03 Mar

Review: Starball

I used to read ST Format back when I had an Atari ST. Later in its existence the magazine started to include better and more complete games and other software on its cover disk, probably because of the Atari was dying and publishers decided to give away their assets (or more like the actual developers were able to secure rights to the software from the publishers and then give it away so the work wouldn’t be in vain.) Also, back in the day shareware meant you got the full software to play with and only then you had to decide whether to pay or not to pay for it — it wasn’t uncommon for that to be actually profitable. Whatever the reason, I wouldn’t have probably ever heard of some pretty awesome games.

Starball was one of those games.

On the Amiga, there were a few excellent pinball games by Digital Illusions, including Pinball Dreams and Pinball Fantasies. On the Atari ST, there were practically no modern pinball games apart from the STE title Obsession which was most likely created to cash in thanks to the surging interest in pinball games thanks to DI and also because the STE was capable to give the same smoothness as on the Amiga. But for the plain vanilla ST users, there still were none. At least until Starball, that is.

Starball is a modern pinball game — as in the screen scrolls and it was made in the 1990s — but it’s very different from the look and feel of the relatively realistic pinball games on the Amiga. The gameplay and the table is very similar to the Crush series on the PC Engine (Turbografx-16) which realized a pinball video game doesn’t have to simulate a real pinball table and added common elements from video games in general. While Pinball Dreams had very smooth gameplay based on getting accurate chains of ramp runs, in Starball the ball is used to smash flying spaceships, cultists and Jimmy Hill’s chin. In addition, Starball has three smaller areas with their own set of flippers and even graphical theme and when you miss and the ball will simply fall down, it will only move your one area down. Unless you are already in the bottom area.

In the middle area, you are building a space ship one part at a time and trying to stop turrets destroying the spaceship parts. On top level, you try to crush little guys walking in circles and there’s a slimy face in the center. And the face will get slimier each time you kill all the little guys. And the bottom area has a huge fly-eyed alien and more explosions. The fly alien thing also contributes to the game in that its mouth takes you to a bonus level. There are at least two different bonus levels, in general they are much like the small Mario level in NES Pinball keeping in the overall pinball theme.

While the game is very enjoyable at least as a nostalgy trip, there are some faults. First, the gameplay isn’t nearly as fluid as what the standard set by Dreams was at the time. The flippers feel sluggish and sometimes the ball bounces all weird. However, you can easily adapt to the slight delay in the flipper hit. The table area isn’t terribly interesting in that there are no huge ramps and other stuff the Amiga games did well but the grimy graphics and the self-awareness of the limitations makes the game stand out.

The game can be found on the ST Format 64 cover disk available on this page.

18 Jun


Probably my most favorite video games are thrustlike games – as in roguelikes begat by Rogue (ADOM, Nethack, Angband, Moria et al.). What I mean with a thrustlike is a game derivative of Asteroids, Lunar Lander, Gravitar and Spacewar that feature a simple physics model, a rotating spaceship and a button for thrust. Hence, “thrustlike” and not “gravitarlike”. Also, mostly because I really like Thrust.

Here are some of the games I consider the best examples of this genre.

Thrust (1986)

What I think Thrust does that makes it so much better than Asteroids and other household names is that it takes the simple rule of motion and inertia, and adds another basic concept, counterforce. In Thrust, you not only maneuver the ship through narrow caves but you also have to lift a heavy load (a “klystron pod”) that swings under the ship. And, in most cases the roles are reversed when the heavy pod transfers its excess kinetic energy to your stationary ship, sending you both spinning towards the nearest wall. However, the whole gameplay doesn’t feel as random as it is with many modern physics based games that often require luck or endless trial and error. You are always in charge of the physics, if you are a good enough pilot.

Another thing that I like about Thrust is that the player is easily able to skip a few levels by activating the self-destruct sequence of the planet by shooting the power plant a few too many times. Why I like it is that in a way you feel like you cheated the game (although, you also lost a lot of bonus points). However, without a doubt this was added to make it easier to quickly get to and practice the later levels, it’s a very nice touch it’s built in the game world. It is also possible to get hefty bonus if you manage to both fetch the pod and also destroy the power plant.

Thrust has a reputation for being hard but I can’t really agree with that. The game has a handful of levels and the regular levels are quite easy to finish when you get the hang of it. However, after that the gravity is reversed and the levels loop from the beginning and after a successful completion, the walls turn invisible. And then I guess the game goes reversed-invisible1.

