• Graphics
  • Sound
  • Playability
  • Lastability
FormatCommodore VIC 20
DeveloperMatt Simmonds
Price£1.99 (excl. P&P;)
ReviewShaun B. and Frank

Main review 

Now, many of you will know I’ve been taking an interest in new games for aging (mostly 8 bit) formats for quite some time. And, over the years, it’s been really nice to see variety even if some of the releases available aren’t always up to scratch. At the lower end of the quality scale, for instance, we have had many many public releases from Richard Bayliss. And it’s good to see that for every Richard Bayliss, there is someone like Matt Simmonds out there. What we have here is a quality ‘Matt Simmonds’ type home-brew release, and the ‘Matt Simmonds’ in this case is the actual Matt Simmonds I spoke of in my comparison, programmer of Astro Nell for the VIC 20.

Astro Nell is best described as a clone of Matt Smith’s Speccy classic Jet Set Willy. Right, like that’s possible? Well, with a 16K RAM expansion? Or possibly with an extra 8K… no! This requires no extra memory! Not even an extra 3K! So, working in such limitations must mean that the game is pretty small then? Well, not as there are 89 objects to collect and countless rooms to explore (only countless because I haven’t counted them, by the way).

Okay, so what’s the deal? Nell is marooned on rather big asteroid due to her ship crash-landing somewhere in the endless universe, and it’s up to you to guide the space dudette around the locale to collect the energy units needed to revive her ship and get the funk back home. Each screen is presented as a familiar platform style, and the controls are left, right and jump. Skillfully coded into the game is the ‘infinite death loop’, much noted from Matt Smith’s original game. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about here, I’ll briefly explain – when you jump on to a screen to your peril, you will repeat the same movement until you’re out of oxygen and are dead. Now that’s what I call a clone!

Jet Set Willy fans (hi Mart!) will instantly be at home with this venture into space. It plays and even feels like the aforementioned Speccy classic with nicely animated, varied and colourful graphics. There are spot sound effects that compliment the play well – nothing too exciting though, but all things considered they’re pretty damn good. One is left to ponder exactly how such a feat has been achieved in such a small amount of memory. My bet is that Simmonds has sold his soul to the Devil, formed a clan and done other such unholy things. Err… probably not, but it’s a plausible explanation given the circumstances in which the game operates. I’m just waiting for Astro Nell II – the Final Frontier, in which there will be another few dozen screens to explore along with a fix for the infinite death loop…!

Second opinion

Back in the Vic’s heyday, Software Projects had the tough task of trying to cram their golden title, Manic Miner, into the VIC 20, as well as every other machine that pretty much existed back then. Unfortunately the programmer found it quite a struggle, so a cut down version of the game was eventually released with less screens (and different screens too!) named The Perils Of Willy to separate it from the original. Astro Nell aims to heal the pains in spectacular fashion since it’s a modern day Manic Miner clone for the VIC 20, but not only does it contain almost as many screens as Manic Miner, it runs on an unexpanded 3.5K VIC too! Once you get over the technical amazement, then its a case of checking out the game itself to see if it really is… There are 88 items to collect in total and, instead of clearing each screen then finding the exit, Nell has the freedom of visiting all the screens and collecting items in any order as you wish. So in fact, we are more greeted with a Jet Set Willy clone than Manic Miner!… Erm, Software Projects would be kind of miffed with their programmer if they saw this surely?

The game is not quite as easy as it looks, as well as trying to simply collect all of the objects, you also have a time limit. The 9999 counter ticks down very slowly, but that time soon begins to get very low as you progress. Screens are well thought out and varied throughout, with a great selection of strange creatures as you’d expect from a typical Matthew Smith game. The asteroid world is made up of a good variety of blocks with interesting (if not tricky) obstacles to overcome on various screens. You get your healthy dose of moving escalators, animating blocks which kill, blocks which you cannot pass, blocks which you can walk behind and jump onto.

Astro Nell herself is well drawn and animates well. Generally the graphics are faithful to the genre, so don’t expect anything particularly mindblowing, but it probably wouldn’t quite feel the same without the “old skool” feel about them. Sound is on the limited side, but you can accept this when you realise how much else is actually crammed in otherwise. In terms of playablity, what can you say…? Really you need to be a fan of this genre of game to fully appreciate, and most of all enjoy it. I basically grew up with the likes of Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy and as a result I became hooked right away, and found there to be a good learning curve with each go as you progressively get further and collect more objects. Each screen provides a new problem, and the determination to discover new rooms and find more objects proves to be quite addictive. With perseverance, you’ll get a bit further each time.

Overall the game could be compared to Doctor Who’s TARDIS; it looks small on the outside but once you get inside you’ll find a whole world! It’s truly amazing that such a large, addictive and downright technical marvel has been crammed into 3.5K and it has to be seen to be believed. If Software Projects had Matt as an employee back then… maybe VIC fans would have a decent Manic Miner conversion.