For this year's Finnish Independence Day celebratory blog post, I decided to take a closer look at all four games by Simo Ojaniemi, who is one of the pioneers in Finnish game developing. He started out developing games on his brother Juha's Commodore VIC-20 in 1982, and ended his game developing career in 1984 after the release of his fourth game, RahaRuhtinas. All four games were briefly mentioned in the History of Finnish Games series in 2013-2014, so now is a good time to give them all more in-depth reviews.
MEHULINJA, HERKKUSUU and MYYRÄJAHTI written for the Commodore VIC-20, and RAHARUHTINAS written for the Commodore 64 by Simo Ojaniemi; all games published by Amersoft in 1984. MYYRÄJAHTI was released on the same cassette tape as HERKKUSUU.
I read an article/interview of Simo Ojaniemi from V2.fi in 2015, but promptly forgot about it until last year, which inspired me to schedule a full review of all of Simo's published games. Largely because of the lack of preserved documentation of these games online, but also because of a fire that the Ojaniemi household suffered some years ago, any minutely detailed information is out of reach at the moment, but it has been hinted, that Simo's brother Juha also took part in developing these games.
According to the V2 interview (from which the majority of information is taken from), Juha and Simo had started experimenting on programming on the VIC-20 as soon as it was released in Finland, as they were among the first people to buy one. After a while, the minuscule RAM in the unexpanded VIC-20 was proven insufficient, and they had to buy the Super Expander module. Hence, all three VIC-20 games by Ojaniemi require a Super Expander.
If you have never tried to use one of these memory expansion things on the VICE emulator, this can be a bit confusing, but first, you need to find the Super Expander as a .prg file and download it on your PC, wherever you can find it easily. Launch the VIC-20 emulator from your VICE folder (xvic.exe), then attach the 3K RAM expansion (block 0). Then attach a cartridge image (4/8KB image at $A000), for which you then select the super_expander.prg you just downloaded. Hard reset the VIC-20 emulator, and you should have 6519 bytes free. You can test the expansion a bit further by, for instance, pressing the F1 key to see if you get the command "GRAPHIC" appear on the screen. After that, you should be prepared to load a game that requires the Super Expander.
Further according to the interview, the majority of work on all four games was made before they even got a contract. A Finnish computing hobbyist magazine called Poke & Peek organized a programming contest in their first issue in 1983, to which Ojaniemi sent their Juice Belt game as "Mehun pullotusohjelma" (The juice bottling program), which, according to Ojaniemi, shared the 1st place in the contest with another game. After the contest, the book publisher Weilin & Göös contacted Ojaniemi, who wanted to publish Juice Belt under their new Amersoft game publishing label, but their principle was, that Finnish games should have Finnish titles, so they forced the original name Juice Belt to be changed to Mehulinja.
Ojaniemi has said, that the inspiration for Juice Belt was the process of making and bottling wine at home. The entire game is a rather simplified, arcade-like re-imagining of the process, though. Three conveyor belts move left and right, and you need to control the different machines in turns. Starting the game happens by either smashing the SHIFT key for a slower game, or COMMODORE key for a faster game.
First, at the top, you have the juice (MEHU) dispenser, which dispenses three different juices. The plus (+) key dispenses green juice, the minus (-) key dispenses blue juice, and the pound (£) key dispenses red juice. Following that, you might need to control the empty bottles' gate, which is done with the up arrow key. If the gate is closed, the bottles will fall down to the next level, where you need to put on a cork (KORKKI) on a bottle, which is done with the asterisk (*) key. Finally, attaching the label (ETIKETTI) is done with the @-key. If all goes well, the finished bottles will move off to the storage room (VARASTO).
Because the VIC-20 keyboard does not exactly go completely together with a modern PC keyboard, the keys you need to use, at least on a Scandinavian keyboard, are +, ´, Insert, Delete, Å and ¨, whatever they are elsewhere. But at least they're all on the same area as you would find the keys on the VIC-20, so they're relatively easy to find.
