Thursday, 27 April 2017

Kane (Mastertronic, 1986)

Designed and written for the Commodore 64 by John Darnell in 1985, with additional graphics by Nicole Baikaloff and Janet Porch.

Converted for the Amstrad CPC and Sinclair ZX Spectrum by Simon Freeman.

Conversion for the Acorn BBC Micro and Electron produced by Mike Woodbridge; no further credits are known.

Also converted for the Commodore 16 and Plus/4, but no credits are known.

All versions published by Mastertronic in 1986.



I thought this might be a good time to do a comparison of a game by the recently re-emerged John Darnell, whose work I shall be talking about after the main event. Kane was always one of my favourite games of his, although he has more ambitious games in his softography, and because I know a few of my C64'ing friends also have a soft spot for this particular game, it seemed like a good choice to end this month with.

Although Kane was never a press favourite, it should be noted that this was a budget title from Mastertronic, and there's only so much you can expect from a game costing around two pounds in early 1986. Currently, it has a perfectly respectable score of 7.4 from 61 votes at Lemon64, while its C16 interpretation has a rating of 6.7 from 11 votes at Plus/4 World. From the two regular Amstrad websites, the score at CPC Power is 15.89 from 20.00, and at CPC Game Reviews, the reviewer has given it a 6 out of 10. However, the best community score has been given at the World of Spectrum website: a 7.83 from 26 votes. Naturally, scores for the Acorn versions are nowhere to be found. Still, it seems like we're in for another real treat...



Kane was designed as a multi-genre arcade game, which is set in the vague timeframe of the Wild West. As described by the instructions included within Kane's cover leaflet, the uncommonly honourable ultimate aim of the game is to negotiate a peace treaty with the Wagari tribe of native Americans. To accomplish such a task, you, as Marshall McGraw, hero of the West, must first gain the trust of the Wagaris by shooting down migrating ducks with a bow and arrows, which will earn you peace tokens. Then you must get through the renegade-infested town of Kane, in order to catch the train to Washington, and get the peace tokens to the President of the United States. If only things were that simple in real life, and particularly the modern version of it.

More specifically, the game has (or at least, was intended to have) two types of segments: shooting levels and horse riding levels, and the shooting levels come in two varieties - bow & arrow and pistol shooting. For the longest time, it was thought that Kane is just another arcade game with no ending, but C64 Endings, a website dedicated for revealing C64 game endings where available, found out that you need to collect 10 peace tokens and bring them to Washington, before you get to see the ending. Don't click on the link if you wish to get to the ending yourself.

At the time of release, Kane was one of the more higher quality games that Mastertronic had to offer on their so far fairly low-budget catalogue, and would remain as such from Mastertronic's original catalogue, as the quality requirements for even budget games started to rise, and more budget publishers such as Codemasters and Hewson's Rack-It would start to properly compete. For me, Kane still remains one of the frequently revisited games I play on heavy gaming nostalgia trips, because it ticks so many boxes that are requirements for me in old games: different sorts of segments to make it less monotonous, graphics with lots of character and good sounds. If the game is cheap when you buy it, and find it surprisingly good, it's all the better for it. Of course, the price tag from 1986 doesn't really matter that much these days, but perhaps for modern gamers, the value shows in cheap modern indie games, that can be just as immersive as games that cost 50 dollars or euros, or whatever the equal amount of money in other currencies. Mastertronic is one of those companies you need to thank for having good cheap games even today, and Kane is one of the games that raised the bar in quality.



A second loading section in a comparison article in a row, what's all this then? Well, seeing as Kane was only ever released on machines that used cassette tapes as one of their main distribution media, I couldn't pass it this time. So, without further ado, here's another comparison of tape loading times for all you loading time fanatics...

ACORN ELECTRON / BBC MICRO: 3 minutes 5 seconds
AMSTRAD CPC: 10 minutes 57 seconds
COMMODORE 16 & PLUS/4: 1 minute 18 seconds
COMMODORE 64: 5 minutes 40 seconds
ZX SPECTRUM: 3 minutes 13 seconds

No surprises there. The AMSTRAD version shows clear superiority in the art of wasting time, as they often did in their early days, while the C16/+4 version wastes no time loading, since there is so much less code to load in the first place. But as it has been often pointed out, loading times rarely have anything to do with the quality of the game itself.

