Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Milk Race (Mastertronic, 1987)

Developed by Icon Design Ltd.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum version by Phil Berry and Stuart Ruecroft.
Atari 8-bit version by Paul D. Marshall with music by Tony Williams.
Music for other versions by David Whittaker.
No other credits are known.

Published by Mastertronic for the Amstrad CPC, Atari 8-bit computers, Commodore 64, MSX and Sinclair ZX Spectrum in 1987.

The C64 version was also re-released in North America as "Ten Speed" in 1988 by Mastertronic.

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INTRODUCTION & GAME STATUS


Another 1987 game from Mastertronic gets a comparison, but this time I chose Milk Race because of its sadly underutilised genre: cycling. I have always been a big fan of cycling in general, and racing bicycles and BMX bikes have rarely gotten the kind of high quality games they deserve. I'm not completely sure, whether Milk Race actually fits the bill, but at least it's one of the rare cycling games that can actually be made a comparison about.

Because I have no hard evidence as to which platform was the point of origin for Milk Race (although I'm almost convinced it's the ZX Spectrum), I shall go about the game's current scores and ratings at our favourite websites in a random order. At Atarimania, their version has a score of 5.1, from as many as 26 votes. At the original archived World of Spectrum, the score recorded in 2018 was 6.87 from 32 votes, while the single vote given at Spectrum Computing is a 6 out of 10. At Lemon64, the C64 version has been given a 6.3 score from 36 votes. Only two users have given the MSX version a vote at Generation-MSX, currently making the rating there 3 stars out of 5. Finally, from the two Amstrad sites, CPC-Power has an 8 out of 20, while CPC Game Reviews has a more forgiving 7 out of 10. In essence, we're talking about a very mediocre game here, but of course, the interest for FRGCB is to find out, which one is the most recommendable.

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HISTORY, DESCRIPTION & REVIEW


For what I would assume would be the vast majority of people outside of the United Kingdom, the title "Milk Race" doesn't say much, unless you happen to be a more-than-modest cycling enthusiast. Happily, the cover art can cover a bit more of the subject matter, in case you were wondering about what does milk have to race against, or race for. As it happens, Milk Race was a famous cycling event, born in 1958 to promote milk by the Milk Marketing Board, and lasted until 1993 due to UK's Agriculture Act. If that seems a bit odd, Milk Race was only one such event that was considered an official part of the Tour of Britain, a multi-stage cycling race that was first raced in 1945, and is still raced annually.

The 1987 Milk Race was to be raced from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to London in 13 stages, zig-zagging through the central England, with the western point being Malvern, and eastern point being Ipswitch. The computer game was made to follows this 1000 mile plan, and at the time, it had a record number of entrants, 84 in total.

Prior to this, cycling as a sports event had been represented in dedicated sport games as well as multi-event sport games plenty enough, but not many games had taken endurance bicycle racing to be simulated. In fact, Activision's Tour de France is the only one I can think of that tried to have a go at the sport, and did a rather good job at it, too. The only reason why I couldn't select that game to make a comparison of is simply, because it was only ever made for the C64.

Milk Race takes a very different method from Tour de France of "simulating" the sport, because this game doesn't make you actually waggle the joystick and try to navigate through an endless stream of difficult curves against the clock, as Tour de France does, but rather makes you manage your stamina by switching gears against uphills and downhills, collect milk bottles to gain more energy, and avoid potholes and getting hit by other bikers. While there are no curves in the road, in many ways, this is much more difficult than Tour de France, and much more difficult than the description sounds. It is a fairly addicting bicycle racing game, though, and it's a fairly good one to have in your Mastertronic collection.


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LOADING


It's been a long time since we've had as many of 8-bit cassettes as this in the same comparison, and nothing else. Well, to be fair, the Spectrum version was also released on three compilations, two of which had disk releases for the 128k +3 machine, but as you can see from below, the disk version might be considered an overachievement. The North American C64 version called Ten Speed was also released only on disk, but it doesn't even have a loading screen.

