Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Hoppin' Mad (Elite Systems, 1988)

Written by Chris Coupe for the Commodore 64, with music by Mark Cooksey and title screen by Mat Sneap. Converted for the ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC by Neil Latarche with graphics by Elizabeth Latarche.

An unreleased conversion/remake was also made for the Nintendo Entertainment System by Mark Crane, with graphics by Steve Beverley and music by Mark Cooksey.



Here's another quickie to fill up the space between the two larger entries. Hoppin' Mad is a nice and quirky little arcade game by Elite, which started its life as Cataball on the Commodore 64 in 1987. Although I do like the name Cataball more, Hoppin' Mad was the title used for all the conversions it got. The reason why I chose this particular entry for now was because I found out about the unreleased NES version, and wanted to write about it.

For probably some very reasonable reasons, the game has never been thought of as anything more than mediocre, even back in 1988. Now, our favourite websites rate the game perhaps slightly higher, but only slightly. At Lemon64, Cataball has been given a score of 6.5 from a total of 30 votes, while
Hoppin' Mad has 6.4 from 23 votes. At World of Spectrum, 15 voters have rated their version with a relatively fine score of 7.07. And then, the Amstrad version has a curious rating of 13.67 out of 20 at CPC-Softs, while a CPC Game Reviews reviewer has given it a very mediocre 5 out of 10. Okay, it's mediocre, but let's see how the four released versions and one unreleased one compare.



Hit Pak's "Trio" compilation, including the original
release of the game Cataball for the C64.
Cataball on the C64 was the debut title from a programming veteran Chris Coupe, who has worked on such classics as Crack Down, Forgotten Worlds, The Simpsons: Bart vs the Space Mutants, several Tomb Raider sequels and a few James Bond titles more recently. From what I have gathered, Cataball was originally only ever released on one of Elite's cheap compilation tapes called Trio - 3 games for the price of one, so it must have worked as a sort of promotional item for his talent back then. For anyone who might be interested, the two other games on the tape are Great Gurianos and Airwolf 2, both rather dismal games. Granted, Cataball was not that much of a big deal either, but it does have a very arcadey quality to it - the "one more go" effect.

The game's idea is very basic: you control a snake-like figure made of four bouncing balls through seemingly endlessly scrolling areas, and your mission is to collect 10 balloons at any area before you can proceed to the next. Sounds very simple, but some of the game's elements made it devilishly addicting for this young gamer from northern Finland during some lazy days. Whenever one of your ball-snake's balls would collide with an obstacle, it would pop off, and once you had lost all your snake's four balls, you would lose a life. Some of the obstacles move in such a way as to make your vanquishing them possible. Also, there are other bonus items flying, floating and squirming by which you can pick up to collect points, and eventually get extra lives. Of course, like proper arcade games of this sort, Cataball has a timer, by which you must complete your quest for collecting the balloons.

So, Hoppin' Mad is more or less the exact same game with more levels and some very slight differences in graphics and sounds. Also, whereas Cataball was only ever released on the Commodore 64, the game was converted as Hoppin' Mad (or Hopping Mad, or even Hoppingmad) for the ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC, and apparently even on the 8-bit Nintendo, which unfortunately never got released. Curiously, people seem to regard the Spectrum version higher than the original, so I'm here to see what is that all about. My thoughts on the game are as they ever were - it's simple yet addicting, and good unique sort of fun for about 10 minutes once a year. Do check it out if you haven't done so yet.



Since any of the archives on the internet doesn't offer an image file of the original Cataball tape yet, I became obsessed enough about it to order the Trio compilation from one of the retrogaming webstores. So, the loading time for that one is truly and properly measured with a stopwatch from loading it on my Datassette. The other loading times are taken from cleaned .tap files converted into .wav files.

C64, CB:7 minutes 26 seconds
C64, HM: 5 minutes 20 seconds
CPC, HM: 7 minutes 59 seconds
SPE, HM - original: 4 minutes 19 seconds
SPE, HM - Encore: 4 minutes 34 seconds
SPE, HM - MCM: 4 minutes 13 seconds

Loading screens from Cataball (C64) and Hoppin' Mad versions from left to right: C64, Amstrad and Spectrum.

