Thursday 17 October 2019

FireTrap (Data East, 1986)

Originally developed by Wood Place Inc. for the arcades, and published by Data East.

Conversion for the Commodore 64 programmed by Mike Chilton, with graphics and music by Chris Gill.

Conversions for the Amstrad CPC and Sinclair ZX Spectrum by Source Software Ltd (assumedly Ross Harris).

The home conversions were published by Electric Dreams (Activision) in 1987.



Due to the increasingly uncertain future of Retrogame Talkshow, I decided to get properly back to writing comparisons whenever I felt like it, which means that they will be released as quickly I can get them done. In the odd case that there isn't a video comparison available on YouTube for any specific game I'm writing on, I shall compile a companion video for it. Now, this reboot comparison was chosen this time due to its placing in the alphabetic list, and more importantly, the number of versions available, just to give me a continuation of an easy restart - hopefully.

Although we're going at October already, I didn't really have much of a thought for a horror-themed entry this soon in the rebooting of the blog, but I suppose you can consider a burning skyscraper in FireTrap some form of horror, or at the very least, a "minor disaster" -themed game. FireTrap was one of those games that I used to bump into occasionally on some of my friends' C64 turbo tape compilations, and one of my friends even had it on his Amstrad, but for some reason, I never bothered to copy it for my own collection, until the age of emulation came along. Odd, since I always enjoyed playing this game some brief bursts at a time.

Being an arcade original, and a rather quirky one at that, FireTrap would have been an easy target for many a home conversion, but as it happens, it was only ever released for our usual trio of 8-bit contestants: the Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64 and Sinclair's ZX Spectrum. At the time of beginning to write this comparison, the game's score at our favourite haunts is as follows: 7.4 from 38 votes at Lemon64; 7.2 from 22 votes at World of Spectrum; and the only score I found for the CPC version was at CPC Game Reviews, from which it had been given a 5 out of 10.



If you're already familiar with Nichibutsu's slightly more classic arcade game called Crazy Climber, we are dealing with a fairly similar game here. FireTrap takes the concept of climbing up skyscrapers that have fires burning inside, and throws it into an isometric view, to expand the climbing area to two sides of the building. While Crazy Climber only required you to watch out for flower pots that were thrown out of windows, in FireTrap, you take the role of a fireman, who has to rescue trapped people and pets, but also shoot water at flames and watch out for burning debris falling from open windows and other flying menaces. At the top of each skyscraper, you will find a damsel in distress waiting for a supposedly hunky fireman to get her down, so you're going to have to reach the top before getting down and onto the next level, ad infinitum.

Since this is an old arcade game, it's bound to be difficult compared to most modern games, but the default difficulty level knob has been turned to 11 by default. Happily, the home conversions have been simplified a bit, which I will get into a bit later on, but regardless of that, FireTrap is still a brutally difficult game that requires perseverance. But that's part of its charm, as it's fun to learn and hone the skills required to master this game, even though it admittedly takes a good amount of time. So, I wouldn't necessarily recommend this to anyone who is only being introduced to classic arcade games, but it's an interesting game to get stuck with. Cautiously recommendable.



As usual, I cannot vouch for the arcade original's loading time, as displayed by MAME, so I shall only deal with the other three. Since Activision has denied most of their original game images from being distributed on some of our favourite websites, I've had to resort to record and examine my personal original copy of the Spectrum version, but I have no idea about the re-releases. Therefore, only the original Electric Dreams releases have been measured here.

Loading screen (tape) from the Commodore 64 version.
C64: 5 minutes, sharp
CPC: 3 minutes 42 seconds
SPE: 2 minutes 36 seconds

Here we have a rare occurence of the AMSTRAD version being faster than the C64 version. Also, the SPECTRUM version is more than a minute quicker than the AMSTRAD version, but I would hazard a guess that the omission of a loading screen might chop off quite a few seconds off of the total loading time in both cases. The C64 version is the only one of the three with a loading screen, but you can't see it in the original disk version, which isn't fast enough to consider not having the tape version instead.



The original arcade version of FireTrap is relatively difficult to get to grips with, but not much more than the original arcade version of Crazy Climber. The way both games control in their original methods is, that you need to use both joysticks to actually handle both of the climber's hands to perform the act of climbing. The way all the home conversions of FireTrap handle this rather bothersome act, is simply to push your joystick up or down, depending on which direction you want your fireman to climb. Of course, then you have to move left and right too, as well as fire your extinguisher, but you do not have - or even need the skills to shoot anywhere but straight up, because thankfully, you can pick up a weapon upgrade, which allows you to shoot in three directions simultaneously: left, right and up.