AMSTRAD CPC: 5 minutes 42 seconds
ATARI XE/XL: 9 minutes 12 seconds
COMMODORE 64: 5 minutes 2 seconds
MSX: 4 minutes 22 seconds
ZX SPECTRUM: 3 minutes 53 seconds


There is nothing particularly interesting about the loaders here, apart from the C64 version, which is a rare occurence of a C64 Mastertronic game with a regular loading screen combined with loading music, before they went to use loader games instead. Unfortunately, the music is already in the game's soundtrack, so it's a bit unnecessary here, but it's still more entertaining than complete lack of sound or the usual screeching that the other computers exhibit.

Loading screens. Top left: Amstrad CPC. Bottom left: Commodore 64. Middle: Atari 8-bit.
Top right: Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Bottom right: MSX.



The loading screens are descriptive enough, if a bit odd in one regard: the official 1987 Milk Race logo is featured in addition to the game title logo, which is very different and not at all necessary. If you don't take the Atari loading screen into account, which I don't, there are two distinctly different loading screens: one for the C64 and Amstrad, and one for the Spectrum and MSX. The C64/CPC loader looks a lot clearer and has a sense of speed to it, not to mention fitting for the game itself, while the SPE/MSX loader seems to take place in a forest, which the game never does, and is a bit messy in certain parts. I like the logo better on the SPE/MSX loader, though.

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PLAYABILITY


The reason why I think SPECTRUM might have been the original platform Milk Race was developed for, is that it's the only version that does not have a title screen. Thus, unlike most other versions, you get no control options here, but you can play the SPECTRUM version with either a Kempston-compatible joystick or the pre-defined keyboard mapping of Q, A, O, P and M, which should by now be rather easy to figure out. The ATARI version can only be played with a joystick, but all the other versions give you joystick and keyboard as options, although the AMSTRAD version only lets you use the joystick via redefining the keys to joystick directions.

Once you have selected your controls, if possible, the game starts with a map screen, showing you your current location with a blinking number. Press the fire button, and you're taken into the action. Wait for the countdown, and you're off. Well, to be more specific, you're free to go in all versions, except in the AMSTRAD version, you're off automatically. The other version require you to move the joystick to the right or push the designated key to start actually moving forwards. Otherwise, the movement is mostly just up and down, and changing gears by pressing the fire button simultaneously with up and down. Pulling the joystick left does decrease your speed, but it's a bit ineffective, so for the most part, it's best just to play with the gears to conserve your energy.

Because the game requires you to keep your speed as high as possible at all times, it is pivotal to keep the bicycle between gears 8 and 12, depending on whether you are going uphill or downhill, and how steep is the hill you're pedaling. The most important factor to Milk Race's playability is how the bike handles: the maximum speed, the acceleration rate, the maneouvering angle and its quickness. The rate of acceleration is more or less dependant on how quickly you can switch gears from 1 to 12, but also on each version's need for making the racer go forward manually, so with that in mind, the C64 version accelerates the slowest, and the SPECTRUM and MSX versions accelerate the quickest. AMSTRAD and ATARI are so close to each other, but visually in such different ways, that it's hard for me to say which one accelerates better. The maximum speed's effectiveness is determined by how well are you able to pass other racers with your maximum speed. In this sense, the C64 version is the most effective, yet it doesn't feel all that constant in its effectiveness. The SPECTRUM and MSX versions feel the most constant in their maximum speed's effectiveness, but they're not quite as fast as the C64 version. The AMSTRAD version feels quite slow, but this also makes it more maneouverable than the others. The ATARI version feels completely unhandleable at higher speeds because of how close to the screen border your cyclist goes when going fast enough... but it's still barely as fast as the AMSTRAD version. Controlling the bicycle is equally easy in the SPECTRUM and MSX versions, and the C64 version is close behind, requiring only a little bit more work from the player. The common annoyance about Milk Race is, that the computer cyclists cannot fall down from hitting anything, while you have a tendency to fall on your face from the slightest touch of anything other than a milk bottle.

