Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Park Patrol (Activision, 1984)

Written by Tony Ngo for the Commodore 64, with music by Russell Lieblich. Title screen for the Firebird re-release in 1986 by Paul Docherty.

Converted by Andrew Rogers for the Amstrad CPC in 1986, and for the ZX Spectrum in 1987 - both conversions released through Firebird.



Finishing off January 2014, I shall present you another quick comparison from Bob's suggestions (if I recall correctly), while I'm working on another considerably bigger comparison project. Park Patrol is a quirky little title from the quirky mind of Tony Ngo, who never really made it any bigger than this in the game developing scene, and who only has two other known games for his name listed at Moby Games: Bandits (1982) and Squish 'Em (1983), both from Sirius Software.

Park Patrol was only ever released for our three main contestants: originally for the Commodore 64, and later on for the Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum. At the time of beginning the writing of this blog entry, the original version has scored a 7.6 from 86 votes at Lemon64, while the World of Spectrum voters have given their version a modest 4.4 with 10 votes. CPC Game Reviews has a 7 out of 10 given for the game.



In Park Patrol, you play as a park ranger of either gender (an unusual feature at the time), whose mission is to keep an eye on swimmers in distress, clean up Papatoetoe Park from litter and keep the park wildlife in line. The area is full of hazards such as swamps, snakes, ants and nasty swimmers who will sink your raft. Also, logs floating all over the river can be dangerous if you bump straight into them, but you can work some bonus points by rolling on the logs.

The game is an action-arcade game with a tilted top-down view to give a slight illusion of 3D environment, and a scrolling area that loops at a certain point. The tilted top-down view comes in handy, as you will have to jump over some obstacles and hazards, plus entering and jumping off from a dinghy. The quicker you manage to collect the required amount of litter, the more bonus points you will get, and build up your chances of acquiring extra lives. Of course, as in so many other games of its time, your main focus is in collecting points for the highest score.

Uncommonly to many games of the time - particularly on the C64, Park Patrol has an unusually large options set. First and the least interestingly of all, you have a two-player option in the game, but it's played in turns. In the actual options menu, you can change the number of occurring swimmers, snakes, swamps, turtles and ants by each level, along with the gender of each ranger - which can be both boys or both girls, or each different. Strangely enough, you can save the options menu to disk, and load one as well, but you can't save the highscores.

As an alternative for Pac-Man or Defender as a time-killer, this certainly offers some interesting and varying enough gameplay. It's not what you would call a masterpiece as such, but definitely one of Activision's early high points, and one of the rare ones in their catalogue that I like to come back to every once in a while, at least on the C64. I have never really bothered to take a good look at the two other versions available, so I might as well do so now, for the sake of educating myself and perhaps some of my readers on the go.



Although the original Park Patrol was released on a floppy disk, and later even had an Australian cartridge release through Home Entertainment Suppliers, this comparison will only concentrate on the tape releases. I will, however, point out the loading time of the original disk version so some of you can feel lucky to own one.

C64 disk, Activision: 1 minute 26 seconds
C64 tape, Beau-Jolly's Big Box: 2 minutes 27 seconds
C64 tape, Firebird: 5 minutes 11 seconds
SPE tape: 6 minutes 56 seconds
CPC tape: 5 minutes 46 seconds

Strange, that the Amstrad tape would be that much faster than the Spectrum tape, which usually would be up there battling from the top spot of the fastest tape version around. Clearly, not so this time. However you look at this list, the Commodore wins even with its slowest version. Naturally, all the Firebird releases use the Bleepload system, which is insanely slow, but Firebird's C64 release is the only one to include an actual loader picture.

Loading screens, left to right:
Commodore 64 Activision disk, Commodore 64 Firebird tape, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum



If we take a look at the options first before comparing the playability of the game itself, we will already find some great differences in the original versus the two conversions. First of all, there is no two-player mode in either Spectrum or Amstrad. Secondly, you cannot save or load your settings in either Spectrum or Amstrad. Third one goes for the Spectrum version only: you only seem to be able to use the keyboard as your controller. And finally, in the menu screen, the C64 version will let you move your cursor in four directions, while the conversions will only let you move left and right, like in some sort of bad Nintendo game.

As we proceed into the game, straight away we will notice an important factor affecting the playability - parallax scrolling. Although the scrolling happens only on two levels, this causes such a huge strain on the Spectrum and Amstrad's hardware, that the framerate drops to nearly half of what it is on the C64. Not that this effect isn't possible on both hardwares, of course it is... the tricks were just not yet known to programmers. The important bit here is, that there is a lot of things going on in both areas that have their own speed of scrolling. The water area has swimmers, snakes, logs, you on a dinghy, floating trash, occasionally floating turtles and snake repellent shots. The land area, in turn, has some plants, more trash laying about, more turtles, occasional swampy bits and even some enormously big ants. Naturally, for the two conversions, Andrew Rogers has had to minimize the rate of appearance of each group of things to make the game run as smoothly as possible.

