Sunday, 19 June 2016

FRGR #06: Octapolis (English Software, 1987)

Designed by Jukka Tapanimäki for the Commodore 64.
Programming, graphics and sound effects by Jukka Tapanimäki. Music by Wally Beben.



This season's final entry for the Finnish Retro Game Reviews series will be more of a history lesson, rather than just another "regular" review that I have been doing for the MSX games. Jukka Tapanimäki was one of the most notable personalities in the Finnish gaming scene, having been one of the more regular reviewers for both major computing magazines of the 1980's: MikroBitti and C-lehti. He also published a book about writing games for the C64 in 1990. Of course, most of you outside of Finland will know him for his classic C64 games, Netherworld and Zamzara, both released by Hewson, and both of which I might very likely talk about in the future of this series. However, for this entry, I chose Octapolis, because it was his first commercially released game, and more particularly, his first game released outside of Finland. That, and Jukka's story deserves to be begun from the beginning.

Having had a history of studies in both graphics and literature, Jukka's interests eventually drifted into programming. He was inspired by the success met by a fellow Finnish programmer's success with a little international hit called Sanxion, so having taught himself the basics of programming on the C64 in a few months, Tapanimäki got his first game finished and sold to a small Finnish company called Triosoft. However, the text adventure Aikaetsivä (translated as "Time Detective"), while meeting initial critical success, was eventually deemed too hazardous in business sense, and remained unreleased until the Internet came along.

Left: Aikaetsivä (Triosoft, unreleased, 1986) - Middle: Monolith (MikroBitti, 1986) - Right: Minidium (C-lehti, 1987)
Undaunted, Jukka continued working on his programming skills, and got a couple of small games published as listings on MikroBitti and C-lehti magazines: Monolith (basically a demake of Encounter!) and Minidium (well, the name tells you everything). While these were impressive in their own ways (fast first-person scrolling in Monolith, and parallax scrolling in a very light version of Uridium), Tapanimäki's next project would be the one to really get his name out there. This new game combined elements of space shooters like Sanxion and Uridium, as well as platformers vaguely resembling Jet Set Willy and Future Knight combined, for the lack of better points of comparison I could think of. According to his own words in the "Pelit 1990" book - autumn edition's article "Pelintekijän muistelmat / Memoirs of a game developer", he had finished working on Octapolis long before he found a publisher for it. Initially, he had sent a demo version of the game to Ocean (too busy to even consider), Gremlin (not impressed enough), Martech (who wanted to meet Jukka in person at the PCW 1987), and numerous other publishers like Activision, Mirrorsoft et al, who wanted the full game for consideration. Only Hewson, CRL and English Software offered a contract straight on, and he chose English Software without knowing, that the company would go bankrupt in just a few months. Apparently, since the company was run by a single man, it was not an impossible scenario, that the man would take the money and run. Although this was a setback for Jukka, he soon got a call from Andrew Hewson himself, and the rest is... well, not all rosy either, but it's a story for another time, another blog entry.

So, we're concentrating now on the game that eventually got Jukka into Hewson. Octapolis, according to the game's instructions, is a small planet that has been able to defend themselves against the mighty Galactic Imperium. Their secret weapon was one of enormous mental power, and would reduce any valiant warrior into bumbling idiots and the greatest artificial intelligences into contradicting the Laws of Robotics. After having searched for hundreds of years for any pilot with immunity to the planet's defences, the GIA have found you, and naturally, your mission is to lower Octapolis' defence mechanisms so that a battlecruiser can wipe out the entire planet. What a plot!

Octapolis has never been a particularly collective favourite, mostly because it's not a very original game. I grant you that it isn't, but it is a very playable one, with only yourself to blame if you're not good at it. At the time of release, Octapolis got surprisingly good scores - an 86% overall score in Zzap!64 magazine, and a full five-star rating in the first issue of C-lehti in 1988. Currently, though, at Lemon64 the rating is a relatively low 6.9 from 33 voters.



Starting from the beginning, some of you might be relieved to know, that the game can be played using a joystick in either port. However, for those select few out there, who might be interested in competitive two-player modes, Octapolis has such a mode, but in true arcade tradition, the two-player mode is turn-based. Other than that, there are no gameplay-related options. Now, just for the sake of repetition, the game is basically divided into two parts: the horizontally scrolling shoot'em-up and the flip-screen platforming shooter. This is explained by your need to first clear out some enemy attack waves before entering each city, where you must destroy Octapolis' defence mechanisms one by one, until all eight cities are destroyed. Naturally, the game gets progressively more difficult.

