Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Anteater / Oil's Well - the origins and variations

My attempt at writing a comparison of Oil's Well from Sierra On-Line fell short quickly, when I realized, how many other clones of this game there actually were. Not only that, but that the game was itself a clone of an arcade game that never got officially ported to home systems with the original title - Anteater. By another coincidence, it has been almost four years since my previous "origins and variations" entry about Bomberman, so it's definitely time for another one of these special entries.

The problem with these sorts of entries is, that the existence of clones based on certain games is documented very loosely, usually only mentioning the most well-known clones of any said game. So, inevitably, the amount of Anteater clones for this entry will not be as close to the truth as it could be, but you're very welcome to mention more clones in the comments section, that I might have missed during my research. Having said all of the above, it might not come as too much of a shock that this entry will not feature a companion video.


ANTEATER (Tago Electronics, 1982)

Written by Chris Oberth for the arcades.

If you're not familiar with Anteater or Oil's Well, you probably weren't born in the late 20th century, unless one of your parents or their relatives showed such a game to you. The original Anteater is a mixture of Pac-Man and Snake, which itself is based on the 1976 Blockade arcade game. Anteater made you control the titular anteater's seemingly endlessly elongatable tongue, and eat all the small white larvae from each underground maze.

Anteater arcade screenshots.

From the very beginning, your job will be made more difficult by a group of ants and worms, and later levels introduce new enemies. The mazes themselves are varyingly built, so you need to figure out different tactics and timings all the time. Since your tongue is the only thing that you have any control over, you need to focus on both using it to feed your owner (the anteater) and to protect it by retracting the tongue to avoid collisions with unwanted insects. The worms will only hurt your tongue if bumping front-to-front, but ants will hurt the rest of the tongue, but every enemy can be killed and consumed by the tongue, so you need to figure out the best way to deal with everything. Each level also features two power items at the bottom of the maze, which act like smart bombs. These will come in handy, when you don't have the option to draw yourself back to the anteater, but their effect gets progressively less effective. In other words, it's a highly evolved variation of Pac-Man, which requires a lot more thought and reactions than the original maze game.

Screenshots from the Atari 2600 prototype of Anteater (1983).

Anteater was reportedly ported to the Atari 2600 by Mattel in 1983, but never got published, likely due to the video game crash. The Atari port has been confirmed to exist, as there are screenshots available of it, but no ROM file has been made available as of yet.

Screenshots from the two 2021 conversions of Anteater for the ZX Spectrum by
DEFB Studio (above) and Bubu's (below).

One of the biggest, and most impressive surprises of late, was not only one, but two ZX Spectrum ports of Anteater, one written by Stephen Coppack, and the other by Bubu. Both were released earlier this year by DEFB Studio and Bubu, respectively. Both feel almost very close to the arcade game, except for a couple of enemy speed adjustments, but for me personally, the most impressive thing about these ports is, that they both feel like the perfect arcade port from 1983/84 for the Spectrum. What I mean by that is, that due to the very early 80's style of sound effects (no 128k mode!), and with almost perfect playability compared to the arcade original, you get two of the best Speccy ports of the game you could ever hope for. But if I were to pick one favourite over the other, I would have to say the one by Stephen Coppack felt just a bit more at home on the Spectrum, but the Bubu version has the visuals closer to the source material.


ARDY THE AARDVARK (Datamost, 1983)

Written by Chris Oberth for Apple II.
Ported to Atari 8-bits and Commodore 64 by Jay Ford.

Anteater's original writer, Chris Oberth, did his own port of the game for the Apple II, and had Jay Ford do the conversion for Commodore 64 and 8-bit Atari computers. However, there are some minor, albeit fairly important differences to the arcade original, which might have called for the new title. Or, it might have been Stern Technologies' strict copyright watchers who didn't approve. No-one who knows for sure, hasn't said anything about it as of yet.

Screenshots from the Apple II version of Ardy the Aardvark.

The most "glaring" difference could be the higher starting point, which gives you shelter from the top row insects. The second most glaring difference concerns the spiders, which arrive to the screen at nightfall; in Anteater, they will follow your tongue until they reach the tip, upon which they kill you, but in Ardy, the spiders will kill you upon the earliest contact. The third noted difference is, that you can only eat worms by eating it tail-first here, whereas in Anteater, you could only eat the worms by letting them first reach your tongue, then back up the tip and eat the worm backwards.