Still, it's the climbing that gives you the most trouble, because you cannot move up or down while firing your weapon, because of the dual joystick method. Perhaps for this specific reason, the home conversions can be considered more playable. Or at least, more player-friendly. Although it would have been interesting to have this dual-joystick climbing method as an option, it wouldn't have been a particularly logical thing to have and set up. But, before we judge too hastily, let's look at the game's versions from other perspectives.

In the ARCADE version, you get all sorts of aerial menaces, from pelicans to falling debris, and from extra large teapots to massive circling fireballs. Some of the things you need to dodge and destroy are rather nonsensical, to be honest, but it's all the more interesting visually. There are a few different types of items to pick up from windows that you have successfully put out fires from, such as bonus score (money bags) and weapon and suit upgrades, and of course, you get the odd person or pet to give a parachute to. The skyscrapers you must climb are rather varied in build, and extremely high, so clearing even the first stage can become a chore, but rather singularly, the ARCADE version leaves you an occasional special item to pick up, which can warp you a good many stories higher - no home conversion has this element, for reasons I shall explain in a minute. Last, but certainly not least, the original version has the screen scroll both horizontally and vertically, whereas all the home conversions stick to just vertical.

Worst things first. You don't have to do much of playtesting to notice how unfinished the SPECTRUM version feels. Shooting a projectile from your rather multi-purpose weapon will make you freeze until the projectile has disappeared from view, and you can only shoot one at a time - until you get that three-way weapon upgrade, of course. This, as you can imagine, can prove to be a royal nuisance, because the game often throws quite a few fiery windows at you at a time, spewing hot flaming debris at you at a speed higher than you can deflect them - and more importantly, at a higher speed than your projectiles can move. All of this also tends to slow down the framerate notably, so it doesn't take too much for the game to become almost unplayable at times. Speaking of fire spewing from windows, one thing regarding those is, that whenever a new such fire appears, it drops a burning piece of debris immediately as it spawns, so in case you happen to be directly below one, there are no human reflexes quick enough to respond to that and survive.

As if that weren't enough, the SPECTRUM version also has the mid-point corner somewhat undefined, and sometimes your man doesn't know whether he's climbing the left side wall or the right side wall, and is aligned thusly. It's even more unfortunate, that the game's inability to make a distinction between the two sides of the building extends to how the collision detection works, as you can easily get hit by an object falling on the other side of the corner, if you're just about close enough, because you just can't tell. Another odd consequence that this problem adds, is that when shooting with the three-way weapon, the bullets go in straight directions, instead of how they should align with the building. The final nail to this coffin is, that your climber's sideways movements have an odd angle, as you can notice being one story higher on the far edges than you are in the middle corner of the building. Highly irritating. And, oh yes, the frequency of getting any weapon upgrades is much lower than in the C64 and ARCADE versions.

AMSTRAD owners will be glad to know, that for a change, their version of an apparently Spectrum-styled conversion of a game is not actually all that close to the SPECTRUM version. The mid-point corner is correctly defined, and so is the related collision detection. That's already a big win for this one. Also, there's no unnatural angle in moving left and right. Again, much better. However, the same problem of having only a single bullet shot at a time, but at least you can move while your bullet/s is/are on the screen. The framerate is a tad lower than in the SPECTRUM version, and the screen size is slightly smaller, but considering the other things, these are minor problems. Both SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions have the smallest skyscrapers from all the available versions, and have the least variety in build, which is just as well, considering the otherwise already inhumane difficulty level. Also, the only real advantage that both SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions have against the other two, is that if you have a weapon upgrade when you die, the weapon upgrade continues to your next life until the game decides you've run out of the upgrade.

The C64 version has the skyscrapers height and build variety somewhere between the SPE/CPC versions and the ARCADE original, perhaps closer to the original, if I had to make an educated guess. You can also shoot multiple projectiles simultaneously at any on-coming dangers. Even better, you get no player freeze effect for the duration of your bullets flying through the air. It might not come as much of a surprise, either, that the C64 version has a higher framerate than in SPE/CPC versions, and you get more fluent animations, thus allowing for better reaction time. However, it's not quite as rosy as that: the major problem here is, that your extinguisher weapon has a rather short range in comparison to the other versions - about two windows' reach compared to the entire screen.

In conclusion, even the C64 version isn't all that faithful to the ARCADE original. It lacks the sideways scrolling, and moving sideways is a bit clunky (but so it is in all the home conversions), the extinguisher has a bad range, and there's just not enough variety in the dangers to keep the game interesting for longer periods of time, but it is still the closest we have to the real thing. I might not enjoy the original's controls as much as the simplified controls in the home conversions, but there's a certain freedom of movement in the original that the conversions lack. Therefore...




