Pages

Sunday, 13 November 2016

TWOFER #14: Formula 1 Simulator (Mastertronic, 1985)

Developed and produced by Mr. Chip Software for the Commodore 16 and Commodore 64 in 1985.
Programming and graphics by Shaun Southern.
Additional graphics for the C16 version by Michelangelo Pignani.
Music for the C64 version by Rob Hubbard.

Another game from 1984 called "Formula One" was written by S.C. Stephens for the ZX Spectrum 16k/48k, and was published by Spirit Software in 1984.
An enhanced version of it was released as "Formula One Simulator" by Mastertronic in 1985.

Credits for the Amstrad CPC and MSX versions are currently unknown, but both were released by Mastertronic in 1985.

---

GAME STATUS


Reportedly the best-ever selling title from the Mastertronic label was curiously this rather straight-forward racing game, rather Codemasters'ly titled Formula 1 Simulator. Shaun Southern has been mentioned a couple of times before on this blog in more flattering circumstances, but I decided to take a look at this little under-appreciated title from his catalogue, because of how different the non-Commodore versions are. So, practically, we have another two-for-one article on our hands, for a change!

Before we go into the specifics of their peculiarity, let's take a traditional look into their current ratings. The C64 version has a score of 5.1 from 36 votes at Lemon64, while its C16 equivalent has a score of 6.4 from 17 votes at Plus/4 World. The very different Spectrum version has a score of 4.74 from 19 votes at World of Spectrum, while the MSX conversion of it has 2.5 stars out of 5 at Generation-MSX and the Amstrad CPC conversion has a score of 6.33 out of 20 at CPC-Power. For balance, the review at CPC Game Reviews has a 4 out of 10 rating for it, so it's not completely hopeless. All in all, though, I have to say it's a sorry lot, and the game's popularity can in hindsight be only credited with its cheapness - meaning the price tag of £1.99, although I'd like to think the C64 theme tune had something to do with its popularity.

---

DESCRIPTION & REVIEW


Basically, we have two different games here, but because they were all released under the same title and with the same cover art, we must consider them as different sides of the same coin. I guess one could claim the original game having been S.C. Stephens' Formula 1 from 1984, published by Spirit Software, but the game's original function of serving as a utility to be used with a preliminary steering wheel didn't happen, as the company went bust before the steering wheel got manufactured and sent to those who ordered it. Anyway, Mastertronic bought the game's rights from Spirit Software and wrote instructions on how to build yourself a steering wheel to be used with the game - hilarious stuff! But I haven't been able to figure out, if it was the first one in the series of Formula 1 Simulators from Mastertronic. Nor would it matter all that much, since the Stephens version was a very different kind of a beast compared to the Shaun Southern game on the two Commodore machines.

The game by Shaun Southern is more of a clone of Pole Position, in which you have a finite amount of time to get through a lap of the circuit, and you always have 8 laps to finish for each of the eight circuits. There are no difficulty levels to choose from, nor is there a practice or qualifying round; you just step straight into the race and try to get through the game before your time ends. If I say any more about it, I wouldn't have much to say in the Playability section. But as a quick reviewish comment: it's harmless fun, good for beginner gamers.

The game by S.C. Stephens was originally supposed to be a "proper" racing simulator (in alternate 16k and 48k versions) with primary wheel controls, but after Mastertronic bought the game, joystick controls were added. Unlike the Commodore game, this one features proper manual gearbox (with automatic for alternative), dry and wet road conditions and a practice mode. It also features 10 circuits instead of 8, so it has more to play, but the attempt to make it into a simulator comes with a price: one crash and it's all over. Also, I cannot really claim it as anything like a proper simulation due to so many missing elements and awkward controls, but for a 16K limit, it's surprisingly good. For the price tag, it's certainly worth a try.

---

LOADING


For a change, we have an interesting comparison of loading times, which wouldn't have been much of interest to do, had there been any disk-only releases. Happily, Mastertronic was a publisher known for priorising that their products would be available for even the poorest gamers, and tape was cheaper to manufacture in Europe than disks were, so all of Mastertronic games were released on tape. Formula 1 Simulator was also one of the relatively few games in their catalogue with a release on most of the rival platforms of the time, the only one without a version being the 8-bit line of Atari computers. But what makes this game particularly interesting to do a loading times comparison of, is the variety in loading schemes used for the game.

