Friday, 7 November 2014

River Rescue (Thorn EMI, 1982)

Designed by Jeremy Smith and programmed by Will Kemp. Originally released for the Commodore VIC-20 in 1982.

Converted for the Atari 400/800 computers by Kevin Buckner in 1983. Converted for the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A in 1983 (credits unknown) for cartridge use, but released in 1986 on disk. Converted for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum by Phil Snell in 1984. Converted and released for the Commodore 64 in 1984; credits unknown.



Without giving too much away regarding the future entries, I decided to do another small one before getting into the spirit of the season. And why not, since it's not so snowy here yet... but yes, winter is coming again. Inevitably.

This game here, River Rescue, was one of my childhood favourites on the ZX Spectrum, even if the gameplay never made much sense to my young mind. Of course, back then, I didn't have the know-how to read English instructions nor the ability to consult any others who knew what the game was all about. Who were you supposed to rescue, anyway? And how? Was there a bigger purpose to this game? It's about time I found out properly.

Unfortunately, there aren't any ratings for the original VIC-20 version, so I have no basis whatsoever for any expectations. At least most of the conversions have some fair scores all over: the Atari 8-bit version has a rating of 7.2 at Atarimania from 25 votes; the C64 version has 5.5 from 10 votes at Lemon64, and the Spectrum game has been given a 7.35 by 22 voters. Only the TI-99 conversion has no scores to be found.



Many people seem to regard this game as a side-scrolling version of River Raid, which isn't too far off, but you actually do have to do other things in this game than just shoot things and avoid other things. Although the bulk of the game is just the same thing - moving along the river, shooting at things while avoiding collision with anything, the aim here is to rescue explorers lost in the jungle, as the title would suggest. The rescue mission is executed by parking at the jetties scattered along the river.

According to Will Kemp himself, he started writing River Rescue long before River Raid was released, so any similarity is coincidental. As such, it's a hell of a coincidence that the two games play so similarly. To be honest, there is nothing particularly unexceptional about this game, but it's good, harmless bit of fun. Technically, it's even simpler than River Raid in some ways, but the additional rescue mission idea gives it a slightly more singular feel to it. If you like River Raid, you're more than likely to enjoy this one, so why not give it a go.



River Rescue was originally distributed only in cartridge format, but conversions and re-releases were available on cassettes as well. We need not compare the cartridges, but here's another one of those all-important tape loading time comparison lists for you to ogle.

Loading screens from different tape releases:
Top row: ZX Spectrum. Middle row: Atari. Bottom row: Commodore 64.
ATARI, Sparklers: 5 min 8 sec
ATARI, Alternative: 5 min 1 sec
C64, C. Sparks: 3 min 10 sec
C64, Alternative: 44 seconds
SPE, Thorn EMI: 2 min 6 sec
SPE, Sparklers: 1 min 55 sec
SPE, C. Sparks: 1 min 59 sec
SPE, Compulogical: 2 min 4 sec
SPE, Alternative: 2 min 8 sec

There is also a Creative Sparks tape version for the Atari 8-bit, but so far, it hasn't been made available to download on the internet, so I can't check out the time for it. Between the other two Atari tape versions, I would probably go for the Sparklers version if I were looking to buy one, due to the nicer cover art and loading screen, since the time difference is so small. The most interesting bit here is, as you see, the C64 versions, which have drastically different loading times. There is no proper loading screen in any version, but the loading scheme is a basic ROM loader in the slower one and some sort of a turbo loader in the Alternative Software re-release. Similarly to the Atari version, I haven't located all the releases for the C64 version either. At least the Spectrum version has a nice loading screen, which has two versions - the one with the tag for the original Thorn EMI release and the other one for the other releases. The only version that came out on disk was the TI-99/4A version, although it was originally supposed to come out on cartridge. In either case, it would be incomparable to the tape versions.



