Monday, 8 February 2016

BoneCruncher (Superior Software, 1987)

Designed and programmed by Andreas Kemnitz for Commodore 64, with music by Michael Winterberg.

Converted by Martyn Howard for the Acorn Electron and BBC Micro computers in 1987.

Converted by Andreas Staerkert for the Commodore Amiga, with music by Michael Winterberg. Released in 1988.



Here's another quick one for a change, because I also need to get through the games that I hinted on in that season-opening post in August. Yeah, this one was hinted in that collage. BoneCruncher (or Bone Cruncher, as it's sometimes seen written) was one of those games that was made during that time period, when Boulder Dash variants were made as variants, instead of clones, as they would be a bit later on. Perhaps it is not one of the most interesting games of all time, but it has some charm, and it was one of my childhood's more intriguing gaming experiences on the C64, which is why I chose to do a comparison of it.

At the time of starting to write this entry, the original version had a score of 6.8 from 15 votes at Lemon64, while its 16-bit sister had 6.88 from 8 votes at LemonAmiga. The only scores for the Acorn versions I found was once again only at MobyGames, where only the BBC Micro version had any votes - two of them, in fact, and the overall score was 3.0.



I might have mentioned this earlier, but the main reason why I haven't done a comparison of Boulder Dash (among others) is simply because it has so many versions out there (around 20 official ones) that it would take me a small eternity to thoroughly test all the variants based on the original game. But having a look at some proper deviations from the original form is not out of the question, and Bone Cruncher certainly is one. While there are a good lot of other interesting variations on the same basic idea, Bone Cruncher just happens to be one with the most interesting lot of conversions out there, even if there aren't quite as many of them.

You are Bono the dragon, and you operate a soap business. Your job is to collect bones and drop them into a cauldron to make soap, which you will then deliver to sea monsters that will be then able enjoy a good foamy bath. Unlike Boulder Dash, or even Superior's more famous Repton series, Bone Cruncher doesn't involve gravity in the same manner, and while the view is similar enough, it is not side-viewed, but top-down, even though the characters are viewed from the side. The game progresses by collecting keys and skeletons, but you also have to watch out for Glooks, which are this game's equivalent to boulders. In their natural state, Glooks are pretty harmless, but they always move towards the sea-monster you deliver the soap to after a designated timer runs its course, and as such, will change the maze layouts in their own manner, and they can also crush you, if you're not careful. There are two other deadly creatures in the game: monsters and spiders. Monsters can be turned into skeletons by pushing Glooks onto them, and spiders can eat skeletons. Bono also has an assistant named Fozzy, who can be used to hold back monsters, but he can get trapped easily. The game has 22 levels, so there's plenty enough challenge for a while, and the password system provides a welcome aid.

While Bone Cruncher is easy to label as a Boulder Dash variant due to its overhead view and basic style of play, it is different enough to be considered a singular type of a game. With its sense of humour, pretty graphics and great sounds, it's easy to recommend Bone Cruncher to anyone with even the least bit of interest into retrogames.



Most of you will likely be familiar with the controls and gameplay mechanics of Boulder Dash, but in case there is someone who isn't, let's elaborate a little. You move your character up, down, left and right to move him into your chosen direction exactly worth one such space's worth that you occupy - and indeed, anything else occupies. In BoneCruncher, though, everything slides through the space instead of switch places instantaneously, as in Boulder Dash, although this is only a visual gimmick - Bono cannot be controlled while he is moving from one space to the next. The same gameplay mechanism for pushing objects and opening up spots of grass or dirt applies - push the fire button and push your chosen controller into the desired direction in order to perform either of the said acts.

Whereas Boulder Dash features traditional gravity, BoneCruncher's point of view is top-down, so gravity doesn't really come to the play in the same manner. Instead of boulders that fall down, the Glooks I mentioned earlier act in their place, and move into the direction your previous delivery spot's staircase points towards. You can get crushed by a Glook, though, so you need to be careful with them. There are even some hidden Glook nests in the grass, that get opened as you walk over them, which will spawn as many Glooks as can fit in the immediate area, as allowed by their directives. As for the deliveries, you need to collect five skeletons and drop them into a cauldron to make soap, which you then must take to one of the sea monsters in the area, who are waiting for your soap so they can take a bath. Once you have delivered all the soap, the final recipient gives you a level code, before you are delivered to the next level.

