Monday, 16 September 2013

TWOFER #2: Blue Max + Blue Max 2001 (Synapse Software, 1983/1984)

Originally released by Synapse Software for the Atari 800 XE/XL.
Commodore 64 conversions released by Synapse Software.
ZX Spectrum conversion for Blue Max by SynSoft/U.S. Gold in 1984.

Atari 800 originals coded by Bob Polin; Blue Max 2001 sounds by Ihor Wolosenko.

C64 Blue Max: code by Peter Adams, music by Stephen C. Biggs.
C64 Blue Max 2001: code by Bob Polin, music by Ihor Wolosenko.
Spectrum's Blue Max conversion programmer is currently unknown, but was made for U.S. Gold by Ocean Software.



Here's a duo of games that you probably didn't expect too soon to appear here, but for some reason, I have a strange fondness for this twosome. Yes, even Blue Max 2001, even if it is universally thought of as the idiot bastard son of the original Blue Max. I won't be dwelling into my past too much, but I'll say that inexperience has its advantages.

Currently, the Atari versions are rated at Atarimania thus: Blue Max - 8.07/10 from 588 votes (ranked #73 in the top list), and Blue Max 2001 - 4.2/10 from 47 votes. Lemon64 ratings for the C64 versions: Blue Max - 8.3/10 from 211 votes (ranked #57 in the top list), and Blue Max 2001 - 4.9/10 from 39 votes. World Of Spectrum has a rating of 6.22/10 from 25 votes for Blue Max, and... Blue Max 2001 was not converted for the Spectrum. So it's gonna be a bit unbalanced, but this is not just a comparison between the different versions - we're gonna compare the two games and see why the sequel is as disapproved as greatly as it is.



Blue Max is a diagonally moving isometric 3D shoot'em up, placed in the first World War. You step into the boots of Max Chatsworth, known by your mates as "The Blue Max", whose mission is to destroy three specially marked targets within the area. You have only one aircraft, a limited amount of fuel and bombs, and a clunky joystick in your sweaty hands.

Dramatics aside, for a game from 1983, there's a surprising amount of realism involved in handling the biplane. You can even choose to play with more piloty controls, and have gravity affect your plane. I'll tell you more about the specifics later, but it's a big step ahead from Zaxxon, the game that established this sub-genre of shooters.

In Blue Max 2001, you play as Max Chatsworth IX, a direct descendant of the earlier Blue Max, which could be considered rather convenient. Because it's the year 2001, of course you'll be flying in spacecraft over Earthbase Gamma IV, apparently built on a Mars-like planet. Some alien race has decided to attack us and we need to protect ourselves - and of course everyone's relying on your masterful capabilities. And I bet we all remember how that turned out...

This game was made a year later, but I can't honestly say if it shows anywhere other than the copyright. The big difference is the direction of movement. It's still diagonal, but it's mirrored from the usual Zaxxon style, so us non-Brits should feel at home, right? Well, of course not, but because I played BM2001 as much back then as I did the original, I find it just as easy to play. Then again, I never was all that good in either of them.

I'm not sure if this specific sub-genre is still alive in anyway. The Japanese indie gamers at least seem to be quite fond of the old-school vertical bullet hell shooters, so I can't imagine why this style shouldn't be. It's probably my favourite type of old shoot'em ups, because they're so rare and different to play. Having all those pseudo- simulation type options should make the Blue Max games still worth a few tries.



Personally, I own the SynSoft tapes for C64 and Spectrum, and a... erhm... backup of the original disk for the C64, because the original owner's disk didn't work so he apparently got a copy from U.S.  Gold. However it got made, it's still a backup. But still, at least those loading times are pretty reliable.

The tape version on the Atari 800 I've seen in action some time ago, so I know it is actually as slow as the emulated tape version seems. The Atari disk versions I'm not so sure about, because I haven't witnessed the Atari disk loading process on a real machine, and couldn't find a proper disk image for Blue Max. The ATX's loading without fast disk access have been recorded for Blue Max 2001, and it feels convincing enough for me.


