Monday, 27 June 2022

Dizzy (Codemasters, 1987)

Spectrum and Amstrad versions:
Design and programming by Philip & Andrew Oliver
Graphics by James Wilson
Music by Jon-Paul Eldridge

Commodore 64 conversion written by Ian Gray with music by David Whittaker.

Originally published for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC by Codemasters in 1987.
Commodore 64 version published by Codemasters in 1988.



Despite Codemasters being an enormous entity in the life of gamers for over 35 years now, the company hasn't been represented here on the Finnish Retro Game Comparison Blog enough, so I gathered it was high time to correct this imbalance. The game chosen for this job was the first game in a series that would eventually become a full-blown franchise for all the major home computers at the time, and practically give these machines the first recognizable mascot since Horace, Miner Willy and Wally Week. The notable difference was, of course, that Dizzy had actual facial expressions to make the character have an actual personality than being merely another sprite with no clear defining characteristics.

Although it has been often told, that the Oliver Twins developed their Codemasters games on an Amstrad CPC, various internet sources seem to offer conflicting release dates for the original Dizzy adventure game, with the most uniform release year being 1987 for the Spectrum version, and the C64 version having mostly a 1988 release year. The Amstrad version is just as often reported to having been released in 1987 as in 1988, although I cannot imagine why the Amstrad version would be released later than the Spectrum version, when the game was, as far as we know, developed for both machines simultaneously.

Be that as it may, Dizzy! - the Ultimate Cartoon Adventure, as it's full official title goes, has a score of 14/20 at CPC-Power, and an 8/10 at CPC Game Reviews. At Spectrum Computing, the current score is 6.8 from 12 votes, while the original archived World of Spectrum score from 2017 was as high as 8.13 from 156 votes. The C64 version isn't quite as highly regarded as its competitors, with the score currently being 6.8 from 49 votes at Lemon64. But then, the Dizzy games have always been as divisive as the computers they were designed for, so the only thing to do is to dig into the details and see how the three versions compare.



Saying the Dizzy series was what put Codemasters firmly on the map isn't far off from the truth, but things didn't really take off as smoothly and instantly as could be expected. For starters, Codemasters was really a bedroom publisher with no clear plan for the future, even though brothers David and Richard Darling had already made their name before reaching adulthood by getting numerous games published through Mastertronic and owning 50% of the company. In March 1986, the Darling brothers sold their stakes and founded Codemasters with their father in October that year.

Andrew and Philip Oliver, early on referred to as the Oliver Twins, started programming on the Dragon 32, quickly moving to Acorn's BBC Micro model B before eventually dropping it in favour of the Amstrad CPC in 1986. The Oliver Twins were the first hired freelancing game developers for Codemasters, whose first games for the company, Super Robin Hood and Ghost Hunters, were highly successful titles and established a good relationship with Codemasters. Because the Oliver Twins were more comfortable writing their games on the Amstrad CPC, the only software they ever wrote for the ZX Spectrum was a link program called SPLINK, which enabled their Amstrad code to be ported to the Spectrum through a custom built link cable. Ghost Hunters was the first game to utilise SPLINK, and Dizzy was the next in line.

Reportedly, Dizzy had its birth during the making of Ghost Hunters, when the Oliver Twins got frustrated at the hardware limitations of not being able to show facial expressions for the main character, so they designed a new character that was basically just a face, hands and feet. After a little re-designing and dealing with the character's animation, they named the little egg protagonist by its rolling jumps, which must have made it feel dizzy after a while. But before Dizzy was let loose for the first time, the Oliver Twins were hired to program Grand Prix Simulator, a sequel of sorts to BMX Simulator. After that, though, the Darling brothers still weren't too keen on letting the Oliver Twins work on a game with an egg protagonist.

Dizzy's first adventure took the form of a platforming puzzle adventure with the focus being on moving items from one place to another. Unlike the latter games in the series, the first version of Dizzy only had one item slot, so the puzzle element was fairly elementary, as you couldn't even combine items in your inventory yet. The story tells of an evil wizard, Zaks, who turned people old and blind, and caused it to rain every Sunday during Cricket. A potion needs to be mixed and used upon Zaks, and it is Dizzy's job to gather the four ingredients into the cauldron and stop Zaks's evil plan once and for all. Well, as it usually goes in these cases, easier said than done.

Dizzy's first adventure turned out not to be an instant hit - in fact, it initially sold notably less than the twins' earlier games, but it sold more consistently for a longer period of time. As history shows, the Dizzy franchise became the quickest building series of all time, having 14 titles within 5 years (and a few more in the 21st centrury), 8 of which were made in the platforming adventure style and the rest being puzzles and arcade games. Some of the games were even released on Nintendo and Sega consoles, so the franchise can also be considered one of the most widely ported ones, alongside Sega's Wonderboy series.

