Monday, 9 September 2019

TWOFER #19: Revs (Acornsoft, 1984) + Microcosm (Firebird, 1985)


Designed and written by Geoff Crammond.

Originally published for the Acorn BBC Micro through Acornsoft in 1984.
Conversion for the Commodore 64 published through Firebird in 1985.
Unofficial conversion for the Commodore Plus/4 by András S. in 1988.


Written for the Acorn BBC Micro by Steven Reece and David Pearce.

Converted for the Commodore 64 by Andrew E. Bailey and released by Firebird in 1986.



Before I venture on to talk about the games themselves, it should be noted that only one of these game comparisons was recently featured in the most current RESET 64-magazine (the 12th issue), and I just wanted to write another comparison as a big bonus thing for the blog, since I haven't been doing comparisons since starting the Retrogame Talkshow podcast and my two video series. So, now felt a good time to do something more about the blog, and I've got the feeling I might be continuing with new comparisons for a while for now. As for the second game featured in this two-fer: it was very randomly picked months after writing the Revs comparison here, and the only connections between the two games are the publisher and that both games were only ever officially released on the BBC Micro and the Commodore 64.

Now, as the creator of both Stunt Car Racer and the game-changing Grand Prix series, Geoff Crammond's input into the evolving of racing simulation games cannot be doubted or overlooked. In fact, he single-handedly made racing simulations a proper genre, but it happened much earlier with Revs on the BBC Micro in 1984. This status already is saying quite a lot, but for some reason, I haven't been able to find any ratings for the original game. However, at Lemon64, Revs has a score of 7.8 from a total of 58 votes, and the unofficial conversion for the Commodore Plus/4 has a rating of 8.8 from 17 votes at Plus/4 World.

Microcosm is a game I didn't ever expect to find, much less play, but I stumbled across it on YouTube a couple of months ago while browsing for something completely different. As soon as I saw the game in action, though, I realized I need to have it featured on the blog, since it felt like a good mash-up of various contexts that this blog used to be all about. You will find out the more literal meaning of that later on. The BBC Micro version once again is not very well known, since I couldn't find any scores for it anywhere, but seeing as the C64 version only has a score of 5 from 13 votes at Lemon64, you might wonder a little less about its lack of fame. Perhaps this featured special comparison will help people find it.



Without copying too much information from other sources, Revs became about because Acorn Computers were sponsoring David Hunt, a Formula 3 racing driver, and Acorn asked if Crammond could do a Formula 3 racing game with a little help from David Hunt and his racing team at Silverstone. Long story short, Revs was developed as the first true first-person racing simulation, with the primary purpose of attempting to simulate the feel of a Formula 3 racing car at high speeds. Naturally, the only selected circuit for the original BBC Micro game was Silverstone, and due to the nature of how a car should be driven, the game was given the choice to be controlled with an analogue controller, but no support for digital joysticks. Because analogue controllers were rather rare in 1984, support for digital joysticks would be added to the later versions of the game. As Revs was originally developed for the humble 8-bit Acorn BBC Micro, and this being the first racing game ever that could call itself a simulation, the only variable you can adjust is the front and rear wing angles.

It will come as no surprise, that Revs definitely shows its age in all manners possible, but you have to keep in mind, this was a really early step in the evolution of racing simulators, only preceded by Chequered Flag on the ZX Spectrum in 1983, and possibly by Formula One from S.C. Stephens in 1984, from what we know. Chequered Flag was basically just a time trial simulator with very little in terms of realism in the realm of racing cars, and Formula One (released later as Formula One Simulator through Mastertronic) had more to do with racing, and not much more than Chequered Flag in simulation, while in Revs you race and time trial against other cars with a feel for driving that has been simulated from the experience of a racing driver. So, in true Geoff Crammond fashion, Revs set a new standard in a new sub-genre, and it was surprisingly high, considering this sort of a thing wouldn't be truly repeated until Formula One Grand Prix, released by Microprose in 1991, also written by Geoff Crammond. In short, Revs is the turning point in the history of racing simulations, and should be considered pivotal in that area of knowledge.



Both official versions were released on both disk and tape formats, but as usual, we shall be taking a look at only the tape loading times and loading screens.

