Review: Nebulus AKA Tower Toppler (Atari ST)

The art style of this box really doesn’t match the game…

Equipment Used/Recommended

  • MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator.
  • Speedlink USB Joystick

My Review

Not quite sure why there’s a picture of a granny in a swimsuit…

So we’re doing a few non-ST Format reviews as well as going back to some older reviews and redoing them with accompanying videos – we’ll also be looking at other formats rather than just the Atari ST. I expect these to come out on Mondays.

Art that really does a cracking job of capturing the various bits of the game

So, another Monday review. This is one where I’m redoing an old review – the early ones were actually forum posts so this is a welcome opportunity to expand a bit on what was a fairly barebones review considering my love for the game – in truth I hadn’t yet arrived at a good format for doing these, nor was a forum thread the ideal location for this.

If this doesn’t bring back memories you have no soul

Nebulus is a platform game, and I was fortunate enough to have it as part of the ST Power Pack. My Atari ST came with a ludicrous number of games, a decent number of them were pretty good, but Nebulus was the best. A devilishly tricky platform game, you were a frog tasked with navigating a rotating tower to reach the top and bring the tower down. There was a plot somewhere but it scarcely mattered. What mattered was good platforming fun.

Why a frog needs a submarine is anyone’s guess

Now the movement isn’t necessarily the game’s strong point. Nebulus is another platformer with a fixed jump. His walking speed is decent enough though and he has one rather useful trick up his sleeve, the ability to use doors through the middle of the tower to come out on the opposite side. This adds an extra layer to the platform puzzling.

And why a frog needs a lift is also anyone’s guess

All through you’re faced with the tricky timing of lifts and jumps to avoid nasties usually on fixed courses trying to murder you. Then at random intervals an object on a flyby tries to get you, causing you to either pause a bit (costing precious time, for time is limited) or hitting you and knocking you down to a lower level. Hitting enemies is rarely fatal as they just push you down the tower, unless of course there’s only water below, but with the strict time limit they can make it a more frenetic task (as shown in my video). To be clear, this game is hard. Sometimes unfairly so, in that platforms disappear without warning and you must remember which one next time you come up the tower, but it never stops the game from having that one-more-go factor.

Nearly there, so tantalisingly close!

Sound is remarkable with some lovely sampled music, a really unusual thing on the ST in 1987. Similarly graphics are fantastic, the tower’s rotation was absolutely mind-blowing at the time even if the techniques aren’t necessarily anything special. Coming from the likes of Oh Mummy on the Amstrad CPC 464 to this was a hell of a shock. As well as looking gorgeous, everything runs super-smoothly (another unusual feat for the ST). In many ways this is a game way ahead of its time and making the ST do things that no other developers at that time could manage.

Got the bastard!

Verdict

Time to catch some fish

Do I even need to say it? Go on, play it. It’s one of the greatest platformers ever made. One quick caveat: the Commodore 64 version isn’t quite as exciting technically but is the better game. It’s a little bit smoother and the collision detection on the bullets is a bit more reliable (they can sometimes pass through the balls on the ST version).

This level is a bastard

Bonus C64 Video

Annoyingly the C64 version is better than the ST version due to superior collision detection. Still looks gorgeous too.

Review: Codemasters Italia 1990 (Atari ST)

Equipment Used/Recommended

  • MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator.
  • Speedlink USB Joystick

My Review

So we’re doing a few non-ST Format reviews as well as going back to some older reviews and redoing them with accompanying videos – we’ll also be looking at other formats rather than just the Atari ST. I expect these to come out on Mondays.

So these Monday reviews have so far seen two excellent games in Little Computer People and Mouse Trap. However, sometimes it’s also fun to cover the absolute clunkers. This is one where to be honest you need to watch the video to get a true feel for just how bad it is. It’s really special.

The first thing is that this is a cut down version of another earlier game – that game had 4 modes while this one has two, and one of them is even numbered 3 in the UI to rub salt into the wound. That’s lazy.

The training section isn’t too bad, I suspect it’s there for screenshots. You have to restart your ST to get out of that and into the football game, and none of the work in the gym has any effect on the stats of your players (because they don’t have any).

The game purports to represent the World Cup but your team is named Reds and always plays in red, while the other team, no matter who it is, plays in a yellow-orange puke colour.

If you get a free kick you don’t have to pass it, you can just dribble it.