Screenshots from the Commodore 64 (above) and Atari 8-bit (below) versions of Ardy the Aardvark.

There aren't too many differences between the three versions, but the biggest notable annoyance about the APPLE version compared to the C64 and ATARI ports is the loading between every level. In terms of gameplay, though, you might need a bit of mileage to notice, but the APPLE original has slower retract than in the C64 and ATARI versions, which makes a huge difference as you dig into later levels.

Whatever your nostalgia towards the original Ardy is, there's just no point in denying that Jay Ford's ports look, sound and arguably even play better, if the quicker retract is what you're more comfortable with. And of course, the APPLE version's loading times really ruin the experience after the other two. If I were to pick the most optimal and complete experience of Ardy the Aardvark, it would have to be the ATARI version.


OIL'S WELL (Sierra On-Line, 1983)

Written by Thomas J. Mitchell for Atari 8-bit computers. Commodore 64 version by R.B. Stuart. Apple II version by Ivan Strand.
The Atari, C64 and Apple versions released by Sierra On-Line in 1983.

Colecovision and MSX versions by Don McGlauflin. IBM-PC version by John Rinck. Colecovision and IBM-PC versions released by Sierra On-Line in 1984. MSX version released by Comptiq for Japan in 1984, and Aackosoft for Europe in 1985.

DOS remake developed by Banana Development, Inc: Programming by William Riedel; Art by Nancy Hoffelmeyer and Andy Hoyos; Sound effects by Christopher Braymen and Mark Seibert; Music by Ken Allen. Published by Sierra On-Line in 1990.

So now we get to the difficult one. I'll start by admitting that I had never before really thought about the game's title as anything particularly funny, just odd. But then I'm not a native English speaker, so the pun intended never got through to me until I started researching this. I guess it's not a particularly good pun, but in case it escaped your notice as well, it's a twist on the old saying "all's well", with the obvious reference to the game's retheming around drilling oil instead of eating ants. Also, "Oil's Well" is the title of a 1929 short animated film by Walter Lantz Productions, starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, which has nothing else to do with this game apart from the title.

Screenshots from the 1983 versions of Oil's Well, top to bottom:
Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, Apple II

Oil's Well was originally written for the Atari 8-bit computers by Thomas J. Mitchell in 1983, which can be considered a bit unusual for Sierra On-Line, who had focused their game development on the Apple II in the early days. The Apple II version was made by Ivan Strand, and the Commodore 64 version was written by R.B. Stuart, both that same year. In essentials, Oil's Well doesn't really differ from Anteater, but instead of a smart bomb, the designated power-up item slows down the insects for a while, and they gradually get their usual speed up afterwards. The level designs also get a bit more convoluted in a quicker progression than in Anteater.

The C64 version feels pretty much exactly the same as the Atari original, and the only real difference in the Apple version that I noticed to the other two was that the slowdown power-up doesn't slow the insects down quite as much, which affects planning your movements slightly.

Screenshots from later versions of Oil's Well, left to right:
IBM-PC booter (1984), DOS (1990), MSX (1984), Colecovision (1984)

Another reason why I couldn't do a proper comparison of Oil's Well on its own is, that the Sharp X-1 version seems impossible to find from the internet, unless you read fluent Japanese, and I'd hazard a guess you'll still have trouble finding it. If you know where to find it, please leave a message in the comments section or send me an e-mail.

Sierra On-Line released two more ports of Oil's Well in 1984, for the Colecovision and IBM-PC compatibles. The COLECO version in particular is very nice, quick and balanced to play, and I would almost go so far as to call it the best version so far. The MSX version is slightly slower, but otherwise feels exactly the same as the COLECO version. I would expect the SHARP version to be much the same as the MSX and COLECO versions, since it was reportedly also published by Comptiq, but I can't say for sure.

The IBM-PC version can be a bit difficult to get working properly, unless you have the contemporary hardware, but when you do, you will need to play it with a joystick, because when playing on keyboard, the retracting works so that you push the Space Bar once to start retracting, and once again to stop retracting - otherwise you will retract all the way to the beginning.

