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Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Krakout (Gremlin Graphics, 1987)

Written by Andrew Greene and Robert Toone. Additional coding by Greg Holmes, Chris Shrigley, Shaun Hollingworth, Peter Harrap, Colin Dooley and Chris Kerry. Music by Ben Daglish, graphics by Steve Kerry and Terry Lloyd, loading screen by Marco Duroe. Released in 1987 for the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and MSX. Converted by John Mackay for the Acorn BBC Micro, and released by Gremlin Graphics in 1987. Converted by Wise Owl Software Ltd. for the Thomson MO5, and released through France Image Logiciel in 1987.

Unofficial (?) conversion for the Sharp MZ-800 written by Bill Gilbert and released through Firefly Software in 1988. Unofficial conversion for the Commodore Plus/4 by Tamás Sasvari, Valeria Feher and Peter Feher in 1992.

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GAME STATUS


After having done a comparison on Batty a couple of months ago, I have had a few people suggest that I do a comparison on Krakout, another good variation on the breakout theme. So, while I'm working on something bigger simultaneously, I figured that I might as well write a comparison on Krakout now to clear out some of the requests. Clearly, this game has its own fan base, perhaps even more so than Batty ever had, for whatever reasons.

Strangely, closest to my own opinion on this game can be found at CPC Game Reviews, having received a rather average 6 out of 10. All the other ratings are better, next one being 4 stars out of 5 from 24 votes at Generation MSX, and just a tad better with a score of 8.05, the C64 version as voted by 128 Lemon64 voters, placing the version at #81 in their Top 100 (basing the list on at least 100 votes). World of Spectrum users have so far given their version 87 votes, giving it a score of 8.23, being the highest rated official version. The unofficial Plus/4 version only has 10 votes at the Plus/4 World website, but has a score of 8.6, which makes me really want to try it out now. All the other conversions listed above don't seem to have much of ratings or reviews anywhere, so onwards to the comparison then...

**UPDATE, 12th of September, 2016**
This entry is under some heavy updating, so if you happen to be reading this, be advised of any possible inconsistencies until the entry is finished and this notice is removed. (Left to update: Sounds and Overall sections.)

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DESCRIPTION & REVIEW


I could almost copy this bit from my review of Batty, but there are just enough differences not to do it. After all, Krakout is really a fairly basic breakout variation in essentials: you control a bat-like device, sending off a ball to break some blocks and bouncing it back to the playfield whenever it comes back at you. As in Arkanoid, you will get some power-ups from breaking bricks, although in Krakout, the power-ups will reveal themselves randomly, when the ball has touched a brick, having the power-up on the flipside of it, in a way. Sometimes, though, some power-ups can be found from other objects outside of the brick realm.

There are a few really big differences that make Krakout stand out from Arkanoid and other earlier members of its kind: the bat is placed on either left or right side of the screen (which can be chosen from the options screen before starting the game); the ball is significantly bigger, and thus easier to spot, than in any of the other breakout clones; and you can tweak your bat control type to either use inertia-based movement as fast as you want it to, or a two-speed static movement with pushing the fire button to turn on the turbo speed, both of which you can adjust to your liking from the options menu.

Another, more irritating difference is what I like to call the Gremlin ball, the little round thing with a clear hatred for your ball, that is introduced in the later levels. If it catches your ball, the Gremlin ball will it up into a tiny little piece of scrap and spit it out, and you can do nothing to save it, other than just try not to hit the Gremlin. Somehow, I have managed to complete the C64 version of Krakout - without any cheats even, and I can only say that having seen the level indicator loop back to 01 after 99, it wasn't really worth the bother. But before doing so, it can be a good challenge, and is a recommendable variation in the neverending sea of breakouts.

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LOADING


For this particular game, I will only include tape loading times, although some disk versions were released. I have come to the conclusion in writing my blog, that the loading times really only make a difference, when the game is only released on tape, or if the game's primary media of publication was tape. Of course, when the game is released in an HD-installable format or a cartridge in addition to the tape and disk formats, the differences become so overwhelming that the whole comparison becomes futile, and only the obvious needs to be pointed out. For this reason, I will continue this new, slightly tweaked method of game loading comparison section, as you see it now.

As Krakout was originally not released on the Commodore Plus/4 computer, I will not include its loading time here. Not that I could do it anyhow, because it can only be found as a .prg-file, which means all the actual loading info is missing. Also, the only tape image file I found of the Sharp MZ-800 version was a bit hacked, so I have reason to believe the loading time differs from the original MZ-800 tape.

