Friday 29 May 2020

Agent X II: The Mad Prof's Back! (Mastertronic, 1987)

Developed by Software Creations.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC versions:
Programming by Steven Tatlock
Graphics by John Tatlock
Music by Tim Follin
Additional programming and graphics for the Amstrad CPC version by Mark Wilson.

Commodore 64 version:
Programming by Jonathan French
Graphics by Andrew Threlfall
Music by Tim Follin

Published by Mastertronic in 1987.



The unexpectedly formed Mastertronic trilogy for May ends with a game I used to love as a young gamer, and made me not only acknowledge the existence of a game music composer by the name of Timothy Follin, but also made me into a big fan of his work. But I grew up with the C64 version, and I have never actually even as much as tried out the other two versions of the game, so this shall be yet another learning experience. What I have learned already, is that the makers of the Spectrum-exclusive original Agent X game, the Tatlock brothers, are also largely responsible for the other two versions, so I'm expecting great differences here.

Being a cheap game that it is, the quality of the game is sort of expectedly bordering on average and below, but it needs to be noted, that many game reviewers at the time were disappointed in Agent X II, when compared to the first game. Being a C64 user at the time, I had no such priviledge, and I thought it was rather alright. But at the moment of writing this entry, World of Spectrum has a score of 6.50 from 26 votes, CPC-Softs has 12 points out of 20, CPC Game Reviews has a rating of 4 out of 10, and 28 Lemon64 voters have given the C64 version a 5.9, all of which point out to the original reviews having been rather close to the truth. But we're here to find out, as usual, how do the three versions compare against each other.



Agent X II, much like its predecessor, is a multi-genre game in three parts. This time, the levels need to be loaded separately, and the latter two require passwords to access them, which you get from completing the previous level. If the purpose for this was to make the game more agent'esque, I suppose it proved some sort of a point. The first level is a horizontally scrolling space shooter, the second a vertically scrolling platforming action-puzzle game, and the finale is a break-out clone.

It's a fairly playable, if unremarkable game, with the only true saving grace being Tim Follin's music, which is well worth sticking with it to the end. To be brutally honest, I wouldn't recommend this to anyone for any other reason, but back in the day, it was cheap and it was playable, which made it good enough to put some time into.



At some point in time, Mastertronic's C64 releases started having turbo loaders with a loader game slapped onto it, and as far as I can remember, it was the Space Invaders -clone called "Invade-a-Load". It was used for Agent X II as well, which added to the value that was already huge for £1.99, or whatever it was in Finnish currency at the time. The other two versions got the usual loading screens, which alter none for the different parts of the game. Perhaps the more interesting part here is to see, how much more waiting you need to do in what version, so here we have the full tape data amount in time:

C64: 5 minutes 57 seconds

CPC: 10 minutes 51 seconds
SPE: 15 minutes 2 seconds

As mentioned earlier, Agent X II requires you to load each level separately, by switching off the power from your computer after finishing a level, and then load the next level similarly to the previous. The AMSTRAD version, however, has a different loader system, which first loads up a main menu, after which you can load a different level by entering the required access code first. Luckily, all levels have the possibility to load up the next one, so you don't have to load a launch program first.

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

The loading screens are not particularly attractive on either version that actually has one, and neither even attempt to pixelate the cover art. The AMSTRAD screen has more action, which doesn't actually look like anything that could happen in the game (as you will find out), while the SPECTRUM version only has a picture of what I'm guessing is the Mad Professor with a completely red head, and he's trying to flip you the middle finger, but fails. Not sure why.



Although the three levels of Agent X II are loaded in more or less separately, the game shall be viewed as one complete package. That said, because the access codes for each version's last two levels are different, I shall give even that a little consideration on the total scores for this section, based on how difficult the access codes are. The C64 version has coherent passwords that have 11 letters in each of them, the SPECTRUM version has long-winded sentences that need to be written just as correctly as the simpler passwords, and the AMSTRAD version goes somewhere in the middle.

But that's sort of getting a bit ahead, since you won't be using codes until when you want to access the second level, so let's move on to title screens. The SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions feature some sort of menus, while the C64 version doesn't bother with anything but "press fire to start", since there's no real need for anything else. The SPECTRUM version can be played using user-definable keys on the keyboard, cursor keys, a Sinclair joystick or a Kempston-compatible joystick. Option number 5 starts the game. The menu in the AMSTRAD version gives you four options: load level (which immediately gives you a prompt for the access code for the program to know, which level to load), choose keys, joystick and start game. It must be mentioned, that the C64 version uses the joystick in port 1, so you can just as well use the usual keys on the keyboard which correspond the joystick directions and fire button: numbers 1 and 2, CTRL, the LEFT ARROW key and SPACE.