In 1990, Sierra published an updated version of Oil's Well for the DOS-based PC's with VGA graphics cards and proper sound cards. Sure, it looks and sounds notably better than the version from 6 years prior, but they changed the control method to using a mouse. The way this works is, that you control a cursor around the playing area, and click the left button to make your pipe-creature move to your nearest approximate location, and click the right button to retract the pipe. It's an odd modification to the old format, but not a wholly bad one. I do prefer the original method, though.


EGGARD (ScandSoft, 1984)

Written by Mats Byström for the Atari 8-bit computers.

One of the rarest 8-bit Atari games ever is this odd Anteater clone by the name of Eggard, and it's still debated, whether or not it was actually released commercially or not. It is a Swedish game, and the only reported game to have been written by Mats Byström, whoever that is.

Screenshots from Eggard on the Atari 8-bit.

Eggard resembles Anteater in essentials, but the twist is, you cannot eat the single roaming ant - instead, you must keep away from the ant and eat the eggs instead. The levels are also more stylishly designed, if you can consider underground tunnels stylish, and they each feel as a single area instead of continuing tunnels. All in all, it's a different enough sort of a deal not to consider it a straight clone, but it's definitely a nice derivative of Anteater. Too bad it's practically impossible to find outside of the  internet.


DIAMOND MINE I & II (MRM Software/Blue Ribbon, 1984-86)

Written by Mike Williams for the Acorn BBC Micro and Electron computers.

Not to be confused with the more unique and arguably more interesting game with the same title from Roklan Software, Diamond Mine by Mike Williams was one of the more widely spread Anteater-clones on the 8-bit home computers; only the C64, Spectrum and Apple II were left without a port from the usual lot.

Originally written for the Acorn BBC Micro and Electron and released by MRM Software, Diamond Mine became the only real hit game from the company, whose short-lived existence produced a back catalogue bought by CDS Software, whose budget label Blue Ribbon released it to a bigger public. Under Blue Ribbon, Diamond Mine also found its way to the 8-bit line of Atari computers and Commodore 16 (and Plus/4). A much more Anteater-like Diamond Mine II was released a bit later, which was then ported to Amstrad CPC and MSX.

Diamond Mine screens, left to right: Acorn BBC Micro, Atari 8-bit, Commodore 16.

Although Diamond Mine certainly looks the part of Anteater, it is a very different beast. You control a pipe, which cannot hit any walls or monsters in the level, and your job is to collect all the flashing items. There's a certain amount of pipe you can use from the beginning of each level, and upon hitting something, the pipe breaks and you will lose twice the amount of it. You will even lose the pipe when you collect the flashing items, but only the amount of pipe you use. Because the pipe doesn't exactly move in the same centered manner as the tongue in Anteater, but rather on a pixel-basis, the focus required by this game is about a million times bigger than that in Anteater. But exactly because of it, it's a very interesting take on basically the same idea.

Diamond Mine 2 screens, left to right: Amstrad CPC, MSX, Acorn BBC Micro.

Diamond Mine II plays a lot closer to Anteater, even though you still cannot strictly consider it a clone of the original. But the basic idea is the same: you move around the underground maze in a centered manner with no worry about hitting the walls, and you can eat pretty much anything within the maze.  The most game-changing game changer here is the retracting mechanism, which freezes up your enemies while you're retracting. Compared to the first Diamond Mine, this one's closer to being an Anteater-clone, and it's a rather good one at that.


AARDVARK (Bug-Byte, 1986)

Written by Steven Kellett for the 8-bit Commodore computers.

One of the better Anteater clones is often confused with Ardy the Aardvark due to its similar title. Sure, "aardvark" as a word is such an oddity, that it always catches your eye, so it's a good way to sell a game. Oddly, it was only ever released for the 8-bit Commodore computers, C64 and C16. Of course, it's also playable on the Plus/4, but it's the same game as on the C16.

Screenshots from Bug-Byte's Aardvark. Top row: C16. Bottom row: C64.