BBC - 3 minutes 30 seconds
C64 - 3 minutes 54 seconds
CPC - 5 minutes 14 seconds
MO5 - 6 minutes 21 seconds
MSX, 1200 baud - 12 minutes 13 seconds
MSX, 2400 baud - 7 minutes 4 seconds
SPE, Original - 4 minutes 50 seconds
SPE, Kixx - 4 minutes 37 seconds
SPE, Erbe - 4 minutes 46 seconds

Rarely has the Amstrad tape been this competitive with the Spectrum and C64, but this time it really can be called not only comparatively, but also acceptably quick. Still, it only wins the MSX and Thomson MO5 tape versions. As a nice surprise, it's the BBC Micro version that wins this round in quickness. Now, let us look at some loading screens before heading on to some more heavy text.

Loading screens. Top row, left to right: MSX, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC.
Bottom left: Thomson MO5. Bottom right: Acorn BBC Micro.
Again, the C64 is the only one missing a loading screen, which might not be such a bad thing, actually, because it leaves room for a new interpretation of the game title logo for the intro screen. For the Thomson MO5 and BBC Micro versions, the designers clearly went for minimalism, although it should be noted, that most MO5 games published by FIL feature a similar loading screen. Trying to copy the cover art is always a noble thing to attempt, but I can't honestly say any of these pictures are really all that good. The Amstrad picture comes the closest to getting the Gremlin ball's expression as it is on the cover, but it's also the blockiest and looks uninspiring. The other two look even less so, although they at least have a better resolution and a better looking logo. Well, perhaps I am not the best one to judge these pictures, since I really don't even like the cover art.

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PLAYABILITY


Beginning my comparison process truly at last, I chose to start with the strangely alluring Commodore Plus/4 version, because I was familiar enough with the rest of the contestants. Because this is not an official release, I had very little expectations of this conversion, in spite of the relatively good score it has gotten at the Plus/4 World website. Still, once I got to play this unofficial product, even my low expectations were left unmet. The ball only acts like it should as far as going forwards and backwards from the point of view of the bat, but makes some random choices as to what its angle should be, when bouncing off a brick or an enemy it has just collided with - but mostly, it is either wrong or very wrong. Regardless of this, the game manages to be playable, and almost even enjoyable to some extent, and I could even get several levels ahead before deciding that I didn't want to play it anymore. This conversion only has some of the essential elements that make it look and feel like Krakout, but is severely lacking in detail and most of the factors that make the original game fun.

Comparing the Plus/4 version to the one I am most familiar and comfortable with, and is also the closest one in graphic and elemental detail in comparison, the Plus/4 feels.. just dismal, I have no other word for it. The C64 version has everything in a fluent, balanced package, to keep the unexperienced player on his/her toes, but the even more experienced will have to work some in order to get far enough to get bored. Something the other versions appear to be missing, that is included in the C64 version, are the super fast flying skulls that you must try to catch with the bat. These will contain either an extra life, a back shield/wall, or a warp over several levels, in a random order. All of these power-ups can be found elsewhere in the game, but are more difficult to find on the C64, so this is balanced with the randomly occurring superskulls. One of the more irritating problems in this game is the high possibility to get stuck, bouncing between some unbreakable steel bricks for an unnaturally long time, collecting points and in a lesser amount, extra lives. Since you get an extra
life every 10000 points, getting stuck between steel blocks can rather easily get you a few dozen extra lives. This is a problem in all of the versions (except I can not tell if the Plus/4 suffers from this particular problem), but most particularly in the C64 version.

The Spectrum and MSX versions are almost as playable as the C64 version - the only thing I can think of that affects the gameplay in any particular way has to do with the graphics. The more you have sprites moving on the screen, the more you will experience slowdown, but since it only increases your reaction time, it shouldn't be such a big problem for most of the time. In cases such as getting stuck between unbreakable steel blocks, the screen might get more crowded, and getting out of your steely loop might feel even more stressful with a slower speed. While playing the MSX version, I got stuck between some steel blocks on level 33 for a good while, collecting 10 extra lives while at it, and got immensely bored, so when I got to level 34, I purposely stopped playing and went
for a game over. This is the closest I have gotten to playing the game through since I looped the C64 version a few years ago and decided not to ever play this game again. Of course, this was long before I decided to start writing a retro gaming blog.

