Nothing sums up better the variety of games the 8-bit genre offers than two homebrews which came out for the Spectrum earlier this year. Within a few weeks of each other, the Speccy saw the release of Cray 5, a search and explore Amstrad conversion needing 128K-equipped Spectrums to run, and in stark contrast, a Russian game called Join that in terms of memory used is five times smaller. Oddly enough (or perhaps not) considering its size, Join turns out to be the more playable of the two.
The basic premise of Join involves guiding a ball around single screen rooms peppered with heart symbols. Using just left and right controls, you bounce the ball around the platforms to collect them, and once you've got them all you move on to the next room. Carefree bouncing isn't advised though, because the rooms are filled with red spikes that will cost you a ball upon touching one. As you progress, these spikes become more numerous, and subtle left and right manoeuvring is essential if you want to get through later screens with your balls intact.
There are a few oldies in the Spectrum back catalogue which involve controlling a bouncing sprite - Cauldron 2 and Wizball in particular come to mind - but none of them play quite the same way as this one. Perhaps the closest relative in gameplay is Splatform, a fine 2002 homebrew for the Commodore 64, though that game featured side-scrolling levels. Like Splatform, Join is simplicity in both presentation and style. Graphics are small but clear, and the beeper punctuations are just right; using the AY would not only be unnecessary, but inappropriate. Control is with the 6 and 7 keys (left and right on a Sinclair joystick) and it only takes a couple of goes to get the hang of things. It takes even less time to understand the rules, because it's just a case of remembering that contact with any red surface leads to soar balls.
LIKE A RUBBER BALL I COME BOUNCING BACK TO YOU
Join may not have too much to it, but it's still a highly playable little gem, and most of the stages have their own idiosyncrasies making them stand out on their own. Join also manages to bottle the curious addictive feeling that comes from convincing yourself you won't make the same mistake next time you play, only to find that like the gambler who just can't stop, you lose yet again. In saying that, Join is not a game of luck, but pure skill and reaction.
Also notable are the variety of approaches needed to get through later screens. Join's levels aren't merely harder versions of the same thing, and if you get far enough, one later level features a kind of spiral shaped path that proves incredibly tricky to wiggle your balls through. By this point, patience and a liberal use of the save game option (on emulators) may well be required!
I would love to see the programmer Denis Grachev develop this idea into a full size 48K release. Nothing needs to be done to the gameplay mechanic as such, but on the options front, it is a little bare. Give it definable keys and Kempston joystick options for example plus a level practice mode for those difficult later stages. A score counter would be a nice addition too so that people have a target to aim at when they want to beat their previous best. Maybe Grachev considered this release to be merely a programming exercise as practice for something more ambitious in the future, but the truth is that Join deserves a nice suit and tie to smarten it up.
Expectations of a beefed-up version are likely to be wishful thinking though, as Grachev has now moved onto other projects for the Spectrum, so don't wait any longer before trying out this simple, original pick-up-and-play title for 2011: you really will enjoy playing with your balls in this one. They say that art thrives on limitations, but the same can also be said of computer games- even if the computer in question is the technically challenged Spectrum- so long as the games are as economically programmed and creatively produced as the ten kilobytes of Join.