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Tuesday, 16 May 2017

TWOFER #16: Roland's re-branded CPC adventures!

1. Bugaboo/Booga-Boo (The Flea) (Investronica S.A./Quicksilva, 1983)

Originally written for the Sinclair ZX81 as "La Pulga" by Paco Suárez Garcia, but was, and remains officially unreleased.

Re-written for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum by Paco Suárez Garcia and Paco Portalo Calero, and published through Quicksilva in 1983.

Converted for the Amstrad CPC by Paco Suárez Garcia, with graphics by Juanjo Redondo, and released through Amsoft in 1984 as "Roland in the Caves".

Converted for the Commodore 64 by Pedro Ruiz, with graphics by Ángel Domínguez and music by Félix Arribas, and published through Quicksilva in 1984.

Written for the MSX computers by Steve and Ann Haigh, and published through Quicksilva in 1986.

2. Fred (Zigurat/Investronica S.A./Quicksilva, 1984)

Written for the Amstrad CPC by Paco Menendez, Fernando Rada Briega, Camilo Cela and Carlos Granados Martinez, and published in Spain by Zigurat in 1984. Also re-branded and re-released as "Roland on the Ropes" by Amsoft for the Amstrad CPC in 1984.

Written for the Commodore 64 by Pedro Ruiz, and first published in the UK by Quicksilva in 1984.

Written for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum by Carlos Granados Martinez, Paco Menendez, Fernando Rada Briega and Juan Delcan, and first published in Spain by Investronica S.A. in 1984.

Also converted for the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A by Arnd Russmann, and released as "Freddy" by Saurussoft in 1985.

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INTRODUCTION & GAME STATUS, PLURAL


We haven't had a two-for-one article since last December, so I thought this would be a good time to do one, since I probably won't have much time to do much else this month, apart from another Finnish Retro Game Review. This time, I decided to dig into some of my most prominent Amstrad-memories, of which there aren't all that many, I'm sorry to say. One of my childhood friends had a CPC 464 for a few years before he switched it to an NES - a mistake, if you ask me, but an understandable one. As the blog has well pointed out, the CPC's tape loading times were nothing short of legendary for a large portion of its games, sometimes rivaling even the almighty 8-bit Atari computer in tape loading times, and even games requiring less memory would take a surprising amount of time to get loaded up. For some reason, the more high-quality games were not the ones I thought the most interesting of the lot, but rather the ones displaying the CPC at its most basic and characteristically Amstrad'ish. Most of these games were released by Amsoft, and amongst those games, there were plenty that featured a character that was created for the sole purpose of marketing the Amstrad computers with a mascot named after an Amstrad computer engineer, Roland Perry. Perhaps they were even successful with it, but Nintendo and Sega beat Amstrad in their own game soon enough with Mario and Sonic, respectively. Besides, re-branding already existing games with a new protagonist wasn't perhaps the best idea ever.

Amsoft began their mascot's adventures by putting him into games from the Spanish developing team Indescomp, who were responsible for creating other cheap but barely memorable Amsoft titles, such as Fruit Machine and Snooker, and various utility programs. To be honest, I think Amsoft did a good job at bringing their chosen re-branded games more publicity than Indescomp or Quicksilva ever would have done by themselves - I, for one, only learned of these games being actually something else than Roland's adventures in CPC-land much later on.

These days, both Bugaboo (the Flea), a.k.a. Booga-Boo or La Pulga, and Fred enjoy the status of cult classics, although in the world of Spectrum gamers, both games seem to be regarded with even more passion than on other formats. Bugaboo's scores across the net are: 6.2 from 42 voters at Lemon64, 8.35 from 90 voters at World of Spectrum, 4 stars from 19 voters at Generation-MSX, 13.50 out of 20.00 at CPC-Power and 2 out of 10 from the single review at CPC Game Reviews. Meanwhile, Fred's scores are: 6.9 from 25 votes at Lemon64, 8.18 from 205 votes at WOS, 15.00 out of 20.00 at CPC-Power and 7 out of 10 from the single review at CPC Game Reviews. But as you know, single reviews of maybe four lines of text are rarely trustworthy - let's see how it goes.

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DESCRIPTIONS & REVIEWS


Spanish game developers have been making difficult games throughout the history of computer and video gaming, and these two offerings are no different. I have to admit to not being a fan of Spanish computer games from the 80's, but that could be due to the kind of games that would mostly be published outside of Spain. Indescomp's catalogue has a lot of curious gems, and I think I have already mentioned a couple of those in the Unique Games series a long time ago, but now we shall focus on two of their earliest titles that became known throughout Europe, if not exactly worldwide.

Firstly, Bugaboo is an odd game. It's a platformer in a unique way, which makes the platforming itself a sort of a puzzle - more particularly a timing puzzle. Your only job is to find a safe route from the bottom of the cavern to the top, but to accomplish that is such a task that if I describe it here, there will be nothing left for me to talk about in the Playability section. In any case, it's an infuriatingly addictive game, emphasis on both adjectives.

Fred is not such an odd game. In fact, for a long time, I tended to mix it up with Udo Gertz's Tom (a.k.a. Tom Thumb) because of the way the C64 version of Tom looks and plays like. Both games are maze-platformers, and are played within very confined areas. Of course, in the case of Tom, it's only the C64 version that is as confined as Fred, but that's not our current topic. The difference between Tom 64 and Fred is, that Fred is actually a decent game. You have a character that can jump logically and shoot bullets to defend himself, maps that don't take years to get through and very little unnecessary backtracking. Having played so much Tom Thumb in the not-too-distant past, it's difficult for me not to compare Fred to Tom, but that's the way these kinds of games sometimes get connected.

