Saturday, 29 August 2015

Thing On A Spring (Gremlin Graphics, 1985)

Developed by Micro Projects Engineering:
Design by Anthony Clarke
Programming by Jason Perkins
Graphics by Mark Rogers
Music by Rob Hubbard
Originally released for the Commodore 64 in 1985.

Converted for the Amstrad CPC by Pedigree Software in 1986, with music by Ben Daglish.



Now that every RESET subscriber has their copy of the original comparison, I guess it's safe to publish the very slightly edited blog edition. Gremlin's first big C64 title for 1985 came as a slightly shocking surprise, if the writers' reaction from Zzap!64's issue #4 is anything to judge something that happened 30 years ago by. Apparently, the gaming press of the time wasn't all too happy about Gremlin's earlier output on the C64. But the shock was quite a positive one, since the game was given a 93% overall score and a Sizzler award to go with it, and the main character also became a regular graphic element to be printed in the margins of Zzap!64. The Amstrad conversion came out the next year to a much lesser fanfare, but whether this was so for a good reason or not, remains to be seen.

Although I originally wrote this comparison for the special Zzap!64 issue of RESET magazine a couple of months ago, the current scores for both versions remain the same at the time of posting this on the blog. The original C64 version has a score of 7.6 from 63 votes at Lemon64, while the Amstrad conversion has only been given a 4 out of 10 at CPC Game Reviews, and 15 out of 20 at CPC-Softs. Once again, let's find out if there's any truth to the given scores.



Like much of Gremlin's other early output, Thing on a Spring is a platformer with some puzzle elements. As it was created for the C64, it's only natural that the game was made as a side-scroller instead of a flip-screen platformer, since the machine was known to do this sort of thing so well. The idea is to collect 9 pieces of a jigsaw puzzle from a four-storey underground lair, home to the evil Goblin. Succeeding in this will help you save all the toys that the evil Goblin has ensnared with his magical abilities. But this is all a bit of fluff on the side to give the gameplay some sort of a goal, although one could easily consider getting to grips with the gameplay a goal on its own.

With colourful and imaginative graphics, happy music and a simple but challenging playability, Thing on a Spring can easily be considered one of the side-scrolling platformers that set an example how one could, and perhaps should be made. However, for modern young gamers, the game might off-putting for precisely the same reasons we old-timers think it's such an awesome game, so if you're trying to think of a nice platforming game of old you might want to show your offspring, this is not necessarily the best choice to start with, but it's certainly a good one for further education.



Thing on a Spring was originally released on both cassette and disk formats for both machines, but since I have no access to an original disk version of the C64 game, we shall have to skip that bit. In any case, previous experience shows that the Amstrad disk drive works quite a lot faster than the C64 equivalent, so there would be no point in comparing the disk loading times. But anyway, here are the rather interesting and exceptional results for the tape loading times:

Loading screens from C64 (left) and Amstrad (right).
C64: 4 min 40 sec
CPC: 2 min 32 sec

Curiously, neither version has got a proper loading picture, only a simple notice that the game is loading. The Amstrad loader looks slightly more interesting with a single line of basic text stamped at the bottom of the screen while the rest of the screen has all those colourful lines jumping around - an otherwise very familiar sight to everyone, I'm sure.



On paper, controlling Thing looks pretty easy. You can walk (or bounce, if you like) left and right easily on any solid surface, but any sort of change in platform height forces you to jump. You can also pull yourself down to jump straight up either very little or over twice your own height, depending on how long you pull. The fire button on your chosen controller acts as the regular jump, as well as any other action you need to do in the game, such as operate the elevator.

In action, Thing isn't such an easy fellow to control, precisely because of the jump mechanics. You can bounce off to the opposite direction from any vertical surface, which makes jumping onto platforms often unnecessarily tricky. The problem really is in the game's collision detection, which often makes gaps smaller than they appear. There are also escalators and disintegrating floors you need to worry about, both of which will often lead to a dead-end. So, Thing on a Spring is most of all about trial and error in a puzzle-like way, instead of just pure-blooded platforming, which can make most Super Mario fans turn their backs at this one.

Fortunately - and unfortunately, in case you're not aware of all the required information nor inclined to read the game manual, it's not quite as simple as that. You only have one life to waste, for which you have an energy bar to keep an eye on. This is no ordinary energy bar: it's an oil level meter. You will lose a bit of oil every time you collide with an enemy, but you can collect oil cans to fill up your oil levels every once in a while. There are also five gadgets wrapped in presents you must collect in order to get anywhere in the game, which are as follows:

The Escalator gadget allows you to use the escalators as expected. It can usually be found from the first room to your left as you start the game. Before picking up this gadget, you cannot proceed to the rooms to your right at the beginning, thus making it impossible to reach some of the other gadgets.

