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Thursday, 30 March 2017

Quartet (Sega, 1986)

Designed by Rieko Kodama for Sega Enterprises, with music by Katsuhiro Hayashi. Originally released for the arcades by Sega in 1986.

Conversion for the Sega Master System (Mark III) written and released by Sega in 1987. Released in Japan as "Double Target - Cynthia no Nemuri"

Converted for the Commodore 64 by Sega: Produced by Jonathan Dean, Music by David Whittaker. Published through Activision in 1987.

Converted for the ZX Spectrum by Probe Software: Programming by Antony R. Lill, Graphics by Nick Bruty. Published through Activision in 1987.

Converted for the Amstrad CPC by Probe Software: Programming by Anthony Heartley. Published through Activision in 1987.

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GAME STATUS


Admittedly, this isn't one of Sega's most successful games of all time, particularly when it comes to the home conversions. However, due to its limited exposure, I thought Quartet would make for a nice alternative against all the more obvious games, and besides, there aren't too many games that begin with the letter Q that would be interesting enough to fit into the blog. But what makes Quartet a properly interesting game is the fact that it was released just a bit after Atari's Gauntlet - another four-player action game was doing high profit in both the arcades and home computers. Not too many game companies would have the guts to try and achieve the same level of success with something quite a bit different. As you might already know, the home conversions of Quartet left a lot to be desired on every platform, but can you really blame the conversion teams for their attempts?

The original arcade version has been rated with a score of 4.11 out of a full 5.0 from 3 votes at the Arcade Museum, which doesn't really tell much, but you can already see it's not as bad as you might think. By contrast, the C64 version has a score of 4.4 from 45 votes at Lemon64, the Spectrum version has a score of 5.81 from 16 at World of Spectrum, and the Amstrad version has a 13/20 rating at CPC-Power, as well as a single review score of 4/10 at CPC Game Reviews. Curiously, there doesn't seem to be any ratings for the Sega Master System version around.

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DESCRIPTION & REVIEW


Quartet, by definition, is a group of four, mostly people, and the term is usually used in the realm of music, so one might wonder about the usage here. To all you little dr. Evils and mr. Bigs out there, even mindless destruction and mayhem can be called music, but this game is really only about killing enemies, gathering score and going through doors. No - the word is chosen merely because the game can be played by four players simultaneously. That is, the game can be played as a quartet only if you play the original arcade version. Sorry to spoil it for you so early, but there it is.

While the game's main competitor, Atari's Gauntlet, was a top-down maze-shooter that could also be played as a quartet, Sega's answer was made into a side-scrolling platform/shooter. Quartet combines elements from Contra, Twinbee, Bubble Bobble and, naturally, Gauntlet. You shoot a never-ending stream of enemies to collect score, pick up upgrades for both your weapon and yourself, destroy the level bosses to obtain a key to open the door to the next level, and repeat the formula. Each playable character has their own specific sort of a weapon, which can be upgraded a few times, but too many upgrades will bring the upgrades cycle back to the beginning. The game has no specified amount of lives, but an energy meter, exactly like the one in Gauntlet, and the amount of energy (or, as it is shown in the game, "power") can be increased by inserting more coins into the machine. Quartet has plenty of rarely before seen features, such as crouching, using your partners as leverage to higher places, and a possibility to play both co-operatively and competingly at the same time. When playing with a friend, you both need to move at a fairly similar pace, because you are stuck on the same screen with each other. Zooming out and screen-splitting features only got developed into these sorts of games about 20 years afterwards.

Playing Quartet on an arcade emulator serves little purpose, since the game loops indefinitely from level 17 onwards. It's a high score game by nature, but it's a really good and an interesting one at that, and should be played in the arcades if possible, preferably with at least one friend. Perhaps that is why the home conversions were made significantly different. I have never really bothered to play any of the home conversions for more than a minute or two, because it is a multiplayer experience at heart, which is why I have called my friend SJ again to work with me on this article. So, our thoughts and further reviewing shall have to wait until the Overall section.

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PLAYABILITY


Being an arcade game can have unusual advantages over home conversions. In the case of Quartet, you would have a control set for each of the four characters, and that's already such an advantage that will make the original rise above others. But that's only the beginning. Indeed, the home conversions of Quartet differ so vastly from the original, and not necessarily in terms of basic gameplay, that it's best to just deal with them as their own group of games. But before we do so, let's take a look at what the home conversions should, or at least, could have been.

