Programmed by Jon K. Menzies
Graphics by John Cassells and Damon Redmond
Music by Jeroen Kimmel
Converted for the ZX Spectrum by Imagitec:
Programming by Nigel Speight
Graphics by Damon Redmond
Music by Nigel Pritchard
Released by Gamebusters in 1989
Also released for the IBM-PC compatibles by Cascade Games in 1989
Conversion credits are currently unknown.
Having noticed only recently that the blog hasn't had a comparison of any breakout games during 2014, I decided to postpone another big one until a bit later on. So here's a comparison of my favourite breakout game ever, TRAZ (short for TRansformable Arcade Zone) by Cascade Games. Instead of getting together again with our usual threesome, one of the bunch is different, since the Amstrad version wasn't released, although it was advertised to have been in the making. Shame, but I suppose it would have been just a boring Spectrum port in any case.
At the time of release, TRAZ was well received by the gaming press, averaging at well over 80%. The current ratings at our favourite websites are as follows: a score of 7.6 from of total of 71 votes at Lemon64, and a 5.22 from 18 votes at World of Spectrum. Again, scores for the DOS version have been impossible to find from anywhere else than MobyGames, where the score is currently 3.8 from 2 votes. I suppose you could easily see where this is going...
DESCRIPTION & REVIEW
Cascade Games is probably best known for their infamous Cascade 50 cassettes, but they did release some properly good games during their short lifespan in the gaming industry. Along with the ACE series, TRAZ was one of their best received games, and for good reasons.
Like any other breakout, the main idea in TRAZ is to empty each room from breakable blocks, and continue in this manner until all the rooms have been done. Happily, there are quite a few fresh ideas here. The game is played within a maze-like map of 64 rooms, which is started each time from one of (probably) eight randomly chosen rooms. Some of the rooms are dead-ends, some will give you access to all four directions, etcetera. The game can be played in a single-player mode or in a team mode, like Batty from a year earlier, but both will feature multiple bats (up to four) in most of the screens, and sometimes they are stationed both vertically and horizontally. Curiously, in the team mode, you are both responsible for the same score and the same lives, so it truly is a team mode. The rooms in the game are again different to what was the norm in breakout games so far: there are no open ends, but instead the rooms feature electric fences of sorts, so you have no chance to get immunity bonus for that, but there are lots of other kinds of bonuses. The problem is, they all come in the form of a rotating question mark flying in a random direction, so you have no idea what sort of bonus you will be getting from each item. Some of the bonuses are really good (projectile weapon, steel ball that goes through everything, automatic level completion), some are only there to irritate you (ball rolls around at one spot and randomly chooses some direction to continue towards), and some are really bad (invisibility), so it's really a game of strategy and skill in addition to being a gambling game.
In other words, this is certainly not a greedy man's game. Go for a bonus gamble at the wrong time and you're screwed. Contrary to what you would probably expect and even wish from a breakout game, TRAZ is not exactly one of those hang-your-brains type arcade games. And since it also has an in-built level construction kit, it's very much a game you can easily obsess about, because it offers so much more possibilities than your regular one-directional breakout, having so many different sorts of blocks. So, if you are a fan of breakout games in general, and have missed out on this one, I urge you to try it out as soon as you have finished with this.
As we have come to expect, there were disk versions of this game also released, but the Spectrum version was only ever released on tape. Which is fine, since the loading times comparison is usually made for the tape versions anyway. The DOS version cannot be launched from anything but a floppy drive, so to launch it in DOSbox, you must set the game directory to be mounted as the floppy drive (A:). Now, here are the tape loading times:
|Loading screens from Commodore 64 (left) and ZX Spectrum (right)|
3 minutes 53 seconds
5 minutes 26 seconds
5 minutes 34 seconds
We can't have a loading section without the loading screens. Naturally, the DOS version has no such thing, so there are only two of them this time. Both are renditions of the cover art, which is great and unique even. While there is less action on the Spectrum loader, I do like it more for being more "in your face" than the C64 version, which has a more spacey look to it, but feels more like a loading screen for a nondescript puzzle game than TRAZ. The C64 tape loader at least has a loading tune to keep you more entertained during the loading, but unfortunately it's the same one as the game's actual theme tune... which is great, don't get me wrong, but it's just boring that they couldn't come up with something different.