It becomes superbly clear from the C64 loading screens already, that Hoppin' Mad is not much more than a slightly modified version of Cataball. Which is just fine for me, because I know I need to be talking about both games for the entire comparison. Interestingly, the Amstrad and Spectrum loading screens by Elizabeth Latarche are both very different from not only the original loading screen, but even from each other. The Spectrum screen gives the game a curiously Ultimate-like initial feel to the game, which of course is nothing of the sort. None of the loading screens give a very clear idea of what the game is like, so they're all the same to me in that sense.



I have always called the ball-snake device you control in this game a Cataball, due to the original game title, but to avoid confusion, I'm calling it a ball-snake for the duration of this comparison. But I think I might have to make the differences clear between Cataball and Hoppin' Mad before heading on to the version comparison of the latter. And I shall be doing the same thing for the other sections as well.

Both games play exactly the same in essentials: you can only accelerate and decelerate the constantly bouncing ball-snake within certain limits by pushing the joystick left or right, and the fire button gives the bouncing some extra height, which is always the same extra height. You need to collect balloons in order to complete the levels, but you can also collect apples, starfish, worms and other bonus items for extra points. There are malevolent beings roaming around the areas as well, such as bees, ghosts, medusas etc. As well as those, gaps and rocks will also kill one of your snake's four balls. Damn, that sounds nastier than it is...

The only two differences I could come across between the two games were the amount of levels which is the original 8 against the 12 in Hoppin' Mad; and what happens when you die: in Cataball, you lose all your collected balloons, and you have to start from the beginning, while in Hoppin' Mad, you only start the level from the beginning, but the collected balloons stay with you.

First glimpses of the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions of Hoppin' Mad might cause some confusion, because both of them start with the same level as Cataball, and judging by the level counter, even have the same amount of levels as Cataball. You do get to keep the balloons you've collected after dying, though, so that's clearly a Hoppin' Mad feature. The AMSTRAD version is clearly a bad port of the SPECTRUM version, since they both play otherwise exactly the same, but the Amstrad version suffers from a slightly jittery scrolling.

Too bad, then, that both of the Latarche conversions are nearly impossible to play. While the original game is controlled with a very analogue feel, controlling the ball-snake's speed on the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD happens gradually (in notches), and most irritatingly, with a clearly noticable lag. Also, the ball-snake's bouncing is more angular than curved, which feels very clumsy. Even having an overly large collision field around the ball-snake's balls compared to the original isn't the worst part of it. The worst is, that when you accelerate and decelerate, all the moving enemies accelerate and decelerate along with you, instead of continuing their own pace. This is highly annoying, and makes the already unnecessarily difficult conversion practically impossible.

So, what of the unreleased NES version, then? Well, the basic idea is the same, but it does have some extra features, such as shields and cutscenes, and the level design and the amount of enemies coming at you is of a VERY different magnitude compared to all the other versions of either Cataball or Hoppin' Mad. Still, the NES game is closer to Cataball in that you lose all the collected balloons when you die. Otherwise, I can't really count it among the other versions. That said, I think it's both more and less playable than the Latarche conversions in certain ways, but it's still not as enjoyable as either of the originals.




Because the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM conversions seem to have the same levels as Cataball on the C64, I will need to make the Graphics section based mostly on those three. I will mention the other two versions after I've done with the first three. But first, let's take a look at the title screens and high score tables.

Title screens and high score tables from left to right: Cataball; and C64, Amstrad and Spectrum versions of Hoppin' Mad.

What's interesting here is that only the C64 and SPECTRUM versions of Hoppin' Mad title logo in the title screen are similar to the title logos shown in the loading screens, which you can check from the Loading section above. Otherwise, it's mostly about colours. On the AMSTRAD version, the title screen and the high score list has no more than 4 colours: black, white, yellow and cyan. The SPECTRUM version adds green to that list, and the high score list has a better scrolling effect of all the colours; plus, there's the nice large ELITE logos at the bottom, which the AMSTRAD version is somehow missing.

Cataball's title screen is pretty similar to the SPECTRUM screen in design, seeing as the two HITPAK logos are similarly placed. The ELITE logo in the C64 Hoppin' Mad title screen is at the same time more stylish and less pretty than the double-HITPAK thing in Cataball, as it's nicely one-sided, but it's also a bit sloppily coloured and pixeled. As for the two C64 title logos, I'm more partial to the Cataball logo, probably because it's the more familiar one to me, but I think it has a lot to do with it having a more rounded and cheerful font, not to mention a brighter colour.

