Wednesday 27 March 2024

Zynaps (Hewson Consultants Ltd., 1987)

Sinclair ZX Spectrum version:
Designed and written by Dominic Robinson; In-game graphics by Stephen J. Crow; Loading screen by John M. Phillips; Music by Steve Turner.

Commodore 64 version:
Designed by John Cumming and Dominic Robinson; Programming by John Cumming; Graphics by John Cumming and Stephen J. Crow; Music by Nigel Grieve.

Amstrad CPC version:
Programming by Michael Croucher and Dominic Robinson; Graphics by Stephen J. Crow and Mark R. Jones; Music by J. Dave Rogers.

Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64 and Sinclair ZX Spectrum versions published by Hewson Consultants Ltd. in 1987.

Atari ST version:
Programming by Howie Davis; Graphics by Pete Lyon; Music by J. Dave Rogers.

Commodore Amiga version:
Programming by Howard Ball and Neil Metcalfe; Graphics by Pete Lyon; Music and sound effects by Giulio Zicchi.

Atari ST and Commodore Amiga versions developed by Microwish Software, and published by Hewson Consultants Ltd. in 1988.

Cover/poster art by Steve Weston.



Happy Easter, everybody! Having known this was going to be a busy March for me, I chose to put all my blogging focus on one of the last games I remember from my original Spectrum days (ca. 1984-1987), that I was somewhat obsessed about: Zynaps, Hewson's input into the already vast enough range of Gradius variants. I didn't know it at the time, nor did I give it much thought until years later, but now it seems somewhat obvious, that the game was originally designed for the ZX Spectrum. Despite being very likely the first game of its kind that I ever played, the genre didn't appeal to me even then, so I never did become all that good in Zynaps, but in an attempt to finally get better at it, I decided to give this game its turn now.

From what I remember, Zynaps was initially a great success for the ZX Spectrum, but later on, was considered something of an underdog that never got the attention it might have deserved, largely due to some versions being considerably worse than others. Perhaps the current scores at our favourite haunts reflect that view to some degree. The old archived World of Spectrum website had accumulated Zynaps a rating of 8.46 from 251 votes, while the now-current Spectrum Computing has a fairly similar 8.2 from 22 votes. The two Amstrad reviews are 8/10 at CPC Game Reviews and 13.50 out of 20.00 at CPC-Power. From the 8-bit versions, the C64 version is clearly the least well thought of, with 6.93 from 90 votes at Lemon64. The 16-bit conversions are strangely divided to 7.7 from 24 votes at Atarimania, and 4.61 from 36 votes at LemonAmiga. Perhaps we'll find out, why exactly.



Zynaps is, simply put, a side-scrolling space shooter. So, between countless other side-scrolling space shooters, what did the designers of Zynaps do to make it stand out from the crowd? I would say your space ship's style of movement is one factor, which has a slight inertia to it, and the other thing would be the weapon upgrades system, which is nowhere near as intuitive as in most other side-scrolling space shooters, but you do get used to it, just as with any other system. But as you might already know, or might have guessed, there are vast differences between versions.

Before we get into all that, though, you might or might not be interested in the plot, which I would say barely exists. But then, is there ever an actual plotline in these kinds of games? Well, you, as the game's hero, commandeer a MK1 Scorpion attack fighter, and the game begins with you escaping from an alien space station out into deep space. The game takes you first through an asteroid storm, then across several deep space areas, with the intention of eventually finding a secret alien stronghold, and taking care of your alien problem once and for all. Yep - as I told you, it's barely a plotline.

What Zynaps really managed to do back in its day was feel different. The designs are a bit out of the norm as well, and since there is only so much you can actually do to give a side-scrolling space shooter some personality, Zynaps definitely had that in chunks. It cannot, in all honesty, be called one of Hewson's finest moments, but it is a memorable representative of its genre.