First of all, Quartet the ARCADE game is an endless feast of platforming and shooting within restricted areas, where your only possible way to die is to take a hit straight from an enemy or a shot from an enemy - there are no bottomless pits or spikes or anything like that. And as was previously mentioned, there are no set number of lives, just an energy meter similar to the one in Gauntlet, which reduces a few hundred at once each time you die. Once the counter reaches zero, it's Game Over for you, unless you decide to feed the machine another coin or two. Having at least one friend playing with you gives you the time to think whether you still want to continue or not.

The set of controls include a regular 8-way joystick, in which up and down can be used for climbing ladders, flying on a jetpack and shooting vertically while on ladders. Also, pulling the joystick down while walking will make you duck, and down-diagonals will make your character crouch-walk, which is necessary on some rare occasions. There are also two buttons, one for shooting and one for jumping. Another thing perhaps worth mentioning is, that unlike in most arcade games with a two-player mode, you don't just put more coins in the same slot to get more credits for the other player to use, but there are coin slots for all four players, so each coin spent is spent for your chosen character.

If you're familiar with Bubble Bobble (and to be fair, who isn't?), the bonus items should be familiar. The spring item makes you jump higher, the pointy boots make you run faster, the S within a hexagon plate gives you a shield for a short period of time, a clock stops the enemies for a short period of time, a vase or a bottle destroys all enemies from the screen, an "X2" item will make you score double the amount of points you normally would, and a triangle adds 100 to your energy counter. Note that there is only one of these bonus items per round, so if there's more than one player involved in the game, don't worry if one player grabs all the bonus items - the character will lose them eventually, at the end of the level at the very latest.

Having mentioned Bubble Bobble, there is another similarity to the said game in Quartet. In addition to having an energy meter constantly depleting, there is also an unseen in-game timer. If you waste too much time within a single level, you will be attacked by the Grim Reaper, which will hunt you down and kill you on contact, similarly to what Baron von Blubba (the skeletal Beluga monster) does in Bubble Bobble, only quicker.

You will also come across differently coloured bouncing balls, which will change colour by shooting at it. These are weapon upgrades, but the colours correspond to the players' individual colours, so if you're playing with the red character (Mary), you need to get a red bouncing ball. There are only three upgrades for each weapon, and picking up one more upgrade item will drop your weapon power down to level 1. There is another weapon upgrade item, which is a stationary ball, and it has all the four colours under the surface, so it will give an upgrade or a downgrade for any player who grabs it, depending on what level your weapon is at.

Speaking of weapons, let's take a look at each character's personal weapon and their upgrade levels. Lee, the blue character, shoots some sort of a small arc of energy, which goes further and widens up as you get more upgrades, and the final form is more triangular. Joe, the yellow character, appears to be shooting regular bullets, or something very similar. The first upgrade makes the bullets fly further, the second makes you shoot two vertically aligned bullets, and the third has three bullets vertically aligned. Mary, the red character, shoots a zig-zagging pulse beam, which at first upgrade goes further (as usual), then turns into a more solid and straight version of it, and at last, gets to an even bigger solid and straight mode. Finally, Edgar, the green character, has the most varying weapon. It shoots a fire bolt that flies in an arc at the beginning of the upgrade cycle, then turns into a three-way shooter, which on the next upgrade becomes much faster. The final form of Edgar's weapon is, quite unexpectedly, a flamethrower, which only stays on for a second, so you still need to tap the fire button. Doesn't make sense, really, but there you go.

I guess that's enough about the original game - let's start the comparison with Sega's own home conversion for the MASTER SYSTEM, which was originally released in Japan as "Double Target", and only switched back to Quartet for other regions to either avoid confusion, or perhaps purposely generate it. The new name already implies the change in the game balance, as you can only play with two characters from the original game: Mary and Edgar... only, Edgar has been renamed or mispelled "Edger" in this version. Mary is the primary character here, so if you choose to play a single-player game, Mary is your only choice. And this is only the beginning.

