Developed by Gang of Five for Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64 and Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and released by Virgin Games in 1986.
Sinclair ZX Spectrum version:
Written by Dave B. Chapman, Martin Wheeler, Neil Strudwick and Irwan Owen.
Amstrad CPC version:
Programming by Dave B. Chapman and Andrew Wilson
Graphics by Ian Mathias
Technical management by Steve Webb
Testing by Patricia Mitchell
Commodore 64 version:
Programming by Andrew Wilson
Graphics by Ian Mathias and Stu Jackson
Music by Graham Marsh and Andrew Wilson
INTRODUCTION & GAME STATUS
When I started writing this comparison in early December 2023, the scores and ratings for the game at our favourite websites were mostly rather agreeable. At the old archived World of Spectrum, the game had a score of 8.33 from 222 votes in 2018 or so, while the score at Spectrum Computing was 8.4 from 16 votes. The Lemon64 score stood at 7.89 from 88 votes, which I thought was a bit overrated, but perhaps I'll grow to understand the score during this comparison. The two Amstrad scores at the time of starting this were 11.33/20.00 at CPC Power and 4/10 at CPC Game Reviews. Not too exciting, but definitely raises an interest of a sort.
The year 2024 starts off bravely with a comparison of a game that I have never really given much notice to, although I did play Dan Dare on the C64 a few times in before the turn of the millennium, and I remember not liking it particularly much back then, because I didn't really understand how to play it. Since the game has more of a reputation on the ZX Spectrum, I decided to look into it now for the sake of balance. However, since deciding upon doing a comparison of Dan Dare, I realized all three versions of the game are quite different, so I wonder, what sort of sense would it make to do the comparison? Let's find out.
HISTORY, DESCRIPTION & (PRE-)REVIEW
Dan Dare is another one of those British sci-fi comic book characters that never really got any real notice here in Finland, perhaps until the game came out and got reviewed in 1986. Well, at least, I had not heard of him until then, and I think the fact that Dan Dare was a comic book character completely escaped my notice even then, because the review didn't mention it. Anyway, Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, as the Eagle comic series' full title went from 1950 to 1967, was a war hero series that took place in space in the distant future of the late 1990's. As the Wikipedia page says, it was basically a British equivalent of Buck Rogers - another comic book character I had no real knowledge of. Dan Dare continued to live on in new comic strips in 2000 AD from 1997 to 1979, and later in the relaunched Eage from 1982 to 1994, so the character was definitely had some sort of presence even in 1986. The character has also been mentioned in songs by such artists and groups as David Bowie, Elton John, the Art of Noise and Pink Floyd, and there was even a computer-animated Dan Dare TV-series made in 2002.
Colonel Daniel McGregor Dare's three computerized action-adventure games were all based on the original 1950's comic strip, rather than the contemporary version, although the first one is the only one of the trilogy to have a completely different take on all three platforms. In the cover leaflet of Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future, the team responsible dedicated the game to the memory of Frank Hampson, the creator of Dan Dare, who passed away on July 8th, 1985. Dan Dare was a hit game in the UK, peaking at number 2 in the sales charts, bested by the frankly and inevitably horrible home conversions of Dragon's Lair - the knowledge of which is, to be honest, merely another incentive to write this comparison instead of going for Dragon's Lair.
All three versions of Dan Dare have a common game design choice: they are all side-viewed flip-screen adventure games. You don't need to play any version for more than about ten seconds to notice rather major design differences between the three versions, though. The C64 version uses a strange hand-to-hand fighting system, while the other two use laser guns, and that's not even the first noticable difference. The Spectrum and Amstrad versions share more design choices, but after the most preliminary inspections, the common elements vanish behind a surprisingly thick fog of differences.
The plot is, your arch-nemesis, the Mekon is demanding something from Earth, or else he will proper a planet-sized asteroid at Earth, so your mission is to get to the asteroid, traverse through the alien complex, destroy the asteroid before the Mekon plays out his threats and make your escape, with or without your captured friends, mostly depending on the chosen version. The game is played against a real-time timer, and a normal playthrough should take around half an hour, if you know what you're doing.
And that's really the main thing about Dan Dare that might have put people off back in the day, particularly those who didn't have access to the game's instructions for one reason or another. Nowadays, it's easy enough to get yourself introduced to the game - any of its versions - by watching walkthrough videos on YouTube, but at least in the case of the C64 version, you still need some guidance regarding the controls. Once you get past any initial troubles, Dan Dare in all its three variants might easily become a surprisingly addicting adventure game. Is it a proper classic worth pursuing further, though, or more of a cult classic worth having a look at if you're a classic gaming enthusiast? Let's see about that.
