Too Much Free Time

Discussion and reviews of games for NES, Intellivision, DOS, and others.

Archive for the ‘Full Review’ Category


Posted by Tracy Poff on November 13, 2016

Ventilator by Peregrine Wade is an entry in the 2016 ifcomp. You find yourself in an unbearably hot hotel room; perhaps the ventilator will help to cool you…

(The post below may contain spoilers. Read at your own risk.)

This game aims for humor through absurdity and exaggeration, and it’s hit or miss–mostly miss. The game tells you in the introduction that “There are no flies in the air, but that is only because they have all passed out on the floor.”, and indeed when the game starts there are flies on the floor (which “look highly dehydrated”)–a nice touch. I was amused, too, that when the cat flies onto your face, your inventory describes it as “a cat (being worn)”. On the other hand, the description of the bar as “A minibar. Just a minibar. Not a spaceship. Not a portal to another world. Not… well, you get the idea.” falls a bit flat, as do most of the other jokes in the game.

When you leave the room, you encounter a “left-right corridor” (and can, indeed, go left or right) rather than the usual compass directions. That’s weird–what other directions would the corridor run? Up and down? I guess it’s an objection on the part of the author to the use of compass directions in IF; trying to move south at one point gives “You don’t have a compass.” It’s not consistent on this, though. Sometimes compass directions are accepted, and trying to run gives “You’ll have to say which compass direction to go in.”

On this point, I don’t think it’s a problem for IF to use compass directions. They are, after all, descriptions for the player, not the player character. I’d be much less happy if an IF game more ‘realistically’ forced me to move around by manually turning and walking forward. Tank controls in IF! Is it an idea whose time has come?

The puzzles, such as they are, aren’t very hard. There’s a timed ‘puzzle’ at the beginning–you must turn the fan on before you lose consciousness–and some of the later ones are probably timed as well, but the game is basically just railroading you into progressing through the game. There’s little enough to see and do, so I don’t suppose this really detracts from it.

After I got my bearings I examined myself and my inventory. The description of the shirt (“…just like Stephanie, before that stupid argument messed up everything.”) made me think of Adam Cadre’s 9:05 and I momentarily hoped that the events of the game might belie the tone, but it was not to be.

After beating the game, you’re presented with a list of suggested amusing things you can try, and I poked at a couple of them, but didn’t have any motivation to try them all.

Ventilator isn’t entirely bad. The implementation is generally competent with some attention to detail (e.g. the flies are gone after you turn on the ventilator–blown away, I presume), and there are a number of endings and optional actions. It just didn’t entertain me. Not recommended.

This review is based on 2016-10-20 version.

Play time: 18 minutes.

Posted in 2016, Bad, Full Review, Interactive Fiction, Platform Independent | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Tracy Poff on November 12, 2016

Undo by Neil deMause (credited in the game as “null dogmas”) is a 1995 interactive fiction game, entered in the first annual interactive fiction competition. The premise is that when the game opens, you’ve just finished the last puzzle in a buggy, corrupted interactive fiction game, and have only to reach the exit to win.

The game is very brief–I spent about ten minutes beating it, exploring everything as thoroughly as possible–but it has a few entertaining bits. For example, if you check your inventory, you’re told that “You have everything that you need.”, and in the Binary Room you can take 0 (or take nothing) and your inventory will change to “You have nothing.” If you take other objects, e.g. take 1, then “You have nothing and a 1.” You can drop nothing and then “You have a 1 and everything that you need.” Inspired by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, if I’m not mistaken, quite appropriate for a piece of IF which is about a piece of IF.

The game’s solution more or less makes sense, though you’re more likely to stumble across it than to reason it out. I’ve written some invisiclues-style hints for the game, if you’re stuck.

Undo has a few neat ideas and an interesting premise, but it doesn’t really do anything with them, and feels more like Speed-IF than a real game. It can safely remain a relic of the past.

Posted in 1995, Decent, Freeware, Full Review, Interactive Fiction, Platform Independent, Uncategorized | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Smurf: Rescue in Gargamel’s Castle

Posted by Tracy Poff on February 23, 2016

Since we’ve most recently looked at a couple of arcade-style single screen platformers, let’s change it up a bit with something a bit more reminiscent of Pitfall!.

Smurf Rescue (colecovision) - cover

(cover from MobyGames)

If Pitfall! had Smurfs, anyway.