The MASTER SYSTEM and ARCADE versions share the controls as far as it is possible to: left and right for walking on the D-pad, two fire buttons for jumping and firing your weapon. I have to say, the jumping arc in this version didn't feel very natural, as if there was no proper gravitation model programmed. But that's something you can get used to easily enough. Also, you get the crouch-walk and jetpacking in the same way as in the original, but I'm sorry for not having been able to determine whether there are any ladders to climb in the SMS version. However, the SMS version features doorways to other rooms within the same level, which you often need to be using multiple times during the level. You can go through these doorways by pushing the fire button marked with "1" and up simultaneously. So you see, the level design is very different, already making this a very different sort of a gaming experience. Also, unlike the original, the SMS version has bottomless pits included in the level design, so it's a more traditional platformer in that sense. And since you can actually die of falling down bottomless pits, each of your characters have been given three lives to start the game with, in addition to the familiar energy meter, which seems to deplete at a much quicker rate than it does in the ARCADE version. Only by scoring 80,000 points will you be granted an extra life.

As if that weren't enough, the SMS version also has end-level bosses that actually shoot back at you, and they are all designed differently, and require different strategies to pass. Killing an end-level boss drops a key to the locked door somewhere within the level, which you can enter only when carrying the key by pressing up in the exact middle of the door. Due to the vast differences of the SMS version, it requires great amounts of practice to get very far, and unless you have read the game manual before actually starting to play this version, you might find your progress stopped by something perhaps a bit unexpected in level 5: you need to collect all the star items to get through certain passages. Each level has one star item, so you need to make sure you get one from each level, since you can only get to level 5 without all of them collected. But worry not: there are only six levels in the SMS version, and an actual ending, which sets it even more apart from the original ARCADE game.

There are, as there should be, other bonus items you can pick up, but nowhere near as many kinds of as in the original. Killing any alien creature will make them drop a point-ball, which adds to your score when picked up. The clock item stops the enemies for a brief period of time, the bomb item (the one with a pointy top) destroys all aliens on the screen, and the bottle items will either make aliens harmless for a while or increase your power level. Instead of having weapon power-ups as items, though, the SMS version uses a ranking system to give you these advantages: at 40,000, your shooting distance is increased; at 120,000, your shooting range will be widened, and at 200,000, your shooting speed will be increased. Unfortunately, both players' weapons are exactly the same, so there is no real advantage in playing with either character. Playing a single-player game does have one advantage, though: you don't need to get nearly as many hits through on the end-level bosses to destroy them, as you would in two-player mode.

Luckily, the other three conversions have been more or less modeled after the original game, so there shouldn't be that big a list of differences to get through. At least, that's what you would expect. Similarly to the SMS version, however, all three remaining versions can only be played as a single-player or a two-player mode. In all three versions, the game boots up to the player selection screen, which we will get into a bit later on. Another thing that is common with the C64, SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions is, that you can walk through your partner in action, which wasn't possible in either the original ARCADE version, or the SEGA MASTER SYSTEM version. You would just bump into each other or perhaps get carried by the other just by standing on the other player. The final detail similarity between the threesome, at least as far as we could tell, is that upon death, the keys and bonus abilities don't drop, like they do in the original.

But of course, we do need to get into each remaining version separately. In the C64 version, the way you choose the number of players, as well as the characters you and your optional friend control, is to first choose the character Player 1 wants to play as (joystick in port 1), and then choose the character Player 2 wants to play as (joystick in port 2), but if you choose the same character both times, there will only be one player in the game. The positive things we can say about the C64 version's playability are: the scrolling and animation is not too bad, and you can see everything clearly, making the game easy to play. Then again, the C64 version can be considered rather too easy, since the maximum amount of sprites on the screen is rather low, and you never get more than maybe six or seven other sprites on the screen besides you and your optional partner. Most of the enemies move relatively slowly, and at no point will you get across anything so threatening that would kill you quicker than boredom. You get no crouch-walk for your controls, but this minor design flaw has been taken into consideration when building the levels: there are no low passages you need to crouch under. Another positive thing to note was, that there are as many kinds of level styles as in the original; however, some of the further level elements have been taken off, such as the conveyor belts and jump pads. Other parts of the conversion's design are not worth even arguing about, since it's just a big, boring failure.

The AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions are similar to each other, and surprisingly, offer more of the original's gameplay mechanics than the C64 conversion. Let's start with the player selection screen, though. In the SPECTRUM version, you move the highlight with Caps Shift and Z, then select a character for each player with S. Then, press ENTER to start the game. Choosing and redefining controllers can be accessed with D in the player selection screen. In the AMSTRAD version, you move the highlight with cursor keys, select character with S and change the controls for the chosen character with C. You don't get to redefine keys, but keyboard #1 controls are 6 and 7 for left and right, 8 and 9 for up (jump) and down (crouch) and 0 for shooting, and keyboard #2 controls are the cursor keys and SPACE.