Is the original Dizzy game worth enough to be considered a classic, though? Personally, I don't really think so. It barely evolved the genre from Pyjamarama, and it certainly is cumbersome and underdeveloped compared to the sequels. The Oliver Twins really perfected the format with the next three Dizzy games, but not all franchises start off with a perfect archtype of the genre. What the first game does better than some of the sequels, though, is give you a relatively easy way into the gameplay quirks present all throughout the series, and for that reason, it's a good place to start digging into the franchise.



For the first years of their existence, Codemasters were not really profiled as a company to publish their games on floppy disks, much less cartridges, so cassettes were really the expected way to go. However, some of the foreign Amstrad re-releases were published on disk also, but that hardly signifies in the light of these tape loading times.

C64: 5 minutes 30 seconds
CPC: 4 minutes 19 seconds
SPE: 4 minutes 50 seconds

CPC-Power has two tape versions available, and there is something like a 10 second difference between the two - the slower version still being faster than the next in line. The C64 version is, as is often the case with Codemasters games, notably slower than the other versions.

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

What we see from the loading screens is basically a preview of the in-game HUD, with a slightly different looking loading screen built within the action screen portion of the HUD. The big difference is in the chosen colours, but there are some surprisingly notable differences in smaller details, such as the location and size of the little village below in the valley, the mouth of the river, the crystal formation around Dizzy, and the facial features of Dizzy himself. Each of the loading screens has its share of good points and bad points, but perhaps the Amstrad loader is the most in tune with the game's relatively horror-oriented storyline and style.



Controlling Dizzy is simple enough to be considered intuitive. You only need to move left and right to walk, pull the joystick up or in either diagonal to jump, and push the fire button to either pick up or drop items. Of course, if you're playing the SPECTRUM or AMSTRAD version, keyboard is also an option. The real trick to learn in Dizzy - in fact, all the Dizzy adventure games - is to figure out, how far Dizzy will continue rolling once the jump has been initiated, and why. Once you have figured that out, going through various difficult passages becomes more of a routine exercise, but it has to be said, that Dizzy often rolls against obstacles for a full roll longer than necessary for no particular reason in the C64 version. It doesn't break the playability in any way exactly, but it is a bit annoying.

I realize part of any adventure game's charm and idea is to work out all the littlest of puzzles by yourself, but these few hints I'm about to tell in this paragraph happen so early in the game that if you never figured these out, chances are you haven't bothered with Dizzy at all. The area Dizzy inhabits is filled with all sorts of dangerous things, and for the most part, your only option is to jump around and attempt to dodge the lethal beasts and other hazards. Some hazards can be disposed of by carrying a certain item in your inventory while colliding with the corresponding hazard, such as a raincoat for raindrops, and birdseeds for birds. There is one hazard, though, which can ruin your entire game, and that is the two-part bridge a couple of screens to the right from the starting point. If you walk over the middle bit of the bridge, it will collapse and access to the right side of the map from that point on is completely closed for the duration of the game. So, the only way to keep that from happening is to keep jumping over the middle bit of the bridge.

There aren't too many differences between the three versions, but there are a couple of them, which might be considered notable. The most notable one that I noticed has to do with the enemy behaviour, which is much more aggressive on the C64. More than that, the birds and bats are a little bit bigger on the C64 than in the other two versions, and they also have a tendency to follow your movements more closely on the C64, while the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions keep the birds roaming their premeditated area in a more general manner. Because of the birds' behaviour and size difference, getting past the first bird to the left of the starting point can be awfully tricky, but it is necessary.

The other one is, that the floating boulders over the waterfall next to the collapsing bridge all float in a unified moving speed on the C64, whereas in the other two versions, the boulders all have a slightly different speed. It's not exactly a game changer as such - in fact, it's a balancing element to all the more difficult enemies on the C64, even if it is a sorely insignificant one.

A small but important detail, which I didn't notice before I watched a few walkthrough/longplays on YouTube: there is a trick in the mine entrance, which allows you to slide through the left wall of the mine entrance when coming up with the lift and staying on the left edge of the rising platform. This trick is possible to do in the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions, but the C64 lift platform is made in such a way that you cannot stand on the edge of it, so the trick is impossible on the C64. As I said, I didn't know about this trick until I saw it on YouTube, so for a casual Dizzy gamer, this bit of information could be considered inconsequential, but this trick would have made the C64 version a little bit more playable.