Smurf Rescue (colecovision) - 01

Smurf: Rescue in Gargamel’s Castle (also known as Smurf Rescue) is a 1982 release by Coleco for the Colecovision, also ported to the Atari 2600. The first thing you’ll notice upon starting the game is that, compared to its contemporaries, Smurf Rescue is beautiful. It’s got lovely, colorful, detailed graphics, and the animation is pretty smooth, too. It’s even got some nice background music (from Simple Gifts and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the arrangement of the latter sounding rather like a track from Pokemon, to me).

Smurf Rescue (colecovision) - 02

Our hero, called by the manual simply “Smurf”, must jump over fences, tufts of grass, ledges, stalagmites, and other obstacles on his way to Gargamel’s castle, where Smurfette is being held prisoner. Successfully making a jump awards points (helpfully printed on the screen), with more difficult jumps being worth more points.

Smurf Rescue (colecovision) - 03

The game features several different types of terrain. On the way to the castle, you’ll pass through several screens of a type, and then enter another. You’ve got an energy meter which is constantly decreasing, but it is refilled when you encounter a new type of terrain.

Smurf Rescue (colecovision) - 04

When you finally reach the castle, and leap to Smurfette by way of a skull, you’re awarded a large bonus and the game starts over. You keep your points, though, so you could keep playing to see how high a score you can achieve before running out of lives.

Smurf Rescue (colecovision) - 05

That’s all on Skill 1, though. On the higher skill levels, there are enemies to avoid, as well. The hawks shown above will swoop around and chase you, so you’ve got to duck or otherwise dodge them. The game is much harder when you’ve got to contend with enemies, rather than just worry about making the jumps, and on higher levels there are more screens between you and the castle, and your energy depletes more quickly, too. For something that seems a cutesy kids’ game, Smurf Rescue can definitely provide a challenge.

The game’s weakest point is its control scheme. You’d think, given that the Colecovision’s controller had an astounding fourteen buttons, they could have spared one for jumping, but, alas, it was not to be. You jump by pushing the joystick up. Furthermore, you can jump at two different heights, but to make a higher jump you must jump twice in quick succession, rather than something sensible like holding up on the joystick longer. When you’ve got to dodge enemies while carefully judging the right place to jump, this control scheme is a real pain.

Let me direct your attention to a solicitation for the game from a catalog:

Smurf Rescue (catalog entry)

There are a few things of note, here. First, “All screens shown in CBS Colecovision format.” it proudly declares. The screenshot on the back of the game box is similar. But you’ll notice that it doesn’t match my screenshots above. I imagine the promotional shots were taken while the game was still in development, so we’re getting a look at what might have been. The artwork differs a little from the box art, too.

Second, I don’t believe it is possible to have 3570 points on the first screen. Maybe if you backtracked.

Third, the description states “And, to maintain his strength, he must eat hard-to-reach berries.” There aren’t any berries in this game. That’s just an outright lie. Was there a feature like that at the time the promotional shots were taken, and the ad copy was written? It’s hard to imagine that feature being removed at such a late stage, but it’s possible. Or perhaps there was some miscommunication, or the ad copy was based on outdated design documents. I always wonder, when the advertising doesn’t match the reality, exactly what caused it.

There were several different clones released on the Commodore 64: Smurfs by Carl Muller, Smurf Rescue (which had a followup, Smurf 2: The Revenge) by Courbois Software, and Smurfen by C.A.W. Brand and M. Brand (which features a rather cool rendition of “Billie Jean”). There have been more recent projects based on this, too, such as this neat little thing made in MIT’s Scratch language, and this Amiga game by Mikael Persson, which unfortunately encountered legal trouble.

It’s worth giving this game a try, just for a bit of variety. If you don’t mind the controls, it’s pretty fun.

Posted in 1982, ColecoVision, Decent, Full Review, Platformer | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Ape Craze

Posted by Tracy Poff on February 16, 2016

I said in my review of Miner 2049er that clones were the order of the day in the early eighties. For proof, one need look no further than Ape Craze, a 1982 release for Commodore 64 by Mike Blackman, published by Comm*Data.

Ape Craze - title

What kind of game would you guess this to be? Does the name seem to hint at anything?

Ape Craze - 01

That’s not a trick question. It’s a Donkey Kong clone, though it does change things up a bit. In the first level, you begin at the bottom left, and must reach the exit at the top right. To hinder you, the ape constantly throws bombs across the top of the screen which drop and roll down to the bottom. If you’re feeling brave, you can collect the… barrels?… objects scattered around the level for extra points. I do not recommend that you do this, however, because the game is very hard. Let’s examine why.