Following a FRGCB tradition, the Loading section only compares the 8-bit cassette versions' loading times, since the 16-bit disk loading times are practically impossible to determine. Having said that, disk versions are by large quite a bit quicker to load than cassette versions, and from what I've gathered, Zynaps was released on disk for all 8-bits as well as 16-bits. But here are the cassette loading times:

AMSTRAD CPC - Hewson: 4 minutes 15 seconds
AMSTRAD CPC - Erbe: 5 minutes 31 seconds
COMMODORE 64 - Hewson: 3 minutes 15 seconds
COMMODORE 64 - Erbe: 3 minutes 26 seconds
ZX SPECTRUM: 4 minutes 28 seconds

If anyone was surprised by any of this, now is the time to utter your utterances of amazement. For my part, I found it a bit astonished, that Hewson's CPC version is faster to load than the SPECTRUM version, and it was also somewhat peculiar, that all the SPECTRUM releases were of the same length. Then we move on to the loading screens, because it's another FRGCB tradition to not include them in the Graphics comparison section, unless it cannot be avoided.

Loading screens, left to right:
Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST/Commodore Amiga.
Zynaps represents a rare example of a Hewson game with no actual loading screen on the C64. Instead, we are treated to a few minutes of rainbow bars. The other two 8-bit loaders use a proper loading screen with no border bars, but rather just a counter somewhere to display an amount of time units left to finish loading. All three loading screens feature the odd-looking space ship/device in the spotlight, but obviously, the 16-bit loader (which is exactly the same on both AMIGA and ATARI ST) looks the closest to the cover art. The SPECTRUM loader looks busier with other devices flying around the big device, and there's also a nice border pattern. The AMSTRAD loader is the least detailed, as well as the least colorful, but it does have its very own unique feel to it that makes the few elements feel more important and somehow more threatening.



Although Zynaps was originally designed with the ZX SPECTRUM in mind, which didn't have an in-built joystick port, it was clearly designed primarily as a joystick-controlled game, since it only uses that one fire button that was available on Atari-compatible joysticks. Still, keyboard controls were offered as the default choice in the SPECTRUM version, with A and S for left and right, L and comma (,) for up and down, and P for shooting, although you could redefine the keys if you so wished. For joystick controls, at least Kempston and Cursor joysticks are supported, although the game instruction leaflet doesn't mention them, or any joystick specifically.

From all the other versions, only the AMSTRAD version features redefinable keyboard controls, which enables you to use cursors and joysticks, when accordingly redefined. The default keyboard mapping in the AMSTRAD version is Q and A for up and down, N and M for left and right, and Enter for fire. The C64, AMIGA and ATARI ST versions are strictly joystick controlled. In fact, from what I have gathered, the AMIGA and ATARI ST versions are practically identical, so I shall refer to them as the 16-bits from now on.

The only other option given is the number of players, which is either one or two, but as you are playing in turns, it doesn't really affect this comparison in any way. All five versions have these player options, but the C64 version is the only one to give you the option to use the same joystick or two different ones, which is actually quite handy, since some players might be more comfortable with a QuickShot II, while others might prefer a TAC-2 instead.

As you start the game, the original SPECTRUM version feels much like any other space shooter, as it seems to feature no notable amount of inertia (barely notable when moving horizontally), and your spaceship's blaster weapon can only shoot two projectiles to appear on the screen at a time. The weapon shoots projectiles from the top and bottom parts of the ship, so you probably need to consider that when shooting.

Eventually, you will notice, that shooting groups of enemies will reveal upgrade tokens, which you can collect to change the upgradable item in the designated slot in the info panel. The way this works is a bit tricky, since you first need to scoop up tokens to highlight the desired item in the activation indicator, then you need to collect one more token with the fire button pressed down so that your ship is flashing, meaning you are in activation mode. Not only do the upgrades give your spaceship more speed and basic weapon firing rate, but also some additional weapons such as homing missiles and bombs. The additional weapons can only be activated separately, though. It is worth noting, that when your speed upgrades, the ship's movement inertia gets more pronounced. The 16-bit versions omit homing missiles.