Another proof of the game’s excellence is that it’s probably one of the most ported (officially or not) games, when it comes to radically different platforms. There are equally playable versions for the BBC (also the original version), the C64 (with a rocking Hubbard tune), the 8 and 16-bit Ataris and unofficial ports for Vectrex and Atari VCS2. There also is a C rewrite of the game engine that is open source, which I guess ensures the game can be ported to any semi-modern platform.

There apparently was a sequel, that wasn’t so well received (proving more does not equal better) and I have never seen it.

Gravitar (1982)

Gravitar, on the other hand, does much of the same. Thrust (1986) was obviously very influenced by Gravitar (1982)3, which was probably influenced by Asteroids (1979) and Lunar Lander (1973, 1979). Both Thrust and Gravitar have planets to visit, fuel to be beamed up, enemy bunkers that shoot back and, of course, gravity. But to me, Gravitar doesn’t have as crystallized gameplay as Thrust. Thrust is as solid as, uh, Gravitar’s vectors are, umm, sharp.


What’s pretty neat in Gravitar is that you can select in which order you play the levels, the levels are simply presented as planets in a solar system and you have to fly the ship avoiding the star that is in the center of the solar system. This also gives another challenge (or a possibility to optimize your gameplay) since the star’s gravity can be exploited to save fuel. Each level also is quite different from the other levels.

Oids (1987)

Another game I really liked was Oids. It combines yet more favorites of mine with Thrust: Choplifter and Space Taxi, both outside the strictest requirements of the thrustlike genre. In Oids, the klystron pods are replaced with little guys (android slaves, or ‘oids) that you have to pick up, first of course having to land the ship carefully, and take up to the mothership. Oids is so loved that the Atari ST emulator Oidemu was made just to run the game, which wouldn’t run on other emulators — and Oidemu subsequently didn’t bother supporting any other games.

The saving the little guys idea is lifted from Choplifter (get it?) in which you use a chopper to demolish prisons and then land nearby and wait for the little men to climb aboard, making multiple runs as the chopper can carry a limited amount of men. The gameplay is much speedier in Oids, you constantly have to dodge incoming bullets and homing missiles and the levels generally are much more open than in Thrust or Gravitar. In all, Oids feels like very natural progression from Thrust.

Maybe one factor that made the game so special was the fact it shipped with a level editor.

Space Taxi (1984)

If we bend the rules what makes a thrustlike, Space Taxi is more than a worthy addition to the genre. Especially so, if you think Lunar Lander fits in the genre — both games have similar controls (thrust up, down and to the sides) and also the common goal of landing quickly yet safely.

There was a nice clone of Space Taxi on the Amiga featuring a caveman flying a stone-age version of a helicopter (think Flintstones). The game was called Ugh! and it was later ported to the PC (it’s great) and C64 (it’s crap).

While Ugh! looks gorgeous and is fun to play, what Space Taxi does infinitely better is that every level in Space Taxi is very different from the other levels, and that is not just the layout that changes (on top of that Ugh! uses the same tiles over and over, however nicely pixeled they might be). The rules of the game are often deviated slightly. For example, one level has a beanstalk that slowly grows leaves on which you can land (and the passengers start appearing on) and others simply have disappearing walls or teleports. I guess that still makes the game quite unique, since even now games rarely have radically different levels.

There also is Space Taxi 2, which is a legit sequel but the tiny voice in my head says it can’t possibly measure up. It’s worth a check, though, as it has the same level designs as the original.

Solar Jetman: Hunt for the Golden Warpship (1990)

Solar Jetman: Hunt for the Golden Warpship is pretty much exactly what Thrust was years earlier but with updated graphics. The only difference is that in each level you have to find a different object, each being a part of the Golden Warpship and various other items which upgrade the ship you pilot around. There’s also a bit of Oids in the game, as it features more shooting and has enemies that follow you around the level.

The game provides welcome variation to NES games and I can see why it wasn’t a success among the younger gamers despite the great graphics (got to love the smooth rotation of the ship). The controls are smooth but as all games of this genre, Solar Jetman can be a handful. Especially, if you are looking for more straight-forward action.

The game is the successor to Lunar Jetman (which shares only half of the name and virtually no gameplay elements, except for the little spaceman that you have to get back to the mothership when your probe is destroyed, see above video) — Solar Jetman was developed by Rare who in fact were called Ultimate Play The Game who developed Lunar Jetman for the Speccy (and loads of other very successful games). Solar Jetman was also going to be released for most of the home computers of the time but the ports were canceled and only the C64 port is available to the public.


