Tuesday, 3 May 2022

The Island of Dr. Destructo (Mastertronic, 1987)

Developed by Clockwork Game Systems.
Amstrad and Spectrum versions written by Eugene Messina with graphics by David Lincoln-Howes.
C64 version written by Richard Aplin with music by David Whittaker.
Published through Mastertronic's Bulldog label in 1987.

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INTRODUCTION & GAME STATUS


The third annual Mastertronic May starts with another rare example of an Amstrad original to be featured on the blog, which is also the first of Eugene Messina's only two 8-bit games ever created - the other one being the game included in Incentive Software's 3D Construction Kit; and the first of only four games he ever had a hand in. Rather neatly, it also brings a slightly different aspect to one of the most common occurences in 8-bit game comparisons, because these cases usually originate either on the C64 or the ZX Spectrum.

The Amstrad original has been given a whopping 9 out of 10 at CPC Game Reviews, and the score at CPC-Power isn't far off either at 17.80 out of 20.00. The more immediate port for the Spectrum had a 7.50 rating from 22 votes at the old World of Spectrum site before it was archived, and the current score at Spectrum Computing is 6.5 from 2 votes. Richard Aplin's C64 conversion has a firm 7.4 from 24 votes at Lemon64, making it his most highly rated game on the site.

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DESCRIPTION & REVIEW


Destructo, as it is often seen shortened as, is a single-screen shoot'em-up, which models it's control method from games like Time Pilot (Konami, 1982) and Biplane (Fun Games, 1975). However: (UPDATE! 14th of May, 2022) as the anonymous comment suggests, Destructo might have been quite possibly been even more directly influenced by an obscure arcade game from Bally-Midway, called Two Tigers, released in 1984, footage of which you can see from the link provided in the anonymous comment. The Island of Dr. Destructo features 21 levels, which consist mostly of Dr. Destructo's ships and other structures. Your mission is to shoot down planes which then fall down and hopefully inflict damage to the structure below, and eventually make punctures through the hull and make water spouting from three spots in the structure, before you are thrown away to the next level. You are also equipped with a bomb, which can be used once per level to inflict a lot of damage into a specific spot or enemy. Each level raises the difficulty level by bringing in more difficult enemies to avoid and shoot at.

For a single-screen shooter, Destructo certainly offers a lot to chew on, and doesn't get old too easily. There's certainly enough challenge in terms of gameplay, but there's also plenty of nice things to look at - surprisingly so, considering it's a single-screen game. It's easily one of my all-time favourite Mastertronic titles, and I didn't even learn about it until a few years into this millennium. But since I'm not particularly well acquainted with all of the three versions, I shall leave my particular recommendations until the end of this comparison. But recommend it I shall.

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LOADING


Everybody's favourite bit, which has no real purpose in today's retrogaming world, is comparing the cassette tape loading times. But it's part of the whole 8-bitting ritual, so here we go.

AMSTRAD CPC: 6 minutes 22 seconds
COMMODORE 64: 5 minutes 52 seconds
ZX SPECTRUM: 4 minutes 48 seconds


For a change, the Spectrum tape loading is clearly the quickest, and the Amstrad tape loading time isn't too far off the other two, but still the slowest. Perhaps this might be an indication of the Amstrad version having the most data to load into memory, thus being the most impressive of the lot? Who knows. Hasn't been that way too often in the past comparisons, but let's keep in mind, the Amstrad version is the original here.

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



None of the loading screens are modeled after the cover art, but the original AMSTRAD loader looks very nice indeed with all its shades of blue in the background, and the very nicely contrasting red fighter plane coming at you. I'm not a big fan of the game title font design, but it could be a lot worse. The SPECTRUM edit of the original loading screen is certainly less colourful, but it utilizes the few chosen colours to the machine's advantage, and the hi-res grayscale plane looks just about as good as it should. Unfortunately, the C64 loading screen is more sedate, and gives the player a false impression of the game's energy. Richard Aplin, who made the C64 conversion and its graphics, commented at Lemon64: "Looking at the title screen I remember drawing that. LOL. On some C64 paint package that had (gasp) a mouse. A real mouse! It was like we'd entered the distant future... Alas as you can see I suck at graphics." He also wrote: "I wrote this, I think it was my second or maybe third commercial game? I forget why I didn't put my name on it, I think I felt it didn't compare that well to the original Amstrad version. ... Anyway, an early one, I must have be(en) 16 years old." I suppose that might explain a few things.