First, there are a lot of bombs on the screen at once, leaving you with very limited options for reaching the top. Your best bet is to stand atop a raised section of girder, where the bombs can’t reach, wait for a gap between bombs, and then jump to another safe spot. If you just brush a bomb from the side as it falls, it’s game over. You can actually land on bombs safely (or stand atop the exit without the level ending) since it seems collisions are only checked from the side, but this is still quite difficult, because…

Second, the jump behaves very inconsistently. Sometimes, you’ll jump up a full level. Others, you’ll just make a short hop. Yet other times, you’ll seem to catch an edge on the way up, and sail right on up another level. This doesn’t seem to depend on how long you hold the button in (or, indeed, whether you hold it in at all or merely tap it). Considering that you’ve got to make precise jumps so as to dodge between waves of bombs, this is a pretty crippling flaw. And when you do jump, you’d better be very sure of your landing because…

Third, falling too far kills you. And the maximum safe height is only just greater than a single level, so if you jump, but miss and fall down a level, you die. Combine this with the unreliability of jumps and you’ll be doing a lot of dying. Oh, and…

Fourth, you only get one life, and when you restart, the level is randomized slightly. That’s actually a point in the game’s favor, but it does mean that you can’t plan out and perfect a route in advance–you’ve got to plan on the fly, every time.

Ape Craze - 02

If you do reach the exit on the first level, you’re presented with this obvious copy of the rivet stage of Donkey Kong. Walk over the… bananas?… objects to make the girders collapse and complete the level. Since you mostly climb rather than jump on this level, it’s actually much easier than the first (and a good thing it is, given the one-life-only situation).

Ape Craze - end

Beat the second stage as well, and you get… the first stage, again. Actually, the US version of Donkey Kong did this as well, adding the remaining stages as you looped the game, but I believe these two stages are all Ape Craze has to offer..

Ape Craze is not a shining example of C64 gaming. I’d say it’s a tolerable substitute for Donkey Kong, but the Atari 2600, ColecoVision, and Intellivision ports of DK were released the same year (and perhaps they were released before this game), so there were better options available.

The contemporary reactions to the game were entertainingly varied. From Steven Darnold:

The game itself is interesting, but poorly implemented. The graphics are relatively primitive, there are only two different game sets, and a player has only one life.

The Midnite Software Gazette #13 had four reviews of this game. Selections:

Very nice music. Particularly clever synchronization between music and screen while changing to second screen. Recommended.–LW

Very hard to jump and only one try per game. Catchy, but tedious tune. Frustrating; not recommended.–Roy Wagner

Favorite at our house [. . .] Music is catchy and enjoyable [. . .] Highly recommended.–NR

The excellent use of music in the background of play still would not entice me to purchase the game.–JO

Count my vote for Roy Wagner. This isn’t a game anyone is likely to want to revisit, unless they’ve viewing it through nostalgia-tinted lenses.

Mike Blackman programmed three other titles released by Comm*Data (Escape MCP, Pegasus Odyssey, and Sketch & Paint), but that seems to have been the extent of his contributions to gaming–if I read his LinkedIn profile correctly, his further programming endeavours were restricted to more ‘serious’ software.

This is far from the last Donkey Kong clone I’ll be looking at, I’m afraid. Perhaps the next one will be better.

Posted in 1982, Bad, Commodore 64, Full Review, Platformer | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Miner 2049er

Posted by Tracy Poff on February 14, 2016

In the eighties, if any arcade game achieved success, there were sure to be dozens of home computer games ‘inspired by’ it released in short order1. Beginning in 1980, the California-based Big Five Software released nine games for the TRS-80, mostly very straightforward clones of arcade games (including three games based on Space Invaders). These achieved some success, but nothing compared to founder Bill Hogue’s first game for Atari home computers, Miner 2049er, released in 19822.

Miner 2049er (Atari 8-bit) - cover

The game’s manual lays out the gripping story: you play the role of Bounty Bob, “the most loyal, heroic, and charismatic mounty … ever known”, who has been sent to capture Yukon Yohan, a fur trapper wanted for murder. Bob chased Yohan all the way to a uranium mine once owned by Nuclear Ned, and an explosion has trapped both Bob and Yohan within. The radiation in the mine has turned the creatures within into deadly mutants. Helpfully, however: “Scattered throughout the mine are various articles that have been lost by previous miners. Capture them by touching them and you will be awarded points. Additionally, the mutants will turn into green happy creatures that are now edible.”

Miner 2049er (Atari 8-bit) - 01

The goal of the game is to walk over every section of the platforms. Doing so fills the section in, and once every section is filled in, you’re awarded points depending on how much time remains on the timer, and the next station begins.

Miner 2049er (Atari 8-bit) - 02

There are ten stations in total, and a number of difficulty settings which increase the speed at which the enemies move.

