Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Knight Rider (Ocean Software, 1986)

Amstrad CPC version written by Anthony Heartley and Gary Knight.

Commodore 64 version written by Grant Harrison and Kevin Grieve.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum version written by Antony R. Lill and Gary Knight, with loading screen by Frederick David Thorpe.

All versions published by Ocean Software in 1986.



Disastrous games based on TV shows were a vogue thing in the 80's, and FRGCB has already touched the subject with Elite's Dukes of Hazzard and the Fall Guy some time ago. Since I apparently didn't learn from that mistake, I decided to attempt tackling at least one of Ocean Software's offerings in the same vein. Out of a few good candidates, such as Miami Vice, It's A Knockout and Roland's Rat Race, I decided to go for the fantastically horrendous Knight Rider, because firstly, it epitomizes everything that was wrong with the idea of trying to turn an exciting TV-show into a computer game, and secondly, it's the only one of the lot, which actually offended me even as a young kid, since I was a fan of the show, as well as most of Ocean's offerings that I knew of. Thirdly, it allows me to speak of two other Knight Rider games in the same context.

For good reasons, the game has rather underwhelming scores at our regular haunts. At World of Spectrum, the score given by 28 voters is a whopping 4.04. Sort of similarly, the CPC-Power voters have rated their version 7.43 out of 20.00. The most seemingly worthless of them all, the C64 has been rated by 54 Lemon64 voters as 2.2, giving it a deserved turd-icon, with the ranking of #48 in the Worst 100 games list. I'll try to be quick with this one.



Argh. Well, I asked for it, didn't I? Let's start with something positive: Knight Rider by Ocean is a multi-genre action game, with the intention of stopping some random terrorists igniting World War III. The game is composed of a mission selection screen (map); a first-person driving/shooting section, in which you can control either K.I.T.T. or the weapon crosshair; and an over-head walking-in-a-building section, in which you need to reach a certain room in each building and not get caught by the guards. On paper, that sounds pretty okay.

As for the negatives... well, considering the TV-show was about solving crimes non-violently, they somehow managed to forget that when implementing the mindless destruction of helicopters for the driving segments. Apart from that, the game's overall quality ranges from very little to none at all, regardless of which version you're playing. The details are painstakingly typed below, but if you're wondering, whether I'd recommend this to anyone, I'd say no, unless you want to see how NOT to write a game in 1.5 years.



The funny thing is, loading the game into memory is probably the most fun you will have with any of the three available versions of Knight Rider. The expectations of a nice loading screen, perhaps some loading music, the anticipation of trying out the game for the first time is the most exhilirating moment to be experienced here. And so, here we have the loading times and other such nonsense.

Loading screens, left to right: Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC.

Commodore 64: 4 min 16 sec
Amstrad CPC: 3 min 52 sec
ZX Spectrum, original: 3 min 50 sec
ZX Spectrum, Erbe: 3 min 29 sec

Going with the overall quality of the game, the C64 version has no loading screen apart from the usual rainbow raster bars, but at least you do get the obligatory "Ocean Loader 2" tune from Martin Galway. The SPECTRUM version has a pixelated version of the game's cover art by F. David Thorpe in one of his least successful loading screens, which is only appropriate. The AMSTRAD version only has a black screen with a bit of text at the bottom left corner. I think it's somewhat fantastic, how little of effort was put into any of the versions of this game, even for the loading bit. If the tape loader is anything to judge the game by, as it might well be, the SPECTRUM version could win this one.



Despite all the different types of segments in Knight Rider, all of them are nothing if not elementary in their gameplay. But of course, you start the game with a mission selection screen, which is controlled by a joystick in the C64 and AMSTRAD versions, and keyboard in the SPECTRUM version. The SPECTRUM version also includes controller options in the title/mission selection screen, which also necessitates the additional menu item "Play the game", so you don't start off straight by selecting the mission. In all three versions, the missions are described a bit differently, and the AMSTRAD version is missing one of them, but frankly, I have no idea which one it is, and don't even care, since I always choose the random plot anyway.

See, each mission starts off by Deven (for that is how Devon Mulhair's first name is spelled in all versions of the game) telling you of terrorist activity being reported in Chicago, so that's where you must drive first. The map screen mostly shows where you are, and tells in a slowly scrolling text about the current location and/or the mission. Of course, the only thing you can do is select an option of either entering a building for investigating, or driving to one of the given possible destinations from your current location, by moving the highlight up and down with your controller, and pressing the fire button to access the chosen segment.