All three versions of Dan Dare were released on at least three different occasions. Following the original tape release by Virgin Games, Mastertronic's Ricochet label put a budget release of the game out, and later on, the game was released on various compilations. The biggest difference regarding loading times was given by the Dro Soft releases.
AMSTRAD / original: 5 minutes 31 seconds
AMSTRAD / Ricochet: 4 minutes 52 seconds
AMSTRAD / Dro Soft: 4 minutes 40 seconds
C64 / original: 3 minutes 58 seconds
C64 / Ricochet: 3 minutes 14 seconds
C64 / Dro Soft: 3 minutes 16 seconds
SPECTRUM / original: 4 minutes 38 seconds
SPECTRUM / Ricochet: 4 minutes 43 seconds
SPECTRUM / Dro Soft: 5 minutes, sharp
|Loading screens. Top row: Amstrad CPC (Virgin + others).
Bottom row, left to right: Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 (Virgin + others).
Since all three versions are different enough from each other, we shall look at each version separately. This also includes going through the controls separately, because there are some important differences.
SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM
The control options give you three controller choices: keyboard (Q,A,O,P,SPACE), cursor joystick (also cursor keys on the keyboard) and Kempston-compatible joystick. Dan can run left and right, jump straight up or a short hop left or right, go up and down some sort of magnetic elevators/lifts, kneel down and shoot his short-range laser gun. Changing directions while running makes Dan do a turn, so you need to take the timing into consideration when facing enemies. Also, the thing with kneeling down is, that you cannot change direction while kneeling down, so if you do need to change direction or just start running, you need to first get up before you can do that. This slows the flow of the gameplay a little bit, but this was 1986 - these sorts of game mechanics had not been overly explored and fine-tuned at that point yet.
Once you have chosen your controller, the SPECTRUM version starts off with a brief animated sequence, where Dare and his batman Albert Digby are speeding over the asteroid, but once you land, Digby stays behind and lets Dan do all the work. You start your mission from the left end of surface area of the asteroid, with only four screens to get used to your initial controls: running, jumping, ducking and shooting.
Using the magnetic lifts/elevators comes into the picture shortly after falling down the shaft in screen three. Initially, I was a bit baffled by how to operate the magnetic lifts/elevators, even though I could easily understand, that if there are arrows point up and/or down, you are supposed to be able to into the said direction/s. What I didn't understand before watching a video on YouTube is, that you need to stand slightly left of the markings to be able to activate the lift/elevator.
Picking up items such as energy and ammunition refills happens by jumping onto them; merely running into them doesn't necessarily do the job. Also, the second area introduces grounded weapons, which you can destroy by jumping onto them, although you do need to jump onto them a bit higher than from their own level.
This version of Dan Dare has no lives as such: you are merely captured to the nearest prison room if you lose all your energy for any reason - be it falling down a distance you cannot handle or get attacked by enemies. In addition to inconveniencing you, the game punishes you by draining ten minutes away from the timer. Thanks to the game's flip-screen style, enemy encounters are somewhat random, though certainly expected, but once all the enemies are killed from each room, the rooms become safe.
As the plot goes, you need to pick up five parts and deliver them to the Self-Destruct System room, which is located at the bottom of the first area, so a lot of backtracking is required. Thankfully, there is only one part for each area to pick up, but it takes a good while to learn all the areas so well that you can basically run through them, which really is what you must do in order to be truly successful in the game. The first two areas are easy enough, but the third area is a bit hidden, and the subsequent areas are accessed via the third area. Once you get past the point of delivering the first part, though, the SPECTRUM version of Dan Dare shows its true colours and becomes surprisingly addicting, if somewhat infuriating.
The AMSTRAD version doesn't have any control options, but otherwise starts similarly enough to the SPECTRUM version, with a four-screen area to get used to the controls. Judging by the first minute of gameplay, after getting used to the hyper-speed walk of the CPC Dan and his lack of need for doing turning animations, the second-most obvious difference to the SPECTRUM version is that you cannot jump straight up. The third-most obvious difference is, that pretty much everything kills you, and as in this version, you only have a finite amount of lives (five, to be precise) to spare, you really need to be superbly careful about your business, which isn't easy thanks to Dan's hyper-speed style of going about.
