Saturday 13 February 2021

Making of Monstro Giganto (Commodore 64)

Following hot on the heels of last year's BoxyMoxy, the Pirates of Zanzibar are back again with a new game; 'Monstro Giganto', a furiously-paced PETSCII party-puncher! Coder and long-time RGCD member Antonio Savona started work on the project (with his fellow sea-dogs Lobo and Aldo Chiummo) during the 2020 Christmas holidays, aiming to knock out a fun little proof of concept based on some PETSCII art by Lobo. And now, just over a month later, Monstro Giganto is a near complete game that already takes up 480KB of ROM space on a GMOD2 cartridge.

But what is Monstro Giganto? Lobo came up with the idea of a PETSCII based brawler last summer inspired by a series of monster drawings he penned over 20 years ago based on Godzilla, King Kong and other giant beasts. It was initially planned as a comic book in which an army of monsters duke it out, but one thing led to another and the project ended up becoming a game instead.

"I made the first PETSCII tests of Gorgo and Jojo back in May/June 2020. Since I wanted to make a brawler with the largest characters possible the PETSCII approach seemed to be the most reasonably practical method to pull it off".

Indeed, that seems a sensible starting point when making a monstrous sized beat-em-up, but Antonio ended up with quite a few challenges to overcome as a result.

"The greatest challenge was nailing the game mechanics, given the constraints of working with large PETSCII based characters with a limited set of moves in a claustrophobic arena. On the technical side the only really complex part was keeping a steady frame rate and snappy controls. Those big monstros might be made up of PETSCII but that doesn't make them any easier to animate than other types of heavy, non-sprite based graphics. There's a good reason why the VIC-II offers sprites as a hardware capability, which becomes evident as soon as you choose to develop a game without using them!"

By the time I joined the project, Monstro Giganto was already a fully playable game with four playable characters and both a single player and two player modes. The music was in, as well as a load of cool sounding digital samples ripped from Mortal Combat. "You should hire a voice actor for this. Have a look to see if there's anyone suitable on Fiverr", I suggested. This was no more than a week ago - and now Monstro Giganto has grown to enormous size, with over 250 professionally spoken words of dialogue(!)

"Roughly 250KB are now used by samples. It could have been much less than that, but the good thing about variable rate speech compression is that you can adjust the rate and trade quality for memory footprint. There was a lot of cartridge space available and there was no reason to not use it, so I turned the knob up to 'maximum quality'. Overall, it's over 250 words accounting for around three minutes of speech (and roars). Most of the speech is contained within the unlockable origin stories for each of the four monstros, and there's a few words spoken in the intro. As much as I like talking in games, I think that speech should not be invasive or prominent, but rather something to complement the action."

Of course, it's worth mentioning at this point that to truly appreciate the game you really need to have a real SID chip in your Commodore, or at least a really good clone like that in the MEGA65 and of course the VICE emulator.

Monstro Giganto has evolved considerably from its humble beginnings, but Tony's to-do list now mainly consists of bug-fixes, polish and 'easy' code rewrites. It's exciting to see it all come together so quickly, and there's even been tentative talk of a sequel addressing some of the suggestions and ideas that came too late to shoe-horn them into the current framework. However, the journey from prototype to near finished game has seen many progressive refinements to the design, as Antonio explains;

"In the beginning I had only three attack moves per character (plus one defensive block) and a single screen arena that was barely large enough to contain the two monstros. Tremendous artwork and a decent concept, but very basic in the gameplay department. The first change to be made was to add the endless scrolling of the arena to break free of the limitations of the single screen; it's important to note that the arena has no end or invisible walls like most fighters - the players do not have an absolute position in space, just a relative one. Each monstro exists in a space relative to their opponent - you don't move left or right around an arena, but rather just move away or towards your enemy."

"Then came the hit detection; a punch only connects if you hit a specific point on your opponent, and each monstro and attack has a different reach, so the challenge is not about getting closer to your opponent but rather positioning yourself at the right distance for a specific move. I guess this is no different to what games like Exploding Fist have been doing egregiously for the last 35 years, so there was no point in not doing it in Monstro Giganto."