Park Patrol's controls are deviously simplistic: you only need to use the amount of controls you have on a single-button joystick. You do, however, need to take the game's own laws of physics into consideration. When you jump, your jump distance will always be the same, which is quite a long way. In mid-air, you can (and most of the time, are required to) steer your flight into any direction, and change it as often as you have time for it. The jump physics on the Spectrum and Amstrad versions are a bit different, specifically in that you are unable to stop your jump's flight-path by quickly tapping in the opposite direction as it happens on the C64, because you will only change your direction. The fire button also acts as an actual firing button, but only when you are in your dinghy. To throw snake repellent into the water, first you need stop moving. Picking up trash, floating turtles and drowning swimmers is done by walking or floating over them. You need to be careful with the swimmers and the turtles, though, because the turtles can jump back on the land while you are trying to pick them up, and take you down as you go, and the swimmers can be deceptive. This is another bit where the original differs from the two conversions, although I cannot be sure whether this was an overlooked bug or a way to make the slower versions slightly easier: if you take too much time with trying to rescue the sinking swimmer, you will die along with the swimmer on the C64, but if the swimmer ceases to need help after a while on either one of the conversions, you will carry on as you were.

Finally, as you get past the five preset levels, you will either continue on with the same five levels, starting from the beginning (Spectrum and Amstrad) or continue with the same amount of enemies and other hazards with the level numbers getting higher and higher, trash objects changing accordingly as they loop through the three different graphics, music looping back from the first one after the fifth level... all this until you either die of boredom or your screen dies of the endless hours of gameplay (C64).

Whether you happen to be good at this game or not has a similar effect on the replay value of this game. You either get frustated at it or bored, but playing it on a different hardware for a change might inspire some new energy into playing it. There is, however, a clear order of class here. Due to the Spectrum version having no option for joystick, it falls last; otherwise, it's as playable as the Amstrad version. For the original, there is no contest at all.




Sometimes I do think about why did I choose to write a comparison of a game that is so clearly very much superior on one machine? This is one of those times, but since I happen to be a bit late with the realization, I shall continue on with this one just to make a point, which some of you already might be aware of.
Titles and menu screens, top to bottom:
Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.

Let's start with comparing the title screens and menu screens. Although there is not that much to see in any of the versions, there is a distinct difference. Firstly, if not that importantly, the Firebird conversions have not the decency to show the Activision logo as it should appear. Nor does the game title appear to be trademarked any longer. Already in the title screen, you can notice that the conversions lack the two-player mode, which might come as an instant downer even before you start the game. Perhaps most importantly, though, the title logo doesn't flash through every colour in the palette in the two conversions, as it is supposed to, and easily could have. There is something to be said about the conversions, though - they don't use the default system font. Same for the menu screens, really. Graphically, the conversions' menu screens look more appealing in a simplistic sort of way, but lack the colour of the original.

Screenshots from Level 3, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.

I admit to having been rather lazy this time with comparing the graphical aspect, because the differences are so humongous to start with. Just take a look at that picture above with the three versions of the boy patroler in his dinghy in level 3. I could have easily taken a good look on that occasion, if the level designs are similar in all versions, but no - I just couldn't bother. Instead, I concentrated on taking screenshots that would include as many elements of the default ingredients in level 3: swamps, snakes and the collectable trash items. For the most part, the Amstrad version looks rather close to the original, which is a bit surprising, really. Only the ground looks like asphalt instead of a sandy or muddy beach. Even stranger is the colour choices on Spectrum: the beach has been coloured RED for some instance (I would have supposed it to be yellow, considering the Spectrum's track record with sand colouring), and apart from the correctly blue water, everything else is somehow white or light grey. The information bits at the bottom look very different in all versions as well: the colouring and font choices on the original C64 version makes the game look almost like an Atari 800 game (which isn't a bad thing), the Amstrad version has a crude, but still almost charming version of the same thing (minus the Activision logo, Cal. markings and the player indicator because there is no option for a second player, and the level indicator has only one digit), and finally the Spectrum version has an even cruder version of what's shown in the Amstrad version.

Screenshots with different elements, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.
In this second picture, we see the girl sprite, some bushes, a swimmer, a different hut design, some turtles, and by a pure stroke of luck, a proof to the fact pointing out that the C64 version has a different level design to the other two. See, the earlier set of screens has a shot from the same area of level 3 in the Amstrad and Spectrum versions, pointing out that those two share the same level designs. Since the C64 screen is taken from the same spot as the Amstrad screen in the picture with the girls, it should sort of signify that the level designs are a bit different in the original and the conversions.