The idea is to basically deal with the bottles one by one, so once you've got the first bottle filled with the correct juice, you need to close the gate, in order to get the bottle continue its journey down. Timing is important, and you cannot miss any of the procedures. The game is over, when twenty failed bottles have ended up in the trash container. Game Over is signaled by the ringing bell - no Game Over text, though. While the bell is ringing, you can start a new game with SHIFT or C= key. As the manual says, it's a hectic game that might need more than two hands to operate it, but at least in the slow mode, I was able to get into the rhythm after a few attempts. The fast mode is still a bit too much for me, but practice makes you less incompetent. Mehulinja reminds me strongly of those Game & Watch handheld games like Mario's Cement Factory or something, where you need to build up on something and then finish the product off by sending it away. The gameplay is very similar, although the number of keys you need to use is higher. For a VIC-20 game, Mehulinja is a surprisingly complex one, as well as entertaining, once you have gotten used to the keys.
Although you can get relatively comfortable with the controls, they're a bit much.
For a VIC-20 game, there's a lot happening on a single screen, but it's all clear enough.
Adequate, but nothing special.
Replay value: 7/10
Thanks to the basic difficulty level, it can get you easily hooked, but in small doses.
If you're looking for a nice Game & Watch-like game that Game & Watch handhelds can't actually do, Mehulinja is a good option.
In addition to getting Amersoft publish Mehulinja, Ojaniemi signed a deal with Amersoft to get them publish three more games. The next two games were Herkkusuu (Sweet Tooth) and Myyräjahti (Mole Hunt) for the VIC-20, and both were released on the same cassette tape.
In Herkkusuu, you control the eyes of a frog, who is trying to catch mosquitos. The game is controlled by pulling your joystick left and right to align your eyes as close to the mosquito's direction as possible, and pressing the fire button to release your tongue in one of the eight possible directions. Conversely, the mosquito's objective is to sting your head, and that creature has the level of freedom of movement that you can only dream about. At least the mosquito stops moving once you launch your tongue, so you might have an odd chance of actually catching one occasionally.
Unfortunately this means, that the gameplay is sorely unbalanced in favour of the mosquito. It will mostly attack you from an angle that you have no chance of hitting with your tongue, and it moves around just as annoyingly quickly as a real mosquito, so it's next to impossible to hit. Taken into consideration, that both sides of the battle need 30 hits to win the game, and delivering a single hit can take a lot of time for either combatant, a full game might easily take half an hour. This makes Herkkusuu feel more like an interesting exercise in programming, rather than an actual game.
Possible, but superbly frustrating and unfair.
Funny and well animated, but a bit too blocky to be properly nice.
Sound is constant, and there's a good amount of effects, but it's a bit noisy.
Replay value: 2/10
Frustrating, hardly playable, and unrewarding, once you have seen both endings.
Somewhat funny, but ultimately a programming exercise that doesn't play well.
On the same tape as Herkkusuu, we find Myyräjahti, which is another cheap little game, this time taking the form of Whack-a-Mole. For those in need of elaboration: moles pop up randomly from the eight holes in the ground, and you need to press the corresponding number key to whack it with your virtual hammer. Happily, there is a small addition into the old format: sometimes, instead of moles, bombs pop up from the holes instead, and if you smash one, it's instant Game Over for you. Otherwise, there is a two minute time limit to whack as many moles as you can.
Whack-a-Mole is such a tried and true mini-game that has lasted up to these days in various mini-game collections, that it's difficult to put oneself into a 1983 gamer's shoes and consider, if this is any good. Compared to practically any other variation I have played of this game, this feels like a poor attempt, for two rather big reasons. One, the moles and the bombs follow no logic of at what rate they should appear on the screen, or how long should they stay in their spot; sometimes, you only see flashes of either thing, and sometimes, a thing can stay in the spot for as long as ten seconds. Two, the controls are uncomfortable in a single row (should be in two rows), and they're also randomly unresponsive. Perhaps keeping time and getting the moles and bombs to randomly pop up on the screen simultaneously was a bit too much for Ojaniemi to be able to optimize at the time.
What Myyräjahti has that Herkkusuu doesn't, is a bit more content in graphics and sounds, and it's not quite as annoying to listen to, either, since the noise isn't constant. Myyräjahti starts off with a little instructional screen, which shows you what to hit and what to not hit. Once the game is over, and you have done well enough, you will see a caveman with a wooden club appear in the top right corner, saying how well you did. A great performance is when you get over 50 moles whacked. By the time of writing this entry (prior to recording the video footage), my only successful attempt so far has been 35, which I think is enough.