If you have only had a very fleeting acquaintance to Milk Race, on the surface, the gameplay looks to be very much the same in all five versions. However, the ATARI version is inundated with lots of odd gameplay tweaks and rule changes. The milk bottles, for instance, which in most versions only appear on the sides of the road, and are mostly reachable only by the player, can here be more easily picked up by your competitors, as they appear more somewhere in the middle of the road than on the sides. Also, the player sprite can speed up in such a way as to reach the screen's right border, making it impossible to dodge anything that comes at you. It doesn't help either, that the collision detection is a bit off. But rather more vitally, the timer in the ATARI version works very differently to the other versions: here, it goes constantly backwards towards zero, with the player's intention to actually reach zero in the timer, instead of an actual goal, with at least some amount of energy. Still, it doesn't really save the otherwise cumbersome conversion.

There are a couple of other notable small things that separate two versions further from the rest. In the C64 version, your competitors are so unbalanced in their speeds, and they are constantly coming from behind you and from ahead of you, and with the speed that the game requires you to keep up, it's very difficult to make much progress. In fact, it's a bit tricky to even get started, but once you get the hang of it, the C64 version becomes almost enjoyable. However, any enjoyment is driven quickly off by noticing how long it takes for your cyclist to get back on his feet when falling on his face. More surprisingly, the AMSTRAD version is the only version which replenishes your energy when going downhill, but that's balancing for not giving you milk bottles nearly as often as the other versions. In a way, I prefer the Amstrad way.

However, the SPECTRUM version feels right in all the other ways for Milk Race. The gameplay is very balanced and it's easy to get into a good rhythm. The MSX version is pretty much a perfect port from the Spectrum, so I'll give the two a shared number one spot here. The AMSTRAD version, in all its somewhat unfortunate slowness, is a more realistic version of the sport in some ways, but not too much so, thus making it an actually enjoyable game. The C64 version has too much (perhaps natural) randomness in the skills of the computer-driven competitors, which only makes the game feel worse, when you can't hit anything or be hit by anything, because it takes the entire length of a summer holiday for your fallen cyclist to get back up. But as you saw from the paragraph above the one above this one, the ATARI version is clearly the worst of the lot.

1. ZX SPECTRUM / MSX
2. AMSTRAD CPC
3. COMMODORE 64
4. ATARI 8-BIT

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GRAPHICS


When I speculated the SPECTRUM version must have been the original version, it is because of this:

Title screens, where available; left to right:
MSX, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Atari 8-bit.



The title screens for the other versions are, at best, a good place to give credit where credit is due, and at worst, a necessary evil to have you select the control method. The MSX and AMSTRAD versions are good enough to inform us that it's the 1987 edition of Milk Race, and the AMSTRAD goes up a notch by having the milk bottles siding the title, as well as two cyclists siding the milk bottles. The ATARI version is the most visually interesting by having some funky rainbow bar curtains open the screen up to the credits, and the C64 version is, by contrast, the least visual, with the only spot of colour being the blue borders, unless you count the loading screen appearing again after Game Over.

The 1987 Milk Race route map.
Top row, left to right: Sinclair ZX Spectrum, MSX, Commodore 64 (EU).
Bottom row, left to right: Amstrad CPC, Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64 (US).


Also, I would base my assumption of the SPECTRUM version being the original one on the map screen, which was clearly designed for the graphical capabilities of the machine (check out those shades of turqoise and green), and then probably dragged to all the other machines by some manner of a cross-platform designer. The AMSTRAD version perhaps looks the most elegant one from the straight conversions, since it has the most colour in it, but the American C64 version called Ten Speed has a bit more effort to the colours and details. By contrast, the ATARI version has the most lego in it, and the text part of the screen looks awfully cramped. One thing I've always been annoyed about in the original map screen, though: you can see the word "circuit" written as "circiut" three times in the route list, and the typo is included in the MSX and European C64 versions, as well. Happily, the AMSTRAD version had these typos fixed.

In-game screenshots from the Sinclair ZX Spectrum version.