In both AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions, the style of graphics take a crucial part in playability. Admittedly, this should be dealt with in the Graphics section, but the gameplay is affected by this, that it needs to be mentioned here as well, at least to some extent. All the players and enemies, as well as bonus items and such, are all monochrome. Depending on the background colours and textures, these monochrome things range from being easy to tell what they actually are, to nearly impossible to tell what they are. This is an especially big problem in the SPECTRUM version, because the background graphics have been given more colour than in the AMSTRAD version, effectively bringing plenty of attribute clash into the game. In the AMSTRAD version, all the sprites have been brought successfully into the foreground, while in the SPECTRUM version, things in the foreground often clash with things in the background.

Fortunately for these two versions, they both feature the crouch-walk, which is also useful again, bringing some depth back into the gameplay mechanics. Actually, to be more precise, it's not crouch-walk on the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD, but your characters are made to crawl instead. Perhaps it was simpler to do it that way for these two machines to accommodate the rules of sprite sizes and all that. No problem. Another advantage against the C64 version is, that the later levels include conveyor belts and jump pads. Also fortunate is, that you get different looking bullets for each player; mind you, the projectile styles have more to do with who is controlling the character, rather than which character are you playing with. Still, this affects your possible disorientation of which character you're controlling, since Joe, Mary and Edgar look almost exactly the same in monochrome, particularly in action. It doesn't really help that the weapon upgrades have no visual logic, so you need to memorize each player's weapon upgrade orders to make full use of them. The AMSTRAD version doesn't even have the characters colour-coded in the info panel, so unless you remember the names of the characters and their info panel locations by heart, you're in trouble, because the weapon upgrade spheres appear with each character name's first letter instead of their appropriate colour. Quartet is still such a little-known game to me, and even less so to SJ, that we're still having a hard time remembering the only female member's name when playing, but we know her colour is red; the other characters are even less memorable.

Too bad the AMSTRAD version is also let down by the game speed. See, the SPECTRUM version is already a bit slower to play than the C64 version, but the AMSTRAD version is even more so, and if the C64 version is slower than the ARCADE original already, then you know it's going to be horrible. So, crank up your emulation speed to about 130-150%, and you're good to go. Unless you're one of those purists, who refuse to play on anything but real hardware.

Whatever you may feel about the C64, SPECTRUM and CPC in general, you cannot really escape the fact that all of their Quartet conversions are all kinds of dreary. The C64 version offers no challenge and lacking gameplay, the CPC version is almost unplayably slow and the SPECTRUM version is difficult to follow. On the simple merits of having gotten the gameplay mechanics closer to the original, the SPECTRUM and CPC versions win over the C64, but neither of them is all that recommendable anyway. So, these are the only results we can possibly give for this section:

1. ARCADE
2. SEGA MASTER SYSTEM
3. ZX SPECTRUM / AMSTRAD CPC
4. COMMODORE 64

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GRAPHICS


An arcade game that is endlessly repeating, at least in its original form, requires something to hold your interest enough to keep feeding coins into the machine. Something more than just getting a good high score. Some good variation in graphics would do the trick nicely, and luckily, Quartet has it. But is it enough?

When I became aware of Quartet, I was first drawn to its title screen, which promises a great deal of otherworldly scenes and other marvels, most of all four heroes to play with. Happily, this was well past the commercial prime of C64, so I was already aware that the game couldn't possibly be played as a proper foursome, at least not on the 8-bits. It wasn't long after that, when someone came up with a 4-joystick adapter and upgraded IK+ to be played on all three players simultaneously, but at that point already, I had forgotten about Quartet, since it wasn't a game anyone had ever really hyped about before.

Title screens, top row, left to right: Arcade, Sega Master System (EU/US), Sega Mk.III (Japan)
Loading screens, bottom row: Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC (combined disk and tape versions)


Once I got to the subject of finding a good theme to fill up a month's comparisons, Quartet raised its alluring head again, being one of the less obvious options for a multi-player experience in Sega's catalogue. I was initially more drawn towards the SPECTRUM version, since the loading screen looked quite a bit more detailed and prettier than the C64 loader, which even has the game logo sloppily made. Not very long after that, I discovered the SEGA MASTER SYSTEM version completely disregarded the idea of playing as a foursome, and shows you clearly in the title screen already, that Mary and Edgar are the only characters you can play as. Obviously, the game developers regard the two as the most important characters of the four. The AMSTRAD version's first disappointment comes in the loading screen, as neither the disk or tape versions have the proper Quartet title screen used as the loading screen, but rather, the tape version has the plain text "Loading Quartet  Please Wait" flashing in the middle of the screen, and the disk version has the huge blocky QUARTET text in blue, white and red, and nothing more.

