When more is less
It's pretty easy to tell which legendary arcade game this is an unofficial home conversion of, right? Award yourself 5.92 points (out of 7.1) if you get it.
(Yeah, you're all so clever. I bet if I'd taken a shot without the yellow lines in you wouldn't have had a clue.)
But this incredibly obscure early-80s videogame teaches us a few interesting things about gaming as it is today, particularly with regard to the aesthetics of art and the intelligent application of technology. No, really, it does.
For those of you joining us late, it is of course a clone of Tempest. Specifically, it's the cunningly-named Tempest by Mikro-Gen, which dates all the way back to 1983 and is as far as I know the first commercial attempt at bringing Atari's hyper-intense and abstract vector-graphics arcade shooter to the ZX Spectrum.
If you can't be bothered turning your head sideways, the back-of-box blurb, which is also the entire text of the inlay, reads "Try if you dare to avoid or destroy the Spinners, Walkers and Lasers etc., all the fun of the arcades crammed into a Spectrum".
(Presumably this was in order to remove any lingering doubt and make the job of Atari's lawyers much easier if they were to show an interest. How much "daring" does it take to avoid something, incidentally?)
I discovered this particular Tempest recently, completely by accident. It's one of three Speccy games to carry the title, including Electric Dreams' fairly terrible official release and a fantastic German version which would go on to be released in the UK under the name G-Force.
It's actually a port of Mikro-Gen's own ZX81 interpretation of the coin-op, which is one of the all-time great feats of videogame coding – a game that somehow captures the spirit of Tempest in monochrome, complete silence, and a graphic resolution of 32×24 big fat pixels with letters and punctuation marks for enemies.
So why is the Spectrum version rubbish?
Because the odd thing about it is that despite having the advantages of colour, sound and hugely higher-resolution graphics (64 times the resolution, in fact), and being basically the same code – to the point where Mikro-Gen were happy to advertise it using quotes from reviews of the ZX81 game – the Speccy version IS rubbish. The new graphics are fine, but the sound is just two different farting noises and the use of colour is, well, see for yourself.
Now, the ZX81 game looks like it does because (I think, and someone more acquainted with ZX81 programming than me can correct me if I'm wrong) it took the machine more CPU time to draw black blocks than leave space blank, so a fully-black screen would have slowed the game down.
The Speccy, though, had no such issues, and so could have used inverse colours with no adverse effects, which would have made Spectrum Tempest look something like this:
Which I'm sure we can all agree is, if not exactly beautiful, possessed of a certain spartan elegance and altogether more dynamic and exciting and Tempest-y than the version as released.
(And in a weird twist, simply inverting the colours directly in any PC paint program does actually result in enemies that are in mostly the "correct" arcade colours – green Spikers, red Flippers, blue channels against a black background, and new yellow and purple enemies standing in for yellow Pulsars and purple Tankers.)
If you invert the ZX81 version, on the other hand, it looks worse than the real one does – cluttered, loud, cold and harsh – which just goes to show how hard it is to get retro graphics right, either at the time or when making neo-retro games nowadays.
Of course, particularly alert and perceptive WoSblog viewers who've been keeping up with recent posts will also have figured out something else interesting from all of this. Have YOU spotted it?
Mikro-Gen's version Tempest, for all its failings, identifiably captures much of the spirit of its coin-op parent. (Particularly in its ZX81 incarnation, where your imagination is free to fill in all the sensory gaps without being crudely over-ridden by nasty farty sound effects or ugly colour choices.)
It also, however, bears a pretty obvious resemblance to the lost Spectrum mini-classic Storm-Fighters, which we've been discussing of late – in fact, it's more or less the same game only played sideways instead of vertically.
And as we conclusively established with unarguable certainty in the previous feature, Storm-Fighters is essentially identical in gameplay terms to the legendary Deathchase, which itself is a clear and unmistakeable direct genetic predecessor of Taito's classic 1988 arcade hit Chase HQ.
And Chase HQ is in turn obviously just the 16-bit racing-and-ramming ancestor of Burnout Revenge. Which, if you put it all together, basically means that we've just proved beyond any reasonable logical dispute that Tempest and Burnout Revenge are the same game. Hurrah!
Join us next time for more Science!