With both Bugaboo and Fred, you can practically taste the timeframe they were written around. Neither game is strictly an archetype of the genres they represent, but rather a bold attempt of getting some variation into the contemporarily major game categories. To be brutally honest, I wouldn't necessarily recommend either game to any modern young gamer, nor even to an emerging retro gaming enthusiast, but I will admit they both have a firm place in the history of Spanish game industry, and anyone with an appreciation for Spanish games should have a look at these.

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LOADING


Of course, we cannot skip the alternatingly semi-traditional loading times comparison bit, since we have so many cassette releases of each game under inspection, so let's get on with it.

Loading screens from Bugaboo the Flea, left to right:
ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC.
BUGABOO THE FLEA
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Amstrad CPC:
5 min 39 sec
Commodore 64:
14 min 5 sec
MSX, 1600 baud:
2 min 41 sec
MSX, 2400 baud:
1 min 26 sec
ZX Spectrum:
3 min 5 sec


As far as I know, Bugaboo wasn't released on the CPC as anything else than Roland in the Caves, apart from the Spanish-speaking regions, where the loading screen and the cover art featured its original Spanish name, La Pulga, beside the Roland title. The MSX version seems to have no loading screen at all, but both the C64 and SPECTRUM versions feature some sort of an opening sequence. In the SPECTRUM version, only the first two space-themed text screens are shown while the game is loading, and the rest of the opening is shown after the game has loaded. The C64 first loads the opening sequence, which takes a couple of minutes to load up, plays the sequence and then continues to load for about ten minutes more. So for once, the C64 loader is the slowest of the lot, but then it uses the basic ROM loader - no turbos of any kind there.

Loading screens from Fred. Top left: ZX Spectrum.
Top right: Commodore 64. Bottom row: Amstrad CPC.
FRED
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Amstrad CPC Spanish:
3 min 53 sec
Amstrad CPC Amsoft:
8 min 48 sec
Commodore 64, original:
2 min, sharp
Commodore 64, Softaid comp:
3 min 30 sec
ZX Spectrum, Investronica:
3 min 2 sec
ZX Spectrum, Quicksilva:
3 min 33 sec
ZX Spectrum, Microbyte:
3 min 1 sec


Loaders for Fred and, most particularly, Roland on the Ropes, brings us a more familiar-looking list of loading times. The C64 version is quite easily the quickest of the lot, though the SPECTRUM version is no slouch either. The original Spanish AMSTRAD version is almost 5 minutes quicker than the Amsoft re-release, which makes you wonder: why bother changing the loader? Was the turbo loader for the original Investronica release copyrighted, so that Amsoft decided not to buy a licence for the loader, or did Amsoft use such a loader for all their games that it was necessary to use it for the sake of keeping up the profile?


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PLAYABILITY


Our two games today are basically two sides of the same coin. Essentially, both are maze games, but while Bugaboo the Flea gives you nothing to do but to jump around with the aim of escaping the area, Fred focuses on climbing ropes, collecting treasure, and killing enemies. In both games, drawing or finding maps is a good idea, but then it would only take away from the fun of finding the way out by yourself.


BUGABOO THE FLEA

In the Caves, Roland's flea-like alter ego is controlled with surprisingly intuitive manner. You are given only two keys on the keyboard, or two directions on your joystick, depending on which version you're playing. The C64 version is played with a joystick, the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions are played on keyboard, and the MSX version can be played both ways. You only need, and are given two directional controls - left and right, but you are also allowed to move the camera with four other control keys or pressing down the fire button and moving the joystick around. All the controls are shown in each version's title screen, so I don't really need to repeat them here.

The trick in controlling Bugaboo is to give him an optimal amount of power for his jumps, to make him jump a certain length and height. This power can be adjusted by holding the chosen directional key or joystick direction for a certain amount of time, as you see the power meter building up. Each version uses a different build-up speed, and your flea-Roland even reacts to your commands in different strengths in different versions, so you can only experiment and see which version suits your style the best. In the SPECTRUM version, the meter fills up the quickest, so in order to make any small leaps, you need to let the power meter loop. The AMSTRAD version has a power meter that builds up in multiple phases, but you cannot really tell, when it loops to the beginning of the power meter. Also, while there are clear notches in the meter, the meter is only an approximation of the power Roland is being given, so you still need to trust your fingers more than what's on the screen. The power meter in the MSX version is the smoothest, most analog-looking bar, instead of a notch-based meter, so it's easier to gauge a precise angle for each jump. Rather unexpectedly, the C64 and MSX power meters are the most logical of the lot.

But we're only getting started here. Each version also has its own sort of jumping arc, which coupled with the already differing controls also makes it practically impossible to have similar level design. The AMSTRAD version uses a long, even jumping arc; the C64 version has a rather Mario-like jumping arc, with the far end being steeper (but not too steep) than the start of the jump; the MSX flea jumps long and high but drops with a short arc and then straight down; and the SPECTRUM version is a bit difficult to tell, since you rarely get to jump such short distances which would clarify this, or without colliding with walls or ceilings.