The way the horizontal shooter part works is fairly simple: you have a very saucer-like spaceship, which you can move in the four general directions, as well as two other directions in a third dimension by pressing down the fire button and moving the joystick up or down. Your ship will shoot constantly in the direction you are flying to. The enemy attack waves move around in clearly defined patterns, which always come in the same sequence, so all you need to do is learn how the enemy waves behave and shoot away until you are allowed to land, which can really happen at any time. Clearance for landing is notified in both sound and vision: your ship's interior will start flashing and you will hear a strange noise accompanying the flashing. Each city has a landing strip somewhere in the middle of the Z-axis, so once the clearance is given, you only need to find the landing strip and fly straight above it, and you will be automatically pulled down. As I said, it's sort of like Sanxion and Uridium combined, but you don't have to concentrate on shooting.

The platforming part is even simpler. You just run left and right, shoot a beam of fire across the room with the fire button, and pulling the joystick up makes your little green space cadet jump up and forwards in a certain manner. You can't really control your jumps, unless you hit the ceiling, in which case you just slide along the ceiling in a similar manner to how you normally would. This adds a nice little puzzle-like element to the platforming parts, in that you need to figure out how to measure your jumps and time your shots. Each room contains a considerable amount of Evil Eyes, which you can shoot, but apart from the first room, each room should also contain a number of enemy monsters that you cannot shoot - only jump over or avoid in other ways. Actually, there is a slightly different version of Octapolis, in which even the first room contains one big monster, but I'm not sure if this is an official modification, and what version you would need to buy in order to find it. But... yeah, that's all there is to it, really. There's nothing as exciting included here as placing detonators and running away from it all before everything blows to a million bits, unfortunately.

By these descriptions, Octapolis might sound more boring than, say, Space Satellite, but the difference is, that the playability is nearly flawless in Octapolis, mostly due to its simplicity. Only the third dimension in the horizontal shooting bits is a bit useless, since the only thing you can attempt to do with it is to avoid getting hit, but simultaneously, moving to either side in the Z-axis makes it less probable for you to hit any enemies as well. Some cities are protected by some larger defence units, which block your whole Z-axis (not very difficult to beat - they only take something like 5 or 6 hits), but since you will more likely be using the X and Y-axises (or axi, is that the correct mode?) to avoid the enemies, the 3rd dimension is mostly left to remain a nice gimmick, but that's about it.



Similarly to its playability, the graphics in Octapolis are surprisingly simplistic, with only a few little elements that you might not really consider particularly impressive due to their context. Rather brilliantly, the game is made to force your focus on the action, instead of the well-made graphics. But before we get to the action, we have to take our time to see the loading screen, the title page and the options menu.

Loading screens.

For the sake of expanding the history lesson, we have a rare opportunity to see the game's graphics in their preview state, but don't worry: the scores will be given based on the final version. Here we have two versions of the loading screen - the preview version and the enhanced final version, with the title logo now being altered to complement the cover art, the horned skull now having red eyes instead of yellow, the stars in the background having more colour and the so-very-essential English Software copyright squeezed in. I can't really say I like the picture very much in either form, but the enhanced version does look better on the whole - hooray for progress!

Title screens.

Similarly to the loading screen, the title screen hasn't gone through too many great changes. The final version features a slightly flattened and greyed title logo, which to me doesn't look quite as in-sync with the loading screen title logo, but is still better. I think the game logo looks a bit more suitable for the used font in the preview, but some room had to be made for the full credits. For the released version, the credits were shown in a text scroller, which would go through many more colours than the preview version's text, and the high scores table would do a waving motion and have a more reachable number one spot. Still, the fonts remained the same and graphically, the title screen is just  about adequate, but not at all showy.
Options screen.

The options screen was a new feature for the released version, and features a new font and two highlighting flashies. The new font, of course, is included inside the flashing highlighted option items, so when you change the option, the font with move along with the highlighting effect.

Each city of Octapolis has its own specific exterior colour scheme, which are only seen in the shoot'em-up sections of each level. Cities 1 and 3 have a very green theme going on for them, cities 2 and 4 are mostly some shades of blue. Later cities use different colours, but after the fourth one, things start to get very difficult, which is why I haven't given you more to see here. All the cities seem to share some similarities in architecture, which offers an interesting view of the planet's cultural workings - the whole planet features only one race of people/beings and a unified style. Only the enemy spacecraft are of different design in every city. Actually, this reminds me of Jet Pac is a way. Another fun little design thing I noticed is, that the moon is constantly light green, and the stars are yellow.

Screenshots from the first five shoot'em-up sections.
As you can see, the clever bit here is the lower half of the screen, which is pretty much copied from Sanxion, although of course, in Sanxion, the screen only moves from right to left, and shows more to both behind and front of you than the screen in Octapolis. Also, to those of you fond of comparing games with each other, Sanxion has the bird's eye screen placed in the above half. Of course, the key element for the screen in Octapolis is, that you can move in the third axis by using the bird's eye screen. One more point of comparison to Sanxion is, that the parallax scrolling there is almost unnoticable, and is featured in the side-view screen, while the parallax scrolling is an important perspective element in Octapolis: it shows that the building structures are clearly far above the ground level. At least you won't need to avoid crashing into higher structures here like you need to do in Uridium.

