Thursday, 18 June 2020

Nero 2000 (Bio-Syntax Method Oy, 1987)

Designed by Taisto Orre and David Cumberworth
Programming by David Cumberworth and Timo Kokkonen
Graphics by Timo Kokkonen
Questions and music selection by Taisto Orre
Published originally for the Commodore 64 in 1987.

IBM-PC version written by Timo Kokkonen
MSX version written by David Cumberworth
Both published in 1988.



Some pieces of Finnish gaming history have been rather harshly scattered around with little hope of ever having the chance to get known to people, but lately, great amounts of archaeological findings have come up in the Finnish MSX scene. One of perhaps the most important findings has been the long-lost MSX version of the most famous computerized Finnish quiz game of all time, Nero 2000. Also, not much more than two years ago, Skrolli magazine found out the people behind the game and the company Bio-Syntax Method, on which they wrote an article for their first issue in 2018. So, before I continue into the actual article, I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has made this comparison possible: Kasettilamerit, MP83, Tokamoka and NYYRIKKI , and whoever uploaded the DOS and MSX versions on the internet. It has been a long time in coming.

Nero 2000 is a two-player quiz game, in which you play against either a computer or a human opponent. The game features four different question sets, which need to be loaded in after the main program. On a certain level, Nero 2000 is a gambling game, but as with every quiz game, knowledge is really the key to winning. I will get to the specifics in a moment, but I would like to point out, that quiz games on the 8-bits were never all that well executed, so the suggested way of trying to understand and appreciate Nero 2000 is to compare it to other computerized quiz games of the time. Perhaps this internationalized review/comparison will open it up a bit for non-Finnish retrogamers.



Gamers with no joysticks in their possession will be happy to know, that the entire game is played on keyboard. Unfortunately for people outside of Scandinavia, the DOS and MSX versions require keyboards with in-built Scandinavian alphabet (Å, Ä, Ö); the C64 version has the scandies handled in the game code. The instructions at the back cover, apart from the loading instructions, translate to English, more or less, as follows:
The back cover with instructions (edited)

"The computer randomizes the questions for you from your chosen question group. Each group consists of approx 500 questions. Answers are typed in using the keyboard. Answering has no time limit - players can decide upon it amongst themselves. The computer randomizes the bonus multiplier for each question (see the numbers changing on the screen).

For an answer typed in correctly, you will be awarded the given amount of score multiplied by the multiplier, and additionally, a lightbulb will be lit. When playing against the computer, the opponent's lightbulb will light up when you answer incorrectly. At the beginning of the game, you have 100 points to use at maximum.

Attack mode can be used, if you want to turn off your opponent's lights. Note that you will have to have at least one lit lightbulb in your row, in order to perform an attack.

Instruction for answering: the computer will only accept one answer to a question, and it needs to be absolutely correctly written.

Other answering instructions:
1. to multiple choice questions, answer "kyllä/ei" or "k/e" (yes/no/y/n)
2. to name questions, answer only with surname
3. to numeric questions, answer only with numerals, not as e.g. 250 kg
4. use only basic modes of nouns and verbs.

The game reaches an end, when:
- either player has lit all their lights - the other player will lose regardless of their score.
- either player loses all their points.
- other non-programmed conditions are met."

So, that's basically what it says at the back cover. And let's be honest: any non-programmed conditions are bollocks, since the game doesn't react to your imaginary rules. Anyway, the game does have some bugs in it. In the C64 version, I have witnessed typos in the correct answers, which can only be found by extensive playing, because there aren't all that many of them. This can be infuriating, because as the instructions say, the game only accepts perfectly written answers, as in, they need to be literally, precisely, the exact same as what the programmed answer is. As a young obsessive gamer, I used to write down all the correct answers I could come across, so I would get all the exact answers despite the in-built typos. On the plus side, I might have actually learned some trivia while at it, such as the banana being actually a berry, not a fruit, which, when speaking botanically, is absolutely correct.

The DOS version's bugs appear in the form of collided questions, which means that the question begins with the purpose of, let's say, finding a chemical element, and ends with something about a movie instead. And this happens a lot here. However, it seems, at least most of the time, the answers are related to the second half of these collided questions, so there's usually a good chance of guessing what the questions are about. Another weird thing is, that using caps is required to get your answers right, which makes no sense having lower case letters in use at all.