This gets us to the most notable of differences between the versions. The C64 version has a very fluid controllability, thanks to the initially higher inertia, which has been known to put off many players. However, upon upgrading the ship, the controllability doesn't actually get any more difficult, which gives the players less of a need for adjustment than in the original version. Then again, the original does go about it in a more realistic way, if that's what you are after. The AMSTRAD version's handling of inertia drops somewhere between the C64 and SPECTRUM versions, with the inertia only being effective when moving horizontally. Also, the upgrades do not affect the ship's handling as much as you would expect. The 16-bit versions feature no inertia, but they do have an odd maneuvering feature not present in any other versions: controlling the ship upwards or downwards often makes it nudge itself a little bit after moving and centering, so be sure to leave some extra space between your ship and the terrain than you normally would.

Concerning the shooting arrangements, apart from the original SPECTRUM version, all the conversions have your ship only shooting from the middle, so you get lower chance at hitting enemies. This is particularly annoying during the first ~30 seconds of the game, before you get the chance to upgrade your weapon to shoot more than two bullets at a time. On the 16-bits, where you combine this to initially slower ship movement speed, higher screen resolution (meaning, more space to move) and smaller bullets, the combination is horrifyingly bad. In the C64 version, the initial firing rate is a bit higher, the screen size isn't as much of a problem, and the projectiles fly much faster than on the 16-bits, so it feels more manageable. In the AMSTRAD version, the firing rate and projectile movement speed is somewhere between the C64 and 16-bit versions, as is your ship's initial movement speed and inertia, all of which make the combination lean on the side of annoying.

The next thing on my checklist is what usually makes or breaks this game: mid-level checkpoints. The original has them, the 16-bit versions have them, but the C64 and AMSTRAD versions don't. Being well-known for its high difficulty curve even in its original form, having no such luxury makes these two versions of Zynaps particularly unwelcome to most gamers, and is the point upon which these versions are the most often criticized. However, I would like to point out, that once you get a grip of the upgrade system, which frankly took me years to figure out, the mid-level checkpoints become less of a problem.

Now, on the number of levels: if you take a look at Zynaps' pages on Wikipedia and C64-Wiki, fourteen levels are reported to exist in the game. Since I haven't actually bothered to develop my skills so much as to complete the game on all five platforms, the only option for checking the truthfulness of this claim was to watch through all the playthrough videos of Zynaps on YouTube, and count the levels myself. From what I can tell, the original SPECTRUM version and the C64 version have eleven levels each, the AMSTRAD version has twelve, and the 16-bits have sixteen. In terms of gameplay, I have no idea, whether the extra levels really bring anything of value to the table, but the 16-bits definitely play longer, largely thanks to their slightly slower forced movement speed, but also thanks to the extra levels. The C64 version can be finished the quickest, if you can play a perfect game, but out of the 8-bits, the SPECTRUM version offers the most variety in level design, while the 16-bits insert some odd Earth-like elements to the additional levels, which feel a bit off. More on that in the Graphics section. The real bummer with the 16-bit versions is, that there is no ending - the game just loops to the beginning after the 16th level without any sort of fanfare or notification that you have completed the mission and your battle continues on.

There are probably some differences in enemy behavior and patterns, but I cannot think of a good reason to dig into all that, which would consume my next two weeks quite easily, if not more. Instead, the final piece of the puzzle I'm about to get into is the single biggest game design difference between the SPECTRUM and C64 versions, and how it affected the 16-bit versions.

The C64 version of Zynaps gives you some sort of a fuel system, which affects the weapons and ship speed. Basically, the upgrade tokens act simultaneously as fuel pods, so picking one up adds a notch to the power level you have on your acceleration or weapon power meter. Shooting depletes these meters, so you need to be picking up the tokens as often as you can, but it is strongly advised, that you keep your acceleration meter at the second lowest to have the most optimal speed of maneuvering. In the SPECTRUM version, whatever you upgraded would stay as such until you died. The 16-bit versions adopted the C64 method in this regard, which basically made them even more difficult.