One area that this game loses in to Arkanoid and Krakout is the inability to use analog controllers, such as a mouse or paddles. But I'm guessing they kept this option out of the equation due to the necessity of using both axis of the joystick simultaneously for both players. Otherwise, the controls are very much the same as you would expect from any breakout game.
In addition to the already mentioned effects caused by those wacky random question marks, the game features a certain kind of a glass block, that will change the ball's direction by about 45 degrees, maximum, to one of two directions randomly. If you only ever intend to play in single player mode, the only other element that affects playability in any way is something that is already so familiar from all the other breakout clones from previous 5 years that it took me a while to even remember it: the monsters. In TRAZ, they spawn from rectangular monster-spawning boxes that look almost like TV-screens showing static, and then they move around in a fairly random fashion around the rooms, and once they collide with any of the players' bats, they will slow down your movement down to about 1/5 of the original speed. In two-player mode, there is one more factor that is completely unique for TRAZ, and thankfully so: the game switches the controlled bats around randomly, as in the one you were only just controlling, is now under the other player's control, and vice versa. Of course, having a maze-like map you need to work your way through affects the gameplay in that you need to either remember every screen or draw the map on paper so you don't need to remember. So it adds an element to it more familiar to classic text adventure fans.
As it was with Batty, the quality and style of graphics actually affect the gameplay a bit, but most of it shall have to wait until the Graphics section. The C64 and DOS versions play remarkably similarly for the most part, and they feel almost as if they were made by the same team, mostly using the same code as on the C64. Currently, we have no idea of the conversion team, but hopefully, someday some light shall be shed on this mystery. There are only a couple of notable differences to the game mechanics: on the C64, the bats have some slight sense of inertia and acceleration in a nudging sort of way, and the DOS version has a more simplistic approach to them; and a bigger problem on the DOS version comes related to the monsters, which completely block your bat's movement if they get even near you, as well as eat up the flying question marks before they have a chance to get to the bats. Otherwise, everything moves in a manageable speed, and all the blocks work as randomly as they are supposed to. Most importantly, both versions are relatively easy to follow.
All the differences in the SPECTRUM version make it require its very own paragraph. The most notable one is the way everything moves on the screen, which isn't very smooth or easy to follow - mostly due to the general nature of the graphics, but also because everything really moves very differently. Particularly the monsters, which are freakishly quick. The speed of the question marks makes them usually impossible to catch, even if they were otherwise within your reach. As for the bats and the balls, they have a slightly choppy way of moving, which is not at all like on the other two versions. This makes it more difficult to judge distances and angles. The two-player mode has been made virtually impossible to play due to both players' bats having the same colour, and when the bats get switched, not even a sound effect is played to mark the occasion. So you're better off without a friend for this version. But it's not as unplayable as this makes it sound - it's just a whole lot more difficult and unpredictable than the other two versions.
Then there is the construction kit. In order to use it, the game must delete all the other level data from memory, so you are inquired for your certainty of this action before entering the construction kit, which is rather thoughtful of the creators. In all the versions, the game gives you some preliminary instructions for using the editor menu. Once you get to the actual editing bit, you are given a help key (apart from the DOS version, where it is F1), which activates a screen of all the functions you are able to do with the editor. Naturally, the abilities of each version's editor is directly related to how well the game performs graphically, so we will get into that a bit later on. There actually are no mentionable differences apart from those, so I'll get on to give you a quick walkthrough of the editor.
To meet the criteria for having a fully playable level, you must have some blocks on the screen, a bat and a ball. Once you have fulfilled your level editing fantasies, you need to store the level into the memory, and perhaps even more prefarably, to your chosen storage media. Then, to get to play it in the real game mode, you need to set a location for your level on the map, and make the game start from there. From there onwards, you can build your very own TRAZ game, but if you want to see how the game actually ends, you can easily achieve that by making only one easy level and complete it in proper mode.
