Monday, 21 April 2014

Where Time Stood Still (Ocean Software, 1988)

Originally written by John Heap and Fred Gray of Denton Designs for the ZX Spectrum 128k.

Converted for the Atari ST by Ian Brown and Bob Weir, with graphics by Steven Cain.

Credits for the DOS version are currently unknown.



While Lemon64 was offline for an unnaturally long period, I decided to write about a game that has always somehow intrigued me, but I never really got to play it when it was a new and exciting thing. Since the game was ever available for the 128k Spectrum, DOS and Atari ST (although I didn't even know about the DOS and ST versions until I started digging up information for the Unique Games features), Where Time Stood Still effectively escaped my young gamer experiences. I was very much aware of it, though, as it was advertised in the 1988 Ocean catalogue that came with the box of Daley Thompson's Olympic Challenge, bundled with my first Commodore 64, and it was one of the only things in that catalogue that I really wanted to try out. But alas, the experience would only come in the age of emulation, and by that point, it was already too late to make any sort of wow-effect, and my seriously multiplied hatred for isometric adventures didn't help. So, why am I doing this again? Besides the reason mentioned above, I wanted to have a go at the 16-bit conversions and see if it manages to uninspire me any less. Perhaps then, I might understand the game's and the genre's appeal slightly more.

When the game was released, it received rave reviews from the Spectrum press: Crash gave it 94%, Sinclair User 96% and Your Sinclair a 9/10. The reviewers for the DOS and Atari versions, however, weren't quite so enchanted, mediating somewhere in the 70-75 out of 100 area. Now, the Spectrum version has a very respectable 8.46 from 192 votes at World of Spectrum; 3 voters at Atarimania have given the ST version an 8.3; and 649 voters have rated the PC version 2.9 out of 5.0 at Abandonia, although the editor has given a more promising 4.0. Let's see if any of these ratings have any truth in them... although you might not necessarily want to count on my word this time, if you ever did... =P



After the success of their previous isometric adventure, The Great Escape, Denton Designs were keen on having the success repeated, so they started making a spiritual sequel for the prison game. This time, however, the map would be so large the game would have to be fitted into a larger amount of memory at once, utilising the 128k Spectrum's abilities for the first time in such a way as to set a proper standard for the machine.

Originally titled Tibet, this is where the game apparently takes place, but in a prehistoric version of it, as you will notice from the pterodactyls and all that sort going around. The game is, as Denton's preceding hit game was, an isometric 3D adventure with action and puzzle elements. The plot goes as such: your plane has crashed in a remote and unknown plateau of the Himalayas. Your mission is merely to find a passage home, which is a high mountain pass far away from your crash site, so in order to survive, you need to pick up food supplies and weaponry, and use them as necessary. Initially, you control Jarret, the leader of a party of four. Your three passangers, Clive - a wealthy businessman, Gloria - his daughter, and Dirk, her fiancée, may be controlled by the player or by the game, but the player only gets to control the others when the previous leader of the group has died.

What makes this game so highly praised is most likely the need to interact between all the four survivors, which can be quite a challenge. All the grandeur and strangeness of the setting are only there to enhance the experience, but the personalities of the four survivors is what makes this game really tick. Clive is overweight, tires easily and is always hungry. Dirk is athletic and knows some languages, but is reluctant to leave his fiancée, and will become despondent if she dies. Computer-controlled characters will complain if they are injured, tired or hungry. It is up to the player to decide what action to take in response, but you will have to ration your supplies smartly, lest you die of hunger or exhaustion or anything.

What this game requires, as many of its kind do, is patience. Learning to control the characters and use the menus can be tedious, and frankly impossible, if you have no instruction manual at hand. It can be found from the World of Spectrum archives the most easily, so if you want to have a go at this game, and you never have done so before, be sure to have the manual by your side. Then again, you could consider these sorts of games as the grandfathers of Diablo and its ilk, which might make things feel more familiar, but only marginally.

And this is where my problem comes up. I never liked Diablo all that much. Nor too many other isometric games, for that matter - the only ones I can come up with are the first two Last Ninja games, Shadowrun (SNES) and Marble Madness. But I will try not to bother you with my angst for the genre any more than that, if I can help it. My opinions being what they are, I reckon that you are probably much better off without any sort of review from me... at least until I have properly tested all the versions, so let's get on with it.



As the only cassette version was released on the Spectrum, it seems a bit futile to talk of loading times. But if anyone's interested, the only cassette version takes 10 minutes 37 seconds to load up. Considering the amount of data to be loaded in, it doesn't come as a surprise. Luckily, all the computers have a disk version, so we need not give any more thought to that. The DOS version is naturally the quickest to load up, though. The loading screens you see to the right are from the Spectrum (top) and Atari ST (bottom) versions.