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PLAYABILITY


Playing Destructo is really quite simple, even if you're not familiar with Biplane or Time Pilot or their likes. You only have to be aware how your fighter plane controls, and you're good to go. The game can be played in a single-player mode or a simultaneous two-player mode in all three versions. The AMSTRAD original is set to be controlled with a joystick by one player and keyboard by the other, the keys being Z and X for turning left and right, Shift for acceleration, Space for launching a bomb and Return for shooting. The SPECTRUM version allows you to define keys for both players if you so wish, but you have the usual Kempston joystick option, and you can also define a non-Kempston compatible joystick with the same option you set your keys with. The C64 version can only be played using joysticks.

When the game starts, it takes a couple of seconds for your plane to appear flying in from the left side of the screen, and you are hurled straight into action. The first level is really no more than an instructional level, but it's a good way to get acquainted with the controls. Also worth noting is, that the screen wraps around, so you can move off the left side and come back on the right side, and vice versa. None of the enemy planes are able to hurt you in any way, so you really need to work to get yourself killed. It gives you a fair idea of how you are supposed to damage the ship at the bottom of the screen in the forthcoming levels. The only really important difference to notice here between the three versions is, that the bomb you launch flies off in an arch in the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions, while in the C64 version, it just drops straight down when you drop it. In a way, this makes the C64 version easier, but as you will come to know, it's only a balancing act.

Once you have completed the first level, things start getting serious. From this point onwards, the C64 version differs from the other two rather drastically, simply by having different kinds of enemies. In the other two versions, you will notice a slightly different looking plane with a new colour, which is lethal to collide with, and new enemies will appear on each new level, such as bombers and some sort of floating devices. The first new plane in the C64 version has the same colour at first as the other planes, but looks slightly thicker. In that form, these planes will not harm you, but if you shoot one once, they turn blue, and will then be lethal in contact. The second new enemy is appears on level 3, but you will barely notice it, because it's only shaped a little different from the others and moves quicker. More new enemies will not appear until past the first island level, which I'm barely able to reach myself, which is why I cheated my way to level 6 to find a red missile enemy, which cannot be killed. In the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions, the missiles appear in the first island level, which is level 5. Most importantly, though, the rate of appearance and percentage of these different kinds of enemies on the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions is considerably lower than those in the C64 version. So, plenty of differences in those terms.

Because the game also has a time limit of 7 in-game days, which you will notice passing by the very visible day-and-night cycle, you will actually need to be quick in your progress. The C64 version's different enemies make it the more difficult version to play, and requires a different strategy to the other two versions, effectively making it slower to make progress. Fortunately, your plane is very similar to control on all platforms, so it's the enemies that make the three versions notably different, and because the C64 version is clearly the most unfair in terms of difficulty, it shall have to take the lowest spot here.

1. AMSTRAD CPC / ZX SPECTRUM
2. COMMODORE 64

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GRAPHICS


From a single-screen shooter, you don't really expect much pomposity and flashy details, and considering this is a Mastertronic budget release, you probably even shouldn't. However, the Island of Dr. Destructo has a few nice surprises up its sleeve, only in different places.

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



The AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions both take a few seconds to draw the background graphics of the title screen before putting on the actual title screen stuff; you see, the other graphics are just in-game graphics, including all the score panels and such. Although it's not as interesting as it could be, at least you can say it's more interesting to look at than the C64 title screen, which only features a bunch of text in a custom font with different colours. The only real trick in the C64 title screen is the bottom scroller that goes in two directions, with the other line using mirrored letters.