BBC MICRO: 6 min 25 sec
COMMODORE 64: 6 min 2 sec

Understandably, it takes a while to load a game of this magnitude, and back in the day, you wouldn't really be bothered about it once the game had actually finished loading, because you would probably stick to the game for hours. However, it's always nicer to look at the game load up, when the loading screen is nice to look at. The BBC MICRO version has a loader that again looks like one of those teletext art screens, featuring the game logo, the checkered flag, the helmet, the Acornsoft logo and the text "Silverstone track" multiple times. In contrast, the C64 loading screen is a properly pixelated version of the game cover art. If the loading section had any weight on the scores, the C64 version would gain a clear point for this one.

REVS loading screens, left to right: Acorn BBC Micro, Commodore 64, Commodore Plus/4 (intro).

A small point, but worth pointing out here, is that the unofficial PLUS/4 version is only available as a single executable game file, and it features an animated intro sequence instead of a loading screen, so the picture included here is just added for the sake of having a representative for the PLUS/4 version.



Immediately after the game finishes loading, you will notice that Revs takes itself very seriously indeed. You are presented with a no-frills menu system, which lets you choose to drive in practice or competition mode, one of three difficulty levels, the duration of qualifying round, and you are also prompted to enter your preferred angles for the car's front and rear wings. As you might have gathered from the description, the BBC Micro version only features the Silverstone track, but for the C64 version, Brands Hatch was added, and consequently, it is featured also in the unofficial Plus/4 conversion, and in these two versions, the track selection is made before any of the other options.

Rather cunningly, Revs can be played as a multiplayer event by entering another player into the competition mode after having completed one session of qualifying. Even more cunningly, the race needs to be finished by all players on their own turns, but instead of each player's driving lines being saved for the consecutive runs, only each player's own race time counts. The competition mode can be played with 5, 10 or 20 laps, so unless you are prepared for a full marathon session with more than two players, 5 laps will be plenty to undertake for beginners.

To prove a point about Revs being the first proper racing simulator, you only need to look at the game's manual, called Formula 3 Driver's Handbook. While the handbook explains quite a bit about aerodynamics and philosophies about how to approach corners in a certain way and overtake other racers, there are a few important things you will need to find out to get started. The car you're about to drive is a Ralt RT3 Toyota Novamotor, which runs at its most powerful between 5000 and 5800 RPM. It has 5 forward gears and one reverse. The recommended wing settings to start with are 40 to the rear and 32 to the front, although by some brief digging through the internet, people seem to get their best results with much lower numbers, such as 32 rear and 20 front.

Personally, I have only ever played Revs on a keyboard and a regular digital joystick, and as any old-school racing simulation fan will undoubtedly tell you, keyboard controls allow for better results on the long run, since you don't need to brake while changing the gear down. There's also another advantage to playing on the keyboard: pushing both left and right steering keys simultaneously keeps the steering at your chosen angle, while just steering will turn the wheel as far as possible, and not steering at all will quickly center the wheel. According to the manual, though, you can use alternately use a paddle controller for steering while using either the keyboard or joystick controls for other things. Also, the aforementioned analogue joystick can also be used, but I have never even heard of a fully analogue joystick existing on the C64 and equivalents, so I cannot comment further on that.

Most of the keyboard controls are the same on all available platforms, like thus:

T - start the engine
S - accelerate
A - brake
Q - gear up
CTRL/TAB - gear down
SPACE BAR - faster steering

Steering is handled with L and + on the BBC MICRO, and with [ and ] on the C64 and PLUS/4. To those of you, who have never played Revs before, the way to get your car moving is to push down the T key, then start accelerating (S) while holding the T key down, and when you have enough movement on the RPM meter, you also need to turn the first gear (Q) to get moving. Of course, when you're on the starting line and waiting for the green light, you won't be able to actually move anywhere until the starting light has turned green.

The most important thing that the manual tells you is to practice, and you need to practice a great deal in order to master the skills of a Formula 3 driver. To have any chance at beating even the novice level, you need to have good knowledge on how your car handles, the optimal lines to each corner of the track, and in this case, even the way to handle the game's relatively low framerate by today's standards.