The driving segments can be played by either controlling K.I.T.T. through the increasingly windy roads, or by controlling the crosshair and shooting down helicopters and on-coming missiles. Since Michael Knight never carries a gun, this is not quite strictly against the TV show's philosophy, although it's definitely on the verge of crossing that line. Without exceptions, you're really better off controlling the car, because if you leave the driving to the computer, you will never be able to finish any mission. Besides, dodging missiles is much easier than shooting targets, because the crosshair is - again, without exceptions - painfully slow to control over the windscreen. And also besides, the damage you take from missiles is far less than is even reasonable, and as you drive along, the damage will be fixed automatically. One thing must be mentioned, though: in none of the versions of Ocean's Knight Rider does K.I.T.T. have the ability to jump. Mind you, there's really no need for it either. But it's still a disappointment.

Once you have passed the first driving segment, though, the roads get increasingly windy, as I mentioned before. This is where one of the biggest differences between the three versions comes into play: the off-roading. On the C64, you can go off-roading, and go so far off the road you might not even make it back again, but you will take damage constantly while off-roading. In the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions, the off-roading has been made impossible by giving the roads invisible walls, so you will only take some minor damage while driving against the invisible walls. Also, the roads are much easier to follow on SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD, although the easiness comes along with a notable decrease in any sense of realism compared to the C64 version, if you can call it realism. Well, let's just say the steering and driving on the roads in the C64 version feels much more like a proper game, than it does in the other versions. Still, I can't say it makes the game any better for it, rather just more bothersome to complete, if you ever feel like attempting such a task.

Walking through buildings is always an odd experience, regardless of which version you're playing. The SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions have the enemy guards more alert compared to the C64, and they tend to follow you more easily, off from their predestined paths. But they also have a much larger collision area, so you will get caught more easily than in the C64 version. Then again, some of the guards will not notice you even if you walk practically through them. As such, it's still much more of a stealth job for the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD, and less for the C64, but I'm not sure if it's any better when it's a bit unfair. However, in the C64 version, the game doesn't necessarily always register your reaching the desired room to ignite the next phase in your mission, so basically, they're all equally buggy and unplayable, just in different ways. I can't really think of a reason to favour any version over the other, at least based on gameplay, so they're all getting a shared spot here.




Getting a TV-show graphically well represented in a computer game doesn't require all that much of imagination, but getting it right requires a lot of work. In the case of Knight Rider, the year and a half of working on the game was clearly not spent in honing the gameplay elements. Nor, I'm sorry to say, on the graphical aspects.

Title menu screens, left to right: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64.

The title screen is a fairly basic menu, which contains just plain text in the case of the C64 and AMSTRAD versions, and the SPECTRUM version adds a lazily pixelated title logo with no space between the words "Knight" and "Rider". The C64 version uses the basic system font, but has four different colours used, while the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions have a custom font for the game. The AMSTRAD version uses only one colour (white), while the SPECTRUM version at least has four, which makes it just a tad above the C64 version.

Map screens, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.

As you start the game by choosing any of the missions, you are greeted with a map screen, with your representative animated rectangle over your current location (the game always starts in Atlanta). On the C64, the top half of the screen is taken by the map, and the lower half is taken by the options, the timer and instructions, and in the other two versions, the message scroller is placed above the map.

The map's details are a bit thereabouts in all versions, but most notably, the C64 map is zoomed in a bit more than in the other two versions, and the AMSTRAD version's map is green instead of yellow. Also, the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM maps show the watery bits as the details, while the C64 map shows some mountains at both west and east ends of the U.S. map. I guess the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM maps look a bit more detailed, with some islands included and such, but the roads look more naturally squiggly on the C64. Don't know if any of this matters in the end, though.

Screenshots from driving sections, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.

Seeing how the driving sections have been made, and how the roads have been implemented here makes me realize, how much of work just getting all the different road sections (of which there are thirteen) must have taken time to actually put together. See, all of the roads are clearly built separately, and having chosen a first-person view for the driving sections must have been considered the only possible method of getting the roads a bit more interesting than a relatively straight one as in Spy Hunter, LeMans or Grand Prix. I'm only making guesses here, but I would assume putting the driving segments together must have taken 80% of the entire time of writing the game on all three platforms. But I digress.

As I mentioned earlier, the C64 version can go off-road, which already makes it slightly more interesting to look at, even though the off-roading shows no real new graphics, other than having the road disappear altogether, which never happens on either AMSTRAD or SPECTRUM. The view through the windscreen only shows the road, the immediate area around it, some very preliminary details (such as a cloud, if that), the helicopters, and the missiles they shoot. The AMSTRAD versions shows a red flash in the sky area if you take damage, while the SPECTRUM and C64 versions show that indication as a flash on the borders - light grey for SPECTRUM and yellow for C64. While I'm still at damage indication, the C64 version also shakes the screen as you take damage from a missile or drive off-road.

