Friday 29 August 2014

Fort Apocalypse (Synapse Software, 1982)

Written by Steve Hales for the Atari 8-bit computers.
Converted by Joe Vierra for the Commodore 64.

A conversion was made for the ZX Spectrum, but was never released.



Synapse's Fort Apocalypse is usually cited as one of the first games that most people who started playing computer games in their youth have told me. Not necessarily THE first, but still, closely related to their earliest gaming experiences. It wasn't so in my case. I never really properly learned to understand the impact it so clearly had, because I came from a different place and time, and my first experiences on the C64 and Atari were much more impressive, having gotten into gaming a bit later than most of my friends. Based on the only review I could find, even the press wasn't that impressed with the game when it came out - Electronic Fun magazine gave it a 1.5 out of 4 in their August 1983 issue (source: Atarimania).

Today, however, Fort Apocalypse has a fairly respectable 7.8 out of 10 at Atarimania from 783 votes, and at Lemon64, it has an even more impressive 8.3 from 127 votes, placing it at #81 in the top list. Even Steve Hales himself said in an interview by James Hague (also sourced from Atarimania), that people knew the game better from the C64. So it is an interesting starting point for a comparison, when the original version has a slightly lower score. For those of you who have already read the original Format Wars article this comparison was released as in the most recent RESET magazine, this will offer very little new, apart from some different screenshots, so there is no real reason to go further. As for the rest of you, click on...



As the ill-favoured review put it so neatly, Fort Apocalypse combines Defender, Scramble and Chopper Rescue. One could have added Choplifter! to the list, but Fort Apocalypse was actually designed and worked on months before Choplifter! came into existence. The object of the game is to infiltrate the Kralthan's base with your Rocket Copter, and destroy Fort Apocalypse deep within the subterranean caverns, and rescue a total of 16 men from the caverns while at it. You need to keep a look on your fuel gauge, and drop in at the fuel depot when necessary. You also need to keep an eye  out for Kralthan tanks, choppers, shields etc. The game is ultimately a test of timing and precision, but for the uninitiated, can be a frustrating series of trial and error.

I have to agree with Electronic Fun's review to some extent - it is almost unfairly difficult, and sometimes because the game is buggy, and even direct hits will not kill the enemies. It is a frustrating game, but it also happens to be a very engaging one, and if you keep your head cool, you might enjoy the process of learning the game's tricks and eventually master it. I wouldn't say it's one of the most enjoyable games of the time, but it certainly has earned its classic status, if perhaps a bit belatedly. There are very few games from the early days of computer and video gaming that have so successfully combined such iconic elements. Fort Apocalypse is one of them.



Fort Apocalypse was released on all three formats of the time - cartridge, floppy disk and cassette tape. Needless to say, the cartridge versions are the quickest to load, equally so on both machines, so either way, you win. But if for some reason, you wanted to have a cassette version, you would have to choose one of two quite bearable evils, but the C64 wins quite easily here. Not that it will be counted in the final results, but it might give some incentive to purchase one of these versions.

Loading screens. Top row: Commodore 64 tape (left) and disk (right)
Bottom row, Atari: Synapse tape (left), Synapse disk (middle)
Synsoft tape (right)
ATARI - Synapse: 6 min 14 sec
ATARI - SynSoft: 5 min 21 sec
C64 - SynSoft: 1 min 39 sec

Unsurprisingly, the C64 wins on tape. Just out of curiosity, let's take a look at the disk loading times as well.

ATARI - Synapse: 23 sec
C64 - Synapse: 1 min 29 sec

So, the Atari version on disk is quite a lot quicker, but remember, the game is no bigger than it is on cartridge. If you happen to be planning on purchasing an original copy of Fort Apocalypse, I suspect the price tag will be the more important factor to consider in any case. For those of you who require more entertainment out of your loading processes, the C64 tape version is the obvious choice with an early version of the US Gold flag loading screen with an advertising text scroller at the bottom, as well as the very familiar Star Spangled Banner as the loading tune.



I will be making references to Choplifter! quite a bit here, mostly because it is the more widely known game of the two, and it really is the closest point of reference to Fort Apocalypse. See, the way your Rocket Copter handles in this game is kind of similar to how the helicopter in Choplifter! handles, but has a slightly less sophisticated turning protocol.

You start off by facing straight at the screen. When in this position, you can only make slight adjustments to your horizontal position, because pushing the joystick either left or right for a brief time will change your facing direction to left or right, even if you keep tapping the joystick enough. You can, however, change your altitude quite freely, although you need to be very careful when landing your Rocket Copter so you won't crash it. You need to learn to land properly so you can register new checkpoints at all the clearly marked landing platforms, and refuel at fueling stations. Also, when you are facing forwards, your weapon automatically changes to bomb dropper.

Moving left or right will cause the Rocket Copter to lean a bit forwards, so you will also be shooting in a slight angle when you are moving. When you stop moving forwards, you can shoot straight left and right. Unlike Choplifter!, the game does not utilise inertia of movement, which doesn't feel all that realistic, but then it isn't supposed to be - you're flying a helicopter in narrow underground caverns with teleports, laser traps and strangely behaving slot passages.

Two of the game options have some actual effect on the gameplay: you can choose one of three Gravity Skills, which will make your copter gravitate downwards quicker the higher the chosen skill level is, and you can also choose one of three Pilot Skills, which affects on the number of enemies and their behaviour - speeds of shooting and moving, for example. The third option is merely for choosing a number of Robo Pilots you will have in your game.