Level 1 is a fairly simplistic side-scrolling space shooter. You control Agent X wearing a jetpack through a series of a variety of space creature formations that have each been given different paths to fly around the screen. After a certain amount of alien formations have passed, you are faced with an odd-looking vessel that shoots missiles straight to the left, with no real idea of actually trying to hit you. At least, this is how the mid- and end-level boss in level 1 acts like in the C64 and AMSTRAD versions; the SPECTRUM version has the boss thing attack you differently on each encounter.

The SPECTRUM version of level 1 is much longer than on the C64, with about seven and a half minutes compared to the C64's two and a half. Enemy patterns come usually three times on the Speccy, but depending on how long does it take for you to kill them or dodge them so they've danced their way out of the screen, it might take them two or up to six times for the next enemy pattern to come along. And there are twelve enemy formations per sequence, before the boss enemy appears. Getting through this level on the Spectrum is tedious, and requires little more than a good start. The AMSTRAD version is even longer than the SPECTRUM version at 10 full minutes, and it gets boring more quickly, because you don't get weapon upgrades at all. At least they all have the rather generous energy meter in common.

Level 2 is a vertical flip-screen platformer, in which you need to avoid any enemy contact as much as possible, although you do have a bubble pistol to defend yourself with. There's a big, roaming walker in this level, which cannot be killed, and which will follow you around the whole building in its own peculiar manner, and a bunch of smaller creatures that cannot be killed either, but at least they keep to their own area. The strange red flying blob creatures that break out of glass domes can be shot. The only really important thing you need to keep an eye on in this level are the strange balls flying randomly from right to left, which have to be picked up. They contain two-digit codes, which need to be inserted into randomly selected computers within the level. When enough of computers have been opened with those codes, the last one will take you to the bottom room of the level, and entering the given code into that computer will spawn a large worm-like enemy, which you need to kill with your bubble shooter to complete the level.

This level is controlled entirely on the joystick or other chosen controller on C64 and SPECTRUM, but the AMSTRAD version requires you to use the keyboard for accessing the computers by hitting the Space Bar, and type in the numbers you receive from the flying code balls. Thankfully, the AMSTRAD version of this level seems to give you the least time to get to the end, as I've never had to enter more than 4 codes to get to the bottom of the building, whereas the other two versions require you to enter a few more codes. The AMSTRAD version also differs by having the screen show you four levels on each room, while the other two only show three levels for each room. Also, the worm creature at the end of the level takes less hits to kill on the AMSTRAD, but it is also much faster than in the other two versions.

Level 3 is universally considered to be a rather bad breakout variant. There's nothing more to it than try to keep some line in your energy meter, which can be made by not letting the ball hit the floor. Exactly - there's a floor constantly below your bat, unlike in practically any other breakout game, although to be fair, it does drain your energy. The idea is to break a pathway to the Mad Professor's lair, which looks oddly like a painting with its top corners openable by a breakout ball, and of course, the ball needs to get inside the frames to complete the game. Between the ball and the Mad Professor, however, are tons of small bricks to break, a super-fast obstacle bat going back and forth just below from where the bricks start. You get no special abilities here - just having a floor should be help enough.

Simple as this level is, you cannot expect too many differences in it, but there is one particularly important difference. See, your bat has no real effect on which angle the ball is sent off on contact - it all seems more random than designed, but the important part here is the angle in which the ball has been programmed to spend most of its time. In the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions, it has a steep vertical angle, which makes it particularly difficult to get it inside the Mad Professor's frame, while the C64 version prefers a more horizontally aligned angle for the most part.

All in all, the C64 version has the most balanced gameplay, since it does offer some challenge, but gives a fair beginning and it doesn't feel nearly as much like a chore than the other two versions. The AMSTRAD version has the most pleasing level 2, but the dullest level 1, and the SPECTRUM version suffers from trying too hard. I'd say the latter two have to take a tied spot.




Oddly enough, I never paid that much attention to Agent X II's graphics - just felt that they were adequate. At no point in the game I ever thought, "man, that looks good", because the main focus was always on the music, which I will get to later. But much as anything else, the graphics here need to be considered on the basis of each genre qualifications, however, we need to start with the title screens.

Title screens and key definitions where available. Top row: ZX Spectrum. Bottom row: Commodore 64.
Right end: Amstrad CPC.