We start traditionally with the title screen, but as many other arcade games do, FireTrap features an attract mode, which shows you some handy instructions. Not that many old games need it, but in this case, the instructions are rather welcome. Because the ARCADE original is the only version that has actual instructions in the attract mode, let's take a look it first.

Screenshots of the attract/instructional mode in the ARCADE version. Note that the joysticks are actually animated to show the player the appropriate way to maneouvre the fireman.

Obviously, the joystick movements are animated in the gameplay demo, which give you a proper demonstration of how to move around and shoot. All the home conversions have a demo mode, which automatically starts playing after the title screen has been showing a while, but since they show nothing particularly different from the actual in-game graphics (apart from the word "demo" displayed in the info panel), I shall skip the home conversion demo screens.

Title screens/sequences and high score tables. Top left: Amstrad CPC. Top right: Sinclair ZX Spectrum.
Bottom left: Commodore 64. Bottom right: Arcade.

The title screen itself, as it is in the original ARCADE version, is basically just the game title logo stamped onto a frozen frame of the basic in-game screen, although I cannot say, whether there actually exists a skyscraper in the game with that exact tileset - I admit the game is too bloody difficult for my talents and tendencies for perseverance. You also get the obvious copyright and company logo at the bottom of the screen, as well as the obligatory credit counter. As for the high scores list, it's a fairly basic one with room for ten best firefighters and no background graphics.

Tastes are varied, but I think the game title logo in the home conversions is much more iconic and/or memorable than the odd mess that is displayed in the arcade game. The C64 version adds an "Electric Dreams presents" screen into the title sequence, and a bouncing effect for each of the title sequence screens. There's also a difference in the order of the sequence, in that the C64 version is the only one that shows all the text-based screens back-to-back, and the gameplay demo comes as a sort of an afterthought, while the other versions show one text-based screen, then a bunch of demonstrational gameplay, then the high scores table, and then some more gameplay footage; this includes the ARCADE original, as well as the other two home conversions.

The "Get Ready" screens. Top left: Arcade. Top right: Sinclair ZX Spectrum.
Bottom left: Amstrad CPC. Bottom right: Commodore 64.

The obligatory "Get Ready" screen has plenty of variation across the versions. The basic idea is to show at which point in the skyscraper you are going at, which the AMSTRAD version does exactly - in an oddly red screen with nothing else than the map. All the other versions show the minimap within the actual game screen. Both the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions are missing the word "READY" from the top of the screen when the minimap is shown, although admittedly, it's not exactly needed there. The C64 version gets the closest to the original, and the ARCADE version also gives you the chance to choose from one- or two-player modes, depending on how many coins you have inserted into the machine. Seeing as the two-player mode is just turn-based, it makes no difference.

Screenshots of the first two levels from the ARCADE version.

Now, let us take a good look at all the different versions on their own, starting obviously with the ARCADE original. The blatantly obvious things to observe here are the main colour of each level representative skyscraper and the background graphics, but since they're blatantly obvious, you know that at least one of those has been translated into every home conversion as much as possible. The main colour of each building is also characterized by a wall pattern, clearly shown as plain concrete, tiles or whatever. The background graphics here are, as expected, rather detailed in precisely the manner you would expect to in the depicted imaginary locations, only the ARCADE version is the only one of the lot that shows the backgrounds more than just from the sides.

The really interesting stuff comes in the quality, colours and details of all the items directly related to the skyscrapers themselves. Be it burning debris falling from above, different sorts of people and dogs in distress, oddly placed parking ledges, advert boards or upgrades and bonus items, they have all been drawn with meticulous care in detail and character. Obviously, the 8-bits never had a chance at getting the graphics even near to this level, but one can always hope, right?

And of course, there's still the info board at the bottom of the screen, which shows us the current stage, score, timer (with a nice little wristwatch by the actual timer), the number of lives (with a green man instead of just a text) and the highest score.

Screenshots of the first two levels from the COMMODORE 64 version.

Starting from the info panel, the C64 version has all the things the ARCADE version has, including the little wristwatch and the green man, so we're off for a good and easy start. The skyscrapers each have a different main colour to them, with nice little splashes of other colours in the odd yellow ledge things and the multicolour "SALE" signs etcetera. Oddly, the windows look a bit like blue TV screens, but that's a small gripe. You also get to see some large empty spaces within the buildings, which are somewhat modelled after the odd terraces and parking ledges shown in the original. The people and dogs you need to rescue from windows are rather samey, but fill their spot well enough, as do the flashing power-up items. The backgrounds aren't much to talk about, but there are some: at the beginning of each level, there are some other tall buildings in the background, but as you get higher, you only get a turqoise/blue sky to look at.