Loading screens. Top row, left to right: Formula 1 for ZX Spectrum (Spirit Software), F1 Simulator: ZX Spectrum and MSX
Bottom row, left to right: C16 (Novaload), C16 (ROM loader) and C64. Amstrad version has no loading screen.


C16 Novaload: 1 min 14 sec
C16 ROM loader: 9 min 28 sec
C64: 3 min 30 sec
CPC: 6 min 30 sec
MSX - 1600 baud: 5 min 22 sec
MSX - 2400 baud: 2 min 58 sec
SPE - Spirit Software: 3 min 35 sec
SPE - Mastertronic: 4 min 20 sec
SPE - Dro Soft: 4 min 9 sec

As you might have realized by now, a majority of Commodore 16 games use a variant of Novaload, which rarely use a loading screen, but are quick to load. The basic ROM loader, by contrast, has a basic character based loading screen that you can see in flashes during its majestically long 9 and a half minutes. Apart from the unpublished 1984 Spectrum version, all the rest use a similar-looking loading screen, but the loading times apart from the C16 version are not particularly interesting. At least it's documented now.

---

PLAYABILITY


Let's begin from 1984. Spirit Software were trying to hit the market with the first steering wheel controller for the ZX Spectrum, the fate of which you already know. Their only published game, Formula 1 was programmed to make use of the upcoming steering wheel, so they included a yellow plastic circle that would be rolled over the numeric row of the keyboard in the package. This package was sold at a generous price of £8.95 - a deal of a lifetime! At least, this is what I've read about it and understood how it all happened - correct me if you will. At some point, Mastertronic bought the rights to re-release the game, and added more comfortable controls so that people would actually be able to play the game.

How the game works is fairly simple. First, you choose the track you want to race in from one of 10 tracks: Silverstone, Brands Hatch, Monaco, Hockenheim, Osterreichring, Kyalami, Zolder, Paul Ricard, Monza and Zandvoort. Once you have chosen your preferred track, then you have to choose to drive on dry or wet road conditions, and automatic or manual gearbox. Then, you can choose to run the track on practice mode or start a qualifying round, after which you would race against a set of other racers. What's rather peculiar about this game, particularly considering its age, is the fact that if you crash even once, it's game over, so you need to be very careful. In the original Spirit Software version, being careful wasn't all that possible, since you only had keyboard controls optimized to be used with the ridiculous yellow circle.

The keyboard controls for the original Formula 1 from Spirit Software are as follows: Z for accelerate, SHIFT for decelerate, S for manual shift up, A for manual shift down, and turning left and right happens from the numeric line of the keyboard - from 1 to 4 turns left in various degrees and from 7 to 0 turns similarly right. Happily, the Mastertronic upgrade released in 1985 made the game playable, as the joystick controls made both turning and gear changing less of a hassle.

Meanwhile, Shaun Southern was writing his own practically untitled arcade racer, as you can see from neither game having an actual title screen after the loading has finished. Two different versions would be released for the C16 and C64, each with their own particular quirks. The C64 version makes for a more arcade-like experience with very straight-forward handling, and your opponent cars being the only things you can crash into, and there's also 8 tracks to choose from. The C16 version has only a single track to race on, but your racing car steers with more inertia than the C64 car, and the track is completely outlined by poles you can crash into, making it a very difficult single-track race. While the C16 track is based on Fuji Speedway, the C64 tracks are basically the same as those in the SPECTRUM game, only Brands Hatch and Monaco are missing from the list. To make up for the missing tracks, you get an additional Grand Slam mode, in which you play through all eight tracks in full sequence. As you would expect, both games are controlled with a joystick (in port 1), and both versions only have two gears in the car, so the real difference is in the inertia, as I mentioned.