If you're as unfamiliar with the MSX computers as I was (and very much still am), it needs to be noted, that the MSX version will not load unless you keep the CTRL key pressed when booting the computer, in order to free up some more RAM. Similarly to the DOS version, the MSX version also requires typing everything in caps to get the answers right, again, making the inclusion lower case letters unnecessary. There are also somewhat similar question bugs here as in the DOS version, only here, the oddities come in the form of repeated phrases or half-phrases in questions, and sometimes, the questions are formed in such a way, you can't even tell, what the game is asking you. Since the MSX version seems to have been only released in disk format, after a game has been finished, you are always taken back to the question sets menu to select and load a question set. The biggest problem with the MSX version is, though, that the game has a tendency to freeze randomly, which makes the game practically impossible to play for any elongated period of time. On the plus side, if you want to find one, the MSX version has five question sets instead of the usual four.

As any Finnish C64 gamer would know, who grew up with Nero 2000, the game has an easter egg of sorts. All you need to do is type in a well-chosen profanity in Finnish as your answer, and the game would throw in an advert of sorts about Bio-Syntax's game about slang words. In a way, it's kind of funny, and was considered a party trick at a certain point in my youth. This is also featured in the DOS version, but the MSX version is, perhaps now unsurprisingly, missing it. Perhaps it affect the gameplay value as such, but it does somewhat spoil the novelty value.

Clearly, the C64 original is the most polished of the lot, even with its own peculiarities. The MSX version is easily the least playable one, although after well over three decades of wondering, it's nice to know it actually does exist and resembles the other two versions at its core.

1. C64
2. DOS
3. MSX



Since Nero 2000 doesn't have a loading screen in any version, we should get a natural start at the beginning of the game. However, the graphical contents of each version differ so much in the intros, that we need to view the three versions separately here.

Screenshots of the questions menu and the intro animation from the Commodore 64 version.

The original question sets menu isn't all that flashy; the screen builds up starting with a relatively empty white page, which has a light grey "Nero 2000" wallpaper scrolling downwards, and the big flashy logo falls to its place at the top in a rolling fashion. After the logo has settled to its place, the blue question set menu boxes and the smaller prompt box at the bottom appear on the screen. When you select one of the question sets, the small light blue rectangle under the question set's indicator number starts flashing red, and the text "Press Return" appears in the prompt box. Pressing Return will load the requested question set.

Once the actual game has loaded, the title screen animation is much more epic. Again, the downwards scrolling "Nero 2000" wallpaper is there, only now the text is black. The red Nero owl (also featured in the cover art) descends the screen, revealing a blue-and-yellow screen, on which the actual title screen will build up. Four differently coloured levels of the game logo appears from four directions, merging in the middle and exploding as bigger versions of itself into the four directions whence it came from, only to come back in full form in a similar manner as it did in the questions menu screen. Lastly, the credits section is revealed under the game logo, which features the copyright and "Made by 0647", which reportedly is a hex-based pseudonym for Timo Kokkonen. The other two versions don't even give you that much of a hint of who wrote them.

Screenshots from the MSX intro and menu.

The MSX version starts off with a similarly coloured, but a roughly approximated representation of the C64 title screen, although the amount of animation is severely lacking. The colour-flashing game logo gets separated from the middle - revealing the much more detailed drawing of the Nero owl - and drawn to top and bottom of the designated title screen area, which is surrounded by non-animated question marks as the wallpaper. When you press Enter, everything vanishes but the owl and the game logo, and five numbers inside colour-flashing balls appear at the bottom of the screen, indicating non-descriptly the choosable question sets. Choosing a question sets alters the screen in no way, but the game starts loading when you hear the music stop.

Screenshots from the DOS menu and title card.

Visually, the DOS version seems the least impressive, but it is the most different from the three. The base colour is black instead of white, which is a more natural choice for DOS games, I guess. Apart from a red swirling block in the selected menu item and a flashing text in the red prompt box, you get no animations of any kind for either the question set selection menu screen or the actual title screen, and the owl is not present, either. For some odd reason, the screen mode is different for the two screens.

Starting up screens from the Commodore 64 version.

Before you get on with quizzing, you need to go through a couple of necessary screens. In the first one, you choose to play against the computer or against a friend, or choose a new "program", meaning a new set of questions. This screen has the usual blue window for the options, and the scrolling wallpaper here consists of black question marks. The second screen asks for your name, which might be recorded into the high score table later on, if you manage to win the game. This screen has blue question marks scrolling in the background. After these two steps, the game opens up the main game screen, complete with the Nero owl and the scrolling grey "Nero 2000" wallpaper, and you are welcomed into the game.