Screenshots of the first two levels from the SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM version.

In the SPECTRUM version, the info panel features everything but the current level, and there are two stylistic alterations in the basics there: the number of lives are shown as a line of heads next to the word "lives", and the timer has a stopwatch instead of a wristwatch. Not a big deal, but some people could consider this important. As for the actual game graphics, you can see that there are no background graphics, really, since the screen is only wide enough to hold the full width of the skyscraper's two walls. As you get to the top, There's only an as blue sky as the windows are coloured. Everything here is very much monochrome, apart from the info panel. Due to this, there are no advert boards or big spaces within the buildings that the original version had as parking ledges and sunning terraces. At least the window sizes alter from level 2 onwards.

Screenshots of the first two levels from the AMSTRAD CPC version.

The AMSTRAD version loses the high score element from the info panel, in addition to the current level that was already lost in the SPECTRUM version, and the lives indicators and the timer icon are again altered. But instead, the monochrome building graphics are overlaid by differently coloured monochrome sprites, which are a bit nicer to look at on the long run than just the two colours for the entire level. It also seems like there is more variety in the pieces of debris falling from above, than there is in the SPECTRUM version. All in all, apart from the awfully red "Get Ready" screen, the AMSTRAD version's graphics are much preferable to the SPECTRUM version's graphics.

"Level Complete" screens. Top left: Arcade. Top right: Sinclair ZX Spectrum.
Bottom left: Amstrad CPC. Bottom right: Commodore 64.

The two most unique elements of the "Level Complete" sequence are, when you reach the top of the skyscraper and the game throws a couple of messages at you while you're holding the damsel in not-so-much-distress-anymore in your arms, and when you reach the bottom of the skyscraper once more. The segment between those two events shows you falling down with the girl in your hands, while you're allowed to shoot some remaining fires from windows for bonus points.

Obviously, the ARCADE original has the most details, as well as the most animations in the sequence. As you fall down to ground level, you land on top of the fire truck first, and then jump up to grab onto the fire ladder before the bonus counter comes into the picture. From the three home conversions, once again, only the C64 version comes anywhere near the level of detail, with the fire truck barely in view, and there's also a huge crowd waiting for your safe return. The second best of the conversions is the SPECTRUM one, which gets you to the ground level, but has very little in terms of detail, and the bonus counter is featured in the score board at the bottom of the screen. The AMSTRAD version abruptly stops your fall in mid-air, and you seemingly land onto the suddenly appearing game logo (in a black box) as the bonus gets counted.

"Game Over" and "Enter your name" screens. Top left: Arcade. Top right: Amstrad CPC.
Bottom left: Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Bottom right: Commodore 64.

The Game Over sequence shows you fall down, as it usually does when you lose a life, but it all ends in a scene where you land down on a mattress (ARCADE and C64) or fall through the ground (SPECTRUM), unless you're playing the AMSTRAD version, in which the screen abruptly rolls out to the left - a backwards version of the same effect for when you start a game.

As for the name entering screen, when you get a score high enough for it, the C64 version is again the only one that follows the ARCADE version in having a grid of letters to control a cursor over and choose the letters, although the ARCADE version does have numbers and other addition characters to choose from. At the least the C64 version gives room for eight letters instead of just three. The AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions have a red screen with yellow and/or white text on it, into which you are allowed to type in your name.

In conclusion, the overall quality of graphics is surprisingly directly comparable to the state of fine-tuning in gameplay for each version. The ARCADE version is untouchable, as is only proper, and the C64 version comes first from the home conversions with all the colours, the details, the scrolling and the sheer amount of elements included from the original. The AMSTRAD version is just enough above the SPECTRUM version's graphics to be considered a proper upgrade, even with the slight reduction of screen size and occasional slowdown.




As is only to be expected, an arcade game from 1986 as FireTrap is, even has a sound library that would make any home conversion envious of the sheer amount of not only sound effects, but music as well. From what I was able to count, there are six (6) different tunes in the ARCADE version, including three short jingles and three longer tunes. From the jingles, the "Get Ready" jingle is a basic rendition of the "Charge!" melody; then we have a short well done -type of a jingle for when you reach the top of a skyscraper; and then there's the usual Game Over ditty. From the three longer tunes, we get the basic level tune - a surprisingly 60's spy-movie -like theme, in the vein of Peter Gunn and such; then there's a nice little loop played for the "Stage Clear" segment, as you jump down from the roof with the lady and get your bonus points; and then there's the obligatory peaceful tune for the screen where you enter your name into the hall of fame.