Five random rooms from the platforming sections.

In the platforming sections, every room is of a different colour, and later levels have even the score panels painted with some new background colours. With all the different room colours, all the enemies also have their skin colour accordingly altered to fit the rooms. The Evil Eyes have more frequently altering colours, but the non-shootable enemies tend to be coloured in some shade of blue or grey, but can be seen in other colours, although less often. The only constants here are the overall architecture and our protagonist, who is always light green.

The most impressive elements here are both mostly trickery. Most of the sprites are dual-layered multi-coloured monuments of precise pixelation, and apart from the horned skulls that just stand around, they're all also beautifully animated. Only the Evil Eyes use regular wider-pixeled multi-colour single-layered graphics. The only really colourful bits in the city interiors are the strange rainbow-like windows, that have some pattern scrolling in them. They look nicely off the norm every once in a while, but the scrolling pattern makes them look more complex than they really are, and I'm pretty sure their only purpose is to take your attention away from the action. Those devious Octapolisians...

In-game differences in the preview version.
Once more, we go back to the preview version. Although the preview is just an unplayable demo, at least it shows us how it might have looked before some last minute changes were made. The "Sanxidium" levels featured different looking enemies, which were clearly just placeholders for the upcoming properly designed enemy sprites; otherwise, there seem to be no differences. The platforming levels have the Evil Eyes styled as they would appear on a face, rather than eyes by themselves, and the aliens that have their heads shaped like M&M's have their eyes narrower. Nothing much, but clearly worth tweaking.

The only other graphics the game has, that I haven't mentioned yet, are the quickly flashing scrolling bars between every level and/or life and the "Get Ready Player #" messages, your death explosion animations, and the ending screen, which I'm not going to spoil here this time. There's a website for that sort of thing, if you're interested. As for the death explosions, neither the space shooter sections nor the platforming sections have particularly phenomenal animations, but they do their job well enough.



Since we already touched on the subject of the preview version, it might be of some interest to some people, that all the sound effects were made by Jukka Tapanimäki himself, and they were all pretty much in place, before Wally Beben got the job to write the music for Octapolis.

The sound effects are fairly bulky space shooter sounds, but still manage to be recognizable for this particular game. For the space shooter sections, we get your constant "peww-peww" noise from your lasers, the occasional ascending "wubb-wubb-wubb" that informs you of a new attack wave coming in, the enemy's and your explosion sounds, the enemy's shooting "swissshhhh" sound, and finally, the very weird "Land Now!" signal and the landing noise, which is no less exceptional. There's also a little constantly looping sound effect in the platforming sections, which sounds a bit like chirping grasshoppers, but also has some other strange spacey effects playing on top of it. The other sounds within the city are your shooting, which makes a strange ascending wobbly noise along with the zap; the munchy explosion of an Evil Eye; your explosive death and the bonus counter descension sound when you reach the end of the city.

Beben's tunes do their job at giving something to listen to between each game and each level or death, but unfortunately, I cannot say they're particularly memorable, unlike his 26-minute masterpiece in the C64 version of Tetris. The title tune is relatively short: there are 16 bars of music, the second half of which contains a melody over the same chord progression as the first half, and the 16 bars are played twice over, before the game goes abruptly into a demo mode. While the title tune is speedy enough, it lacks a certain energy and feel of what the game is really about. The next tune is a short ditty in the "Get Ready" screen, which is really the most memorable piece of music in the game. There is also an option to listen to in-game music, but this only applies to the platforming sections, where the music is heard instead of sound effects. The platform tune is similar to the title tune, but has less clear melodic structure and goes on seemingly forever, without any particular direction. Sound effects are definitely preferred.



Behind a mask of deceiving mediocrity is a game that shines with quality where it matters. Even for its time, Octapolis had only somewhat above average graphics, although the high-speed multi-layered scrolling and the pretty dual-layered sprites and their detailed animations were certainly impressive back then. Too bad the same could not be said of the game's sounds, as the sound effects are more pleasant to listen to than the in-game music, and the tunes that you cannot escape are barely enjoyable. Not because they aren't well programmed, but because they're just not very good tunes. However, it's the surprisingly simplistic controls and the fair difficulty curve that make the game so very playable, and simultaneously give Octapolis its much needed bit of originality - otherwise it would just be a combined variation of two types of games already done many times before.

SOUNDS        6
OVERALL       8

Well, that's Octapolis for you; I hope that was fair enough. In the course of reading this review, you might have wondered why I haven't done an article of Sanxion yet. The reason is, simply, because I'm going to have to do a comparison of it, so I shall be coming to it later this year. Much later. As for Jukka Tapanimäki's later adventures in game developing, they would all require a comparison made of them, so I shall work on them after I have written about Sanxion. In the meantime, more Finnish Retro Game Reviews coming up after my summer holiday of still very much uncertain length. But before that, something big is still yet to come, so hold on to your hats! Thanks for reading again, see you next time!

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