Seeing as they would fit nowhere else, I decided to include the keyboard configuration screens in the above as well. Anyway, the SPECTRUM and C64 title screens have been animated in such a way as to make it impossible to show everything in a single screenshot - therefore, three shots for each were necessary. At least the AMSTRAD version had the decency to have a screen that only needed to be grabbed once, although you can't really see the only visually interesting thing from a screenshot, which is the rasterbar scroller behind the nicely differently styled game title.

And that's enough to get us to the SPECTRUM version: the rainbow-coloured highlighting scrollers going up and down simultaneously make the control menu show only one or two items at a time, and the credits below the menu aren't much better to look at in still shots. Still, it's a nice enough menu in action, although if you're a person with any measure of OCD, you might wonder about the slight lifting of the green line at the bottom near the right edge of the screen. The bigger font from the title screen is also used for the thankfully effectless keyboard setting screen.

The C64 version shows the game's full title at the top, instead of just the main title, in a few shades of each given colour. Just above the nicely stylized Mastertronic copyright, you get an unfathomably scrolling "press fire to start", which would have fit the screen without scrolling. The middle part of the screen is taken by the credits in as big letters as everything else, requiring three screens to show all the necessary information, which get switched with a black sweep from middle to top and bottom of that particular area, and sweep back in.

Screenshots from level 1, top to bottom: ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC.

The first level takes place somewhere in outer place, and most definitely above a planet's surface with all sorts of outer-spacey ground formations and structures. Since the space-themed graphics are 99% a matter of imagination and personal preference, I shall not venture into judging whether it all looks authentic or not on any version. It's what you would basically expect in a space shooter. But I do like white stars better than the blue stars on the AMSTRAD.

What I'm interested here is the enemy formations, the occasional boss enemy and Agent X himself. Starting with our hero, he has been given to look like a 1950's film noir sleuth in the SPECTRUM version in monochrome, which kind of fits the idea, and goes together well as the sequel to the Spectrum-exclusive first game. His laser gun's fire looks like it was taken from Jetpac, but has only a single line instead of several, although the Lemon and Drops modes have clear differences in length. On the C64, the two firing weapons have a more unified style, but follow the same principle; although, the SPECTRUM version has a colourful laser. The C64 agent looks more like a janitor in his grey overalls, although the white jetpack is more visible due to the fire coming out of its bottom. In the AMSTRAD version, our agent has green overalls, making him look like Mario with his frog suit, with only the red weapon sticking out. And as you would know by now, the weapon only has clearly rounded bullets, instead of upgradable laser; so, no Strawberry flashing, either. The C64 flash of Strawberry is so quick, that I had to take a screenshot of it by freeze-framing it on VLC Player, but regardless of my methods, it's clear to see the flash effect is very similar to that in the SPECTRUM version. The only version to show any visual effect when taking damage is the SPECTRUM version, in which our agent goes through a multi-colour flash effect for a second or two.

As for the enemies: the AMSTRAD version only gives you four enemy sprites at a time on the screen, instead of six, like in the SPECTRUM and C64 versions. The AMSTRAD enemies might be more colourful on the whole, but it doesn't make it feel any better on a technical level. The C64 version also uses multi-colour enemy sprites, but for the most part, they go with the "less is more" school of styling. The SPECTRUM enemies are, as you might expect, hi-res monochrome ones. The boss enemies are similar on C64 and AMSTRAD, although the latter has the more colourful and detailed one, and it shoots more bullets at you at a time. Then again, the AMSTRAD version, similarly to the SPECTRUM version, takes us off from an area near the surface, to give more specified room for the boss battles. The SPECTRUM boss has a completely different design, and uses a different attack/weapon at each encounter.

Screenshots from level 2, top to bottom: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64.

Level 2 balances things a bit, as the AMSTRAD version features a bit more content in the form of a level-opening animation sequence, in which Agent X lowers himself down into Mad Professor's underground tower. Because the actual graphical content doesn't differ all that much between the three versions, I think they're otherwise surprisingly equal, which makes the AMSTRAD version that bit more interesting.

However, elaboration might be in order. Similarly to the first level's design, I have no interest in deciding upon which alien structure designs are the most pleasing. If there's anything truly worth noting, it's that the AMSTRAD version has four levels per screen, instead of three. But then, the code information boxes look rather non-descript on the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions, while the C64 version has a clear CRT-TV screen look to it. The C64 version also has a multi-colour worm instead of a single-coloured one as the boss enemy.

