLUS/4 versions: each one has its own particular palette and puts it to good use, but neither of them feature the background graphics from the C64 Extended version's title logo. Also, the ATARI version only features 5 entries for the high scores table, and the font used for it is a super-wide one.

In-game screenshots. Top left: Commodore 64, original. Bottom left: Commodore 64, extended.
Middle: Atari 8-bit. Right: Commodore Plus/4.


At last, we get to the game itself, although there isn't all that much to be competitive about. Almost 75% of the screen is taken by the puzzle area, which is understandable, even though it could easily have been done in a more compact manner - the puzzle is just a grid of 56 rather large rods displayed from above, and in different colours to depict which ones are turned on and off. The sole moving entity on the grid is your cursor, which, as it is controlled with a joystick (or a D-pad) in all versions but the Javascript one, can only move in eight directions. The cursor has its own barely noticable effects for when you execute a command to swap the rods under and surrounding you. In the original C64 version, the grid was placed on the left side of the screen, and in the AMIGA version, the grid took pretty much all of the space on the screen, but since then, the grid has been placed on the right side of the screen. I have no preference either way, but the info panel is more comfortable to look at in the post-Amiga versions due to all three items shown together, instead of the timer placed under the game logo, as it was in the original. Also worth noting are the font changes and the very appropriately redesigned info panel items, now seeming to belong to their surroundings more than earlier.

In-game screenshots, left to right: Commodore Amiga, Javascript, Game Boy Advance.

While the background is a constantly green circuit board kind of a thing, the grid of rods is shown in varying colours between the seven versions. In both of the C64 versions, the rods that are turned on, are coloured blue, or bluish, and the rods that are turned off, are brownish-orangish red sort of a colour combination. Also, the two C64 versions are the only ones in which the shape of the rods is more rounded from the top, instead of having a plated top with angled edges. In the PLUS/4 version, the colours are more decidedly blue and red, while the AMIGA, GBA and JAVASCRIPT versions have gone for a very sharp red vs. green setting. Only the 8-bit ATARI version has really deviated from the norm, with every row of rods having a different colour when turned on, ranging from red to turqoise via purple. In truth, the colour choices matter very little here, but the palette sharpness makes a vast difference in the game's enjoyability.

Level selector screens from the Javascript (left) and Game Boy Advance (middle) versions,
and from the level editor featured in the Commodore Amiga version (right).


There isn't really more to the game other than the ending screens, of which I have only managed to see the C64 version, so I shall not spoil the ending for those of you thus far unfamiliar with the game or the ending. Thus, the rest of the game's unique sort of graphics are only available in certain versions. The level selector screen, available only in the GBA and JS versions, is basically just a variation of the title screen of the said versions, with some slight differences to make it more suitable for each version. I prefer the JAVASCRIPT version for its clarity, but I suppose you'd have to play the GBA version on a real GBA in order to see if it works even nearly as well. The "ok!" button in it is, at least in my opinion, too large compared to the level selection item, but as I said, it might work better on a handheld screen.

As for the exclusive level editor in the AMIGA version, it doesn't really look much different to the in-game graphics, other than the very bottom of the screen. Instead of score, time and level indicators, you get some other small text, which have been mostly deciphered in the Playability section - as far as I've been able to.

Game Over / Enter Your Name screens. Top left: Commodore 64, original. Bottom left: Commodore 64, extended.
Middle: Game Boy Advance. Top right: Atari 8-bit. Bottom right: Commodore Plus/4.

If the game ends before you complete all the levels, you are supposed to have some sort of a dramatic "Game Over" screen, right? Well, it isn't obligatory, but it helps with the illusion of a carefully written plotline, not that puzzle games really need a plotline. For all the 8-bit versions, when the time ends and your Game is Over, the game screen will halt for a couple of seconds, then turn black, and if you did well enough, get back into a version of the title screen, in which you enter your name on the high scores table. Only the Extended C64 version and the GBA version have a distinctly separate "Enter Your Name" screen, which still very much retains the style of the title screen.

More Game Over and Enter Your Name screens. Left: Commodore Amiga. Right: Javascript.


Only the AMIGA and JAVASCRIPT versions an actual Game Over screen, both of which are different. In the AMIGA version, the screen sort of blows up, goes from sudden white to black, after which a white noise fades in, stays on for a while and fades out - then you get back to the title screen in which you might have a chance to enter your name on the scoreboard. I have only played the demo version, which limits the amount of levels to 30, and the "Enter Your Name" bit feels a bit buggy (the cursor shows up in the wrong place), so I cannot say whether the full product has this fixed. In the JAVASCRIPT version, there is a grey Game Over screen, which looks exactly like the Pause screen (apart from the obvious differences in text content, all the rods in the action screen fade to grey, and two white rods circle the edges in a clockwise manner), after which the "Enter Your Name" screen comes up, featuring a virtual keyboard, a slot in which your name is entered, the obligatory "Well Done" text bits, and the background features the game logo and the text scroller as featured in the title screen.

