Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Down on the farm…

Ok, when I go retro I don’t do no wishy-washy half-measures!
This blog was inspired by an accidental glimpse of an old advert I remembered from my misspent youth.

The advert was by the, then, mysterious ‘Softwarwe Farm’ and promised ‘hi-res’ graphics on the ZX81… a machine that everyone knew couldn’t do user-defined hi-res graphics, and I have to admit that I was sceptical.

Well it turns out that everyone, including sceptical teenage me, was wrong, and the humble ZX-81 could indeed do ‘hi-res’ user defined graphics. My dumb was well and truly struck, and probably like many others I immediately began to wonder how this was done. As it turns out Julian Chappell, the main programming half of the one man / one woman Software Farm team wasn’t too forthcoming on this front. And who could really blame him. It reportedly took him six months just to work out the user-defined graphics procedure code.

In hindsight I think the most remarkable thing about this revelation is that it was done at all, far-les done commercially and successfully on a machine that was already falling out of favour. This really was a relatively major software coupe at the time, and although the games were more-or-less successful I still don’t think the user-defined graphics process got the technical accalation that it richly deserved. If this had come just a few years earlier it would have been hailed as a major accomplishment.
In today’s world of neo-photorealistic graphics this may not seem much to write home about, but at the time it was scarcely believable. Imagine the impact of some little-known software firm announcing it had come up with a purely software only solution to allow the 360 or PS3 to show real 3D on a normal monitor. Yes, it was that fantastical a claim for some people in the ZX-81 community at the time. It was something that accepted knowledge said just couldn’t be done.

Anyway, enough rambling from me… let’s get down to the games:
Software farm had released some ‘normal’ ZX-81 games before their hi-res revolution. But I’m looking at the games utilising their user-defined graphics process here. They released four of these games: Forty Niner, Rocket Man, Z-Xtricator, and Booster.

The first game to be released was ‘Forty Niner’ a clever variation on the popular Dig-Dug concept, which was still a popular arcade-cabinet game at the time. Although primarily a vehicle to showcase the aforementioned graphics this was also a very playable game. Of course it was the graphics that got the attention, especially from the computer press of the time, but the game was good and could have stood up on it’s own without the groundbreaking visuals.

The second game to be released was ‘Rocket Man’ and although it was still seen as a show-hors for the graphics-engine this was also universally hailed as a superior game in terms of game-play and design. This was an updated take on the ‘Jet-Pack’ style of game. And the original ‘Jet-Pack’ was seen as one of the best available games of the newer and much hypes ZX Spectrum at this time.
Rocket Man was a jet-Pack come ladders-and-levels game that had you collecting gems from the left hand side of the screen to deposit in your flying-saucer that randomly lands to the right of the screen. However this task is hampered by a nicely rendered blob… escaped straight out of the ‘Prisoner’ TV series of the time I think!

By the time the third game came out Julian had though that the initial glamour of the user-defined graphics could be watered down a little, with the main focus switching back to the game-play. In hindsight this may not have been the best course of action.
Z-Xtricator did do well, especially seeing as how it was released to an ever diminishing ZX-81 market place. By this time its younger Spectrum sibling was busy gobbling up large chunks of the UK market, and the ZX-81 was being seen as increasingly niche or old-hat. But Z-Xtricator was by no means a failure.
This game was a fairly sophisticated Defender type game. I think to call it a clone would be to do it a slight injustice, although in many respects it probably was the closest the humble ZX-81 got to a full Defender conversion.

And this was where disaster struck when Software Farm’s distributor ceased trading. This was a major blow to the company, which had already seen diminishing returns. To make matters worse there were no other distributors taking on ZX-81 releases, so the only option this left them with was to go back to directly selling their product to the consumers by mail-order. At one stroke almost 80% of their audience, and profits, was swept away from under them…

To their personal effort and the ZX-81 everlasting gratitude Software Farm struggled on to produce one last game. This was the much called-for sequel to ‘Rocket Man’ which, up to this point, was heralded as their greatest game.
‘Booster’ was released amidst much abated-breath, albeit to a much reduced audience. It came packaged with a very obviously low-rent plain cassette tape and cover with typed instructions. The company’s plight was obvious when comparing this packaging to the slick full-colour earlier covers.
But the content more than made up for the plain cover. This much awaited squeal was indeed heralded as a huge improvement over the original game, and was now seen as the new shining diamond in an increasingly tarnished crown.

But it couldn’t stop the inevitable closure of the outfit. The ZX-81 faded from the gaming markets as the battle of the Spectrum verses the Commodore 64 raged on in the British high-streets and schoolyards. I think something very special was lost as likes of the ZX-81 passed into history and the very first seeds of popular-computer-gaming took shape. But then gain, something wonderful was about to happen, and a brand new entertainment industry was poised to burst into every living-room.

I still haven’t figured out exactly how they got those user-defined graphics to work on a humble ZX-81 though…

Perhaps now someone could tell me?

No comments:

Post a Comment