Miner 2049er (Atari 8-bit) - 03

Later stations feature a variety of extra obstacles: beginning with station 2, there are slides which you slide down when you walk over them; station 3 has transporters you may operate to move between sections; station 5 has moving platforms; station 8 has a lift you can use to reach high places; station 9 features that staple of platformers, the ‘pulverizers’ which descend to crush you; finally, stage 10 has a cannon which you must load up with TNT to blast yourself to higher platforms.

Miner was ported to more or less every game platform and released in many countries. Reviews praise its originality, though it clearly shows the influence of both Donkey Kong, with its platforms and ladders, and Pac-Man, with its powerups that allow the player to eat otherwise-fatal enemies. In its turn, Miner influenced later games, such as City Connection, which lifts the painting-every-square mechanic directly from Miner. Originality aside, it’s obvious why Miner was such a success; it’s fun, challenging, and has good, smooth controls.

A sequel to the game, Bounty Bob Strikes Back!, was released in 1984. A free Windows emulated version of both games is available from Big Five Software’s website3.

Bibliography and further reading

John J. Anderson, Mastering Miner 2049er, Creative Computer Video & Arcade Games 1, 2 (1983-12), 103–108.
A detailed strategy guide with routes for each of the game’s ten stages.
The Editors of Consumer Guide, Personal Computers & Games. (Beekman House, 1983).
A general overview of the computer systems available, short guides to a few games, and brief reviews of several more.
Miner 2049er is featured as ‘The Best Theme Game’ and a guide to the first five stages is given on pages 55-57.
The Editors of Electronic Games, The Miner 2049er Story, Electronic Games 2, 6 (1983-08), 26–42.
Nickolas Marentes & Barry Friedman, Interview with Barry Friedman, The Miner 2049er Information Page (2001-06).
Nickolas Marentes & Bill Kunkel, Interview with Bill Kunkel, The Miner 2049er Information Page (2001-04).
Nickolas Marentes & Mike Livesay, Interview with Mike Livesay, The Miner 2049er Information Page (2001-04).
Nickolas Marentes & Scott Ross, Interview with Scott Ross, The Miner 2049er Information Page (2001-05).
Matthew Reed & Bill Hogue, An Interview with Bill Hogue, (2008-10-29).
Miner 2049er is mentioned briefly.
Kevin Savetz & Bill Hogue, ANTIC Interview 94 – Bill Hogue, Miner 2049er, (2015-10-29).
A somewhat directionless interview reminiscing about Hogue’s work on games, and particularly Miner 2049er and its sequel, Bounty Bob Strikes Back.

  1. As [ElectronicGames1983] says, Miner 2049er “is as important for what it isn’t as for what it is”. In particular, it’s not an arcade conversion nor based on an existing license. Noteworthy, as “until the recent crack-down on infringers by the coin-op manufacturers, all too many computer games were little more than knock-offs of pay-for-play machines. No one will ever know how many computer games came into being as a result of ‘fact-finding’ trips by designers to their local family amusement centers. More than one programmer has returned from the arcade after pumping a few tokens into a promising game, with the outlines of something awfully similar already percolating in his head.” 
  2. But you don’t have to take my word for it. According to [ElectronicGames1983]: “The phenomenon — and make no mistake about it, Miner’s publication is perhaps the most significant software event of this year…” 
  3. Hogue recalled in [SavetzHogue2015] that when producing the emulated version, he had to spend some hours or days cracking his own anti-piracy measures–he never imagined that the person he’d be protecting his game from would be himself! 

Posted in 1982, Atari 8-bit, Full Review, Good, Platformer | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Tracy Poff on February 9, 2016

Since we’re done with Space Panic and Donkey Kong (for now, though it has many, many ports, clones, and variants), we’ve come to the earliest platformer that I really enjoy: Pitfall! for Atari 2600, released by Activision in 19821.

Pitfall! cover

Of course, one cannot talk of an Activision game without mentioning the game’s designer. Pitfall! was created by David Crane, co-founder of Activision and creator of numerous other worthy games, including Little Computer People and A Boy and His Blob.

The creation of Pitfall! is what you might term a deliberate accident. Crane did not set out to create a platform game about a man in a jungle. He had been planning a sports game (later released as The Activision Decathlon) which he shelved because he felt he couldn’t do it justice. He had, however created a subroutine to animate a running man, which he wanted to use somehow. So he started to build a game around it2:

OK, there he is, running across the screen. What now? So I might as well put him on a path. Jungles have paths — better throw in a few trees — always bearing in mind that I’d want to be able to do this for other machines. Basically, if you can do it on the VCS, you can do at least a shadow of it on other systems.