"Finally, I wanted to avoid the common problem that plagues many fighting games of having a one-move-kills-them-all, like the low-kick in Exploding Fist. So, a tiredness meter was added to address this issue by forcing the player to adopt a strategy instead of mindlessly bashing the fire button. The more you fight or block, the more your tiredness increases until you are eventually exhausted and your opponent gets an opportunity to strike you while you are defenceless. So it's important to time your attacks and rest accordingly if you want to win the fight."

"With these mechanics in place the game became really fun to play. It was even fun just watching my AI driven monstros skilfully beat the crap out each other in the attract mode! I've also given each of the characters specific skills and stats to add further variety to the game. For example, Eyeye is the fastest monstro and he doesn't tire easily, but his main attacks have a shorter reach and he is somewhat weaker. On the other hand, Mojo is a heavy hitter with an impressive reach and can stand a few more punches than your average puny lizard, but no matter how fashionable, the fez-sporting oversized gorilla is the slowest of the lot!"

Although there is no real end to the game (you continue to fight the four main opponents over and over until you lose) your stats are recorded in the hall of fame and there are unlockable rewards in the form of origin stories for each character - and there's even a couple of secrets thrown in there for good measure. But all that aside, the real test of a fighting game is how it plays when facing off against a human opponent - and if the reaction of my two gaming addicted kids is anything to go by then Monstro Giganto deserves to go platinum.

With development now in the final stages and print material in the process of being ordered, Monstro Giganto should be available for your Commodore home computer in late March/Early April.

MEGA65 Devkit - First Impressions

So, here I am in February 2021, typing a blog post in GeoWrite running on a never-released Commodore prototype from 1991 - or at least the nearest thing to it. Of course, I'm referring to the still-very-much-WIP MEGA65 from the Museum of Electronic Games and Art (MEGA); an FPGA based re-imagining or continuation of Commodore's ill-fated C65 prototype.

Those of you familiar with the Commodore 65 will be well aware that the few prototype machines that leaked into the retro computer market now exchange hands for tens of thousands of pounds - absolutely crazy money for an only partially-functional computer with no software. I mean, even if I had that kind of money to burn, there honestly would be no reason for me to have one. However, unlike it's predecessor, the MEGA65 is no overpriced, lame duck. In fact, I believe that the MEGA65 has the potential to become the Commodore's answer to the Sinclair Spectrum NEXT; an enhanced, future-proof 8-Bit machine (I know, what a contradiction!) with backwards compatibility and a strong focus on 'what could have been'. After all, the C65 was a machine that sat somewhere between the C64/128 and the Amiga 500 in terms of power (you can read more about the enhanced specifications on the project web page). It's an odd beast that sits between the 8-bit and 16-bit generation machines, and reminds me a little of the SAM CoupĂ© in that regard - but with a far, far better starting point than the bloody ZX Spectrum!

I was one of the lucky few (100, to be precise) Commodore fans to obtain one of MEGA's build-it-yourself devkits that were made available to buy last year. In contrast to the final design, these devkit versions have an Amiga 600 style form factor and use a transparent plastic PlexiLazer shell (much like that used by my daily driver customised C64). In fact, this was one of the main reasons I favoured the devkit over the final design - it just looks incredible and at only 35cm wide it fits far easier on my desk.

However, good looks alone do not make a good computer - and as with the prototype C65, currently there's very little native software available for the MEGA65. That's unlikely to remain the case of course - especially if the activity on the discord channel is anything to go by. I imagine that by the time the final model rolls off the assembly line there will be a fair sized dedicated library - enough to whet people's appetites at the very least. Personally though, I had another reason to get involved with the early access of the machine - not only was I interested in testing and assisting with the final polish of the MEGA65, but I was hugely curious as to whether or not any RGCD releases (past, present or future) would run on it. In fact, I even proposed to the MEGA team that if they can improve the machine's backward compatibility to support RGCD's releases, then they can bundle them for free with their machine when it goes on sale.

