Tuesday 30 April 2024

Jail Break (Konami, 1985)

Developed by Konami for the arcades.
Directed by Oolong Sugimo.
Produced by Kagemasa Kozuki and Soft Second Development Room.
Music and sound effects by Sound Effect Study Room.
Originally published as an arcade game kit in North America by Konami Industry Co., Ltd. in 1985.
Full arcade game published in Japan as "Manhattan 24 Bunsho - NY 151 Nishi Dai 100 Street"
by Konami Industry Co., Ltd. in 1986.

Amstrad CPC conversion:
Programming by Neil Dodwell (Catalyst Coders)
Graphics by Stuart J. Ruecroft
Sprites by Mark R. Jones
Scrolling and sprite routines by Michael Croucher
Music by David Whittaker
Published by Konami Ltd. in 1986.

Commodore 64 conversion:
Programming by Darrell Etherington and Dave Garside
Graphics by Mark Jones
Music by David Whittaker
Published by Konami Ltd. in 1986.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum conversion:
Programming by Andrew Glaster
Graphics by Stuart J. Ruecroft
Published by Konami Ltd. in 1986.



This year's Abominations April ends with arguably one of Konami's worst arcade games ever, which had three even worse home computer conversions, giving Jail Break the sort of infamy that not many games can boast of. When you think about that, it is of small wonder, that Konami decided to cancel the MSX release of Jail Break before it got finished, and there's no trace of any Famicom version having even been under consideration. For my part, I find all that rather unfortunate, because this comparison would have become much more interesting with those two, but we shall have to make do with the four versions we have.

Something about Jail Break makes me not very surprised to learn, that there is only one vote for the game on the Arcade Museum website, but I am surprised to learn, that the score for the game is as high as 3.08 out of 5.00, with fun factor being 3.40 and technical rating 2.75. The rating for the C64 version at Lemon64 is 3.05, but as the maximum score is 10, it doesn't sound quite as good as the arcade score. Indeed, the C64 version has been ranked #41 in the Lemon64 Worst 100 games list. The Spectrum version doesn't do much better, with the current score at Spectrum Computing being 3.7 from 7 votes, while the archived World of Spectrum had a more impressive 4.29 from 36 votes before the site was archived. The Amstrad version fares considerably better, with a score of 10.60/20.00 at CPC-Power, and 6/10 at CPC Game Reviews. Who knows, perhaps we shall have another Amstrad winner this time, disregarding the original, naturally.



Although it seems a bit silly to have another side-scrolling shoot'em-up so soon after Zynaps, the ways Jail Break differs from Zynaps makes it a good case of trying something completely different to make it worthwhile, however unsuccessful the end result turned out to be. Instead of a traditional automatically scrolling deal, you push-scroll the screen by walking left to right.

The plot line here is kind of self-explanatory. There has been a massive jail break in the city where you work as a police officer, and the entire police force has been called to take care of the situation. The criminals have also taken over the state prison, and have captured and tied up the warden, whom you need to free at the end of the game. You are but one individual of the entire police force, but the game obviously focuses on you. As you forge ahead, you shoot all the escaped criminals and rescue any hostages to gain access to better weapons.

Among arcade enthusiasts, Jail Break seems to be considered notoriously difficult, which I have no idea about as of yet, since my only experience of the game so far has been the C64. There, it is just considered notoriously bad. The rest remains to be seen, but I'm not exactly holding my breath.



As bad as Jail Break has reported to have been, the amount of Konami's arcade classics obviously requiring some compilations for the 8-bits necessitated the game's inclusion in at least one of them. So, all three home conversions have at least two releases of the game, and the SPECTRUM version was blessed with a third release by a Spanish software published called Serma Software in 1987.