There are two other monsters in the game, which can kill you on touch, and each has their own specific behaviour model - the green orc-like creatures, will follow you like a homing missile, so your best bet is to lure them into pits, even though hitting them with a Glook results in a skeleton; and the spiders will mostly follow the edges of their inhabitated open areas, unless their area somehow gets modified. The spiders can also be killed with Glooks, but they don't leave a skeleton behind. Should you lose a life in any manner, the delivery spots (staircases) act as checkpoints, and you will respawn next to one, if you have been able to actually deliver a piece of soap at that point. Granted, this doesn't allow for as much of variety as all the things in Boulder Dash, but at least you don't have to worry about a time limit here.

Apart from having different sets of passwords for the COMMODORE and ACORN versions, there is only one notable difference that might affect the gameplay in the later levels, and that is the speed of the timer for the Glooks' direction change. In the original C64 version, it runs relatively slowly compared to the later versions, but I really cannot say whether this is a good thing or not, because I haven't bothered to attempt getting into the very late levels. The AMIGA version runs the quickest from all, but it makes no real difference to the gameplay, apart from making the potential playthrough faster. At the other end of the scale, the ELECTRON version runs the slowest of the lot, with similar differences. There is also one less notable difference in the AMIGA version, which you can only find out by running into the problem deeper in the game - the green monsters that usually run after you aren't so quick at starting to follow you, and they can get lost or trapped more easily. Otherwise, it wouldn't be much of a problem, but you really do need to know where your enemies are at all times, so you won't get sudden lethal surprises.

Before we move on, I might as well mention something about the controls - mostly regarding the ACORN versions, since both AMIGA and C64 version use a joystick, so there's nothing mystical about them. If you're really interested in trying out either of the ACORN versions, the controls can be a bit tricky, if you're using an emulator, like BeebEm or ElectrEm. In BeebEm, you need to use the Default Keyboard Mapping in order to be able to control Bono properly. The keyboard controls on a Finnish PC keyboard are Z and X for left and right, and then Ö (the key to the immediate right of L) and * (skip two keys to the right from the previous one, just left of ENTER) for up and down. Still not very logical, but I have no idea how this would work on a more standard European keyboard. In ElectrEm, the up and down keys are Ä (the one between the previous two) for up, and - (the one below Ä, just one left from the right SHIFT) for down. It's less illogical, but I don't know how that looks to you guys. Perhaps the layout is more logical for the rest of the world, but I really have no idea. As far as I can tell, the ACORN versions do not support joystick controls. The problem with the current state of emulation is, that you cannot seem to be able to push the fire button (Space bar) and up simultaneously to clean up the space above you or push something upwards - you will merely move upwards. This makes it impossible to complete level 2, and I would imagine many levels beyond that, so I shall have to assume that this is not a lethal bug in the game and when you play it on a real Acorn machine, you will hopefully be fine.

Anyway, the four versions are similar enough, just the speed differences make them more or less comfortable. With the AMIGA version's curious gameplay adjustment regarding the green monsters, I have to consider it slightly less calculable, which is a big minus for what is practically a puzzle game. So, here's what I think...




I cannot assume that everyone reading this blog is familiar with every single Boulder Dash derivative and variant in the world, nor even the most well-known ones, so it's not of much use to say that BoneCruncher possibly bears the closest resemblance to the Repton games on the Acorn computers of all Boulder Dash derivatives. But since Boulder Dash is quite universally known, since it was made and released for well over 20 gaming computers, consoles and handhelds throughout the world, comparisons to that should be more descriptive and logical. If you have no previous familiarity with BoneCruncher, basically, what you can expect are graphics about double the size of those in Boulder Dash, as well as more detailed characters and animations. But let's start from the beginning, or more precisely, before the actual beginning, since we skipped the loading section earlier.

Loading screens. Top left corner: Commodore 64. Rest of the top row: Acorn BBC Micro.
Bottom left and middle: Acorn Electron. Bottom right: Commodore Amiga.

Unsurprisingly, the two ACORN versions have similarities in the loading screens, but the BBC MICRO has a completely unique one, which features some sounds and animation - Bono's mouth moves and some stars blink in the background. It's not a particularly pretty screen, but it is extra. The basic loading screen is a rendition of the game's cover art, which features Bono boiling up his skeletal soap mixture, Fozzy bringing in more material for the soup, a content-looking sea monster floating on water near a castle tower, a couple of Glooks flying around, as well as some stone structures and other suitable furnishings. Naturally, the C64 version has the most natural palette of the 8-bit versions, but the amount and quality of detail doesn't differ all that much. Of course it goes without saying, that the AMIGA version has the best overall quality in every way - colour, detail and screen resolution. I would say that the loading screens make no difference in the overall Graphics scores, but this time, having so would matter very little, if at all.

