Friday, 17 July 2020

It's a Knockout! (Ocean Software, 1986)

Amstrad CPC version programmed by D.J. Burt and A.J., with loading screen by Simon Butler.

Commodore 64 version programmed by Keith Purkiss, R.P.P. and D.A.W., with loading screen by Simon Butler and music by Fred Gray.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum programmed by Keith Purkiss, with sound by D.J. Burt and loading screen by Dawn Drake.

Cover artwork by Bob Wakelin.

Published by Ocean Software in 1986.



I promised you some more Ocean awfulness after Knight Rider, didn't I? Don't get me wrong - I love old Ocean games, particularly the 1985-1989 period, but even they had their fair share of trash in their catalogue. Well, here's an old BBC gameshow made into a relatively unknown computer game, and it fits in well with Ocean's other miserable TV-licence games, although it's definitely a very different beast compared to Knight Rider, Miami Vice and Street Hawk. See, this is a multi-event sports game, if you can call it a sports game as such. If nothing else, it's good enough to add an entry under the letter 'I' in the archive, but I know some of you love badness just as much as I do, when you can laugh at it, so It's A Knockout! might just fit your bill.

Of course, since we're on the topic of awfulness, it should prove a point to mention, that the C64 version only had an overall score of 34% in the February 1987 issue of Zzap!64 magazine; a 6/20 in the November 1986 issue of Amstradebdo, and the Crash magazine gave the Spectrum version a whopping 39% in their February 1987 issue, just to point out a few reviews. At the time of beginning to write this entry, the game has a rather enthusiastic score of 12.50 from 20.00 at CPC-Power, although the single review at CPC Game Reviews fixes this with a 3 out of 10 rating. From scores based on user votes, 20 World of Spectrum voters have given their version a score of 5.33 and 25 Lemon64 voters have scored the C64 version a whopping 4.1, so you can already see how much of a hoot we're up to.



Good things first: It's A Knockout! is unlike any other multi-event sports game I have ever played, but that's because I haven't played much of other multi-event sports games with properly silly events. And when comparing to most multi-event sports games, this one loads all the events up in the same load... so you can already sort of imagine the game's overall quality. But compactness can be considered a good thing. It's also a good thing, that up to six players can play the game in a session, although I can't imagine any of my friends ever wanting to play this game - I don't think I ever saw anyone play it even back in the day, apart from myself. Another "good" thing is, that there are six events in the game, which for a single-load game is a rather good amount.

A point of uncertain merit: the computerized It's A Knockout! doesn't, at least to my knowledge, actually incorporate any specific events from the old gameshow, although it does try to reinterpret some of the then-current events as something that would fit a computer game.

And then the bad things: for one, there seems to be no real logic to how the game progresses, at least when you're playing by yourself. The events seem to get picked up in a random order, and you never get to practice them without the stress of beating another score while at it, and there's always some opponent that gets everything done better than you. That said, the events aren't very easy to master - in fact, most of them are down right impossible to master, because the controls keep changing their attitude, and the scoring can be questionable at times.

Like many others have said before me, It's A Knockout! is not a good game. It's hardly a game at all, but rather a test of fortitude. I believe most of the people involved with the game's different versions were aware of the mess they created, so wanted to remain relatively anonymous. Regardless of its numerous faults, though, It's A Knockout! has something of a cult classic status, perhaps in a similar way to Ocean's other faulty TV-licence games, and it has that odd quality to it that makes you want to have another go at it every five years or so, and you don't even know why. Which is exactly why it's worth checking out.



The ever-important tape loading times are never so important, as when the game you're loading is complete and utter waste of ribbon. Here are the tape loading times and loading screens for all three versions:

C64: 4 minutes 28 seconds
CPC: 4 minutes 30 seconds
SPE: 3 minutes 44 seconds

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

As with most Ocean games of this period, the C64 loading screen by Simon Butler is accompanied by Martin Galway's unforgettable "Ocean Loader 2" tune. The other two tapes are accompanied with their usual screechy lullabies of data being injected into each computer's memory, but the AMSTRAD version of the loading screen has more detail and more fitting palette for Simon Butler's cartoony screen. The SPECTRUM loading screen by Dawn Drake is very different, with less action but more sophistication, although I'm not sure if that makes any difference in this.