So, yes, the cavern design is different in all four versions. This, I would say, is a matter of personal preference, but I found the C64 and CPC maps more logical and player-friendly to jump around. Then again, that might have something to do with the controls. In addition to the cavern designs, each version features different hazards that will make your life entirely too hazardous. The only common hazard is the dragon, but even the dragon starts from different places in different versions, the AMSTRAD version being the most cruel one of the lot with the dragon starting directly outside the screen to the left of your starting point. While the only deadly enemy in the SPECTRUM original is the dragon, the C64 and MSX versions feature a few large carnivorous plants mostly at the bottom of the cavern, which can eat you up, and the CPC version in turn has plenty of smaller carnivorous plants, which can be even more annoying, since they are scattered around at more inconvenient spots.

Only if you manage to get yourself out of the cavern, the game will give you some score, after which you restart the level with a higher difficulty level. Of course, this means more hazards on your way, so you need to rethink your way up. This is a bit of an anti-climax, since the original ZX81 version features more levels, rather than just the one cavern with trap variations. In that sense, the original game can be more compared with the sequel, Poogaboo. Also, the ZX81 game only scrolls horizontally, while the 48k-expanded Bugaboo also scrolls vertically, and I'm not going to even start on the controls. Because of the game's original format being so different, I'm not going to give the ZX81 game any scores here.

However, scores need to be given to the four officially released versions. Each version gives its very own kind of challenge: the flea's controllability is notably different in all four versions, the cavern's map is different in all versions, and there are different sorts of hazards in all versions. My favourite version to play is perhaps the MSX version, but the AMSTRAD and C64 versions are the easiest. The SPECTRUM version promises a lot, but it's just too awkward to control due to the extreme quickness of the power meter. But that's just my opinion. There's a video of someone completing the SPECTRUM Bugaboo in 19 seconds, so it definitely has the replay value to induce people to better themselves at it, but I'm not sure if the other versions give the same sort of freedom for choosing your route as the original. Only the AMSTRAD version features two exits, though, so it has an advantage of sorts there, if you want to call it an advantage. To be honest, because all four official versions differ that much from each other, but are still quite as playable as any of the others, I'm inclined to give them all a tied place. If you know something about the playability differences that I don't, do throw a comment in their designated area.

1. ZX SPECTRUM / AMSTRAD CPC / COMMODORE 64 / MSX


FRED

On the Ropes, Roland takes a more human form, and is controlled with no surprises. You just walk left and right, climb up and down, jump (only straight up) and shoot with the designated fire button. The mazes are procedurally generated, so it's a bit random every time, and you can't learn them by heart. At least the SPECTRUM version gives you the possibility to find map portions of the maze to help you on your way, but you can only see the map as far as the given map can show you, which is not nearly as far as you would need to, and you can only see the passages, but no ropes, treasures or other items.

Although Fred/Roland walks in a fairly natural manner, taking one step at a time, the movement is choppy and, to be honest, uncomfortably slow in most versions. At least, it feels uncomfortably slow at first, due to the relatively small amount of enemies roaming around in the first stage. In the later levels, the slower pace can become useful. Your biggest problem is not necessarily the size of the maze, but it might be the amount of bullets you find in the maze, and the kinds of enemies you find. In the first level, you're going to meet ghosts, which cannot be killed, but you can shoot them to switch their direction; wall-climbing insects and small red bugs that you can't kill either because you can only shoot at your waist-level. You also have only 6 bullets to start with, and an ammo clip only gives you another 6 bullets, so you need to be fairly economical about shooting around. Collecting treasure around the maze is pivotal for your survival in the next levels, because after finishing a level, your energy meter will be filled up relatively to how much treasure you have collected. Happily, you can also find potions which will replenish a small amount of your energy.

Of the three official versions, the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions are the most similar ones, yet even those two have their differences. For instance, the balance of difficulty: in the AMSTRAD version, it's usually much easier to find your way out of the first maze than it is in the SPECTRUM version. Also, it feels like the enemies are more aggressive from the start in the SPECTRUM version. But then, the map feature in the SPECTRUM version gives a huge counter-balance.

The C64 version is a very different beast. For starters, you get to choose a difficulty level, but that's nothing compared to how the game actually plays. The peculiarity here is the method of movement, which is entirely based on the block-based map (you walk one block at a time), but you also get some sort of stairs, which are always two blocks long, which Fred will walk up and down automatically. A differing factor from the other versions is, that you can pick up and detonate bombs, which is actually necessary for making your exit from each maze on the C64, but you need to get out of the bomb's immediate explosion radius to survive and eventually make your exit. From what I've gathered, the mazes are built in such a way, that the exit is never at the top of the maze, and you seem to always start finding your way out from the top left corner of each maze, as opposed to beginning from the bottom of the map in the other versions. Another difference is, that all the levels are pre-designed, so there is no actual need for an in-built map system. Like in so many text adventure games and mazes, you are supposed to rely on either pen and paper or immaculate visual memory. The C64 version is also much faster than the other versions, so the pistol is almost useless due to the quickly passing ghosts and mummies and whatnot. Perhaps exactly because of the game speed, the wall- crawling insects and smaller enemies have been made blissfully non-existant on the C64.

Curiously, the Saurussoft version on the TI-99/4A takes elements from both extremes, and makes a completely different, yet quite as enjoyable experience. Like in the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions, you start from the bottom of the maze and head for an exit at the top. You are given no map here, but each level map is pre-designed, so you don't really need to have an in-game map feature. Naturally, the levels get progressively more difficult to navigate, and feature increasing amounts and varieties of monsters to avoid and shoot. This version's game speed is similar to the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions, so it can get a bit tiresome if you're more comfortable with the C64 version, but the more negotiable mazes make the TI-99 version perhaps an optimal choice for beginner Fredists.