So, the CPC Dan Dare has been designed more like a platformer with plenty of holes you can get swallowed into, and any close contact with an enemy will kill you instantly. Oddly enough, you do have an energy bar, which gets gradually depleted by any enemy fire. Yes, bullets are less hazardous than close contact with barely moving chunks of metal. I'm not completely sure about the logic behind that. To ease things up a bit, there is a fourth rather major difference: you can shoot diagonally up by keeping the fire button pressed down and then move the joystick to a diagonal. Just make sure you don't destroy anything that isn't a Treen in such a way as to block your way from jumping over chasms.
If you're like me, and don't really like to dwell on the game's instructions unless absolutely necessary, eventually, the plot differences start to appear. After you landed your space ship Anastasia, your partner Digby was captured by the Treens, and is now somewhere in the middle of the alien base. The way to rescue him is to pick up all the collectable boxes, bring them to the place where Digby is kept, and make a bridge out of them. In this version, to pick up an item, you only need to run into one. Of course, while you are trying to rescue Digby, the Mekon is working on the destruction of Earth, so there is also a time limit to your mission in addition to your limited number of lives. The timer is less obvious here than in the SPECTRUM version: instead of an actual timer, you get a small black picture of Earth being gradually eaten away by a green line.
The game area is almost as large as in the SPECTRUM version, but due to certain game design choices, it is much more difficult to navigate than the SPECTRUM version. To make things even more unnecessarily difficult, the first area has the only prison you can respawn into, so if you happen to get killed in the fourth area, you are still taken back to the beginning. Then again, if you can play a perfect run without losing lives otherwise, taking a fall after picking up a box can make your speedrun a lot faster. All in all, though, it's not exactly an enjoyable game, at least compared to the SPECTRUM version, but it is an interesting take on the concept.
Similarly to the AMSTRAD version, the C64 Dan Dare is played strictly with a joystick. However, the controls are even more complicated than what you get in the SPECTRUM version. The gameplay is, as previously mentioned, completely different, after all.
The C64 Dan Dare's plotline sort of combines both of the other two versions' plots, by having Digby and Professor Peabody abducted by the Treens, and you are left with an actual companion to work on your quest: Stripey, an off-world found pet that resembles a combination of a dog and an aardvark, but has been known to be of invaluable use in Dan Dare's adventures before. The C64 version is the only one of the threesome to actually feature an accomplice, and a useful one at that.
This Dan Dare adventure does not use a strict side-view, but rather a skewed above angle, so you are given more freedom for movement in X and Y axis, with the platform restrictions of course. Although this means that Dan Dare cannot jump on the C64, the game map is designed in such a way that it makes no difference. What makes it a bit more annoying, is that your laser gun has been replaced with fist-fighting, which is cumbersome and impossible to control properly, unless you have read the instructions and understood them... and even then, it's very finicky. When engaging a Treen in a fist-fight, you need to keep the fire button pressed, and simultaneously moving the joystick up or down will move your guard accordingly, which will then affect where you will be able to punch by pushing the joystick forward while keeping fire down. You can attempt to deal with the Treens in the first section of the game by throwing grenades at them - an action, which will only be available again in the Mekon's room at the end of the game - which happens by pressing the button and pulling the joystick backwards. Backwards diagonals should apply, too, although I have never found much use for them.
Aside from throwing grenades and engaging in fist-fights, Dan is able to pick up items, open hatches and occasionally ask Stripey to help him, if he can be bothered to do so. To do all this, you need to be near something that you can interact with, hold the fire button down and move the joystick up and down to select actions. There are some minor puzzles, such as an electrified hatch that you need to open with a tree branch, but in order to finish the game with best possible results, you do need to do all you can. The surface area has three entrances to the Prison Complex, and as the game's instructions leaflet says, you need to open all entrances in order to save all prisoners and defeat the Mekon.
There are four distinctly different sections in the C64 version of Dan Dare. The first one is obviously the asteroid surface, where you start your game, but unlike the other two versions, the C64 version randomizes your starting screen from three possible ones. The second section is the Prison Complex, where you should find Dan's friends, and you need to somehow gain access to security passes carried only be certain Treen guards. Certain rooms are dark, unless you pick up a torch from the first section. The third section gives you the chance to destroy the computers controlling the Mekon's attack on Earth with the giant industrial laser by turning a series of reflektors. Finally, you will face the Mekon and you need to throw grenades at him and destroy the dome he's in. If you ever succeed in beating the Mekon, the asteroid will begin a self-destruct sequence, and you need to find your way back to the Anastasia. Similarly to the other two versions, there is a time limit here, but the game can also end if you run out of energy, which can happen easily within three fist-fights, even if you sort of know what you're doing.