Loading screens. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 16/+4.
Bottom row, left to right: ZX Spectrum, Acorn BBC Micro and Electron.

We have an interesting bunch of loading screens this time. Only the AMSTRAD version has the original C64 loading screen copied, although the colours have been naturally altered to fit the AMSTRAD palette. The C64 version looks darker, and some of the finer details and shadings look more fitting for the C64, but some other colours and details look better on the AMSTRAD. I can't say it's one of my favourite loading screens ever, and it doesn't even try to replicate the game's cover art, unlike one of the ACORN loaders does. It doesn't look too bad, but honestly, I've never come across this pixelation of the cover art in any of the ACORN versions, although it's apparently supposed to be in some ELECTRON version. Most of the ACORN loaders have two loading screens: first, a huge Mastertronic logo, and then, the desolate Kane town centre. The SPECTRUM and C16/+4 versions have no proper loading screen.



Once again, let's start with the controls, since it's the most natural starting point. The C64 original is strictly joystick-controlled from port 2, although the main menu items are activated on the function keys as instructed. The SPECTRUM version can be played on either the cursor keys or a joystick in port 1 of the ZX Interface 2, but you need to actually load the game on either a proper 48k Spectrum or in 48k mode of a 128k machine to make it work properly. The AMSTRAD version can be played on either a familiar enough keyboard set up (Q and A for up and down, N and M for left and right, Z for fire), the cursor keys or a joystick. The COMMODORE 16/+4 version should be possible to control on a joystick in port 1, but at least when using an emulator (YAPE), it doesn't really work properly, as you can't control down, so your only option is to use the keyboard. Even more curiously, the instructions leaflet give you the wrong keys, and there are multiple combinations you can use. The only one that I found even remotely comfortable and logical was put my right hand on the keys A, Q and 2 (left, shoot and right), and left hand on backspace and asterisk (up and down).

Only the ACORN versions are a bit more difficult to handle on emulators, since the keyboard mapping on both Electron and BBC Micro are a bit different, and the mappings on both emulators can be switched if necessary. On a real BBC Micro, for instance, the controls are Z and X for left and right, : and / for up and down, and RETURN for fire. You have to consult your country-specific keyboard layout for the keys, and you might also need to switch from logical keyboard mapping to default keyboard mapping for the keys to be even able to find the up and down keys in this particular game.

Now that we have that area cleared, let's move on describe the deeper workings of Kane. First of all, it offers a practice mode for each level separately, which is something you rarely see in any other kind of game genre than sports - multi-event sports in particular, such as Decathlon or any Games title from Epyx's series. Second, there are three distinctly differing difficulty levels, the last of which will be repeated as often as necessary, which is until you have managed to deliver all ten required peace tokens to the President. The two ACORN versions and the C16/+4 version don't feature a practice mode, so it's hard to tell whether or not the number of difficulty levels is the same. At least you can tell the level of difficulty by the number of ducks required for gaining a peace token (three on the first round, four on the second, five on the third), the way some random ducks fly faster than the others, the length and difficulty of the horse levels, the number of renegades you need to kill in the town of Kane, and the speed at which they're shooting at you.

Since we already got into the obvious differences, it needs to be said that the two ACORN versions and the C16/+4 version only feature the shooting levels, and don't count the collected peace tokens as anything more than extra lives, which they act as in every version. Perhaps needless to say, the game starts with no peace tokens in your possession, and if you cannot even get one peace token in your possession, the game is over. Of course, losing a life/token means that you have to shoot the required amount of ducks again to replace the lost token(s), and if you lose all your spare lives in the process of getting them to Washington, it's Game Over.

From this point on, things are going to look like I'm making a comparison of a multi-event sports game. Perhaps because in a way, I am.

Level 1: Bow and Arrow

The first segment is really the central part of the game, and while shooting enough ducks to pass on to the next stage is easy enough, mastering the skill requires plenty of experimenting. Not because there's proper physics involved, but rather because there isn't. All versions have one thing in common: the arrows always fly straight at the point you aimed at. Another thing that is common for most versions is, that you have only a little more room on the screen to aim the cursor than the left side of the screen - the invisible horizontal border goes somewhere between the middle of the screen and where you are standing. In the C64 version, the further your aiming cursor travels from yourself, the slower the arrow will fly.

