Sunday 13 August 2023

Scuba Dive (Durell, 1983)

Originally written by Ronald Jeffs for the Tangerine Oric-1/Atmos.

Converted to the Sinclair ZX Spectrum by Mike A. Richardson.

Converted to the Commodore 64 by Nigel Dewdney.

All versions published by Durell Software in 1983.



While I was preparing FRGCB's special 10th Anniversary post, I realized I needed to focus more on games that would bring forth the superiority of versions made for other than C64. So, to start working on getting that balance more balanced, I start with another Durell classic that I used to play a lot back when I originally had a ZX Spectrum in the mid-80's.

Of course Scuba Dive just had to be one of those games that was not even a Spectrum-original, as it was made for the Oric computers first. No problem - it's always nice to learn something new. That makes this comparison more interesting, since I know for a fact that the C64 version has been a disappointment for many, as it was for me when I first saw and played it.

Based on 15 votes at The Oric Site, the original Scuba Dive has a rating of 3.8 out of 5.0, which is very promising. At Spectrum Computing, the current score is 7.7 from 18 votes, while the original archived World of Spectrum had an astonishing 8.09 from 216 votes. By comparison, the C64 version isn't nearly as well regarded, with a score of 5.74 from 27 votes at Lemon64. Well, this should at least have a different outcome than usual.



Scuba Dive is a relatively simple arcade-style game, in which you control a deep sea diver with a mission to collect as much treasure as possible, and bring it all back to the boat you took off from. Having scuba gear allows you to go underwater for considerably longer periods of time, than if you didn't have it, thus allowing you to also dive further below than you would imagine at first. The most immediately visible treasures you need to collect are pearls inside clams and oysters, but it is said, that treasures of higher value lie somewhere deeper in the underwater caverns.

Although Scuba Dive is deviously simplistic on the surface, the rough exterior hides an immensely addicting game that feels like a new adventure every time you play it, whether or not you keep on playing it on your preferred machine. The Spectrum gamers in particular seem to consider the game something of a classic, even though it was originally created for the Oric. Perhaps there is a good reason for it?



When you take a game that was released prior to 1984, you can count on it, that the C64 version will not be able to compete with any of the other versions in loading times, because fast loading schemes hadn't been invented yet. What about the Oric, then?

COMMODORE 64: 10 minutes 30 seconds
ORIC-1/ATMOS: 1 minute 45 seconds
ZX SPECTRUM: 4 minutes 2 seconds fastest, 4 minutes 40 seconds slowest

Loading screens, left to right: Oric-1/Atmos, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64
If the tools I'm using can tell these things reliably, the ORIC version is easily the quickest one to load, being over two minutes quicker than the fastest SPECTRUM release (a Spanish release from Grupode Trabajo Software). As can be clearly deducted from the loading time, the C64 version uses a basic ROM loader, which makes the screen stay light blue almost the entire ten and a half minutes. The SPECTRUM version is the only one to use some proper graphics, and it has a very nice atmosphere to it, too.



Scuba Dive is one of those games that you would not necessarily even recognize as the same game, if you played the three versions days apart from each other without seeing the title. At least, there were practically no competitors for the genre in 1983, so it probably didn't matter much, if the versions were vastly different from each other.

When you launch the game on ORIC, you are greeted with nothing less than an animated view of the first area in the game, and the options prompt to choose a difficulty level out of five, and selecting the number 0 will let you adjust the sound volume. The game is controlled with the cursor keys - there is no use for a fire button here, as you use the cursor right key to prepare a diver to enter the water, and then push down. The way your diver moves in the water is just by using the four cardinal directions, and pushing any of these keys will make the diver swim into the given direction on screen.

It's worth noting, that the diver takes a small time to turn into a new direction, and it's also worth noting, that the ORIC version has a rather large collision area, so you need to be adequately careful when navigating around the various sea creatures. The starting area always uses the same design, but the deeper cavern areas are randomly generated, so it's a game that keeps giving you something new to play every time.