A800 ROM: no loading time
A800 TAPE: SynSoft version - 6 minutes 28 seconds
A800 DISK: n/a
C64 TAPE: Drean version - 2 minutes 51 seconds
                 SynSoft version - 2 minutes 10 seconds
C64 DISK: Synapse version - 2 minutes 21 seconds
                 SynSoft version - 1 minute 6 seconds
SPE TAPE: 3 minutes 14 seconds


A800 DISK: 36 seconds (?)
A800 TAPE: 8 minutes 8 seconds
C64 DISK: 2 minutes 6 seconds
C64 TAPE: 2 minutes 13 seconds

So, the Atari tape versions are a slow as expected, no surprises there. What is pretty surprising, is that this being in 1984, when the C64 and Spectrum tape versions were released, the C64 tape loaded noticably faster than the Spectrum tape. As far as I'm aware, the Spectrum users had had the upper hand in their tape loader speeds, but this time the C64 users were rejoicing this achievement with Novaload. Not that it's all that much when the console gamers were plug'n'playing. Then again, they didn't have this particular game.

Far left: C64 disk loaders; Middle left: C64 tape loaders.
Right: ZX Spectrum loading screen.

However, the Spectrum version is the only one that has a proper loading screen, made by F. David Thorpe. On the C64, you get two versions of the classic U.S. Gold loader, which do have three different tunes back-to-back, but the screen is the U.S. flag in character graphics in Blue Max, and the sequel has this cheap screen that doesn't look like much of anything. Even the U.S. Gold text looks more like U.S. GOLO. The Atari tape loaders are the worst. In Blue Max, you'll only get a black screen with red BLUE MAX text and a block loading indicator with 6 minutes of constant beeping, with only fractions of a second's pause when the loading block changes. Thankfully, in Blue Max 2001, you only get some beeping at the very beginning of the loader for less than a minute, and then it changes to a screen with static text on top and bottom, and an advertisement scroller in the middle. Much better than the predecessor, but it goes on for one and a half minutes longer. All the disk loaders seem to have a similar approach: just plain text indicating the game is loading, and the disk will make pauses during the loading.

Atari 800 loading screens: left and right ones from tape versions, middle one from disk.

In the end, I'd call it a tie between C64 and Spectrum, because the Spectrum has a proper loading
screen, and the C64 has more pleasing sounds for loading and it's the fastest on tape, but I won't be
including the loaders in the final score.



As mentioned earlier, both games play in a diagonal 3D style, only BM2001 mirrors the Zaxxon style. It can be annoying to some, but when you get used to it, it's not much different from the normal. Keep in mind that some people even feel the regular Zaxxon style to be troublesome.

The first big difference when you get to play is the takeoff. Taking off in a WW1 biplane requires 100 mph before you can lift off, but you can lift a spacecraft straight up without any speed at all. The difficulty really is getting the spacecraft to move ahead, but this is one of those games where you could actually learn something by reading the manual. It's certainly not as intuitive as the first game, but even by fiddling around in the spacecraft, you can get the game going.

In the original Blue Max, your mission was only to bomb some certain marked targets before you could move on to the next level. In Blue Max 2001, you have two special kinds of targets, which you will need to recognize by yourself and destroy them in the chosen method, set up from the options screen. The only thing that I can think of that will be able to ruin your experience completely, is the weird dual-rectangular spacecraft that usually hovers around the friendly filling stations, that will shoot you when you're the least able to return fire. Of course, you will need to learn to anticipate these attacks and make counter-attacks before they can hit you.

In both games, your craft will take damage from enemy fire, and you can have four damage indicators on at maximum, before taking the final shot: F = fuel leak, B = bomb gear damaged, M = decreased maneuverability and G = guns damaged. Also, from certain types of attack, you will die instantly. You can fill up your craft with fuel and bombs at friendly runways, and repair any damage if necessary.

The game manuals will tell you more about the colour indicators and everything else, but at this point, I shall move on to compare the playability between different versions of the two games.