Title screens, left to right: Commodore 64, Acorn BBC Micro/Electron, Commodore Amiga.

For the most part, the two ACORN version look exactly the same, although the ELECTRON version seemed to have some sort of debris at the bottom of the screen - at least when I loaded it on ElectrEm. The Electron version didn't seem to work much at all on the BBC Micro emulator. But I have no way of knowing, how the game performs on a real Electron, so I will just assume that the game doesn't work properly on an emulator, so I won't have to include the Electron screenshots when they're unnecessary.

Having that gotten dealt with, let's focus on the actual comparing. Strangely enough, judging by the title screen in the original C64 version, it could almost be regarded as a Spectrum game - but of course, BoneCruncher was never converted for the Spectrum, and Bono's white eyes and fangs give it away. Everything else on the screen can be seen as hi-res monochrome graphics in single character block based environment, with the only colour differences being the yellow bordering for the info panel, the different shades of grey on the side pillars, and the blue box, within which Bono is minding his own business, picking his nose every now and then, and waiting for you to put him into action. The ACORN versions feature no hi-res graphics whatsoever, and there are much less decorations in the title screen, but there are more colours here than in the original. Otherwise, I'd be okay with this, but in the context, and in comparison to the two COMMODORE versions, the blockiness gets badly emphasized, and Bono doesn't have all his original quirky animations featured even in the ACORN version with higher capabilities. 

Screenshots from level 1, left to right: Commodore 64, Acorn BBC Micro/Electron, Commodore Amiga.

Here we can see two screenshots showing everything you will ever get to see in terms of level elements throughout the game, and they're both from the first level. Well, apart from the keys you need to pick up to open doors, but that can wait until level 2. The structural elements are: the walls, the skull-topped pillars, stairs, doors and dirt, or whatever that green/white/grey dotted covering is all over the place that keeps the nasties away from you. It must be some overgrown bush or something, that only Bono is somehow able to clear out of the way. Anyway, the structural bits are easy to recognize for what they are, although the stairs look like a different sort of a door in the AMIGA version, and the skull-topped pillars' skulls are hardly recognizable as skulls in the ACORN versions. But that's not much to worry about.

We can also see the cauldron and the trap pit in the top set of pictures, all of which look descriptive enough, but the ACORN version of the pit seems to have fangs. Considering the subject matter, not a bad idea, but still a strange little difference. As for the living and unliving things, there are some curious little differences in all three versions, although not necessarily anything of importance: Fozzy is red on the 8-bits and brown on the AMIGA; the Glooks are purple on the two COMMODORE versions (with white eyes on the AMIGA) and white with red eyes on the ACORN computers; the skeletons are white or light grey on all versions, but the C64 version features some strange colouring on their arms - which, I suppose, could mean that the skeletons are still fresh and have some flesh remnants on them; the green warthog-like creatures look quite evil on the C64, but their whitened eyes and slightly more rounded figures on the other versions make them look less scary; and the spiders look very little like spiders in any version, but again, the C64 has them the most threatening of the lot.

Sea monsters bathing + level passwords, left to right: Commodore 64, Acorn BBC Micro/Electron, Commodore Amiga.

When you do your deliveries, a screen comes up, where a huge green sea monster is bathing, and you appear at the back, in the window of a lookout tower. On the ACORN versions, there is only one screen, where the sea monster is toweling himself, and Bono waves at the camera. Also, the picture is just a small window at the center of the action screen. The C64 and AMIGA versions have two different screens, in which the monster either towels himself, or brushes his right armpit. In the AMIGA version, the two screens also feature slightly different looking monsters, instead of just the one design doing two different things. Naturally, there's also some other details in the AMIGA screens that take some advantage of the 16-bit machine's capabilities. The two pictures are apparently randomly chosen, so when you get to the final delivery of a level, the only set thing on the screen is the text bit with the password and some weird quote underneath. Oh yeah, the ACORN versions feature no weird quotes, either.

Screenshots from the starting point of level 2, including the only item of the game that wasn't featured in the level 1 picture.
From left to right: Commodore 64, Acorn BBC Micro, Acorn Electron, Commodore Amiga.