So, we now come to the MSX and AMSTRAD CPC versions, which are basically straight ports of the enhanced SPECTRUM version. What these two versions have as an advantage against even the enhanced SPECTRUM version, is that someone finally decided to show some wheel turning movement inside the car shown at the bottom of the screen as an acknowledgment, which makes quite a bit of difference to make the car feel more comfortable to control. The disadvantages on the two conversions are, one: that the ability to choose the road conditions was changed to make it randomized, and two: the free practice mode is gone, although that's an arguable disadvantage. A fairly useless feature taken away, but a feature taken away nonetheless. However, these latter two alterations are of so little importance, that I have to say, the MSX and CPC versions are just enough better in gameplay due to the graphic changes, that they could be recommended with less caution than either of the SPECTRUM versions.

The C64 and C16 versions are different enough by themselves for me to put them in an order of quality in comparison to each other, and the Formula 1 game originated from Spirit Software is a completely different game, so I'll just have to put the SPECTRUM-based lot in their own order, and consider both of the Commodore-based games equally good to the best of the other lot. Silly, isn't it?

1. MSX / AMSTRAD CPC / COMMODORE 64 / COMMODORE 16
2. ZX SPECTRUM (Mastertronic)
3. ZX SPECTRUM (Spirit Software)

---

GRAPHICS


Having worked on this blog for over three years now has made me appreciate more simplistic games in an unpredictable manner. Now I can tell early on, when the Graphics section will be short and easy to build - like now. No version of Mastertronic's Formula 1 Simulator has a title screen, unless you count the loading screen as one, and that we have dealt with already. Only the original Spirit Software game from 1984 has a title screen, but that's basically just a screenshot of the in-game graphics with some text slabbed at the top of the screen. But since the loading screen is a strangely important part of the game's identity, as well as one of the rare graphical things in the game that is not (in most cases) based on the in-game graphics, I shall for once consider it as part of this section. Now, let's start from the track selection screens.

Game setup screens from ZX Spectrum (top row), MSX (middle row) and Amstrad CPC (bottom row).


The SPECTRUM version and its direct ports have a fairly basic track selection screen, featuring solid blue background, a bit of text and the track shape shown in the top half of the middle of the screen. In the SPECTRUM and MSX versions, everything which isn't blue is white, while in the AMSTRAD version, the track is always drawn in yellow. Each version shows only one track at a time, and you have to select "next" from whichever method you have available. The AMSTRAD and MSX versions are only barely more graphical, since they have a highlighting menu selection system instead of a "press a required key to proceed" kind of a thing, but I'd say the AMSTRAD version just about wins this round due to its use of colour.

Due to a lack of necessity, I decided not to feature the title screen used in the original Spirit Software version, because it's exactly the same as the screen where you choose either practice mode or qualifying and racing mode, apart from the blue slab at the top of the screen saying the game title and the obligatory copyright. You will see the other version of this screen soon enough. The Mastertronic version has the control options screen in its stead.

Track selection screen from the Commodore 64 version.
From the two Commodore versions, only the C64 version has a track selection screen. In contrast to the other game, all the tracks are shown in the same screen, and you select them by pulling the joystick into a selected direction and pressing the button while there. Even if it didn't have any decorations, this version of the track selection screen would be more aesthetically pleasing than any of those in the other versions, but as it is, there's plenty of colour, a non-system font, and even some flags on the sides of the screen to make it feel more like a racing game.

In-game screenshots from the ZX Spectrum version.


Let's start the in-game shots from the SPECTRUM version. It should be noted, that both the original Spirit Software version and the Mastertronic upgrade use the exact same graphics, only the first screen after the game has loaded is any different. All versions based on this game have just about as bad scrolling, so we'll not focus on that any more than necessary - and I'll just say it's pretty damn choppy. All three versions also feature exactly the same kinds of roadside signs: you get the cautionary signs for curves in both directions, as well as diminishing markings for when you should start turning. There are also some cone-like items on the sides of the road, but I'm not sure what they are supposed to represent, nor do I care.