The SPECTRUM version of the first level has severe collision detection problems. Too many times I have seen the arrow go through ducks without hurting them, so it's either very specific in what part of the duck's bodies you should hit, or the game just doesn't work as it should. Also, the speed of the arrow's flight is not very connected to the point on the screen you're aiming at. Sure, the arrow flies more quickly when you point the cursor closer to yourself, but then it also flies slightly faster at the left side of the screen than, say, in the middle. You just need to figure it all out by the pixel, and it really kills the enjoyment for me from the start. At least, the range of your aiming is similar to the C64 version.

Surprisingly, the AMSTRAD version felt quite comfortable in the first level. There was not nearly as much collision problems as in the SPECTRUM version, and the arrow's flight speeds were very similar to the original. One thing the converters of both the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions have overlooked in this level: the original C64 version allowed you to drop multiple birds with a single arrow, by hitting a bird above another in such a way, that the bird you hit on the top would hit the bird flying below as it fell on it.

Apart from the original, the only other version to feature the multiple birds trick is the C16/+4 version. However, the arrows move stupidly slowly regardless of your aim, but at least the arrow can hit a bird by colliding with it from any part of the bird, and any part of the arrow. So, definitely no collision problems there - it's just ridiculously slow. And as I mentioned earlier, the controls are supremely awkward.

Strangely enough, the ACORN BBC version has the best arrow flight speed, and there's just slightly more room to aim than in all the other versions, but then the birds are smaller, and the cursor moves in block-sized jumps, rather than smoothly by the pixel. To make up for these inconveniences, at least there seems to be no problem with collision detection, and you can also move your cursor while the current arrow is flying. It's not perfect, but at least it's not nearly as unplayable as the SPECTRUM and C16/+4 versions. If you play the ACORN version on an ELECTRON, however, the game is infernally slow and glitchy, and beats even the SPECTRUM and C16 versions in unplayability.

Level 3: Shoot-out at Kane

Shooting the renegades in the Kane town central is more straightforward, and is similarly designed to the bazooka shooting segment in Raid Over Moscow, or if you want a complete game made in the same style as a point of reference, TAD Corporation's "Cabal" from 1988 is the first one that comes to mind. You walk left and right along the bottom of the screen, and control a cross-hair with up and down. Your job is to shoot a required number of renegades that keep slowly appearing and disappearing from various different hiding spots, before they shoot you. Constant movement is necessary, and the only way to be completely safe is when there are no enemies on the screen. Your pistol has room for six bullets, so you need to be reloading ever so often, and to do this, you need to walk off from the right end of the screen and stay there until you have a refilled cylinder.

Here, the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions are similar enough to the original, as you only have two notable differences to worry about: you can't walk off the screen to reload your revolver, and in the SPECTRUM version, the colour clash problem makes some of the enemies' appearances difficult to see. In the red Saloon, the men are red, and in the magenta Store, the men appear magenta, but keep a close eye on any movement, and you'll be fine. In the AMSTRAD version, the enemies appear and disappear slightly quicker than in the original.

The C16/+4 version manages to botch this segment up in a rather unexpected fashion: hitting the enemies is more based on luck than aim. At least you don't need to walk to the other side of the screen to reload your revolver, because the game does it on the run for you... basically rendering the whole idea of having a 6-bullet cylinder completely useless. Since the C16/+4 version doesn't feature the horse segments, and the two shooting levels are practically useless, I cannot really recommend it to anyone.

Similarly to the C16/+4 version, the ACORN versions feature no horse riding sections, so the shoot-out scene should be worth noting. On the plus side, you get the cover for reloading your revolver outside of the screen, and you don't need to worry about colour clash making the enemies more difficult to see. Moving the marshall around on the screen is comfortable enough, too. On the minus side, the enemies shoot at you with better aim, so you need to be really quick in your movements. Once you see an enemy start to come out of his hiding place, you need to be fast, because once he has fully come out, he will shoot at you and then make a very quick retreat back to his hiding spot. In all the other versions, they go back as slowly as they appear. This wouldn't be such a problem, if there weren't many enemies appearing simultaneously so often, but the ACORN versions really give you no slack here. Perhaps on a real BBC Micro, this wouldn't be that bad, but the awkward emulated controls really makes the experience a bit miserable. Similarly to the previous event, the ELECTRON version is infernally slow, but this time, there's a certain unresponsiveness added to its problems.