Awkward, unpredictable in a bad way and often unresponsive. Still, kind of playable.
Enough of content and animations to keep your interest up for a while, but not pretty.
Nice enough sounds for this type of game, and features some music as well.
Replay value: 3/10
The different endings give this game at least some longevity, but it's not much.
Slightly better than the game it was shipped with, but still hardly worth the bother.
The fourth and final game by Ojaniemi was originally called Hirmuvalta (Reign of Terror), and like the others, written for the VIC-20 prior to the programming contest, but the Amersoft executives wanted a name more befitting a computer game, and they also persuaded Ojaniemi to modify the code to suit the brand new Commodore 64 that was going to take the market by a storm. As if that weren't enough, the executives at Amersoft were adamant at getting the game title to be something more akin to a computer game, rather than a war novel, so it was decided that the new title would be RahaRuhtinas (The Money Prince), which Ojaniemi has lamented upon later on. He particularly disliked the Rolls Royce -like logo that was designed for the game.
|The opening sequence.
Having more room to work on his ideas for the now expandable game, Ojaniemi kept on working on the C64 version of RahaRuhtinas for months after having finished his original VIC-20 version. The game ended up having a map of over 2,100 squares (40x56, with a bunch of random empty squares); a mindboggling set of rules that needed to be read in order to make any sense of how to make any progress in the game; and a set of controls that would require almost the entire keyboard.
SPACE - move to the next room
COMMA (,) - turn left
DOT (.) - turn right
PLUS (+) - yes
MINUS (-) - no
SLASH (/) - inventory
CTRL+L - quit the game
8 - treasure chest inspector
C - C-ability (whatever that is)
H - device for scaring Hirmu
K - map (kartta)
N - cop mask (kyttänaamari)
P - crystal ball (kristallipallo)
S - stethoscope
V - video tennis
F5 - bat control up (in video tennis)
F7 - bat control down (in video tennis)
X - X-ability (whatever that is)
Also, answer questions by using numeric keys.The game boots up to a slightly rough-looking title screen, which displays all the citizens and other points of interest in the Hirmuvalta area in large monochrome/greyscale sprites, scrolling from left to right at the bottom of the screen. All in all, there are thirteen of these items, and they scroll rather slowly, so it takes no less than 50+ seconds to get to the first interactive bit, which is a prompt to push F1 to start. Another 10+ seconds later of spawning and settling yourself into the starting point, you are ready to start moving, with the prompt "Ohjaa!" (Control!) showing in the message display area.
|Starting the game and a couple of encounters.
Until you have any usable device in your inventory, you only have to focus on moving forwards and turning left and right. Every now and then, your journey will be halted by a citizen of Hirmuvalta, some of whom will attempt to sell you items, and others that will take money away from you without asking. Speaking of which, Ropo is the currency in Hirmuvalta, and you are given a bunch of Ropos at the beginning of the game, so the less you come across customs persons or club-wielding goons, the better. Other things given to you when starting are a handful of glass trinkets and a tourist card. Some of the citizens will ask you questions, to which you will either need to answer with yes (+) or no (-), or with numbers. Trying to find anything in the game will be a matter of chance, since the map given with the game does not have any characters drawn on it, so your best bet at any success is to print a copy of the map (which you can find from the game's page at Zak.fi) and draw every encounter onto it. It doesn't exactly help, that the entire game map uses the same colour scheme, unlike the printed map (which itself is inaccurate in a couple of places), so you cannot randomly rely on that to give you any pointers as to whereabouts you might be at any given time. Also, some of the character and item encounters are randomized, while others are same for each game, so it's often impossible to read the map based on your previous markings.
The game's page at Zak.fi is helpful enough to give you some pointers as to what all the different characters do and say, but it is lacking an English translation, so here is a layout and descriptions of all the characters and items you might find on your way.The ALCHEMIST is a mid-rare occurrence in the game, but is an important character, since this is the only character you can buy a stethoscope and a crystal ball from. The Alchemist greets you with "Sirilimpsis!", and then might offer some item to buy, which you answer with + or - keys.
The ABORIGINE is only interested in your glass trinkets, so as long as you have them, you're safe.