Starting up screens from the MSX version.
Since the MSX version actually takes you back to the question sets menu after finishing a game, that option is taken out of the game options screen, and it only asks you whether there are one or two players. Your name can be typed in capitals or lower case letters, or both. This entire procedure happens in green boxes in the main game screen, which is similar enough to the original, but has question marks in the wallpaper that doesn't scroll, and the owl is wearing a sleeveless red shirt with an 'N' on it.

Starting up screens from the DOS version.

The game starting procedure is exactly the same in the DOS version as in the C64 version, but the graphics are decidedly more basic - in fact, it's all made in ASCII. I'm not sure about the owl, though, but it's entirely possible it's also made in ASCII. Both the options and name-entering screens have unanimated "Nero 2000" in the background, and the main game screen has only a plain black background. Compared to the other two versions, the lightbulbs are unrecognizable as such, but otherwise do their job as indicators of the number of correct answers.

The screen for gambling your points for the next question.
Left to right: Commodore 64, MSX, DOS.

Before a question is presented to you, the game asks you to either gamble some of your points away or attack your opponent's lightbulbs by entering 'X' into the prompt. The notable graphical elements here are the bonus randomizer and the 'X' within the green prompt screen. The 'X' in the C64 version is also highlighted with a black background, while the other two versions give it no highlighting. The
bonus randomizer box is red in the C64 and DOS versions, but the DOS version has a white-and-black framing around it; the MSX version's bonus randomizer isn't particularly randomized, and the box is black with white text.

Answering questions on the C64. Situations from left to right:
1. Waiting for your answer. 2. Correct answer. 3. Wrong answer. 4. Profanity easter egg.

In the original C64 version, the owl does his job as a host of the game rather nicely. He (assuming it is a he) has been animated to do a little sideways movement and stepping with a frown on his face, in addition to the question mark in the black speech bubble, when you answer wrong; he smiles and does a little flight and his speech bubble is purple and contains a "correct" sign, which looks like a percent sign; and when you answer with a profanity, his eyes start blazing blue as a message by Flasher is jotted in a black box. Correct answers are shown as lit lightbulbs in each player's info panel, and all correct answers are lit. Also, the only time when the scrolling "Nero 2000" wallpaper is replaced by scrolling question marks is when a question is presented to you. 

Answering questions on the MSX. Situations from left to right:
1. Waiting for your answer. 2. The correct answer is shown. 3. A bugged question.

In the MSX version, the background remains as it has been thus far. At no point a question is actually presented with a question mark at the end, and most of the questions have been reduced to as little an amount of words as possible to make it still - mostly - possible to deduct the intended question. Not that this is actually a graphical thing, but it might relate to the size of the question box, although I'm pretty sure the programmer got lazy at some point. The only lightbulb that is lit is the most current one, so if you have answered four questions right (assuming you haven't had your lightbulbs attacked successfully), only the fourth lightbulb is lit. The owl is not animated in any way, and you get no actual visual indication of your answers going right or wrong, apart from the shown answer. The third picture above shows an example of what sort of bugs to expect in the MSX version's questions. You get no profanity filter in the MSX version.

Answering questions in the DOS version. Situations from left to right:
1. Waiting for your answer. 2. Correct answer (with a question bug). 3. Wrong answer. 4. Profanity easter egg.

Although the DOS version feels rather ugly in general, the owl is actually animated nicely, although it's still missing the flight animation for correct answers - he does flap his wings for a bit, though. Plus, you get the correct answers marked with an exclamation mark, and wrong answers with a question mark and a frown. The profanity filter is featured in the DOS version as a plain advertisment of the Bio-Slang game, but the owl's eyes are not flashing, which takes half the fun away.
Game Over (top) and High Score Table (bottom), left to right:
Commodore 64, MSX, DOS.

Whether you win or lose, the game ends with similar fanfares. The owl announces "PELI LOPPUI", which means "the game has ended", and in the C64 version, he even looks at the sign saying those words. The MSX version only ends the game and blanks the screen abruptly, leaving only the owl floating in his usual place.