Apart from the obvious addition of a second track on the COMMODORE computers, the only notable difference in gameplay that I can think of between the two principal versions is the slightly higher framerate at which the BBC MICRO version runs. And that's really what matters in a game like Revs, because to get the feel of racing as good as possible, you need to feel that you are in control of your car, instead of the lesser framerate being in control of your actions. Not that the C64 and PLUS/4 versions are much worse, but the difference is notable, nonetheless.

But does the single additional track mean all that much in the end? Well, the BBC MICRO had four additional tracks to its single original one in a later release called Revs 5 Tracks, featuring Brands Hatch (which was already in the C64 version), Donington, Oulton and Snetterton. To top this off further, the C64 had its own extended Revs, simply called Revs+, which included all those five tracks, plus one short configuration of the Nürburgring track. Revs+ also includes other special features, but the thing is, we would be considering two other stand-alone games instead of the original Revs. The differences being what they are in the original releases, I can see myself playing the original BBC MICRO version with a higher framerate just as much as the C64 version with two tracks.




Comparing 3D-graphics on platforms of this age is basically unnecessary, particularly as the game was converted by the same man who did the original, so the graphics are as similar on all platforms as possible. There are, however, a couple of tidbits to mention.

The menus and other info pages look slightly different on the Acorn and Commodore computers due to the use of the ACORN version's use of default system font, and the COMMODORE version's attempt at getting the basic font look more like the one on Acorn. Also, the colours are notably more vivid on ACORN, but it matters little, since preferences are a matter of taste.

Various text screens on Acorn BBC Micro (top row) and Commodore 64 & Plus/4 (bottom row).

The only noteworthy difference in the racing graphics that I noticed was, that the starting lights have a fuller, brighter green light in the starting line of the BBC MICRO original than on either of the COMMODORE conversions, but you can only see it by zooming in on the picture. Also, there is a version of Revs for the C64 that seats you in a blue car instead of red, but I haven't managed to find out, whether it's some sort of a customization or an alternative official colouring. A nice alternative, to be sure, but with the uncertainty of its status, I cannot give it consideration in the scores.

The race begins. From left to right: Acorn BBC Micro, Commodore 64, Commodore Plus/4.

In the end, the graphical content is very much the same in all three available versions - official or not. The roadside objects are fairly scarce, but informative; the opponent cars are barely recognizable as cars, but do their job; and if - and when - you happen to crash your car, a griddy fence appears in front of you, seemingly out of nowhere. All this is only to be expected in a game of this age. The only thing that really matters is the framerate at which the game runs, which is more or less acceptable on all platforms. Unfortunately for us Commodore fans, the C64 version gets a bit overwhelmed by having more opponents on the screen. I read from some forum, that using a C128 helps with the speed, but I didn't notice any real difference. The unofficial PLUS/4 conversion feels perhaps just a little bit faster than the C64 version, but it's practically impossible to tell. The ACORN wins this round, if only by a margin.




Being a simulation, and an early racing simulation at that, it's rather obvious that most of the available memory in any version was used for the important bits: simulating the actual Formula-3 racing car driving. Which is all fine for practicality's sake, but it makes the game rather boring to listen to, at least if you're a fan of booming soundtracks and epic racing tunes.

REVS focuses on giving a realistic racing driver experience, so you will only hear your engine roar at its proper pitches according to your revs meter, some tire squeal and some elementary crash noises. None of the versions sound very pleasing, but the ACORN version is the noisiest, and thus easiest to hear. The C64 version's amount of low end in the engine noise depends on the version of SID chip your C64 is equipped with: a 6581 engine sounds fuller than the tinny 8580 engine. In either case, though, the tire squeals and crash noises are played at much higher volumes than the engine noise. The PLUS/4 version has a better overall balance in sounds than either of the BBC MICRO or C64 versions, but has less defining character in the engine noise and crash sounds.

It's difficult to recommend any version over the other in this particular case, but I believe the ACORN version is overall the least grinding on your ears, particularly as you don't need to turn up the volume to hear the engine noise.




As it so often happens, a game that was developed with a certain hardware in mind, turns out to be the best on it, even if only slightly so. Be that as it may, I can heartily recommend REVS and its expanded edition on all three available platforms. This early masterpiece from Geoff Crammond really is a milestone in racing simulations: a great challenge with great playability, once you have persevered with it a few hours. Of course, things developed quite a bit a few years after, and Revs became little more than a curiosity in the annals of gaming history, but history is what this is all about, isn't it? And this bit of history clearly started on the Acorn BBC Micro, no doubt about it.