Now, the in-game graphics are very similar throughout the entire game. The most important bits on the screen are in the info panel at the top of the screen, which include among other things an energy meter, a gear indicator and a road steepness indicator. Every other information is secondary. None of this is particularly interesting in a graphical sense, but it's good to know they're clearly visible, and in the SPECTRUM version, they surely are.

The action screen has three layers here, which use a sort of a parallax scrolling thing. It's not anything special as such, since the three layers all scroll in different speeds within their own designated areas on the screen, but it's nice enough when you can take the time to look at it all. Your focus will mostly be divided between the middle section of the action screen and the info panel, you see. The bottom area of the action screen only features a bunch of randomly scattered spectators looking at the race, and the top area of the action screen features a faraway scenery, which has some nice variety, albeit in monochrome cyan-and-black. The actual play area in the middle is completely black-and-white monochrome, but it doesn't really matter, since your biker is still easily distinguishable from everything else. There are very little of other graphical elements on the roads - in fact, there are only three: milk bottles, potholes and cars. But the simplicity is what makes the game work as well as it does here. This also attributes to the speed of scrolling, which is very high at its highest, as well as surprisingly nice and fluid.

In-game screenshots from the MSX version.



As I mentioned earlier, the MSX version is basically a carbon copy of the SPECTRUM version. Of course, there are a couple of things which sets the two apart: screen resolution and palette. Aside from those, the MSX version does actually scroll a little bit slower than the Spectrum version, but it hardly matters in this case.

In-game screenshots from the Amstrad CPC version.



In the AMSTRAD version, the info panel is a bit awkward with its four different shades of blue, which in itself is a nice thing to have as a capability in an 8-bit machine, but using the shades in this way only makes the text unreadable when you need to focus on other things. Happily, the action screen graphics make up for it.

There is much more colour in the graphics in general, than there is in the SPE/MSX version. Too bad the cyclists all look exactly the same, but still, much better than monochrome. The backgrounds have more variety in the buildings' colours, but with a different graphical mode comes less details. The same goes for the spectators below. Naturally, the same parallax scrolling effect is kept here. It's a bit slower than the SPECTRUM and MSX versions, but the overall quality and variety of the graphics gives the CPC a little footing above the other two.

In-game screenshots from the Commodore 64 version.
(The bottom right corner picture is from Ten Speed.)



Somehow, the background graphics in the C64 version remind me of Bazooka Bill, probably because there are a few bits where the background style changes kind of abruptly. For instance, in the lower middle picture (with the Game Over text), you see the black block and the grey fence (or railroad?) suddenly appear after a stretch of forest and mountains. But other than that, the action screen graphics are consistant in their overall quality. It's much blockier than any of the earlier three versions, but there is also much more colour, particularly in the cyclists. There is also a good amount of colour in the road portion of the screen, and there seems to be a bit more variety in the spectators as well. The game also scrolls like a maniac at its fastest, but when you do go fast enough, the graphics also do a bit of glitching. Nothing to worry about, but it just shows it's a cheap game.

Compared to the AMSTRAD version at least, the info panel looks clear enough, although I wouldn't necessarily agree with the choice of colours there. If there was something to be specifically commended in the SPE/MSX info panel, it's the use of colour in the text. It just makes it all that much clearer, if you use one colour for words and another colour for numbers. But I do like the layout here more than elsewhere.


On a final note on the C64 version's graphics, the American version "Ten Speed" differs from the European version by having "Ten Speed" signs instead of "Milk Race" signs, as well as black Coca-Cola shaped bottles instead of milk bottles. So, the C64 offers some more variety in the form of two games.

In-game screenshots from the Atari 8-bit version.



Oh, boy. If there's one nice thing to say about the ATARI version's graphics, it's the circling line of dots around the info panel. The pink steepness indicator looks a bit unclear sometimes, and the dark red energy bar is almost invisible unless you stare at it.

The ATARI version's action screen has the least action in it, believe it or not. There are no more than two different background elements - brown mountains and city that looks like Tetris blocks. Some of the spectators look like pink aliens, the road looks like it was designed by the same person who wrote River Rescue, and the red car looks like it escaped from Parker Bros' James Bond 007 and had a minor facelift. All the cyclists look exactly alike, which is annoying, because the entire game uses blocky, badly defined graphics, and the C64 version used similar graphics with considerable amount of style. It's just a big nope all over.


