Sunday, 6 December 2020

FRGR #12: Zamzara (Hewson/Rack-It, 1988)

Designed by Jukka Tapanimäki for the Commodore 64.
Programming and graphics by Jukka Tapanimäki.
Music by Charles Deenen for the Maniacs of Noise.
Loading screen by Martin Godbeer.



For the first time in a long while, I'm getting back to the "computer of the state" on my traditional Finnish Independence Day entry, and this is also the first time since 2016 that I'm writing about a game by Jukka Tapanimäki, one of the original heroes in the history books of Finnish C64 game development. Mind you, it will probably also be the last, too.

The reason for that is, I want Jukka's last entry on FRGCB to be more of a high note, and his last game, Moonfall, wouldn't really be such. Then again, the story of how Zamzara was born isn't exactly one of his highlights, either. According to Jukka Tapanimäki himself, the publisher made Jukka write the game three times before they were happy with it. Considering Zamzara still got released the same year as his previous game, Netherworld, he managed to be rather quick about it. Happily, some of his earlier work versions have survived and are available at the brilliant Games That Weren't website, so I can actually do a comparison of the earlier versions and the finished product, to the extent that I'm able to.

Early on, Zamzara was supposed to be more adventurous, and have more depth like Impossible Mission. The idea was to collect genes and build DNA chains. It has been said, that Hewson thought this was intersting, but too complex, so the next step was to remove all the puzzle elements and turn it into a traditional shooter, but this rendition was considered too boring. The third rendition was an action-platformer, much like the final product, but Hewson felt it didn't have enough content.

Eventually, what they settled with was a high-speed platforming shooter with, for its time, rarely utilized gravity elements, an interesting choice of weapons, and a 15 minute limit to solve all the game's 29 horizontally scrolling levels in. Taking into account the game's specific gameplay quirks and limitations, Zamzara is for a reason often considered an unfairly difficult game, which proves quite firmly that it's a Jukka Tapanimäki game, much like Netherworld. But because of its very unique nature, it's also a game that easily addicts you for a while every now and again.

While the copyright in the game says 1988, Zamzara wasn't released until the beginning of 1989, so it wasn't reviewed until February 1989 at the earliest. Oddly enough, I haven't come across any Finnish reviews of the game, but the usual lot of english-speaking magazines were more than gracious enough back in the day. Commodore User gave it a whopping 92%, Zzap!64 gave it 91% and ACE gave it 917 out of 1000. But not everyone was completely happy about it - Computer & Video Games thought it worth only 77%, which still isn't exactly bad. Today, Zamzara has a score of 8.0 from 76 votes at Lemon64, not quite making it to the Top 100 list, but not falling too far from it, either. But regardless of how difficult it was to finish the game, it's a definite highlight in the short career of Jukka Tapanimäki.



To play Zamzara, you're going to need both joystick (in port two) and keyboard. Probably the most annoying part about Zamzara isn't its brutal difficulty, but rather that our xenomorph protagonist is not able to crouch. Instead, the alien is able to float around and fly in a jetpack-like manner by tapping the joystick up, when (presumedly) he's not running around. Happily, the keyboard controls are rather simple to memorize. All you need are the four Function keys for changing the special weapons, Space Bar to fire a single missile, P for pausing the game and the left arrow key in the top row to abort the game if necessary.

All special weapons have a finite amount of ammunition: 50 for rapid fire weapon (F1), 25 shots for photon laser (F3), 10 for nuclear laser (F5) and 8 web mines (F7). Rapid fire and missiles are used by holding the fire button down until the charge bars are full, before releasing the fire button. Just to make sure you have no possibility of cheating in any way - at least in an uncracked version of the game, there is no support for an autofire function, so you really have to have a joystick with a fire button that's light and easy to use, because you're going to need to use it with unnatural speed, to save time and special ammo.

There are various types and sizes of enemies in the game, some of which move and some that do not. It is necessary to demolish pretty much every monster you come across, in order to make progress, and the special weapons are absolutely pivotal to your success. Since the enemies are tricky even at their easiest, you will need to think of strategies on how to deal with all the enemies without using too much special ammunition, or too much time on dealing with the enemies. The game doesn't reset your ammunition upon death (like Cybernoid and other regular Hewson games do), but at least you do get ammunition pick ups, but they are scarce. You also have to remember, 15 minutes is all you have, and 29 levels to go, so you practically have half a minute for each level. Also, three lives are all you are given at the beginning, with an energy bar that is drained rather quickly on any enemy contact, and the game offers you extra lives in a very stingy manner - you have to collect 10 bottles in order to earn an
extra life.