It's A Knockout! starts off simply enough: select the number of players and the country/countries of choice. Unfortunately, the game doesn't take into account each gamer's preferences on the controller, so you're stuck with anything the programmers have chosen for you. All versions are playable with a joystick (Kempston seemed to work fine in the SPECTRUM version), but keyboard controls are a different matter entirely. The AMSTRAD version has a rather odd set of keys: Q and A for up and down, V and B for left and right, and Space Bar is the designated fire button. The entire QWERTY section in the SPECTRUM keyboard has been put to optional use: the keys from Q to P are up, A to L are down, and from Z to M, the keys seem to go in threes - left, fire and right. The key setup for the C64 version is similar to the SPECTRUM version, only in the Z-to-M line, there's only left and right alternating keys; Space Bar is the designated fire button.

Let us assume, that you're playing a single-player game, simply for the reason that there is no reason to assume the game would progress any differently with more than one, or all six players as humans. The game randomizes the turns of each player and each event, although once the current event has been chosen, all six players must go through it at once in the selected random order, after which a randomly chosen player must play the "marathon" event, which is Bronte Bash, which we shall start with in a moment. The "marathon" event only means that it is played throughout the entire game in turns after every other event, and some special scores will be given from it at the end of the game. Although each event has its own counting of points, the actual scores are given in a sort of similar manner to this blog: the winner of an event gets six points, and the player with the least points gathered gets only one point for the event. Whenever two or more players reach a tied place, the scoring is given for each player with the highest common score, so the losers will often get an unfair disadvantage in that sense. However, playing a single-player game is more a matter of chance than actual skill, because the computer scores are often randomized for their rather impossible advantage.

Now, let's start the description and comparison of events with the so-called "marathon" event:

Bronte Bash

This Whack-a-Mole type event puts you in control of a 1-ton weight, with which you need to bash the heads of a brontosaurus, hence the event title. As you start, the brontes are slow and easy to catch, but around the time you have bashed the tenth bronte, they get very quick in a short period of time, making it practically impossible to catch them with skills alone. Getting 15 brontes bashed is a good and achievable target, but since the speed of the "moles" you need to whack gets higher the more you whack'em, you might need to start guessing to get the last couple of whacks successful.

The only notable difference to be found is, that in the C64 version, the brontes pause their movement when you start bashing the one-ton weight on them, and their appearing-and-disappearing speed seems to be the most constant from all versions; the other two versions have the brontes in constant movement and in a relatively constantly accelerating speed of appearing and disappearing, making hitting them even more uncertain.

Flying Flans

This one is all about timing your movements. You control the waiter on the right side of the screen, who can only run left and right, and your job is to catch as many fruit flans being seesawed from the left side of the screen. The more flans you catch, the higher the rate of flans getting flown to your side. According to the game's manual, if you miss catching any flans makes the ground very slippery, which in gameplay terms means that closer to the end of the time limit, the waiter will be next to impossible to stop from running. What the manual doesn't say, is that you bounce back from the wall in the middle, which makes planning your moves even more difficult on that account.

In the SPECTRUM version of the event, the speed is just about manageable, although perhaps annoyingly slow, if you've grown used to the relatively hyper-speed C64 version. By default, the flans fly around in an unnaturally slow pace, probably because the code isn't optimized, a point which gets emphasized by any animation slowing down when you move on the screen. The AMSTRAD version plays even a bit slower than the SPECTRUM version, and the controls are slightly less responsive even at the start of the event. The biggest problem with Flying Flans, though, is the bad collision detection for the serving plate you're carrying, when trying to catch the flans - most of the flans fly right through the plate regardless of the version you're playing it on. No clear winner here, although I'm a bit partial towards the C64 version, probably due to nostalgia and having become accustomed to its hyper-speed.

Harlem Hoppers

Balls are being rolled down a camel's back, which you must catch. The catch is, you are held back by a long elastic band, and you're running on a slippery surface, which makes effective controlling of the contestant practically impossible. It doesn't help, either, that the balls tend to fall in unpredictable and often impossible angles without a visible reason, once they leave the immediate nearness of the camel. According to the game's manual, the only direction you will need in this event is right, for both running towards the camel and slowing down on your way back. The really annoying, yet the only realistic element in this event is, that the more you waste energy, the less you can manage to run towards the camel near the end of the time limit. I have yet to learn any real trick to this level, and my usual score is 5 or 6, versus the computer's common maximum score of 13.

The most instantly notable difference, again, is the speed at which the event plays on each machine, with the AMSTRAD version being the slowest and the C64 version being the fastest. However, there's a problem with the AMSTRAD and C64 versions that makes the event even more unplayable than on the SPECTRUM, and that is the omission of the possibility of slowing down on your way back. Taken that into account, the AMSTRAD's slower speed comes to its advantage here.