So anyway, what use is a jungle path unless it leads somewhere? So I pencilled in a few objects. How about some places to fall? A few holes. He’s got to land somewhere — I had to put in an underground level. Then I spent the next two months defining the game, saying where do I put the treasure, what kind of monsters lurk? Scorpions look pretty good. I thought I might have ghosts and skeletons in the tunnel — none of them looked good, so they didn’t get in. We drew a lot of these beforehand on squared paper, colouring them in and so on. But it never looks the same on the screen as it does on paper — never.

That game, called Jungle Runner during development, became Pitfall!, went on to sell over 4 million copies on the 26003 (spending 64 weeks as the #1 best selling game), and was the progenitor of the smooth running and jumping that would be seen in the Super Mario Bros. series and many other, later platformers.

Pitfall! 01

When the game begins, you have 2000 points and two extra lives (which the manual calls ‘replacement Harrys’). The first screen is a gentle introduction: a single pit with a ladder and a stationary log are the only obstacles present. Falling into one of these pits (rather than climbing down a ladder) will cost you 100 points, while hitting a log will cost you some points over time as you remain in contact with it.

From the beginning, and at any point during the game, you can go either to the right or the left (unless there’s a wall in the way).

Pitfall! 02

The screen immediately to the right is more challenging: it contains three pits, only one ladder, and two logs rolling toward you. We can see immediately why (as the manual suggests) it is easier to go to the left–the logs always roll from right to left, so by moving in the same direction as the logs, you never have to worry about jumping over them. But where’s the fun in that? Onward to the right!

Pitfall! 03

More obstacles. This time, the rolling logs are joined by a wide pit–falling in this kind of pit means losing a life. Fortunately, there’s a vine above the pit you can use to swing across, so it’s merely a matter of timing the jump correctly to grab onto the vine, and then dropping off on the other side. In later screens, these pits will sometimes open and close, so you’ve got to be careful–a screen that seems safe may turn out to have a pit that opens under your feet, if you just run across incautiously.

Pitfall! 04

In this image we can see the remaining (major) obstacles in the game: crocodiles4 and scorpions. The crocodiles periodically open and close their mouths. When the mouths are closed, you can jump on them to get across the pool of water. When the mouths are open, you can only stand on th far right side of the crocodiles’ heads, behind the jaw, or you’ll be eaten. The scorpions merely move from left to right in the underground section, but they’re very wide, so precise jumps are necessary to make it over them.

So, if those are the main obstacles… what’s the point of this game?

Pitfall! 05

Collecting treasure for points, of course! The gold bar you see above is worth 4000 points. Silver bars are worth 3000, money bags are worth 2000, and diamond rings are worth a whopping 5000 points each. There are eight of each type of treasure, for a total of 32 treasures worth 112,000 points. A perfect game would end with 114,000 points (all the points for the treasures, plus the 2000 you started with, and no points lost to mistakes).

The game would be difficult, but manageable if you could just take your time with each screen. You might lose a few points to logs and other hazards, but with enough care around the deadly obstacles, collecting all 32 treasures would just be a matter of time. But time isn’t something you have to spare: there are 20 minutes on the clock when you start, and that’s all you get. It might sound like a pretty long time, but there are 255 screens in Pitfall!, leaving you with less than five seconds per screen, if you must visit them all.

How ever could you succeed with such a tight time limit? That’s where a clever mechanic comes into play. You’ve seen that each screen has an aboveground and underground part, the latter reach by either falling down a pit or climbing down a ladder. Every screen that you cross in the underground section is equivalent to three screens crossed in the aboveground section. Of course, you could skip right over a screen with a treasure on it, if you take the underground shortcuts through the whole game. So what are you to do? The manual suggests making a map5.

Pitfall! 06

You don’t have to get every treasure, of course. I was pretty happy getting just under 32,000 points, after a few tries. Back when the game was released, Activision offered to send an Explorers’ Club patch to anyone who got at least 20,000 points and sent in a picture of the TV screen to prove it.

Pitfall! is a great early platform game, and its sequel Pitfall II: Lost Caverns was if anything even more impressive and ahead of its time. Anyone curious about where platformers came from should absolutely give it a try. And even if you’re not a game historian, it’s a fun game well worth playing.

Edited 2016-02-23 to replace links referring to my internal database. Whoops.