I easily admit to having never really ventured further than perhaps the fifth or sixth level without any cheats provided by cracked versions, but I really had to resort to using cheats for this game, to get some idea what lies beyond my capabilities. What I found out was, that ... SPOILER ALERT ... the game doesn't really veer off from its form in its final form, although it does nudge up the difficulty every few levels with enemies that require exponentially increasing numbers of hits towards the end, and with floor spikes after the tenth level or thereabouts. Looking at the workphase files that have survived, the game was originally meant to have sections in which you eventually get to fly on your spacecraft (which you need to reach in order to complete the official finalized game) in similar horizontally scrolling areas, that the game does in any case, only the spacecraft would have given you less worry about the gravity aspects of the game. There are also two different endings, which don't really differ in any other way than with an alternative text.

All in all, Zamzara in a superbly frustrating, yet addicting game. The way to play it is to first learn which weapons deal with which enemy with the most efficiency, and then learn how to solve each level as quickly as possible. But you do need to have your joysick and your keyboard comfortably settled near your seat and near to each other, so you can switch weapons with the minimum amount of time. It really is a skill based game, first and foremost, but as with most Finnish C64 games from the golden era, it's unfortunately also a game of learning through a vast amount of repeats. Admittedly, it's not for everybody, but it's one of those games, where merely getting better at it is a much bigger reward than eventually completing it. You just can't help wishing there was a bit more to it, something like what Jukka Tapanimäki originally designed, rather than what it eventually became - a compromise of corporate decisions.



I have always been a bit split upon whether to think Zamzara's graphics very nice or not very interesting, but that's mostly because the beauty and colour of the graphics aren't what you really focus on, when playing Zamzara. It's the speed and fluency of scrolling and how you are always kept on your toes by the various types of enemies. Just to give you an idea of the game's various aspects, particularly the graphical ones, I have prepared an accompanying Let's Play -type video, for which you can find an embedded link in the Overall section.

Zamzara loading screens. Left: the final placeholder version by Jukka Tapanimäki.
Right: the official tape loading screen by Martin Godbeer.

Now, we do have to start off with the loading screen, or screens, because there was another suggested loading screen in a work-in-progress version. The suggested original loading screen clearly shows the protagonist being a human/humanoid in a fairly alien environment, and the game logo in this screen is the same as the one you see in the title screen. The official loading screen is a bit less interesting, as it only shows the protagonist, who is clearly a xenomorph creature, even if he looks more human-like than H.R. Giger's creation this one is clearly parodied upon; also, the game logo is vastly different from the title screen logo, and is drawn after the one shown in the tape cover art. I vastly prefer the unused version.

Title screens and high score tables from the final published version (top)
and the pre-release version 1.1 (bottom).

The title screen and the high score table are your basic Hewson material, with clarity over quantity, but still flashy enough not to be boring. Although neither screen was much altered much from its work phases for the final product, the changes are notable. Most notably, and I imagine this might have been a source of some frustration for Jukka, the Hewson logo was turned into the budget label Rack-It. Also, the font for the high score table was altered for a clearer one. Both the WIP versions and the final product use various kinds of transition animations between the high score table and title screen to make it even more interesting.

Early versions (v0.1/0.2) screenshots.

Jukka's old workfiles reveal the early versions of the game looking completely different from its finished version. There are a few distinctly different sections in the first drafts of Zamzara, featuring a side-scrolling shoot'em-up in the vein of Defender, but with large obstacles; a three-dimensional first person view of what looks like a corridor, and an Impossible Mission -styled puzzle screen, in which you combine and turn and flip pieces of DNA chains. All this would have made the game certainly much more interesting, if a bit less comprehensible for the average gamer - if Hewson's executives' comments are to be believed.

Screenshots from the pre-release version 1.1

What you see above here is a few screenshots from the only playable compiled work-in-progress version available. At this point, which, if I'm not entirely mistaken, is the third overhaul of the entire game, the design is fairly close to the finished product, with the most glaring differences being the main character, the level design and some minor things in the info panel. The less obvious, yet still a major difference is the lack of any special weapons, apart from the missiles that are activated with Space Bar. When you compare all that to the screens from the finished version below...

Screenshots from the final published version. will notice the differences are very obvious. Because the differences are so obvious, the smaller details are what make the changes more interesting. The info panel, while having changed from blue to brown, has a timer instead of three item counters, which I suspect would have counted some puzzle elements you would have needed in the original Zamzara concept, but had not been yet implemented. Most of the enemy designs have been kept more or less similar to the work-in-progress designs, but the final version enemies certainly have a more refined look. The structural graphics are also a bit clearer, and the xenomorph protagonist is much more stylish than the usual astronaut template.