The Rocket gadget allows you to launch off from the little rocket-looking things you occasionally see on the floor. These usually act as sort of short cuts. This gadget can be found from the first floor, the first room to your right as you start the game, although you need the previous gadget to get to it.

The Lift gadget can be found from the furthest room from the lift itself on the first floor. Picking this item up gives you access to the lift at the far left end of the game map. This is replaced on the Amstrad by the Clock gadget, of which I have not the faintest clue what its purpose is.

The Trampoline gadget is the last gadget on the first level, located closest to the lift, and enables the use of trampolines that can be found in later rooms.

The Bolt gadget allows you to walk on electric rays, although you can still take damage from them if you're not careful. This is the last gadget to be found, and is located in the first room of the second level.

Even after having gotten all the gadgets and having gotten used to the often pixel-perfect jumping requirements, the game doesn't get much easier, since the rooms are designed to become more difficult as you make progress in the game. Some rooms have doors placed elsewhere than where you came in from, and some have a ridiculous amount of disappearing platforms that require insane precision and speed to get through. Just keep in mind, once you have gotten all nine pieces of the puzzle, all you need to do is get to the bottom floor and into the giant goblin's den, and do your thing. It doesn't sound easy, and it's not even as easy as it sounds. But that's not my worry.

My worry is to figure out how differently the two versions play. Worry is the operative word here, because frankly, I was expecting a lot more than what I found. To my utter surprise, I found the Amstrad version to be just slightly less particular about jumping precision than the C64 original, which was refreshing. That said, I could notice that there are some minor adjustments made to platform placements to make the actual platforming slightly less uncomfortable on the Amstrad version. Also, the corridors that connect the actual content rooms have been made more breather-like rooms for the Amstrad version, probably just to make the game less of a nightmare than it needs to be. The original corridors in the C64 version are long and have obstacles you need to jump over, as well as dozens of flying enemies that seem to be completely unrelated to the room, and scroll along with you, which makes it impossible for you to avoid them. There is one curious feature in the Amstrad version that makes a good bit of difference to the original: instead of needing to turn on the lift by collecting a Lift gadget, the lift is functional from the beginning, and the gadget you collect in its stead is a Clock gadget, the purpose of which remains a mystery to me.

Both versions feature something very important, that has probably never been as useful before or since: a key for quitting the game back to the title screen. There are so many spots in the game where you have a high probability to end up stuck, often without any possibility of even getting killed, so the only option to get out of something like that is to hit the panic button and restart the whole game again. A room reset button would have been preferable, but I guess that would have been too much to ask for in a game that is already very impressive for having fit into 64kb. The panic button is RESTORE on the C64 and ESC on the Amstrad.

To be brutally honest, the Amstrad version actually plays better than the C64 version, even if it has been eased up a bit more than necessary. Controlling Thing is still very much the same, but most of the unnecessary getting stuck or collision detection type of bouncing problems have been fixed, which makes the Amstrad version more player-friendly. That is why I give this round for the CPC.

C64 - 0, CPC - 1



Even graphically, there are surprisingly little differences worth mentioning between the two versions, so the little that there are will make a huge difference. The most obvious part where any differences can be seen is, surprisingly, the title screen.

Title screens: Commodore 64 (left) and Amstrad CPC (right).

In the original version, the title screen features a big display of the animated title logo, which takes about half of the screen's size. The animation features each letter going up and down on springs, and changing colour every time they reach the other end of their set course - the top row switching between red and turqoise, and the bottom row switching between purple and green. In addition to the high scores and keys, the bottom of the screen has a text scroller within a red line going from right to left. The Amstrad version has no animations whatsoever - all you see in the picture is what you get. Dark blue text against a slightly lighter blue with all the numerals in white. It's simple and clear, but boring.

Different corridor bits from Commodore 64 (left) and Amstrad CPC (right).

The second most obvious difference comes when you start the game, and the game always starts in a place which I mentioned in the previous section: a corridor. As is obvious, the Amstrad corridors fit in one screen, and feature only the necessary bits that you should see when going through one of the corridors: your current score, the location of the lift, the amount of oil you have, as well as the gadgets and the puzzle pieces you have found. On the C64, the gadgets are not shown here, but everything else is, along with a completely different-looking corridor with enemies and occasional obstacles. Also, on different levels, the corridors have a different colour on the C64, and the obstacle platforms are always randomized for the corridors.

Sections from the first puzzle room (the one to your left from the starting corridor).
Top: Commodore 64 - Bottom: Amstrad CPC.