In conclusion, the C64 version is the smoothest and fastest to play, and it certainly gives you an alternative approach to the same idea. The SPECTRUM version is the only one to have an in-game map feature, which is a nice bonus, but hardly necessary, once you get to the rhythm and mindset of figuring out mazes in your head. Both the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions are irritating to play due to the choppy and slow scrolling, but the AMSTRAD version also flickers all the time by showing you the opposite end (row or line) of the screen for a fraction of a second on the other side of the screen as you make your way to any direction. To me at least, this is almost as funny and endearing as it is pitiful and cheap, but I can't say it's actually enjoyable. This slowness and choppiness is not helped by having the end of the first maze busy with ghosts and insects, which you can't kill, so the game will more likely kill you during the first level on both SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions than on either the C64 or the TI-99 version. Speaking of which, the TI-99 version is surprisingly good, and a good option for those of you who don't really enjoy the high speed of the C64 version or the randomness of the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions. Too bad all the versions of Fred are too different from each other, so that I cannot really give them a proper order - only the inferiority of the AMSTRAD version is clear.

1. COMMODORE 64 / ZX SPECTRUM / TI-99/4A
2. AMSTRAD CPC

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GRAPHICS


The fun thing about old computer games is, that they can still surprise you after all these years in more than one way. Both Bugaboo and Fred already gave us plenty to chew on regarding playability, but that's just the beginning.


BUGABOO THE FLEA

Before we head on to the actual comparison bit of this section, let's take a quick look at what the original ZX81 game looks like, just to give us an unexpected bit of nice perspective.

Screenshots from the original ZX81 version of La Pulga.


Like most ZX81 games, La Pulga features ASCII graphics, although I have to say, that for its age, this is pretty damn sophisticated. The opening sequence already shows plenty of unexpectedly impressive cinematic effects, and even a short demo segment of the game's basic idea. The in-game graphics have the titular flea presented as a simple asterisk, and the push-scrolling effect is already implemented in the ZX81 version. Considering the machine's limitations, La Pulga for the ZX81 is rather impressive.

The original game doesn't have an elaborate back story - you just need to control the little flea and get out of the deep cavern. The AMSTRAD version with Roland in the lead role does have a back story, which somewhat explains Roland's ability to appear in as many forms as there are Roland games, but it gives just as much sense into the game's plot as the opening sequence NOT featured in the AMSTRAD and MSX versions, but which IS featured in the SPECTRUM and C64 versions.

Opening sequence and the English title screen from the ZX Spectrum version.


As you've gathered from the Loading section, the SPECTRUM version starts showing the opening sequence as it loads, but only the first two screens are shown. The rest of it is played after the game has finished loading. From what I can tell of the full opening sequence, our protagonist flea is just as much of a space explorer as Roland seems to be occasionally, and the intro begins with the flea's spacecraft detecting an unknown planet in a made-up sector, then finding signs of life from the planet. The final message lets us know, that the flea-shaped sond (named Pulga-64 in the C64 version) is sent to Cebolla X7. The really impressive bit of all this comes next: the credit sequence, combined with the animation of the approaching blue planet and some random stars flying by.

The title screen itself here is just mostly cyan text on blue background, with the exceptions of the "Best time" bit in white, and the character graphics-made game logo in green. The original Spanish version differs only with all the text written in Spanish, although some of the text in the opening sequence is a bit different.

Opening sequence and the title screen from the Commodore 64 version.


On the C64, the opening sequence isn't quite as impressive. The blue planet doesn't approach the screen nearly as smoothly as it does in the SPECTRUM version, and the credits are shown on separate screens. Apart from the Indescomp and Quicksilva logos, everything is made in PETSCII. Still, it's much more intriguing to have an opening sequence - even an ugly one - than not. When you eventually get to the title screen, it's just as wonderfully PETSCII-licious.

Title screens from the MSX (left) and Amstrad CPC (right) versions.


If you thought the C64 opening sequence and the title screen looked basic and ugly, you can always compare them to the MSX and AMSTRAD versions, which feature no opening sequence at all, and the title screens are just about as ugly. In the MSX version, the game logo features some sort of a messed up rainbow raster-bar effect, which is a nice change, but everything else is just basic text. The AMSTRAD title screen features nothing but super-wide text and a couple of horizontal lines to separate the controls from all the other bits, and the only bit of magic happens at the top of the screen, where the best and last scores are shown: the purple and yellow colours switch furiously fast between the two lines. It's arguable, whether or not either of these is better or worse than the C64 title screen, but having no opening sequence is unpardonable.

Animated non-interactive sequences for starting the game.
Top left: Amstrad CPC. Top right: ZX Spectrum. Bottom left: Commodore 64. Bottom right: MSX.


As you start the game, you are shown an animation of the titular flea jumping around and eventually dropping down the rabbit hole. The length of this animation varies between versions as much as the level design, but the AMSTRAD version is considerably shorter than the others - it starts from the moment when the flea takes a tumble and starts falling down the cavern. In terms of graphical quantity, of course the AMSTRAD version has less to offer here, but it adds some immediacy to the game's start, which is nice. In the C64 and MSX versions, the opening animation is shown every time you start the game, but the SPECTRUM version shows it only if you wait long enough in the title screen. Starting the game manually starts the animation from the same place as the AMSTRAD version. A proper skip feature would have been nice, but hey, this is 1983.

Bugaboo in-game screens from the ZX Spectrum version.