Now, during countdown and once you have crashed, the screen borders are red, and when you are either about to spin or are spinning, the borders are white. Otherwise, the borders are black. A screen capture of the car spinning is featured in the compiled picture above. The only use the car's dashboard view has in this version, is that you can see cars behind you from the rear view mirrors; the wheel and tires don't turn along with your controls. There's also no visual change in road conditions, and the cars not immediately next to you are green - the ones shown directly ahead of you and behind you are shown black.

In-game screenshots from the Amstrad CPC version (bottom row: clearly differing wet conditions).


The AMSTRAD version shows clear differences in road conditions: dry roads are clear, wet roads are notably darker. Another improvement over the SPECTRUM version is, that regardless of their distance from you, all the cars are shown as black all the time. The crash effect is not too bad, just very different from the original - here it's a blast of different colours instead of a spinning camera trick. But the most important thing is, that the steering wheel actually moves according to your controls.

In-game screenshots from the MSX version.


While the MSX version does certain things a lot cheaper than even the original, it does have its good aspects to it. The cons are: there's no visual crash effect, and there's also no visual changes in road conditions. The pros are: the wheel turns and the opponent cars are all black. But although the steering wheel's turning is very important, any sort of a crash effect would have made this version a lot more impressive than the SPECTRUM original. Now it's just a bit... "meh."

Screenshots from the Commodore 16 version.


Although the C16 version of Formula One Simulator doesn't really have anything else to show than the in-game graphics, it's surprisingly plenty enough. Sure, the opponent cars all look the same, but so they do on all the versions based on the Spirit Software game. The road sides are all white poles, and there are no signs or other decorations on the side of the road. However, you get a starting gridline, a fairly large and interesting background image, a border colouring that goes completely together with the graphics that are shown within the borders, and a moving steering wheel at the bottom of the screen. Also, the crashes look like your car is exploding on the spot for a while. Not bad for 16K.

Screenshots from the Commodore 64 version (with different backgrounds from various tracks).
Strangely enough, the C64 version has some actual competition in the C16 version. While the road and its sides are more traditionally coloured than in the C16 version, the backgrounds are a bit boring, even though all eight tracks have them slightly different. The screen borders are decidedly black, and the info panel is also black with plain white text, compared to the three shades of grey used on the C16's text bits. At least the steering wheel at the bottom has been kept in as it should, and the opponent cars come in three different colours. The crashing animation looks a bit weird here, as if the car had some sort of a cloud-like red-and-white element pummeling out from the back.

To be brutally honest, the C64 version in all its traditionality is a bit boring to look at. If it weren't for the fact that it has some variety and a fairly nice looking track selection menu, I wouldn't be even considering to give it a higher spot than it now will have. As it is, both C64 and C16 versions have their own specific pros and cons, and I don't think either of them deserve to be considered better than the other.  As for the other three versions... well, I do like the attempt to make it look like an actual racing simulator, but when it's bad, it's really bad. Only the AMSTRAD version has impressed me in any proper manner from that threesome, and so here are my results:

1. AMSTRAD CPC
2. ZX SPECTRUM / C64 / C16
3. MSX

---

SOUNDS


Most of you retrogamers out there will likely remember Rob Hubbard's fantastic theme tune for the C64 as the one stand-out thing about any version of Formula 1 Simulator. No wonder, since it's one of the catchiest rocking tunes he ever made, and it's one of the earliest examples of the SID chip being used to its full potential without the need to utilise voice samples or any other such trickery. Also, I confess, it's one of the songs that really got me into music made with synthesizers and other machines. I just have to link a video of Visa Röster's a cappella rendition of the tune here - check it out!

Aside from the theme tune, there's just a short two-channeled ditty to start the game with, and the rest of it is really just engine noise, passing sounds, crash noises and other little bips and bops. Precisely what this sort of a game needs, nothing more, nothing less. The C16 version follows the pattern, but the sound types are less sophisticated, and the theme tune is missing.

Neither the original Spirit Software version nor the Mastertronic version on the SPECTRUM feature anything more than some very complex engine-like noise, the occasional tire "squeal" (high tick-sounds) and the eventual crash noise, which is a short, low buzzing noise, which itself is just the lowest possible pitch of the engine noise. While you could consider it uninteresting, not that many racing simulation games up to Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix 2 featured any music whatsoever, and a simulation is what this game was marketed as.