Titanic Drop 

This has to be the most randomly acting event in the entire game in all versions of the game. You are supposed to make people jump into lifebelts next to the ship by first grabbing the rope leading to the left of the screen by pushing up, then letting go of the rope by pulling down. The randomness comes in the way all the people fall after you let go of the rope - there seems to be no correlation to distance, speed, clothing, gender or mood. Also, the game seems to be particularly specific with this event's scoring, in that sometimes when you're visibly dropped into the middle of one of the lifebelts, you still get no score for that. Although the idea of the event is a darkly hilarious one, the execution of it spoils the entire event for two reasons: the angle and speed of people dropping is practically entirely randomized, and the collision detection is either too harshly specific or not specific enough; the game doesn't seem to be always able to tell, whether you have hit one of the lifebelts. Since the same problems are exhibited on all three versions, they're equally unplayable.

Diet of Worms 

Chickens and worms, I guess the idea is pretty obvious here. You have to peck worms from the ground and deliver them one by one into your tray, which starts flashing the moment you pick up a worm. The tricky movement style makes this event more of a chore than it needs to be. Moving the joystick up and down makes your chicken move diagonally in very wide angles, but pulling the joystick left and right makes you run left and right. Note that you actually can not just switch your direction and stand still while at it - the bird is incapable of switching directions without walking a few steps while at it. Obviously, fire button makes the chicken peck. No notable differences here, apart from the usual game speed, which at this point can be deduced from the previous events.

Obstacle Race 

The only scrolling event is, unsurprisingly, a running event. This obstacle race is not much more than your average hurdles event in any decathlon-type game, only with hurdles replaced with water hazards, walls and bouncing balls. As usual for these kinds of events, you move by waggling the joystick left and right in a timely fashion. In this case, timely fashion specifically means according to the athlete's feet movement. Jumping happens by pressing the fire button, but you can jump further with running momentum. A good score is basically gotten, when you can keep up with the computer opponent in the other part of the screen.

Given that this event is supposed to be played in a very specific manner, it helps to have clearly defined and well animated graphics, which makes the SPECTRUM version have the upper hand here with a clear four frames of animation for each separate step your athlete makes. The AMSTRAD version's running animation has four frames in total, and the C64 has, if I counted correctly, three. Perhaps two. Which probably makes the C64 version the easiest to play, since you don't have to actually time your waggling, just make it as fast as you possibly can. Even still, it doesn't feel nearly as natural as any old Decathlon-type game, and exactly because of that, makes the SPECTRUM version of the event feel more interesting than it otherwise would, or even should.

Combining the points

Because of how the game is structured, and how differently each of the events perform on the three machines, I have been required to do some odd maths to get the results here. Mostly, It's A Knockout! is barely even playable, but due to its unexpectedly humorous awfulness, is more enjoyable than it is playable. Therefore, the scores for this section shall also have a consideration for each version's "craptasticness", but there is no point in denying, that for the most part, the winner of this round has the least unplayable events.




I have to admit, for me, the main attraction in It's A Knockout! was the graphics, because back in the day, I had absolutely no idea of It's A Knockout! actually being based - even remotely - on a gameshow on the TV, because we never had it shown on our channels here in Finland. It was a very British thing originally (which also got imported to at least Australia, I think), but with some localisation, it might have done well enough in here, as well. But let's get back on track.

Title screens / scoreboards, left to right:
Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum

The title screen is really nothing to talk about - it's just text in any given basic system font with varying colours on a black background. This also acts as the scoreboard, in which you follow every update during and between rounds. It's completely undramatic and helps boost the "craptastic" value of the game.

Flying Flans, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

Before we head on to the first chosen event itself, let's examine the screen structures, since they're built as default for the entire game. Judging by the action screen size, the game must have been developed for the ZX SPECTRUM primarily, since the game screen fills the most of the available screen space there. The AMSTRAD version utilises less of the available screen, and uses low resolution multi-colour graphics to make it clearly different from its more immediate competitor. The top of the screen has a black slab that hogs about 24 pixels in height, but the event title is seated in the middle of it all in what basic font is available - the AMSTRAD version has gone for the wider basic font here. The bottom of the screen is taken by the info panel, which is 32 pixels high, the background is plain red with white and yellow text to mark the current score and remaining time as a bar. The C64 version has a yellow slab at the right end of the screen, with the game's title on proud display, to fill in the remaining room left over from the action screen and the bordering info bits, which are practically copied straight from the other two versions. Only the info panel at the bottom doesn't have any yellow in it, and the top bar with the event title is red instead of black. At least they had the sense to make the actual action screen the same size in all three versions, so there is no inconsistencies in that way.