As it stands, compatibility with C64 games - especially modern-era ones - is low on the current firmware. The main issue seems to involve the use of illegal opcodes; those dirty shortcuts and tricks that modern day developers often use on the C64 to squeeze out the best performance from the machine. These are especially common in demos (I have yet to find any that run on the MEGA65), and the reason is simple; these opcodes are aimed at the C64 chipset - and as the MEGA65 currently has no way to force itself to become 'the lesser' machine, the C65 CPU fails when they are called. This could (and probably will) be fixed in the majority of cases, but it will take time. So those of you were are gutted that they missed out on the devkits last year - I expect the wait for the final model will be worth it. (Edit: since writing this post the MEGA team have already got the previously non-working Super Bread Box running on the machine from cartridge, so compatibility is improving all the time!)

On the plus side, having a devkit has been a bonus for RGCD as I've been able to assist in getting some of our future releases up and running on both the C64 and the MEGA65! In particular, this past week I've been busy helping Antonio Savona and Lobo with their PETSCII brawler 'Monstro Giganto', a game that you'd think would have no issues running on a machine as powerful as the MEGA65. However, until this evening the game was full of illegal opcodes and the game pretty much crashed and burned within seconds of turning the machine on. Thankfully, Antonio was willing to rewrite these sections of his code (mainly so he can make the proud claim of releasing a MEGA65 compatible game) and now Monstro Giganto runs perfectly. This process was quite painless - even when done remotely via Facebook messenger - because of the MEGA65's excellent built in freezer and memory monitor. I was able to take a photo of the monitor screen whenever the game crashed so Antonio could see what was causing the problem and work around it.

Whilst discussing Monstro Giganto it's also worth mentioning the performance of the MEGA65's dual soft SIDs - something that is especially important considering the 250+ words of sampled speech the game contains. Honestly, the MEGA65's SID emulation is one of the best I have heard on a hardware C64 clone to date - far superior to TheC64 and cleaner sounding than the otherwise brilliant Ultimate64. So whatever the MEGA team are doing on that front, they're doing it right!

With regard to RGCD releases on the platform, there's nothing currently planned in the immediate future, but at the very least I'll be encouraging the developers I work with to support the MEGA65 going forward. Antonio has said he might look into porting P0 Snake over as an experiment, and Marcelo Cabral has suggested that he could attempt a MEGA65 version of Retaliate DX (a WIP C64 game that already works great on the MEGA) - so who knows? There might be a couple of games from us before the year is out.

One of the most interesting things about the MEGA65 is that being an FPGA based machine it has the ability to run different 'cores'. There's already a ZX-UNO core that runs on the MEGA which turns the computer into a ZX Spectrum clone, and work has begun on Atari ST and Amiga cores as well. Similar to the popular MiST FPGA, this means that your MEGA65 could eventually become your one-stop retro computer covering a variety of platforms, with the bonus of being beautifully packaged in the shell of a classic computer (and having one of the best keyboards I have ever used).

If I get time I'll happily share any new developments or interesting info about the MEGA65 here on the blog, but for now I hope that this has served as an introduction. If you want a more detailed guided tour of the machine then I strongly recommend you check out the recent video posted by Nostalgia Nerd - I really feel his pain about snapping the top part of the case during assembly!

Friday 12 February 2021

Tiny Quest Available on Cartridge! (Commodore 64)

Far, far away, exists a weird and wonderful world of right-angles and crazy geometry. In this land populated by square trees, square clouds and square people, Mr Cube has fallen in love.

However, our hero's love interest is on the opposite side of the world - and between them lies a land full of hazards, obstacles and dangerous critters! Not only that, but Mr Cube is flat broke and he needs to raise enough cash during his quest to ensure that he can pay for safe passage home for both himself and his sweetie!

Oh, did I forget to mention that time is incredibly tight? Mr Cube will have to run and jump as quickly as he can if he's to make it before his energy runs out. He'll need all his stamina for the ceremony of geometrical pairing!

Steady your nerves, prepare your reflexes, grab that joystick and help our hero on his TINY QUEST!