The only instance in which the ELECTRON version differs in any graphical way from the BBC MICRO version is, when you get to the second level, and probably in every other level from that point on, although I can't tell for sure if there's more variations in colour later on due to the controllability problems I mentioned earlier. The ELECTRON version stays in the same colour scheme throughout the game, while the BBC MICRO version changes all the red bits from the other levels to purple. There is also one rather surprising omission in the ACORN versions concerning graphics - unlike on the two COMMODORE machines, Bono is never shown from behind, and instead, when he walks up or down, his front side is shown. But that's all I can really say about the graphic details, because most of the animations are similar enough on the 8-bits, and the AMIGA version offers more frames for the animations, as well as quicker animation. There just isn't enough data to go on by, other than...

Death screens and Game Over screens, left to right: Commodore 64, Acorn BBC Micro/Electron, Commodore Amiga.

...the obligatory "life lost" and "Game Over" screens. Again, the ACORN versions don't have an actual "life lost" screen, but after Bono is down, the screen dissolves and fades back to the last checkpoint. Somehow, I prefer having a screen showing your skeletal remains and a message saying "Sorry, one life lost - better luck next time" than a less gruesome screen fade effect. And although there is thankfully a proper "Game Over" screen, it's still not much better. Then again, the two COMMODORE versions offer nothing new either, so it's a bit of a hit-and-miss for all versions.

Anyway, I guess the results are quite clear this time. With plenty of colour, good animation and hi-res sprites, it's not difficult to win over lo-res sprites, lesser amount of bathing screens and animation frames, as well as a relative lack of colour. The scores for this section also give a clear order of how smoothly each version scrolls.




All four versions of BoneCruncher feature distinctly different soundtracks, so I'm going to take it a bit differently this time and start with the least sound-rich version, and move upwards from there.

So we begin with the ACORN ELECTRON version, which is the only one that offers no music whatsoever, only some bleepy sound effects at the most. At least every bleepy sound effect has their own sound and place, and make this version tolerably audible, if not exactly fun to listen to.

Big brother for the previous, the BBC MICRO version features an in-game tune, which, quite bafflingly, is a rendition of Mozart's "Rondo alla Turca" (from Piano Sonata No.11), although it features only the first section of it. The music is accompanied by a fair range of slightly more effective sound effects than on the other Acorn, but much of it is still nothing more than bleepiness. The BBC MICRO version can also boast of having a bit of speech played during the loading sequence, when the exclusive loading screen shows up, but the sampled speech bit isn't exclusive - it's also featured in the C64 tape loader, when the loading screen appears. But on the whole, the BBC version is much more preferable to its little brother.

Michael Winterberg wrote the soundtracks for both COMMODORE versions, but for some reason, the music is entirely different on both versions. The C64 version makes use of the SID chip in rather unorthodox ways, and the entire soundtrack features seldomly heard percussive melodic instruments along with a fully simulated drum kit, as well as proper low-end frequencies to perform the bass lines when appropriate. The main melodic instrument sounds somewhat like a twangy guitar or some other plucked instrument. Mostly, the tunes on the C64 version are rather ominous and have a feel of mystery about them with the constant minor key and strangely weaved melodies, but still have a high rocking energy, which is really what gives BoneCruncher its much-needed personality to go well together with the graphics and grotesque humour. Unfortunately, there are no sound effects, but I had to actually make this comparison to notice that - I wouldn't have noticed it because the percussively rich music fills that need nicely.

For the AMIGA, he made completely new tunes, which aren't bad, but don't have a similar recognizability factor to them as the C64 tunes have. Somehow, the sampled instruments don't really sound nearly as impressive as the synthesized ones pushed out from the SID chip, and the melodies tend to be mostly accompanying the rhythm tracks, which makes them little more than chord progressions. On the whole, the Amiga soundtrack is rather uninspiring and forgettable, although it's still miles ahead of either of the ACORN versions. At least, there are some suitably disgusting sound effects, which saves this version a bit. I know I should give the AMIGA version a win just for the sake of technical superiority, but the C64 version has the more suitable - and more particularly, memorable soundtrack.




(UPDATE! - 10th of October, 2017)

Andreas Kemnitz (ca 1987)
- taken from the cover of Morphicle.
Very recently, I was contacted by BoneCruncher's original writer, Andreas Kemnitz himself! With kind permission, I shall take this opportunity to publish what he said about the game, featuring not only interesting bits and pieces of the game itself, but also comments about his other games. Here's what he said:

BoneCruncher was never intended to be a clone of Boulderdash or Repton, as you mentioned, the gameplay is more on the puzzle/brain side, than action, even if the first level seems more like a BD clone, it was simply to introduce the gameplay and logic within small rooms to show, how the game mechanics work, very uncommon for a game made in these years to have a in game tutorial to learn how to play. The Boulder Dash look is similar, due to the characters being shown from their front side, instead of above, but I tried to make the graphics more interesting and that’s the only possible way to show a funny animation in these days. The gameplay becomes more advanced in higher levels and you have to calculate the gravity, prepare the underground and time your way to reach a special place to solve the level (therefore the counter had a special time, so you can arrange some work on the level, before gravity changes, its all part of the puzzles.