Comparing the puzzle rooms' graphics is a bit difficult, since they all change to some extent in both versions, and as such, could make the whole graphics section unnecessarily long. But instead of comparing all the different variations, I'll just put it this way: mostly, both versions go with the same alterations in graphics, which include different looks for the vanishing floor bits and different enemy sprites (which also affects the enemy sprites' moving speeds).

Sections from other puzzle rooms. Top row: Commodore 64. Bottom row: Amstrad CPC.

That said, there are some basic differences in the graphics that we can easily notice here from just a few puzzle rooms. First, the colouring is very much different, and it often appears that the C64 original has more variety in room colours, and the overall feel of the game is much brighter than that of the Amstrad version. Then again, the Amstrad version has more contrasting colours in all the room objects, which often gives a brighter look in a completely different manner. Second, the C64 version has slightly more detail in some of the obstacles, but not so much that you would notice without looking specifically. Third, the animations look slightly choppier on the Amstrad, particularly for the escalators and the conveyor belts.

I'm guessing that the reason why the score counter, the gadget panel and the lift indicator were left to the corridor bits on the Amstrad version was to make the other action on the screen as smooth as possible. Even now, some flickering can be noticed on the sprites, whenever there's too much action on the screen. The game even pauses when you pick up a gadget, so that the acquired item can be shown at the bottom of the screen near the oil meter.

Lift area screens from Commodore 64 (left) and Amstrad CPC (right).

If you have a really bad memory, the C64 version helps you in the lift screens by continuing to show you where the lift is at any time. The Amstrad version shows you no additional information to what is in the room. Also, most of the colours in the Amstrad version has been put into the lift itself, instead of trying to give a more balanced colour scheme to the lift section, as has been done for the C64 version.

Game Over screens from Commodore 64 (left) and Amstrad CPC (right).

I'm sure you would rather play the game yourself and see the actual ending yourself, so I'll end this section with the Game Over screens. Again, the C64 original beats the Amstrad version only by having a flashy lighting effect for the randomly appearing Game Over signs - the Amstrad version has no such effect, nor does it have any differing colours, but the basic idea is the same.

So, although the contest is surprisingly tight this time, it's still a clear win for the original.

C64 - 1, CPC - 0



Again, when comparing the sounds, I found myself surprised at how closely the Amstrad conversion follows the original. Both versions have the main theme tune played all the time, and some few sound effects on top of it when necessary. Only the Amstrad version has a shortened version of the tune, and sounds inevitably like something made for the AY-chip, while the C64 version takes a bit longer to loop, and is clearly a SID-tune. Interestingly, both versions were made by a different chiptune legend: the original C64 soundtrack was made by Rob Hubbard, and the Amstrad conversion of it was made by Ben Daglish. The quality shows even on the Amstrad, although it's still clearly the less interesting of the two.

The sound effects are less intrusive to the music on the Amstrad, but they are not as springy and so clearly fitting for the world that Thing on a Spring is all about, as the sound effects in the original. If you have a problem with listening to the sound effects intruding on the brilliant music, you can turn the music off by pressing F1, although you have to do it in the title screen on the C64, while the Amstrad version allows you to do it during play. In any case, the C64 version is the clear winner here.

C64 - 1, CPC - 0



To be honest, I've always wondered at the appeal of this game. Apart from having a brilliant tune and colourful graphics, it's an infuriatingly difficult game and has lots of traps that can - and will - get you stuck. Even after getting the hang of the basic game mechanics, it can still be a brutally unforgiving platformer at times, particularly when it becomes little more than a platformer later on. Still, this is how the two versions compare:

C64 - 2, CPC - 1

The original isn't so bad in gameplay as to make the presentation any less powerful, and the Amstrad conversion still isn't really as fun to play as it could be, had the original been more player-friendly to begin with. So, basically by the power of better music, the original wins - and why not, since it's a damn good piece of music.

It's still a much better game than Thing Bounces Back, though, which I confess is the one I played more due back in the day to having it on Gremlin's 10 Great Games II compilation. Thing Bounces Back (released in the U.S. as "Coil Cop" through Epyx) was the only other game Thing was featured in, and due to an even quirkier overall gameplay with plenty of unexpected traps and other needlessly annoying features, is considered by most gamers out there to be too confusing and frustrating, although some reviewers seem to think the opposite. The sequel was released for the ZX Spectrum and MSX in addition to the original twosome, so I guess there is some merit to it. If you enjoy quirky platformers, it is still well worth taking a look at.

Screenshots from Thing Bounces Back!, left to right: ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC.

Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed it! Until the next time, comments are welcome as ever. Particularly if you have any further knowledge on the Amstrad conversion team of TOAS. ;-)

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