The main differences in playability between the two versions are as simple as this: the Atari version plays smoother, and is for the most part slightly easier to play due to a looser collision detection. These minor things do not take away from the experience all that much, though, on the C64. The only really affective difference was that after you have destroyed the Fort's core, all the men you needed to rescue still left, if any, are all dead on the Atari, and the C64 version still has the leftover men running around, and you can rescue them afterwards. There is a minor difference in the game options as well - on the Atari, you can have 7, 9 or 11 lives to start with, and on the C64, you can only have 3, 5 or 7, clearly stating that more is expected of you.

Given the sheer lack of number and even importance in differences, I will have to give the two versions a tied place.

ATARI - 1, C64 - 1



Comparing the graphics isn't much easier, because although they basically look very much the same, as they are using the same graphics "engine" as far as possible. You can clearly see the C64 version is as straight a port of the Atari original as it was possible to make, as far as blockiness goes. If you see some scrolling optimization problems, it's most likely due to your C64 being a PAL machine, and the game seems to have been made for NTSC systems.

Title screens: Commodore 64 (left) and Atari 8-bit (right)

Only the colouring is noticably different in the two versions. The Atari original takes advantage of the A400/800's singular abilities in the CTIA (or GTIA) graphics chip in that quite a lot of elements, such as enemy sprites and destroyable terrain obstacles have parts that constantly scroll through the Atari's entire colour palette. Of course, the screenshots don't tell much, so you need to play the game to see it properly.

Screenshots from the Atari version.
On the C64, the colours are more constant, only giving more effects where absolutely necessary, such as the teleport frames. It is not necessarily a bad thing, as it gives the game a more earthy quality, if you prefer it that way. The relative lack of colour does, however, make the game feel just a little bit cheaper, but only on a few occasions, such as the title screen, the score/radar HUD, and the very end of the game. But as Fort Apocalypse is a very old game, you tend to forgive and forget these sorts of details.

Screenshots from the C64 version.

There is one minor thing regarding screen size, which might warrant a mention. The action screen on the Atari original is slightly taller and wider compared to the C64. You can't really notice it unless you really take a close look, but it's there. I confess I haven't played this game so much as to feel like this has any difference, but to some hardcore fanatics, it might. (The difference is such a small one, in fact, that I made the error of claiming that the C64 screen was wider in the original RESET article, based on slightly differently structured screenshots - sorry for that.)

Mission completed: Commodore 64 (left) and Atari 8-bit (right)

On the whole, I'm not entirely sure which version's graphics I prefer more, because they both have their own slightly different sort of charm, and they are so similar in plenty enough ways. Sometimes, the Atari version feels somewhat psychedelic due to all the colours, and sometimes, the C64 version feels somewhat conservative. At different times, either of the two versions works better, depending on your mood. I will have to give another tied place here.

ATARI - 1, C64 - 1



I'm not entirely certain whether you could call the title screen noise "music", but it certainly makes you want to get into the game as quickly as possible so you don't have to hear the wailing any longer. For what it's worth, the noise is a seemingly endlessly rising siren of sorts, starting from low, and ending very high. There are a couple of quite notable differences, if you care enough to compare the two: first, the C64 starts off from nothing, and builds up gradually, which is more bearable than the Atari's starting from a low but just as noisy starting note as what it ends on when it gets up. Also, the phasing effect on the C64 is constant in speed, while on the Atari, it speeds up as the noise gets higher-pitched, and this gradually makes the Atari wail sound like it was constructed of clear intervals instead of a smooth and seamless ascension. I do like the C64 intro sound better, but it doesn't really give much of an advantage. Unfortunately, this is the only bit in the game where anything even resembling music can be expected.

Being an early game, it shouldn't come as no surprise that the sound effects are not that much to celebrate about either. What you get from each version is the propeller noise from your Rocket Copter, some explosions, firing sounds, and accomplishing something other than destruction gives you some bips and beeps. Also, when you are low on fuel, the game gives you a fair warning with a constant high-pitched "beep, beep", until you manage to either die or refill your copter.

First of all, the C64 version's sound environment is a less intrusive set. Instead of constant airy shuffling of your copter's propellers, as it is on the Atari, you get a nice muffled "bap-bap" rhythm to give your ears a more relaxed default soundtrack. Also, all the bips and beeps are softer, but still expressive enough to know what is going on. What I feel to be the most important difference, however, is the number of firing and exploding sounds for each version. On the Atari, I cannot really tell the difference between my own firing noise and an enemy's, while on the C64, all the firing noises are slightly different. It's almost the same thing with explosions, really - only they have a more random way of sounding different on the C64. On the Atari, I counted perhaps two different explosion sounds, but I wasn't really sure of the other one.

So, although it's not necessarily the more realistic of the two in every single way, I do prefer the C64 version because it's less numbning in the long run. But it might not necessarily be everyone's cup of tea.

ATARI - 0, C64 - 1



Okay, I knew this would be a close call, but I didn't realise how close. Happily for the C64'ers, their beloved SID chip brought it home once again, but only by a toe's length. In the end, I seriously recommend every fan of the game to check out both versions and see for themselves, which version they enjoy better. It's mostly a matter of personal taste in this case - technicalities are too close to each other to make that much of a difference.

ATARI 400/800 - 2
Cut from a U.S. Gold advertisement.

It is a pity that Fort Apocalypse never made it to the ZX Spectrum, although judging by the amount of advertising space it got from October 1984 to March 1985, it might have easily been finished, but the plug was pulled for some reason. That might have made for an even more interesting comparison, but at least we got this one-on-one battle for now. There is something else to look forward to with more certainty - an authorized MSX conversion, the work on which began for this year's MSXdev competition, but was pulled off from the compo for the conversion coder being currently too busy to work on it. By the look of it, the conversion would have been (and perhaps will be?) closer to the Atari original, but who knows. Hopefully, it will still get finished at some point.

Thanks for reading again, hope you enjoyed that one!
Remember to check out RESET magazine, in which this comparison was originally published in the Format Wars section.

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