The HUD in all three versions is basically the same: you get the steering non-wheel in the middle, with all the same indicators of score, speed, skuds, damage, time and weapon overheating in the same places. The only things the C64 version has importantly different are the shape of the cockpit and the colour of the steering thing. And of course, K.I.T.T.'s speech indicator should be red, as it is only in the SPECTRUM version, even though it's never actually used properly here.

There is one very clear graphical advantage in the C64 version over the two others: there is more than one background colouring for the driving segments. That alone will put the C64 version above the others, although not by much, because it also runs at a notably lower framerate than the other two versions, but not unplayably so.

Screenshots from walking sections, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.
In each city, there is a building, which might or might not require visiting, depending on your mission. In case you happen to be in the wrong city at the wrong time, you get a message scroller saying "I'm sorry Michael...", so when you see those words, you can be quick about getting to the next city. The buildings are designed the same for the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions, but the C64 version uses different designs, and not only due to the wider pixels.

The colouring is different in all versions. As you can see above, the C64 version is the only one to feature alternating background colours, but all the guards are also differently coloured. From the other two, the SPECTRUM version is the more colourful one, and it also has the people in the buildings more clearly defined than in the AMSTRAD version, by giving Michael a black hair and the enemies have their hair the colour of the background; in the AMSTRAD version, all human representatives look exactly the same, although at least they don't blend in with the background.

Game Over screens, left to right: Commodore 64 (fail), Amstrad CPC (fail), ZX Spectrum (success).

Eventually, we get to an ending screen of sorts. The SPECTRUM version is the only one that I have bothered to persevere with enough to complete a mission, only to notice that a failure and a success will end in a very similar ending screen - only the message is different. The other two versions end the game back in the map screen, which I verified from YouTube. Still not worth the trouble.

Between the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions, I like the CPC's colour choices a bit better, but I like the amount of colour in the SPECTRUM version even more. Also, the title menu, the map screen and the driving screens have a bit more to them, making the SPECTRUM version just that little important bit more interesting to look at. The C64 version isn't necessarily as pretty, but it does have a more impressive driving section, and the building sections are easier on the eyes, and have more variety to them. So, the order is clear.




I suppose the only necessary thing for a game with such a brand is to have the original theme music represented well enough. To be sure, all three versions have the Knight Rider theme included, but not all of them are translated into chiptune format as diligently as possible.

Let's start with the C64 version. The theme song is played only in the title screen, which I guess is appropriate, but makes the rest of the game sound a bit boring, since you get no other music. As for the rendition of the title tune, you only get about half of it, without the quicker melody played at the end, and the ending is not quite what it's supposed to be, but otherwise it's a rather good rendition, with a nice approximation of the drum track, the chord progression is pretty much what it's supposed to be, and there are a few nice details that aren't exactly how they were in the original song, but creative alternatives to fit the SID chip's style.

The title tune rendition in the SPECTRUM version utilises only the beeper, but the song has been made to use some special programming tricks to play two or even three beeps simultaneously. There is no sampled drum track, but for what it is, it's surprisingly good. However, the composition isn't quite right, as it switches between the two chords too quickly, the main melody is even further from the original than on the C64, but it's still recognizable. The song has no actual ending, it just loops naturally after a while. It's alright, but apart from being technically interesting, it just doesn't quite fit the bill. But then, you do get a slower version of the tune for the map screens, which is a nice bonus.

In the AMSTRAD version, the title tune uses the exact same composition as the SPECTRUM version, but there are more harmonies and there's also a drum track. Unfortunately, you get no slow version of the tune for the map screens, but I guess you can take the drum track as a trade-off for a bonus tune.

What all three versions have in common regarding sound effects is, that the walking segments are silent in all versions. The C64 version has some basic explosions from missiles and destroying helicopters, and then we get engine noise for K.I.T.T., which, when compared to most other racing games, will sound odd to gamers due to its ridiculous pitching. There are only a very few and basic sound effects in the SPECTRUM version, all of which are the usual Spectrum burps, farts and tickings during the driving section, but notably, there's no engine noise whatsoever. Perhaps that's only a good thing, though. The AMSTRAD version does have engine noise, which is an odd mixture of white noise and whistling, which constantly alternates between two pitches. It also has explosions, which feel like they're taken from the NES library of the most unexpected sound effects ever. Overall, I think the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions are on the same line, and the C64 version isn't too far off the other two, but wins by having the title tune closer to the original, and the few sound effects more effective.