Levels 2 and 4: The horse riding segments

The horse riding segments are, frankly, a bit awful, even on the original C64 version. They require pixel-perfect and perfectly timed jumping, which really is not my idea of a good time. It's all just memorizing and partly good luck. The latter horse level in particular is a nightmare, since you need to focus even more on controlling your horse's speed, and the jumps are even more difficult than on the road to Kane. I don't know if this is important, but the first horse level goes to the right, and the second one goes to the left.

In the SPECTRUM version, the riding speeds are just as important as in the original, but the collision detection has been set to work with the coloured areas the obstacles are occupied in, so if your horse's calves touch the said area, you will fall down. So, you need to be even more precise with jumping than in the C64 version, but here it's less connected to the objects themselves than the hidden areas the objects' colours are painted with. I noticed something even more worrying for those of you wanting to finish this particular version: your horse's riding speed isn't as clearly relative to the train's as it is in the original version, so it's more difficult to eventually catch.

This is where the AMSTRAD version showed its ugly backside. Of course, the problem is scrolling, and it is slow and choppy at first, and doesn't get as fast as it should once your horse starts to gallop at full speed. While this shouldn't be as big of a problem, since it could give you more reaction time, the slowness also occurs in the controllability - adjusting the horse's speed can get really sluggish and unpredictable in its effectiveness. This makes the practice mode the best way to experience the AMSTRAD version of Kane, since you can skip the horse sections there. Of course, that way you can't aim for the high score, so in that sense, gritting your teeth and ploughing through the horse bits is your only choice.


Clearly, the C64 original gives you the optimal experience. The shoot-out scene is perhaps more fun to play in the AMSTRAD version, but otherwise, you can't really beat the original. The SPECTRUM version suffers from awkward collision detection, mostly caused by the attribute clash problem; the ACORN versions have been through too much optimization for it to be enjoyable, particularly the ELECTRON version; the C16/+4 version is cumbersome, but mostly playable, and the AMSTRAD version's horse riding sections are slow and clumsy. So, this is how they line up:




Back in the day, one of the reasons why Kane was such a crowd-pleaser, at least on the C64, was the high-quality animations. The nice drawing (even if all the animals were monochrome), the amount of frames used for our protagonist running, the migrating ducks and the two different horse animations together were well worth the load, even though it was clear that at least one of the sprites and its animation was copied and only slightly altered from another game. Obviously, it was Marshall McGraw who was clearly copied from the agent's sprite in Impossible Mission, and only given a hat to wear, as well as black jumpsuit (or other clothing) instead of grey. It was later revealed, that the horse-and-rider sprite was taken from Harvey Smith Show Jumper, for which the graphics were done by Nicole Baikaloff and Janet Porch. I'm a bit surprised, to be honest, why Dennis Caswell wasn't credited for the player sprite, then. I cannot say, whether or not the other versions used sprites from other games, but some of them do look considerably worse than the original Marshall, for instance. Anyhow, let's get on with the actual graphics here.

Title screens. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 16/+4.
Bottom left: ZX Spectrum. Bottom right: Acorn Electron/BBC Micro.

Once the game has loaded, the title screen literally welcomes you to Kane. The town name is written in a fitting western font on a piece of a torn wooden plank, which has two nails in the top corners to hold it wherever it is assumed to be held. I guess it could be just nailed onto the black background as well for the sake of effect. The C64, AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions use this approach to the title screen, but the colouring and fonts for the other texts differ, although not too much. The C16/+4 version has no other information on the title screen than the game title in basic PETSCII graphics and the best score achieved so far. The ACORN versions get the title screen's backing graphics loaded up while the game loads, so it will not come as a surprise that the title screen is shown on the same screen as the shoot-out level. Of course, this is only logical, since the level takes place in the town of Kane.