Further reading

  1. The date of April 20 is given by allgame, though I know not on strength of what evidence. In an interview I see the release dated to September. The year, at least, is correct. 
  2. This excerpt is from an interview in Big K #1 (April 1984). 
  3. This sales figure is given by IGN
  4. The crocodiles were inspired by the introduction to The Heckle and Jeckle Cartoon Show
  5. Of course, if you don’t want to make your own, you can use someone else’s. This map by Ben Valdes not only shows the contents of the rooms, but also suggests the best route to take. 

Posted in 1982, Action, Atari 2600, Full Review, Good, Platformer | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Hanami no Yopparai wo Osaeru

Posted by Tracy Poff on October 6, 2015

It’s October, and that means IFComp! Naturally, therefore, I’m reviewing… not interactive fiction. I’ll get to that Real Soon Now. Instead, I’m continuing my (announced and immediately ignored) series on independent (doujin) games.

The game we’re looking at today is Hanami no Yopparai wo Osaeru (花見の酔っ払いを抑える), meaning (very roughly) Stop the flower-viewing1 drunkard.

Hanami no Yopparai wo Osaeru title

The developer was attempting to make a game in the style of old handheld games, and in my judgment had absolute success.

Hanami no Yopparai wo Osaeru 01

The player character, on the left, must reach the drunk, on the right, while avoiding the thrown bottles.

Hanami no Yopparai wo Osaeru 02

Reaching the drunk successfully adds points to the player’s score.

Hanami no Yopparai wo Osaeru 03

Failing to avoid the bottles costs the player time.

It’s hard to tell from the screenshots, but the bottles are moving from position to position like they would on a Game & Watch or other LCD game. A video will show it better:

I only played the trial version of the game (available on DLsite). I’m not sure what might be different in the full version. This isn’t a great game, even for 108 yen. For a similar, and rather better, game, you can play Dave Baskin’s Bouncing Babies for DOS, itself a clone of the Game & Watch title Fire.

  1. For the cultural significance of hanami, see Wikipedia

Posted in 2015, Action, Arcade, Bad, Full Review, Windows | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Tracy Poff on June 19, 2015


Recently, I saw a new game from Zachtronics Industries, TIS-100, which was released on Steam as an early access title on the first of June. In some ways, calling it a game is overstating it: it’s little more than a collection of programming problems, with a little story to give it some structure. The catch is that you’re programming in an assembly language on a virtual machine with unusual architecture; problems beyond the simplest will generally require you to take advantage of parallelism (which is the primary distinguishing feature of the VM), resulting in novel solutions for ordinary problems.


Obviously, a game like that has a rather limited target audience. Case in point: I have myself previously created a little VM with a fake assembly language to play with. The game is clearly made just for me, but how many others are likely to be similarly interested? About 11,000,1 so far. It’s a minor hit.2

The concept of programming as gameplay isn’t new. Indeed, Zachtronics’s earlier game, SpaceChem, is also an exercise in parallel programming, though dressed up in fancier clothes. Way back in the mists of time,3 Robot Odyssey challenged players to program the titular robots to solve puzzles. And on the more-programming-than-game end of the spectrum, we have Core War4 and a multitude of web sites in the vein of Project Euler or CodinGame.

I’ve been enjoying TIS-100, but more than that, I think it’s singularly impressive to release a game of this kind. Certainly, there are games that trade on their difficulty (Super HexagonI Wanna Be the Guy, etc.) and some that take pride in their difficulty of interaction (Surgeon SimulatorAmpu-Tea, QWOP, etc.), and simple ‘retro-style’ graphics are de rigueur for indie games, but the very minimalistic functionalism of TIS-100 is astounding.

TIS-100 is difficult because the thinking required to solve the puzzles is difficult. It is perhaps inaccessible, because it consists of nothing else but the tools to solve the puzzle. Its graphics are simple because everything you need to solve the puzzles is a text-mode interactive debugger, and that’s what you get. Like a sudoku puzzle or a crossword, TIS-100 is a completely pure puzzle game: the game takes place in your head, and the software keeps score.