As it has become almost painfully clear yet again, the original version quite clearly gives the most optimal experience. The SPECTRUM version has the advantage of having the most naturally progressing maneuverability of your spaceship, the exclusive dual cannons, mid-level checkpoints and the most optimal difficulty curve. The C64 version feels like they tried too hard to make it more different from other games of its genre, and failed to give players a real chance of enjoying it. It's good - better than it's been given to understand, but too harsh with its inertia and lack of mid-level checkpoints. The AMSTRAD version takes some of the good simplicity of the SPECTRUM version, but adds an incomplete sense of inertia and the lack of dual cannons from the C64 version, so it feels like it doesn't actually know what it's supposed to be. Also, there seems to be some amount of collision detection buggery going on, but even taken that into consideration, it's still a bit better than the 16-bit versions. The main problem is, the 16-bits add too much unnecessary content to the game, in addition to the complexities in the C64 version, and then they botch it up even further by making the game too annoyingly slow and cumbersome to play without any upgrades.




As far as space shooters go, the most unique and immediately recognizable thing about Zynaps is its title, and logofication of it. 'Tis a great pity, because space-themed shoot'em-ups have always been very particular about their graphics, and people tend to remember the most visually impressive ones as the best, with less regards to the gameplay aspects. Be that as it may, we still have to get through this section.

Title screens, left to right:
Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST/Commodore Amiga.

The title logo is largely similar across all four versions, which is as it should be. The only differences are the lack of colour gradients and those little notches at certain corners of all letters in the C64 and AMSTRAD versions. Originally, the SPECTRUM title screen featured no raster bars and the title logo itself was much smaller than in the other versions, but there were two - one at the top and one at the bottom of the screen. Instead of the raster bars, we can see two red chains forming a diamond-like shape between the two logos, and the credits, including the Hewson logo, are lodged in between. The animated raster bars thing is different in all three (four) versions, and the AMSTRAD version goes even more psychedelic with the rest of the screen not occupied by the raster bars flashing with various shades of blue. The AMSTRAD version is also the only one not to feature the Hewson logo, but the copyright is there in plain text.

Get Ready screens, left to right:
Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, Atari ST/Commodore Amiga.
Normally, I wouldn't include a "Get Ready" screen comparison, but this time, it is warranted. The SPECTRUM original has the usual obligatory line or two of text in a custom font with some colour, with the usual "Get Ready" replaced with "Prepare for combat". The same message is shown across all the different versions, only their presentation differs. In the AMSTRAD version, you get to see the info panel at the bottom of the screen in some form, with the said text included in the middle section. For the C64 version, the graphician decided to include the game title logo as a blue variation, just to make the appearance of the info panel less awkward - and yes, the text is included in the info panel's message display here, as well. For the 16-bits, the tradition of the game title logo inclusion was continued, but now, the "Get Ready"-like text is displayed under the logo, instead of somewhere within the info panel.

Screenshots from the Sinclair ZX Spectrum version of the first level.
Although it's impossible to make it clear in just a few screenshots, the design for the first level is where the game's graphical style differs the most across all platforms. In the original SPECTRUM version, the first level has been designed quite clearly as an exit tunnel with bits that look like they could be security checkpoints (albeit practically inactive), occupied by three different sorts of alien spacecrafts that come in a couple of different variants of formations, and ending with a bigger guardian ship right at the mouth of the exit. All the alien ships look distinctly different, act differently and shoot different sorts of projectiles, and it's all rather well designed. The obligatory starfield background is built of three layers of differently coloured stars, all scrolling at different speeds, so while it is something you don't really focus on looking at when playing, the effect is technically rather impressive and surprisingly fluid.

