Monday, 17 May 2021

Rollaround (Mastertronic, 1988)

Designed by Tony Kelly for Mr. Chip Software.

Commodore 64 version written by Tony Kelly, with title screen by Andrew Morris.

Amstrad CPC version written by Simon Wilson, with graphics by Andrew Morris.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum version written by Steve Parys, with graphics by Andrew Morris.

All versions were written in 1987, and published by Mastertronic in 1988.



I don't often feature isometric games on this blog, mostly because I'm really not a big fan of them, but there are some odd exceptions here and there. Tony Kelly's Rollaround is one of them, if only because it happens to be one of the first tape games I got by a chance in a bundle, when I started collecting C64 tapes after the emulation period had been going on for a few years and my C64 hadn't been properly in use for a while. It's also a fairly rare occurence, that an isometric action game was originally designed for the C64, which should make this comparison a bit more interesting than were it not.

Perhaps because Rollaround was released as late as 1988, the isometric games explosion had already smoothed down, which makes it less of a wonder that gamers don't have that much of a connection to Rollaround than, say, Head Over Heels or even Bobby Bearing. However, Zzap!64 gave the game originally a rather impressive 82% score, despite all its presentational flaws, which could give some sort of an idea, how this comparison will turn out. Nowadays, the score at Lemon64 is only 6.3 from 13 votes, while the archived World of Spectrum score is 6.23, also from 13 votes, and the review at CPC Game Reviews shows an 8 out of 10. Well, let's get on with it, shall we...



Calling the game an isometric puzzle-action game doesn't really give all that much to work with, does it? The title gives a more general suggestion: you control a ball, which you are obviously supposed to roll around in the given environment. The general idea is to roll over a required amount of floor tiles that have a mark on them, which come in different colours; and the game's instructions specifically mention that you must not exceed the required amount. Rather an odd little detail, but there you go. While you go about your business of collecting those marks, you also need to look out for aliens that follow your every move within their occupied screens. All the levels in the game are made of 9 screens laid out as a 3x3 grid, which should point out that the rooms are gone through in a flip-screen method. However, each level varies in how the marks are laid out, and how the rooms differ. The rest of the gameplay details will be dealt with in the Playability section.

Rollaround is one of those games you wouldn't necessarily give much of notice in any collection, and even when playing it for the first couple of times, it doesn't really grip you the way a good game should. In all honesty, I can't say Rollaround is a particularly good game in the traditional sense, but it is a grower. Once you have gotten over the learning period, it might just keep you coming back to it, like a tongue to an icy bit of metal. You know it's a stupid idea, and you'll probably hurt yourself while at it, but there's always that tiny bit of hope in the back of your mind, that perhaps this time, you will beat the odds. So, not a masterpiece by any means, but retrogamers with an acquired taste might get a kick out of it.



Being one of those traditional Mastertronic games that were only released on cassette, the loading times comparison would probably matter to some, if the game had any real impact on any machine. But here at FRGCB, such things are not taken into consideration, so the loading times are compared regardless of anything.

Commodore 64: 2 minutes 17 seconds
Amstrad CPC: 5 minutes 56 seconds
Spectrum original: 4 minutes 34 seconds
Spectrum Dro Soft: 4 minutes 9 seconds

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

It had become common at this point for the C64 Mastertronic releases to have a turbo loader
with the in-built "Invade-a-Load!" loader game, which would ruin any chances of a nice loading
screen, but then, you couldn't really expect something like this on the competing platforms.
As it happens, the C64 version is easily the quickest one of the lot, while the AMSTRAD version
takes the longest time to get to the point.



To be perfectly honest, I'm a bit rubbish at this game, but I still like to have the occasional
go and see if I can get just a bit further than on my last attempt. Prior to writing this
comparison, the furthest I had ever gotten in Rollaround was level 3, but I realized that my
problem always was the inattention to the amount of crosses that needed to be picked up.
Apparently, the game has over 200 levels to play, which is a bit of a hurdle, considering there
is no password system. In other words, you're not really expected to master the game, and the
designer knew it.

But at this point, we'd better focus on how to actually play the game. You can only move into the four cardinal directions, but you can also jump around, which is necessary for crossing gaps and avoiding enemies. The C64 version is played with either a joystick in port 2 or the preset keyboard controls, which consist of K and M for up and down, : and ; for left and right, CTRL for jump, A for self-destruct and P for pause. The SPECTRUM version is played by either a Kempston-compatible joystick or keyboard. This is one of those games that basically utilises all the keys on the keyboard in such a way, that the Q-line goes up, A-line goes down, ZX-line goes left and right alternatingly, SYMBOL SHIFT jumps, but the exception keys are P for pause and Q for self-destruct, although it doesn't always work. The AMSTRAD version is made essentially in the same manner as the SPECTRUM version, with the keyboard differences being, that you jump from the number row, CLR pauses the game and DEL self-destructs.