In the SPECTRUM version, all moving objects are monochrome yellow, which can cause some slight confusion, but then again, all the moving things are clearly enough defined to know which one you are moving. The AMSTRAD and C64 versions share a very similar overall style, pixelation and colouring, apart from the room at the bottom - the one with the worm. The most notable difference in the AMSTRAD version is, that the room changes to a red hue when the worm has been summoned; the SPECTRUM and C64 versions have the room stay red or purple, depending on which platform you're playing.

Screenshots from level 3, left to right: Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64.

Being a breakout clone, the final level, almost by a rule, has to be a single-screen event, even though scrolling-level breakout games are known to exist. Of course, Agent X II doesn't try anything particularly innovative in this case, either. The only point of mild interest is the portrait-like object of the Mad Professor's hidden room, which the ball must enter to finish the game. The only version, in which the protagonist looks like the Mad Professor he's supposed to be, is the C64 version; the other two just have some random person sitting inside some sort of a container.

The bats, the balls and the bricks you need to break have the least interesting look in the AMSTRAD version; the SPECTRUM version only slighly less so. Also, both mentioned versions have eleven bricks horizontally from the Mad Professor's container. The C64 version has 14 bricks, and the brick setup itself is a bit more visually interesting; also, the two bats have some real thought put into their look. The blue-ended enemy bat looks more sturdy and imposing than either counterpart, and the red-ended player bat looks like it's designed to attack, if any bat in a breakout game ever has looked like that.

The level framing is, perhaps, the most suitably decorated on the SPECTRUM, and the red flooring in the AMSTRAD version is the most indicative of danger. In the C64 version, the blue larger bricks surrounding the room make it feel like a padded room in a mental asylum, or nice wallpaper in an old folks' home, but it does offer a neat place for the energy bar below the player's bat. The energy bar in the AMSTRAD version looks exactly like the one in level 1, and in the SPECTRUM version, the energy bar has been latched onto the right wall as an accessory.

Game Over variations. Left: ZX Spectrum. Top right: Amstrad CPC. Bottom right: Commodore 64.

And so we get to the obligatory Game Over screens, but I shall skip the Congratulations screens, because each level ending gives you an access code at the end, and I don't want to spoil the ending, even if it's not much to talk about. Besides, including the Game Over screens, we should have a clear enough order of which version gets over which other version.

All you get in the AMSTRAD version are a couple of different "oh man, you're so dead" messages in the game's basic font, which seem to be randomized. The SPECTRUM version doesn't fare much better, but it seems like it has more variations in those messages, although they're not randomized. Also, the Game Over message in level 1 is written under the action screen instead of on a blank page. Only the C64 version has any attempt at epicness in a Game Over screen, with eight bursting pimples on a skin-pink screen, around blue message in big letters saying "Agent X you failed." I didn't realize they were pimples on skin until I read the game's silly plotline while making research for this entry, but after all these years, it now makes sense.




I recently watched an interview of Tim Follin on YouTube, in which he spoke about making music for games, amongst other things. The thing that struck me most was, that he didn't have much of quality control in what he was writing for games he was commissioned for; he usually wasn't given much of an idea what sort of game he was making music for; and that, at least in his own mind, often the music didn't really fit the game's atmosphere and type of action all that well. I think some of this can be easily witnessed in the soundtracks for Agent X II. Also, it's a key element in figuring out, in which order the versions must have been made.

In the 48k SPECTRUM version, you only get music in the title screen, which is completely black until you press any key to enter the controls menu. The music is the usual Tim Follin magic, if you're familiar with his other work on the Speccy, such as Chronos, Vectron and, of course, the first Agent X game. This is 1-bit multichannel music, which is played through the in-built beeper, but as you can probably hear from the video in the link provided in the last section of this article, the Z80 chip can be expanded to up to 12 channels with the help of ULA chip, and it can generate some really interesting filters. The downside is, this method of playing music through the beeper takes 100% of processor time, so the screen is blank for the duration of the song, or until you press a key to open up the main menu. The title tune itself sounds like the usual early Tim Follin stuff, with more focus on the track's groove and harmony than melodies. It's actually fairly reminiscent of 60's and 70's sleuth themes in a way.