Level transition effect from C64.
One thing the conversions are completely without, is the transition curtain thing. On the C64, every time you finish a level, a randomly single-coloured "curtain" of sorts washes down the action screen while the bonus scores are being counted.

I think I already mentioned something about the scrolling earlier, but I will do so again, because it is really a part of the graphics area. On the C64, the scrolling is very smooth and fast. I wouldn't be able to tell the framerate even by an estimation, unlike in the two conversions. On the Spectrum, it's somewhere around 4-5 frames per second, and on the Amstrad, it's a bit higher, at around 7-8 FPS, both really depending on which of the two areas are you looking at. Considering the Amstrad conversion incorporates a similar amount of colours on screen as the C64 original, it clearly takes the second place again.




Park Patrol happens to be a very musical game, in the sense that it has quite a lot of music in it. In addition to the insanely quick and catchy polkaesque theme tune and the little game over ditty, the game has five different songs that all have a similar structure. The first time they play, the tunes have a "full" orchestration - drums, low register instrument and a high register instrument, both of which share some melodic duties depending on the song, and of which both have some differences in sound depending on the song; and for the rest of your playtime in that level, the drums and the high register instrument are left out, and the melody is played in the background by another duller instrument, making room for the sound effects.

The sound effects themselves are very musical as well, most of them being some sort of arpeggios in a suitable type of tone. Picking up trash gives a ding-e-dongy sound effect, in a different pitch each time (I think there are three or four different pitches for this effect). The most random sounding effects are for your death and for level completion, which I am unable to properly describe. Some watery noises are in there as well for when you sink with your dinghy or when the snakes come by in the water. Saving a sinking swimmer throws in a funny, short tune, which reminds me of some children's song. Feel free to inform me, if you have more knowledge on this.

Amstrad's soundtrack is already much less refined. While it does have all the tunes intact, they are all more simplistic in execution (some even have wrong notes), which is perhaps most notable in the main title tune. The amount of sound effects is smaller as well, the most shining example of omission being the funny, short tune when you're saving a drowning swimmer, and instead getting a similar sound effect as when you pick up trash.

On the Spectrum, you get an expectable 48k beeper soundtrack, with only the main theme tune being in the mix anymore out of all the seven songs, and even that is slightly out of tune and has no drums or other instruments as such - only a blippy beep instrument that is just able to indicate a sense of rhythm. The effects library has been cut down significantly as well. There are now only sounds for jumping (a "chuck"-sound), for collecting things (blip), for walking (rhythmic ticking), for dying (descending a chromatic scale), for shooting repellent (two consecutive "chuck"-sounds, both in a different pitch than the jumping effect), and for counting bonus points when you have completed a level (a single, quickly repeating high note).

Atmosphere is usually created with a suitable sound environment, not with the lack of it. The only way to put these three into an order is the same way as before.




This comparison has really been a case of extremities like rarely before, and strangely it happened with our usual threesome. Usually, there is at least some sort of battling between these three, but sometimes, it only goes to show that some games were clearly made with one combination of hardware elements in mind. This time, as it was already quite clear in the graphics section (if not before), Park Patrol was clearly made for the Commodore 64.

1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 3, Loading 3 = TOTAL 9/12
2. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 2, Loading 2 = TOTAL 6/8
3. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1, Loading 1 = TOTAL 3/4

What actually surprised me, was how utterly bad the Spectrum version was, even though the rating at World of Spectrum clearly pointed out in that direction. Somehow, I did expect a lot more from it, but I heavily suspect Andrew Rogers was put in charge of the Spectrum conversion as a bonus for doing as good a job on the Amstrad version as he did, and he had no real knowledge on how to work on the Spectrum. Or perhaps he did, but he had a limited amount of time to make the conversion, who knows. It has to be said, though, that Tony Ngo did a terrific job in creating such a unique sort of game in 1984, that it proved to be rather inconvertable, at least for the two machines it was converted for. Too bad he left the gaming industry after making Park Patrol.

UPDATE! 7th of May, 2020:
Since 1st of May, 2020, FRGCB has gained another permission to link videos from a third-party YouTube channel, so here's a video comparison from the Mikroview series by mikroman01, thanks for the permission!

Thanks go to Bob for the suggestion, and thanks to you all for reading again! Comments, corrections and suggestions are always welcome! See you next time with hopefully something more interesting... =)

1 comment:

  1. Ah the memories. I remember playing this game back in the day. I bought it (with my paper round money!) on the back of Zzap!64's review which I think, got either a Silver medal or a Sizzler rating.
    Excellent for a £1.99 game!