Some isometric games have the joystick controls done so that pushing up goes up-right, down goes down-left, left goes up-left and right goes down-right. Some have it turned 90 degrees to the left. This time, Denton have gone for the latter option. Then of course, there are those games that need to be controlled as if you were the character - up would go forward, down backwards and left and right would make your character turn clockwise or anti-clockwise... but nevermind that. I'm just trying to make a point - every game of this genre seems to require you to learn the game all over again, which is disorienting, since most of the isometric games look basically the same. Oops, there goes the angst already. Anyway, options are provided at the beginning of the game, where you can redefine the keys, but the Space Bar cannot be used, because its function is to call up the menus. Joystick button shoots and makes your character run.

In-game menus from the Spectrum version.

The menu system is a unique one for this type of a game. There are two in-game menus, which you must use on a regular basis in order to get anywhere in the game. The first one (cyan) has the options for pause, music or sound effects and the New Game option, along with the top row displaying all the characters in the play. If your primary character dies, only then you are allowed to change your controllable character, and for that time, the primary menu turns to magenta. The second menu is the inventory menu (red), which can be called from the first menu by clicking on one of the four player characters. The four slots at the top show the items you are carrying, and the bottom row shows you the items in the near vicinity, which you can pick up by clicking on them and dragging the object to the character's face. This is a bit confusing at first, when in most other games you just walk over the items and they are collected automatically. Of course, for this game, such a system had to be done so the computer-controlled characters would not pick up everything they walk over. Each person can carry four items, unless they carry a bag, which can contain four additional items within. The "use item" icon is kind of self-explanatory after all the other things, don't you think? Well, not really. In order to, say, consume food and drink, you need to FIRST click on the "use item" icon, and only THEN on the item you're about to use - and finally on the character's face you are about to use it on, provided that he/she has the item at hand. If not, you need to drop the item first and pick it up again with the character that needs to use it. Not to worry, you do get used to the system after a while, although it never ceases to be tedious, particularly as the world outside the menus still continue to proceed while you're at it.

In the game, you will be faced with surprising dangers, such as dinosaurs and cannibals, but the most bothersome problems must be the breaking bridges, rolling boulders, swamps and whatnots, that can be lethal in unguarded moments. Also, in tight passages, having more than one character in the group can sometimes become more of an obstacle than a bunch of useful item carriers. However, getting the perfect score means leading every one of your group out of the plateau safely to freedom. So in order to win the game, you need to keep a good rhythm, lead the group like a champion, ration the consumables with skill, kill some prehistoric beasts and rest when you are able to. As with most of these types of games, using a map is highly recommended, although drawing yourself one could be considered a big part of the whole experience... unless you're useless at drawing, of course. In that case, head over to WOS to pick up a pre-compiled map.

So, one might wonder, what are the differences in gameplay? Unfortunately, there aren't all that many, really. The scrolling speed is pretty much the same in every version, or similar enough not to be worth the bother of mentioning. Only when using the menus the speed differences are more noticable for, and they are a bit slower to operate on the Spectrum than in the other versions, but it doesn't really take much away from the whole experience. The only thing that I can think of, that really might affect the gameplay in either positive or negative way is the control method, which can be either keyboard (definable in Spectrum and DOS versions), some sort of joystick (two choices in both Spectrum and DOS versions, and a default possibility on the Atari), or a mouse (also a default possibility on the Atari). I couldn't find a way to switch off any of the control methods in the Atari version, and it has no start menu to choose your controls from. Using a mouse can be really tricky, since your characters will move according to its movements, apparently regardless of whether you're using a menu or not, from what I was able to gather. So, a joystick control is definitely the preferred mode there. But where the keyboard controls are available, it is just as good, if not better, depending on your preferences.

I would like to give all the versions the same points, but seeing as the differences are so little, I will have to play it rough, and give the scores based on every little detail. Some of the differences in gameplay are almost strictly graphical, but since they might have an affect on your perception of things on the screen, I have to consider them cause for consideration for giving points here. The DOS version is the only one of the three not to show the scenery in a different light or shade during nighttime, largely because it's CGA graphics only, and the palette in use is sorely limited. Unless you keep an eye on the sun/moon indicator, you might miss the turns of the day. That's pretty much the only graphical difference that I can think of that might have some effect on some players' gameplay experience. So, here are the frankly nitpicked results for the Playability section:




As you might have deducted from the differences in the two loading screens available, which are shown above in the Loading section, the Atari ST version looks easily the best of the three, but the other two are more difficult to decide upon. Just for the sake of giving my argument of "ST being better" here, it simply has everything clearer with more colours in the brilliantly stylised greyscale look of the game, making it look like the 50's sci-fi film-a-like it's supposed to be. The only thing that I like better on the Spectrum version are the in-game menus, which have different colours, which, on the Atari are all yellow.