Playing the game on a 128k Spectrum, you get an additional AY-chip based soundtrack. Level 1 is a long and very outer-spacey tune, with only a single bell-like instrument with a delay effect to give it more... well, space. Although it sounds neat and spacey, it does get a bit boring after a while, and the level does go on for about 10 minutes. In 48k mode, it's total silence. Level 2 has only beeper-designed sound effects, which are obviously also featured in the 48k mode, although some of it might be counted as music, if you're the kind of person who can consider any slightly musical noise as music. Specifically, there's a constant rising 8-note staccato loop that plays everywhere in the level except the bottom room. But then again, at least the sound effects are rather well-made for the level, all things considered. Level 3 has two differently-pitched tick-noises in both 48k and 128k modes for indicating the ball hitting your bat (lower tick) and everything else (higher). In terms of music, this level brings out a hectic kind of a rock-tune that you would expect, at least for some part of it, in some 80's action-based tv-show, but it progresses to unexpected areas at the mid-point, incorporating odd sound effects, such as a distant phone ringing. And this track is my most prominent clue to my theory, that the C64 version was developed last.

See, the AMSTRAD version features that same song, but in level 2, as it is featured in the C64 version, but it doesn't have all the gimmicks and the most interesting bridges and melodies that are featured finally in the C64 rendition of the tune. It still feels very much like a work-in-progress tune on the AMSTRAD, even though it's already slightly advanced from the SPECTRUM tune, and is now in its preferred level. Level 1 has a new tune that also feels slightly untrimmed from somewhere past the mid-point, but it is very much the same tune that was fine-tuned for the C64 version. It starts with a nice descending two-tone idea in 4/4, which soon turns into a fantastic 7/8 part via some faux-orchestral hits; and finally it turns into an epic space march in 6/8, before it dissolves back to the descending two-tone thing that started the whole song, and loops from the beginning. The clue for the AMSTRAD version being the middle version of the three is in level 3, which has the exact same tune from level 1 of the SPECTRUM version, which definitely fits better than the one they moved for level 2. I'm sorry to say, though, that the AMSTRAD version has no title music or Game Over music. Nor does it have much sound effects during the entire game, than a descending boom sound at the beginning of level 2, and in the final level, and it's the similar set of two differently-pitched ping sounds as in the SPECTRUM version.

So, on the C64, you get an even more fine-tuned space-epic tune for level 1, and also a slightly more fine-tuned rock instrumental for level 2. The rest of the game's soundtrack might come as a shock, if you haven't played the C64 version yet. Level 3 has a very laid-back, swinging blues tune, which goes well together with the ticking noises that the ball makes when it hits anything. It only lasts for a bit over a minute, but it's enough to put you in a good mood. In addition to that, there's a theme tune that doesn't necessarily fit the bill - just as Follin himself suggested - but it's a nice little tune that makes you feel that the characters or the plotline in the game aren't to be taken particularly seriously. The exclusive Game Over tune is a short little piece that features typically wide chords and a more fantastical feel, rather than a doomful one. There's also a Congratulations tune, which plays at the end of every completed level, which is more old-school rock'n'roll than necessary, but more is more. And the C64 version definitely has more of it. Except for the sound effects, of which there are only the ones in level 3. But still, more music is definitely more. And while the AMSTRAD's closer-to-the-final-soundtrack might well earn a second place here, the technical marvel of a 1-bit theme tune already featured on the 48k SPECTRUM is so much worth adding to the 128k Speccy version, that it gets a tied place with the CPC.




If you're in need of some sort of a recap of all the above, you can go and see the video below, which shows clips of all versions of the game - even both Spectrum modes. I hope that clears up any mysteries and potentially odd opinions, if you encountered any.

Although I was definitely more familiar with the C64 version, I honestly tried to find as much of positives from the Spectrum and Amstrad versions, which I think I managed to do somehow. But it's difficult to find anything that isn't there, and when the majority of this game's enjoyment has to do with the soundtrack, are the Overall scores really to be wondered?

1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 7
2. SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM 128k: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 5
3. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 4
3. SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM 48k: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 4

Yes, the Spectrum version offers an option with the 48k/128k modes, but when the soundtrack itself is so clearly in an unfinished state compared to the much richer soundtrack of the C64 version, there's no point in even trying to balance it out in favour of the Spectrum version. And as I said earlier, the graphics are really more of a matter of taste for the most part, but the amount of graphical content was the deciding factor here. Not to mention, the gameplay really is far nicer on the C64 than on either of the other two, so I'd say the order is clear.

Now, in case you're expecting me to write something about the original Spectrum-exclusive Agent X game, you can find a dedicated segment of it in the second Unique Games article from as way back as February 2014.

That's it for now, hope you enjoyed the unexpectedly evolved Mastertronic May! Next month, I might have a couple of special entries coming for you, in addition to the usual video content, which will be posted on the Video section as they appear. Thanks for reading, see you next time, and stay safe!

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