Aardvark by Steven Kellett is what you might call a turbocharged version of the original Anteater. The difficulty level is pretty high from the go, as the levels have more layers, there underground traffic is much more hectic and the levels are randomized. The only real problem with the game that I noticed is the way your aardvark's tongue moves around - it doesn't slide around like in the original, but rather moves by the block, and halts when you make a false move. Because of this, it's very difficult to get the tongue moving in the underground mazes fluently, and has the potential to ruin the entire experience. A little more practice is required than in the original game, but it's still very playable once you get used to it. There are no particularly notable differences between the C16 and C64 versions - just some small things with sounds and graphics that don't make a whole lot of difference.


ANTEATER (Paradise Software, 1986)

Written by Nigel Stuart for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

There aren't many Anteater-clones for the old Speccy, so finding another clone in addition to the recent near-arcade-perfect port of the original Anteater caught my eye. Of course, it probably wouldn't have caught my eye if the title were not the same as the original game, since finding Anteater-clones from the current World of Spectrum archive as it is, is nearly impossible with the 10,000+ games in the WOS archive and no better search criteria than "action/arcade". Mind you, I did go through the archive with those exact parameters, and found nothing else.

Screenshots from Paradise Software's Anteater on the ZX Spectrum.

Well, Paradise Software's Anteater from 1986 plays like it belongs to 1983 or 1984, but not in a particularly good way. It plays well enough for you to be able to keep going at it, but there's no real challenge like there is in the original game. This Anteater plays much like Bug-Byte's Aardvark, at least in terms of controllability, but the difficulty progression is pretty basic. Level 1 has one ant running back and forth at the bottom of the screen, and for the next levels, one more ant is added for each of the above levels. It's just not a particularly interesting game, and deserves to be forgotten, particularly now with the recent good Anteater ports available.


AMEISENBÄR (DCR-Software, 1987)

Written by Dirk Conrad & Sven Schmidt for C64.

Here's one of the first of many German Anteater variants, and here we have an actual anteater instead of a more technologically advanced mechanism. Although it looks and plays the part nicely enough, I'm sorry to say Ameisenbär feels like an unfinished product.

Screenshots from Ameisenbär on the Commodore 64.

The gameplay in Ameisenbär is more similar to Bug-Byte's Aardvark than the original Anteater, but the way you need to think of different ways to attack or avoid enemies is similar to Anteater. The graphics are very nice, although I'm not sure if the backgrounds have any variations, since I only played to the second level. The biggest problem for me here is, that there's no music at all, and barely any sound effects. If there had been at least a little more sound effects, I would have recommended this game over Bug-Byte's Aardvark, but as it is, I hope someone would one day bother to modify it accordingly.



Written by Benoit Varasse for the Amstrad CPC.

Aside from Diamond Mine II, Atomic Fiction is the only Anteater clone that I was able to find for the Amstrad CPC, which is a real pity, because that means that the CPC has been so far left without a faithful port of the original game.

Screenshots from Atomic Fiction on Amstrad CPC.
On the surface, Atomic Fiction is a pleasantly different-looking variation from the usual lot. Although you're still drilling oil (judging from the oil tanks on the surface), the pipe thing you control looks like a stapler at the end of a narrow cable; the underground creatures are decidedly alien, and the red overall colouring makes the game feel as if you're on Mars or something. Too bad the controllability is a bit unresponsive. Happily, there are a few options you can adjust, but you need to understand at least some French to make any sense of the options. That doesn't really help much, when upon Game Over, the game breaks and goes to Basic.

I suppose, if you're an Amstrad user and want to play a good Anteater/Oil's Well clone, you might want to stick with Diamond Mine II, unless you're able to code a more faithful port of the original.


PIPELINE RUN (CP Verlag/Magic Disk, 1989)

Written by Jörg Sieslack for the Commodore 64.

Although not nearly the first Anteater-clone to make its appearance through a magazine, Pipeline Run is one of the first notable ones that were released as cover disk games instead of type-in listings.

Screenshots from Pipeline Run on the Commodore 64.