If you get the ball and dribble it, the other team’s players will mill around not doing much, and won’t be able to tackle you. A goal is a matter of a quick tap from outside the box if going down the pitch, or a quick tap just inside the box then walk it in if you’re going up the pitch. The difference is because going down it chips and going up it sends the ball along the ground. You can score a goal every 30 seconds or so.

The programmers decided that horizontal scrolling was too hard, so instead they flip the screen between the 3 thirds of the pitch.

Verdict

This is a game so bad as to be comical, though it’s not so funny that people spent money on it. It was in the top 3 of the budget charts for months so clearly a lot of parents made the same mistake mine did, buying this on the strength of its world cup connection. Licensing wasn’t so rigorously enforced in those days and it’s more than likely that Ruud Gullit had no idea he was on the cover of this game either. Play this only if you hate yourself.

Review: Mouse Trap (Atari ST)

Equipment Used/Recommended

  • MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator.
  • Speedlink USB Joystick

My Review

So we’re doing a few non-ST Format reviews as well as going back to some older reviews and redoing them with accompanying videos – we’ll also be looking at other formats rather than just the Atari ST. I expect these to come out on Mondays.

Ok we’ll ignore the crap dragon, the mouse looks pretty well-drawn

Mouse Trap is one of those cheap games your parents will have picked up having no idea what it was. Certainly that’s how I came to acquire it. In theory it should be absolutely terrible, after all it’s a game that would look perfectly at home on an 8-bit machine with only the higher resolution really giving it away. There’s no scrolling, the chip music is awful and the jump is terrible (a crime for any platformer). So why the hell do I like it?

My tail touched the plant and I died

Some of it will undoubtedly be nostalgia. My dad wasn’t a particularly pleasant bloke, a violent drunk who avoided prison by luck rather than judgement given his tendency not to pay for things. Still, this game and Mad Professor Mariarti were the brief bit of quality time we ever had in between avoiding him because he was drunk again. Still, there’s more to it than that.

I collected all the balloons, now I’m heading for the exit

The graphics are nothing special on a technical level but they’re well-drawn, and franjly it’s remarkable that they’re so well-drawn when you see how bad the Commodore 64 version looks:

Thanks random internet person for this C64 footage

The ST version is at least a clear upgrade from the C64 which wasn’t always a given. In truth the artwork was lovely, even if it was on a flat single-colour background. The sprites move quickly and smoothly around the screen, probably because there weren’t many demands being made on the ST. Enemies are well-designed and well-animated and there’s a lovely little death animation.

Here I’m collecting Christmas puddings. Don’t ask why. The teacup, plant and snail are all deadly.

I mentioned before that the jumping was terrible and perhaps I should explain. It’s one of those games where your motion is fixed when you jump, true to real life physics perhaps but generally unwelcome in a platform game. It is however at least a fire button jump. Worse still, walking off the edge of a platform sends you not down vertically but off in a diagonal like you’ve jumped off. And yet there is actually a good reason for this. Many of the puzzles driving the levels (and this is very much a puzzle platformer) are built around those limitations. Whether the limitations were a product of lazy developers and the level design followed from that or the developers had an idea that the limitations would allow some design creativity we will likely never know, but for whatever reason it works.

Here’s me completing a level to show I’m not totally hopeless

Collision detection is interesting. You can often be suspended on a platform by a single pixel of foot, and similarly you can die because your tail touched the plant. It’s brutal, but it is at least consistent and if it goes wrong you can’t blame anyone but yourself.

Bignose the bogeyman lies in wait as I try to collect all the fishbowls…

The chip music is gratingly awful. You will hate it. And then you’ll find yourself humming it.

Video

So I made a little video showing Mouse Trap in all it’s glory. Enjoy!

Verdict

… but he needn’t have bothered – one wrong jump and I’m dead.

Clearly there’s a personal connection to this game which makes it special to me in ways that it might not be for others, but by cold analysis this is actually a decent little game. It isn’t going to win any prizes for originality or technical merit, but it’s a game with charm, cleverly designed and with some lovely art. It’s no Super Mario World but it is a good time.

New Release 2021 – Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge STE-Enhanced Version!

Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge – New Version!

So a couple of geniuses/nutters have gone and taken Lotus Esprit and made it better. In fact, it’s now pretty much indistinguishable from the brilliant Amiga version, which is an incredible achievement.

Visually it’s an absolute treat, running incredibly smoothly (which is why I’ve gone with a video for this post – static images won’t do it justice), and the sound has had some work with the engine sounds are improved and the dramatic intro music added.