As for the sound effects, there are just too many to count, since there are various types of explosions, and all the different special enemies have their own sounds, and our protagonist also has his own few different types of sounds, including a funny little "oogh!" as he falls down. In the comparison, we shall only focus on the sound effects that the other versions have managed to fit in.

In the C64 version, we can hear distinctly different sound effects for shooting, hitting a target (a weird "o-o-oww!" noise), a repeating quick ascending tone for picking up items and rescuing, backing downwards (sounds somewhat like skidding in racing games) and falling down (a descending whistle sound). I think I also heard a low "bump" noise a couple of times, but I have no idea what caused it - perhaps one of you readers know better? And all the while, you can hear music in the background. You get the same "Charge!" jingle for the "Get Ready" screen, and the same spy-movie theme plays in both the title sequence and during play, and then you get a nice 12-bar rock'n'roll loop for the "well done" sequence and the high score entry screen. For an 8-bit conversion, that's more than enough.

In the AMSTRAD version, you can hear only two songs played during the entire game, and most of the time it's that 60's spy theme as in the other versions. In fact, the only two times you won't be hearing it is during the "Get Ready" screens, when you get a jingle that sounds almost completely unlike the usual "Charge!" melody, and then during the showing of the high score table, which is the only completely quiet screen in the entire game. Good music can always be excused, but since the AMSTRAD version only has a very beepy soundtrack, in which the usual pauses in the main melody are taken by a certain low note that feels completely out of place, the one quiet place in the game is always a welcome refuge. Speaking of beepy, almost all the sound effects are quite beepy in their own ways, as well, apart from the chopping noise your movements make, and the shooting noise. I counted five other sound effects, which are each of them mostly odd variations of beepy noises from different octaves. When you take a hit, you get a beep that both descends and ascends, in a "pee-ooo-eeep" manner. Hitting a target makes a descending "powww" sound. Rescuing a person or a dog makes a low descending beep, probably pointing towards the slow descend with the parachute. Picking up an item gives another weird sound that goes "we-o-we-o-we-o" very quickly, and then there's the long ascending beep for getting bonus score. With so little variation in sound types, it becomes rather cumbersome very quickly.

Then again, the SPECTRUM version has no music at all during play, which can be considered a saving grace. Not that the spy-movie theme tune in all its beepyness is too bad - in fact, it's more enjoyable than the pauseless rendition on AMSTRAD. But oddly enough, instead of the obvious title screen, they used the theme tune only in the high score screen. The only other tune is the Get Ready jingle, which again is not completely like the traditional "Charge!" melody, but makes more sense here than in the AMSTRAD version. It also plays whenever you complete a level. The sound effects are also much more tolerable, although I'm sorry to say, there are quite a bit fewer of them here - I counted only four specific sound effects against the AMSTRAD's seven. Here again, you get a noise for your movements, but instead of loud chopping noise, it's gentle tapping, which is nice. A very traditional Speccish blip noise is given for shooting, and another traditional crash/explosive noise is given for hitting a target. When you take a hit and start falling, the game plays a quick descending bleep, which again, is much more preferable than the AMSTRAD's long down-and-up beep. For a change, I can heartily agree on the notion of "less is more", even though I am usually against it. Too bad there was no 128k upgrade for the Spectrum, though.




Before we end this comparison, I'd like to leave you with some little extra. Since I wasn't able to find a readily available comparison video of FireTrap, I decided to make one of my own, much like I did with the previous entry. Of course, this just puts an emphasis on what you have already gathered from reading all of the above, but in case you decided to skip all that text and get to the bottom, the video will serve as a clarification on what I've been trying to say here.

So, unless it wasn't already blatantly obvious, here are the traditional FRGCB-style results of FireTrap's comparison:

1. ARCADE: Playability 4, Graphics 4, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 12
2. COMMODORE 64: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 9
3. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 5
4. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 4

The default cover art for the Electric Dreams'
home conversion.
If you feel the need to disagree, you're very welcome to do so - as you well know, the scores I have given are mostly down to obvious truths about technical stuff, but on occasion, you might find me giving opinions related to artistic choices, which might or might not be relevant to the technicalities. But as always, it's rather easy to point out that playability is still the king, and you don't really need to know any further from there, unless you don't play games for their gameplay, which would be rather odd.

That's it for now, thanks for reading! As it currently feels rather good to be back, you might not need to wait too long for the next entry, so until then, keep your eyes open!

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