Now, as for the event here itself, Flying Flans features an almost symmetrical room with a tall brick wall between yourself and the two characters slinging the flans with the seesaw and a hammer. The most glaring difference is in the background graphics, which actually sets a rule from here on. The C64 version has two giant chefs in the background, which is somewhat unsettling, while the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions have a roof and walls, in which you have somewhat Egyptianesque wall drawings of kitchen items, but the actual background area is plain light blue, which is perhaps better, because it makes the action a little bit clearer than on the C64. Inside the room, the SPECTRUM version's graphics are completely monochrome, but customarily well-defined, whereas in the AMSTRAD and C64 versions, it's not exactly clear, whether your character is supposed to be a maitre'd or just a casually dressed contestant. The SPECTRUM version also has the best animations.

Harlem Hoppers, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

Probably my least favourite event in the entire game, Harlem Hoppers makes no sense graphically, because I have no idea, what does a camel near pyramids and sphinxes in the desert have anything to do with Harlem.

In the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions, the action screen size has been vertically reduced for a few character blocks' worth, having it only replaced by some more unnecessary redness below the action screen. The C64 version at least utilises the same amount of screen as any other event, but it still has less background graphics than the other two: the C64 is missing the sphinx, the sun and the two further-away pyramids from the background. Also, the camel looks awfully flat compared to those on AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM. This time, the SPECTRUM version is almost painfully monochrome, but then, it kind of fits the atmosphere and the impossible nature of this event. But I do prefer the AMSTRAD version in this case.

Titanic Drop, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

Strictly graphically speaking, Titanic Drop has always been my favourite event in the game. Unfortunately, the gameplay ruins that enjoyment rather effectively. If you have a keen eye for design errors, you need look no further than the ship itself. If it truly is meant to be a replica of the Titanic, you will find no pictures of the original, in which the ship's prefix - which was RMS, by the way, not HMS or anything ending with two S's - is included in the name. Aside from that, the original Titanic was black on the sides (with apparently red under the waterline), not white. But that's just nitpicking.

Because of the lack of need for taking attribute clash into consideration, the C64 version has more details than the SPECTRUM version, and for some reason, the AMSTRAD version of the event's graphics were pretty much copied from SPECTRUM, although the monochrome hi-res graphics were turned into lo-res multicolour graphics, obviously. I especially like the added volcano in the C64 background, but the much more shimmering ocean surface gives the event a more tropical feel to it, rather than a less detailed background. That said, in all versions, the background is static and therefore cheap-looking.

The biggest little detail in Titanic Drop is, however, that the people coming down from the Titanic have plenty of variety in clothing and gender in the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions, albeit in the SPECTRUM version, everyone is monochromatically black. The C64 version only has one type of a person, which is (assumedly) a girl wearing a purple dress. Again, the AMSTRAD version is preferred here.

Diet of Worms, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

In Diet of Worms, the C64 version's theme of drastically different backgrounds gets back on its own weird track. Instead of a calm and realistic backdrop of a farm area, the C64 version goes with a cartoony close-up cover picture of chicken heads and over-sized worms in distress. Obviously, the other two versions have a much more fitting background for enhancing the atmosphere. However, I do prefer the chicken's colourings on the C64, which is more realistic than the monochrome yellow and black ones on the SPECTRUM, or the blue one on the AMSTRAD. Overall, though, I think I prefer the SPECTRUM graphics the most here, mostly because of the background.

Obstacle Race, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

The only scrolling event in the game is Obstacle Race, and in the usual Ocean Software manner, it features the Ocean logo in the background graphics - on the C64 and AMSTRAD, that is. The background scroller is more varied on the AMSTRAD than it is in the C64 and SPECTRUM versions, but they're all of a similar length.

Unfortunately, the running tracks scroll by a character block (8 pixels at a time), which makes the scrolling a bit cumbersome and ugly. But this goes for all three versions, so they're on the same level in that regard. The C64 version's two advantages are the possible top speed you can reach to make the scrolling slightly less painful to look at, and that the two contestants have differently coloured trousers. The SPECTRUM version's much more pleasing advantage is the much better animations of practically everything that's animated in the event.

Bronte Bash, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

Being as graphically busy as Bronte Bash is, it is also the most similar event on all three platforms, the only really glaring exception being the way the titular "bronte" looks like on each version. As you would expect, the SPECTRUM version's bronte head popping up from the potholes looks dinosaur-like in all its monochromatic glory, which is good enough. Bashing down the blue one-ton weight results in the bronte head being pushed down before a monochrome blue explosive animation with the word "BANG" in it, which replaces the space previously occupied the dino head and the ton weight.