Player selections, left to right: Arcade, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64.


You're supposed to have at least the option to play as one of the four given characters, if playing as a proper foursome is not possible. So, the SMS version doesn't have a separate player selection screen, as the title screen already instructs you how to get to play a two-player game, and player selection is not possible even then. But that's not something we need to focus on now. As you see, in the ARCADE version of the player selection screen, you are shown the faces and in-game representations of the four playable characters, their colours and corresponding joysticks just in case you're not completely sure which character you just paid for, and then of course, you get the indicators for how many credits you have paid for (1 credit = 1000 power) and whether you're ready to embark or not.

The AMSTRAD, SPECTRUM and C64 versions all have the characters shown as they are in the game, so you will know from the start, that the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions have monochrome sprites. Already on this screen, it's difficult to tell the four characters apart on first glance, so you really need to focus on the details to notice anything special. Unfortunately, that won't be helping too much in action. At least the C64 and SPECTRUM versions have each character's selection boxes painted with their proper colours, unlike on the AMSTRAD, where every character has a blue background. The SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions also tell you - although it's hardly required - that you already have the maximum 9 credits from the start, and you can also see the predesignated controls for each of the characters, which are changeable. Both of these items are shown in a smaller box below the character boxes, and have corresponding colours if available. The C64 version doesn't have these, because they're just not necessary. The highlighter for the character selection boxes is a multi-colour scroller, which on the AMSTRAD version only features white, light blue and dark blue. As for the seemingly necessary title and Sega/Activision credit above the character selection boxes, it's all very non-decorative. In fact, the C64 version's style is surprisingly ugly, with inversed white and black for the text and background. Can't imagine what they must have been thinking.

Screenshots from the instructions sequence, where available:
Arcade (left), Amstrad CPC (middle) and ZX Spectrum (right).


Once you start the game in the ARCADE version, you are shown a brief animation with a bit of text above it, clearly indicating, that in order to complete a level, you need to destroy an end-level boss to get a key, which will open the level exit. While the original version has this sequence shown at a completely separated and blank area, the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions - being the only two which also have this sequence - have this sequence take place at a similar looking place, which begins the game. Already, you can see the colouring differences between the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions, but things start getting clearer once we get into the action.

Screenshots from level 1, left to right: Arcade, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64.


As you can see, the SEGA MASTER SYSTEM version has been separated from the others, because it's such a different sort of a mess altogether. At least the other three conversions start off rather similarly to the original, but if you care to examine these four versions in action, you will notice the first rather big difference being that the amount of enemies on screen simultaneously can be drastically different between the 8-bits and the ARCADE original. See, in the above picture, the top row shows where the game starts from, and you can see clearly, that there are these round-shaped doors on the higher platform. In the ARCADE version, these doors open up immediately after the game has started, and they will spew out 12 little creatures that will bounce around the screen, the function of which, I believe, is to get you started on collecting upgrades for your weapons, since shooting a number of enemies will make the game spawn upgrade spheres. None of the 8-bit versions will ever have that many sprites on the screen at the same time, and when there are more sprites than yourself, the game will slow down to some degree - the more action on screen, the slower it gets. This is true for all versions, but the AMSTRAD and C64 versions perhaps suffer more from this than the SPECTRUM version.

On further examination, you can see that the C64 game screen is of a fairly similar width as the ARCADE version's screen, but not quite the same height. The SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions have much smaller screens, both vertically and horizontally. The downside of this is, there's not as much room to display the area, but since the players are always kept as close to the center of the screen as possible, it doesn't really matter. In the ARCADE and C64 versions, your characters usually run a bit quicker than the single-speed scrolling screen, so you sort of have more freedom of movement, although on the C64, it's not really necessary because there is so little of action. Speaking of scrolling, the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions scroll by character block, so it's a bit on the choppy side there, but it has a good pace - at least the SPECTRUM version does, so it's not too bad, but the AMSTRAD version is quite slow in comparison. And while it doesn't really require a mention at this point anymore, it should be noted, that in the original ARCADE game, you get parallax scrolling for the background and foreground, which none of the other versions have.