The basic font used is pretty similar in all versions, even though the C64 versions are the only ones featuring both upper and lower case letters. If you're at all interested to keep an eye on the high score tables, the C64 versions are a bit annoying in this sense, because although the single-colour shading style is nice, two of the high score entries are always blackened, because the colours scroll through the high scores all the time.

Level 1 screens: Commodore 64 (left), Amstrad CPC (middle), ZX Spectrum (right)

I'm only going to go through the first 4 levels of Cataball and the Latarche versions of Hoppin' Mad, mostly because the Latarche versions are too unfair to get even to level 4 most of the time,  particularly the SPECTRUM version.

First, I'd like to point out that the AMSTRAD version leaves much more space to the sides than what you can see here, and the action screen is relatively small. If you look carefully, you will notice that the action screen is even slightly narrower than the one on SPECTRUM, which is already narrower than the C64 screen. Secondly, the AMSTRAD version utilises the background colour in such a way as to extend it to be the border colour as well, which could be either a necessary trick to achieve the necessary amount of colours, or a stylistic decision.

The colouring here is the first thing where the C64 version wins with, because it's closer to nature. Yes, a lot of you Spectrumists dislike the C64's basic palette, because brown is often overused... a colour, which I think deserves to be reminded, the Spectrum doesn't have. Of course brown is overused, because it is so often seen in nature. And this game starts in the woods, on a path of dirt. Green is fine, but bright red mixed with yellow looks like lava, and the necessity for going monochrome for most of the game's graphic elements is a bit sad.

Level 2 screens: Commodore 64 (left), Amstrad CPC (middle), ZX Spectrum (right)

It's a surprisingly rare occasion that we can actually say the C64 version has more detailed graphics, but this is one of those times. The backgrounds are so much more busier on the C64, without being too busy in anyway, because of the choices and the ability to use colours. From the other two, the AMSTRAD version performs more gracefully, with all the obstacles being in a different colour than the background elements.

Level 3 screens: Commodore 64 (left), Amstrad CPC (middle), ZX Spectrum (right)

At the very latest, level 3 gives you a clear sense of differences in level design. This is where the game starts getting ridiculously difficult on the Latarche conversions, because there are so much more wider gaps between the ice platforms, and the controllability makes it difficult to get anywhere. However unfinished it makes the game feel, the lapses in collision detection on the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD make it somehow more playable, but only after you have Game Overed a few times trying it out.

As for the graphics on level 3, there isn't all that much to talk about, since it's all blue and white on the SPECTRUM, slightly more red on the AMSTRAD and just as randomly coloured on the C64 as ever, when it comes to balloons. This time, the Latarche versions have slightly more detail on the backgrounds, but that's not much of a consolation at this point.

Level 4 screens: Commodore 64 (left), Amstrad CPC (middle), ZX Spectrum (right)
Then we come to the woods during nighttime, which now features ghosts, skulls and all sorts of evil things. And grey trees with blue leaves. I don't really know what to make of the yellow ground colour on the SPECTRUM version, but it looks too bright for the occasion. The red and white ground colour on the AMSTRAD isn't much better, but it does have a spookier look to it.

In case you hadn't noticed yet, the ball-snake's colour changes on the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM every level or so. The AMSTRAD version even goes so far as to make the lives indicator and the balloon indicator icons of a different colour than they appear in the action screen. Was it really so difficult to get the colouring so that there would be no continuity errors?

Enter your name on the high score list: Commodore 64 (left), Amstrad CPC (middle), ZX Spectrum (right)

At this point, I'll leave the level graphics alone for a bit, because I haven't gotten past level 4 on either Latarche conversion, even with savestates. I also skipped the "get ready" and "game over" screens, because they offer nothing of interest, apart from the SPECTRUM version's Game Over text flashing through the whole palette a few times.

If you play well enough, you can get yourself on the high score list, which means you need to type your name. This is done with the controller of your choice instead of typing on a keyboard. On the C64, you get a 13x4 grid of letters and other characters, and six slots into which you enter the letters of your choice. On the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM, you are only given a row of letters, which you slide through left and right. The colours don't matter much here, but the SPECTRUM version has a nice animated set of bouncing balls at the bottom of the screen, which gives it a slightly more special feel.

More screenshots from the Commodore 64 version of Hoppin' Mad.