Looking into the details in the information panel, the two waveform displays at both ends of the panel are mostly ornamental, bringing some appreciable life into the info panel, but they also show two white dots each, of which I'm not completely sure what they indicate, since the instructions manual does not say. The leftmost decipherable info slot shows you the highlighted item, which you are given the chance to upgrade next; the middle one shows the level of the upgrade of your main weapon in the small dots in the bottom frame, but nothing else; and the rightmost decipherable info slot shows you the number of lives you have. The players' scores are displayed at the top of the screen, which is a bit odd, since the player score could have easily been displayed in the middle box at the bottom. Well, who am I to argue with the designer's choice of designs?

Screenshots from the Amstrad CPC version of the first level.
The AMSTRAD version uses a much smaller portion of the available screen, reducing the available vertical moving space about one third of what the original version has. Thus, the amount of content in the actual level graphics, not to mention their details, is considerably lower than in the original. Then again, the graphics here use a multi-colour mode, which enables better shading. For some unknown reason, though, the starfield background is not quite as busy as in the SPECTRUM version, but I suspect, the main reason for keeping it less visible was to keep the framerate as high as possible while keeping the game technically as close to the same level as the other two 8-bits.

Unfortunately, the info panel is one of the ugliest and least informative ones I have ever seen in any space shooter, and certainly the least useful and visually interesting one from all the versions of Zynaps. It's basically just three boxes, with the middle one containing the information of which player is currently playing, and the player's score; the left box showing your number of lives, and the right box showing the currently upgradeable item. Ornaments shine in their absence. Considering Stephen Crow was partly responsible for the graphics across all the 8-bit versions, the differences are difficult to explain.

Screenshots from the Commodore 64 version of the first level.
For the C64 version's first level, the graphicians (Crow and Cumming) went with a decidedly more greyscale approach, and the level map has gone through even more modifications than the AMSTRAD version. All the top-half-of-the-screen graphics are definitely multi-colour, but unlike on the CPC, the amount of level contents and details is on the same level as in the SPECTRUM original. Also, the colours are a bit lighter overall on the C64 than on the AMSTRAD, but that's more of a matter of opinion, whether you enjoy the more claustrophobic and ominous feel or the clearer, more structured look. The starfield background is just as busy and nice to look at as in the SPECTRUM original - perhaps slightly faster.

The info panel has been completely redesigned again for the C64 version. Half of the reserved space is taken by a large screen that takes half of the entire panel's width, and it contains nothing more than alternating logos for the game title and Hewson. Almost exactly at the bottom middle, we see the highest score, and at the top right corner of the panel is your current score. Under the current score, we have the lives indicator, and the number slot diagonally below it shows the current player number. Directly left from the current score display is the highlighted item, waiting to be either switched or powered-up, and the two smaller pictures left from the highlighter are the power level indicators for your ship's speed and main weapon power. Although I'm not a huge fan of the sort of space wasting that this info panel does, I must say, it is a considerably better-looking one than that in the AMSTRAD version. Even more than that, it's actually much more logical than the SPECTRUM version's info panel, if not necessarily any nicer in design.

Screenshots from the Atari ST/Commodore Amiga version of the first level.
Level 1 on the 16-bits takes on largely after the C64 version, seeing as it is mostly greyscale structures. The level design is, once again, vastly different from the other versions, but by now, that is nothing if not expected. The architecture is more varied than on the 8-bits, if not as instantly recognizable, and the background's starfield is completely greyscale, so there is an amount of realism to the 16-bit version's graphics absent elsewhere, but in all honesty, it is a bit boring. Then again, this is only the first level.

The action screen size is probably the most comparable to the AMSTRAD version, if you take into consideration the size of all the sprites here. One of the biggest criticisms about the 16-bit Zynaps is the size of your Scorpion fighter, which in addition to its initial lack of speed, makes it much more difficult to dodge enemy bullets than in any other version. It also looks completely different from any of the 8-bit versions - more like something I would have designed on the infamous Shoot 'Em Up Construction Kit some 25 years ago.

