Wednesday, 9 March 2022

Zybex (Zeppelin Games, 1988)

Designed by Kevin Franklin and Michael Owens.

C64 Programming by Kevin Franklin
Atari programming by Brian Jobling
Graphics by Michael Owens
Sounds by Adam Gilmore
Published by Zeppelin Games in 1988 for Commodore 64 and Atari 8-bit computers.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum conversion by Gareth Briggs, with graphics by Kevin Franklin and Michael Owens.
Published by Zeppelin Games in 1989.



FRGCB is back from a relatively brief time off, and we're starting 2022 with a fairly lightweight comparison of a game that will almost certainly keep the bottom end of the alphabetical list of the blog henceforth. This comparison was requested some time ago by an anonymous reader, which makes it as good a reason as any to start this year off with it, and I have to admit some curiosity for this one, because although Zybex seems to be one of the best-regarded horizontal space shooters of all time on the 8-bit home computers, it's one that I never actually played until starting to write this comparison.

Particularly in the Atari community, Zybex has a good reputation, placed at #15 in the visitors' Top 25 rating list at Atarimania, at the time of writing this, with a score of 8.3 from a whopping 2112 votes. The Lemon64 users' score is 7.6 from 53 votes, which isn't too bad either, but considering this is supposedly a C64 original (at least based on the credits), it could be better. Even more so, when compared to the archived World of Spectrum score, which was 7.83 from 40 votes a few years ago. The more current score at Spectrum Computing is 7.4 from only 5 votes, so I'm still more trusting of the archived rating.



Let's start with my initial thoughts. Zybex is categorized as a horizontally-scrolling space shoot'em-up, which didn't really give me much of hope, because I always thought this genre rather over-represented on the 8-bit computers and consoles. With the relatively disregarded budget label, Zeppelin Games, as the publisher, who have over half of their catalogue filled with sub-par genre approximations that are even less memorable than those of Codemasters and Mastertronic, didn't really raise my hopes too much, either. The one thing that did raise my interest here, though, was the fact that Zybex could be played simultaneously by two players, making it a competitor to games like Jet-Boys, Forgotten Worlds and Hyperdyne Side Arms.

The story goes, you play as a convict, trying to escape a prison of sorts. There are 16 levels in the game, and you always start from the same level, and end with the level called Zybex, but most of the game after the beginning is played by freedom of choice. You need to collect credits in order to access the final levels of the game, which is an interesting gameplay mechanic in this context. As usual, there are plenty of weapons to gather and blast your way through the game, and all the weapons are upgradable. Although the difficulty level is pretty high, the weapon upgrades are fair enough not to reset to zero after a death, but rather drop down by one level upon each death. While all this is fine, the peculiarity of it all comes in the fact that you don't actually need to perform the shooting - your player character shoots constantly on his own volition. Pressing the fire button only switches the weapon, if you happen to have more than one.

As it happens, then, Zybex is not a very commonplace space shooter, after all. The difficulty level is high enough to warrant a second player as almost a necessity to get anywhere, yet the way the game progresses is so peculiar, that it will take a good while to get bored of it, even for someone like me, who doesn't really think much of space shooters in general. It takes a while to get used to this style of gameplay, but there's enough of peculiarities to make Zybex a welcome distraction from all the other run-of-the-mill space shooters.



Before we get to the actual meat of the comparison, here are the tape loading times for those few of you out there, who actually still care about these matters, accompanied by the loading screens.

ATARI 400/800: 16 minutes 50 seconds
COMMODORE 64: 5 minutes 31 seconds
ZX SPECTRUM: 4 minutes 54 seconds

The ZX Spectrum version can boast of having the shortest tape loading time, which is a good compensation for having no disk version available, unlike the other two do. If we based the loading times comparison on that as well - a comparison, which cannot be authenticated by standard measures, mind you - the Atari version would win this one easily. Just in case you are now considering buying the Atari disc version, it's one of the rarest 8-bit Atari games in existence, so good luck with that.

Loading screens, left to right: Atari 400/800 (tape), Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

As for the loading screens, the Atari version doesn't really have one to speak of, although at least here, it actually does say the game title in blocky letters and throws in a credit for the original under the title. The C64 and Spectrum versions both have a loading screen, for sure, but neither of them even attempt to recreate the cover art, rather going with a random space-shooter -themed picture. I suppose it's all the same, really, as long as the game logo is shown on the screen in big and shiny electric letters. If I were to choose a favourite of the two actual pictures, I'd go with the Spectrum one, because it's a little bit more dramatic and explosive.