The original on the ATARI plays remarkably slick. The scrolling is fast, and your plane handles like a dream. The only problem here is that your plane shoots more right diagonally than forwards. Both the conversions have this feature more comfortable. I'm not enlightened enough on the subject of WW1 air fighting to say that the C64 and Spectrum feel more realistic, so I really can't say what Bob Polin was thinking here. All the damage affects your plane exactly the amount to make you worry, but not make it too bothersome. Landing the plane has to be performed a bit more carefully than on the conversions, but it's not too much trouble. It just makes the game feel more realistic, as opposed to your plane being handled by Launchpad McQuack. Fixing the damage and filling up your plane is quick enough to not make you fear too much of the enemy planes bomb you to pieces while landed. All in all, it's a very enjoyable playing experience, if a bit more difficult than the conversions.

While the C64 version scrolls and handles as nicely as the original, the biggest problem is that the flashing targets come at such random times, and they're so unpredictable that it'll take you half a second to notice that it's already out of the screen. So you REALLY have to be zig-zagging the screen like a maniac so you have at least some possibilities of hitting the required targets. Otherwise, there's nothing to complain about - everything works as smoothly as in the original, and some things are even made a bit easier, as I already mentioned.

The SPECTRUM version is the slowest of the three, but it's not unplayable. In fact, it's surprisingly good for a machine that doesn't normally handle scrolling games all that well. Then again, Spectrum is supposed to have better processing power for 3D action than the C64, so where did that go? Maybe if someone who knew the Spectrum's insides better, could've made it work better, but this is what we have. The biggest difference to the original is the speed of filling up your plane and fixing the damage. It's really as slow as a snail on a tortoise, and it's a real pain in the backside, because your fuel consumption is a lot quicker than in the original, so you HAVE to stop at every runway. I used to like this game quite a bit on the Spectrum, but because of my hard core comparing action, I'm beginning to see the reason for the relatively low score at WoS...

Finally, some hardcore nitpicking. In the Atari and C64 versions, your plane starts off from the first runway automatically. Later on in the other friendly runways ahead, you're required to push forwards on the joystick in the Atari version, but the C64 continues to start off automatically. I'm not sure if it's a good thing or not, but it's just a little detail. The Spectrum has it all a bit different: to start taxiing, you have to push the fire button, even at the very beginning. It's not much, but it's one of those little things that might hinder your enjoyment if you're trying these games (or their other versions) for the first time.

The results are, naturally, as follows:

1. Atari 800
2. C64
3. Spectrum


Well, the much less prefered Blue Max 2001 does play a bit differently. Getting over the fact that it scrolls in a mirrored diagonal fashion to the predecessor, your first difficulty comes in the fact that you're not maneuvering a biplane anymore - it's a hovering spacecraft. You can't taxi it out of the runway like you did with the biplane, you just lift it off of the platform by pushing the joystick up. To make the screen move forwards, you must move the joystick diagonally up-left until the screen starts to move by itself. Also, you can stop the screen from moving by moving the joystick down-right until you reach the bottom. Up and down only change your altitude; diagonals, left and right move your spacecraft around the screen. Also, you are now able to shoot in seven directions, because shooting down only releases the bombs, but keep in mind that moving up and down also changes your altitude. Apart from the maneuverability issue and fulfilling the objectives as mentioned earlier, the sequel plays close enough to the original game.

So, which one plays the better? They both play pretty much the same, largely because the same team was behind both versions, so they could get the game to work as closely as possible to each platform. However, the Atari version is definitely by default a bit harder. And not for the better, because the difficulty comes in your enemies hovering over you in a more frantic manner at the safe ports, so it's more of an artificially made difficulty increase. Perhaps this was the only thing Bob Polin thought to alter when programming the Commodore version, but that's the only point in comparing the two,  what I could find that would have a decisive importance for the win.

1. C64
2. Atari 800




Having grown up with the Spectrum and C64 versions, the ATARI version looks a bit more far off, which isn't really a bad thing - gives you a bit more flying space. Your plane is white, enemy planes are sort of pink, the ground is greenish, trees and tanks are green and black, the buildings are greyish, the river looks a bit greyish blue, the ships grey and black, bridges and roads are grey and black... and the best of all: when you get closer to the enemy area, all the buildings gradually become more and more pink, as is the colour of their airplanes. So it's a very natural colour scheme on the Atari version, and the scrolling is just perfect. The only thing that bothers me is still only a slight cosmetic thing: the bullets look like everyone's shooting plates or something, and the explosions look weird and blocky.