Seeing as the original Bugaboo was set on some distant and most likely invented planet, you don't really give a toss about how realistic the game area looks like. For all we know, there could well be some planets with purple, bright green and cyan bits of rock floating in mid-air. Of course, some vegetation is necessary for anything living to survive in the area, and you can also see some inanimate spiders on the walls, so it's definitely supposed to be a planet that supports life. The only two things that actually move in the area are you and the dragon, both of which are monochrome yellow, and feature just enough of animation frames to know where they're going. If Bugaboo collides with the dragon, you see the result in the rightmost picture above: the dragon grabs the flea in his mouth and the screen borders go berserk.

Although I mentioned the game screen's push-scrolling method earlier, I feel like I need to revisit the issue. The flea is superbly quick in his movements, and is difficult to control due to the speed of the power meter. However, the screen push-scrolls rather slowly by comparison, and it's really difficult to get a good feel of how Bugaboo jumps around at what given power, because the screen moves in chunks of half-screen width and height. Don't get me wrong - the animations and the speed of action must have been spectacular at the time of release, so I can't judge it too harshly from a graphical point of view.

Booga-Boo in-game screens from the Commodore 64 version.
The C64 version is more balanced in both speed and rhythm of the game, but also in the graphical content. This variation of the cavern features more colours and elements (blinking eyes on the dark walls and the carnivorous plants) than the SPECTRUM version, and the odd-looking formations of platforms have been attempted to be more separated as specific chunks of colours. Also, although you don't really think about it that much when playing, there's a clear difference to the platforms themselves - they have been made more three-dimensional in appearance. Because of the addition of the carnivorous plants, there are two death sequences now, and each one has its own border effect, which look very familiar from various tape loading schemes.

La Pulga / Roland in the Caves in-game screens from the Amstrad CPC version.


I have no idea, at which point it was decided, that the platforms would look better in a more 3D'ish style, but the same style was used for all the versions aside from the SPECTRUM one. Simply for the sake of appearance, they made the right choice, but perhaps this necessitated the changes in map design, who knows. Anyway, the AMSTRAD version has the most colour and background depth from all four versions, and it's also the only one that appears to be set on Earth, or some Earth-like planet. Consulting the tape inlay of "Roland in the Caves", however, it appears that Roland has traveled in both time and space to a distant planet called Ivorus in a distant future (2464 AD). The appearance of a pterodactyl (instead of a dragon) is just a coincidence, then.

Jokes aside, the AMSTRAD version looks very nice. There is good use of colour: both Roland/Bugaboo and the dragon/pterodactyl are multi-colour sprites, and there actually is a cavern background now with multiple shades of blue; there is slightly more variety in the nature elements than in the previous two versions; and the animations are just as good, if not better than on either SPECTRUM or C64. You can't help but love the look of this version, even if it's so much different.

Booga-Boo in-game screens from the MSX version.


Last, but perhaps not quite the least, the MSX version takes things back to the SPECTRUM style of colouring. All the platform formations have mixed colours, but in a more surrealistic manner than even the SPECTRUM version had. The platforms themselves are as 3D as on the C64 and AMSTRAD versions, but take on a strictly grassy or mossy appearance here. The big flesh-eating plants are back, but look notably different from the C64 equivalents. The dragon looks like a combination of a duck, a swan and a pterodactyl, so it's finally more outerworldish than it ever was before.. if you consider that a good thing. Bugaboo himself has a surprisingly refined look about him, with parts of him being coloured red and the rest of him white, and other body colours are used for taking damage and eventually dying. Overall, it's a very intriguing mixture, and one of the better ones at that. And with that, we reach a rather clear order for this section.

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


FRED

Although Bugaboo is a fairly simple game, and offers only a single cavern to explore in each version, compared to that, Fred's graphical offerings are even less complex and varied. But you have to remember, these sorts of maze games were designed to boast of their amount of content, rather the quality of it, and should perhaps be compared to other similar games, like the aforementioned Tom from Udo Gertz.

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


As you by now have become to know, Fred was also released for the TI-99/4A, but since it was an unauthorized conversion by Saurussoft, we shall take a look at that version last. The three official versions start off with a mostly unceremonious title screen, and the C64 version features a mid-loading instructions section before you get to the actual game, which is not shown here because apart from the Fred logo you see above, it doesn't feature anything but basic text. Not only does the C64 title screen show a huge Fred drawing, but it also shows the top 3 scores for the day in the form of three massive gravestones. For the SPECTRUM version, they decided to make a separate screen for it, which is shown in turns with the title screen, and the AMSTRAD version only has one high score entry, with no possibility to enter your name, and there are no actual graphics in the title screen at all.

In-game screenshots from the ZX Spectrum version.
Once you start the game, bulk of the screen is occupied by the action screen, which is seemingly large. By "seemingly", I mean that it only takes a lot of space on the screen, but in truth, you can't see all that much from the maze, because the graphics are so big that you can only see two blocks from you up and down, and two and a half blocks left and right. In the AMSTRAD version, it's closer to three blocks horizontally, but not quite, and in the C64 version, it's two blocks horizontally and one and a half blocks vertically.

A smaller part of the screen is taken by the info panel, which in the SPECTRUM version includes the score displays for your current score and the highest score so far; your energy/power meter, a map display in case you find one, and a smaller slot for bullet, stage and level (height) indicators. The C64 version shows, in top-to-bottom order: the game title logo, the highest score, the life indicator, indicators for the found items (gun, bomb, a bottle marked with 'S' and the number of bullets you have), and your current score in red, so it's a bit difficult to notice. The AMSTRAD version has the info panel at the bottom of the screen, and it has a more minimalistic approach, as every item is indicated with an abbreviation: SC = score, L = level (height), B = bullets, S = stage and STR = strength. Essentially, you don't need to look further than the info panel to see how different all the versions are.