"Get Ready" screens, left to right: Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum.



If you're starting the game, the AMSTRAD version doesn't have a separate "Get Ready" screen, but the text you see above is slapped onto the title screen instead. After completing a level, though, the standalone screen is what you see. The SPECTRUM version follows this tradition, with the main difference being that you get no "Ready" text slapped onto the title screen. The C64 version goes a bit nuts with the animation of six bullet holes appearing on the screen, which is a nice surprise, and fitting enough for the genre.

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



Since Destructo is basically a single screen game, I shall try to include all the necessary points of focus in a few levels. The first level always starts in the daylight, and unless you happen to be completely useless at shooting and flying, you shouldn't get to see the day turn into night until later on. You do get to see the sun move as the day passes, however, which is a nice visual indicator.

The AMSTRAD version's purple daylight sky is a bit odd, but is a good contrast for the blue sea and comparatively realistically coloured enemy planes. The ship also looks fairly detailed for its scale. The SPECTRUM version's sky is black, regardless of whether it's day or night, but it was probably the only logical choice to keep the attribute clash at a minimum; and of course, all the planes are monochrome, but have distinctly different colours, even if they're not dissimilar in their actions. The ship is as monochrome as everything else, but the details are as close to the original as you could wish for. The C64 version's sky is perhaps the most naturally light blue, and the sea darker blue; however, the lack of water ripples next to the ship makes it a bit bland, and the ship itself is boringly grey and lacking in detail.

When the level's main target is destroyed, which practically means puncturing three holes into the ship to make water sprouts, the AMSTRAD original doesn't do much more than keep on sprouting for a while, until all the planes on the screen are quickly pulled out of the screen, one by one, and then the ship is sunk with no real visual effects, apart from a bit of text appearing above the sinking ship. After the ship has disappeared under the bit where there's supposed to be sea, the screen itself is pulled apart. This sequence looks almost exactly the same in the SPECTRUM version, apart from there being the correct amount of blue sea behind the sinking ship, and the screen only flips to black cleanly, with no animation. This is where the C64 version does something wondrously different, and makes the ship jutter like an earthquake while it's sinking, with a bit of weird glitching in the ship's graphics; and afterwards, the sky turns black before the extra life message in red text is shown.

Screenshots from levels 2 and 3, left to right: Amstrad CPC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64.



In the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions, level 2 brings more colour to the enemy planes as well as the new ship. The C64 version shows the blue colour in the new enemy planes only after you shot the new, slightly bulkier green ones once, and the Lithium ship is as unimaginatively grey as the first ship. Well, it could be argued, that it was a design choice to make the ships appear more realistic in some way, but the details are still lacking quite a bit.

By level 3, you might have gotten to see the day turn into night. Well, you can see the C64 nighttime screen in the below screenshot, and there is no soft colour change, either. The original AMSTRAD version does give us some shading from day to night, and from night to day. It's basically the same three colours between the light purple daylight and dark blue night, those being light blue, dark purple and red, but the order is the opposite for each cycle. Naturally, there are also some stars in the night sky, and if you look at them closely, they actually blink in a random manner. The SPECTRUM version also has blinking stars in the background, but it's not quite as subtle as in the original. In other details, the C64 has a new colour for the ship for a change, and another green enemy plane has entered the game. The new enemies in the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions are much more distinguishable.

Screenshots from levels 4 and 5, left to right: Amstrad CPC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64.



However nice the graphics might be in any of the versions, I find myself a bit bothered by how the ship damage is displayed. Sure, the black slabs are visually very representative of how far through the specific part of the ship you have bombed, but it could have been much more interesting to look at with different quantities of fire, perhaps. The black slabs are even more ridiculous to look at when you're bombing through an island. Luckily for all three versions, this is a mutual problem.

Screenshots from two-player mode, left to right: Amstrad CPC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64.