Blue Max screens on the Atari 800.

On the C64, the graphics are a bit hit-and-miss. The intro screen looks mostly made of basic character graphics, except for the small text and the animated plane, but it's the only version with a real intro. In the game, you can see some evidence to the claim that everything on the C64 looks brown. Apart from the river being blue, runways being gray, buildings being mostly oddly black and blue, your plane black and white and enemy planes black and yellow, everything else seems to be quite brown. Trees, bridges, roads, tanks, cars (although they appear in different colours as well), hangars, boats... even the explosions look a bit brownish, even though they are red. Apart from the explosions being a bit messy in the wrong way, everything looks good enough to recognize everything enough to know what you're shooting or bombing without too much thought. The scrolling is good enough, so there's not that much to complain about, really.

Blue Max screens on the Commodore 64.

On the SPECTRUM, however, it's not all that much better. Your plane is black, enemy planes are  black, all the trees and tanks are black. All the roads and buildings are red, except for the hangar, which is blue, probably because you're Blue Max. Oh, sorry - yours and enemy planes turn green  when you're flying over the blue river. And the boats are yellow somehow. Not that the colours would matter all that much, but when the scrolling isn't quite as good as on the Atari and Commodore, your noticing the bullets flying from below and the enemy planes is less certain.

Blue Max screens on the ZX Spectrum.

In a game that's based at least in some part in reality, one would wish for the game to look as close as possible to reality. This being 1983, you couldn't expect much, but Atari hit it the closest with the rather natural colour scheme. The C64's scrolling speed is perhaps the best suited to my playing, but I have to say the Atari still wins the whole pot this time.

1. Atari 800
2. C64
3. Spectrum


Here, the ground is brown and filled with small black craters, and that applies to both versions. I guess that's why the Spectrum version never came to exist: it doesn't have brown in its palette. Also something that's not available in either version: a proper intro screen.

Blue Max 2001 screens on the Atari 800.

The ATARI version's spacecraft is light blue and has black holes all around it, and when you're  moving, the whole ship flashes three shades of blue, and some black dots circle around the chassis. There's definitely a spacey sort of feel there. All your enemies are of different unnaturally bright colour, but have no real solid spaceshippy feel to them, they're just floating sprite graphics. Everything else feels a bit dark and hard to see with the contrast, but I'm not sure whether that was the intention or just a side-effect of playing on Atari.

Blue Max 2001 screens on the Commodore 64.

On the COMMODORE, your ship is also light blue but it also has sparkling lights set circularly around the center of the spacecraft, so it's a more disco-ey styling. Every potential target on the ground is mostly pink, grey and black, and the enemy spacecrafts are black and grey. At least there's slightly better explosion graphics to make you feel that at least something's better. Well, I do like my very disco spaceship, and the light green safe port stations (Atari has them grey), but mostly the planet feels very discouraging.

Everything is as blocky on both computers, but Atari has a bit flashier explosions and other effects.
I'm still going to lean towards the Commodore version, because the colours are in a better balance.

1. C64
2. Atari 800




Normally, a shooting game of this age would have either a normal array of sound effects for shooting, explosions and some bonuses, or a nice war-themed soundtrack, and that would be enough. Not in  this case. Although, that's exactly what you get on the SPECTRUM: just shooting and exploding effects, nothing more, and even that's done with the bips, bops and farts you'd expect from the Speccy beeper.

The game's theme tune is none other than "Rule Britannia", which shouldn't really surprise anyone, although Synapse Software was an American game development corporation. One would suspect that the British guy who converted it, would've somehow tried to fill the tune in to match the British computer and other overall British theme in the whole thing, but no. Maybe he just couldn't fit it in because of the massive map and the system requirements for the 3D scrolling? That's just pathetic. And I'm a Brit fan, so this doesn't bode well at all. Funny how that has escaped me so far.