UPDATES!: Quite a long while since having written the above, I found out about versions existing for the BBC Micro, Thomson MO5 and Sharp MZ-800. These findings will change the balance in results quite a bit, I'm happy to say. Unfortunately, since it's been such a long time since I last played Krakout on all the other versions, I've had to revisit them all enough to get a better view of things.

I shall start the updated bits with the two less comfortable findings, so I'll be rid of them sooner. First, the MZ-800 is basically a cheap black-and-white rendition of the ZX Spectrum version, only with less action on the screen, and massively worse screen update speed. It's just plainly horrible to play, and the less spoken of it, the better, but for a few words of warning for those of you who require more information: trying to keep up with the bat and ball movements when the game speed is basically the same as on the Spectrum, but you only see three or four frames per second of it, defines misery pretty well for me. But since it's as straight a Spectrum port as there can be, all the options are included.

My first impressions of the Thomson MO5 version weren't particularly good, either, since the title screen starts with a rendition of the Krakout theme tune, which needs to be played through before you can choose your options - which is really just the ball speed - and finally start the game. Happily, the game plays rather well, and is fairly faithful to the original in both level design and mechanics. Since the MO5 is a French machine, everything in the game is written in French, but in this case, it's not much of a bother. In fact, as a nice bonus, you can learn a few French words while playing an acceptable version of Krakout. Thumbs up!

Although lacking in many respects, the BBC Micro version is surprisingly comfortable for what it is. Instead of having much of options regarding special effects and whatnot, you start the game by choosing one of four modes, which you do by pressing one of the numeric keys from 1 to 4. The Acorn version is the only one to feature a two-player mode, which is played in turns, as expected, so keys 2 and 4 give you a two-player mode, similarly to keys 1 and 3 give you a single-player mode with normal and faster ball speeds, respectively. Each level begins with a brief "get ready" bit, and you get to choose the way your ball gets released towards by looking at an arrow pointer that switches between three alignments. Another notable difference that I noticed, was that a second ball can be picked up from the block bonuses instead of floating stars.

Last, but certainly not the least, the Amstrad version plays more like the C64 version, specifically that it has no problems with having many sprites on the screen, but has the level design and collision detection taken from Spectrum/MSX. This makes for an interesting mash-up of the best of both worlds, but then again, you might call it a compromise. Whether this is a good thing or not, I am not
entirely sure, but it's not a bad version - it just looks unattractive.

Now, I have to be a bit harsh here, because this is one of the cases where the sheer amount of graphics affects the gaming experience. One might even argue, that even the quality of the graphics affects the gameplay, and this did cross my mind while writing this comparison. This would put the Amstrad version in an unfair disadvantage, but to be fair, would you rather play a less ugly version of the same game, if it played as well, or a prettier version that played just slightly worse? I really cannot be the judge with this matter here, because it's entirely a matter of each gamer personally. So, because the graphics affect the speed of the game on the Spectrum and MSX, I have to give drop them lower than I would like to, and place the Amstrad version higher than I would like to. Still, it's not as bad as the list would make it. I have a feeling some Spectrum fanatics will react to this decision violently, but hey, it's just mathematical. I hate maths too.

1. COMMODORE 64
2. AMSTRAD CPC
3. ZX SPECTRUM / MSX
4. ACORN BBC MICRO
5. THOMSON MO5
6. COMMODORE PLUS/4
7. SHARP MZ-800

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GRAPHICS


Screenshots from the ZX Spectrum (above) and MSX (below) versions.
As in the previous Gremlin Graphics related entry, the Spectrum and the MSX versions of the game share the graphics very closely. There's a certain silly detailed style that the earlier Gremlin games often shared, which is why I like the early Gremlin games more than the later ones, especially on the Spectrum. Krakout kind of manages to fall into that area, although it already was one of the newer Gremlin games that I never was that much fond of, but the Spectrum - and therefore the MSX - graphics have some good special things going on that make them enjoyable, such as the head of Jack The Nipper. Unfortunately, the more you get sprites on the screen, the more you will experience slowdown, because of the hardware requirements.

Screenshots from the Commodore 64 version.


This is where the C64 gets the upper hand. Although the sprites are lesser in quality, you can get the equal amount of sprites on the screen, and suffer no decrease in game speed. Additionally, you get different graphic modes in the options menu, four of which are just colour-based modifications, and three of which will give you some other headache inducing effects, which make the whole experience a lot more interesting, if you can handle the strobe lighting and screen jerking effects and everything. Still, if you would rather have nothing but blackness in the background, then keep off of the C64 version.

Screenshots from the Amstrad CPC version.