Most magazines that gave BoneCruncher bad reviews never recognized the different gameplay and put it in the BD drawer. I think they only played 2-3 levels and never reached higher levels. They never used Fuzzy as a shield to block Monsters or use him to transform the Monsters into Skeletons. BTW: you mentioned spiders can be killed - that’s not possible, they can only be trapped an move again, if space or gravity allows it. The Direction speed time must be the same on all versions, otherwise puzzles are a problem, perhaps the overall movement on the version differs, but it has to be synchronized with Bonos movement (this was an error in the first BBC version I had tested, along with Glooks falling/rolling beside Monsters and not transforming them into skeletons, the puzzle logic was: if a Monster can’t move for a moment = RIP)

Regarding the C64 Graphics: I wanted to present the game in hires mode, so I could deliver more details in the graphics, therrfore the Spectrum look. All graphics except Bono (made from sprites overlays) are changed character sets, and therefore only one color per 8x8 pixels possible. Therefore the Creatures and Fuzzy were designed in 8x8 pixel blocks so that I could give some additional colour - and therefore Fuzzy's eyes are big too. ;) It was the only possible way to make this game, and so no pixel-scrolling was possible, there was to much processing time needed to calculate the gravity for the complete level, because a gravity change or a Glook volcano can change everything every time. The skeleton “flesh” on the arms seems to be an error ;) should be light or dark gray, but back in the day (1986) I had a small old color TV and to recognize colors on the self made editor was a pain for the eyes ;)

Additional info:
As far as I remember the BBC version has 2 more levels in the beginning. Level 3 and 4 are the added levels, not in my original version and not designed by me. Also, my original name for Bono was Mork, but Superior feared copyright problems with the Mork and Mindy TV series.

I wish someone could remake my game for next gen platforms, it was fun and still is in the higher levels. I have been in contact with the TheC64 mini console team and offered them the game for free, that would be nice if possible.

Regarding other games:
I wrote Morphicle (never earned a cent on it, due “the Power House “ business strategy, they were new at the time, weeks later insolvent, they sold my game to their own new company and there you are. [Also wrote] Scarab (nice little game) and Caverns of Xydraphur (not so proud, my first steps on programming ) too, as well as Vermeer (together with Paul Foerterer). I never wrote for other platforms, but I planned to make a sequel to BoneCruncher and sent the concept of it to some developer studios around 1999-2000, never got response.

- Andreas Kemnitz, 4th-7th of October, 2017.

Thanks a-plenty to mr. Kemnitz, hope we'll hear from him in the future in some form or another - perhaps he will get his long-awaited sequel to BoneCruncher finally out!



So we arrive at the end again, and the results are very much as you might have expected them to be. Even if the Acorn versions are better on real machines than what I experienced through emulation, they still wouldn't be much of a match to either of the two Commodore versions. The problem with the Amiga version is that it's too fast and unpredictable, but it makes up for it in better graphics and some rude noises. Then again, you will need a proper Amiga 500 with the original chipset for the graphics to work properly - I haven't found a properly working adf version that would work perfectly on WinUAE yet. In the end, I can only really recommend the winner of this lot, even without the following mathematical results:

1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 10
2. COMMODORE AMIGA: Playability 1, Graphics 4, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 8
3. ACORN BBC MICRO: Playability 3, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 7
4. ACORN ELECTRON: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 4

If Boulder Dash has stood the test of time as well as it has appeared to, there is no reason why anyone enjoying a bit of that one shouldn't take a look at some alternatives. BoneCruncher offers a good one at that, with unique challenges, lots of character and humour, as much in graphics as in music, I'd say. Sure, the speed of the game is relatively slow compared to Boulder Dash, but the game is viewed so much closer to the ground, that you wouldn't even want to have it all that fast. Strangely enough, there are no remakes of BoneCruncher, while Repton and Boulder Dash certainly do. Well, call me partial if you will, for that I certainly admit to be in this case.

Thanks for reading once again, I hope you enjoyed it! See you next time with something hopefully very different indeed!

1 comment:

  1. I almost had forgotten this game on C64. I liked the energetic music in the background. Never thought this game as a Boulderdash variant when I was a kid. Maybe because of more bigger sprites.