Screenshots from levels 3 and 4, left to right: Arcade, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64.


For the most part, Quartet's levels are paired, so that two consecutive levels take place in a similar setting. As you get further into the game, this pattern will change somewhat, and in different ways on different versions, but two levels for each design is how it goes for the majority of the game. The level design for the three more "faithful" 8-bit conversions is rarely completely copied from the original, but at least you can see that at least they tried their hardest within the limitations of each machine. For example, the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions are missing ladders, which makes shooting up and down impossible, but then this particular ability is so rarely needed, it matters little. The C64 version does have ladders, but then you get no crouching or crawling, and some of the more narrow places have been adjusted to accommodate the player characters so that they can walk under them.

While the amount of colours and the screen mode give the C64 graphics a better likeness to the original than the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions, you can't escape the ugliness this combination brings forth. Mind you, it wouldn't be such a bad combination, if the animations and collision detection weren't so sloppily made. It gives the game a very unfinished feel, when you can latch onto some random bits of wall, when such an action shouldn't be possible. It is clear, that the C64 conversion team focused on getting the colours as right as possible, as far as possible. The AMSTRAD version is the exact opposite. There aren't too many colours, but the use of them is effective enough, and you can't really see much of colour clash due to the way the background graphics have been handled. Most of the time, this works rather well, but some levels are horrible to look at due to the lack of colours, because the backgrounds and platforms will then be impossible to tell apart from anything but their texture. The SPECTRUM version uses as much of colour as it can, but unfortunately, it often makes an unholy mess of things, because everything in the foreground assumes the colour of anything in the background.

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


Something perhaps worth focusing on here, are the level bosses, of which there are only two different kinds on the 8-bit computers: a massive head creature and a strange flying robotic thing, which clearly shows holding a key. In the ARCADE version, there are a few more kinds of level bosses, although the Grim Reaper you see in the above picture is not one of them - it just happens to be one of those things that didn't get included in any of the home conversions. The C64 level bosses are just sad to look at. While they have slightly more colour than their SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD counterparts, they both look like massive Lego(tm) monster creations instead of carefully pixelated sprites with clear features. I have to admit, the AMSTRAD version is looking pretty good at this point, perhaps because it's so decidedly simple, but functional. In fact, it never looks particularly ugly, only boring and relatively colourless.

Presentation Ceremony screens. Top left: Arcade. Bottom left: ZX Spectrum. Middle: Commodore 64.
Top right: Sega Master System / Mk.III. Bottom right: Amstrad CPC.
After finishing a level, you are taken to a "Presentation Ceremony", in which you are given medals for whatever actions you might have made in the finished level, bonus score for collecting things and an amount of additional power, based on how well you did in the finished level. The only ceremonial thing that happens on the screen, at least in my eyes, is the banner coming up from the bottom of the screen. Actually, even the banner looks a bit unceremonial in both the original ARCADE version as well as the C64 version, which is also missing the word "Ceremony" due to the unnecessarily large font used for the banner. Really, the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions look more ceremonial, since the "Presentation Ceremony" sign in both versions have a more futuristic array of colours cycling the edges of the banner/sign in a clockwise manner, and of course, the SPECTRUM version is the more colourful one. The SEGA MASTER SYSTEM version doesn't even say it's a ceremony, which I'm guessing they opted to take out of it, because it felt a bit silly; now it's just another bonus score screen in the endless sea of other bonus score screens... which it just as well should be.

Screenshots from levels 7 and 8, left to right: Arcade, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64.


This is where the four primary versions start growing more apart from each other. The original level design, I suspect, had become so complex in both graphics and mechanics, that something very different was required for the three home conversions. If you look at the picture below, you will notice that the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions have taken the design from the next two ARCADE levels for levels 7 and 8, just to keep things in at least some sort of an order. The C64 version only expands from the previous two levels here, by adding some more colour into the floors, but then the colour scheme from the ARCADE version's levels 7 and 8 is used for the next two levels on the C64... but even that's only a vague similarity.

Screenshots from levels 9 and 10, left to right: Arcade, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64.