The Amstrad version is closer to the Spectrum and MSX in colouring, but is as blocky as the C64 version, if not more so, and is severely lacking in detail. But it's still not quite as bad as the Plus/4 version, which lacks in colour as well as detail.

Screenshots from the unofficial Commodore Plus/4 version.

UPDATES!: There's still three more versions to show, but better late than never, I guess. Considering no-one mentioned of the three versions so far, it seems very few other people knew of them.

Screenshots from the Thomson MO5 version.

As I said earlier, the Thomson MO5 version has a very different looking title screen that doesn't really give you much hope. Somehow, it makes the game look like a puzzle game, rather than a breakout-clone, but happily, it's still the same old Krakout within the core. The title screen acts also as an options screen, where you can only select the ball speed and press fire to start. Althrough the level example given above doesn't necessarily tell you much, the colours are chosen well in the long run, and the screen size being slightly wider than in any other version helps gamers with slower reflexes. The score panel uses weird rainbow raster kind of effects, but is clear enough. The lack of background graphics and details isn't particularly worrisome here, but still, less is less.

Screenshots from the Sharp MZ-800 version.


The Sharp MZ-800 version is clearly a clone/conversion of the Spectrum/MSX version, but is completely monochrome, has bad animations and horrible screen update. Easily bottom of the list. Compared to this, even the Plus/4 version looks pretty good, but at least the game mechanics and physics are as good as they should be. Unlucky that it plays so horridly.

Finally, as you see, the BBC Micro version looks a bit different, and features little in terms of visual effects. The only exciting thing is the scrolling star field in the background of the title screen, although at least there are different backgrounds for the levels. With the nice use of colours, nice variety of backgrounds and adequate animations, I'd say this version is easily up in the top 3.

Screenshots from the Acorn BBC Micro version.

I have to admit, that while I prefer the busier screen options in the C64, there are certain assets to consider on the Spectrum/MSX version, which can be just as important for any hardware-wise unconcerned gamer. However, only because the Spectrum and MSX versions suffer from the same speed problems when there are too many sprites on the screen simultaneously, it will make the game less enjoyable - not just for a gamer more familiar with the C64 version, but more importantly, for a modern gamer previously unfamiliar with any of these versions. The Acorn and Thomson versions offer rather nice optional Krakout experiences, of which the latter is fairly close to the Spectrum and MSX versions.

1. COMMODORE 64
2. ACORN BBC MICRO
3. SPECTRUM / MSX
4. AMSTRAD CPC / THOMSON MO5
5. COMMODORE PLUS/4
6. SHARP MZ-800

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SOUNDS


Taking our previous section's winner first under inspection, we get into an area where the C64 has an unfair advantage, most of the time. Ben Daglish's soundtrack for the SID chip has three rather similar, but cheery and nicely composed in-game tunes and a game over ditty with a similar, rather Benny Hill'esque feel to it. Additionally, you will get an optional set of sound effects to be played during the game, if you choose to hear any - you can turn both music and sound effects if you prefer to do so. The effects have a unique, more pleasing overall feel to them than, say, Arkanoid or other earlier breakouts on the C64, so when you get tired of the music (which you will likely do in the first 30 minutes of playing), the sound effects option is a very good one to have.

On the Spectrum, you will only get the 48k version - at least, I wasn't able to find a 128k version, so I assume this is the case - so, you will be hearing some fairly familiar-sounding beeper tunes and effects. The Spectrum soundtrack is missing the second of the three tunes on the C64, and even the only one of the two main tunes is only partly featured, and is coded with just enough imagination to make it recognizable as part of the other tune. It's quite enough that you have to listen to it during the start menu, so it's a surprisingly considerable relief that during the game, you will hear only some sound effects. The effects themselves work very nicely, even if they are rather predicable: at least three different fart-like noises to indicate deaths of different things, some different kinds of bips and bops to indicate bricks breaking and revealing power-ups, level changing sounds and whatnot. It's a very familiar and comfortable soundscape, but somehow you wish there was something more.

Now, things start to get interesting. The Amstrad and MSX versions sound rather nice - almost alike, really, but with some clear differences that come naturally with their respective sound chips. What is so interesting about these two, is that the MSX version sounds like what the Spectrum version should have sounded like, and would have easily been able to, had the sound programmer been more at home with the Spectrum's hardware, and the Amstrad version sound something from between the MSX and C64.