The JOKER always enters the screen with a dance, and asks some sort of a question afterwards - whether you were entertained or scared or what.
The BEGGAR asks for alms, the giving of which according to the laws of Hirmuvalta is a criminal offense.
The DRAGON, which I personally have never met so far, shows your current score.
The CAVEMAN is most likely the first character a new player will come across, since he always appears two rooms north from the starting point. At first, he greets you with "Hai sie turistinretale" (Hello you tourist scum), but deeper into the map, they will start robbing money from you.
The MILITIA person stops you to ask a bunch of questions, starting with "Are you afraid of Hirmu?", to which the correct answer is a positive answer, but answering negatively leads to more questions.
The man with the BLACK HAT can buy your found treasures and sell you some other random items like a VCR or a sword.
BANKERS are good for keeping large sums of money safe from robbers, but dealing with them is a bit clunky. If you want to deposit money (pano) into your account, the amount of money must always be four digits (50 = 0050, etc.). Bankers in different parts of the map are connected.
The BEARDED MEN only appear to be there to greet you - it is not currently known, whether they have any other purpose.
The KNIGHTS are the real bane of your existence, since they always appear in the most obvious and difficult to avoid passages on the map, and their main purpose is to ask you for some money for passage toll, taxes and sometimes even penalties.
The man with the BLUE HAT have two obvious purposes: to sell you sacks of potatoes, and to tell you clues as to where you should go. However, if you can get your hands on a sword, you can sell one to a blue hat man.
TREASURE CHESTS should always be considered with caution. While most of them do hold treasure, some of them are trapped either with a transporter that can throw you to a completely random place on the map, or a magical power that takes away your abilities or all your money.
Finally, the GAMBLING MACHINES are just about as rare as the Alchemists, and just as important. They can contain important items, which you need to buy, but you need to be careful with controlling the selector. Also, it takes a surprising amount of money to gamble.
|Treasure chest screens (one with a cop mask) and a gambling machine.
|More character encounters.
While RahaRuhtinas certainly gives you a vast area to play with some random encounters, it is ultimately a frustratingly slow and impossible game to follow, particularly when you are teleported to a random location by a teleport trap in a treasure chest. Still, it has to be commended for being a brave attempt at creating something completely unique and surprisingly extravagant for such an early Finnish C64 game. However, I can hardly recommend the game to anyone without a deeper understanding of the language, particularly as it contains some crude language and odd approximations of dialects that these days would easily get censored by the humorless critics of this generation.
Requires native Finnish language skills, plenty of patience and a tendency for mapping. Controls are surprisingly easy, once you get used to them.
Not pretty, and very samey throughout, but has plenty of humour in the characters and a few nice little effects.
With no music whatsoever, the game lacks some atmosphere, and the random sound effects are more a hindrance than a nice feature.
Replay value: 7/10
Despite everything, it's surprisingly addictive, and it's nice enough to play once in a while, trying to map things out and figure out the best ways to avoid getting robbed by the customs people and other Hirmuvalta natives.
Somewhat impressive, but ultimately too gigantic and random for its own good. An interesting artifact of early Finnish game developing, for sure.
VIDEO LINKS & FINAL WORDS
Of course, I had to create a video compilation of all the games by Simo Ojaniemi, but since I don't have a VIC-20 in my possession, all the gameplay footage is recorded with emulators. The footage for the VIC-20 games are unedited, but RahaRuhtinas had to be edited together from various takes.
For a more comprehensive video review of RahaRuhtinas, click here to view Zak.fi's review on their YouTube channel. English translation included.
Sure enough, these early Finnish commercial releases for the two prevalent Commodore systems from 1984 are more or less what you would expect them to be. Most of them are nothing too fancy, but somewhat amusing at least, although the first commercially released Finnish C64 game was certainly more ambitious, if ultimately not very successful. With the games' level of crudeness in style and humour, you do get a small sense of what the general cultural atmosphere in Finland was at the time, particularly with Mehulinja and RahaRuhtinas, so they do represent the time and place more than you might imagine upon first look. For that reason, Simo Ojaniemi's games definitely have a firm spot in a Finnish game development museum, if there is such a thing. If there isn't, there should be one.
That's is for this year's Finnish Independence Day, I hope that served some purpose! Until the next time, terve vaan ja kiitos!