It is not by chance that TIS-100 so distinguishes itself from other games. During the production of Infinifactory, Zach Barth, the founder of Zachtronics, wanted to make a game with a smaller team–something more-indie-than-indie–to get back to his roots as an indie developer. The project turned out to be too great in scope, but from its wreckage was salvaged a programming minigame which became TIS-100.5 Viewed as an indie developer’s attempt to make something even more indie, with the understanding that it was a small part of something larger, the design makes sense.6

The game’s manual, too, reflects the niche targeted by the game. Who reads a manual, you ask? When it is positioned as a technical document describing the instruction set of a virtual machine, the answer to that question is: programmers. The manual is presented as the in-universe manual for the TIS-100 computer, previously the property of the player character’s Uncle Randy, including handwritten notes and highlighting. This was part of Zachtronics’s attempt to make a game with “an irresistible value proposition. For us, that’s a game with a 14-page technical manual that we designed, printed out, marked up and scanned back in again.”7 The manual is reminiscent of the feelies accompanying Infocom games, among others, in years past.8


Like its predecessor, SpaceChemTIS-100 encourages players to perfect their solutions, optimizing for either execution speed, least number of nodes used, or least instructions–goals which are often contradictory, requiring multiple solutions.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that it is a game about programming, the players of TIS-100 have created some auxiliary tools, including TIS-100 PAD,9 which allows users to more easily share solutions, and a variety of TIS-100 (the virtual machine, not the game) emulators.10

In addition to this unsolicited community participation, with the release of the specification editor, which allows players to make their own puzzles, a puzzle design contest was announced. Twenty-five puzzles will be selected from the submissions for an official bonus campaign.

The feel of TIS-100 is both nostalgic and quite modern. It’s an intriguing combination, and I recommend it to anyone still interested after hearing me call it “a collection of programming problems.” Coders, no prior experience with assembly is needed. Others, if you like this game–try coding. You’ll probably like that, too.


Zach Barth, Postmortem: Zachtronics Industries’ SpaceChem, Gamasutra (2012-06-13).
Alexander K. Dewdney, In the game called Core War hostile programs engage in a battle of bits, Scientific American 250, 5 (1984), 15–19.
M. Douglas McIlroy & Robert Morris & Victor Vyssotsky, Letter to Aleph-Null (1971-06-29).
Alex Wawro, ‘Things we create tell people who we are’: Designing Zachtronics’ TIS-100, Gamasutra (2015-06-09).

  1. According to SteamSpy
  2. As of this writing, it has 270 positive reviews and 2 negative reviews on Steam
  3. 1984, actually. It was released a year later for DOS, according to MobyGames
  4. Also from 1984, described in a Scientific American article, [Dewdney1984]. It’s based on a still earlier programming game, Darwin, which was played in 1961 and described publicly in 1972. See [McIlroy1971] for more. 
  5. The details of TIS-100‘s inception, and more, are discussed in an interview published by Gamasutra, [Wawro2015]. 
  6. However, Barth wrote in a post mortem of SpaceChem, [Barth2012], that SpaceChem was too difficult and inaccessible. New titles were forthcoming: “New titles, I might add, that are hopefully more accessible than SpaceChem!” 
  7. From [Wawro2015]. 
  8. Back when you got something for your money! Even application software used to have much more bulk to it
  9. Source available on GitHub
  10. Just have a look at the results of this search. But watch out, if you’d like to avoid spoilers! The puzzle solutions are code, after all, so a number of people have posted those, as well. 

Posted in 2015, Full Review, Good, Puzzle, Windows | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Bleed Out Sakuretsu

Posted by Tracy Poff on April 5, 2015

I don’t believe I’ve written about any remotely popular games for at least two years… and I’m not about to change that. But I am writing about a good game, at least: Bleed Out Sakuretsu, a vertically scrolling shooter for the Sharp X68000, by Gold Cats Project.

Bleed Out Sakuretsu - title

First: yes, the title screen says ‘sakuretu’. But the common romanization of this game’s title seems to be ‘sakuretsu’, and as goes TOSEC, so goes my nation.

Bleed Out Sakuretsu - ingame

Bleed Out Sakuretsu has a powerup system reminiscent of Gradius. As you continue scoring points, you can purchase a shot upgrade, a barrier, or other, even more powerful powerups. The opposition is a variety of ships, small shots, and guided missiles.

Bleed Out Sakuretsu - boss

The boss sprays out bullets danmaku-style, and periodically fires a pair of front-facing lasers. You’ve got to deal with this while avoiding guided missiles, and since you are destroyed in one shot (unless you buy a barrier), this, like the rest of the level, provides a good challenge.

Here, an unfortunate revelation: the boss is, as far as I can tell, invulnerable, because the available version of Bleed Out Sakuretsu is a trial edition, and I can find no evidence that any full version was ever created. I would love to hear otherwise, if anyone has better information on old doujin games than I do, because it’s a very fun game.

It’s hard to do a shooter justice with just words and screenshots. The video above shows (I believe) the entire game, which should give a much better picture of it.

If you like shooters, I’d say Bleed Out Sakuretsu is worth a try. It’s only about two minutes long, but it’s fun, and I believe there’s a place for brief games, too.