I have to admit, I haven't managed to complete the game, but while working on this comparison, I've made progress much further in it than ever before, so at least there's something that I can actually say about it. The SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions do tend to get a bit slower with more animation on the screen than the C64 version, but it doesn't alter the playability enough to make it a point to consider drastic lowering of playability value. The enemy behaviour is really the thing that comparatively ruins the C64 version, and it's enough to reach a firm conclusion in this case.




Generally, the Dizzy adventure games have been criticized, at least by the C64 community, for having cheaply converted Speccy graphics. This tradition went on until the final game in the series, Crystal Kingdom Dizzy, which wasn't even made by the Oliver Twins. Be that as it may, it doesn't help all that much that the true platform of origin was Amstrad CPC, because it uses a similar screen mode in this particular game.

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

When you actually get to examine the details between the three versions, calling the C64 version a copy/paste of the SPECTRUM version isn't entirely accurate. You can already see from the title screen, as you did from the loading screen, that the border graphics in the C64 version are closer to the AMSTRAD original, but everything inside the action screen has the same colouring as the SPECTRUM version, taken the palette differences into consideration. The AMSTRAD version feels more monochrome than it looks, because it only uses 4 colours - and that's for the entire game. The very restricted palette of red, white, green and black works rather well for the game's intended underlying horror theme, but then the other two versions are a little bit more interesting to look at on the long run. Aside from the colours, the graphical style is very much the same in all three versions, which might make this section in the comparison difficult.

Screenshots from the Amstrad CPC version.

Let's focus on our protagonist first. Dizzy's sprite looks nothing less than a squeezed version of the pictures of Dizzy you see in the info panel, with all the green shading in the egg shape and red hands and feet. Dizzy is visible at all times, even when he's walking through places where there are graphics in the foreground. The only occasion when Dizzy's green hue is taken off is in his death animation.

As I mentioned before, all the graphics in the AMSTRAD version come in four colours, which doesn't matter all that much - it rather gives the game a special kind of a mood - but the chosen palette did make it more difficult to get screenshots in which the pickable items' flashing colour would be one of two more visible colours. The good thing about the chosen restrictive palette is that the info panel is very clear and well structured. Some things still manage to be inconsistent, such as the birds, which can appear either white or green; bats are always red.

Screenshots from the Sinclair ZX Spectrum version.
The SPECTRUM version has a lot more colour in not only the action screen, but also the info panel. Unfortunately, the item held is shown in a very dark blue colour, which makes it next to impossible to see, unless your TV's brightness knob is turned up too high.

Since this is a SPECTRUM version, of course Dizzy's sprite is monochrome, and due to the attribute clash problem, he tends to either absorb colours from background objects or completely vanish behind foreground objects. With all the colours of the Speccy palette in use here, all the pickable items flash in all available colours. In some ways, I prefer these graphics over the CPC version, but they both have their advantages and disadvantages.

Screenshots from the Commodore 64 version.

Once again, focusing on the info panel, the ornamental detail is more akin to the AMSTRAD original in the C64 version, but the text bits are more similar to the SPECTRUM version. At least they opted for a brighter colour this time for the held item, which makes a huge difference.

If you were playing Dizzy properly for the first time now, you might not really notice any differences in all the details, but the C64 version doesn't do quite as well as it would have been able to. In the starting screen, the other two versions have the cloud moving - here, it doesn't. Not a big deal, but perhaps worth noting to purists. The C64 in-game graphics are basically the same as what you get in the SPECTRUM version, except for some palette differences. On the plus side, Dizzy has no colour clash here, and the birds have a more consistent colouring. But as I mentioned in the Playability section, the C64 birds are bigger than in the other versions, which doesn't really affect the quality of graphics as such, but rather the difficulty of the game.

Never have I been so utterly divided upon the logic of preference in the Graphics section, and I doubt I ever shall be so again. Each of the three versions have their own specific advantages and disadvantages: the AMSTRAD version has a very specific style due to its restrictive palette and clarity, but can get boring to look at; the SPECTRUM version has the most varied set of colours, but has clash problems and a dark blue item text display; and the C64 version both enhances and downgrades upon the former in small enough ways not to bother overly much, but technically it's an underachiever. If I were to give some real scores here, I'd probably give all three versions scores within 3% (out of a 100%) of each other, but as this game's graphics seem to latch onto opinions and feelings more than technicalities, I'm forced to give all three versions an equal spot.