Screenshots from the Bow & Arrow section. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 16/+4.
Bottom left: ZX Spectrum. Bottom right: Acorn Electron/BBC Micro.
This is one of those moments, when you might be glad to be a Commodore fan, because both the C64 and C16/+4 palettes work very well when doing nature graphics. As you see, the mountains are various shades of grey, the water reflects the colour of the sky, but not too much, and the prairie is coloured in orangey yellowish brown, whatever the colour is called... a sort of light brown, I guess. The AMSTRAD version gets very close, but some of the shades of grey have been replaced with some sort of bluish green, and the ground colour is more of a burning orange than light brownish. However, in defence of the AMSTRAD version, it features all the background elements and finer details that are missing from the C16/+4 version, such as the teepees, ground formations and cacti. If you want to compare the amount of colours, both the AMSTRAD and C16/+4 versions have 11 different colours on the screen at once, while the C64 version shows 12.

In comparison, both the SPECTRUM and ACORN conversions look as though they are equally restricted in colour, although a quick glance can be deceiving. On closer inspection, the ACORN version has even less than the SPECTRUM version - 7 for SPECTRUM and 4 for ACORN. How's that for an underachievement? Both the SPECTRUM and ACORN versions use almost equally ridiculous colours for depicting distance, and because any shades of grey is not an option on either machine, they had to go with any random colour they had in the palettes of each machine. At least the SPECTRUM version can boast of having much more details in the backgrounds, and even the animations are as good as in the original. Clearly, the ACORN versions are heading for the low end already.

Screenshots from the horse riding sections (Top row: level 2; Bottom row: level 4), left to right:
Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.

The horse riding levels have been clumped together, since only three versions have them. Each level leads to the opposite direction, but the basic idea is the same: jump over obstacles at the correct speed and with the correct timing, and reach the end with as much peace tokens left as possible. A fall from your horse takes out one token. Although the most obvious difference when looking at each version separately might be the palette, here you can also see the screen size being quite a bit smaller on AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM than what you get on the C64 original. While I do like the compact way to show all the necessary information in the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions, it also looks like it was made this way out of necessity, and so you get lots of blank space around the action screen. Due to the smaller screen, it is perhaps a good thing the AMSTRAD version of these levels are a bit slow and scroll chunkily, but you can't deny it's still worse than the original. Perhaps the AMSTRAD colours are more suitable for these levels, and I especially like the new details given for your horse. The SPECTRUM version continues to have awkward colours, and the complete blackness of the horse-and-rider sprite reminds me of Zorro more than Kane. Still, could be worse.

Screenshots from the Shoot-out at Kane section. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 16/+4.
Bottom left: ZX Spectrum. Bottom right: Acorn Electron/BBC Micro.

Now we come to the third scene in the C64, AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions, and the second/last in the others. Is it me, or are things getting increasingly interesting? There are so many things to grab onto, but I shall start with the most obvious one. The C64, AMSTRAD and C16 versions of this screen are practically carved from the same piece of wood. Only in the C16's case, most of the details and decorative pixels and colours have been left out to spare some memory.

The shadows from the buildings are only featured in the C64 and ACORN versions, the latter of which looks really strange. Yes, we have seen this screen before, but only when compared to the others, do you realize the utter lack of details in here. There are no windows, no balcony on the second floor of the saloon building, not even mountains in the background. At least the SPECTRUM version tries its hardest to feature as much of details as possible - only the shadows from the buildings seemed to be too much to bother with. Both the ACORN and SPECTRUM versions have the buildings' alignments and shapes a bit skewed in some strange way. The SPECTRUM version loses to the ACORN in functionality, because the colour clash thing tends to make some of the enemies almost invisible, but otherwise I have to say it's easily the prettier one of the two. Also, I have to point out the funny spelling mistake in the ACORN version: aren't baddies supposed to be written with two d's?

In terms of sheer quality of the graphics, the C64 and AMSTRAD versions are almost equally good. The SPECTRUM version has the quantity aspect of things just fine, and the animations are as good as in the original, but the colours are - there's no other way to say this - unsuitable for this sort of a game, and the colour clash presents both a visual and a practical problem. The ACORN graphics are interesting to say the least, but mostly not in a good way. There's definitely some good bits there, but the colours and the lack of details drags it down considerably. The C16/+4 version has the colouring aspect just fine, but the animations and details are severely lacking. Because the last two have problems of equal gravity with different aspects of graphics, I'm going to have to give them a shared spot on the list.




