Friday, 23 November 2012
Ridiculous Reality (Atari XE/XL)
Another day, another de-make, this time it's Continuity on Flash/iOS that has become Ridiculous Reality for the Atari XL as part of the 2012 ABBUC software contest.
Before starting this review proper I should first point out that growing up I was never an Atari boy. In fact my entire experience with Atari's is limited to extensive use of an ST, which I loved, and limited use of a 2600 in the 1990s, by which time even my love of retro gaming couldn't convince me to spend much time on Centipede when I still had my Megadrive and C64 kicking along with a rapidly ageing PC.
Therefore, from a review writing perspective my lack of experience with the hardware may be viewed as both a negative and a positive for the developers of the game. On the one hand, I might not appreciate what has been involved in creating it due to a lack of knowledge of what the machine is capable of, but on the other hand, this means that I have no choice but to view the game on its own merits. Whether this review will therefore create howls of indignation or murmurs of appreciation we shall see.
The first thing that hits you on games like this is often the music rather than the loading screen or menu. A good, stonking soundtrack can increase anticipation of the game far more than anything else and on this score (pun intended) Ridiculous Reality succeeds fantastically with an upbeat and exciting tune you should simply let play right through just for the enjoyment of it.
Similarly, it was a pleasant surprise to see that Ridiculous Reality's graphics were more akin to a very polished C64 game, with the loading screen being particularly excellent, giving a good intimation of what the game will be about, with well-drawn graphics creating the impression – along with the music – of a highly polished game.
Of course, while first impressions are important many a child has been taken in by a funky loading screen only to discover that the actual game was total pants. It was, therefore, a bit of a surprise and worry for me when the game started and it took me a few seconds to work out exactly who the main character was – could it really be that little puny 2600-esque sprite that moves when you press the arrow keys?
Unfortunately, it turns out that the puny stick-man is indeed the player sprite. That said, the shading and style of the title splayed across the top of the screen hint at greater abilities, looking almost 16-bit-like in its shading, if not its smoothness. It contrasts oddly, but not badly, with the more limited graphics on display in the main game area. Of course, if I'd known more about the Atari XE/XL I perhaps would have expected this, as a similar contrast between in-game graphics and title and cut screens can also be seen in the recent His Dark Majesty, review.
Even without reading the PDF manual supplied with the game it's pretty simple to pick up and get to grips with, which is good as there are no in-game instructions. The aim of the game is simple; get your little stick-man to the exit, which you open by collecting all the keys on any given level.
The idea is simple, even pedestrian, yet the execution is intelligently fiendish. Each level is split into rectangles, which you have to move around by holding the fire button and moving your arrow keys, much like a sliding square puzzle game such as Split Personalities on the ZX Spectrum.
Each rectangle represents part of the game map, and moving these around allows you to create a path to the goal, with the rest of the gameplay taking the shape of a traditional platformer.
Graphically it feels like there is a lot going on, even though actually there is precious little your character can interact with. Judicious use of dots, squares and circles give each level flavour and character while the odd swathe of background tiles gives each level a proper graphical experience when it could have felt a bit identi-kit and repetitive in more stripped back surroundings. Watching the tiles move in the background while you are in the 'map shuffle' mode is another nice touch that adds to the overall feeling of quality that Ridiculous Reality brings to the table.
The game design is impressive and the levels seem to have been created specifically for Ridiculous Reality rather than just being ported in from Continuity and are well thought out with a reasonable difficulty curve.
Although the levels increase in complexity the risk of death stays pretty slim. The sources of danger seem limited to simply falling off a rectangle into an empty space or an adjoining but incompatible rectangle. You also have infinite lives, further reducing the sense of danger. In fact, taking this into account it is surprising that there are not more ways to die. Of course, it's become quite popular to create games with the express purpose of causing you to perish frequently (ahem, Probability 0) so it's actually nice to see a game buck that trend somewhat.
Nonetheless the challenge in Ridiculous Reality comes solely from working out the correct route to collect the keys and exit through the door, rather than skilful navigation of the levels themselves.
So how does it compare with the game it is based on, Continuity? Well, actually it holds up shockingly well. The interface is actually superior, simply by holding fire the map screen comes up, whereas in Continuity it requires a button press, and then another press to return to the game screen. It's only a click, but it slows down the process and makes it less intuitive.
Likewise, graphically Ridiculous Reality has attempted to soup things up making the game look more like a proper platformer rather than the stripped back sparse puzzler Continuity is.
Although you can't deny the smoothness of Continuity, actually putting the two side by side makes Ridiculous Reality feel like a greater achievement, even if it is a de-make. It's refreshing to see a retro conversion that doesn't just try to cram all the features of the original in but actually build on and adapt it too to create something unique to the platform.
The ambient, sparse music of Continuity combines well with lo-fi presentation of the game, but I have to admit to preferring the high intensity chip-buzzing sounds of Ridiculous Reality, which goes well with the more colourful and busy presentation in that game.
However, one irritating aspect of the Continuity music is that it cuts between a sparser score when you are rearranging rectangles and a more upbeat action-oriented score when you are in 'action' mode. The quality of both tracks is good but given the frequency you flick between the modes it becomes impossible to appreciate both tracks fully. On balance, the single track that plays throughout Ridiculous Reality does a better job at maintaining the fluidity of the game.
The growing trend for retro de-makes is an interesting one, as many show greater ingenuity than many of the 100% original homebrew titles coming out in the scene at the moment (although the quality of games in RGCD's own C64 16k cart comp is genuinely fantastic).
If anything, it feels like the homebrew scene is perhaps a tad too introspective, often creating titles that are intended solely to pay homage to the great titles of yesteryear, while some of the de-makes, particularly games like C64anabalt (and Canabalt) and now Ridiculous Reality, are actually revealing a hidden shelf-life to retro systems by pushing them in ways seemingly thought impossible or by focusing on gameplay mechanics to create something fresh and original.
The market for mobile and flash gaming is so much bigger than homebrew retro gaming and therefore attracting a wider and let's be honest, deeper talent pool and it's good we're seeing the innovation of these markets imported into the homebrew retro market.
Ideally this will spur further innovation as homebrew titles have to compete with the spate of excellent de-makes being released into the scene at the moment.
None of this is to suggest that the homebrew scene is weak or wholly derivative, nor indeed that many modern games don't take a cue from innovative retro titles. However, titles like Ridiculous Reality remind us that there is more that can be done on these aging systems than simply hark back to the golden age and actually there is still a heck of a lot of innovation to be had.
For that, Ridiculous Reality may provide a service to the scene beyond simply being an excellent game with great gameplay and superb music and it should be played and appreciated accordingly.
Download the game here (from the MatoSimi website).
Run it using Atari800Win Plus 4.0 (freeware).