Since I haven't had the time to be able to bother getting through all the different versions - particularly those with 99 levels, I am unable to use any of that to form the scores. However, regardless of this omission, I think each version shows their advantages in their own specific manner, if quality of graphics is something you would consider important in a puzzle game.

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SOUNDS


I'm not the sort of person who requires music when playing puzzle games, since a well made soundtrack can become a rather big distraction in a game that requires some brain activity, at least for a musician - you might rather want to listen and analyse the music instead of play the damn game, if the game doesn't keep you as interested as it should. Some puzzle games are like that. Of course, if the game has an option to turn off the in-game music, all the better.

But that's something Reaxion doesn't have by default, so if you're looking for a version of Reaxion that allows you to turn off the music, the only version that has the option to do so is the JAVASCRIPT version, but it seems like the page will load up the music first, then the applet, which includes the music too, so you can only turn off the music that loaded up first so it doesn't cause a sonic chaos. I tried to load the page with the newest version of Chrome and Firefox, as well as a relatively new version of IE (pleurgh!), but the problem exists everywhere - I suspect you need a version of any web browser that from 2012 or before. In other words, there is no version that would allow you to turn off the music. That said, the JAVASCRIPT version only has one single tune that plays continuously throughout the game, and it's even a fairly fitting little minor-key semi-techno loop of some genre that I can't really put my finger on, since it's not my expertise. But it's definitely different from any other version.

Anyway, the original, unextended C64 version of Reaxion features three different tunes. The title tune is a slowish, heroic minor-key theme that you would rather expect to hear in a Stallone-movie-based game. Not a bad tune, just slightly out of place. The in-game tune is an equally slow tune, but is a fairly basic four-chord major-key theme with lots and lots of SID-tastic arpeggios; all of which make the tune sound like something it would work better in a platforming adventure game like Garfield or such. The ending tune is more up-beat, and the only tune that seems properly suitable for the occasion. Since there is no proper Game Over screen or a separate "Enter Your Name" screen,  that's all there is to it.

The AMIGA, ATARI 8-BIT and COMMODORE PLUS/4 versions all feature the same soundtrack as the first C64 version, each with their own specific set of sounds. Naturally, the AMIGA version utilises lots of samples, and doesn't have the need to use arpeggio loops as much - in fact, the only instrument that even resembles an arpeggio loop is sampled from the original SID soundtrack, and is heard during the in-game tune's blippy melody bit. The music really sounds more natural in this state, compared to the SID version with its forced looping chord arpeggios. Soundtracks for the two 8-bit conversions just sound messier versions of the original, the ATARI being even slightly messier than the PLUS/4 soundtrack.

This is, at least to me, a bit odd. See, the Extended C64 version was the next one to be released after the AMIGA version, and it features a completely new funky soundtrack by Glenn Gallefoss. One would have thought the progression would have followed in further conversions, but instead, Sean Connolly's original soundtrack got translated for the ATARI 8-BIT and the COMMODORE PLUS/4 versions, which I suppose is natural since he's the one who wrote it for all the versions with the same soundtrack, only a man called Adam Hay had something to do with the soundtrack conversion for the ATARI. Anyway, the Extended C64 version's tunes are reminiscent of some slimy 80's fusion groove jazz music, which is a bit more interesting to listen to on the long run, although there is still enough of elements of muzak to render it less than distracting from the gameplay. I know it's just my opinion, but I found it a bit odd, that the new soundtrack wasn't converted for the next 8-bit conversions along with the new title logo and new levels.

To end on a surprisingly high note, the GAME BOY ADVANCE version has a completely new soundtrack, and for once, some proper thought was put into the dramatics created by music. The title tune already is both surprisingly upbeat, as well as expectant in character, which wasn't really notable in any of the other title theme tunes. The in-game tune is really where the GBA version shines, as is starts off quiet and even a bit ominous, with a great use of some Egyptian feel to it (I suspect we're hearing use of Phrygian dominant scale here, but I haven't checked it), and proceeds to feature a nice beat along with it. Only the "Game Over" or "Enter Your Name" tune is a bit reminiscent of the original soundtrack, but is appropriately low-key. Thanks to Rebecca Gurney, there is a version of Reaxion that has a properly fitting soundtrack. It's still a pity, that there is no version with a possibility to turn off the music.

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OVERALL


That's one more done for the puzzles count. I know, it wasn't something you would have expected any time soon, and I'm quite certain most of you had already forgotten about this game. Not that Reaxion is a bad game - not at all. The problem is, the best puzzle games have replay value due to their unexpected nature, be it blocks appearing in random order or enemies throwing obstacles or other nuisances in your way at unexpected times. Once you have cleared all the levels in Reaxion, you can do so again, mostly in the exact same way, which makes it boring once you have mastered all the levels. Of course, having 99 levels instead of 30 gives the game slightly more replay value, but it only goes so far. Graphics have rarely been particularly important in puzzle games, although they help make them more enjoyable; however, sounds play an important part in creating an atmosphere. Whether you're supposed to panic or focus, the music and sound effects should affect your state of mind into any wanted direction. In any version of Reaxion, I haven't felt it happen, so I cannot give it very high marks for that. So, here are the final results:



Considering the original Reaxion was released in 1994 as public domain for a machine already past its commercial life (Lemmings was the only big company release for the C64 that year), and frankly better than most C64 games that came out that year, it's not a bad snapshot from a time we were basically entering our darkest few years as C64 gamers. More than that, however, it says quite a lot about the state of browser-based games, when a game concept from the late 1970's can still entertain more than many other browser-based games made in the 1990's and early 2000's.