If you happen to have a friend willing to play Destructo with you in team mode, you will be happy to know the two player planes can be told apart quite easily. In the AMSTRAD version, player 1 controls a black plane, while player 2 controls a fiery red plane. The SPECTRUM equivalents are light grey and red, and the C64 planes are grey and black. As far as I know, there are no enemy planes that carry these colours.

"Game Over" screens, left to right: Amstrad CPC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64.


The Game Over message is oddly elaborative, stating "loss of life too severe!" But the text itself is presented in no particularly interesting way, unless you can call the original orange mess of a screen interesting. To me, it's hurtful to look at, but no less unimaginative than the other two versions. Well, it's a Game Over screen, so what did you expect, really?


There is no high score table, and there is no high score for the day either, so it does raise the question, why bother with a score counter? Well, I suppose the game looks more like a game with a score counter, but really...

Overall, the AMSTRAD original does look the best, with its colours and details and the very nice day-to-night cycle effect. The SPECTRUM version has the clearest look in certain ways, but then it's sadly lacking in the visual effects that made the original version so nice. Somehow, the C64 is amazingly lacking in colour, when it had the opportunity to be easily much more visually effective. The only really cool thing about it is the juttering sinking animation at the end of each level.


1. AMSTRAD CPC
2. SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM
3. COMMODORE 64

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SOUNDS


Originally, the Island of Dr. Destructo didn't exactly have a soundtrack, but a very effective set of sound effects instead, all in glorious stereo where available. Eugene Messina did the clever thing, and focused all his sound programming into well-defined shooting noises, explosions, splashes and special enemy sounds, and not include any flight noises to keep it all clear. Indeed, the AMSTRAD version is busy enough with only the variety of sound effects it has, and they're all splendid.

The SPECTRUM version was only released as a 48k version, so it's beep-o-rama all the way, with the usual bleeps, splurts and other undescribable sound effects you can expect from the old Speccy beeper. Works well enough, but it's nothing out of the ordinary, I'm afraid.

So, now's the chance for the C64 version to shine a bit, and with music by the well renown David Whittaker, it can't be too bad. Just the knowledge that there is music, is already a bonus compared to the other two versions, and the title tune is a fairly memorable, if slightly thematically incorrect 12/8 r'n'b/rock'n'roll ballad in the vein of 1950's classic rock ballads from Elvis Presley and such. You also get a short "Get Ready" ditty, as well as a level completion jingle, which add nicely to the overall presentation of the game. Unfortunately, the sound effects are nothing exceptional, as you can hear most of them by default in any old game constructed with the much maligned Shoot'em-Up Construction Kit, but it's all fitting enough. I prefer the original sound effects, though - by far - and adding some nice music is barely enough, when it's not what you listen to when actually playing.

1. AMSTRAD CPC
2. COMMODORE 64
3. SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM

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OVERALL + VIDEO


As it nearly always goes, the original version takes the cake. It's a rare occasion that I'm able to find an Amstrad-originated game, and even rarer one to have the C64 version lose quite clearly to the others. The Island of Dr. Destructo just happens to be one of those titles that deserve a closer look on the Amstrad, if you considered it a missed opportunity on one of the other two platforms.

1. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 2, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 8
2. SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 5
3. COMMODORE 64: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 4


For those of you, who don't have the time and/or energy to experience the differences by yourselves, here's the usual video accompaniment to give you at least some sort of an idea of what I've been yabbering on about here. But I have to point out, that the unplayability of the C64 version can only be properly realized by playing it yourself and comparing it to the others.


That's it for now, next up something very different, with a topic I don't think has been really dug into at FRGCB so far. Thanks for reading; see you in a couple of weeks!

2 comments:

  1. The game seems to be influenced by the obscure Bally-Midway arcade game, Two Tigers, released in 1984. The gameplay appears to be very similar, judging by this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3Te527N9jQ

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  2. Excellent find, thanks for the link! It does seem to be a strong influence, although it's definitely different in some ways. I'll update this entry with a mention of Two Tigers while I'm building up the next post next week. =)

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