Although this is not quite everything there is to see in at least the ARCADE and C64 versions, this is as far as I'm going to take you, because it's all basically just variations on the same themes from now on. The SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions loop the levels after every 15th level, and the C64 version goes only slightly further. Apparently, the ARCADE original only has 16 levels that also loop from the beginning, but there was also an updated version called Quartet 2, which was only released as a conversion kit, and this game had 32 distinctly different levels instead of just 16. I haven't tried it out, because I know it wouldn't really add anything important to the experience.

Screenshots from the Sega Master System (US/EU) and Mk.III (Japan) versions.


So, we finally get properly into the SEGA MASTER SYSTEM version. As you saw from the two different title screens, Mary has black hair in the Japanese version, while the rest of the world get to see Mary as a brunette, and this difference is further exhibited in action as well. Some people seem to regard Edgar's lighter skin colour as an abomination of mankind, but I really don't think it could matter all that much, unless the game had been based on a previously established franchise with clear cultural stereotypes for each character, which it wasn't.

The game itself is fundementally different from the original, hence the original Japanese re-titling into "Double Target". You get the bottomless pits, doorways to what the SMS game manual calls the Surface World and the Underworld, destroyable blocks similar to those in Castlevania or Gradius, and various different kinds of enemies and items that weren't part of the original Quartet game. When it comes to the background designs, there are certain similarities to the original game, but there are some areas, which differ vastly from the original design, and feel completely out of context, such as the slightly Egyptian parallel world in level 3. Don't get me wrong, it all looks marvellous, and more to the point, loads better than any of the other 8-bit conversions of the original Quartet, and you get good animations and smooth scrolling to go with all that, so there's no question that this should be placed just below the ARCADE game.

Game Over screens and high score tables, left to right:
Arcade, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Sega Master System / Mk.III.


Eventually, unless you're playing the SMS version, your game will end in a simple, abrupt Game Over, because the original Quartet doesn't have an ending. Of course, the SMS version also features a regular Game Over screen, but it also has an ending, which you see above, showing that there was an actual plot to the game. The ARCADE version summons two angels to pick your still warm corpse and carry it out into the oblivion outside the screen borders, and once their mission has been carried out, you will be given the chance to enter your initials within your info box, which will then be shown in the high scores table. The C64 version is the only home conversion, which has a high scores table, which is a bit strange, considering this is an arcade game, and you really should have a high score table in an arcade-based game, but you get no flashy animation to go with your eventual demise. The SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions feature a black rectangular area, on which "Game Over" is written, along with the character's name who just died. However, the AMSTRAD version also features a brief animation of your lifeless body floating upwards the screen, before the message is displayed.

I think we're rather clear on the top two here, but the troublesome threesome needs to be pondered upon for a while longer. The AMSTRAD version certainly has some small advantage over the other two by having thoroughly clear graphics, but unfortunately, it's a very slow version. The SPECTRUM version is a bit faster, and more colourful, but is spoiled by large amount of colour clash. The C64 version scrolls smoothly, and there are plenty of colours that mimic the original rather well, but it also suffers from really bad blockiness and sloppy animation. To be honest, I can only tie them all together in one spot. If there is anything more in the above, that would require further explanation, I heartily recommend you to scroll this article a bit further down, or even better, play the game yourself. For now, here are the results for this particular section:

1. ARCADE
2. SEGA MASTER SYSTEM
3. COMMODORE 64 / AMSTRAD CPC / ZX SPECTRUM

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SOUNDS


If you've played arcade games of this particular age before, you know what to expect, at least in terms of sounds. You get those slightly tinny, plastic music and sound effects here, very similar to Atari arcade games of the time. Quartet's original soundtrack features four different level tunes, all of which are more or less in the category of fast Japanese video game funk, if you want to consider that a genre. In addition to those, you get a short Miami Sound Machine pastiche for the initial instruction sequence, a nice and memorable fanfare for the Presentation Ceremony, and another short ditty for Game Over. All in all, seven different tunes, which is a lot to attempt to achieve in an 8-bit conversion of this game. Naturally, there are a few sound effects to go with all the music, like shooting, exploding and collecting bonus score items and such, but the music does take a clear precedence in this game.

From the three most arcade-like conversions, the C64 version is the only one that features even a portion of the original's soundtrack. At least one of the tunes has been shortened, and from what I gathered, one of the latter-stage tunes is completely missing, but I'd say David Whittaker has done a really good job at getting all the tunes out for the C64, particularly considering that the game is a single-loader. You do get a couple of sound effects to go with all the music, but like in the original, they're not too much in focus here. Unfortunately, all that nicely arranged music gets interrupted by the rather bland sound effects, but that's just something you would expect from a cheap port like this.