A necessary requirement to play this game with any success is to figure out how to work with all the different floor switches, which can make empty floor tiles vanish, or floor tiles with crosses into blank ones. The tricky part is to actually plan your moves so you won't be going over any more crosses than absolutely necessary, and avoid collisions with all sorts of alien things and try not to accidentally jump over the room borders or roll into other empty bits. Simply put, Rollaround requires puzzle-solving skills, speedy reactions and extreme skills at wielding your chosen controller, making this one of the most difficult, yet surprisingly rewarding games on the 8-bit computers. Not that you would ever reach the end of the game, but just figuring out how to beat a level gives a nice thrill.

The differences between the original C64 version and the other two are surprisingly pronounced, and you can already see an important change in the first level. Level 1 starts off with your ball landing on a switch, which turns all the floor tiles into ones with crosses on them - this is true for the C64 and SPECTRUM version, but in the AMSTRAD version, you start from the top left corner of the room. Another difference concerns the alien thing in the room: on the C64, it follows you around like a leech, and you really need to jump around to dodge it, while in the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions, the alien thing does a loop at a certain small area in the room, with no connection to your movements. Another difference here is, that in the C64 version, you only need to roll over half of the crosses to finish the level, while in the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions, the room is a bit smaller, but you need to roll over all the crosses in the room.

Now would probably be a good time to mention, that the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions both have different difficulty levels to choose from, whereas the C64 version gives no options. There are differences between the other two versions, however. The SPECTRUM version has two difficulty options, in which the harder one just makes the enemies quicker. In the AMSTRAD version, there are seven different difficulty levels to choose from, which affect not only the speed of your enemies, but also your own movement speed and the given time limit for each level.

Level 2 features two puzzle rooms. The top left corner features four separated paths, which you can jump onto, the furthest of which contains a switch, which will reveal all the stuff you need to roll over. This room also has two aliens, which follow your moves as far as they're able to - happily, they are not able to jump around as you are. The difference between the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions to the C64 original is, that the aliens move slightly slower, making your job considerably easier. The other room is in the opposite corner, which, apart from the room size, doesn't really differ in any important way.

As we get to the third level, the chosen graphical style in the SPECTRUM version becomes a bit of a nuisance, because instead of multi-coloured floors and just plain crosses to roll over, here we only have yellow floors, coupled with six different types of icons you need to roll over, which is a bit of an adjustment. In level 3, there are four rooms with different amounts of icons you need to run over, only one of which gives you leave to run over more than just enough to get you to an exit from the middle of the room, which in each room contains a switch to reveal the icons you need to roll over. As the SPECTRUM version leaves this as a surprise, plenty of trial and error is to follow. That is not to say that the other two versions cannot cause a bit of headache, but at least for me, colours are much easier to follow than icons, at least until you have memorized their placing in the info panel. The AMSTRAD version makes the puzzle element in the level a bit different, since all the puzzle rooms require the same amount of rollovers, whereas the other two feature one room, in which you need to roll over everything.

I could mention the bonus rounds between each level, but the fact is, they play similarly in all versions, so you need no information in that regard. However, the AMSTRAD version has a different set of bonus items than the other two.

The game progresses in various ways, with different enemies appearing every now and then, and the puzzles getting trickier and trickier. But I will not be getting further than level 4, because otherwise, this comparison could just become endless, and I've got better things to do. Level 4 is where things get more incompatible, because the room designs start getting different. Since the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions have similar room sizes, the room designs are fairly similar, but the C64 version has clearly different designs. Also, the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions feature the first floortile-eating alien in the first room of level 4, while the C64 version of this level only features fairly basic roaming aliens that look similarly to your spheroid robot.

As you get past the first three or four levels, I am happy to say, the game does get a bit easier to handle as you get used to it, but it still suffers from a lack of a password system. For an action-puzzle game of this kind, it's a pity that it's such a difficult game to get to enjoy, because there aren't too many of this particular genre around. Particularly, the C64 version is almost unfairly difficult due to the enemy speeds and behaviour in the beginning. I found myself enjoying the AMSTRAD version the most from these three, because it retains the ease of perception with the coloured floors, while having the widest range of difficulty options. The SPECTRUM version is almost as playable as the AMSTRAD version, only hindered by all colour replaced by different icons.