A western game needs western-themed sounds, and Kane has plenty of them. The decision to use Rossini's Wilhelm Tell Overture as the title tune is a bit odd, but it is known to have been featured in some western movies, as well as TV and radio serials (The Lone Ranger being the most obvious one), so it's not as far fetched as you might have thought. In the C64 version, the tune has been harmonized for three voices, so there's constantly two well-organized harmonies playing below the main melody. In addition to the title screen, the tune is also used as the background music in the first horse riding segment and in the ever elusive ending. The bow and arrow segment features some sort of simulated native American drumming as the sonic background, and the second horse riding segment features noises generated by the train you're riding next to, although that one is more of a sound effect than music. Only the Kane town shoot-out has been left silent.

There aren't that many sound effects in Kane, but it features many different versions of the same painful scream that John Darnell himself digitized for the C64 original. Also, aside from the aforementioned train noises, there are a couple of other nice, if predictable noises that signify shooting and falling off from the horse.

The AMSTRAD soundtrack is similar to the C64's, but of course, there are no filters used in any sounds to make them more reminiscent of the instruments they're supposed to represent. In any case, the Wilhelm Tell tune is used in the title screen and in the first horse riding section. The sound effects are basically how you would expect them to sound like, when there are no digitized voice samples. Could be a lot worse.

The C16/+4 version starts off quiet. Only when you push your chosen fire button to start the game, will you hear a beepy single-channel rendition of the beginning from the Wilhelm Tell Overture, with some sort of a phasing effect "enhancing" the single channel melody. As our hero takes his place on the right side of the screen, the music stops and quiet resumes. The only sound effect in the bow and arrow level is a strange beep when you hit a duck, and that's it. The shoot-out at Kane features some proper shooting noises, but again, that's all there is to it. Rather underwhelming on the whole.

From the single-channel beeper soundtracks, the ACORN version is the more plentiful. You have a strangely slowed down beeper rendition of the Wilhelm Tell tune, which plays constantly in the background, which frankly gets tiresome very quickly. There are a few sound effects, which can be mostly categorized as noises of damage. Either you're shooting ducks or baddies at Kane, and any sound effect depicts either the intent of making damage, or someone taking damage, but it's still just some weird noise that can't be properly described as any particular kind of noise - it's just mess.

On the other side of beeperdom, the SPECTRUM version has only a few very basic sound effects and no music at all. You get a short stabby "shtp" noise for shooting an arrow, a short ascending note for hitting a duck, the horse's hooves ticking on the ground, a more noisy crash noise for falling off the horse, short stabby shooting noises, a little "pip" for killing a baddie, and a longer descening beep sound for losing a life at Kane. All of that is fine enough, since we're talking about a cheap conversion of a cheap game, but some background sounds or a theme tune for the title screen would have been nice. Still, it's preferable to the ACORN and even C16/+4 sounds, and that gives us a clear order for this section.




As we come to the end of another retro game comparison, we can only come to the conclusion, that while there are exceptions to the rule of any game being the best on its original hardware, Kane is yet another game to strengthen the rule's position. I was very glad to find the AMSTRAD version to be so faithful to the C64 version for a change, instead of being a cheap SPECTRUM port. Particularly as the SPECTRUM version was such a disappointment in this case. As for the lower budget COMMODORE machines and the ACORN computers, no real surprises there. So, here are the unnecessarily mathematical overall results:

1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 6, Graphics 4, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 15
2. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 5, Graphics 3, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 12
3. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 3, Graphics 2, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 8
4. ACORN BBC MICRO: Playability 4, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 6
5. COMMODORE 16/+4: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 5
6. ACORN ELECTRON: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 3

Now, as promised, we end this article with...



Kane's writer, John Darnell, became known to us from his collaboration with Steve Birtles on the C64 conversion of Jet Set Willy II, which itself was initially just an expansion on the original game for the Amstrad. With Steve, they later worked on the C64 ports of Dragon's Lair and its sequel, Escape From Singe's Castle. All these games were published by Software Projects, and his last job for the company was a rather strange action game called Star Paws, which curiously has some similarities to Matthew Smith's unfinished Spectrum game, "Attack of the Mutant Zombie Flesh Eating Chickens From Mars", even though Darnell has said the inspiration came from elsewhere. *UPDATE, 16th of November, 2017: According to John Darnell's comment below, the true story behind the game is going to be featured in this month's Retro Gamer magazine, so keep an eye out on that one! Star Paws used to be one of my favourite games on the C64, until I got stuck in it at some point, but even today, I sometimes find myself hearing the game's theme tune in my head, and feel the mysterious air of the game calling me back into action.