I'm not certain, which of the two conversions was released first, but the C64 version has the basic gameplay closer to the ORIC version, so let's focus on that one now. After the terrifyingly long load, the title screen prompts you to press any key to start, which takes you to the game options screen. You have control options for joystick in port 2 and keyboard with A and Z for up and down, and : and ; for left and right. Other options include sound toggling and difficulty level from 1 to 4. Once you have set all the options as you wish, you need to press P to play the game.

The two notable similarities in the C64 version to the ORIC version are: first, that the diver controls similarly, although there is no turning animation to take the small time from performing the action itself; and second, the starting area is only the size of a single screen.

Unfortunately, the gameplay has been simplified in most ways for the C64 version, which can be already seen from the first level ocean floor, which has no contours. Also, whereas in the ORIC original, the clams need to be fully open for you to be able to pick them up, but in the C64 version, the clams remain in one position, dropping off any sense of challenge from even the first moments. In the ORIC version, getting down to the deeper caverns requires you to pass through a fairly large entryway guarded by an octopus with a randomly timed tentacle acting as the gateway, which gives a fair challenge, but is not unnecessarily harsh. The C64 version's ocean floor only has a small hole that opens up either one or three blocks worth randomly, and you can only pass through the hole when the hole is larger, due to the diver's slowness, and even then it's a matter of milliseconds and initial positioning. Then, the deeper underwater caverns themselves use a flip-screen push-scrolling method in the ORIC version, while the C64 version uses a slightly dodgy but smooth pixel-based scrolling technique, but the caverns always use the same map. Finally, the items in the caverns are more varied and to be picked up in a similar manner as the first clam-held pearls in the ORIC version, while the C64 version uses the original clam opening and closing element only in the larger oysters, which can oddly contain more treasure than a single treasure item, so you might need to spend more time inside the oysters.

Now, we get to the SPECTRUM version, the title screen of which gives you options to start the game from one of four difficulty levels, redefine keyboard controls, and in case you didn't read the instructions leaflet, the L and S in the title screen options stand for Load and Save the highest scores, which I gather might have been rather revolutionary for its time. Already by redefining the controls, we notice a fundamental difference in gameplay: instead of pushing the diver into the four cardinal directions, you use two keys to accelerate and decelerate, and two other keys to turn him clockwise and counter-clockwise.

Upon starting the game, we can see another fundamental difference, this time a structural one, as the initial single-screen area for collecting smaller clams has been turned into a much larger area with plenty of more sea floor. Collecting the clams happens in the same manner as it does in the ORIC original, but you need to dive around for a while to find the entrance to deeper caverns, guarded again by an octopus, which this time is much more logical and graceful in its movement pattern. The deeper caverns are, like in the C64 version, one large, solidly designed map, which in this case can be considered more impressive, as the entire game map is one large area, instead of two distinctly different parts. Although the SPECTRUM version uses a similar flip-screen push-scrolling technique as the ORIC version's deep area, it can feel less clumsy than the C64 version's dodgy pixel-based scrolling. Depending on how much you like variety in treasure, the SPECTRUM version could be considered the least interesting one, but that's hardly one of the more important points to consider here.

As far as I can tell, all three versions have a similar way of handling the skill levels, even though the ORIC version has five of them instead of four. The skill levels affect the size and complexity of the deep underwater caverns, the amount of treasure and the amount of sea creatures, although perhaps the C64 version offers the least differences in difficulty.

The loser for this round is abundantly clear, but the winner is less so. Because the SPECTRUM and ORIC versions play so differently, it's difficult to put any preference over the other. I do think the random generated maps in the ORIC version is a brilliant feature, and if you like to have a more arcadey experience, the ORIC version would be the more natural choice. However, if you prefer a more natural creature behaviour, slightly more evolved control system and an overall darker mood, the SPECTRUM version is your choice. I think they're both brilliant, so I can only give them a shared top spot.




There is no going around the fact that the graphics in a 1983 game are unavoidably primitive, but that doesn't mean there isn't style to be found here. It's just very different for each version of the game.

Title screens and High Score tables where available.
Top left: Oric-1/Atmos. Top middle and right: Commodore 64. Bottom row: ZX Spectrum.