I regret to say, graphics are Rollaround's least interesting aspect, regardless of the version you've chosen as your favourite. But let's get on with it, there's bound to be something better in some version than in the others.

Title screens/sequences, left to right: Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC.

The title screens, or title sequences, are surprisingly different in each version. The C64 version starts with a rendition of the usual title screen, featuring the copyrights, control options, the in-game info panel at the top, and a very quick introduction to how the floor triggers work; but there's a second screen that switches up for a little while, which looks like it should have been the loading screen as well, if Invade-A-Load hadn't invaded its space. Keen C64 gamers and readers will probably have noticed, it's made by the same artist who did the loading screen for Kikstart II. You also get a high score table at some point, which we will get to at the end of this section.

If you were rooting for the SPECTRUM version here, you shall have to be disappointed, for there is only a simple screen of text, with the info panel above all that. It's the AMSTRAD version that goes the longest way to make the title sequence into an event. Although the explosive title animation is pretty neat, it's not all there is to see on the CPC: you also get a demo mode after waiting for a while, as well as the loading screen you saw earlier, and the high scores.

Difficulty level options: Amstrad CPC (left) and ZX Spectrum (right)

Unfortunate for a number of reasons, the C64 version doesn't have a screen for the selection of difficulty level. The least of which is the increase of any graphical content, which really doesn't happen in the other two versions, either, since it's all just text. At least for AMSTRAD users, this is the first time you'll be seeing the starry surroundings for the play area, so it's not completely wasted.

Level 1, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.


Here we have the first playable screen in the game, and practically the only screen you will even need to focus on in level 1. If you compare the C64 screen to the other two, you will notice the absence of open pathways to different rooms, which is because you haven't opened the pathways yet. Although you cannot see evidence of it until the level 2 pictures, the AMSTRAD version differs from the other two by having the pathways visible at all times, and they're always orange, whereas the C64 pathways are have the same colouring as their connected floor bits.

What we should focus on first, is the info panel. The C64 version doesn't have much of graphics in it - rather just some text in various colours, and two floor tiles on both sides of the TIME indicator. Also, the SCOR(E) and LIVES indicators have been separated from the rest and slabbed at the bottom of the screen. The info panels on both AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM are much more visual, and they hold all the information you require, even though you see nothing but numbers and floor panel indicators. You get the timer at the top, score counter in the middle and lives indicator at the bottom of the info panel. In the AMSTRAD version, you see a level counter at the bottom of the screen, although it start from "00", which would mean that when you enter the second level, you have completed one.

As for the other main in-game graphics, I suppose there's only our main spheroid sprite and the enemy to really comment on. The ball, or marble, or whatever you control is nothing more than exactly that on either AMSTRAD or SPECTRUM, but the C64 rolling device looks more like a spherical droid or something as outlandish. The first enemy you see here is clearly different for all versions, although in the C64 version, it even acts differently, which is only suitable, since it's the most different of the lot. The C64 enemy here is a ball, and the other two are some kind of rectangular things.

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

When you complete a level, the game throws a "WELL DONE" message at you. It's nothing particularly fancy, though. The C64 version, perhaps, has the most impressive one, while although the text is displayed on an otherwise blank bit of the screen where the play area usually is, and in the same font that everything else has, it does feature a nice flashy and colourful effect on it. The AMSTRAD version only shows a very large message over the play area, and the SPECTRUM version has nothing more than small white text on a blank screen.

Level 2 screens, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.

Level 2 gets you acquainted with the different floor colours, or icons, if you're playing the SPECTRUM version. Here, the size of the C64 version's play area makes a really big difference to the other two versions. Also worth noting is, that the aliens in the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions are practically uniform, while the C64 version throws different looking aliens in every stage.

Bonus round layouts, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.

After completing a level, you are taken to a bonus randomizer screen. Here you see the layouts in their full glory, after which the game starts randomizing one of the slots at a time at a very quick pace. The SPECTRUM version has the most decorated look to the bonus slots, while the C64 version has the clearest look. The use of colour in the bonus screen of the AMSTRAD screen is a bit awkward and hard to read unless your monitor is set to very bright indeed.

Level 3 screens, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.

Level 3 doesn't have anything of interest in terms of room design, but the roaming enemies could be of some interest. The C64 version, again, has a new looking enemy, although it doesn't really do anything particularly different from the other enemies. The SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions continue with the pyramid creatures introduced in level 2.

Death occasions, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC (x2), ZX Spectrum

In the C64 and SPECTRUM versions, there is only one death animation, and that is falling down, with the possible addition of an erased floor tile from where you were, unless you fell over the border. The AMSTRAD version also has an explosion, if you came into contact with an alien. You also get a simple explanation to the reason of your death, whether you fell down, touched an alien or rolled over too many items.