Screenshots from the Atari ST version.

Although the DOS version has more colours used in the action screen, it still has less colours in use than the Spectrum version: four against nine. The colours in the Spectrum version have been utilised for the HUD, which looks very nice, and makes the DOS version look, rather perversely, more  monochrome than the Spectrum version. The final blow on the DOS version is given when the day turns into night, and nothing on the screen happens. This can be rather irritating, because you might not notice it until it's too late, and you can't sleep during daytime.

Screenshots from the DOS version.

In the defense of the DOS version, it's slightly harder to tell terrain objects apart from each other sometimes on the Spectrum, precisely because of the monochrome graphics. At least you can see all  the borders more clearly in the DOS version, and the quad-coloured action screen gives more detailed information on objects and shapes. Still, overall, the Spectrum version is more pleasing to the eye, and certainly more in line with the 50's black-and-white styled theme of the game.

Screenshots from the ZX Spectrum 128k version.

3. DOS



After the wonder of quite likely the shortest Graphics section since my comparison of Batty, this section will not be much longer than that. Let's take the easy way in by starting it off with the DOS version, which has only a couple of sound effects and no music whatsoever, which is strange, because all the versions of the game include a sound toggle option in the first in-game menu. The sound effects are a simple middle-of-the-road beep for doing things in the menus, and an even simpler, almost unhearable tick for shooting things. I'm not entirely certain whether this is all there is to hear in the DOS version, since I have only managed to get as far as the first pygmy village - and this concerns all the versions of the game.

On the Atari ST and Spectrum, you get a choice of music or sound effects, although the Spectrum version plays both at the same time by default. On the ST, you only get one or the other. The reason why the Spectrum version can play both simultaneously can be credited to the music being played by the AY chip, while the sound effects come from the beeper. The amount of sound effects is similar, which is quite a lot more than what you get in the DOS version, and I can't really say which one has the better sound effects overall, because they sound unusually similar. However, I'm fairly certain the Spectrum version has the upper hand here due to the ingenuity of using two different sound sources simultaneously.

3. DOS



Having now played Where Time Stood Still for a good while, I still haven't changed my mind  concerning isometric adventures. The main problem with this game is the incredibly irritating so-called artificial intelligence of your companions, whose main job seems to be getting into your way or getting stuck behind some walls or accidentally falling down ledges. Unfortunately, you need the extra inventory space occasionally, so you will be needing at least one companion throughout the game, as far as I know. Still, it is an interesting concept, and the game is a lot easier to follow than the maps and tricks of any isometric game by Ultimate. So far, it is my favourite 8-bit isometric  adventure, but that doesn't really mean a whole lot yet. As for the total scores...

1. ZX SPECTRUM 128k: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 7
2. ATARI ST/STe: Playability 1, Graphics 3, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 6
3. IBM-PC compatibles: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 3

The 128k Spectrum original truly is a spectacular achievement, and one of the most important games for the upgraded machine for a reason. The ST version is very good as well, just not quite as impressive as I would have hoped, other than graphically. I wouldn't say the PC version is quite as bad as it looks on the list, but see for yourself. Apart from it having the worst presentation, I would still say it's the most easily accessible of the three. As I said earlier, my review of the game shouldn't give you too much of an idea as to whether any of these are any good, so you should go and have a try by yourselves.

Apart from the finished and released official products, there were Amiga, Amstrad and C64 conversions in the making, or at least in consideration for conversion, none of which came into fruition, although the Ocean 1988 catalogue claims that the Amiga version should have been released along with the ST version. More recently, though, an English Amiga Board member called Galahad has been slowly making progress on an unofficial Amiga port of the ST version, and should be released really soon. So, that should make a rather nice update one day.

Thanks for reading again, hope you enjoyed it regardless of everything!
Comments, suggestions and corrections are welcome as ever!


  1. I'm collecting retro games but I never heard of this one :D

  2. Hmm wonder if there's a way to run this game on PC / Windows 7, using some kind of emulator lol. I'm absolutely obsessed with retro PC games: Well actually i have an OLD PC (in working condition) with EGA display that allows me to play Another World but I don't have Floppy drive anymore or LAN so I can't install new games :S Also, I really love Bubble Shooter flash game and I have a feeling it's a remake of some PC game, any ideas where to find it? Thanks!

    1. I can help you to get started with the PC version of WTSS. Download DOSbox, or preferably D-Fend Reloaded, which is a front-end for DOSbox. You can easily install the game using the wizard in D-Fend. If you want more specific instructions, drop me an e-mail. =)

    2. Also, Bubble Shooter is a remake of Puzzle Bobble, a.k.a. Bust-a-Move, originally an arcade game. According to Wikipedia, the game seems to have at least 25 official versions, but for the most authentic experience possible at your home computer, download MAME and hunt for the game around the various ROM sites.