Squeezing big into small is becoming more common to current software developers as console hardware ages and software evolves, but when PC games run poorly, users are expected to chuck in another 500Mb. However, hardcore enthusiasts believe in kicking machines until they burst, with coders cramming the impossible into older machines; these efforts are to be admired but with that admiration can also be a feeling of disbelief, so Oldschool Gaming decided to take a glance at some of the cream of this crop, those games which pushed their target hardware well beyond everybody's expectations.
MOOD BY NO-NAME (COMMODORE 64, 1997)
No need to get tetchy! MOOD (C64)
Getting the ball rolling, we check out one of the biggest programming feats ever achieved... a jaw-dropping C64 Wolfenstein clone, cunningly named MOOD. Although blockier than Lego, it is an extremely surprising conversion; the most astonishing aspect of the game being it running without any CPU or RAM enhancement features, just a bog standard C64.
Running at good speed (and even faster on a C128), detail levels and the size of maps are sufficient to make the game comparable game to PC variants. Each level is crammed into individual loads, with a range of weaponry and function keys at the player's disposal as with the original game. Sound is minimal, but later versions featured much more in the way of sound effects.
The critics may be slightly unimpressed with the game's enemies, due to their rather cardboard movement and appearance, but they do their job with the limited AI that has been put in and the game still poses plenty of challenges overall and is just unbelievable to see.
Unfortunately MOOD was never completed due to real life commitments taking over development. Close to completion, No-Name may well finish it off in the future and features for the completed version were to be a C64-based level editor and possibly a networking option. Just how No-Name crammed this into 64k with a 0.98mhz CPU is beyond belief and is an example of just what can be achieved with so little hardware grunt.
MANIC MINER BY ALES MARTINIK (SINCLAIR ZX81, 2001)
Manic Miner (ZX81) - down down, deeper
From 48K to 16K and below... Manic Miner may not push many CPU's to melting point, but if you have just managed to squeeze this classic onto a ZX81 (taking up few kilobytes), then you would be rather proud like Ales Martinik (the author of this "miner" miracle).
Quite often a transition to a lower spec machine means compensations, but the striking thing about this conversion is how many features survive from the original considering the constraints. Inevitably Ales' ZX81 version lacks the colour of the original, and loses nine levels, but gameplay is hardly any different than the original classic and although they're monochrome, the graphics are almost pixel perfect, with smooth animation and features fairly uncommon in ZX81 games. Apart from minor glitches, this is probably what Software Projects believed to be the impossible back when converting this to all the home formats.
Everything here is beyond the expectation of the machine, and fans of Miner Willy were undeniably impressed upon its release into the world. If you are a fan of this genre, you won't miss out on anything apart from those missing levels. It really is an awe-inspiring piece of code. What Ales has achieved here is something which deserves recognition and praise, so go grab a ZX81 emulator and check it out.
THRUST+ PLATINUM EDITION BY XYPE (ATARI VCS, 2000)
Can you feel the force? Thrust (Atari 2600)
Our last title sees us stepping further back in time with a machine older than a few of us... the Atari VCS helped launch a generation of gamers, and although limited hardware contributed towards some poor conversions, there were some rather impressive programming feats achieved; none more so than a VCS conversion of the BBC/C64 classic Thrust.
I was slightly skeptical upon first learning of this (possibly) over-ambitious attempt. The VCS was not the easiest machine to develop for, so attempting such a conversion would be pointless right? Thomas Jentzsch (who talks later about his game) thought otherwise. Previously, conversions to the VCS were tame, like Pacman, but not this time... right away you are treated with a scarily accurate rendition of Rob Hubbard's classic tune on the title screen. Although only having two channels avaolable, musician Paul Slocum has made the VCS produce music never thought possible, and this before we even hit the game!
Gameplay is an absolute peach, and is very close to the original. Apart from inevitable differences in resolution, graphics are surprisingly accurate with colour and design, and move smoothly with hardly any flicker that is common with more complicated VCS games. The game is still as hard as the original, and just as fun! Luckily people can download the game for free, or buy the Platinum edition all packaged up like a commercial release from the Atari Age shop. This is yet another example of "heart and soul" put into a conversion, and one that has earned Thomas much respect in the retro community. Thrust+PE is to be seen to be believed.
PROGRAMMER THOMAS JENTZSCH TALKS TO OLDSCHOOL GAMING ABOUT THRUST
I had always been a fan of the original C64 game, because it favoured gameplay over eye candy and was very challenging and addictive. When re-discovering the VCS back in 1999, I soon found the [stella] mailing list and looked for a game idea which I'd like to convert onto the VCS. Since I'm not very good developing my own game ideas, I went through the list of games I liked most and soon realized that Thrust was a perfect solution to my "problem".
Writing the display kernel was probably the most difficult part, especially because it was my very first attempt to do so. Technically the tow bar between ship and pod turned out to be the biggest problem and I had to write an extra kernel for displaying it.
The ship graphics caused problems too, because I needed graphics which looked faithful to the original for all 16 possible directions. I remember spending a lot of time with various attempts while traveling by train. Another problem was the horizontal scrolling, which usually doesn't look good in Atari 2600 games. The idea of what I call "delayed scrolling" solved the problem.
But the biggest challenge was to *finish*. I had several long breaks, where I didn't feel able to continue programming, so I sometimes really had to force myself back to the computer. Without the support of the great community at [stella] I probably would have failed.
I am still very pleased with the result. Especially after I added some suggested extras like more controller options and (with the help of Paul Slocum) finally fixed the weakest part, the sound. Actually it was more than just a fix, IMO Paul's great talent improved the game to a new level. Now it is finally perfect for me.
MOOD C64 previews at Games That Weren't C64
Manic Miner ZX81 at Jet Set Willy Remakes
Xype's official Thrust + 2600 homepage and OSG's Thrust review