In-game screenshots from the Commodore 64 version.


For a game that takes place inside what could be a pyramid or other structure that would inhabit ghosts, mummies and skeletons among other, smaller creatures, it's understandable that the graphics are fairly simplistic and colourfully challenged, especially for a game from 1983. The area you walk around in is, with no exceptions, black in background. The blocks that surround the darkness, effectively compiling the maze, are either grey (C64), bluish grey (CPC) or cyan (SPE), and there are only a few kinds of textures for the blocks. I guess the size of the graphics and the size of the maze was more important than making the game more interesting to look at.

Of course, the SPECTRUM version is made from monochrome elements, so in the rare case of collisions, the other sprite will be hidden into the background. The C64 version uses hi-res sprites for all the pickable objects, but Fred and the bigger enemies are made from lo-res multicolour sprites, so anything black in the sprites is actually invisible, and you can see the ropes and, in the case of the ghosts, stone blocks behind the sprites. Additionally, you get an explosion effect for detonating the bombs, and a grated blockage instead of just an opening at the top of the structure. The AMSTRAD version is the most colourful one of the official lot, and it uses no hi-res sprites at all. While it looks rather nice in screenshots, there's the infernal flickering caused by the choppy scrolling, and dealing with the sprite priorities doesn't work with a similar logic to either the C64 version or the SPECTRUM version: the ropes will remain in sight when a moving object occupies the same space, but the ghosts are surrounded by a black square when passing through walls.

In-game screenshots from the Amstrad CPC version.


The final point I need to make before moving on to the unofficial bit, concerns all the extra graphics not included in the interactive part of Fred. The SPECTRUM and C64 versions have an additional picture of Fred in a new pose after you have exited a level: he has taken his hat off and he appears to dry some sweat off his brow. As expected, the C64 version has a colourful Fred, while the SPECTRUM Fred is monochrome. The AMSTRAD version doesn't have this picture featured, and you only get a bunch of text after completing a level. Finally, the C64 version has a unique level selection screen, which shows all the pickable objects and yellow versions of all three main enemies. Although it's nothing properly new, it's still unique and worth making an observation on.

From the official versions, the C64 version gives us a much more interesting environment to look at than the other two. The SPECTRUM version is less annoying to look at than the AMSTRAD version, but it's certainly not much better. If there's a flicker-fixed version available for the AMSTRAD, do let me know.

Screenshots from the TI-99/4A "Freddy" version.


Now, Saurussoft's rendition of "Freddy" looks very much like I would have expected the game would look on an MSX. It's not quite as monochrome as the SPECTRUM version, and there are more details everywhere, but there are some things here that just don't click. For example, Fred(dy) looks somewhat closer to the Italian animated character, la Linea, and at least to my eyes, there was some severe inconsistency in detailing and colouring various things. I also found it a bit tasteless to find Texas Instruments computers lying around within the otherwise archaeologically oriented setting. However, all things considered, it could have been lot worse, and to some extent, I enjoy the overall appearance of the TI-99 version more than the SPECTRUM version.

1. COMMODORE 64
2. TI-99/4A
3. ZX SPECTRUM
4. AMSTRAD CPC

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SOUNDS


Somehow, because both Bugaboo and Fred are thematically so strong, you would expect to hear at least some thematically correct or stereotypical music in each game. Maybe some random Egyptian-style music in Fred and... I don't know, maybe "La Cucaracha" or "The Spanish Flea" in Bugaboo? Let's see.


BUGABOO THE FLEA

I'm a bit sorry to say this, but the SPECTRUM original doesn't have any music, and the sound effects are mostly just random-sounding beeps, blirps and different sorts of fart noises. Of course it's just what the old Speccy games sound like, but it's all still a bit unfitting and too weird even compared the graphics. Frankly, it all sounds a bit rushed, which it probably was - after all, the SPECTRUM version was written in two months after the original ZX81 version got back from Investronica.

In the C64 version, the opening sequence only has some different forms of noise for the approaching planet, and I'm not sure it's any better to the alarm noises played by the SPECTRUM version. Once you start the game, though, you have a theme tune... which, after a few minutes, makes you wish it didn't have one. Not that it's all that badly made - it's just irritatingly cheerful and slightly dissonant in places, and doesn't fit the game's atmosphere too well. The sound effects are not even as weird as they are in the SPECTRUM version, but are thankfully less intrusive.

But then - lo and behold! - the AMSTRAD version gives us nothing more and nothing less than a rendition of "La Cucaracha" in the title screen. An obvious choice, perhaps, but at least it's surprisingly funky, and has a couple of funnily unfitting harmonies in the melody. Still, the best one so far. Happily, the sound effects aren't too horrible either - just what's necessary, and what you get is surprisingly pleasant.

Finally, the MSX version takes us back to no-music land. At least the sound effects are pleasant enough: you get a unique "tap" sound for landing a jump, two distinctly different death noises, and when a flesh-eating plant snaps around on its own volition, a faint version of the same random tweedling you hear when the plant eats you is played. Clever.

While I'm all for randomness in certain things, sometimes it can be too much. The SPECTRUM version goes a bit overboard with its sound effects in that sense. In contrast, the MSX version has a good balance of randomness and logical sound effects, and in that sense, it's as good as the C64 version with arguably memorable music, but underwhelming sound effects. The AMSTRAD version is clearly the cream of the crop as much in sounds as it is in graphics.