It's a bit of a wonder that Reaxion, or any proper Eoroid-variant hasn't found its way for the ZX Spectrum yet, although it might be useful to point out that there was a ZX Spectrum conversion of Reaxion in the making a few years ago. The latest on that must have been Adam Hay's blog update from November 2011, in which he posted a video of the preview version. The preview was apparently presented at the Replay 2011 event in December, but that's the last bit of info I found out about it. Pity, since it would be a welcome addition to the Spectrum library of puzzle games as well. Also, Adam Hay's blog entry from January 2012 shows a test version of an iOS conversion of Reaxion, wonder what came out of that... One more also, according to Jason Kelk's old website behind Cosine's main site, he was working on an NES conversion of Reaxion Extended at some point, but got stuck at around 30%. Now, as it that weren't enough, let's take a look at other similar games for other machines that don't have a conversion of Reaxion yet.

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HISTORY AND VARIATIONS

 

Merlin (Parker Bros., 1978)
- Picture taken from Wikipedia. -
Eoroid itself is a variation on the "Lights Out" subgenre of puzzle games, the earliest form of which can be traced at least back to 1978, when Parker Brothers released a handheld electronic game called Merlin (subtitled the Electronic Wizard). In Merlin, the playfield is made of 11 buttons, which light up randomly, and you need to turn off these lights. I haven't actually played this game myself, so I'm not sure how it works compared to later variations of the game, but in any case, it seems to be the earliest known commercially released version of the concept. If you wish to know more about the electronic game and its later variants, you might as well head on to Merlin's Wikipedia page.

Although I'm quite sure there must be some computerized versions of Merlin and/or its variants made earlier, currently the earliest documented game of its kind was released in Poland by Krajowe Wydawnictwo Czasopism in 1986. This ZX Spectrum exclusive game is called MAGICZNE KRZYZE, and as you can imagine, it's very much Polish and is completely keyboard-controlled, so it's a bit difficult to get into it from behind a language barrier. But from the looks of it, the game is using a 5x5 grid with a similar cross-type area of influence as most other Lights Out -variants. A much lesser-known variation on the theme called NEGATRON was released for the C64 in 1990 in Poland - this one having a rare (if not unique) feature of playing one-on-one against your friend.

The earliest Eoroid-type version of the game that I have found so far is called BLASTED SQUARES, which was released in 1988 for the Amstrad CPC in Schneider Magazin. It offers different sized playfields and randomly generated puzzles, which is a nice combination, and offers a great alternative for any fans of the genre. Another game called SWAP, a more basic Eoroid-clone for the CPC, was released as public domain in 1992.

Top left: Magiczne Krzyze (Spectrum, 1986). Top middle: Blasted Squares (Amstrad, 1988).
Top right: SWAP (Amstrad, 1992). Bottom left: Negatron (C64, 1990). Bottom right: Eoroid (C64, 1992).


MobyGames lists the first game with the actual title EOROID as being released in 1992 by Inflexion Development for the C64, while currently, GameBase64 doesn't seem to be completely certain about either the publisher or the year of publication. But it fits the timeline nicely for having influenced Jason Kelk to develop his own variation of it as Reaxion.

There are other titles on Spectrum and various other platforms that will easily do the job of filling the spot of an Eoroid variant in each respective game library, but the most widely spread title of them has to be KNIGHTS & DEMONS, currently available for eight different platforms already.

Knights & Demons (Kabuto Factory, 2013)
Top row, left to right: ZX Spectrum, MSX, Dragon 32/64, Commodore 64
Bottom row, left to right: Amstrad CPC, ZX81, Commodore PET, Commodore Plus/4


ZX Spectrum: Knights & Demons DX
I could give you any from a number of reason why I chose to do a comparison of Reaxion over Knights & Demons, but it was mostly down to two big ones: because the control system in Reaxion appealed to me more - K&D utilises the cross-shaped area of influence method, you see; and most versions of it are painfully slow to play for whatever reason. Also, while K&D has been made for more rarely mentioned machines, it would have been more difficult to write exactly because of it, since I have very little points of comparison for games on machines like the Commodore PET or ZX81. As it is, though, K&D is another very nice variation on the Lights Out theme, and should be recommended, if only because it's also available on machines that have never really have much games to offer in the first place. Also, if you really want to have a more entertaining experience of playing Knights & Demons, you should try out the DX version of it, which was made with the BiFrost engine, which makes the game quite a bit more pleasant to look at and play. 

Let's hope that's enough to make puzzle game fans satisfied for a while, because I have no intention of doing anything similar until something radically different and worthy of examination comes up. Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed it! See you next time with something more suitable for the blog, and perhaps even something thematic for the time of year... ;-)

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