Again, Pipeline Run plays much like Bug-Byte's Aardvark, and you get the obvious graphical variations in enemies and level mazes. The most notable difference to all the other Anteater-clones, however, is that when the timer reaches 50, the game refills the first three/four/however-many lines so you need to collect them all again. I suppose the strategy would be to start from the bottom, but with the controls being what they are, it's not the most comfortable place to start. But it certainly makes Pipeline Run a somewhat unique experience. Not particularly recommendable, though.


OIL CHALLENGE (Markt & Technik/64'er, 1990)

Written by Nikolaus M. Heusler for the Commodore 64.

Another magazine coverdisk publication from Germany is a more direct copy of Anteater and Oil's Well, which is a bit surprising for a game which feels almost like it was written in Basic.

Screenshots from Oil Challenge on the Commodore 64.

It doesn't look like it, though. If anything, it has an odd overall feel about it that makes it look as if it was created with some sort of an arcade game construction kit, even though none such thing existed back then, which would have been able to produce something of this quality. Oil Challenge plays and looks surprisingly close to Sierra's Oil's Well, but it's missing sounds, which kinds of ruins the experience for me. Not as much, though, as Ameisenbär.


BUGS! (Antic Publishing, 1990)

Written by Greg Knauss for the Atari ST.

It's the 90's, and we can finally move on to the 16-bits. Bugs! - subtitled "Further Adventures of a Mutant Snake" is one of the most basic Anteater-clones you could find, but I guess it's better to have something like this on your favourite platform than none at all.

Screenshots from Bugs! on the Atari ST.

The way Bugs! feels like to play is somewhere between Anteater and Bug-Byte's Aardvark, because there's a certain fluency in your movement that's not in Aardvark, but you still only move as you push the joystick. Leave the joystick untouched, and you stop movement. More notable difference to the original Anteater and the majority of its clones is, that you need to retract the mutant worm back to the surface after eating the last pellet from the underground maze, in order to proceed to the next level. As such, it defends its position as a unique Anteater-clone, and it might make the Atari ST a marginally more interesting platform. But only marginally.


OILMANIA (CP Verlag/Golden Disk 64, 1991)

Designed by Marcel Wolter.
Written by Marcel Wolter and Michael Leonhardt for Commodore Amiga.
Written by Michael Leonhardt and Michael Buetepage for Atari ST.
Written by Christian Scholz for C64.

If the game's credits in the Atari ST version are to be believed, Oilmania was originally designed and written for the Amiga, but oddly, the Amiga version was released in 1992, while the ST and C64 versions appeared in 1991 already.

Screenshots from the Atari ST version of Oilmania.

Oilmania is a modernized version of the old game, certainly more in the vein of Oil's Well, but more metallic, more technological in its visual approach. Also, the gameplay is a bit more clunky and heavier in a weird way, which perhaps gives the game a slight sense of realism, if such a thing is even possible. Or even needed.

Screenshots from the Commodore 64 version of Oilmania.

As with so many other Anteater and Oil's Well clones, Oilmania suffers from a severe lack of variety in background graphics, which makes the progression so much less worth the bother. However, the gameplay is different enough with the heavier approach, that it deserves a few goes on that basis alone. The C64 and 16-bit version ultimately differ very little from each other, so unless you're prone to like a game based on its graphics, pick either of the 16-bits.


AARDVARK (Nanochess, 2019/2021)

Written by Óscar Gutiérrez and Thomas Jentzsch, with graphics by Nathan Strum.

The last item on the list is a fairly new rendition of the original Anteater, once again titled Aardvark, making this the third game to use that word in the title. Nanochess's versions of the game for both Atari 2600 and Intellivision are as close to the original arcade game as you could ever wish, and a fine addition to anyone's Atari or INTV collection.

Screenshots from the Atari 2600 version of Nanochess' Aardvark.

Sure, both versions look, feel and sound pretty much as you would expect from each respective console, although certainly better than any of the original commercial releases in the olden days. In both cases, these versions definitely fill up the previously vacant spot in each classic console's library, and they're just as good as any of the official ports of Anteater and Oil's Well.

Screenshots from the Intellivision version of Nanochess' Aardvark.

The Atari version can be purchased from AtariAge, and the Intellivision cartridge can be ordered from Nanochess's own website, but if you dig the forums deep enough, you will find free ROM versions of both. However, I'd suggest you buy the cartridges if you want to support the scene to keep these people making new awesome games for your favourite machines.