Since the final scores look a bit harsh from this point of view, let's do it another way, just to clear things up a bit. The scores I have given here below are (hopefully) based on the norms at the time of release.

              BBC C64 C+4
Playability    8   7   7
Graphics       9   8   8
Sounds         7   5   5
Realism        8   8   8
OVERALL        8  7.5 7.5

There you have it, then. If it is of any consolation to the C64 community, our version does have at least the prettiest loading screen from the lot. If you're interested in more comparisons of games from Geoff Crammond, you can find the entries on Stunt Car Racer and the Sentinel in the blog archive.

Speaking of the man himself, if you're a fan of his work, like I am, you might be interested in reading his interview from 2014, made by Retro Gamer magazine.



On to our second game in the impromptu two-fer. What we have here, then, is a combination of elements made familiar by Jet Pac and Pssst, two remarkable games made originally for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum by Ultimate Play The Game. Microcosm, as a title, is a bit of a stretch, really, since you're not dealing with the said Microcosm on its own level. You fly around a room of plants and insects, and try your hardest to make the plants flourish while avoiding or killing the insects. Fairly basic arcade-action stuff, but the combination of Jet Pac and Pssst is such a novel one, that any fan of old Ultimate game should like this.



The game was released on both disk and tape formats for both contestants, so you can't blame Firebird for not having faith in their product by only releasing it on only one format. Mind you, it might have been a budget release in both cases. Regardless of the release type, here are the tape loading times and the loading screens, as they used to appear in their usual way in the olden days on the blog.

Loading screens. Left: Acorn BBC Micro. Right: Commodore 64.

BBC MICRO: 5 minutes 10 seconds
COMMODORE 64: 4 minutes 12 seconds

For once, the BBC Micro version has managed to surprise me regarding the loading section: the loading screen actually plays music while loading! That's what you would expect from a C64 game, but this time, we are treated to a steady silence, as with pretty much every other tape release from Firebird. There's an unexpected trick here, which shall be revealed later on.



Anyone familiar with Jet Pac can pick this game up and play it immediately. You only have to fly or walk left and right, use the jetpack, or "Gravi-Pac" as it's called here, by pushing up (obviously, gravity will get you down), and fire your chosen weapon by pushing the fire button. The Pssst-like gameplay element comes in, when you notice your plants' PHLOEM meter going lower, and you need to switch your weapons between the laser gun and the nourishment spray gun by placing the current item on an empty shelf and picking the other from wherever it is.

The problem is, that the room will have some insects (a.k.a. Aphids) flying around, and the spray gun will not work near Aphids, so you need to get rid of as many of them as possible before you can feed the plants, and even then you need to have enough distance to the plants before you can spray the feeding nectar. Each level features new different enemies, and on higher levels, you will come across toxic bugs and spiders that cannot be killed. As if that weren't enough, there's acid droplets leaking from damaged pipes above the ceiling, so the game gets challenging rather quickly.

Since this is game has taken such notable gameplay elements from Jet Pac and Pssst, the comparison to those two games is inevitable, and probably even necessary, although it has no real effect on the final results. There are a couple of reasons why Microcosm doesn't feel quite right. For one, the Aphids are annoying as real insects often are: they're very small, and as such, difficult to hit with a laser that is only a single pixel wide and only, maybe four or five pixels long; and they're also rather unpredictable in their movements, as they can fly through platforms, which they don't necessarily always do, and having come across a border of some sort, they might change their direction if necessary, and they don't seem to have a behaviour pattern to follow. Another thing about your laser gun: the laser beams are comparatively slow (at least when compared to Jet Pac), it has a relatively low range, and you can only fire two or three laser beams at any time, compared to four or five long beams in Jet Pac. Still more, there's no real sense of gravity and flight inertia in Microcosm, just the very basics of making the protagonist appear to fly with his "Gravi-Pac", which is enough, but it doesn't feel polished enough for a game from 1985 compared to the polish shown in a game from 1983.

