Thursday, 30 July 2020

Loco (Alligata Software, 1984)

Based on the 1982 Sega arcade game "Super Locomotive", originally designed and programmed by Fukumura Mizunaga.

Commodore 64 version by Antony Crowther, with music by Ben Daglish. Published by Alligata Software in 1984.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum version written by Richard Stevenson and David Wright, with loading screen by Nigel Speight.

Atari 8-bit version written by Anthony J. Wilson and Russell Knight. Graphics by Russell Knight and sounds by Antony Crowther.

Spectrum and Atari versions published by Alligata Software in 1986.



When I was called on to write yet another Format Wars article for the Reset64 magazine many, MANY months ago, there was a thematic twist to this request. It took a while to realize that the only thematic game that's possible to write a comparison about that would fit the magazine is Loco from Alligata. Even that was a bit questionable, because, after all, the game is based on an arcade game with a different title, and there are a few other variants based on the same original that it would be impossible to fit all that into a magazine format comparison. Therefore, it was decided and agreed that the article should be focused and limited to precisely the three versions of Alligata's Loco. Obviously, this blog edition features a bit more. However, as the current Reset issue in-the-making is still in such a state for an undeterminable time, I was given permission from mr. Tilley, the chief editor, to post this entry before the magazine gets out, so for the first time ever, you'll get to read the long version before the short version. The magazine pdf and purchase links will be eventually added here when it's finally available. Now then...

According to Arcade Museum (Killer List of Videogames), the game has the lowest score in popularity, as in, it's one of the least owned coin-ops of all time. Not a big surprise there, since reportedly, only 35 PCB boards of Super Locomotive were ever produced, thus making it one of the rarest arcade games of all time. Although you can find ROM files for the game to be played on MAME, the original arcade version hasn't really caught enough of an eye to have any sorts of ratings anywhere. However, at the time of writing this, on our native ground, a nice round number of 40 Lemon64 users have rated Loco with a score of a solid 7.5, while our immediate competitors have a 6.25 from 8 votes at World of Spectrum, and a surprising 7.7 from 27 votes at Atarimania.



Being an arcade game as it originally was as Super Locomotive, the game is basically a side-scrolling shoot'em-up with a twist. Actually, a few rather major twists, most of which will be dealt with later on, but suffice it to say, that you can shoot in basically two directions with the locomotive's own equipment, and the overhead map below the side-view of the locomotive is the main focus of the game. The idea is to get from station to station and avoid getting killed, but while the arcade original was practically never-ending, Loco only has 5 levels to get through before the game loops.

Despite Loco's origins, it has its own feel to it, mainly because it's less complex and difficult than the original game, and knowing about Super Locomotive or comparing Loco to it is somewhat unnecessary. However, since I wanted to make the blog entry a bit bigger, we shall take a look at it here regardless of the lack of necessity. It's also a game you don't hear talked about too often in the context of classic C64 games, but a classic it definitely is, if a bit on the cultish side. An odd point of interest could be, that Loco was the only release Alligata ever had for the 8-bit Atari computers. But perhaps the biggest oddity about Loco was, that Crowther re-used his code into two other games on the C64 afterwards: Suicide Express and Black Thunder, and all three games were published by different companies, so there's a big chance you have played at least one version of this game at some point in your C64'ing career. If you haven't, filling that void from your life is highly recommended. But for now, let's see how the three versions of Loco compare to each other, before we look at the original for another point of comparison.



Spectrum-exclusive loading screen.
The C64 version of Loco was released with two different loaders: one resembling a basic ROM loader but a fast one, and one featuring multicoloured stripes and the cover saying "now with super fast loading", which, oddly enough, was slower than the original Anirog fast-loader. The SPECTRUM version uses a loading system I've never come across before, featuring a block-based loader only before the exclusive loading screen comes in. It takes exactly double the time to load compared to the C64 re-release, and while it also has a Spanish re-release by Z Cobra, it alters the result practically none. Rather unsurprisingly, the ATARI version is the slowest of the lot, but not by all that much, for once.

C64, original: 1 minute 51 seconds
C64, re-release: 2 minutes 22 seconds
Atari: 5 minutes 7 seconds
Spectrum, both: 4 minutes 44 seconds



According to the instructions leaflet, Loco supposedly has ten levels, similarly to how the arcade original does. As such, there could be some minor changes in difficulty levels and whatnot, as you progress deeper into the practically endless loop that the game really is. The differences start from here already.

First, the options. The C64 version has 5 difficulty levels to choose from, as well as two different speeds. Increasing the difficulty level basically adds the rate and amount of enemies coming at you from all directions. The ATARI version has been documented to have options for two different speeds, but the tape inlay doesn't say how to switch them, and there are no indicators for such in the title screen, and even by going through the entire keyboard, I couldn't find any key to alter the speed of the game. Thus, I suspect the tape inlay has false information. The SPECTRUM version neither offers any speed or difficulty level options, and from what I can tell, the game loops after the fifth level. I admit to having no idea on how far the ATARI version goes, for reasons I shall tell you in a minute.