For the AMSTRAD and MSX versions, this lack of music was fixed by an attempt to rearrange Rob Hubbard's tune for the respective AY-chips, which is placed into the track selection menu. The results are not as bad as you would expect, but lots of the original SID tune's dynamics, effects and details were lost in translation. Also, the rearrangement is notably slower than the original, and is missing some small segments. There's another reason why the AMSTRAD and MSX versions of the theme tune doesn't work as well as it should, which is quite unrelated to the tune itself: the C64 version boots up to an attract mode, which allows you to see the game in action, which is why the music's higher tempo is more fitting in the first place. There might be something wrong with emulation (I even tested the game on the apparently highly accurate Sugarbox), but the AMSTRAD version of the theme song seems to have some wrong harmonics, which makes it almost unbearable to listen to at certain moments, so for the time being, I'm basing the Amstrad score on this evidence.

The in-game sounds on both AMSTRAD and MSX are as you would expect: you get the engine noise, the tire squeal and the crash noise, and nothing more. But I have to say, the SPECTRUM engine noise is the best one of the lot, as the other two have some white noise in the background and an annoyingly straight and repetitive "burrr-burrr-burrr"-like sound on the top, which gets worse as you reach higher velocities. Tire squeal is basically just a long, slightly wavy high note, which is rather overwhelming on the AMSTRAD, but thankfully less so on the MSX. At least the crash noise is a proper crash noise in both versions, which almost makes up for the uncomfortable engine noise.

1. COMMODORE 64
2. MSX
3. AMSTRAD CPC
4. COMMODORE 16
5. ZX SPECTRUM

---

OVERALL


I have to confess, I was only looking for something more light-weight to put my efforts into for a change, when I chose Formula 1 Simulator as my subject after Maniac Mansion, but I was surprised how interesting the comparison turned out to be. At least it was for me to make, not sure about you readers. But anyway, while the original Spirit Software game from 1984 has earned its status as an utter failure, Mastertronic managed to fix up some nice upgrades of the said game - not only for the Spectrum, but more particularly for the Amstrad and MSX. Both the Commodore versions have their own pros and cons, but the C64 version takes the cake almost solely due to the superb theme tune by Rob Hubbard.

Due to Formula 1 Simulator being essentially a completely different game on the two Commodore machines and the other three, there is no real point to laying out the Overall scores in one group, so here we go...

SPIRIT SOFTWARE F1:
1. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 9
2. MSX: Playability 3, Graphics 1, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 8
3. ZX SPECTRUM, MASTERTRONIC: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 5
4. ZX SPECTRUM, SPIRIT: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 4

COMMODORE F1SIM:
1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 3, Graphics 2, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 10
2. COMMODORE 16: Playability 3, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 7

For what it's worth, I think the Amstrad version is almost rather playable, and can be considered more interesting to play than the C64 game, depending mostly on the amount of experience you have of each version. Still, it's a very faulty game, and I cannot honestly recommend it to anyone but the most enthusiastic racing game enthusiasts, who want to dig up every little detail of racing game history they can. The two Commodore games aren't much more than variations on already aged gameplay mechanics. For the time, though, £1.99 wasn't a bad deal for a game like this, and Formula 1 Simulator did well enough to become by far the highest selling title for Mastertronic. Now, it doesn't have much more purpose than being one small part of a soundtrack of our youth, but that's plenty enough.

Thank you again for reading, hope you enjoyed it and perhaps found something worth thinking about. Share your thoughts in the comments section, if you will, and see you next time with something completely different!

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review of this classic. When one dive into the unknown with games like this, surprises can happen, that's for sure. :) I have an MSX (SVI Spectravideo), but never tried running this game. Have some problems with the cassette-recorder on it unfortuntely. When I try loading, the tape just runs and runs.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You're very welcome! Yeah, a broken cassette drive can be bothersome, particularly on a computer like MSX. Weird thing about this game, though - the MSX tape version wouldn't load past the loading screen on any MSX emulator I tried, I had to find a disk version. Oh well...

    ReplyDelete