Having had no previous experience with the original VIC-20 version, I was surprised to see how different it actually is to the conversions. Of course, the basic idea is the same - you ride your speed boat along the river, stop at jetties to pick up lost explorers and leave them off to safety, while shooting and navigating your way through an increasingly busy river. The way the original differs from the conversions is a rather drastic way, actually. Whereas you pick up and deliver the lost explorers on every other version in an alternating in/out fashion, and ride along an endless and increasingly difficult river, the VIC-20 version requires you to pick up three explorers before you can take them all to safety at once. After having accomplished that, you are taken to a new river with a different colour scheme and a slightly higher difficulty level. According to the attract mode, the game features four differently coloured levels, but I admit to having been unable to reach the fourth level so far, so I have no idea if there is more.

Although the controls are as simple as you could ever expect them to be, there are still differences, which can be put into two camps: the original VIC-20 version along with the TI-99/4A version; and the three other conversions. On VIC-20 and TI-99, moving the joystick left and right makes the boat accelerate and decelerate, and the boat is firmly placed to one horizontal spot. Moving the joystick up and down moves the boat accordingly. In the three other versions, moving the joystick in any direction makes the boat move in the wanted direction, and the boat moves in a fast, steady pace. The fire button only fires your 30mm cannon.

If you prefer to use keyboard controls, here are the key setups for all the versions where available:

VIC-20: A = up, D = down, L = decelerate, ; = accelerate, P = fire
SPECTRUM: Q = up, A = down, O = left, P = right, 0 (zero) = fire
C64: 1 = up, ← = down, CTRL = left, 2 = right, SPACE = fire
The TI-99/4A version has only joystick controls.

The VIC-20 version has three game variations: 1 and 2 player modes with 3 lives each, and a hard 1-player mode with 6 lives. The TI-99 version also has 1 and 2 player modes, but there are three difficulty levels to choose from, each more difficult than the previous, but the more difficulty you want, the more lives you will get in turn. Or perhaps it's the other way round? I haven't really noticed much of difference in the difficulty levels. In the other versions, there are only regular one player and two player modes. Starting the game and fiddling with the options is usually straight-forward: the VIC-20 original starts the game modes instantly with any of the function keys (F1, F3, F5); the C64 version takes your game mode selection in the title screen from F1 and the game starts with F3; on the ATARI, the game mode is chosen with F3 and the game is started with F2. Only the SPECTRUM version has a strangely unintuitive main menu which only shows you which option is currently in use - if you can understand it. So, here's how it goes: KJ stands for Kempston Joystick and is selected from the 'J' key; SJ stands for Sinclair Joystick and is selected from the 'H' key (?!); K stands for Keyboard and is selected from the 'K' key; the 'S' key chooses the number of players, and the 'G' key starts the game. Pressing 'R' at any time during the game will take you back to the main title screen.

Only the details are left for inspection now, and I'm not entirely sure if any of this will make much of a difference in the end, but I suppose it's all up to how you personally look at these things. For one, the VIC-20 and TI-99 versions have all the floating things in the river destructible with a single bullet (well, there are some indestructible things in the TI version), while the other versions have logs that require three or four hits to be completely destroyed. Also, the original will keep any passangers that might have been aboard your boat when you die after you start your next life, while the other versions will drop all the passangers when you die. The ATARI and SPECTRUM versions do get some variety in gameplay, though, in the form of gradual additions of rocks of different sizes in the water and quite a bit later on, helicopters dropping bunches of mines in your way, which you must either shoot your way through or just dodge. Unfortunately, the C64 version shines with its lack of gameplay value here, having no variety. To make thing at least slightly more interesting, the SPECTRUM version features more variations in rock obstacles than any other conversion. Then again, the VIC-20 and TI-99 versions have the most varying width and windingness of the river, so it can be argued which one is the better one at that, but the argument would be fruitless. It's just different.