Ocean Software's Knight Rider is a bad game, to be sure, but not all that much more so than other similar attempts, such as Miami Vice, Airwolf or the Dukes of Hazzard, just to name a few. In fact, I'm pretty sure there are more dismal TV-licence games than there are playable ones, but as it happens, the more playable ones are mostly based on British TV shows, such as Monty Python's Flying Circus, the Young Ones, Doctor Who and Yes, Prime Minister. I'm just glad no-one attempted to make a commercial game out of MacGyver back then.

We still have the obvious mathematical scores to get over with, so here we go:

1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 1, Graphics 3, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 6
2. SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 4
3. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 3

Perhaps these unfair, but mathematically biased scores only go so far as to show a compartmentalized truth of sorts. The C64 version is, overall, just a bit better as an experience as the other two, but I admit the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions are less bothersome to play, and in the context of this awful game, they are the more pleasurable ones to play on the whole, even though the C64 version is better technically. Sort of. If you care enough, just try them all out by yourselves, if you have no problem with wasting a few hours in playing something that never should have been made in the first place. If I were to be more brutal than usual, I'd say the Spectrum version wins because it has a loading screen.

But of course, there were other attempts at bringing Knight Rider justice in game form back in the day. Were they any better, though?



Prior to starting writing this blog entry, I was only aware of one other Knight Rider game, which is the NES game from 1988. I even have it in my personal NES collection, though I claim no pride over it. I found out from MobyGames, that there was another Knight Rider game released during that time period - one called Knight Rider Special for the NEC PC Engine (a.k.a. TurboGrafx-16) from 1989. Both of these games were developed by Pack-In-Video Co., which explains quite a bit of the two games' similarities.

Knight Rider (Acclaim, 1988)

The earlier one was made for Nintendo's 8-bit systems, with slight differences between the Famicom and NES releases. In this game, the focus is pretty much entirely on driving and shooting, which makes it somewhat of a Chase H.Q. and Roadblasters clone, but here, K.I.T.T. can actually jump like it does in the show. Perhaps the jumps are much more extravagant in the game, but at least jumping is now a possibility. Also, there are upgrades you can install into K.I.T.T., ranging from top speed upgrades and fuel capacities to better weapons. The peculiar thing here is, that the game is viewed from first-person view, which is unusual for a Nintendo game, and indeed for any racing game with a jumping ability.

Screenshots from Knight Rider (Acclaim, 1988; NES/Famicom)

Also rather unexpectedly, there are two game modes: missions and just plain driving. In missions, the weapons are necessary, and you need to distinguish enemies from civilians, and shoot the enemies for bonuses and avoid shooting civilians. The drive mode doesn't put you in nearly as much of need to accomplish anything - you just need to get through each level safely. It's a surprisingly deep game despite its strict driving-and-shooting approach. The only thing that the Nintendo version is really missing to make it a properly acceptable Knight Rider game is the title music, although the alternative music by Hiroshi Nishizawa isn't bad, either.

Knight Rider Special (Pack-In Video, 1989 or 1994?)

There is some confusion as to the correct release date of Knight Rider Special for the PC Engine on the web, as Mobygames and some other sources state the release date being December 22nd 1989, while Wikipedia says it was released December 19th 1994. I'm more willing to put my money on 1989, since that's the more frequently mentioned release date, but I'll let you, the readers, decide, so give me a comment if you have firm facts.

Screenshots from Knight Rider Special (Pack-In Video, 1989 or 1994?)

Anyway, Knight Rider Special is exactly what you would have expected from the NES game being: a behind-view third-person racing game with some basic shooting in it, making it even closer to being a straight Chase H.Q. clone. It also includes a nice rendition of the original Knight Rider theme tune in all its glory, except for the ending, and there are a couple of other in-game tunes, as well. Overall, it's a very entertaining Knight Rider game, if not nearly as complex as the earlier Nintendo game.



Just to depart from the usual form, the recent tradition of making a companion video for my comparisons is at the end of the article, because it also includes footage of the two other Knight Rider games.

So, long story short, if you want to play a good Knight Rider game, stay out of the Ocean Software versions, and look for the NES and PC Engine versions, preferably the NES one. It's easier to find, too.

Seeing as this article was such a low-calibre one to make, you might as well expect more comparisons of useless TV-show and/or movie licence games in the near future. Stay tuned! Thanks for reading, keep on retrogaming, and don't hassle the Hoff!

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