Level 4 screens, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.

The fourth level exhibits more room design differences, and this time the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions get another alien form introduced, one of the floor-eating kind. Be not alarmed, for the C64 version also has these creatures in later levels, but this only shows us the different ways each of the versions progress.

As was established in the Playability section, this comparison will only go as far as the fourth level, since we could easily be here until level 200, if I didn't have other things to do. The video accompaniment will take you a bit further, since it's easier to put it all together in a neat action sequence.

Game over and high score entry screens (where available), left to right:
Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC.

The inevitable Game Over screen doesn't actually exist in the SPECTRUM version, but if you consider the high probability of it having been just white text on a blank page, it's just the same you don't have it at all, since you're taken into the high score table the second you lose your final life. That is, if you get enough score. The C64 and AMSTRAD versions do offer fairly expectable Game Over screens, and the high score tables are true in their design to the title screens - the C64 being the most decorated one of the lot. It also has the most entries in the high score table, as well as the most unattainable number one spot.

None of the versions of Rollaround offer the best overall graphical experience. The AMSTRAD version has the most animations and visual effects, as well as the best-looking info panel and the surroundings of the play area, so I'd say it's the most optimal one of the lot. The C64 version seems to have a bit more different kinds of enemies, at least within the first 5-6 levels, and your rolling device looks a lot more interesting than the simple balls in the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions. The SPECTRUM version, although not particularly bad-looking, by comparison is rather woeful, since it doesn't have anything visually interesting going on for it, apart from the ones that are interesting in the negative sense. Sure, the info panel looks nice, and though you can't see it here, some rooms are in other colours than yellow (though it's still single-colour), but is more difficult to get your eyes accustomed to it than coloured floor panels, and the decorated bonus slots are nice, but that's not enough to make it more inspiring visually as the other two.




If the C64 version has any chance of winning a section in this comparison, it should be this one. While the loading tune played during the "Invade-a-Load" loader game (taken from another Mastertronic classic "One Man And His Droid") cannot be counted as part of this particular game's soundtrack, because it isn't exclusive to the game, the game itself offers plenty enough of sounds to satisfy your sonic requirements. There is a funny polka-like song in the title screen, that is made with a set of three similarly sounding springy melodic tones, which kind of lighten up the mood enough to make you want to play the game. However, the game itself offers no music of any sort, but there are a great deal of different sound effects. In fact, I counted five different recurring sound effects for the levels, including two crash noises, a bong sound for collecting crosses and two downward sweeps for different occasions, and a set of widely pitched muffled ping sounds for all the highlighted bonus slots. Also, the high score table has some unique bong noises.

The AMSTRAD version uses the same title song as the C64 version, but here it's rhythmically a bit different, almost swingy. However, because of a lack of good filtering, the sounds blend together in a bad way, so it's hard to tell the actual rhythm here. The sound effects are loud and kind of boisterous, but there are no similar crash noises like on the C64, but plenty of different boing noises. On the plus side, there are two different death noises to go with the different death animations. The bonus screen only uses a single-pitch ping noise for showing all the bonus slots, but when the randomizer kicks in, you hear the theme song played again instead. Also, when your Game Over eventually comes, the theme song immediately starts playing again, which isn't particularly fitting there, but whatever.

For the SPECTRUM users, there isn't much of good news here. The title screen does offer a nice bi-tonal theme song, which is actually a different tune from the one on C64 and AMSTRAD, but just as jolly, if not more so. This is impressive enough for the basic Speccy beeper, which can be difficult to get to play more than one beep at a time. Unfortunately, there are only two different farty noises for sound effects in the entire game. And since there is no 128k mode of this game, the order is clear.




If you have read this comparison fully so far, you will have realized, this is one of the rare occasions of an Amstrad version becoming the most optimal one of the lot. It's not the most overall visually pleasing, nor does it have the most impressive soundtrack, and the playability could still use a little polishing, but as Rollaround is a fairly flawed game on all three platforms, best optimal experience is the most you can expect. If the loading process was in any way important to these comparisons, the C64 version would have an easy win with a starter to go with the main course.

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

Of course, with the fairly recent new norm of having an accompaniment video to the comparisons, click on the embedded video below to see all three versions of Rollaround in all their glory... at least with some more levels included, just to make it a bit more comprehensive.

And with that, it's two down, one to go for FRGCB's Mastertronic May in 2021. Hopefully, you'll find it here on Monday the 31st. Until then, thanks for reading, and keep on retrogaming!

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