The goal is to get your locomotive through five stations, while avoiding getting hit by on-coming handcarts or bombs getting dropped by airships and planes. You also need to keep an eye on your fuel gauge, and remember to try and go through fuel dumps every now and then.

In all versions of Loco, your locomotive moves by itself once you have started the game. Your job is to change lanes (as viewed in the scrolling map below the side-viewed screen of the locomotive and its immediate surroundings) by moving up and down before the track connectors. Pushing the fire button makes you release smoke from the chimney, but note that the puff of smoke only goes straight upwards for as long as you hold the fire button down, and gets blown backwards with the wind once you have released the fire button. Smoke destroys most aerial menaces. As if that weren't enough, you also need to occasionally release steam, or as we say in gaming world, shoot forwards, by pulling the joystick to the right, which could be considered odd, but since the need for this arises less often than the need to release smoke, it's forgivable.

The ATARI version is brutally difficult by default, mostly because of the higher default speed, which I couldn't find out how to switch to a lower one, as it apparently should be able to. The C64 version in "fast" mode isn't nearly as fast as the ATARI version by default. Also, the rather awkward collision detection doesn't help, when your smoke clouds don't always hit their targets, but pass through them instead - and even when they do get hit, they don't necessarily always get destroyed. In all of my attempts, I haven't been able to reach any station to receive a flag, so I guess there are no stations in the ATARI version, nor do I believe there are actual levels in it either. The only helpful thing here in terms of playability is, that you get full refill on every fuel depot instead of just a little.

Contrarily, the SPECTRUM version is quite sedate in its pace, almost to the point of frustration, yet it has an acceptable difficulty curve in its progression. Compared to the ATARI version specifically, it also feels more in tune with the source, despite its slight shortcomings, such as the missing sixth rail, the lack of a hi-score spotlight and the meagre audio-visuals.

Even though the C64 Loco was made roughly two years prior to the other two versions, it still has more to offer in not only sheer playability, but also the options to make the game more accessible to less advanced gamers.




Apart from the SPECTRUM version, the title screen is set into a standstill screen of the in-game action view, including some credits and the game logo. The SPECTRUM version, in addition to having an exclusive loading screen, also has an exclusive title screen, which, unfortunately, is just a less colourful version of the loader with a text scroller slabbed at the bottom of the screen, both halves assembled similarly to how the in-game screens are done.

Title screens, left to right: Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Atari 8-bit.

Speaking of which, the basic setup is the same in all three versions of Loco: the top half of the screen shows a closer view of the locomotive and its surroundings from the right side, while the bottom half gives a horizontal bird's eye view from further away, to act more like a radar.

One difference in the radar screen was mentioned earlier -  the SPECTRUM version only has 5 rails fitted into it, when the others have six. In addition to that, you can see the "enemy" vehicles moving across the area from further away in the radar screen, but only the C64 version presents them in multi-colour, while the ATARI version has different, but single colours applied to each vehicle, and the SPECTRUM version has all the vehicles apart from your own represented in the same light grey as the rails are. Another difference is perhaps more than a cosmetic change, if not a very important one: while the biplanes coming from behind move a bit faster until they're in your immediate vicinity, the ATARI version has them moving at turbo speed up until that point. A rather more important cosmetic change is, that the C64 version is the only one that shows water around bridges you need to cross every now and then.

In-game screens, top to bottom: Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Atari 8-bit.

In the side-viewed action screen, the ATARI version has the most colours in use, but the background graphics are bland and samey throughout the game - no trees, all the mountains are far away in a diminished view, and you don't seem to even get the ever-so important stations, although you do get the odd functionless castle in the background. The most odd thing is the tuboid look of the area where your locomotive is travelling in.

The SPECTRUM version still has the least colours, which is to be expected, but at least the background graphics are large and comfortingly near your surroundings, and have plenty of variety. And so does the C64 version, but some of the background graphics, such as the station, feel a bit rushed, even for its time. At least the slight rubbishness is balanced with a bigger number of
colours and a much higher scrolling speed.

Loco exhibits an early use of a parallax scrolling technique, although not in the same space. In the C64 version, the top half scrolls faster than the lower half, but that's about it. The SPECTRUM and ATARI versions have a bit more to them, with the aforementioned included, and an additional level of the rails underneath the side-viewed locomotive moving faster than the background.

Death screens, left to right: Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Atari 8-bit.

Dying in Loco can be considered oddly spectacular, at least in the C64 and ATARI versions, as the locomotive explodes and bits of it fly into very specific directions. In the C64 version, you get a piece for eight directions, while the ATARI version settles for only the three pieces going in the above directions. The C64 version also features a meltdown-sort of a sound effect before the actual explosion happens, and unlike in the ATARI version, the eight pieces loop around the screen and reconnect again, making for a much longer death sequence. The SPECTRUM version only features a relatively small cloud of dust hovering in the place of the ex-locomotive for a short period of time.

Game Over screens, left to right: Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Atari 8-bit.

Finally, the obligatory Game Over screen features a circling Game Over text in the top half of the screen in the C64 and ATARI versions, which eventually exits to the left, while the SPECTRUM version has a black screen with a magenta/yellow text in the middle. Speaking of which, the SPECTRUM version also has a similarly presented, if a bit useless, Get Ready screen.