Once your chosen computer has finished loading Zybex, the title screen uniformly throws an options menu at the bottom of the screen, in addition to the obligatory credits in surprisingly large and showy letters. In the C64 and ATARI versions, the menu is operated by moving the joystick left and right, and pressing the button to select the highlighted option. The SPECTRUM version only allows you to change the controls for each player and toggle between one and two players in the menu, both options being selectable by pressing the number keys 1 and 2. The C64 and ATARI versions are strictly joystick-based, so you get no control options, but you are allowed to change the colour of the player sprite in the menu, instead. The S-block in the middle starts the game.

The game always starts from the first level, Arcturus, which serves nicely as an introductory level and a way to power up your players to get yourselves ready for the next levels. That said, Arcturus really isn't a practice level or anything like that, it's just a gateway to the rest of the game, with a difficulty level high enough to keep you on your toes and very possibly give you a Game Over on your first few tries. You will notice, though, that the way to beat this game is to learn, which weapons work best against which enemies, how the enemies behave in their groups, and also learn the enemy attack wave order as far as possible. Happily, you don't have to worry about your trigger finger getting overstrained, since the game has automatic shooting, and the only thing you need to worry about it your location on the screen and the choice of weapon, which is switched with the fire button.

There are five weapons altogether in Zybex, the last of which is a bit more difficult to find, as it only appears in a handful of levels. I think the fourth level is one of them. The first weapon, Orbiter, is a regular forward-shooting machine gun sort of a thing, which gives you one or two circling shield bullets and increases the firing rate on higher upgrades. The second weapon, 8-way, starts off with shooting single bullets straight above and below, but no front and back; the upgrades will improve firing rate and spread up to 8 directions. The third weapon, Railgun, is a fairly powerful forward-only beam sort of a thing, which reloads for a long time; the upgrades increase length and reload speed. The fourth weapon, Pulse, shoots curved wall-like pulse beams at first, but you get diagonal beams upon upgrades, in addition to bigger beams. The fifth and final weapon is called Wall, which is another straight-forward shooting weapon, and this one only gains size upon upgrades. Arcturus (level 1) contains enough of weapon upgrades to give one player a full upgrade for your first weapon, and also a few upgrades for three other weapons. Weapon upgrades and bonus tokens are dropped by dead enemies, and in later levels, they also drop extra lives and those other tokens you need to access the last three levels.

As far as I can tell, the C64 and ATARI versions are similar to each other in the most immediately detectable ways, while the SPECTRUM version is a very different experience, but I shall get to that a bit later on. There are only a few important differences regarding gameplay between the C64 and ATARI versions that I can report: 1) the hit detection is more accurate in the ATARI version; 2) you move around a bit faster on the C64; 3) you can shoot through all things in the ATARI and SPECTRUM versions, while on the C64, you cannot; and 4) I also noticed a few differences in certain enemies' behaviour, but nothing particularly alarming. If it weren't for the inability to shoot through all sorts of space debris on the C64, it would have been very difficult to pick a favourite, as I do like to move fast in a space shooter like this, but I also like to have as accurate hit detection as possible. The difference number 3 begs the question, though: is it necessary to have some terrain objects remain stuck in the same two-dimensional space as the other level graphics that you bump into and die, in order to make a game of this ilk to feel more realistic? Also, what does realism really even mean in this context, or do we care? I'd say, as long as the decision makes the game more playable, we shouldn't care.

Counting the (other) differences in the SPECTRUM version compared to the other two would be too much of a bother, so I'll just point out some of the most obvious and effective ones. The first thing you'll notice is the size of the enemy sprites, which is considerably bigger than those in the other two versions, but you need to hit all the enemies precisely into their middle area, because that's where the hit detection block is. Second, most enemies in the first level don't shoot at you, but they are more difficult to dodge due to their size and odd movement patterns. Third, the order of getting new weapons is a bit different here: the first level contains Railgun, Pulse and Wall upgrades, as well as two extra lives, which are usually dropped to unaccessible places, and the 8-way weapon can be found in level 2. The last one I'll make a note of is, that while the C64 and ATARI versions only require 3 tokens to access levels 13 to 15, as well as 5 tokens for the final level, the SPECTRUM version requires 11 tokens for level 13, 12 for level 14, 13 for level 15 and 14 for level 16, so I'm assuming there are also a larger number of these necessary tokens scattered into the SPECTRUM version, than in the other two.

If we were to also compare the technical achievements between the three versions, I'm pretty sure the ATARI would be considered the most impressive version on its own terms, and the C64 version perhaps the least impressive, but as the mission of this blog is still not to focus on the machines, but rather the game's versions irrespective of the platforms, the results for this section are still as follows:




If you bothered to read the Playability section above, you will have deduced a certain thing or two regarding the graphical differences between the three versions, which we shall get into soon enough. Of course, we shall have to start from the usual place, which is...