As for the info panel, that is actually something that looks the most properly upgraded and space-agey as it ought to be. The design is largely based on the info panel in the C64 version, only the title logo box has been given less space; there are less unnecessary ornamental bits in the panel, readjusted to give more space for the item boxes; and the power meters have been redesigned to be combined in the one power meter in the middle of the bottom area. It really does look superbly good.

Screenshots from levels 2 and 3 of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum version.

Since I have only had time to expand my horizons up to the third level in all versions, the one above and the following screenshots show only material from the two levels following the first. Unfortunately, the second level's only distinctive feature (which will be repeated in at least one of the later levels) is the meteorite shower, through which you will be required to navigate a couple of times during the level, so it doesn't look very structural. The second boss fight features two smaller, but still big spaceships to require many hits. The third picture shows you the basic look of the bubble-based structures that the third level is completely based upon.

Screenshots from levels 2 and 3 of the Amstrad CPC version.
For the AMSTRAD version's second boss battle, they made the two enemy ships considerably larger, at least if you take the screen size into consideration. They are also more colourful and have some interesting details that were not featured in the SPECTRUM original. The second level doesn't really give much else to talk about, but the third level's bubble structures have been re-coloured to carry only a single colour per each bubble. Nice in its own way, but makes the level much darker than in its original form.

Screenshots from levels 2 and 3 of the Commodore 64 version.

The second level in the C64 version gets the graphic designs closer to the original, particularly concerning the two boss ships, except for their colour. However, the order of levels start to alternate considerably after you have finished level 2, first with the bubbly level design switched to a sort of green fungal tunnel structure. The bubbles do make an appearance later on, which you can see for yourselves if you care to search for Zynaps longplay videos on YouTube. Also worth noting is, that the CPC and C64 versions are missing one particular level design element that is included in the SPECTRUM original, but you wouldn't notice it until a few levels further ahead, if you ever were to get that far.

Screenshots from levels 2 and 3 of the Atari ST/Commodore Amiga versions.
Although you cannot really see it here, the number of different looking enemy ships is notably higher on the 16-bits than on the 8-bits. Also, a lot more focus has been put on animations of obstacles, the ships and their projectiles, as well as the explosions. Then again, some of the most interesting elements from the 8-bits have been completely redesigned, such as the double boss enemy at the end of level two. Although some of the mysterious charm of the SPECTRUM original has been replaced with more detailed and defined graphics in both level structural elements and enemies, the simple fact that there is a lot more of it makes the 16-bit versions more interesting to look at on the long run, if not quite as logical in the stylistical line of its progress.

High score name entry and Game Over screens, left to right:
Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, Atari ST/Commodore Amiga.
When the game eventually ends, depending on whether you gathered enough of score to reach the high score table, you will either be taken to the name entering screen or merely shown an "unranked" Game Over screen. Both screens look fairly similar in the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions, largely following the style of the title screen. The C64 version's name entering screen looks completely different from anything else in the game - more simplistic, yet stylish, with the game logo and Hewson logo featured, and some text of different colours between. It also shares the three initials method with the other two 8-bits. The unranked Game Over screen on the C64 only shows the super-sized game logo and the Game Over text in the otherwise useless small screen in the info panel. For the 16-bits, the name entering screen was altered to feature rather plain blue text, a longer space to enter your full name, a full set of letters and a red targeting sprite, controlled with your joystick. The 16-bit "unranked" Game Over screen merely features less text and no name-entering components.

On final note, the instructions leaflet contains a few interesting technical points of interest to any more discerning gamers. The first point that this section mentions is the number of frames per second each of the 8-bit versions runs at: 17 fps for the AMSTRAD, 25 for the SPECTRUM and 50 for the C64. I suspect both the 16-bit versions run at 50 fps, but they have a slightly slower scrolling speed than the C64 version. The other point perhaps worth noting concerns the sprite handling, but that is something not very visible or practical to dwell on.