Although the amount of colours on the screen can be considered an important facet here, the ATARI version loses clearly to the C64 version by animations and details, not to mention just plain old charm. The SPECTRUM version's style has its advantages, but the disadvantages of scrolling speed and a decided lack of colour are more important, unfortunately. On balance, though, I think it's just about as good as the ATARI version.




Perhaps the oddest thing to note when comparing Loco's three versions is the sheer lack of uniformity in sounds. Firstly, we might as well deal with the SPECTRUM version first, since it offers the least of value here; only two kinds of propeller-like noises for aerial and ground-based traffic, and a high-pitched "ding" for passing through a fuel dump. The only time we hear any music is when you complete a level, and of course it's your usual single-channel beeping stuff, as you would expect. The tune I cannot recognize, but it sounds like a children's song.

So, the C64 version has two variations of Jean Michel Jarre's "Équinoxe 5" by the late, great Ben Daglish (in his first full credit for game music!), both in slightly off-measured renditions. The title screen has more tracks for melodic instruments than the in-game version, due to the requirement of a channel for sound effects. Also, the in-game rendition is a bit faster than the title screen rendition. The sound effects are rather fitting: basic noise for the smoke and steam projectiles; the enemy and bomb explosion noises are just as fitting; the fuel dump signal is an oddly cut crash noise followed by a couple of sharp "ding" sounds; and your own explosion effect is an odd stuttering staccato noise.

The ATARI version has all its sound channels reserved for the rather unexpectedly militant-yet-funny sounding rendition of that old Glenn Miller chestnut, "Chattanooga Choo Choo". Considering the context, this is the more fitting tune for a game about a locomotive than the one selected for the C64, and as such, I would prefer the Atari version. However, you only get one single sound effect here, and that is your death noise, which is as explosive as is proper.

The two primary contestants here each have as much of character in their own specific theme songs and the select sound effects, that I'm willing to give them a shared win for this one.




The game, which Loco is based on, is frankly a very odd choice. Not that the game itself is all that peculiar, although it certainly isn't a very common idea either, but rather, because Super Locomotive was only ever available in Japan, I'm guessing Tony Crowther must have had a visit to Japan before 1984. Either that, or perhaps the reports of the game's availability are false. Who knows? Whatever the case, let's take a quick look at what kind of a game Super Locomotive is, and how different it is from Loco.

Super Locomotive has the screens flipped, so that the map is in the above half, and the side-viewed screen is in the lower half, but otherwise, the screen set-up is pretty similar. The majority of differences is in the game's functions. First off, you are able to adjust your speed - more specifically, you need to push the joystick right in order to accelerate, and you can also go backwards if you wish. Also, instead of a forward-shooting projectile, you have a ramming mode, in which the locomotive gets a shield on it, which enables it to ram on-coming traffic and other obstacles, and it also goes a bit faster than normally. The ramming mode only lasts for a brief time, but enough to eat up a good bunch of your energy.

Screenshots from the Sega arcade game Super Locomotive (1982).
Of course, the basic idea is very much the same as in Loco: you need to clear each stage by reaching the next station, and defend yourself against bombs and missiles and traffic from front and behind. It's all just very much more demanding due to the amount of stuff coming at you from each direction, but it's just as possible to get used to than any of the versions of Loco. Super Locomotive just happens to be obviously much easier to look at than any version of Loco; it has an excellent rendition of Yellow Magic Orchestra's hit "Rydeen", and as a nice bonus, you also get bonus rounds between levels to get a bit more variety into gameplay.



For those of you, who chose to wait to read the Reset64 version of this comparison before getting to this lengthier version, you might have noticed some little differences here and there. If it has any real purpose, I went back to using my usual scoring system here, instead of the rather unusual style I did for the magazine, just to keep in form. Obviously, the original arcade game isn't counted in the scores, because it is that much different from Loco, but if it was, there is no denying that it would top all the categories. But as it is...

1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 3, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 7
2. ATARI 8-BIT: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 4
2. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 4

...the C64 Loco is the clear winner here. Mind you, each version has its own thing to consider and they are all worth having a go at - if you're into this sort of a thing, that is. Of course, while Loco is a cult classic, and perhaps better known than its point of origin, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's a game that should be imprinted on every retrogamer's conscience. It is mildly enjoyable, though, and a nicely different sort of a game from all the other arcade shooters of its time.

In case you're still not entirely sure of the results, take a look at this video I prepared to go with all of this updated text, or better yet, hunt all the versions down yourselves and play them...

I'm sure there are other Loco variants for other machines, such as Loony Loco (Kansas City Systems, 1985) for the BBC Micro and Locomotion (Byte Back, 1991) for the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST, which might be worth checking out, but since this comparison article was primarily about Alligata's Loco and its origins, I decided to forgo the other variants this time. However, if you readers feel like pointing out some Loco-like games for other machines, please feel free to leave a comment
below. That said, thanks for reading again, and see you next time, whenever that may be! In the meantime, stay safe!


  1. I found a BBC Micro version.

    1. Yes, it's the same game as Loony Loco, which was released the previous year, and that one I already mentioned.