Speaking of cheap, the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions have no music at all, just beepy and chirpy sound effects, which were clearly made originally for the 48k SPECTRUM. No upgrade for the 128k machine, and likely for a reason - no one in their right mind would have actually paid full price for this game. That said, the sound effects aren't too bad, and if it was necessary to choose between music and sound effects, and base both SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions on the same code, then I'm glad they chose sound effects. It does take away from the game's mood, though. For those of you using emulators for playing CPC games (like me), here's a friendly advice, if you want to spare your ears: at least on WinAPE, make sure your sound emulation's sample rate is set at 44 KHz, otherwise you will be hearing an extremely high-pitched beep constantly after having once selected a character.

The SEGA MASTER SYSTEM version of Quartet also features renditions of the tunes from the original soundtrack, all of which sound very nice. It also features some new tunes, making the SMS soundtrack having no less than twelve tunes, although a couple of them are variations of other tunes already in the soundtrack. Still, rather impressive for a game that only has six levels. And still, you get a good bunch of sound effects to go with all that music; only this time, the sound effects take as big a part as the music. In all honesty, the mixture of all the sound effects and the music almost constantly playing simultaneously can get a bit chaotic, but you can't blame them for not trying to get everything out of the hardware. Still, the original game offers a more balanced set of sounds, and wins the SMS version by an inch.

1. ARCADE
2. SEGA MASTER SYSTEM
3. COMMODORE 64
4. ZX SPECTRUM / AMSTRAD CPC

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VIDEO LINK


And now, something out of the left field. I haven't asked for permission to link this here, because I couldn't find a private contact to the man behind this YouTube channel, but because this was such a complete and accurate representation (with comments and all!) of all the versions of Quartet, I decided to copy the link and use it here nevertheless. Hope that's okay with Retro Core.



In case you didn't click on the video link yet, you should definitely do so, because finding this video revealed a series of great retro comparison videos that I hadn't heard of before, and I strongly suggest you, dear readers, take a good look at them yourself, in case you're not familiar with Retro Core.

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OVERALL


Never before have I come across an arcade game, which would so firmly be rooted into the arcades, that any attempt to port it to home-based gaming platforms would either fail disastrously or be so completely different, that it barely resembles the original. In the case of the SEGA MASTER SYSTEM version of Quartet, they took the right path and made the game fit for home gaming. The other three, which attempted to get the arcade game somehow working on such limited hardware, obviously took the wrong path. I do have to admire the attempt, though. Long story short, here are the needlessly mathematical overall results:

1. ARCADE: Playability 4, Graphics 3, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 11
2. SEGA MASTER SYSTEM: Playability 3, Graphics 2, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 8
3. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 4
3. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 4
3. COMMODORE 64: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 4

Conclusion: if you have three friends to play with, and you're organizing some sort of a retro gaming party, there aren't too many games that would fit the bill. Quartet, I'm afraid, is not nearly your best option, but it's one of the rare ones at that, and it can only be played as a foursome if you choose the arcade version. Perhaps Gauntlet has more to offer, but at least there are options.

As if Quartet wasn't obscure enough in Sega's catalogue, there was also a little heard mobile version of the game, simply called Mobile Quartet. You can see some footage of it in the video link above. The reason why it is so little known, is because it was only ever released for the Japanese market, and available for several Nokia, Motorola, G*Net and Sony Ericsson phones. Naturally, being essentially a handheld version of Quartet, the even more cut down version is only possible to play in single-player mode. If you still own an old enough mobile phone and want to have a go, Mobile Quartet still seems to be available for purchase at Game Room *742#, but I have no idea whether you can buy it or not outside of Japan.

Screenshots from Mobile Quartet, cunningly snatched from Hardcore Gaming 101.
So, there you go - three Sega's arcade games in one month. Perhaps I'll do one again if I ever find the time for it, since there are many good candidates to choose from, unlike in Nintendo's catalogue, who mostly had their games exclusively for their own systems. Hope you had at least quarter of the fun I had while doing these three comparisons, even if this last one was perhaps a bit less on the fun side. Well, at least it was educational. Next month, back to more normal entries, although I still can't vouch for the rate of entries being released as any more regular than it has been so far. See you later, whenever it will be!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you very much and will look for more postings from you.
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