Here you can see screenshots of the first four levels of the C64 version of Hoppin' Mad, all of which have very nice backgrounds. The four next ones are the same levels you have seen already from Cataball and the other versions of Hoppin' Mad. The last two screenshots are from the next two levels past the ones you have seen earlier, which offer less graphics of interest, and I don't think I have ever gotten past level 10, which is similar to level 3 in Cataball, but with even less graphics, as it takes place above clouds.

Screenshots from the unreleased NES version of Hoppin' Mad.

Finally, here are screenshots of the first three levels of the unreleased NES version. The backgrounds are clearly very different after level 1, and there is a lot more of obstacles here than in any other version. Most peculiarly, you can pick up red floating hearts (which, unfortunately, are not present in any of the screenshots, because I was not quick enough for them) which make one of your snake's balls flash white, which indicates you having a shield for a short while. This version runs a lot faster than any of the other versions, so it's not only a new level of difficulty - it's ridiculous. That said, it still plays a bit better than either of the Latarche conversions. Too bad it's so different, and unreleased.

I think the winner is clear again, but I also think that regardless of the often unfortunate choices of colours on the SPECTRUM version, it manages to pull off the whole package better than the AMSTRAD, due to a more consistent set of graphics, as well as something a little extra.




One of the things that I love the most about this game is the theme tune, which brings heavily to mind another simple, yet addicting game from HitPak, which I made a comparison of a long time ago: Batty. The theme tune is very cheerful, and sounds like a country-dance song played with a fiddle. A nice, slower and swinging variation of the theme tune is played when you get to enter your name on the high scores list.

Too bad the sound effects library isn't much to talk about. It's just bouncing, with two bi-tonal melodic effects for picking up balloons and other bonus items, one sound for the destruction of one of your snake's balls, and one particular scale-sweeping effect for losing a ball to a gap in the ice and sky stages. The only thing that differs from Cataball in the C64 Hoppin' Mad is the rate of bouncing that plays as you go about your business. Frankly, it's a bit disorienting, since it doesn't happen in the same rhythm as your snake anymore.

The tunes are also included on the 128k SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions of the game, but are missing from the 48k SPECTRUM version. Both having an AY-chip of sorts, their renditions of the tunes sound similar to each other. I can't really give an opinion whether they're any better or worse - they're just different. Some of the country-danceness of the tunes has been lost in translation due to the lack of a fiddle-like instrument and the more angular approach to the rhythm, but both songs still have the cheerfulness that they're all about, really.

Both SPECTRUM versions feature only some basic farty sound effects, which works well enough, if you don't feel like hearing the constant bouncing and other melodic sounds. The AMSTRAD version uses the AY-chip to produce the sound effects, which is nice, but you don't get any sound effects for breaking... parts of your snake. So, in different ways, both the conversions feel slightly unfinished.

Unsurprisingly, the unreleased NES version has more music and more sound effects for your entertainment, and all the things from the original that could have been kept in, have been kept in. Too bad I can't include it in the scores.




Okay... it's another side-scroller, which is clearly a field where the C64 usually ranks higher than the other two usual contestants. And I admit, this was a cheap shot at getting yet another C64-based game on the pedestal, although it wasn't my original intention, because I didn't know the other versions were actually this bad. Cataball still happens to be one of my favourite coffee break games, and the extended version of it is a good modification. Too bad the NES version was never released.

1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 9
Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 5
Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 4

You're welcome to disagree, of course, but you can't possibly suggest that the Latarche versions play better than the originals - and that is the most important part here, as it usually is.

Well, that's it for now, hope that wasn't too bad in the end. Next time, I'll be doing a game from a genre that I haven't revisited in all of 2014!

Thanks for reading again! Comments, suggestions and corrections are still welcome!


  1. The first level's forest graphics seem suspiciously close to those from the first level of Wonder Boy/Adventure Island...

    Fantastic blog, by the way! I'd love to see you take on Antriad/Rad Warrior one day. There must have been like 7 or 8 versions of that one, ideal for the in-depth comparisons that you do so well.

    1. Thanks for the comment, and the suggestion! =) I remember Antiriad well from my youth, but I never quite learned how to play it, as I never had any instructions for it, and the awkward controls have always put me off. Perhaps I might take a closer look at it later on, but for now, the blog's future entries have been made up already for the next two or three months. But I'll add it on my requests list, hopefully I'll get around to it before my summer break! =)