From an arcade perspective, the SPECTRUM version is the most interesting to play in the long run, but the VIC-20 original is the most plot-based of the lot, and offers enough of small differences to the others to be considered its own unique game almost. And as you might have gathered, the TI-99 version follows the VIC-20 version's form. From the other two, the ATARI version offers a better speed overall, as well as a more varied terrain, but both are more boring to play than the SPECTRUM version in the long run.




Since the game's action takes place in such an easily utilisable environment, it's nothing if not natural that even the title screen is overlaid on top of a random bit of the river. At least in most cases.

Title screens. Top left: Commodore VIC-20. Bottom left: ZX Spectrum. Bottom middle: Commodore 64.
Top right: Atari 8-bit, PAL (Sparklers version). Bottom right: Atari 8-bit, NTSC (Thorn EMI version).

Only the C64 version has a completely separate title screen, which makes it feel less iconic in a way, if indeed "iconic" is the word that can be used with this game. Each of the more "connected" title screens have their own distinctive style, which goes as far as the title logo itself. Although the VIC-20 version is the only one to feature a constantly scrolling title screen (meaning, the title will disappear from view within a few seconds), the SPECTRUM version has the most stylish title logo. Sure, the 1984 Sparklers re-release on the ATARI gives a nicely flashy version of the title, but it's not particularly stylised, is it?

Screenshots from the Commodore VIC-20 version.

Although these screenshots don't show the full extent of it, you can see that the original VIC-20 version has quite a varied width for the river. But then, you don't have all those undestructible landmass-type obstacles in the middle of it, so it's just as good to have a nicely winding river instead. All the logs, alligators and other bits floating in the river are just one block large, but the alligators and logs float from one side to the other, making your avoidance of them a bit more difficult, particularly in the more narrow passages. Also, the jetties are quite narrow, so you need to be careful when docking. The lower half of the screenshots are from levels 2 to 4, with the fourth level being from the attract mode; and this is the only version where you will get any sort of colour variety.

Screenshots from the ZX Spectrum version.

Instantly, we can see that the river is always of the same width and will not veer off into any direction on the SPECTRUM version. Having a jetty on both sides of the river simultaneously makes these bits not only look very different, but also act very different, as you can dock on either side. If you carry no passangers, the dock only acts as a pause of sorts. You need to collect the lost explorers from the upper side of the screen and take them to the jetties on the lower side - and this goes for all the rest of the versions as well. Uniquely on the SPECTRUM, we can see quite large masses of land in the river, while the C64 and ATARI versions feature fairly small rocks in their stead (although the Atari version does have a bit more variety than the C64). Even more uniquely, you can see those biplanes flying by, dropping mines in your way. The only thing missing from this version is any sort of graphical elements by the river, such as trees, bushes, name your riverside element.

Screenshots from the Atari 8-bit version. (PAL 3/4, NTSC 1/4)

The PAL and NTSC versions on the ATARI have a slightly different colouring, but otherwise are very much the same. All the elements in the game are similar to the SPECTRUM version, but appear at a slower rate. Instead of two biplanes, though, we get one boxy helicopter that drops a more randomized pattern of mines. At least the riverside looks more busy and natural than the over-simplified Spectrum version, and it does give some variation to the width and pattern of the river.

Screenshots from the Commodore 64 version.

Basically, the C64 conversion combines the lack of width variety from the SPECTRUM version with roughly the same obstacle variety of the VIC-20 version. The C64 version doesn't seem to have the mines dropping from helicopters or biplanes, but it least it has those bigger logs. Also, the riversides are a bit too busy. There is some small animation connected to the boat motor running, which you can't see in the screenshots due to it being so insanely quick that I couldn't grab a screenshot of it. I'd say that in a way, this is the most unappealing version of the game available, but at least it has a unique "new game" bit for when you start a new game.

Boat crashing screens, from left to right: Commodore VIC-20, Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum.