1. COMMODORE 64
2. AMSTRAD CPC
3. ZX SPECTRUM / MSX
4. ATARI

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SOUNDS


This section turned out to be somewhat surprising, although not perhaps in generalities. The SPECTRUM version was, again, only made with the 48k machine in mind, so the sound effects and music is all single channel beeper stuff. The music was written using a technique to make it sound like there are multiple channels in use, which is always a treat for a 48k Spectrum user, but the main theme tune is not a particularly memorable composition, with the melody being two very long notes per chord over a monotonic beat. On the other hand, it's a fairly suitable tune for sports muzak, but otherwise very forgettable. The only other tune in the game is the Game Over tune, which uses the same technique, but is much shorter and is more melodic than the main theme, so it's actually more interesting than the main theme. There are no more than three sound effects in the SPECTRUM version: a blip sound for picking up a milk bottle, a brief ticking sound when you fall down, and a longer and faster ticking sound when counting the bonus points after finishing a level.

Of course, the main theme tune in the SPECTRUM version was always played during the map screens, so that is where the tune is also played in the MSX version, only using an actual sound chip, so it sounds a bit closer to actual instruments playing it. The Game Over tune has been similarly enhanced and kept at its proper place, but there's another tune playing during the race itself, which wasn't present in the Spectrum version. It's a fairly conventional but energetic 4-chord tune, but it has a much more earwormish melody to it than the map tune, so in some ways, the in-game tune here can also be considered the main theme.


The sound effects are a lot more descriptive in their execution, and there's at least one more sound effect in the MSX version compared to the Spectrum. When your cyclist crashes, you actually hear a crashing noise coupled with what sounds like passing cars honking their horns. The sound of picking up a milk bottle doesn't remind me of anything in particular, but it's a low bump and a couple of tick sounds. The quick qualifying round timer countdown sounds like an ascending beep (followed by a descending beep if you had enough spare time), while the bonus score counter noise sounds like a very faint ring.

In the AMSTRAD version, all the music is played from a slightly higher key, and the percussive noises are more noisy than in the MSX version. The main theme is played also in the title screen, as well as the map screen, so it kind of uses its purpose more properly in this occasion. Also, the main theme seems to have a little bit more harmonics in its chord progression, so it is a bit more interesting to listen through than in the other versions. For those of you, who can't be bothered with listening to the music through all 13 stages, the AMSTRAD version allows you to toggle the music by pressing the 'M' key during play.

Again, the sound effects are a bit different in the AMSTRAD version, and you can't turn them off like you can do with the music. Picking up a milk bottle results in a series of ascending ticking noises, which are vaguely reminiscent of a drinking noise from old cartoons. Crashing your bicycle makes an ungodly racket, which is fitting. Counting the bonus score has an oddly NES quality to it, and I can't really describe it any better than that. There are also a few new sound effects: one siren-like wail for taking off from the grid; one for a passing car making a low droning noise (while playing the chord progression even when the music is off); and one for changing gear, which can get a bit annoying on the long run, but thankfully, it isn't too much - only a quick "duh-duh" for each gear change. All in all, it's quite a rich environment, sonically.

Being able to toggle music was such a good idea, that the feature was also put into the ATARI version, but you can only do your selection in the title screen. All the music from the MSX and AMSTRAD versions are included, in a familiarly plastic Atari manner, but there's enough of different sound types being used in the tunes to make it all sound well-arranged and to the machine's advantage. Again, the map tune is also played in the title screen, and the Game Over tune is played just when the screen turns from the actual Game Over message to the curtains drawing in the title screen, before the title tune kicks in again. It's an unconventional solution, but I think it works rather well.