Trying to make note of every sound included in the original ATARI version, here's what I've found so far: "Rule Britannia" is played in a good and proper tempo with that pomp that comes with the territory of military music, and all in three simultaneous voices, which could be described as bad imitations of a bassoon, a trumpet and a trombone. You have a droning motor sound from your plane, and after you lift off, you'll instantly get a warning beep thing about something, which is nice, because you'd rather be informed of any danger in any way possible than just crash and think, "hmm, blimey, what happened there?"... There's a different warning beep for everything, and it helps you recognize the looming dangers, when the colour coded screen flashings and the letter markings aren't clear enough. Also, when different things explode, they have a different kind of exploding sound. Even dropping a bomb in water has a nice splash. It's just a very thorough soundscape to experience, and increases the enjoyment of the game a surprisingly huge amount.

"Rule Britannia" on the C64 doesn't sound quite as pompous as on the Atari, but at least it's there. It sounds more like being played on an English horn, a clarinet and maybe a kazoo... which I'm not really sure fits the tune. The sound effects consist of a strange low humming of your plane motor, soft explosions (of which there are two types: long and short), a short warning signal beep, your machine gun fire and dropping the bomb. It's not nearly as complete as the sound library in the Atari version, but it sure beats the Spectrum version. The only thing that is actually better than on the Atari is the motor sound, which changes pitch depending on your altitude.

In case it wasn't clear already, here's the results:

1. Atari 800
2. C64
3. Spectrum


Taking the C64 version first under inspection, the first thing we hear when the game is loaded is the theme song made by Ihor Wolosenko, which is a nice spacey arpeggiated tune based on the natural B minor scale, and it goes on for a minute and 18 seconds before the demo game hits in.

The sound effects we hear in the game are beeps when fixing your spacecraft, a spacey firing sound, an explosion sound and a zap sound created by the tesla weapon or whatever it is that creates the upwards lightning thing. And that's all I could find, so it's a relatively quiet game.

Now with the ATARI, the theme tune is the same, except it sounds worse, because some of the notes are not quite in tune with the scale, and it's in C minor.

Like in the previous game, the Atari version has more sound effects. First of all, your spacecraft makes a noise when it hovers, but the enemy spacecrafts also make the same sound, only more  quietly. Then, you get at least three different types of warning sounds, some of which I'm unable to describe with words. The firing and exploding sounds are quite similar to the C64.

So there you have it. If you're only loading up Blue Max 2001 to listen to the intro music, go for the C64 version, but depending on whether you want to have more or less noise during the game, your options are to go for the C64 for the more quiet one and the Atari for the noisier version. My preferences are in this case, much like they were in the predecessor:

1. Atari 800
2. C64



It's all about learning and evolving. I can't honestly say that Blue Max 2001 is a worse game than the original Blue Max because it's more difficult. People seem to love games like Operation Flashpoint and IL-2 Sturmovik, because they're realistic and difficult as hell, but I don't. Then there's the other end of it with games like Alan Wake, which isn't too realistic really, and people seem to like it. I would give it 3 out of 10 because the difficulty level is artifical from the go, and made only worse by the horrible choices of camera angles, but that's probably because I was raised on good First Person Shooters, where you are placed in the eyes of the character, not two feet diagonally behind his head. If you can't see what's behind you, it's because you don't have eyes. You're only supposed to hear  what you can't see. The story in Alan Wake was good enough to keep me going at it until it was finished. Argh, even talking about that game just makes my blood boil.

Anyway, back to the main issue here. The Blue Max games shouldn't be compared to anything else than themselves, because they're unique, and so they should be learned individually. Even if you don't like one or the other, you should at least be able to say you've tried them both enough to say so. If you haven't tried out either of them, maybe you should try out Blue Max 2001 and see how Blue Max  feels afterwards. Blue Max maybe my favourite of the two as much as anybody else's, but Blue Max 2001 doesn't fall all that much behind in my book.

When it comes to the different versions, here's the final mathematical results, which shouldn't  surprise anyone at this point:

1. Atari 800: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 9
2. C64: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 6
3. Spectrum: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 3

1. C64: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 5
2. Atari 800: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 4

And remember kids: just because it looks better on paper, doesn't mean it's better for you. ;-)

Thanks for reading. I hope you at least learned something if not enjoyed it. :-P
See you next time with another big one, when I have time for it! :-D
Suggestions and corrections are welcome as always.

1 comment:

  1. Slightly updated due to information given by fog at WoS. Thanks mate.