If you scroll back to check the loading screens, in case you have trouble remembering, the SPECTRUM version uses the same screen as the title screen, with only the "Loading" message replaced by the options prompt, simultaneously wiping out the graphics from the occupied line. Alternatively, you also get the high scores table, as well as the occasional view of the in-game graphics with the game title shown on the right side of the screen, which is occupied by the info panel when in the actual game. The ORIC version uses the starting area of the game as the background for the title screen, which has no title in sight, but merely the available options. The C64 version switches between the title card and the high scores table, both of which feature mostly PETSCII elements, in addition to the boat, the electric eel, the shark, the two medusas and the water elements, all of which look like sprites.

Starting area, left to right: Oric-1/Atmos, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum.
We can still look at the starting areas with a combined view of all three versions here, but due to how the SPECTRUM version is structured, two screens are required for showing the starting area and the first octopus-guarded passageway to the lower caverns. The only notable similarities between the three versions are the fairly square'ish action screen, the fairly similar design of the diver, and the fact that all sea creatures and the diver(s) are all monochrome sprites. The SPECTRUM and C64 versions share the same screen area used for the info panel, and the SPECTRUM and ORIC versions share the blackness of water. The C64 version feels the most out of place with its bright yellow screen border, the grey water, the least stylized info panel and the lack of any real design in the sea floor.

Screenshots from the deeper caverns in the Oric-1/Atmos version.

Once you go down past the octopus guard, the ORIC version takes a very different look, as the surrounding walls are full light green, instead of the ground's darker hue in the starting screen made by the alternating pixels. The caverns change each time you enter them anew, so by necessity, they have been designed to use a simplistic chunk-based look for the cavern's rooms. There are four types of gems to pick up in the caverns, which can be found randomly either from the floor or the ceiling of the rooms, whenever and wherever the game deems appropriate. As for the cavern enemies, the ORIC version only has a randomly appearing jellyfish, and more sitting octopuses, but that's enough to give you a minor headache. Although this is all very simplistic, the diver's animation continues to be the highlight of the game's graphical output, keeping everything glued together rather nicely.

Screenshots from the deeper caverns in the Commodore 64 version.
The deeper caverns in the C64 version are the epitome of ugliness. It doesn't look as horrid in screenshots, although it has to be said, the primary colours used here - yellow, grey and light brown - build into one of the least attractive environments in any C64 game ever. The main problem isn't so much in the colours, though, but the jerky scrolling, which jutters the info panel like crazy. Still regarding colours, though: the large clams look like wireframe clams firmly attached to the ground, especially since they use the same light brown colour as the ground. I admit, it took me a while to even realize that those were actually things you had to interact with, because all the other items in the deep caverns use different colours. On a more positive note, the C64 version has been made to feel more uniform, but it fails to have any real dignity while at it. The final nail in the coffin is the cheap and slightly uncentered animation of the diver.

Screenshots from the deeper caverns in the Sinclair ZX Spectrum version.
If we were to judge the graphics of Scuba Dive on the basis of how closely the graphics emulate real life underwater areas, I would say none of the three versions would get win on that basis. However, the SPECTRUM version has the most colourful and life-like sea creature life, and the hi-res sprites with their superb animations really make it easily the nicest looking version around. Also, the stark red and black environment is extremely moody - almost scary, even. Although I'm not a big fan of the flip-screen scrolling, it doesn't bother me here as much as it could. If anything, it adds to the moodiness by occasionally - intentionally or not - giving you jump-scares with an enormous shark appearing right in front of you as the screen flips.

To wrap this section up, I only need to mention the C64 version is the only one of the lot to actually have a Game Over screen, which always shows the first screen of the game with the two words shown in basic yellow letter in the middle of the screen, after which you are taken to the High Scores table. The SPECTRUM version takes you straight to the High Scores table, which you already saw earlier, and the ORIC version takes you to the title screen, because there is no High Scores table. The neat little effect the ORIC version has is a simple blue horizontal line that reveals the screen, in a curtain-like manner.