A minor point, I know, but even the crash animations are notably different. The best animation can be found on the SPECTRUM version, which has the most frames and the best-looking disintegration of the lot. The crash on the ATARI looks the weirdest, and has little familiarity to the event. It's still a bit better than the even stranger C64 crash, which looks like a wooden rowing boat falling into pieces and sinking instead of a nice proper explosion. The crash animation on the VIC-20 is an interesting one, actually - first, your boat sinks down and then comes back on the surface in small pieces. It's not like a proper explosion as such, but it does look more interesting than either the ATARI one or the C64 one.

Game Over screens, from left to right: Commodore VIC-20 (level 2), Commodore 64, Atari 8-bit, ZX Spectrum.

Finally, we have our obligatory Game Over screens, which offer no surprises whatsoever. I think the VIC-20 screen looks the nicest in that it has some continuous logic to the title screen, but the SPECTRUM screen looks just as nice with the text for once being shown below the river. Of those boxed texts, which the ATARI and C64 exhibit, I'm not particularly fond. The C64 version even has the letter "O" in brown colour, which must be a bug or something.

This might be a bit controversial, but I do think that even without properly ornamental riverside graphics, the SPECTRUM version just works the best. All the animations are more than adequately good - certainly better than on either C64 or the ATARI. Besides, every sprite is high quality, if monochrome, but that's something you would expect from this sort of a game, particularly of this age. And because the game is so simple, it only works for the game's advantage that the basic nature of the graphics is so primitive... as long as the game scrolls like a dream and plays with no problems. The VIC-20 version does have more variety, I grant you that, but it's also very blocky and more primitive in many ways, and the scrolling is kind of uncomfortable.

UPDATE, July 21st, 2016:
Although the previous sections have been updated in a less notable manner, I shall not be able to do it so this time due to the dubious colour formatting I was using at the time. Also, because I would have to combine the TI-99's screenshots with all the other pictures above, I decided to take the easy way out and include the TI-screens separately.

Screenshots from the TI-99/4A conversion.
When it comes to the in-game graphics, the TI-99 version follows the original style very well, but also brings a lot of unique features to the table as well: new enemies and obstacles as well as various types of crash animations. The land details are not quite as interesting as on either ATARI or C64, but that's a minor quibble, since all the graphics are otherwise very high quality. The title screen and Game Over screen are separated from the game, which makes this the only other version next to the C64 one with a separate title screen, as well as the only version with a separate Game Over screen. Too bad the Game Over screen offers nothing of interest, but at least you get a slightly randomly flying helicopter chopping on from left to right in the title screen.

Added to all this, the TI-99 version also happens to scroll fantastically smooth and fast, so I guess I can only conclude this one to be the best one overall, at least in graphics. Therefore, I also have to update the results with a shocker...!

1. TI-99/4A



River Rescue offers very little in terms of sounds, but the little that it does offer, is in most cases very adequate. Firstly, the original only features the boat motor droning (done with two low-range rumbles on top of each other), which is constantly there quite loudly in the background; and the rest of the sound effects are played on top of the motor droning, including: shooting (pew, pew), the S.O.S. signal from the nearby lost explorers, a crash sound (derived from the motor sounds), a tapping walk-noise, and a unique short melodic signal for indicating a nearing hospital, where you must take your explorers. Finally, if you manage to get 7000 points, you are given an extra life, which is signalled by a brief octave-jumping diddly sound effect.

The C64 version introduces music into the mix, but even there you only get to hear a single-tone "Get Ready" melody, which doesn't really add much to the game in terms of atmosphere. Frankly, it just takes away from it. But happily, the sound effects aren't too bad. You get a nicely low droning of the boat motor in one channel, on top of which we get to hear shooting and the bullet successfully hitting a destructible obstacle. The motor droning stops when you dock your boat, and when an explorer walks to or from your boat, you hear a tapping walk-noise (which is made from the same sound as shooting), and when an explorer is safely delivered to a hospital, the bonus is awarded with a long "ping" sound. And naturally, your boat's crashing makes a nice crash sound. The only sound missing from the mix is an extra life indicator, which is missing because the C64 version doesn't seem to offer any extra lives.