1. AMSTRAD CPC
2. COMMODORE 64 / MSX
3. ZX SPECTRUM


FRED

Fred's SPECTRUM version almost manages to follow the tradition of non-musical presentation that Bugaboo exhibited. The only bit of music you will hear is played when you complete a stage, and even then it's something single-channeled, simple and short, and reminds me of a children's song, but I can't say which one. On a happier note, the sound effects are more fitting for their occasions: walking has a fittingly timed tap-tap sound, climbing ropes has a faster tick-tock sound, jumping has a short boing, picking up treasure and other items plays a weird nasal "dweep" sound, etc.

Both the C64 and AMSTRAD versions have slightly differing renditions of the Ballad of High Noon as the theme tune. Some of you might know it better as "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darlin'", originally written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington. The C64 rendition is perhaps a bit more correctly written, so that's a point in that direction. But you also get the same tune playing while you play, and it gets in the way of the sound effects, of which there are not too many, and they get rudely stomped on by the ever-present music. The CPC version at least gives way for the sound effects, as the only place you hear the theme tune is in the title screen. Happily, also the sound effects can be considered as an upgraded set from the SPECTRUM version, so it's definitely high on the list here. Completing a level on the C64 gives a short ditty that plays a B major chord arpeggio and then the B major scale backwards from F#, and the CPC version uses a random blurpy noise effect to go along with the mish-mash of colours going on in the borders; don't know which one's better than the other, so on the basis of having no music during the game, I give the AMSTRAD version the higher spot.

Curiously, the title music for the TI-99/4A Freddy game is a nice rendition of "El Condor Pasa", and even more curiously, you get to hear a portion of "Promenade" from Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition as the level complete tune. All the sound effects and instruments used for the tunes are soft and unintrusive, so it's a surprisingly pleasant experience overall... if not particularly thematically correct. So, this is how I would put these four in an order:

1. AMSTRAD CPC
2. TI-99/4A
3. COMMODORE 64
4. ZX SPECTRUM

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OVERALL


Heh... overall, I have a gut feeling the purely mathematical scores aren't going to please anyone, least of all myself. The "problem", if you want to call it as such, is that most versions of both games are so vastly different to play, their different kinds of graphics appeal to different kinds of players etc., that it's just plain stupid to even try to put them in an alleged truthful order of quality. But adding all the given scores up will end up like this:

BUGABOO THE FLEA

1. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 1, Graphics 4, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 8
2. MSX: Playability 1, Graphics 3, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 6
3. COMMODORE 64: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 5
4. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 3


...which might just as well be true for some people, but since playability is really the only thing that matters, and everything else is a matter of taste, every version is really worth the same in this case. And before any of you starts complaining about the given scores again, let me remind you, that the scores for each section is a number based on their placings in each category, not necessarily the quality of anything in the context of time, genre or machine architecture. Now, as for the other game...

FRED

1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 2, Graphics 4, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 8
1. TI-99/4A: Playability 2, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 8
2. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 6
3. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 5


...the AMSTRAD version is, for the most part, the most awkward one of the lot. Still, all four versions have their own strengths and weaknesses, and I cannot honestly recommend any version over another. Try them out for yourselves and decide which one you like the most.

Of these two games, Bugaboo is definitely the cuter one, and will raise interest in new retro enthusiasts more likely than Fred. However, I'd say Fred is the more playable one on the long run, on all formats, at least when it comes to responsive and accurate controls. Having only two buttons to control with should attract the current generation of young gamers towards Bugaboo, but in case you don't have the game or even a proper computer at hand, introducing your offspring to such an old game could be easier than you might think.

Bugaboo was blessed with no less than four retro remakes, two of which was made by Paco Suárez himself: Punq the Flea in 2003 for Windows, and QQ#2 "The Flea" in 2011 for Windows, MacOS, Linux and Android OS. The two other remakes that I found were by Paul Robson from 2001 and another one by Simon Czentnár from 2007. I guess the most obvious recommendation for anyone, particularly the new generation, would be the mobile Android version of QQ#2, but if you live in the United States, Google Play store apparently sells it under the name "The Flea, Bird", which I agree with Hardcore Gaming 101, is inexplicable.

Fred was also blessed with at least two remakes, if not more. The two I could find with a quick googling were by Fozman from 2002 and another from Sarasoft, released a year after. Both are more or less based on the Spectrum version, and both were made for Windows PC's. Please feel free to drop a line in the comments section below, if you know of any more remakes of either Bugaboo or Fred!

As if that weren't enough, both Bugaboo and Fred got sequels, titled Poogaboo and Sir Fred, respectively. Poogaboo was more of the same as Bugaboo, but with 7 years of experience added to all aspects of the original game... although perhaps it was still regarded as too little, too late. It was published through Opera Soft in 1991 for the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC and MSX. Likewise was Fred's sequel, Sir Fred, released for the three machines, but this one was published by Made in Spain in 1986 for the Spanish market, and by Mikro-Gen for the rest of Europe. Unlike the original Fred, the sequel was made into a flip-screen platformer, and by the general opinion, seems to be the more popular game of the two. Now, it's time to get strictly back onto the Amstrad, and take a look at...

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ROLAND'S FURTHER ADVENTURES


It would make no sense to even attempt to use any of the other Roland games in other comparisons, because most of them were only inspired by well-established game concepts. All eight Roland games were released in 1984, which would partly explain this phenomenon, and perhaps because of this policy of "too much, too soon", the series was brought to its end before the year was over. Happily, aside from Bugaboo and Fred, there were a couple of almost original gems included in the series.