Coded by Andrea "Wanax" Schincaglia, with graphics by Raffox and music by Gaetano Chiummo and Stefano "Dustbin" Palmonari, TINY QUEST is a game that requires lightning-fast reflexes, excellent memory, advanced planning skills, perfect timing and (a lot of) self control. You have been warned. There will be times when things appear hopeless - but you have our word - even the hardest screens are possible to beat with practice!

I was first introduced to Tiny last year by Federico, and after a quick play of the preview I immediately offered to assist with a release alongside BITMAP SOFT. The game is deceptively challenging - each single screen level might on first appearance appear simple, but there's real skill required to collect the coins and get to the exit before the time runs out. You have quite literally seconds to beat each stage, and no reprise between. It's a relentless challenge, and with only five lives and a temporary password every 15 levels (and there's a LOT of them to beat - the title is clearly ironic), TINY QUEST was designed to be beaten in a single sitting - but my kids and I have yet to achieve that as yet.

RGCD's cartridge version of the game is presented in our custom RGCD banded three-part cardboard box with a glossy outer sleeve. The cover art was illustrated by Simon Butler and the game comes complete with a professionally printed 12-page A6 manual, vinyl RGCD and Digital Monastery stickers, RGCD badge, post-card and a couple of code sheets to record your passwords on. The 64KB PCB is housed in a bright red cartridge shell, with a 3D domed label.

Note that purchases of the cartridge will (soon) include a downloadable copy of the *.CRT version of game for free for use via emulation or on real hardware devices such as the Ultimate 1541-II. However, as the game is not available digitally yet we have opted meanwhile to include a printed download link within each boxed copy of the game.

Note that due to COVID-19, international postage is still a real mess with huge delays, but parcels ARE getting through (albeit very slowly). If you are concerned, please consider buying insurance and tracking for your order before you hit the checkout.

The All-Important Links:

  • Buy the cartridge version HERE for £32 (from RGCD).
  • Buy the tape or disk version HERE (from BITMAP SOFT).

Six Monthly Update

Hi all - I hope you are doing OK and you and your families are well. It's been a nightmare six months here since my last update, with further lockdowns, home schooling, busy jobs and the stress of Brexit. I'm sure it's been no easier for the rest of you, but I've had very limited time for running RGCD lately and I've had to really juggle with my work and life balance. Here's hoping for a more positive and productive 2021!

The good news is that some progress has been made (albeit slowly) on a number of projects here and I have several announcements and releases lined up for the near future that I'm really excited to share with you. I've also recently become the proud owner of a MEGA65 Devkit which has been an inspiration to start writing on this blog again - so expect a future post about that soon.

Sadly I've been unable to set aside any time with fellow RGCD member Jamie to finish the new website. Although mostly complete, we had planned to spend a week together last year finalising the site functionality and fixing/updating the 500+ blog posts here after migrating across, but for obvious reasons that has been impossible (I actually spent all of 2020's annual leave home schooling my kids). Hopefully we can get to that after COVID-19, but before COVID-20 ;)

Frequent visitors to our online shop may have noticed that I've also gradually been replacing the packaging to some of our games; LuftrauserZ, Super Bread Box, C64anabalt, Bomberland and Aviator Arcade II have now all been given the upgrade treatment, and I hope by the end of the year to have discontinued the use of Universal Game Cases. The new three-part cardboard boxes are available to buy sperately so you can upgrade your own collection, and as Universal Game Cases are selling for around £2-3 each on eBay there's always the option of making some of your money back ;)

Actually, on the subject of Super Bread Box, imagine my surprise when Richard McManus tagged me on Facebook to say he'd just seen the game being played on Channel 4 daytime TV by former professional footballer Chris Kamara whilst Peter 'Nostalgia Nerd' Leigh talked about the wonders of 8-bit computers. However, I'm not sure that Kammy knew how to hold a joystick - he was pretty terrible at the game! On the plus side, I can now proudly say 'AS SEEN ON TV' when it comes to promoting Super Bread Box again in future. Nice one Nostalgia Nerd!

Back in a bit!