Then, we have a bunch of less extravagant clones that were made as programming exercises or just for the heck of it, with varying success. Perhaps the less said of all of these, the better, but I'll just throw in short comments. Apart from the first one, all of these were written for various different Commodore machines, but I couldn't find anything similar for other platforms. 

Atari 8-bit: JACK THE DIGGER (Homecomputer, 1986)
Written by Jens Berke

If you ever were to be surprised by how good a Basic-language game can be, now is a good time for that. Jens Berke's Jack The Digger for the 8-bit Ataris is a surprisingly faithful, playable and fun Anteater clone in all manners, except one: it doesn't have power pellets, so you just have to trust your own skills 100%.

Commodore 64: SLUGY (PD, 1986)
Written by Pablo Garcia Molina

A rarity in this particular genre: a Spanish Basic port. Not very attractive, but at least it has a different name. Also, you can't seem to find this one anywhere but in the Gamebase64 collection, but it's not really worth the trouble, as it's practically impossible to even finish the first level due to a bug that leaves ants' halves to block your way.

Commodore 16: OIL-HUNTER (PD, 1987)
Written by K.P. Schwarz

Funny little Basic version for the C16 that actually plays very nicely, apart from the fact that all the enemies move from right to left, and they seem to have been programmed to appear in a certain designated order. The title screen has a funny rendition of "Mary Had A Little Lamb", which is a bit questionable, but makes the game more funny.

Commodore Plus/4: OIL'S WELL (Tronic-Verlag GmbH, 1989)
Written by Patrick Meissner

Just because this one is for the Plus/4 and the previous for the C16, doesn't make this one any better, although by the looks of it, it should be. It doesn't really help, that the title is straight from the Sierra game, which might have cause some head-scratching for those expecting a good straight port of Oil's Well. But nope, this is practically impossible.

Commodore Amiga: GOLD MINE (Duel Soft, 19??)
Written by Pavel Strejcek and Johny/Vectors.

Unclear origins for this one, but Gold Mine is believed to have appeared in the mid-90's. This is a neat little thing built with AMOS, with fairly similar gameplay to the original Anteater, and it even includes a level editor, which is definitely a unique feature in an Anteater/Oil's Well clone.

Commodore 64: HARAS (PD, 2003)
Written by Stefano Tognon

This is pretty much as basic as you can get an Anteater clone. There's not even a score counter, since the game is over once the screen has been cleared. Apart from the enemy bugs, all the graphics are made with PETSCII, and the game is controlled with the joystick in port 1. Best of all, it actually plays rather well.

Commodore 64: DRILLER (PD, 2009)
Written by Georg Rottensteiner

From the man who made the modern classics Joe Gunn, Barnsley Badger, Awakening, Guns 'n' Ghosts and many more, we have another Basic version of Anteater called Driller. If possible, this is even more basic than Haras above, because it was made for the 4kb Basic programming competition in 2009. Judging by how the game works, my guess is the real point of this version was probably to make it feel like it was made for the infamous Cascade Cassette 50.

Commodore PET/CBM: OIL'S WELL (NOP Software, 2013)
Written by Mr. NOP

Last, but certainly not least, Mr. NOP wrote a rather remarkable Oil's Well demake for the early Commodore PET and CBM computers in 2013. It plays more like Bug-Byte's Aardvark, and looks like a bunch of PETSCII, but considering the hardware, that's probably all you'll ever be able to get. But it's amazingly good for what it is.



Well, I just wanted to mention something before closing this one. There was a game that I initially thought worth including in this article, but as I tested this game, K-Razy Antiks by K-Byte, it wasn't near enough of an Anteater clone. It's a good game, though. It was released for the 8-bit Atari computers and Commodore VIC-20, and though it looks like an Anteater clone, you control one of the ants roaming underground instead of the anteater's tongue, which makes it a very different game.

And that's pretty much it. If you folks have any Anteater-clones you'd like to get mentioned in this article, throw in a comment and I'll see about it as soon as I possibly can bother. For next month, I will  try to focus all my leftover energy on another Halloween entry, so stay tuned for that one... unless I can  think of something completely different. See you then!

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