Other than having no inertia or anything of the kind on the DOS version, and the problems with the monsters, there is also a slightly uncomfortable cursor in the editor, which moves in a block-by-block method. Apart from these, it plays almost as nicely as the original. The SPECTRUM version is... well, not very good, as you might have gathered.
1. COMMODORE 64
3. ZX SPECTRUM
You can tell by the title screen already that there was either a clear lack of effort or wrong people working on both the conversions. The C64 original has a cyan background, and a nicely big and colourful TRAZ logo at the top of the screen, with a discreet little line-effect going from the central line and dividing up and down every second, as if the letters were showing you something going forwards in a tunnel or something. Below the TRAZ logo, you see a grey area going from side to side, over the borders. This grey area show the credits and high scores in turns, fading in and out. Once you press the fire button, the grey area turns to red, and the three menu items are shown instead: Single Player, Team Mode and Construction Kit.
|Title screens with credits and menus: Commodore 64 (left), DOS (middle), ZX Spectrum (right)|
From the other two, the DOS version looks the closest to the original, but the TRAZ logo isn't animated in any way, nor do the credits or menus have any different background colouring. The CGA colours don't allow for more than 4 colours on screen at once, so they have tried to make the best of it. It looks a bit uncomfortable, but it could be worse. As can be seen on the SPECTRUM, which is very dark (as in black) and has no proper title logo for TRAZ - only the first screen of the title/credits sequence, which displays the full meaning of the acronym in red instead of the title itself. Then again, the TRAZ logo was already shown in the loading screen, so it kind of evens out with the C64 version in that sense.
|Screenshots from TRAZ's two-player modes: Commodore 64 (left), DOS (middle), ZX Spectrum (right)|
NOTE: On the C64 screen, I have manually included the black ball, but otherwise the screen is unmodified.
Getting in to the game itself, then, we take a look at a few of the random starting rooms, because it's too much work trying to get any of the other rooms to show up. First, let's focus on the bats and the ball. On both the C64 and DOS versions, the bats are relatively wide by default, if you compare them to bats in other breakout games such as Arkanoid and Krakout. Here, the width is similar to a stretched bat in those games. The SPECTRUM version has been made more faithful to the other games, which doesn't work too well, since the action is so much quicker and more unpredictable in TRAZ. The original bat colours are red for player one and blue for player two, both with a white shiny surface. In the DOS version, the colours are shown at both ends of the bats. On the SPECTRUM, both players are coloured the same, which is illogical and confusing. The colours depend entirely on the colour scheme used in each room, so it's one of two options: either cyan against blue or yellow against red. Of course, this makes the ball cyan or yellow as well. The DOS version has a completely white ball. Uniquely, the original C64 version has some exclusive colouring effects during the play: the otherwise white ball's secondary colour (the small amount of darker area at the lower right half) depends on which player touched the ball first, so it's either red or blue during each occasion. Also, when you get a steel ball upgrade, the lower right edge turns black. As a bonus compared to the two conversions, your bats and ball(s) all have shadows, so it's easier to follow the game.
|Two level graphics comparisons and a random level selector.|
Left: Commodore 64. Middle: DOS. Right: ZX Spectrum.
So, as I said, the SPECTRUM version only has two colour choices in the backgrounds, but it does have a wide selection of background textures. Some of them work nicely, some horribly. In the original C64 version, the backgrounds are quite varied in colour and texture, and sometimes they are even made to scroll to some direction. In neither of the conversions do you get to see any background scrolling. The DOS version has only one type of background wallpaper texture, although it comes in quite a few colours, so it's not as bad as it could be. But it does get more monotonous more quickly than the two background colours on the Spectrum due to having no other textures, even if the lack of graphics helps to make the game easier to play.
|Screenshots from the TRAZ Construction Kit and the help screen.|
Left: Commodore 64. Middle: DOS. Right: ZX Spectrum.