The sound effects in the ATARI version are a bit odd. For clarity's sake, I tried to listen to all the sounds with no music, even though having music doesn't take away the sound effects. The race starts with a weird "dwwee-dwwee" sound that plays maybe 8 times before all goes quiet again. Picking up a milk bottle makes a weird blip sound, that wouldn't feel out of place in an early 80's platformer or a space shooter. The weirdest thing about it is, that it plays at a different pitch each time. Crashing certainly makes a good crash noise, followed by an unnecessarily long echo. The crash noise is also played at a random pitch. Reaching the end of a level plays out five high-pitched doubled bell sounds. There is also a Game Over sound effect, which is a lower pitched "dwwee-dwwee" sound than the one you hear at the beginning of each level. Not very fitting, and not quite as rich as the AMSTRAD collection of sound effects, but could be worse.

Finally, it's time for the C64 version, and in terms of music, we get a really odd setup here. The assumedly original main theme tune has been dropped out, and what is known as the Game Over tune in all the other versions is now the map screen tune. Also, because the in-game tune made familiar by all the other versions apart from the Spectrum one, is featured on the C64 as the tape loading tune, can now be considered the main theme on the C64. I mean, sure, why not. It's not as if the main theme from the Spectrum version was as good, anyway. Too bad the arrangements are a bit lacking in force, but then again, it sounds exactly what you would expect Mastertronic game soundtracks from the latter half of the 80's to sound like, if you happen to be at all familiar with them.

As far as I can tell, the C64 version only has three sound effects. One is for picking up a milk (or Coke) bottle, which seems like another randomly generated sound effect that doesn't sound like anything I can actually describe. Another one is for crashing, which sounds like a large puncture in one of the tires, making a sudden puff noise and an odd whistle. The third sound effect is the timer reaching zero, which makes a sound very similar to that used in the ATARI version as the starting and Game Over sound effect, but in lower pitch and darker tone.

Considering everything, I have to admit to being very disappointed in the C64 version, and positively surprised at all the other versions, bar the SPECTRUM version. That one didn't really offer any surprises nor disappointments, but technically, it's not even near the worst of the others, and the main theme tune is boring enough even in the way it was programmed, to make it come last in this section. The AMSTRAD version, rather surprisingly, takes the win.

1. AMSTRAD CPC
2. MSX
3. ATARI 8-BIT
4. COMMODORE 64
5. SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM

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OVERALL + VIDEO


I have to confess, Milk Race is a game that I hadn't actually played until I bought it for my MSX about two years ago quite randomly, and when I tried it out for the first time, it didn't really impress me. But it did leave enough of an impression to be able to grow on me and eventually write this comparison, which turned out to be another revelation of sorts. Even if a mediocre game is slightly better on a platform that doesn't get highlighted enough, it's still a mediocre game, and doesn't really deserve to be highlighted more than its worth.

1. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 11
2. MSX: Playability 4, Graphics 2, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 10
3. COMMODORE 64: Playability 2, Graphics 4, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 8
4. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 4, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 7
5. ATARI 8-BIT: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 5


Extraordinary. And as usual, here we have the video accompaniment to deal with most uncertainties:


If you're interested in more games based on the Tour of Britain cycling events, you might be happy to know the 1988 Kellogg's Tour also had a computer game. Once again, the team behind it is mostly unknown, so chances are it was made by the same people responsible for Milk Race.


Kellogg's Tour (CRL, 1988; Commodore 64)


Kellogg's Tour by CRL was only released for the C64, though, and it complex enough to be a disk-only release. The game turned the simulation knob up a notch, now turning it into a real sports game by making the player waggle the joystick to keep up the speed. It also had much more realistic approach to stamina and there's even a hunger indicator. The graphics look rather close to the C64 version of Milk Race, although much more sophisticated, and the sounds are also more realistic. Although Kellogg's Tour is definitely a much more difficult game to get to grips with, I would definitely recommend it more than Milk Race as a standalone cycling sports game.

There are some other standalone endurance cycling sport games from that time, such as Tour 91 by Topo Soft and Tour de Force by Gremlin, but right now, I can only recommend to check them out on your own, because I have no intention of writing comparisons of those. Perhaps BMX games could be more interesting to consider, but let's see when I can get to those. Until the next time, thanks for reading and watching, and keep on retrogaming!

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