Title screens, left to right: Commodore 64, Atari 400/800, Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

...the title screens, which already shows a clear indicator to where this part of the comparison is heading. The C64 and ATARI versions have a similar style, but the menu lacks a certain amount of finesse on the ATARI version, and the use of colours is not quite the same, either. What strikes me as a bit odd, though, is that the C64 version's title logo is a lot blockier than the ATARI one, but then neither version really even tries to use the exact same look for the logo as shown in the loading screen and tape cover.

The SPECTRUM version doesn't share the same fonts nor the same look for the options menu, nor does it have any immediately notable visual effects in the title screen. There is a bit of blue shading in the options menu, which is nice, but I really meant animated effects. The larger text font is also very nice, but without any visual enhancements, it does get to feel a bit bland after a while.

A couple of text bits. Left to right: Commodore 64, Atari 400/800, Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

QED. The SPECTRUM version only shows text in the message screens between gameplay, while the C64 and ATARI versions also have some visual enhancements, which definitely give the game a bit more visual value, even if they can be considered largely unnecessary. On a more positive note, unlike the C64 and ATARI versions, the SPECTRUM version actually shows you all the level titles - even the locked ones. As if that was somehow important information to withhold. Still, the ATARI and C64 versions have more action in the text screens, so that's a point in their advantage, although I can't say for sure quite yet, which one of the two I actually prefer.

Once you get into the action, all three versions have their own distinctive look about them. If you know about the graphical capabilities of each machine, as well as the general styles used for certain kinds of games, nothing about any version of Zybex will come as a surprise.

In-game screenshots from the Atari 400/800 version.

We shall start with the ATARI version, which looks a tiny bit blocky, and uses a plethora of shades for a single colour for each level. The info panel and the weapon selector display use greyscale throughout the game. Pictured above, and compared below, are two screens from levels 1, 2 and 7, the reason for which shall be explained shortly.

For a space shooter, there doesn't seem to be much of space in the background, just a black wall of nothingness. Of course, when you consider the smallest object on the screen being an enemy bullet, you don't really want that to get lost in the background, so the solution was to not use a background at all - the primary level graphics and enemy sprites should be enough for anyone. Even if they all share the same base colour. The animations are not the most interesting nor the most fluid, but they do their job well enough in the context.

In-game screenshots from the Sinclair ZX Spectrum version.

The SPECTRUM version appears in a fairly Spectrumesque manner: large monochrome hi-res graphics, with a single colour used for each level. There are, however, only three level colours used in the entire game, which you see examples of in the picture here. The third pair of pictures is from level 7, because that's the first one in order not to be either cyan or yellow. Well, not completely true, since level 5 is also white, but it only has a star background. It is a good thing, then, that the info and weapon panels are more colourful than elsewhere.

I have to say, I have never noticed this sort of a thing before in a game of this particular genre, but the Spectrum version feels oddly static. It has no real animation, but rather everything moves around in a rather immobile manner. The background is, I'm happy to say, very much the starry multi-layered background that it's supposed to be, even if it's not real parallax scrolling in its proper meaning. Despite the relative lack of animation, the SPECTRUM version looks pretty good, and it has very little
problems with colour clash.

In-game screenshots from the Commodore 64 version.

So, it almost goes without saying, that the C64 version is more colourful that either one of its two competitors - at least, in the sense that it offers a bigger variety of colours from the entire spectrum, not just a bunch of shades. It's also more detailed than the ATARI version, and more animated than either of the other two. The attention to detail even goes as far as to make your weapon upgrade number indicator bear the same colour as you have selected for yourself. Even the star background is more energetic and parallaxed than that of the SPECTRUM version, so there's not much that can be said as negatives. In fact, were I to search for negatives, then I would only find them with a microscope of hindsight, which would only point out some things that were made by more seasoned programmers and graphicians later on for similar games of bigger budget and higher price tag.

Screenshots from level 1 in the two-player mode, left to right:
Commodore 64, Atari 400/800, Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

The simultaneous two-player mode is a good excuse to show you another set of screenshots, but it also serves as demonstration, on how much of the screen is actually used for the action in each version. You can't really defend any of the versions with their respective screen sizes in actual pixels, because that would be beside the point, which is that all three machines have known examples of graphical information being shown in the borders, although on the Spectrum, it is admittedly rare. As things stand here, the SPECTRUM version clearly has the least vertical space for any action here, and the C64 version the most.

Similarly to the player 1 weapon selector panel, the second player's is coloured with the player's chosen colour on the C64, the given colour on the SPECTRUM and an unconnected colour on the ATARI. At least they are all shown at the bottom of the screen, so there can be no mix-ups.