All the cover art from Amsoft's Roland games series. You can't make this stuff up.

Screenshot from Roland in Time.
Reportedly, the first game in the series was Roland in the Caves, so we start with number two: Roland in Time. This one's a Manic Miner variant, in which Roland travels through time in a freely selectable manner, and collects crystals from the given screens before entering the Tardis-like phone booth time machine. In other words, it's a fairly traditional single-screen platformer. It was written by John Line and Daren White, who are also responsible for such Unique Games classics as Doors of Doom and Qabbalah, but another Amsoft classic called Oh Mummy!

Screenshot from Roland in Space.
The third game on the list, Roland in Space, was also written by the White/Line duo, and it takes the same concept into a multi-directionally scrolling environment. This time, you choose your level from a set of planets instead of time zones, and to pay small tribute to the game that inspired these sorts of platformers - that being Manic Miner, of course - the theme tune is a nice rendition of the Blue Danube.

Next up, Roland Ahoy! The game's developer, Computersmith, only ever made one other game for the Amstrad CPC, which was AmsGolf - another title released through Amsoft in 1984. In Roland Ahoy!, our hero has decided to become a pirate, as you might have guessed from the title. The game is played in two sorts of arcade segments, both of which are variants of avoid'em-up. The main hub is the map screen, in which you first need to go to the Powder Quay to get some gunpowder to shoot your way through the barrier holding you off from the Golden Harbour, which holds three golden bars, which you will need to retrieve one by one, and take them to the spider-inhabited Treasure Cove. Although the initial settling into the game's rhythm can be infernally annoying, the gameplay quirks become like a second nature to you, and can even be rather fun. Definitely one of my favourite Roland games.

Screenshots from Roland Ahoy!
We're back into rebranding old ideas with the fifth game in the series, Roland Goes Digging by Gem Software. This is basically just a Space Panic clone, but it's not a bad one, so if you're in a dire need for a Space Panic clone for your Amstrad, this may well be your choice. I can't think of anything else to say about it, but that serves as a good bridge to move on to the next game, Roland on the Run, which is a Frogger-variation by Epicsoft's Said A. Abouelhassan, also familiar from another Amsoft classic, Bridge-It. That's two bridges right there.

Left: Roland Goes Digging. Right: Roland on the Run.
Screenshot from Roland Goes Square Bashing.
Roland on the Ropes is listed by CPC-Power as the seventh in the series, so we skip straight to the last official one: Roland Goes Square Bashing. For Roland's final outing, Amsoft hired Simon Francis from Durell Software, who later became responsible for Amstrad versions of Critical Mass and Death Pit. At first, RGSB looks like a Q*Bert clone, which isn't far off, but instead of roaming enemies, you need to look out for the platforms you have stomped upon fading away as you proceed. Due to the often disorienting graphics, it's not one of the most comfortable Q*Bert variants, but neither is it one of the worst Roland games.

The archive of CPC-Power reveals three other Roland titles, two of which were released as type-ins in the Amstrad Computer User magazine in 1986. Traditionally taking an idea from some other game and putting Roland into its title, Roland's unofficial adventures are called "Roland in the Haunted House", which is a Pac-Man clone, "Roland Takes A Running Jump", another Jet Set Willy clone, both of which are the aforementioned type-ins; and Roland Saved the Pocoro Legends, an odd-looking ball-rolling puzzle game, the release year of which is 2011 according to some sources.

Screenshots from unofficial Roland games, left to right:
Roland Takes a Running Jump, Roland Saved the Pocoro Legends, Roland in the Haunted House.

For any Amstrad fan, games from the Roland series will likely be considered both one of their beloved machine's fondest childhood memories, as well as one of their machine's worst burdens. Whatever you might feel about them, the Roland games are definitely part of Amstrad's legacy, and will be remembered for decades to come.

And on that potentially disturbing note, it's time to end this overblown article. Thank you very much for reading once again, I hope that was worth the wait. Next time, the last Finnish Retro Game Review for the immediate foreseeable future. Until then, gracias y adiós!

4 comments:

  1. Perhaps I can help with the difference in the loading times of the Amsoft versions. All Amsoft games I owned at the time used the CPC's standard firmware routines to read from tape. This method was very reliable but extremely slow. I wonder if there was a policy at Amsoft, perhaps for reliability's sake, that all games must use the standard loader?
    Aside: The standard tape routines are so unnecessarily slow that, if you ran the tape faster by "half-pressing" the tape Play button instead of pressing it all the way down, the games would still load but in about half of the time!

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    1. Hey, thanks for that! The last portion of your comment is particularly interesting, and it makes me wonder - would this "half-pressing" the tape play button to make it go faster be harmful to the tape?

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    2. I guess the tape might stretch over the long term if the player put extra tension on it, but then again we fast-forwarded tapes with no worry so I'm not really sure.

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  2. weren't most of those early CPC releases written in Basic ? Those Amsoft early games were more than often pushed cheaply so the Machine would benefit from a software library on the release. The Brand "Roland" having close to no design continuity, those were cheap clones from classics gameplays of these times. Funnily Roland in Time/space were the only ones with a continuity, and were unofficial adaptations of the Doctor Who franchise : the 6th doctor, with yellow pant, red coat and sometimes white hat... check the pseudo tardis and the intro theme on Roland in time. Loading time was never using the best routines on Tape based CPC, got quite better when you could get Disk based models, modern prods got quite better on the matter.

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