On the SPECTRUM, the in-built single-channel beeper is utilised to the best of its abilities, and the sound effects library is well in touch with the original. You get the boat motor droning while you're in the move, and you also get slightly different shooting effect on top of it, as well as an effect indicating a hit. Successfully destroying a log plays a new kind of a sound effect, which is an ascending noise, which again feels very familiar from various other Spectrum games. Crashing your boat makes a brief crash sound, followed by a longer falling sort of noise. When you dock on a jetty, the lost explorers make a descending tapping sound, and when you successfully deliver a lost explorer to the other side of the river, you hear a very small and high-pitched "pip". Another addition to the game comes, as mentioned before, in the form of the passing biplanes dropping some mines in your way - this event triggers another descending noise, which this time is a very high one and quicker than the crash noise. Even a Game Over has its very own sound effect here, which is four long descending "pewww" sounds in a row.

The ATARI version gives a finely balanced set of sound effects. The only thing I'm not very comfortable with is the very loud walking noise of the lost explorers, but everything else is very nice. Your boat motor drones very differently here - it's an interestingly metallic mid-range drone, which makes a slight turn in volume when you steer the boat into any direction. Shooting makes a very short, but attacking airy shooting noise, as it should. Hitting an alligator makes a weird ascending bleep, followed by an even weirder noise, and destroying a log adds a longer crash noise to that. Delivering an explorer to a hospital gives a short "pip" noise, similar to the one on the SPECTRUM. When you crash the boat, the crash sound is properly loud and huge. The Game Over effect again sounds much like the one on the SPECTRUM, but is played with more repeats, and it fades out. And the completely unique sound here is played for the helicopter, which is a nice flapping noise, as helicopters tend to have, and the sound fades in and out, as the helicopter comes on the screen and continues to the right. Destroying a mine sounds much like your own crashing, but is quieter. Like the C64, the ATARI version features no extra lives.

So far fantastically performed TI-99/4A conversion unfortunately loses a lot of points here. There are only a couple of notable sound effects during play - the boat engine droning and a crash noise, both of which are alright, I guess, but hardly able to keep your interest up. The only other sound is the helicopter flapping about in the title screen and later in the game.

I think the game could have been more notable with a good theme tune, but as it is, even the C64 version has no memorable music, although it happens to be the only version with any music at all. Luckily, the sound effects are very nice in most versions, and even the VIC-20 appears to its unlikely advantage here. Still, the ATARI version pleased my ears the most with its most balanced set and more varying effects than in any other version. Uniquely, the VIC-20 version features some sound signals indicating the approaching jetties, which would have been a nice addition to all the conversions as well. But the conversions are different enough already, so what's a missing sound effect or two added to that. It's a tough decision, but this is how I see the order being...

1. ATARI / VIC-20
3. TI-99/4A



Okay, so it's not necessarily a very balanced comparison, but it's done, and I'm quite happy with how it turned out. Since this is the first game on the blog to having been originated on the Commodore VIC-20, it was an interesting one to make due to all the differences. River Rescue used to be very much a Spectrum game for me, since that was the version I grew up with, but now I think the VIC-20 original is my current favourite. (UPDATE, July 21st 2016: Now it's the TI-99 version.) Whatever the results are, I do think each version is very playable, but there are surprisingly many differences that build up to make some of the versions more replayable than the others. So, without further ado, here are the final mathematical results...

1. COMMODORE VIC-20: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 9
1. TI-99/4A: Playability 3, Graphics 5, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 9
1. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 3, Graphics 4, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 9
Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 7
Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL4

Well, that's pretty much it, more or less. Of course one could say that my judging on the Sounds section is a bit questionable, and for once, I'd agree, because I'm not really sure how to place any of them so that the results would be reasonably truthful. But as far as I'm concerned, the two versions on the top in the final overall scores are worth exactly that in my mind. Go and play them yourselves, that's how you'll know the best.

Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed it!
Comments, suggestions and corrections are welcome!

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