Game Over and high score entry screens, left to right:
Commodore 64, Atari 400/800, Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

Sometimes, the graphical capabilities of the 8-bit ATARI computers have their place much more obvious, like here in this Game Over screen. The triangularly shaped raster bars look ever so much better with the wider bars and bigger shading effects, than the slightly more hyperactive raster bars on the C64 that use less colours in any case. The Game Over texts themselves look a bit more interesting with some colour on them, as do the high score entry texts, but it's really the other visual effects that put the cherry on the cake.

To be fair, the ATARI and C64 versions are neck and neck fighting for the same pedestal here, even if they look clearly different. The C64 version is more consistently colourful in ways that neither of the other two versions are, and it also feels a bit more alive in its animations as well. But then, the ATARI version has a sense of gloom and dread about it, which I really like, exactly because of the shaded single-colour style and slightly blockier graphics in general. Technically, the C64 version is somewhat ahead of the ATARI version, so I'm going to have to give it the top spot here. The SPECTRUM version, while very stylish in its own manner, simply has too little to offer in the end.




Having never played this game before, and having only ever heard of Adam "Giz" Gilmore's music in a very few, personally largely forgettable games (such as Elvira the Arcade Game and Afterburner), I wasn't really expecting much of anything apart from the usual story of the C64's SID chip conquering all the other 8-bits by a country mile if nothing else.

There are five tunes in Zybex's soundtrack: the main theme song - the longest of the lot, two very short ditties and two others that fall somewhere between. Unfortunately, the most disappointing one of the lot is the main theme song, which goes on for almost two and a half minutes before it just unceremoniously loops from the beginning without having an actual loop point in it. The main theme has no real percussive elements in it, which makes it a bit underwhelming as it goes through four or five different two or three chord progressions with no considerable melody to speak of hidden somewhere behind the funky basslines and the chord arpeggios. It's like listening to a Matt Gray soundtrack without any real content. The most interesting part of the main theme song is the ending, which is an actual written ending, but its effect it ruined by the immediate looping.

The other tunes are much more effective in their execution due to their brevity and the use of at least some percussions. The "Game Over" tune reminds me heavily of the main theme from the Great Giana Sisters, and the high score entry music also sounds oddly familiar, with the nice melody variations looping over a basic three-chord (Am-F-G) loop. The short "Get Ready" ditty is probably my favourite composition in the entire game, but it might have something to do with the way it sounds like an oriental melody with its minor pentatonic scale melody snaking downwards in a relatively unusual manner. There's one more brief fanfare sort of a thing that plays at the end of each level, and it only has four notes (A,A,G,A), which suits the purpose well enough, but doesn't offer anything of real musical interest.

Gilmore at least had a very good sense of how to use each sound chip to their advantage, even if the music itself wasn't that inspired. The melodies are much clearer on the C64, and the accompanying instruments have more variety and effects than the ATARI was ever capable of, so the win is kind of obvious in that regard.

The SPECTRUM version doesn't even have any music, but it was only released as a 48k version, so the creators just decided to fit in as much of sound effects as humanly possible and playable on the little single-channel beeper within. As Zybex is a space shooter, there won't be too many surprises regarding sounds, either, at least on the Spectrum, but it has plenty enough of variety to be considered an adequate job.

The ATARI version also has its fair share of variety in sound effects, but from what I've witnessed, there are no sound effects for the second and third weapons, while the C64 version has a unique sound for each weapon, some of the sounds completely bonkers and unexpected. Then again, most of the C64 sound effects sound like they were ripped straight from the (in)famous Shoot'Em-Up Construction Kit. But in Giz's defence, there's not that much you can actually do with a space shooter to make it sound unique, and the few odd sounds the C64 version has is enough to make it so. The ATARI version holds its own well enough, but compared to the C64 version, there's just something missing.




For £2.99, which was Zybex's original price tag, it's a fairly impressive game, I have to say, even for its time. This definitely beats many budget shoot'em-up games, and comes surprisingly close to some of its contemporary top-shelf contestants as well, if only due to its originality. I definitely agree on the ATARI version's spot in Atarimania's current top ratings list, and personally, I'd say it's the best of the three, because good playability is that much more important than graphics and sounds. Still, this is how the unconventional and unnecessarily mathematical scoring system puts these in order:

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

That's not to say the SPECTRUM version isn't enjoyable - it's just too different from the other two in all ways, and is basically let down by its unforgiving hit detection. As usual of late, here's a video accompaniment.

Hope that was worth the wait. Next up at FRGCB, the new season of My Nostalgia Trip Games will be launched, so stay tuned for that! Thanks for reading, see you later!

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