Considering the fact that this game was practically developed simultaneously for the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM, it seems a bit odd that the SPECTRUM version wasn't given in-game music. The first Dizzy game is also the only one in the series that didn't have a 128k Spectrum version, which explains the lack of music. After all, there is only so much you can fit into the 48k memory of the ZX Spectrum, and since Dizzy is quite a large adventure, it's only to be expected that the title music is all you're going to get. Happily, it's one of those pieces of beeper music that use some magic tricks to make it sound like you get more than one voice simultaneously, and it's a very well-written piece of music, too. There are a few other short fanfares for starting the game, getting killed and when your Game is Over. The SPECTRUM sound effects are the expected usual beeper affair, with tapping noise for walking around, a short ascending "boink" sound for picking up an item, and a sequence of a blip and two beeps with an octave jump between them to indicate some important action having been accomplished. For a 48k Spectrum game, it's one of the better soundtracks around.

Many people have said that the AMSTRAD soundtrack is superior to all other versions, and in certain ways, they are correct. Here at least, there is no absence of music at any point, but there's a lot less of sound effects than even in the SPECTRUM version. In fact, the only audible sound effect is a mild "bonnggg" whenever you pick something up or use an item. The title theme tune is a fairly memorable, if short, three-chord loop thing (Am-G-F-G) with a good melody, and the in-game tune is a longer tune with two different parts, which also loops through the two parts endlessly. Both tunes fit the game's mood rather nicely, although personally, I think they're a bit too upbeat and riff-based to be considered perfect for the game's underlying horror theme. Not that the Spectrum title tune is any more fitting, but at least it's technically more impressive.

The C64 version expands on the SPECTRUM version, with the same title tune being more detailed, as the SID chip allows for so much more sophisticated sounds, that there really is no contest here. The in-game fanfares and sound effects are also based on their Spectrum equivalents, but are a bit more eloquent. When you consider all the sequels, it's the SPECTRUM/C64 soundtrack that really paved the way for the rest of the Dizzy franchise, but the AMSTRAD soundtrack does its own thing very effectively. If the CPC soundtrack had been any more thematical or if it had any more sound effects, I would have gladly given it a higher spot here, but as it is, I think the game works better with only sound effects.




Well, I have to say I anticipated some problems would be coming up when making a comparison of this particular game, and I would hazard a guess the same problem might arise for quite a few other Codemasters games as well, were I to write comparisons of more. Which I might, but don't hold your breath. The problem, of course, was the similarity of all three versions, but what I couldn't anticipate was the similarity of value in all their differences. The style in which the Dizzy adventures were made for the most part is so much of an archetype, that there was no bad way of making the game, if the original design was followed to the dot. So, what can I say...

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

Sure, it looks a bit weird, but just giving a few points doesn't tell the whole truth. You can see for yourselves what an impossible mission it is to give this game an order of preference, if you look at the video below, but I still say, playability is the thing you might want to focus on.

Having taken care of the official side of Dizzy, it might be worth mentioning, that there was a 128k Spectrum hack made in 1993 by Pavel Nikitin. Actually, it was made for the Russian TR-DOS Spectrums, and it features AY-music, which sounds like a rendition of a traditional Russian folk song (though I can't be sure), and you also get an optional in-built cheatmode. The original Speccy music is gone and replaced by the single AY-tune, but if you insist on having some music during play, then this is a valid option. Of course, graphically, it looks exactly the same as the original Spectrum version, so no need to show any screens here. Just follow this YouTube link instead.

Screenshots from the 2004 PC remake by Anthony Sherratt.

Perhaps more interestingly, there was a PC remake written by Anthony Sherratt for the 2004 Retro Remakes competition, and published by Crystal Fusion. It is an audiovisual upgrade from the original, but the gameplay details can be considered a slight downgrade, depending on how in sync you are with the original gameplay quirks. It also has a scrolling screen instead of the traditional flip-screen method that all original Dizzy games use. Perhaps most importantly, though, the collapsing bridge problem has been redesigned so that the bridge respawns. This, and many more Dizzy remakes and unofficial sequels, can be found at the Dizzy Fansite.

If there was any Dizzy fans out there waiting for a detailed comparison to appear here, then that's that taken care of - I hope it was worth the wait. For me personally, the Dizzy adventure games represents a genre that never really came across as a particular platform-specific style, so the games never caught my interest for too long. But perhaps the later parts in the series might be more interesting, with the addition of the 16-bit home computers, as well as some consoles into the publication platform line-up.

So, that's it for now. You might have to wait for a bit longer for the next comparison here, because I will be focusing on some bigger titles for a while, and take a short summer holiday between all the work. Until next time, thanks for reading (and watching); see you later!

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