The results for this section are rather simple to deduct from the above, unless for some perverse reason you wanted to give points for exemplary ugliness.




When you think about, "what does the ocean sound like under the surface?", most of us probably wouldn't have any idea. For myself, I can say that the times I've gone diving without equipment, you can't hear a whole lot other than the vague beating of your heart through your closed eardrums. So, it's a fairly silent experience, for the most part.

Playing the SPECTRUM version is not much more than that - there are a few pips, burps and booms here and there, when you pick up pearls, bump into things or meet your demise, but that's about it. There's no music anywhere in the game, and even the title screen only features a quick alarm bell sort of a thing to notify that the game has loaded. I suppose, if it had actually had a beeper rendition of "I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside", or something as cheery, the effect would have ruined the otherwise dark mood.

The C64 version fares marginally better, that is, if you're in need of more sounds in the first place. There is a constant low booming "boop, boop, boop" thing going on the entire time of the game, unless you die or are in the boat. Picking up an item plays a very unassuming high pitched "pip", jumping into the water from the boat plays a splash noise and digging into the oysters plays multiple lower pitched "pip" sounds. The two death sound effects are very different: the first one - the one in the first (non-scrolling) area has nothing to do with your death, but rather, is just two long low notes (1st and minor 3rd) looping back to back, sort of like the bass line from the main theme from Jaws, but different; and the second one, which plays whenever you come to contact with anything in the deeper caverns, is a long series of quick randomly high pitched notes, before it ends with a longer single note. So, there's definitely a lot more sounds in the C64 version than the SPECTRUM one, but all in all, I cannot honestly say it's any better for it.

Perhaps a bit surprisingly, the ORIC version sounds like one of those early arcade games from the turn of the 1980's. There is no sounds in the title screen, unless you go into the sound options to adjust the volume, but that doesn't really count. When you start playing, the first screen has an almost constant droning noise of your boat's engine, which only pauses when the boat is off-screen for a few seconds. The second constant noise is a steady "bingggg, bingggg" going on, as if you had a need for an actual depth radar. The third nearly constant noise is the opening and closing of the red octopus's tentacle gate, which certainly opens and closes in sound design as well, but is unfailingly bleepy. Your actions underwater or above have no sound effects at all, unless you die, which results in a series of random sounding beeps, coupled with simultaneous "blut"-noises. Once you get under the first area into the caverns, you are bombarded with an unholy mess of random beeps and bloops, which is a constant thing whenever the green medusa-like tentacle monsters occupy the screen, which is nearly constantly. All of this, while certainly more entertaining and appropriate for an arcade game, doesn't really work if it's more annoying than mood-setting, which is unfortunate, because I do like what they did with the first screen.

Trying to put these three versions into balance is nearly impossible, because they all have their own plusses and minuses. I like the arcade-y approach of the original ORIC version, but the whole experience is destroyed by the cavern noises, which is where you ought to be spending most of your time in. The SPECTRUM version is perhaps a bit too quiet, even though the moody silence is, for the most part, a large part of its charm. The C64 version turns the mood knob just a bit, but the sound design is hardly anything worth mentioning, even in 1983. So, this is how I see the results here:




It's time to wrap up the first game comparison after passing the 10th anniversary, and I have to say, it was an interesting one to do. I had no real expectations of the ORIC original, but was very pleasantly surprised, considering all the other games I've visited on the system in the past. The SPECTRUM version is a classic in its own right, and has surprisingly little to do with the original - all to its advantage, I have to say; and the C64 version suffers from practically everything that it was given.

1. SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 2, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 8
2. TANGERINE ORIC: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 6
3. COMMODORE 64: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 3

If you have any doubts as to why the results are as such, you might want to take a look at this accompanying video, or better yet, play all three versions yourself and see the truth for yourselves.

That's another Durell classic wrapped up, with not that many more to deal with. I'll be taking a bit of time off now from the blog, as I will need to focus quite a bit on the upcoming Ocean October, but in the meantime, I will continue making videos for YouTube at a slightly slower pace. But anyway, keep an eye on things, and see you with more comparisons in October! Cheers!

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