Eventually, you are taken to the high scores table, which has the game title written not only in every
unplayed entry on the table, but also a few times on top of the table, just so the title of the game wasn't left unclear by any means. Once again, the MSX version differs from the norm by only showing the game title once, vertically split on both sides of the high scores table, and there's an unexpected English word at the top of the high scores table.

I have to say, the MSX version does have its own peculiarities in graphics, which makes it worth checking out at least once, and makes me wish the DOS version took at least a bit more artistic freedom in making it look more interesting. Of course, using ASCII for all of the graphics is a neat trick in itself, but it does make the DOS version look quite cheap. Obviously, the C64 version is in a league of its own.

1. C64
2. MSX
3. DOS



According to the Skrolli article mentioned in the introduction, the game's co-designer Taisto Orre chose Henry Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk" as the game's recurring theme song. None of the renditions are exactly transcribed from the original, but it's enough to get you in the right mood, which was reportedly the exact purpose in choosing this song. Even the C64 rendition of the tune, while certainly the most accurate, is still abbreviated, since it only features the main melody in a loop, and even then it skips a few bars, for who knows what reason.

There's a good range of sound effects in the C64 version, as well, at least for a quiz game. You get quick beeps as letters are typed onto the screen, varying wind-blowing noises and explosion-like sounds for the title screen building up and when you start the game, a short clip containing the first melodic phrase of "Baby Elephant Walk" when your answer is correct, and a succession of six lowering notes (with harmonics) when your answer is incorrect.

In the DOS version, the theme tune doesn't have the few bars cut off from the main melody as the C64 version does, but the last melodic line of the loop stays in C, when it should go C-G-Bb-C. Also, with the single channel beeper as the only sound source, it's not a particularly enchanting thing to listen to. The sound effects are much as you would expect, in the same measure as the music... although, to be more than reasonably specific, the "wrong answer" effect has only five consecutive notes instead of six. And obviously, the wind and exposion noises are missing.

Although the MSX rendition of "Baby Elephant Walk" isn't quite as attractive as the C64 one, it does feature the entire main melody in three channels. Some of the harmonics are a bit oddly chosen, but they're not harmonically incorrect - just not true to the original tune. Still, it just about beats the C64 rendition in trueness to the original. However, like the DOS version, the MSX version is missing the explosions and wind effects, and the "wrong answer" effect has been reduced to one long low note. The letter-typing quick beeps are no notably different from the others, at least. So, due to the clearly bigger amount of things to hear, the C64 wins this round again, with the MSX version at a perhaps surprisingly close second place.

1. C64
2. MSX
3. DOS



Much like practically any other game ever, Nero 2000 points out in its own way, that the game isn't worth much playing, unless it's playable. Naturally, this point could be argued in a more international point of view, but limiting it just for us Finnish gamers, the questions and answers must both be understandable and completely free of errors on both sides - the creators of the game, as well as the players. Of course, making quiz games for a computer is a tricky business, which has never been exactly perfected, and at the moment, multiple choices for answers seems to be the best available option, since typing in answers requires accuracy of the level that cannot be expected of anyone with any realism. But aside all that, this is how the versions of Nero 2000 line up.

1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 9
2. MSX: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 5
3. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 4

And if all this hasn't convinced you, I have prepared a video accompaniment for this comparison for you to witness pretty much everything mentioned in the sections above.

It might come as no surprise that I actually grew up owning the C64 version on cassette, and I used to spend hours upon hours listing all the correct answers (meaning, how they were written into the game) on paper, to ensure I would beat the computer. Had I actually preserved the papers for all these years, I'm pretty sure the answers would work well enough for the DOS version, but for the MSX version, the rather oddly phrased questions would require another set of papers. Regardless of my past - and very recent resurfacing of an obsession with Nero 2000, I couldn't honestly recommend this game to anyone these days for any other reason than nostalgia tripping, and if I were now to give this a proper scoring, I'd say the C64 version would get a 6/10, while the other two would probably get a 4/10 for different reasons.

Lately, there has been talk of the C64 version getting an update for the questions, along with bugfixes, which would be excellent, but what I'd really love for the game to have is an English translation, so the awkwardness of Nero 2000 could be enjoyed internationally. But until that impossibility happens, there's always Google Translate. It's better than nothing, right?

That's it for now, hope that served any purpose at all. Perhaps, if there's any requests for a Finnish translation of this article, I might be persuaded to do something about it, some day. Until the next time, I wish you all a happy and relatively safe Midsummer's Day/Weekend!

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