Screenshots from John Darnell's games on the C64, left to right: Jet Set Willy II, Dragon's Lair, Star Paws.

Darnell wrote Kane in 1985, while still working for Software Projects, but got Mastertronic to publish the game. I have not a clue as to why this happened, but perhaps it just wasn't something they were looking for at the moment. After Software Projects laid off their crew in 1988, John was approached to work on a C64 conversion of the sequel to Jon Ritman's classic football game, Match Day. According to his interview for the FREEZE64 magazine (issue #4, December 2016), all he did for the C64 version was convert the Z80 code to 6502 code, line by line, and the only original bit of code that he wrote was to make the program map the game on the C64 hardware. So, basically, the C64 version was still very much a Jon Ritman game. I cannot honestly say it was very good, though, but then I'm not a fan of old football games in general, so I'm not a good judge of them. Finally, before Darnell disappeared from the ranks of game developers, he approached Mastertronic with a plan to write a sequel for Kane, which eventually got published in 1988. However, Kane II didn't get the attention it needed, and Darnell quit the gaming industry for a while.

More John Darnell: Match Day II (C64), Kane II (C64), Enemy Infestation (PC)

He came back for a one-off in 1998, and got together with an Australian development group called Micro Forté to work on an isometric real-time action/strategy game called Enemy Infestation, which was only released for the Windows-based PC's. After that, it took him almost another 20 years to resurface. Perhaps partly thanks to the Games That Weren't project, John got inspired to relearn 6502 code and rewrite a game he originally wanted to get published through Software Projects in 1985. Finally, in April 2017, with some help from various current generation C64 masters, the Jet Set Willy -inspired platformer by the name of Sleepwalker has now been released... and by jove, it was well worth the wait. You can buy the game from Psytronik's shops at and Binary Zone on various forms of disk and tape, so hurry up and do so, before they run out! UPDATE 16th of November, 2017: As Mr. Darnell himself mentioned in the below comments, it's also soon to be released on iTunes as Bear Beware due to some naming problems. Fingers crossed, perhaps there's also a new Kane sequel coming up?

Sleepwalker (C64, Psytronik Software, 2017)

That's it for today, hope you enjoyed it! Next time... well, I'm still undecided, but at least you can rest assured it's going to be just another comparison article. Until then, bye y'awl! Yee-haw!


  1. Star Paws, yeah, that was a weird game. One of the slowest fastloaders for the C64 (called Dragonload, the only games that used it were Star Paws, Dragon's Lair, Escape from Singe's Castle, and JSW II (in which it was first used) - 143 in the counter, and 30 just to load the image! It also had a port to the Spectrum, with music by Tim Follin, and there was supposed to be an Amstrad port, but it looks like it never seen the light of day.

    1. Oh, and the two Dragon's Lair games had the quite unique feature of loading from tape while you were playing the game.

  2. this was a fine little game. CPC version is quite a faithfull c64 port, the pixel-to-pixel port wouldn't always benefit in the palette swap between both machines due to the large difference in the palettes, yet the game remained fun, some parts could have had better palette conversion IMO but they wouldn't get a graphic artist to do a proper version and sticked to pixel-wise port instead. C16/+4 obviously lacked a lot in the RAM department so the graphics are quite simplified.

  3. Loved the article! Some info: Software Projects didn't consider Kane good enough for full price (10 quid) so they sold it to Mastertronic. It sold a total of 263,000 copies! I was on a wage so the royalties didn't go directly to me, although I was on a very good wage for the last few months I was there. The true story behind Star Paws, Matthew Smith and Attack of the Mutant Zombie Chickens is in this month's RetroGamer (Issue 174 Nov '17). Sleepwalker is now Bear Beware (I couldn't get the name for iTunes) and will be in Betas in the next few days. Thanks, John Darnell

    1. Hey, thanks for your input, it's always great to hear from the developers! Funny how things have a tendency to work out... =) Thanks for the heads up about the Star Paws story, and I'll add the info regarding Sleepwalker to its dedicated paragraph. Cheers!