The bronte head is a blocky, green blobby mass of an intended dino head with red eyes on the AMSTRAD, and the one-ton weight is smaller than in the other versions, and is coloured white with red text "1T.", because the utilised screen mode cannot do hi-res monochrome sprites simultaneously, and the wider pixels require compromises. Hitting the bronte head results in the bronte head first being pushed back down the hole, and then you get a colourful "BANG" animation.

On the C64, the bronte head is replaced by what looks more like a mole, in a Monty Mole kind of way, wearing green sunglasses and a green stripey vest, and he's holding on to the edge of the hole with both his hands. The one-ton weight looks similar to the one on SPECTRUM, but it's black here. When you bash down the weight on the mole/bronte's head, the mole/bronte freezes for the duration of the weight bashing animation and the inevitable monochrome black explosion (with no words on it), before it drops back down the hole it appeared from.

The background graphics are surprisingly similar across the three platforms, going as far as having animated volcano activity for all three volcanoes. The single advantage to the C64 version is the more glimmering look in the water, whereas the AMSTRAD version has gone with a more interesting choice of having grey rocks in the water, instead of yellow. All three versions have their advantages, but I prefer the SPECTRUM version, because looks the cleanest overall.

And that brings us to the results for this section. Although I grew up with the C64 version, even back in the day, I used to wonder at the design choice of filling the right edge of the screen with a large yellow slab containing the game title, but comparing it to the other two versions, the action screen size makes more sense. Still, it feels like the easy way out, but with a game like this, what more could you expect, really? Some of the altered background graphics feel slightly disturbing on the C64, but some of the added details give the game a nice polish. However, I have come to appreciate the graphics in both AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions, with the AMSTRAD's colour choices and the well defined monochrome graphics and animations on the SPECTRUM, but I can't really decide upon which version I feel is the better one. The only real annoyance I have with the AMSTRAD version is, that it doesn't utilise the whole screen, whereas the SPECTRUM version uses as much as it can, really, considering the game's visual design. Also, the slowdown with animations is slightly less notable on SPECTRUM than it is on AMSTRAD, so we have our results as such:




Since the SPECTRUM version has proven its worth so effectively in the previous sections, let's start by examining that one. You get no actual music here, and since it was designed for the 48k SPECTRUM, you will only get beeper noises. The title screen and the scoreboard segments comprise of three different sound effects, and each of the six events have enough of different noises to make them stand out against each other.

The AMSTRAD version is modeled after the SPECTRUM version, but it doesn't have as many different sounds overall. Most of the more prevalent sounds are quite noisy, to the point of annoyance, and the lesser sounds aren't well enough defined to make each event clearly sound like its own thing.

Even if you didn't take Martin Galway's Ocean Loader tune into account during the tape loading, the C64 version would still win by having music in it - that is, if we're only considering the amount and
quality of the sounds included. You get a main title theme, which doesn't sound like anything I've ever heard - not even in the clips of the actual It's A Knockout that I've seen on YouTube - and it includes an abruptly placed passage of Rule Britannia in the middle of it, which is in a different tempo and time signature than the actual theme tune. Additionally, you get shortened versions of each competing country's national anthems being played during the scoreboard segments, and although the anthems are thankfully skippable, they take entirely too much time to get through on the long run.

As for the sound effects in the C64 version, they beat the other two versions quite easily as well. All the events have their own distinctive set of sounds, which are well-enough defined, but I would do something about the constant horrid squeaky noise in the Harlem Hoppers event. Having said all that, the C64 soundtrack is just about mediocre, at best, but then it didn't really have much of competition. So, despite of that one misstep, I'd say we have a clear order here.




Well, there's not much left to say about this game, other than the obvious recap, and the less said the better. It seems pretty obvious, that the game was designed primarily for the SPECTRUM, but all three versions have their advantages. Personally, I'll stick with the C64 version because it's faster to play through, and it doesn't differ from the others in any significant way to make it better or worse in any other regard, but when you do your maths based on the scores given in all the above sections, this is what you get:

1. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 8
2. COMMODORE 64: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 6
3. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 4

And while there are other video comparisons of It's a Knockout! on Youtube, I decided to do one of my own, because the ones I found didn't really get every point across, so here's my obligatory self-made video accompaniment to get that fixed...

So, I'll end this by repeating myself: It's a Knockout! is definitely not something I would recommend to anyone wishing to have a good gaming experience on any of the machines it was made for, but if you're a gamer who can appreciate awfulness, you might want to have a go at this. Only, it seems like the less you know about it before you try it, the better the experience in that regard, so if you're read this article before you actually try it out for the first time yourself, forget everything I said here.

That's it for today, hope that was at least an enjoyable read, if not particularly useful. See you next time, pip-pip!

1 comment:

  1. That was a fun read :D What an awful game, I'm thankful I had never heard of it before...