Soundly taking the last place again is the Plus/4 version, featuring an even more irritating version of the one theme tune, and no other tune at all. If you choose to feature no in-game music, you will hear nothing at all, and if you have music, you will get brain damage from it.

UPDATES!: As with the other sections, we have three more versions to listen through. For starters, the Thomson MO5 version features only a short version of the main theme tune, played in a strangely effected single-channel tone, and there are only two sound effects in the game: an explosion-like mess of a noise and a very small, high-pitched "pip" sound. But perhaps it's still more agreeable than what the Plus/4 version offers.

As you might have guessed already, though, the Sharp version offers even less - in fact, it features no music at all, and the sound effects are basically the same as featured in the Spectrum version, only there are perhaps lesser amount of sounds here. I guess it could be considered as bad as the Plus/4 version.

I'm actually a bit sorry to say, but the BBC Micro version doesn't really fare as well as I would have wanted it to, in terms of music and sounds. There is no music, for one, and there are only a few different kinds of sound effects, but at least they are very fitting for a breakout-clone - in fact, they remind me quite a bit of Arkanoid on C64 with a similar blippy-whirly quality to the two basic collision noises, and of course you get one crash noise for killing enemies and such. As it is, all three updatees fall between the Spectrum and Plus/4 versions.

1. COMMODORE 64
2. AMSTRAD CPC / MSX
3. ZX SPECTRUM
4. THOMSON MO5
5. ACORN BBC MICRO
6. COMMODORE PLUS/4 / SHARP MZ-800

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OVERALL


Since I am now making some minor changes in the loading comparisons section, I might as well make some bigger and more constant changes in the overall scores section. From the next entry on, I will not be adding the loading scores to the overall scores, unless it really affects the gameplay in a major way, as it does in games such as Street Rod and Duck Tales, and even then, the loading times will be part of the playability score.

Now, the final scores for Krakout will be counted as mathematically as before, from the three main factors, plus the optional loading times addition. Note that the loading scores refer only to the original tape releases.

(OUTDATED, NEW OVERALL SCORES FURTHER BELOW!)
1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 4, Graphics 4, Sounds 4, Loading 4 = TOTAL 12/16
2. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 3, Graphics 2, Sounds 3, Loading 2 = TOTAL 8/10
3. MSX: Playability 2, Graphics 3, Sounds 3, Loading 1 = TOTAL 8/9
4. SPECTRUM: Playability 2, Graphics 3, Sounds 2, Loading 3 = TOTAL 7/10
5. COMMODORE PLUS/4: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 3

Commodore 64: Level 1 from the left + mode 9.
This is how the numbers tell us, but I would really rather place the MSX and Spectrum versions higher than the Amstrad version, mainly because a breakout game has so little to offer in terms of playability, so that the graphics gain a more important role in the game. You really want to be looking at some good graphics while not focusing on the controlling, and you just don't get that in the Amstrad version. And even then, the MSX and Spectrum versions' playability isn't all THAT bad as the numbers would want you to understand - they both are really rather playable, and you can forgive the slight slowdown when you get so much better graphics than the Amstrad version gives in return. The unofficial Plus/4 port deserves the last place, though, and I can only recommend it as a sort of a joke, which should be seen only once for future reference. As a final note, I'm sure there are some mistakes in the credits at the top, so please feel free to correct the whole bit - I just couldn't bother that much with this game, because there is not nearly enough info on the matter on the websites that I collect my info usually from.

UPDATE!: Due to the new additions to the comparison and the sheer impossibility to deal with the loading scores anymore, I have decided to keep the old scores above, and compile an updated set of overall scores, now featuring all eight contestants. While I still stand by my old comments, the three additional versions do bring a new balance to the comparison...

1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 7, Graphics 6, Sounds 6 = TOTAL 19
2. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 6, Graphics 3, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 14
3. MSX: Playability 5, Graphics 4, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 14
4. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 5, Graphics 4, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 13
5. ACORN BBC MICRO: Playability 4, Graphics 5, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 11
6. THOMSON MO5: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 9
7. COMMODORE PLUS/4: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 5
8. SHARP MZ-800: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 3

Thank you very much for reading again, hope you liked it!
I might post another smaller comparison before the big one for Christmas week, so keep your eyes open. =)

2 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Yeah, I've occasionally thought about doing Arkanoid, but to my knowledge, it has somewhere around 15 different ports from the arcade original, maybe more. It's just too much for me to consider at the moment. Besides, I cannot really go into much detail about a game I cannot even properly test on all platforms. Maybe sometime in the not-very-near future.

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