Technically, the 16-bits are visually on a completely different level to the 8-bits, and by having more content, better animations and much better defined graphics overall, they could be considered quite easily the best of the bunch on these terms. My only real problem with it is the player ship's somewhat clunky and frankly unnecessary animation, often resulting in unnecessary deaths. Continuing on the technical line, the SPECTRUM version is comparatively amazing for the platform: smooth scrolling even with some action on the screen, no notable colour clash, and overall very nice designs for pretty much everything you see. The C64 version runs a bit faster and smoother, your ship is more animated, and the info panel is clearer and more logical, if not quite as pretty, but the landscapes, alien ships and other details feel a bit dull. The AMSTRAD version feels very dark and claustrophobic, does not use very much colour, scrolls less smoothly, and has a badly designed info panel. I think we have a clear enough order here.




Without a specific version for the 128k SPECTRUM, the original soundtrack is unfortunately stuck using the single channel beeper, although the main title theme features an effect in the single melodic line that makes it sound as if two same notes are being used simultaneously. It's not the most effective way to use this sound programming method, but it is better than just basic beeping. In its defence, the SPECTRUM version's main title theme is memorable enough and certainly recognizable as what it is, but without the proper harmonic and rhythmic context, it falls slightly into the area of nonsensical. But of course, it could be argued that the lack of those elements makes it all the more mysterious, adding something to the game's atmosphere, but it just doesn't do that for my trained musician's ears.

For sound effects, the SPECTRUM version is equipped with barely more than four sounds, at least of any notable difference. Shooting makes a choppy sort of "peww-peww" sound, explosions make a non-pitched "splurch"-noise, the appearance of a token is marked with three choppy ascending consecutive beeps, and picking up a token makes another choppy sort of beepy noise. If there are any different sounding explosions, I confess I'm unable to tell them apart.

Nigel Grieve's theme tune for the C64 version features no percussive elements, but all three of the usual channels are used for various types of sounds. Melodically, there are elements in it that share some similarities with the SPECTRUM original, but as a composition, the C64 theme tune is much longer and more coherent, more decidedly ominous and spacey, and rivals the classics of Ben Daglish and Martin Galway in its sense of style and memorability. For a final surprise, the final 10 seconds of the theme tune feature an unexpected warpy effect as it fades out. I confess, the C64 Zynaps theme is one of my all-time favourite Hewson game tunes. Too bad Nigel Grieve didn't write a separate tune for the high score entry screen.

The set of C64 sound effects is considerably noisier, along with being considerably richer. The only sound effect that I can think of being completely new for the C64 is an odd bleary sound that doesn't seem to have any clear reason to appear, but it does every now and then. Shooting makes a "poww" sound, enemy's explosion goes "spssshh", a token's appearance makes two different bleary sounds back to back, picking up a token can result in five different sound effects, depending on which upgrade you are taking, and your own explosion is a long series of explosive noises that sounds like a funny drum fill. On the long run, the amount of noise made by the C64 version tends to get a bit too much, but there is no denying, there's a lot to offer here.

If I were to make a wild guess, the main reason for all the 8-bit versions having their own title theme tune is, because the AMSTRAD and C64 version's designated musicians couldn't make any more sense of the original SPECTRUM tune than I could, in order to rearrange better versions of it. For the AMSTRAD version, J. Dave Rogers created a heavy thomping tune with the character harmonic being a fourth in the main two-chord riff. The title tune also features an almost unconnected two-bar intro with a few long slides, as well as some modulations that make it interesting enough to listen to on its own. Unlike the SPECTRUM and C64 versions, there is also a second tune in the CPC Zynaps's soundtrack, which is based around the same chord progression as the main title tune, but is more airy and has a more staccato bass line. The second tune is played during the options screen and the high score entry screen.