If you hadn't noticed each version's limitations while you were playing the original levels, you will do so if you decide to make your own levels. The C64 version can use 8 different colours for all the blocks simultaneously, one of 16 different wallpaper patterns at a time (some of which scroll), one of 8 background colours and one of 7 border colours at a time. Compared to that, the DOS version feels truly restricted, as it only has one wallpaper pattern set on one of 8 background colours, and only a single preset colour for each item you can use - some blocks are pink, some cyan. Although the SPECTRUM version only has two different background colours (yellow + red, and cyan + blue), there are 16 different (or 15, to be more precise) wallpaper patterns to choose from, and all the blocks can be chosen from 3 colours: red, yellow and blue. Only the monster generators and glass blocks are of one predesigned colouring.
Looking at things from a strictly aesthetic point of view, the SPECTRUM version isn't that bad, really. If you were only to look at it, I'd say it's nicer to look at than the DOS version. The DOS version is easier to play due to the lack of graphical fineries. Neither of them, however, are even close to being of a similar quality as the original C64 version. It's more colourful, more detailed, easier to look at, and it even has better animations, which I didn't really bother to focus on this time.
1. COMMODORE 64
2. ZX SPECTRUM
What all early breakout games have in common in terms of sounds, is that there's not much of music in the games. The most important part of the soundscape had always been the sound effects, even though Krakout on the C64 could be considered one of the rare examples that promoted music over sound effects. TRAZ doesn't really deviate from the old norm much, as it has one theme tune to play during the loading screen and the main menu screen, but the rest of the game (including the editor) has a set of sound effects. Mind you, all of it is rather fantastic. The theme tune by Jeroen Kimmel is a good-natured rocking little number that is among the happiest up-tempo pieces of all C64 tunes, and to me, it's even more memorable than either Galway's Arkanoid tune or Daglish's Krakout tunes. Then again, I like this game more, so maybe that is why. The sound effects are a bit difficult to describe, but I always thought of them as humorous. Instead of hearing a bright "dinggg" every time the ball hits one of the bricks, you get a low thud. When a monster spawns, you get a sound almost reminiscent of a squeeze horn, but very muffled and silly. When a question mark gets thrown out of a block, it sounds like a whistle of sorts. All the other noises are more mechanical and even a bit techno, and give a nice contrast to the more organic-sounding effects.
As expected, the DOS version only features some blips, blurps and other similar effects, produced by the PC beeper. So there is no real character to the sounds at all, and there is no music either.
The SPECTRUM version isn't much better, since it was only ever released as a 48k version, so it also only has a single-channel soundtrack. At least you get the theme tune for this version, although it is only played once after the game has loaded. Actually, it's a bit funny, because it is played over a screen that says "Please wait" before the title comes up and the credits start to roll... and you don't even have to wait for anything other than the music, if you're so keen on hearing it. In contrast to the DOS version, the only sound effect you will hear during the game is a small "tick" sound, which is played for everything, really. I'm almost of a mind to give the Spectrum version a tied place with the DOS version due to at least having music, but since the sound effects are amazingly even less characteristic, and the tune is only played once in the "Please wait" screen, I can't really give it a higher place than it deserves.
1. COMMODORE 64
3. ZX SPECTRUM
For a change, we're not having a game with a heavy emphasis on scrolling, so one would have expected that the Spectrum version would have performed better, but no. What we can gather from this comparison is, that it doesn't really matter on which platform the game was originated - the conversions need to have at least as much work put into them as the originals in order to have some sort of a chance in the comparison. Only the DOS version manages to almost compete with the original in playability, but even that one has too many problems of its own to be considered even nearly as good. So, while choosing this game as a subject for comparison might not be a very fruitful and interesting one in terms of balance, it is a very good example of how much the conversion team's effort have to do with the outcome, and not just the hardware they're working on. Here are the fairly obvious mathematical results:
1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 9
2. DOS: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 5
3. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 4
I'll end this comparison with thanks to my friend Pedro Benecol for the sudden inspiration for this entry. And thanks to everyone else for reading this stuff again, I hope you enjoyed it. Comments, suggestions and corrections are more than welcome - particularly concerning the DOS version's credits.