The final similarity to Jet Pac is the way you pick up the "seed" items from the distribution centre at the ceiling, and drop them to the stalks, one by one - kind of similarly to how you first build your spaceships in Jet Pac, and fill them up with fuel afterwards. However, in Microcosm, you need to go down to the ground level of the stalks to be able to drop the seeds off, since they don't drop from any point above the stalks like you could do in Jet Pac.

The comparison points to Pssst are of a lesser value, and there are much less of them, but still feel important enough to acknowledge. Microcosm has one unique addition to it, that makes it more than just the sum of its cloned origins. The idea and general manner of switching between the laser gun and the spraycan is straight from Pssst, as pointed out in the first paragraph of this section, but in Microcosm, you can actually fly through the ledges to make things just a little easier. The one unique addition, however, is the PHLOEM meter, which points out that the other plants in the room need some spraying after the game starts beeping in a certain way when the meter goes down enough. At least you don't have to switch between three different spray cans, like in Pssst. Still, it feels more like a necessary evil than a good idea, because there is no way that you will ever be able to clear a room without once having to use the feed sprays, because each room has five plants you need to get seeds to, and each plant takes a certain amount of seeds to get to full size - 3 on the BBC MICRO and 5 on the C64 - and having to deal with the Aphids often takes more time than you would think it might. While the lesser amount of seeds feels like an advantage on the BBC Micro, it just so happens that the PHLOEM meter runs quicker, too, so there's no real advantage, after all.

Now, comparing the two versions of Microcosm against themselves, there's not a whole lot of differences to find in gameplay, really. Our hero moves around in exactly the same sense of gravity in both versions, and in similar relative speed to the movements of all the enemies. I suppose the C64 version feels just a tiny bit slower, but it's also a bit smoother, but there's no notable differences here. The only advantage the C64 version has in this case is the added support for joystick control, but it's not a very necessary addition in the end, unless you plan on playing this game on a C64GS. However, there is one pivotal difference between the two versions, and that is the effectiveness of the feed spray. In the C64 version, it has relatively little use, since the spray doesn't give nearly as much PHLOEM back as it should, and by the time you've managed to spray the amount of feed you're able to, before there are too many Aphids flying around in the room, the received PHLOEM will only last the while it takes for you to drop the spray gun and pick up the laser gun again. Thus, the entire ordeal has been rendered useless, and is practically an unnecessary part of the conversion, making the C64 conversion unplayable on the long run. Whoops.




There is only one word I can use to perfectly describe the way Microcosm looks, and that word is "generic". It doesn't look particularly intriguing, but neither it has anything particularly wrong about it. Well, maybe there is, but not enough to cause any radical gap between the two versions. Oddly enough, I'd say that the loading screen is graphically the most interesting part in the game, in both versions... which you've already seen.

Title screens. Left: Acorn BBC Micro. Right: Commodore 64.

The title screen, however, is clearly a necessary evil in the BBC Micro version, as it only utilises the basic Teletext-type font and... whatever graphics you might consider it having. The C64 title screen is only a little less pretty than the loading screen, due to the amount of additional text the title screen was given to show. At least the font is not the basic C64 system font, which is a bonus of sorts, but having an enlargened picture of the protagonist in the middle of the screen, as well as the game title as a large logo-like entity below "Firebird presents" certainly kicks the BBC Micro version in its groin.

Left to right: levels 1, 2 and 3. Top row: Acorn BBC Micro. Bottom row: Commodore 64.

We shall skip the level introductory screens, because they show nothing of interest - it's just a bit of text in the middle of a black screen. The level graphics are basically the same all throughout the game, with no other changes happening than getting more different types of enemies, and the BBC MICRO version goes a bit further by having the surrounding tile graphics change a little for each level (even varying colours!), while the C64 version keeps the basic red tile theme throughout the game. Considering the game's relatively minimalistic approach, this is a huge deal, so that's clearly a point for the BBC MICRO.

The C64 version is notably more animated than the BBC MICRO version, with the clearest upgrade being made to the growth animations of the plants you bring seeds to. In the BBC MICRO version, there is no animation there. On the other hand, the Aphids flash rapidly in the C64 version all the time, regardless of how many other things there are on the screen, so I'm guessing it's a design choice rather than a sprite limitation. Which really makes it more annoying than the original.