I’m a reasonably capable dev but my ST days are sadly limited to making platformers and shooters in STOS when I was 12 so I don’t understand everything they’ve done, but it appears they’ve leveraged the Blitter especially in some wonderfully creative ways. Get it now!

The Links That Matter

Download The Game From AtariMania

Review: Little Computer People (Atari ST)

Equipment Used/Recommended

  • MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator.
  • Keyboard

My Review

So we’re doing a few non-ST Format reviews as well as going back to some older reviews and redoing them with accompanying videos – we’ll also be looking at other formats rather than just the Atari ST. I expect these to come out on Mondays.

Testing the game out for Y2K compatibility

It’s likely you’ve never heard of Little Computer People. It was a game that came out in the crossover period between 8 and 16 bit machines, arriving on the ST in 1986 in the States and 1988 in Europe. Its main claim to fame is being the inspiration behind Will Wright’s The Sims games. Now obviously we’ve all had quite enough of The Sims and its endless expansions, but we shouldn’t forget that at the time it was a remarkably risky bet and an incredibly innovative concept. While I prefer Will Wright’s other visionary effort Sim City, The Sims is still a remarkable piece of gaming history and it did a lot to bring gaming into the mainstream for better or worse. Indulge me then this trip into the past to examine its inspiration.

He’s playing the piano. It’s actually ear-destroying chip music.

The central conceit of Little Computer People (LCP from here on – I can’t be arsed typing all that) is that little people live in your computer, and the disk has a house on it, which will attract the little computer person who will come to live there with his dog. So you first load the game and your first sight is an empty house. Nothing moving but the ticking clock. A ghostly and empty place, but soon you hear a knock at the door. A little guy pokes his head in and wanders around. He’ll be randomly generated with different hair, moustache, etc for each player, and this will be stored by saving to floppy disk (which happens when he enters the cupboard in the attic).

So they didn’t think anyone would play in 2020 but did think time travellers from 1920 might…

He’ll have a wander around and poke and prod everything until he’s happy with the house and then his dog will turn up. No dobermans or great Danes here, just a little yappy thing. It’ll wander around the house doing its thing and occasionally eating when your house guest decides to feed him. Meanwhile your chap will go out to get a few things and move in properly.

Look at the lazy little shit, living a life of luxury

Once he’s there, he can never leave. He’s trapped forever, alone in this house, with only you and the dog for company, which probably feels strikingly relevant for many people during this period of social isolation. Just as in the covid era the best he can hope for is a phone call, or a letter, and playing a game remotely. Even a hug is delivered by a mechanical arm. He has his shopping delivered because going out seems like a bad idea (he might escape).

Putting the little gimp to work, playing a game. But should we be teaching kids to play poker?

If all this sounds a bit dystopian that’s only because I’m mucking about a bit and putting a weird spin on things for comedic effect. In truth it’s a harmless little game which teaches kids to look after another creature, and to think about its needs. You must ensure that he and his dog are fed and watered, and provided with intellectual stimulation in the form of delivering records, playing games, phone calls and letters. Further, the game encourages politeness because if you don’t say please he won’t listen. Indeed he’s not obligated to do anything you ask him to do. He’s independent (or perhaps the ‘AI’ is a bit wonky but shhhh), and you’re not the boss, which is unusual in gaming.

And should we be teaching kids to gamble?

In a way this is one of the early examples of a game where you can’t win as such, just as Will Wright later popularised with Sim City and The Sims, but rather the experience through the game is the objective, and an element of creativity exists too. It is clearly very very simple – if you know how games work you’ll look at it and see what’s going on straight away, how the character navigates, how he responds to your actions, but for a kid who doesn’t have that knowledge it’s pretty magical.

Video

Verdict

Thankfully he’s not very good so you’ll usually win – wait that’s not a healthy message to send to kids…

You’re not going to be blown away by the graphics, you’re not going to be blown away by an amazing gameplay loop, it’s not that kind of game. What it is though is an important piece of the history of gaming and one which set the stage for one of the most important games of the 21st century. If you go in and try not to analyse it too much you’ll have fun, and if you can’t maybe you have a kid who can. You’d probably need to go younger in 2021 than you would in 1986 but I’m sure there’s still value there. Go on, fire it up, have some fun.

Resources

Manual: http://www.atarimania.com/st/files/little_computer_people_ricochet_manual.PDF