In the sound effects department, the CPC version certainly outshines the SPECTRUM version, if nothing else. When the game starts, it's all as quiet as it is in the original, but soon, things get a bit noisy. Your ship's shooting sounds almost exactly like the noise Michael Winslow makes in the first Police Academy movie when playing an imaginary shooting game at night. Destroying an enemy ship makes an odd bell-like sound mixed with a splash. The appearance of an upgrade token makes a long "BERRRRRR" sound, and picking up one plays a quick five-note sequence of slightly stuttering bell sounds. Your own explosion plays a low booming crash, which feels very appropriate. All three special weapons make their own specific sound, the bigger boss enemies make their own peculiar whirry noises, and there are also a couple of odd blips and swooshes that I have not yet been able to place to any particular element. To the CPC's advantage, it is slightly less chaotic in terms of sounds than the C64 version, and the second piece of music is a definite upgrade over the other two 8-bits.

Getting to the 16-bits, the entire ATARI ST soundtrack is nothing more than a slightly upgraded version of the AMSTRAD soundtrack. Of course, this is only logical, as J. Dave Rogers was given the responsibility for the ST version's sounds, as well. What I particularly like about the ST version's soundtrack is the rearranged high score tune, which uses a lot more sound effects and harmonics than the CPC original. The sound effects are also slightly less bellsy than their CPC counterparts, which is nice.

For the COMMODORE AMIGA version, Giulio Zicchi took the C64 soundtrack and turbocharged the whole thing with arcade-quality sound effects and 16-bit sampled instruments for the music. And as if that weren't enough, Zicchi added a completely new piece of music for the high score entry screen, which was missing from the C64 version. Technically, all that is brilliant and certainly an upgrade over anything, but there was something lost in translation for the title tune. Instead of an ominous and spacey feel of Nigel Grieve's masterpiece, Zicchi decided to add a bunch of heavy percussive elements, remaking the track into a mechanically thumping techno-march with the basic drum pattern taken from Dio's Holy Diver but the tempo lifted up from 92 to 126. Another thing that I'm not sure I like, is the constant humming in the background while you play the game. It doesn't exactly get in the way of other sound effects, but it does tend to get on your nerves after longer exposure. The confusing thing is, the AMIGA version does sound the best overall.




So, what did we learn today? First, don't try to fix the original if it's not broken. Second, graphic design can be a serious thing. Third, too much can be too much. There is a lot to be said in favour of the original SPECTRUM version of Zynaps, and most of it has to do with gameplay, which is the most important. Graphically, the elements are there, and it is very impressive for the platform, but it's not quite enough to rival some of the other versions on technical terms. But what Hewson should have done with the original is include a 128k version as an alternative with better sounds and music to rival the other versions properly, since it was actually a possibility at this point. Well, this brings us to the unapologetically mathematical overall FRGCB-style scores:

1. COMMODORE AMIGA: Playability 1, Graphics 4, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 10
2. ATARI ST: Playability 1, Graphics 4, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 9
3. SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 4, Graphics 3, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 8
4. COMMODORE 64: Playability 3, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 7
5. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 6

Nope, that doesn't really make too much sense, does it? This is how I would personally rank them, without any regards to any scoring system:


So, one of them was logical. It just goes to show that one plus one isn't always two, and as many of you readers even have pointed out, these sorts of mathematics shouldn't have a place in these kinds of retrogame comparisons. As I often like to suggest, do try all the versions of the game in question out for yourselves and make your own judgement. Or at the very least, watch this accompanying video to see and hear at least some of the things I have been talking about above.

That's it for today, and indeed for this month - I hope you liked it, even though I have to admit, the game wasn't particularly lengthily represented. But Zynaps is a harsh game, and you can pretty much tell what the game is like to play from its first two levels. Next month, I will be focusing on a couple of absolutely atrocious games for the second (or third) annual Abominations April (depending on how you count them). See you then!

1 comment:

  1. Zynaps looks like a fascinating game, especially for the early 1980s. From your description, it's clear that the different versions on various platforms have their own unique features and drawbacks. You've detailed the game's intricacies well, giving readers a deeper understanding of it. Looking forward to seeing more of your game blogs in the future!