A frame of each death animation. Left: Acorn BBC Micro. Right: Commodore 64.
The death animations are worth mentioning, since they're so different on each platform. In the BBC MICRO original, our hero actually explodes into a number of white dot particles, which fly off into many directions. The C64 version is less blocky, sure enough, but it's also less showy, since the hero gets gradually disintegrated instead.

Game Over screens. Left: Acorn BBC Micro. Right: Commodore 64.

The last item to consider in this section is the Game Over screen, which doesn't really change things all that much from the title screens. You get a fairly basic - only wider - font for all the regular text in the BBC MICRO screen, with a clearly more sci-fi -themed font for the displayed score, and the hero is shown at the top in his regular look. The C64 version shows the Game Over text in a similar font to how the game title is displayed in the title screen, and there's a possible message about you gaining a high score in the other font already familiar from the title screen and everywhere else in the game, and the hero is shown in his usual form underneath it all.

In all its glorious genericity, Microcosm feels that tiny bit better on the BBC MICRO (or at least more fitting), mostly because of the varying tile graphics and a certain childishness that fits the game's overall unpolished feel better than the better attempt made on the C64 version. Perhaps it's just my opinion, but there's a chance the added animation upgrades on the C64 affect the game's fluidity, and since they're not so much better than the original, I'm giving the original the point here. Prove me wrong if you dare.




Naturally, this is the obvious place where the C64 will take that point back. But is it really? Well, let's thoroughly pontificate on it a bit, just for the sake of thorough pontification, in case you're not all that familiar with either version of Microcosm. The track records of each machine certainly lay down certain expectations.

Let's examine the original BBC MICRO version first. Strangely, the title music is played only during the loading screen, which is, frankly, an oddity in the case of the computer. It's an upbeat tune played in three simultaneous tones, which reminds me heavily of good old John Philip Sousa's marches, although I haven't been able to figure out, whether it's one of those or of its kind, or whether it's an original composition. Once the game has loaded, it seems like the only sound effect during the whole course of the rest of the game is an alarm beep that gets played repeatedly when your PHLOEM meter gets too low.

The C64 version starts off rather woefully, with a title theme tune, that sounds more like a depressing classical composition, perhaps from the baroque era, but it only has a single, fairly high melodic line played on an instruments that's more reminiscent of a flute than a harpsichord. Once you start the game, though, the music continues uninterrupted, but changes the instrument to something more muted. Happily, you get a lot more sound effects on the C64 to make up for the lack of grandeur in the music, and they even play simultaneously with the music playing in the background.

Taken into consideration, that this section mostly takes only the music and sound effects that play in the game into account, not the loading music necessarily, we have an odd situation to deal with. The BBC MICRO original certainly has a better theme tune, but the problem is, that it only plays during loading, and there are almost no sound effects at all, so the C64 version, even with its anemic music, scores this time.




Having not expected to play this game at all, much less write a comparison of it before randomly coming across it on YouTube after writing the Revs comparison, I guess it's safe to say I had no expectations at all regarding how this would turn up. Happily, comparing the two versions of Microcosm was more interesting than it first appeared. In the end, the original version won.


Still, I thought it would probably be more interesting, if I made a traditional scoring to go along with the number of rounds won. Here's what I thought, on the whole:

               BBC    C64
Loading         8      6
Playability     6      4
Graphics        7      6
Sounds          1      5
OVERALL        5.5    5.3

And on that, I should probably explain, that the "Sounds" in this case, only comprise of the in-game sounds, while the loading music has been taken into account in the "Loading" score. Since gameplay is always the first consideration, I would recommend the BBC version more readily, and put some other music playing in the background if you deem it necessary. Otherwise, you might as well choose the C64 version, but to be brutally honest, I wouldn't recommend either one. Microcosm is a passable curiosity at best.



Just to make this new entry in the blog that extra bit special, I decided to compile a comparison video of the two games for my YouTube account. This video takes a quick look at both games in action, showing most of the aspects spoken of in these comparisons. Let's hope it proves helpful.

That's it for now, I hope you enjoyed this little bonus for the article originally published in RESET magazine issue #12. In case you haven't been catching the latest, I hope you will also take a look at both my current video series, which you can find in the VIDEOS page at the site menu and on my YouTube channel; and also, remember to tune into Retrogame Talkshow every now and then, whenever something comes up! Thanks for reading, see you later!

No comments:

Post a Comment