Special weapons in use.

The only actual addition (by which I don't mean enhancements or alterations) to the game's graphics are the special weapons, of which you could only see missiles in the work-in-progress version. Three of the special weapons shoot two diagonally moving and bouncing beams, of which the last one you select with F7 leaves mines in a web-like pattern, in which enemies and enemy bullets can crash into. F1 shoots a similar beam to your default weapon, but it's in a different colour and is slightly longer, and moves faster. The missile also moves only straight forward, but it's a clearly missile-shaped thing, instead of just another kind of line.

I'm not going to spoil you with the ending graphics, not because they're not interesting enough, but rather because it's not what this blog is for. You can find the ending elsewhere on the net, if you can't be bothered to play the game with cheats.

On further thought, graphically, Zamzara feels like it would feel more at home on the 8-bit Atari computers due to the style of colouring and fast scrolling. Each level has several shades of one or two colours, and the larger enemies share the level colours. The necessary player graphics and some smaller enemies use different colours, which brings it home to the C64. Despite the high quality animations, the amazing scrolling technique and meticulously designed alien structures and enemies, Zamzara manages to be understated throughout, as if you're supposed to feel this is completely normal for our protagonist xenomorph. Well, that's one way of looking at it, I suppose, and opinions may vary. You can't deny it's pretty good, though.



Happily for SID music fans, and Maniacs of Noise fans in particular, the work-in-progress version features different music from the finished game. Regardless of the version you happen to load up, the title theme is fairly Hewson'esque, although the WIP music definitely feels more like a placeholder, as it sounds like it's missing some elements, particularly the bass line feels a bit unfinished. The finished title tune is a bit different, and it reminds me of the title tune from the C64 version of Batman the Movie, so it definitely has a more epic feel to it than the placeholder, and it sure is more memorable. You get another tune at Game Over and the screen where you enter your name on the high scores table, although the Game Over tune is basically just a very short version of the high score tune. One more tune is reserved for the ending sequence, but if you ever get to hear it without cheats, congratulations are in order. The ending tune and animation are at least worth the trouble of playing through the game with cheats, though. There is no in-game music, but the sound effects are plentiful enough to make up for it.

The files for the work-in-progress contain a program featuring all the game's sound effects, at least from its work-in-progress state. In that program, there are 18 clearly different sound effects to be heard, but I'm not entirely sure if all of them were used in the final product, or if there were even more there. I did play the finished game through with cheats, so I could see and hear all necessary things in Zamzara, but frankly, I lost count at some point. On a hunch, I'd say the number 18 sounds pretty close, but some of the effects you won't be hearing until you pass level 10 or so. For an 8-bit game from the classic era, 10 sound effects in a game is often plenty enough, so 18 might feel excessive, were it not for their variety.



The way I see it, Zamzara is just a notch below being a prime example of its genre, although I'm not exactly sure how to define its genre. It would be undervaluing it to merely call it an action-platformer, but then there's not that much else to it, either, mostly because it was never allowed to be more than just that. Considering Hewson's earlier classics like Uridium, Paradroid, Iridis Alpha and Nebulus, it seems odd that they wouldn't allow Jukka Tapanimäki to make his game into what he really wanted it to be, when it clearly would have been not only possible, but most likely even preferable.

Here is the promised accompanying video presentation, which includes gameplay footage from not only the finished product, but also the earlier versions.

Since it has been a tradition to give some sorts of traditional scores for these Finnish Retro Game Reviews in the past, I suppose you might have been waiting for them to appear, so here you go...

GAMEPLAY        8
GRAPHICS        8
SOUNDS          8
OVERALL        8.3

I certainly do not think it's a perfect game, not even nearly so. As I've mentioned, it's often infuriatingly difficult, uselessly limiting with its controls and time constraints, but the genius of Zamzara lies in its requirement of strategic thinking. Being a shooter game on the surface, your trigger finger protests at not being quick enough for most situations, so you absolutely have to deal with most (larger) enemies with the special weapons that have limited ammunition. Unfair? Not really, it just tests your abilities as a gamer to the maximum in ways games like Contra and Bionic Commando never could, and for that reason, I would urge any serious action game fanatic to pick this up and persevere.

That's it for now, and in text form, the last one for this year, but FRGCB will be continuing early next year with some bigger comparisons than anything you've read here this year. But until then, there's still one very special video presentation coming up before Christmas, for which I will be making a blog entry as well. Until then, thanks for reading and a happy Finnish Independence Day!

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