Monday 22 July 2013

Catacombs (Commodore 64, 1987)

Being the ardent treasure hunter that you are, you had a hard time resisting the stories about the Catacombs of Darkness and the fantastic caches of gold hidden there by the mysterious builders of the underground fortress.

Armed with only a torch, you descended the steps leading down to the catacombs without hesitating, ignoring the weird cries emanating from the dimly lit crypt, images of bulging chests of ill-gotten lucre swimming in your mind.
Today I stumbled into this simple dungeon crawler for Commodore 64 I've never noticed before. Published on Ahoy! (1987/01, Issue #37) and Compute!'s Gazette (November 1994), Catacombs is a Basic language game distributed either on disc and as listing. 

The game itself is a dungeon crawler with some really distant similarities with Sword of Fargoal (really few to be honest). The structure is based on a minimal architecture of 10 dungeons to explore, with treasure, traps and monster. To finish every catacomb level, you have to collect the key and find the exit door. For its simplicity, it might be defined as an archetypical casual game, especially for the low level of commitment requested.

More interesting details are explained on its dedicated article, where the coder explains the main stylistic peculiarity of the game. 
Catacombs is a game I created with the intention of experimenting with one of the 64’s least appreciated graphic modes-extended background color mode (EBC). Most people refer to it as a useless novelty of the VIC chip, but I have always thought that the ability to change the background color of a whole screen with a single POKE had to have a good game hiding in it somewhere. So far I have created a machine language game and this BASIC program using the VIC’s EBC mode, and have yet to run short on ideas for future projects.

Basically EBC mode works like this: your character set is cut down to one quarter of its usual 255 shapes, giving you only 64 to work with, the first 64 in the set. These first 64 characters consist mostly of alphanumeric codes, so if you are planning on writing a game, you will probably have to redefine your character set to substitute one of your shapes for one of the Commodore’s 64 default characters.
In EBC the first 64 characters of this set are displayed normally, getting their foreground color from color memory and their background color from the register at 53281. But the codes from 63 to 127, 128 to 191, and 192 to 255 get their background colors from registers 53282, 53283, and 53284 respectively. Although the colors are different, the characters still come from the shape tables of the first 64 codes!
Pretty simple game indeed, but definitely worth entering the dungeon crawler category, even though it cannot be considered an actual CRPG, since the game is limited to the simple exploration of 10 catacombs level, not providing any character creation or inventory feature.

In case you want to explore the simplicity of this archetypical game, I've uploaded the C64 disk with official documentation, and the extract from Ahoy! with the article and the actual Basic listing.

Download Catacombs for Commodore 64
Download Catacombs article and listing (Ahoy! 1987/01, Issue #37 extract)

Friday 19 July 2013

The Valley: the first CRPG for Commodore 64?

I have spent the last months trying to list and date all the CRPGs ever produced for the Commodore 64 and I have honestly encountered a massive amount of difficulties mainly because most of the online databases report, for every single entry, copyright dates rather than the actual release year. The whole rechecking process took me months only for a partial completion of the listing; despite my efforts, anyway, I still can't see the end of the tunnel.

However, while during the listing process, I wondered which was the first CRPG ever published for the Commodore 64,  considering that Tramiel's machine was released only during the summer of the 1982. A first conclusion pointed me towards an ancient Argus Press Software title named The Valley

A pretty basic game, but still interesting for its age. The gameplay involves exploring the Valley where there are two safe points (castles) at either end of the path. Apart from the starting and ending point, there some other places to explore: the Black Tower of Zaexon, Swamps, Forests, Vounim's Lair, and the Temple of Y'Naigoth. To complete the game, you have to find the legendary Helm of Evanna. That's it.

The Valley has been released around the early eighties (1) for Commodore PET, Tandy TRS80, BBC Model B, Oric 1 and Sharp MZ80K and then ported to the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. The original version of this game was published as a Basic language listing in a British magazine called Computing Today, around 1981; for the same reason there are around so many unofficial versions. 

Let's go back to official C64 version anyway. 

Here's how this game has been dated on the most relevant online databases:

MobyGames: 1982
Gamebase64: 1982

So when I started listing all the games, I had no doubt: The Valley was the first CRPG ever released for the C64. I was wrong

When I realized that all the games requested a double check, I ended moving The Valley from 1982 to 1983, positioning it from being the first in the list to one of the many published during the more prolific 1983. 

So why MobyGames and Gamebase64 superficially dated The Valley in 1982? 

The Valley, Title Screen, Commodore 64
Both sites probably came to a quick conclusion looking only at the main game screen, which reports as copyright date 1982 . 

When I decided to investigate a little bit more, I found the answer to my question only looking at the tape and inlay of the official ASP release. 

The Valley, Tape, Commodore 64
The Valley, Documentation, Commodore 64
Looking at the original tape and the bottom part of the documentation, the release date is clearly 1983 and not 1982,  leaving no other CPRG in my 1982 slot. 

This conclusion, unfortunately, doesn't answer to the main question: is there any CRPG produced during 1982 for the C64? 

Apparently not.  

(1) Probably 1981.

Images courtesy of Mocagh, World of Spectrum and Gamebase64.