The Touhou series looms largest on the doujin shooter landscape, of course, but there’s a huge and fascinating variety of games (of all genres) stretching back decades, which I think could use some more attention from the English-speaking web. I’ll probably be looking at a few more doujin games in coming weeks, so I’ll try to shine a light on whichever titles catch my eye. Maybe there will be some hidden gems, or maybe just hidden failures. We’ll see what comes.

Posted in 1996, Full Review, Good, Vertical Scrolling Shooter, X68000 | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

History Mystery

Posted by Tracy Poff on March 12, 2015

In the early eighties, the sudden popularity (and, indeed, the recent existence) of home computers gave rise to a new kind of publication: the disk magazine. These periodicals were published not on paper but on computer disks (and sometimes cassettes), and although the content varied, they generally featured computer programs (including games) in addition to, or even in place of, articles. The most famous of these are perhaps Softdisk for the Apple II (launched in 1981) and Loadstar for the Commodore 64 (launched in 1984). The medium flourished1 alongside more traditional magazines which might offer (inconvenient!) type-in programs. There was a price to be paid for this convenience: a single ‘issue’ of Softdisk cost about the same as an annual subscription to a paper magazine.

Among the many disk mags was Scholastic’s Microzine for Apple II. Featuring (as you might expect) primarily educational content, Microzine began publication in 1983,2 continuing for about a decade. It also inspired a spin-off series, Microzine Jr., which was launched in 1988. Each issue of Microzine included four programs, one of which was a game.


Which all brings me to the subject of this article: History Mystery by David A. Bowman and Mark A. Malamud, which was included in Microzine #18 in November 1986. According to the ‘Letter from the Editor‘ in that issue:

You’ll have fun reading The History Mystery Twistaplot™ adventure. A priceless hourglass has been stolen from the Microville History Museum. Some of the ghosts in the museum will help you find it. (Yes, the museum is haunted!)

You play the part of “the ace reporter of your school newspaper, The Chronicle” (incidentally, of selectable gender), out to get a story about a stolen Babylonian hourglass. After chatting with the ghost of Mark Twain about the situation, you find yourself in the lobby of the museum.


The museum consists of 29 rooms3 which you must navigate, gathering items and clues to solve the mystery of the stolen hourglass, which the museum’s ghosts believe is actually located within the museum. Each room has a description, seen on entering the room, and an entry in the self-guided tape-recorded tour, accessed by pressing T. The tour often contained educational information4 which might be used to solve the game’s puzzles.


Some rooms have items to be collected, while others have ghosts to talk to or other objects to interact with. The game is in two parts (purely for practical reasons, I presume). Selecting the second part from the menu requires the player to input the password given at the end of the first part (“The Sands of Time”) and begins the second part, in which the player must collect the hourglass and escape the museum while being chased by Winsome Slugg, the criminal who had stolen it.

Tracy's Gift Shop

Upon completing the game, the player gets a rather neat reward: the museum’s gift shop, called “Amy Minkley’s Gift Shop”,5 will be renamed after the player. Not only in the ending text, either: in future playthroughs, the in-game name is changed. Which, I suppose, might make this the first game with a New Game+ feature.

History Mystery took me about an hour to complete, though I suppose it took me quite a bit longer when I was a child. I remember having a lot of fun with it, back then, and it’s still neat as a bit of nostalgia, today.

My copy of the game is this 1987 compilation, Tales of Suspense.

My copy of the game is this 1987 compilation, Tales of Suspense.

I’ll try to look at some more games from Microzine and other disk mags in the future. There’s a lot to be said about them, and the resources on the internet are scarce at best. This post has been several years in the making, during which time I’ve been contacted a number of times by people who, like me, had fond memories of a game which might have been History Mystery, but who couldn’t be sure. My thanks to them for providing me the impetus to do my civic duty and get this out there. Fans of old educational games, you are appreciated!

  1. Wikipedia has a substantial list
  2. According to this article: “The first issue of Microzine was first displayed at the January 1983 Consumer Electronics Show, and was available in stores by March 1983.”) 
  3. I mapped them out here 
  4. “…Welcome to the Telephone Exhibit. The first telephone call was made by Alexander Graham Bell. As he was calling, he accidently spilled acid on himself and yelled for his assistant: ‘Mr. Watson, come here. I want you!’….” 
  5. According to the game, “named after one of the great school reporters” (probably the editor of your school newspaper, Amy Minkly), but likely actually named after Amy E. McKinley, the editor of Microzine–though perhaps she was a school reporter, once. 

Posted in 1986, Adventure, Apple II, Educational, Full Review, Good | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »