Sunday, 16 September 2012

Bouncing Bomb: Redux (ZX Spectrum)

I can't claim to know much about reactor cores, but rarely is one featured in a plotline without being preceded by the word "unstable," having "gone critical," or being on the verge of meltdown. Based on this limited experience, I have concluded that they are far more trouble than they're worth. This world-view has been confirmed by the latest "experimental reactor core" I have encountered, the destruction of which is the central goal in Bouncing Bomb: Redux. Yes, it has gone critical; as author Phil Ruston acknowledges in the game's instructions: haven't they always?

Refreshingly, there's no fluff in terms of a back-story for Redux. It's quite simple: bounce your bomb through 20 challenging levels and destroy the reactor. Don't ask why the reactor core has gone critical, it just has - have you ever encountered one that hasn't? Don't ask what your motivation is, whether you're the would-be saviour of the human race, or if you're taking out some super-villain's space fortress - all you need to think about is getting to that reactor core and blowing that misbehaving mutha to kingdom come.

Bouncing Bomb: Redux is an exceptionally slick arcade puzzler with brilliantly designed levels, each one platform-based and contained on a single screen. The player controls the bouncing bomb of the title, which relentlessly hops up and down and can be directed left or right. Crucially, a 'low bounce' can also be employed to slow the motion of the bomb and bob beneath hazards. (This hapless reviewer played the game through to level seven without realising such a manoeuvre was available: top marks for skill; zero for nous.)

Each level is subject to a strict (but not unfair) time limit, indicated by your fuse length at the bottom of the screen. To negotiate each room, between three and eight keys must be collected in a set order (the next key to be collected will flash) to unlock the portal to the next one. Various security systems are in place that must be avoided, or your bomb will detonate too soon and one of your five lives will be lost. Tanks, walker robots and hover robots patrol platforms and voids, all pleasingly drawn and animated, with zero colour-clash. Other hazards to be bounced over include vats of lava and acid, plus of course those platform game essentials: disintegrating floors and rows and rows of pointy spikes. On later levels, you must bounce through intermittent laser beams and negotiate fans that blow you off course. Usually - you guessed it - onto some particularly sharp spikes.

The level design is perfectly judged. It's challenging, with a good difficulty gradient, and never, or hardly ever, becomes frustrating. On each level you need to think through your route to give yourself the best chance, as some ways will just be too tough, or will very occasionally lead you to a dead end. The time limit before your bomb detonates is tight so you need to move fast and decisively. Sometimes you need to clear obstacles by bouncing on them, thinking ahead to when you will need to pass that way later. You can also remove disintegrating platforms to allow security robots to pass and make it easier for you to avoid them. I described the game as a puzzler to give a sense of the careful and methodical approach needed to solve each level, although you could equally describe it as an action platformer, as timing and delicate control are just as important.

Graphically, each level is colourful without being garish, with thoughtful graphical design playing to the Spectrum's strengths, completely avoiding clash. Redux has a very distinctive look; the brave, strident background colours work well with background detailing creating contrasting levels with industrial, futuristic, dungeon and ice cavern themes. The level styling is enhanced with objects and scenery, for example: pipes, computer consoles, generators and strip lights suggest an industrial backdrop.

Control of your bouncing bomb is simple but very responsive. You can even move - to an extent - and change direction in mid-bounce, which breaks the rules of physics but makes for a satisfying gaming experience. The collision detection is excellent and the animation and sprite movement is very smooth. Redux is well presented throughout with unfussy but quietly impressive design. The sound effects are functional but enhance the game in an understated manner without getting annoying (which would have been easy to do with a 'bouncing' central sprite).

I think that this game would have been difficult and frustrating if it were not for the infinite number of continues you can utilise when you have lost your five lives. As it is, you can practise and practise a tricky level until you master it. I certainly appreciated this feature as the first time I completed the game I used over 20 continues! The game helpfully counts how many you used and gives you a rating based on this at the end. Embarrassing. But this leads me to another feature of the game: its many secrets you can unlock.

There are four bonus levels that you can access through secret doors and collect extra lives - if you can reach them (Redux doesn't ever make life easy)! More unusually, there is a secret Dos-style interface that you can 'hack' into: just follow the clues in the instructions. There are game secrets to read, as well as a secret game and utilities that ensure every one of the Speccy's 48k is fully employed. Most of these features can only be accessed if you have attained certain milestones in the game by progressing to levels 5, 10 and 20 without using too many continues. This certainly gives the game additional interest and greater replay value as there is more to achieve than simply reaching the end. Something, dare I say it, that console gaming and specifically Nintendo has taught us over the years!

Phil Ruston created the original Bouncing Bomb back in 1986 to hone his machine code programming skills. The game was never polished to completion and was not commercially released, though it is listed as MIA on World of Spectrum. This final version will give any gamer a stern challenge and each level is cleverly designed and satisfying to solve. Redux has smooth game-play and colourful, attractive graphics, making it a great example of the kind of game that plays to the Spectrum's strengths.

I, for one, am grateful that Phil Ruston stumbled across the Bouncing Bomb master tape in his loft and applied the final spit and polish that turned it into this little gem.

Download the game at here (from the World of Spectrum site).
Run it using Spectaculator (shareware) or Klive (freeware).
5 out of 5