AMSTRAD Konami: 4 minutes 35 seconds
AMSTRAD Imagine: 5 minutes 42 seconds
C64 Konami: 6 minutes 20 seconds
C64 Imagine: 6 minutes 41 seconds
SPECTRUM Konami: 5 minutes 28 seconds
SPECTRUM Imagine: 5 minutes 15 seconds
SPECTRUM Serma: 5 minutes 2 seconds

The resulting loading times offer an odd mixture: the original Konami released on AMSTRAD and C64 load quicker than the Konami's Arcade Collection compilation re-releases by Imagine, while the situation is reversed on SPECTRUM. However, the Spanish re-release loads even faster than either of the more common releases. There is also a Serma Software release for the AMSTRAD, but I haven't been able to track down an image file of it, so if anyone out there has it, feel free to contact me, or perhaps more preferably, the good folks at CPC-Power.

Loading screens, left to right:
Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64.
Oddly enough, the AMSTRAD re-release from Imagine is missing the loading screen, and the original C64 Konami release only shows the loading screen for a few seconds, while listening to a sampled speech bit. At least the loading screen is shown in the Imagine re-release on the C64 for the duration of the classic Ocean Loader 4 tune by Jonathan Dunn. All the SPECTRUM versions have the loading screen, although the Imagine re-release also features a timer on top of the screen.



To make this comparison even remotely possible, I have had to turn the difficulty knob from the ARCADE original to the easiest mode from four possible modes. For some reason, the default difficulty setting is the second most difficult, which is labelled "difficult" in the settings, while the second one is "normal". However, even with "easy" mode, your enemies are only slightly less aggressive, and they come in similar numbers. The only way to be successful in this game is to learn the enemy spawn points, their moving and shooting directions, and then learn how to walk around so as to not get shot, and also learn how to shoot in the correct direction. But above all, you need to be as aggressive as possible.

The first obvious difference between the ARCADE version and the home conversions, collectively, is that in the original, you can move in all eight directions of the joystick, and you can even shoot halfway diagonals, or diagonal diagonals, if that makes sense. Sort of directions between the main eight directions; whereas in the home conversions, the player can only move and shoot in the four cardinal directions. Although this should, and would prove to be a problem in your usual case, the second obvious difference is, that for the most part, your enemies on the 8-bits walk similarly straight-forward in the main four directions and occasionally become stationary.

Speaking of directions, Jail Break is otherwise completely joystick-controllable, but you do need a second button to scroll through your weapons, when you have more than one of them. In the ARCADE version, there is obviously just a second fire button for that purpose. All home conversions utilise the Space bar for that. If you would rather use keyboard, the C64 version doesn't offer that option, but the SPECTRUM version gives you Q-W-I-J-O for left, right, up, down and fire, and the AMSTRAD set of keys in the same order are Z-X-\-]-Enter.

Because the game is ridiculously difficult, it might take a few tries for you to get through the first level of the ARCADE original, even on easy setting. Still, once you get into the rhythm of the game, it's actually much more possible to finish than any of the 8-bits. The main reason for this is, there is a much better speed balance in the original between bullets and humans. From the three 8-bits, the AMSTRAD has the best speed balance - the C64 and  SPECTRUM versions just have you walking too slowly compared to the bullets.

It also helps, that the original version doesn't suffer from collision detection problems, which all the 8-bit versions do to some degree. The problem on the 8-bits with the collision detection is, that it has very little to do with depth - there is only some sort of a basic hit box for the player sprite, and you will get hit, whether you happen to be on a different level vertically, depth-wise, or not, just as long as the bullet hits your sprite. The enemies have their own specific hit boxes, which are smaller than your own, although in the C64 version, the regular enemies have it diminished to the head area. Even still, the collision detection in the C64 version works on a whim - sometimes your bullets have no effect whatsoever on your enemies, although they hit, and sometimes they go straight through the enemies, even if your aiming is good and proper for what is required.

Now, the amount of enemies and their appearances during the game is what makes the original game what it is, and affects the way the levels are built. As it happens, the ARCADE version is very much designed from start to finish, which enemies come from what direction, where are they going and why do they appear when they do. The original game does actually have a logical progression in difficulty, and each of the game's five levels have their own end-level battles with some specific group of enemies. Also, even in easy mode, the first level brings out enemy-controlled vans, which you can destroy with a bazooka, and later levels feature motorcycles and other special enemy things. These special enemies don't make an appearance in the home conversions until level 4, depending on the version. See, the C64 version doesn't feature these vehicles at all.

The way the home conversions are basically made, is that the game throws enemies at you at a more or less steady pace, and most of them have no better objective than to get to the other side of the screen. If you happen to come into their direct line of vision, they will shoot at you, or throw a tear gas bomb at you; or if you attempt to pass them by above or below, they will likely turn towards your general direction and start shooting, but none of them will walk around with the distinct purpose of killing you. In the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions, there are criminals that actually follow your vertical location, but don't really follow you around in a "homing device"-manner; these are the ones that throw tear gas bombs. The C64 version only has regular criminals coming from the top and bottom, most of the time from your front only, and none of them are able to walk diagonally, although they can walk around barrels.

In the ARCADE version, the civilians are also planted to appear at certain times and places, whereas on the 8-bits, they can appear anywhere, at any time for no apparent reason. The C64 version, again, only features civilians, that either stand in place (the paralysed children) or run straight from left to right or right to left. The SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions both feature every sort of civilian that appear in the original. At least all versions share the same penalty of taking all your weapons whenever a civilian is shot, although as a bonus feature on the C64, it seems to me a bit harsh as a punishment to you, when an enemy accidentally shoots a civilian.

All is not fine and dandy in on the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions, either, despite of how much better they seem to the C64 version. Granted, they do play much better. The main problem with the SPECTRUM version is the fact that it often starts very busy, one enemy coming from behind you and two from ahead, and with the walking speed being what it is, bullets are difficult to dodge. Also, the screen scrolls a character block's width at a time, which means that your enemies also skip towards you that much. Another problem relating to the very beginning of the game is, there is a blockage of barrels and potholes just about one screen's width ahead, which you cannot pass through without the first added weapon, which is a bazooka. Accidentally kill or pass by the one civilian passing through the area before getting there, and you can say good-bye to your life. Once you get past that part, though, things get slightly smoother. The AMSTRAD version is a lot more logically randomized in its enemy spawning rate and general proceedings, but just like the SPECTRUM version, it suffers from some considerable amount of slowdown with more than a couple of enemies on the screen.

In conclusion, it appears that the AMSTRAD version is the most playable one of the usual three, again. None of the versions really have even a remote chance against the ARCADE original, so you might as well consider it a completely different game.




Games like Jail Break have certain characteristics that can make you think about the importance of things in games that you might not have thought before. For instance, how the amount of visual content and its variety, as well as the way all the visuals have been used, affect the resulting product in the end.

Title screens and/or high score tables, left to right:
Arcade, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC.
The original ARCADE title screen shows an animated sequence of a police officer dragging a group of chained criminals behind him, taking them to the police van. This sequence is jammed between a large game logo, taking the entire top half of the screen, and the usual plain Konami logo and copyright at the bottom. After this, the title screen switches to the high score table, followed by a demo mode showing the first level in action.

No such demo mode exists on the 8-bits, and the most you ever get out of the home conversions at this point is in the AMSTRAD version, where you get an actual game logo, proper credits and a Konami copyright. The SPECTRUM version continues to show the loading screen for the duration of a sampled speech segment, before it switches off to a very plain title screen with just a few rows of text in a fairly large light grey font, and no copyright. The C64 version doesn't even have that, and instead the high score table acts as the title screen, with the message "Press fire button" as the prompt for starting the game. The high score tables in the other two 8-bit versions are only shown after Game Over.

Screenshots from the first level of the ARCADE version.
In order to make this bit of nonsense more elaborate, the ARCADE version sets up the scene by showing an opening sequence, where a bunch of criminals are shown to shoot two guards and then break down the prison gate, after which we see our heroic police officer protagonist arrive to the beginning of level 1 on his patrol car. He exits the vehicle, and the game begins, after the game has scrolled the car out of the picture.

The entirety of the first level is spent nowhere near the prison, so the segue between the opening scene and the arrival of yourself is a bit odd. Instead, you walk along a seemingly endless street in the central city of New York. (Remember, the original Japanese title is "Manhattan 24th Precinct".) Along the way, you will see apartment buildings, bars, casinos and office buildings closing the top area of the screen. The road itself is solid grey from beginning to end, occupied by a small variety criminals, a few different kinds of hostages in need of rescuing, the occasional barrel or two, and a trash van driven by criminals. As an easter egg of sorts, some of the barrels reveal Batman upon destroying them, which will give you a hefty score bonus. Unfortunately, Batman doesn't do anything else.

Screenshots from the first level of the ZX SPECTRUM version.
What the SPECTRUM version excels at, is the way all the character groups have been made to look completely different from each other. Of course, it's the monochrome hi-res graphics that allow such detailed characters, at the expense of colour. Then again, colour is hardly needed in the action area - the background graphics offer plenty of that, and it's all rather nice to look at, even if it's a bit samey. Then again, so is the original. The info panels are nice and clear, though they offer nothing particularly pretty; but as long as the weapons look nice and the lives display is something other than a number, it's good.

The biggest problem I have with the SPECTRUM version's graphics is the way it scrolls, which makes the game very jittery, to the point of affecting playability. The only other thing I consider a real problem is the size of the sprites, because even with the area available for walking around being as sizable as it is, the big sprites makes it really difficult to dodge any bullets, thanks to the stupid collision detection.

Screenshots from the first level of the COMMODORE 64 version.

Conversely, the only really good thing about the C64 version is, that you have plenty enough of space to walk around and dodge bullets. The colour scheme is a bit bland and the background graphics are messy at best, but at least all the human characters look recognizable enough, if not exactly nice. Just so that it wouldn't all become too positive, the animations are choppy and the sprites have a tendency to disappear for split seconds every now and then. The info panels have been given a clearer split into numerals at the top (from left to right: current score, high score, level and number of lives) and weapons at the bottom. I suppose the main reason for why the action screen is not quite as wide as the info panels is to mask the choppy scrolling method, but it also makes the info panels look a bit more designed than they appear... which I'm guessing could just as easily be a mistake.

Screenshots from the first level of the AMSTRAD CPC version.
One could say that the AMSTRAD version looks exactly half-way between the SPECTRUM and C64 versions, and there would be some point to that. You get the lower-res wide pixel graphics here as well, and the human characters do share a similar look, with somewhat different colours. Not a surprise, since the C64 graphician, Mark Jones did the sprites here. However, the background graphics are more colourful and detailed, yet have more clarity to them, thanks to Stuart Ruecroft. The info panels are just about as good as in the SPECTRUM version, but I cannot say I'm a big fan of the custom font used here. It doesn't really give that feel of "law and order", if you know what I mean.

But the action screen size is what has baffled me. It's wide enough, for sure, but where is the height required for movement? While this doesn't actually affect the graphical content as such, it does affect the way you play the game. The problem is similar to that presented by the SPECTRUM version, only worse.

Screenshots from level 2, left to right:
Arcade, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC.
Because I would run out of time to get this comparison out before the end of the month, I have to restrict my graphical comparison to the first two levels. Besides, there just isn't enough of graphical content - nor gameplay variety - in the game to make it worth the bother.

Level 2 is where the amount and overall quality of the graphical content in the 8-bit versions starts becoming much clearer. The C64 version changes the boring and bland colours from level 1 to a blue-and-green sort of a colour scheme for level 2, which does offer some variety, but still looks horrible. The SPECTRUM version continues with the black background and grey sprites style here, and further on through the entire game, with only the location graphics changing for each level. It's all that is required, to be sure, but if you take a look at the ARCADE version, there is some actual level design going on there, with road divisions and even a full grass-surface stretch in front of a building. The AMSTRAD version actually manages to include the road divisions and different widths for the road you walk on, but does not feature the grassy bit - not that I really even expected it. A trash van does make an appearance, though, which was rather unexpected this early in the game.

So, judging by these two levels, as well as the title screen, it appears the AMSTRAD version was given the most effort in this regard as well. The C64 version took an odd direction with good intentions, but the end result wasn't quite as good as it should have been. As in the previous section, the SPECTRUM version falls neatly between the two, and the ARCADE version rules supreme.




For those of us, who have the misfortune of having played Jail Break on the 8-bits in the olden days, the one good thing linked to the game was the main title tune programmed by David Whittaker for the AMSTRAD and C64 versions. The SPECTRUM version's programmer was apparently punched in by the game programmer himself, Andrew Glaster. I didn't learn until during the process of making this comparison, that the tune was actually "Getaway" written by Brian Bennett for a common use TV song library in 1978, and the original tune can be found in Bruton Music's "Driving Force" album, if you feel the urge to hunt it down.

In the C64 version, this tune is all you ever hear once the game has loaded in, although the original Konami version's loading screen plays a short sampled speech bit. For the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions, they decided to place the speech sample bit right after the game had loaded, and the tune is played in the title screen after the speech is finished. Of course, the SPECTRUM version being 48k only, the tune is played using the beeper, but some impressive trickery has been used to get a sampled bass drum and some harmonics to play the bass line and the main melody.

As for the sound effects, the C64 version has none, obviously - that is, after the game has loaded. The SPECTRUM version uses only very minor "tap"-sounds and "chup"-sounds for shooting and hitting a target, respectively, as well as a high-pitched "tick"-sound for switching your weapon. As such, the SPECTRUM version is actually more impressive than the C64 version in this regard, even though I do enjoy the SID rendition of "Getaway" more than the beeper rendition. From the home conversions, the AMSTRAD version takes the cake again by having more than three sound effects: a "chup"-sound for shooting your revolver, a reverbed explosion for killing an enemy or destroying a barrel, a "bump"-sound for losing a life, a high-pitched "pinggg" for rescuing a hostage, and a lower-pitched "pinggg" for shooting a hostage. Oddly, shooting either of the two extra weapons make no sounds at all.

So, what do the 8-bits have to compare themselves to? The ARCADE version doesn't actually have a title tune at all, although it does feature a couple of short jingles at the beginning of the game, at the end of a level, and at Game Over, as well as a longer tune for the high score table entry. The library of sound effects is, naturally, extensive, with two speech samples for each of the hostages - their calls for help and their accidental death sounds; and let's not forget the intro speech, either. Killing criminals also plays different kinds of "aargh" sounds. For the other sound effects, the game starts with a jangly sound effect when you insert a coin, and in the intro sequence, you can hear a bunch of shooting noises and your police car's siren wailing, and then there are different sound effects for each of your weapons' firing, explosions, vans passing by and alarm noises when you approach the end level battle scene. Oddly enough, when you first play the ARCADE version a few times, the amount of sound effects doesn't really strike as anything odd, since they're quite understated. Also, having no in-game music or even title music makes the game feel rather unassuming in this sense, but it can also be considered a good thing that it doesn't sound nearly as busy as the action really is.




I suppose it has been made clear here, that if you're looking for an almost complete abomination of a game on the C64, Jail Break is a good candidate for that experience, even though the music is pretty good. Both of the other 8-bit versions are better in pretty much every other way, but that's still not saying much about their quality. If I were to be blunt, I might say that all the home conversions of Jail Break (that made it to the public, at least) are down right horrible. Some of them more than others.

1. ARCADE: Playability 4, Graphics 4, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 12
2. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 9
3. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 6
4. COMMODORE 64: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 3

To annoy myself further with this game, I had to compile a video accompaniment to the comparison, since there didn't seem to be equivalents on YouTube yet. So, you might as well look at this one to see the truthfulness of what I have been telling you here.

Now, that is all for this month, and indeed all for Abominations April. FRGCB will return with another bigger comparison right around the end of May, after which, I will be taking a proper summer holiday for a change. Until then, enjoy your first half of May! Cheers!

1 comment:

  1. It's fascinating to read about the history and reception of Jail Break along with your analysis of its different versions. It seems like the arcade version was the most well-received despite its difficulty, while the home computer conversions varied in quality. It's interesting how certain aspects like graphics and sound were handled differently in each version, affecting the overall gameplay experience. Thanks for sharing this detailed comparison!