In the mid-1990s there was a boom for so called caveflyers (from Finnish “luolalentely”) here in Finland. The caveflyer genre probably owes more to Spacewar as it’s mainly about blowing up the other players. There were dozens of similar games that all featured hotseat multiplayer action (some even had computer controlled), various weapons and levels and most importantly destructible environments.

There had been a lot of similar games by hobbyists before the boom, the single game that started it all probably was Gravity Force on the Amiga. However, I think the flood of cavefliers (in Finland, at least) was triggered by Auts and Turboraketti on the PC. I am very sure different areas had a bit different ideas what was the hottest game but at least to me, Auts was it. After that more and more clones started appearing with constantly improving quality and broadening weapon arsenal. My favorite probably was Kaboom. On the Amiga, there was a bit older similar game called Mayhem (1993) which we played a lot. There’s an abandoned PC conversion that you can find in the linked thread.

This subgenre is still alive and there are many modern caveflyers that have Internet multiplayer features and so on.

3D thrustlikes and other oddities

There have been various Zarch (1987) on the Acorn Archimedes (ported later in 1998 as Virus for the Amiga, Atari ST, ZX Spectrum and PC) features similar controls for the player ship except that there now are two rotation axes. The gameplay however features minimal interaction with the landscape as there are no caves. Later in 1999, Psygnosis released Lander for the PC that featured closed levels, cargo hauling and teleporting fuel on the lander. So, Lander pretty much is Thrust in 3D.

So, were there any games I left out that you think should be here? Do leave a comment. Also, I’d like to thank the people who uploaded gameplay videos of Thrust, Gravitar and Oids to Youtube. I had only a NES emulator with AVI output handy.


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  1. Gravitar and loads of other games, including some Pac-Man sequels, do this as well.
  2. Including scrolling and everything… even drawing the rod that connects the klystron pod to the spacecraft was a potential project killer on the VCS.
  3. Maybe the creator of Thrust saw Gauntlet (1984) on the Atari as well.
10 Apr


News: Farbs interview added

Thanks to whoever uploaded this video — ROM CHECK FAIL is a bitch to capture

ROM CHECK FAIL is quite possibly the most original game I have seen in a while. That’s saying a lot considering the game is a mishmash of classic arcade and video games. The main idea is that, for example, at one moment you are playing Zelda and after a few seconds the game randomly switches to Super Mario Bros. Or Asteroids. Or Spy Hunter. While you might still be Link or the tank from Space Invaders.

While the game is ruthless in that there are impossible situations (imagine the invaders from Space Invaders suddenly turning into Goombas which of course fall down on you), it is constantly amusing in its insanity. It’s like trying to play a failed download of Wario Ware, Inc. ROM CHECK FAIL is one of the few instances of art games that deliver.

I also found the game really funny in that after playing it for about ten seconds, you immediately realize how much potential crossovers have. After you have battled against the balloons from Pang as Pac-Man, playing Alien vs. Predator or the likes won’t really impress much.


11 Mar

Software Improvements That Made Hardware Better

Here is a 100% subjective list of remarkable software that made existing hardware better, more useful or simply extended its shelf life without any hardware modifications, purchases or upgrades.

The Playstation 3 Supercomputer

As already reported by millions of blogs since 2006, a Playstation 3 seems to find use in a scientific project than in a living room. A cluster of a dozen or so PS3’s provides more computational prowess for scientific research than is available by the usual means for the same amount of money. In fact, there are resellers specialized in selling PS3 clusters. As a collective supercomputer, Playstation 3 users dominate the Folding@home project.

Basically, this means even if the PS3 finally bombed as a video game console, the unsold units could find purposeful life as a cheap supercomputer. This easily meets the criteria for making existing hardware more useful via software.

C64 fast loaders

Back in the 1980s, having a quick few minutes game of, say, Pitstop 2 (OK, I know any respectable player would not settle for a few minutes game of this gem) on the Commodore 64 was a relatively impossible task thanks to long loading times. You could have to wait minutes for a game to load — when loading from a cassette or from a floppy. Some loader routines even had a tiny game built-in to waste your time with while the game loaded in the background. To experience this ritual, watch the below video before proceeding to the next paragraph. Do not skip forward. It’ll make you respect fast loaders more.

Then, someone realized that the original routines for transferring data from the disk drive were in fact crap and wrote much more efficient routines. Thus, fast loaders were born. For example, the disk turbo on Action Replay VI reduced loading times tenfold (while the mentioned turbo was delivered on a cartridge, it was still purely a software affair — in fact the loader could be saved on disk from the cartridge). A game would load in a few seconds.