Defeating the Mekon in the C64 Dan Dare can be accomplished with surprisingly little effort, when you know the fastest route, but only by saving your friends on the way can you achieve a 100% completion. Finding your way through the first two sections can be a bit overwhelming, but the C64 Dan Dare is a game that can easily draw you back to make you do better on each subsequent attempt. It's not as fast-paced or action-based as the other two versions of Dan Dare, but stealth is an important part of this one, as are puzzles. All things considered, I think the C64 version is more rewarding than the other two, if not quite as playable as the SPECTRUM version, mostly due to the fighting mechanics.
Because the three versions are so utterly different from each other, it's impossible to put them against each other in the usual manner. Instead, I'm going to give scores in the classic game reviewing style and hope this makes more sense in this case.
The SPECTRUM version is basically the blueprint for most modern flip-screen action-adventure games you see getting released for the platform almost on a weekly basis nowadays. In that sense, if like me, you experience this version as a new game now, there will be no "wow"-factor at all here, but you do recognize the quality of the product being rather high for its time. If anything, it makes most of the modern Spectrum games look like they are stuck in 1986. But at least it's still very much playable, and can keep you hooked until you have solved the game, if not further. The most annoying thing about the SPECTRUM version, for me, is the amount of running back and forth through certain sections you need to do to get things done, particularly as there is only one mission objective, and the game is rather linear. Still, it's a good example of an action-adventure game of its time.
Difficulty balance: 7/10
The AMSTRAD version has a different mission, which doesn't actually even throw you into a fight against the Mekon at any point, although he is present in the background. In terms of speed and weapon handling, it is an upgrade of sorts from the Spectrum version, but in every other way, it's a bit of a mess, to be brutally honest. Just the fact that the prison complex has a ton of holes that dropping into takes you straight to prison and lose 10 minutes of your game time is a serious design flaw in a game that's supposed to be primarily an adventure. There are also a couple of bugs or features in the game that can effectively end your progress, if you're not careful, and slightly awkward collision detection makes things even worse. It's playable enough if you can bother to keep at it, but it's barely worth the bother.
Difficulty balance: 5/10
The C64 version is the only one to have multiple objectives and a completion percentage at the end of the game. I never liked the relative sluggishness of this one, and the dodgy fighting mechanics cannot be berated enough, although I admit, you can sort of get used to them. However, the design of the asteroid and its inner areas are amazing in their clarity and surprisingly easy to memorize. The adventure-puzzles are good enough to rival Sierra's old AGI games, and the presence of a useful companion is something you don't see very often in games of this age, and particularly this genre. It is a game of fair difficulty, and it gives you enough of head-scratchers to keep you going at it for a good while, but I'm still not entirely sure of its deserving the status of a proper classic, as many seem to think.
Controls: 9/10 adventuring, 3/10 fighting
Difficulty balance: 7/10
Seeing as Dan Dare the game was based on a comics character, and a 1950's original, no less, you would at least expect the game(s) to adopt at least some part of its look to get the tribute as complete as possible. The loading screens already brought in some of the comic book look, each in their own way, but what we see in the actual game is more important.
|Title screens, left to right: Amstrad CPC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64.
Now, because all three Dan Dare versions/games are so different, it makes no sense combining screenshots and comparing them together. Instead, we look at each version separately.
|Screenshots from the Amstrad CPC version.
In screenshots, the CPC Dan Dare looks good enough, but in action, the cheapness of the game's animations and the odd formlessness and general lack of design variety of some of the enemies makes it a bland and monotonous game to try to cope with. At least the first two areas are easily memorizable, and are contained enough, but I didn't notice I had entered the third area until long after I had, and I noticed it only because the Mekon had started to comment more on my progress.
|Screenshots from the Sinclair ZX Spectrum version.
The only thing I'm not too happy about here is the odd sense of depth in the graphics, which do show a single room at a time in a cleanly centered manner, but all the other elements in the room are shown in a skewed perspective, where the central point is always a little to the left of the thing in the foreground. It just doesn't make sense, but otherwise it looks good enough.
|Screenshots from the Commodore 64 version.
What I also like a bit more about the C64 version compared to the other two is the more comic book -like appearance, in which differently coloured text boxes are utilised for the action options and other messages. Granted, there are text boxes in the other two versions as well, but you don't get to see them in other than major occasions, and in the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions, they all use the same colours. The C64 version really gets the comic book appearance implemented the best, and for that it needs to be applauded.
|Game Over / high score entering screens, left to right:
Amstrad CPC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64.
So, how should the scores be given this time? With this sort of a game, it's important to have a good sense of your whereabouts, thus the different areas should have clearly different looks to them. The quality of the character animations is largely what determines how pleasant the game is to look at on the long run, and the overall style is an important part, particularly in a game based on a comic book character.
CPC C64 SPE
Variety 6 9 8
Animations 4 8 9
Style 6 8 7
OVERALL 5.5 8.3 8
Perhaps this time, the comparison of sounds is the least important part of the process, since the game is, after all, based on a comic strip. You don't really hear music and sound effects coming from the pages of a magazine, so anything is a plus, really, unless it's really bad.
The SPECTRUM version is, somewhat expectedly, the underachiever in this case. You get a quick "tick" sound for shooting, a splurgy sound for managing to kill or destroy an enemy (whether it's an organic or inorganic thing), and there's another different kind of a noise for picking up health and ammo items, but not for picking up a mission item. If you ever manage to complete the game, which I haven't done so far, there is an epic noise of the asteroid blowing to smithereens, but that still only counts as a total of four different sound effects. There is an unofficial 128k upgrade to this game somewhere, which adds AY-music to the game, but here at FRGCB, only games in their original form are counted in comparisons. Besides, I would rather play the original 48k version with barely any sounds, because constant unnecessary music in games annoys me.
Sound effects: 4
For once, the AMSTRAD version does something slightly better, and actually makes use of its sound chip. You still don't get any music here, which is fine, to be honest, but you do get a few more sound effects, all of which have more personality than those in the SPECTRUM version. Most likely the first sound you will hear is Dan falling down the shaft in the third screen, a sound which is also used for going down elevators. Going up does the same sound backwards. Dan's shooting makes a basic shooting-like noise, while the enemies shooting noises are more boomy. There are two regular explosion noises for destroying mechanical objects, and if you shoot a Treen, you get a weird beepy five-note melody instead. Picking up a box makes a funny bleary sound that's unlike anything else in the game, and also, the room with Dibgy has two sound effects that don't appear elsewhere. Compared to the SPECTRUM's four sound effects, the AMSTRAD tops it up by at least six, if not more. I'm not entirely sure. Sound-wise, it's a rich enough environment for one to become comfortable with.
Sound effects: 7
Chris Blackwell composed a very fitting theme tune for the C64 version of Dan Dare, somewhat reminiscent of the style of the 1978 Superman movie theme song, and there are two versions of the tune in the game. The title screen version is a more upbeat take, which was arranged by Graham Marsh, and the second one, which is a bit more sedate, can be heard if you pause the game, and that one was arranged by the game's programmer, Andy Wilson.
Of the C64 version's sound effects, I have read rather varying opinions online, most of them critisizing the constant noises that your companion Stripey keeps making - although some people seem to think it's cute - but otherwise, the game has a nice atmosphere. Although the soundscape is on the side of understated, there's plenty to be heard in the C64 version. Dan's walking is audible, and whenever he fights against Treens, his punches make a slightly different noise than his walking. Doing things in the action menu usually result in beep sounds of some sort, and throwing grenades result in mild explosions. The first area also features watery noises, when you are in a screen with water, which is a nice addition to atmosphere. The soundscape remains pretty similar until you reach the third section with the giant industrial laser, in which the laser makes a whirring noise when the beam is progressing to its goal, eventually resulting in another type of explosion. Fighting the Mekon uses that explosion noise when your grenades hit the dome, and Mekon's firebolt's make low boomy sounds. If you ever manage to defeat the Mekon, a softly beeping alarm starts blaring all around the map, and will not stop until the game is somehow over. All in all, it's a good set of sound effects with a possible annoyance with Stripey's constant bouncing and trumpeteering, and the title music is a nice addition.
Sound effects: 7
OVERALL + VIDEO
And there we have it - the first comparison of 2024 down, and most likely somewhere around twenty more to go. I hope that wasn't too much out of the ordinary, but rest assured, normality shall return with the next comparison. Until then, thanks for reading/watching, Happy New Year, and see you later!
Having never really given the Dan Dare games a proper chance until now, I found myself surprisingly hooked into all three versions - even the relatively unplayable AMSTRAD version. However, playing all three versions of Dan Dare made me realize, it's a bit nonsensical to try to compare three completely different versions against each other, or indeed, against anything, really, since they're too different to each other to have something to compare them against. So, the only thing I can do is to give each game their own specific score, say that they are all worth having a go, and you can make of that what you will.
And I do feel the need to point out further, that I don't really think the C64 Dan Dare is any better than the Spectrum Dan Dare, just very different. The CPC Dan Dare is a bit too awkward to be considered on equal footing, but again, it's different. Just to keep things more regular here at FRGCB, I have also prepared a video featuring all three versions of Dan Dare, if only to point the obvious.