Subpixel rendering

With the advent of LCD screens, subpixel rendering has become commonplace. This is mostly thanks to ClearType, Microsoft’s implementation of subpixel rendering shipped with Windows XP. This technique implementable purely by software triples the vertical screen resolution. Kind of.

Subpixel rendering exploits the fact most displays have each screen pixel represented as set of a red, a green and a blue pixel (as you can remember from school, white consists of those three base colors). By slightly changing the color of neighboring RGB triplets, the human eye can be fooled to think a pixel is slightly towards the neighboring pixels (thanks to the fact our eyes sense color intensity much better than the actual shade of the color). Think of it as something similar to anti-aliasing.

This works best — or rather is more easily implemented by lazy programmers — on most LCD screens, thanks to the fact the triplet is usually arranged horizontally. A typical CRT screen doesn’t have a similar symmetric pixel geometry.

Alternative keyboard layouts

The QWERTY layout is the most common arrangement of keys on a keyboard. There are alternative layouts that are much faster for typing, as QWERTY was developed to slow down typists who were faster than the technology was back in the stone age. By ordering the keys in a different order, typing can be sped up because the fingers are closer to the keys that are used the most often.

A popular alternative layout is the Dvorak layout. A Dvorak keyboard can look intimidating a first (it looks like someone has vandalized a perfectly good keyboard) but in theory, it should be faster to type. It even takes into account that most people are right-handed — therefore the right hand should do most of the typing. Since it is the most common non-QWERTY layout, it is well supported. For example, Windows has shipped with it since Windows 95.

There is no single layout that was as good for any language as QWERTY is bad. The Dvorak layout has a downside that it is mainly for English — other languages have slightly different typing profile and thus have modified Dvorak layouts. For programmers and other people who frequently need special characters, there also exists a version of Dvorak.

The best potential feature of non-QWERTY layouts is the fact it is less likely you’ll injure yourself. Although, this is subject to debate considering a serious wrist injure comes from quite bad typing habits. People do however mention increased comfort when using e.g. Dvorak.

Turning a $60 router into a $600 router

Something comparable to the PS3 upgrade above, the hardware of some cheap routers can be better harnessed by changing the firmware. This is mostly because companies love to overprice their products (after all, a higher price is the only factor making some things “professional” — *cough* Vista). They simply sell a software downgraded version of a router with a lower price. Lifehacker explains in detail how to upgrade your router, in case it is suitable for the operation.

Also of note is that many wireless routers are capable of more transmitting power than they are allowed to. To put it short, the wireless connection does not work as reliably as it could. Even if the above firmware upgrade was not available for your router, it is very possible that there exists ways to increase the transmitting power. However, the legality of it is a gray area — the power is usually limited for a reason.

09 Mar

Dev Stories from the Past

A bit of nostalgy can never hurt anyone. To me, weird tales about old software are a source of inspiration — they are essentially war stories for nerds. Here are some cool software stories from the past told by the developers themselves.

Donkey Kong and Me

The aptly named DadHacker writes about his past at Atari Corp. and more specifically about his experiences on porting the Donkey Kong coin-op on Atari. Includes gory descriptions of 8-bit graphics modes.

… most of the game sources I saw in the consumer division were crap, just absolute garbage: almost no comments, no insight as to what was going on, just pages of LDA/STA/ADD and alphabet soup, and maybe the occasional label that was meaningful. But otherwise, totally unmaintainable code.

Sounds familiar…

Tim Follin Interview about Video Game Music

Here is a great video interview with Tim Follin, a composer of game music on the Commodore 64, Atari ST and many other platforms. Wikipedia has a surprisingly extensive biography but the below video has the same information told much better.

Be sure to watch the second part as well.

Macintosh Stories

The development of the Apple Macintosh is the source of many mythical stories. This site dedicated to Macintosh folklore contains probably most of them. I like the fact there is a lot of stories about both the people and the inner workings of the Mac.


Jeff Minter is a legendary character with the distinctive style of his games. Personally, Minter is in my all time Top 5. One of my first memories about computers is not understanding Colourspace at all back when I was about 8. Below is a really interesting and funny presentation by the man itself including game footage from his old games (I think the presentation is promotion for his latest effort, Space Giraffe). He has written an extensive history of his company Llamasoft.

An Interview with Rob Northen

Rob Northen was responsible for copy protecting many games on the Amiga and Atari ST platforms. Considering publisher giants like Ocean, Microprose and US Gold used his services, I’d say a majority of games used a version of his protection. This interview gives some insight into how he came up with his software Copylock and how it worked.