Friday, 29 September 2017

Tom (Kingsoft, 1984)

Written by Udo Gertz for Commodore Vic-20 (+16k), C64 and C16. Music for the C64 and Vic-20 versions by Brigitte Gertz. Released by Anirog in the United Kingdom as "Tom Thumb".



I was called on to write something special for the RESET magazine celebrating its 10th issue an unexpectedly great elongation of a while ago, so I decided to choose something truly special. As the magazine specializes in all matters related to Commodore, contrary to previous occasions, this time I thought it would be a nice change seeing three Commodore machines put against each other in one man's battle to get in grips with each Commodore machine's difficulties in coding. This article was originally prepared about 11 months ago, and it was finally published a couple of weeks ago - but I have to say, the wait was well worth it! Go and order yourself a copy of the magazine from Binary Zone Interactive Retrostore, or if you're cheap, check the fantastic new layout from the free pdf version once it gets released on the RESET website. Now, back to the point. As I guess we all Commodore fans might agree, it's an almost universally acknowledged fact, that the C16 version rewrite is the best one, but in case you haven't read the RESET article already, here's your chance to see what's what, and why.

At the time of editing the blog version of this article, the C64 version still has a score of 6.2 from 9 votes at Lemon64, while the C16 version's score remains a much more respectable 9.1, voted by 21 clearly more eager Plus/4 World voters. There are no ratings to be found for the Vic-20 version, but that only makes it more interesting to see how well does it hold up to the other two.



The thing about Tom is, while the most common nominators are the theme, the main character and the most basic genre, all three games are quite a bit different from each other. The C64 and C16 games are maze-platformers in notably different ways, with notably different game mechanics, and the VIC-20 game takes away the platforming element completely. So, other than bearing the same title and having been written by the same person, I don't really think this threesome even calls for a proper comparison, but they do require some heavy examination. Therefore, I'm refusing to give any scores in this article, at least until the very end of it.

Considering the C64 and C16 versions of Tom were written in 1984, they were somewhat rare beasts at the time, since they used multi-directional scrolling - as such, they were among the first platformers made strictly for home computers to utilise this. Only Hoei's arcade game Jump Bug from 1981 came clearly earlier. As for the VIC-20 Tom, it reminds me more of Pac-Man than anything else, but it's a side-scrolling wider version of Pac-Man with less gobbling and more variety in level design.

Even by 1984 standards, I can't really say any version of Tom was a particularly playable game. Nowadays, all of them feel awkward at best, look weird and sound awful, but they share something not too many A-list games today can claim to have: personality. To make up for the lack of finesse in aesthetics, all versions of Tom in their own right can boast of being very large, particularly for the time. Even the C16 version has a map of 178 screens. Most importantly, any version of Tom will offer an unforgettable experience, in both good and bad, and they all have that "one more go" element to them.



Since only the C64 and C16 versions are really comparable in any way, we shall separate them from the VIC-20 version, and start with that.


The VIC-20 version of Tom is a horizontally scrolling maze-action game, in which all mazes are three times the screen's width. The object is to find and pick up 9 boxes (by merely walking past them) within each maze with some help from a compass pointing left or right, while avoiding collision with enemies. You can shoot the enemies with a short-range laser weapon, but only when they are conveniently approaching from your left or right. There is an energy counter, which will go down a bigger chunk, if you shoot your weapon, and since there's only energy to last for about one minute, you should only use the weapon as a last resort. Besides, not all enemies even die from a shot from your weapon. However, collecting a box will replenish your energy meter back to full 60, and will give you a score multiplier bonus.

Although navigating the mazes calls for a small amount of memorizing for efficiency's sake, there are also some sort of teleportation points scattered around the top and bottom edges of the maze, similarly to Pac-Man. If you happen upon one, press the joystick towards the teleport and push the fire button to get to the opposite side of the screen. It also should be pointed out, that apart from the first one, each maze has its own specific hazard that requires specific maneouvers from the player, such as a full screen-width laser beam that appears and reappears in rows, and loops the map from top to bottom, as well as a giant spider taking a large segment of the map.

While there's nothing particularly wrong about the playability here, apart from the collectable boxes being sometimes invisible, the animated "Get Ready" screen will make your head fall off sooner or later, as it takes about 12-13 seconds to get through, and there's no way to skip it. But I do think the game is more enjoyable when you turn your emulator's speed knob up to about 150%.

C16 vs C64

Both of the platforming versions of Tom take place inside a multi-leveled maze-like tomb or a pyramid filled with monsters, traps and treasure. The first glaring difference is, the C64 version features six different pyramids, all of which are possible to complete, while the C16 version has a single, seemingly endless tomb to lose yourself into. Therefore, the second glaring difference is, while your sole mission in the C16 version is to collect as much treasure as possible, in the C64 version, you also need to collect keys in order to escape from each pyramid.

How we accomplish each task is another matter entirely. Each version of Tom controls fairly differently. On C16, Tom can jump low jumps and higher jumps, but only if he's running. By default, you walk slowly, but press down the SHIFT key, and you're running. Naturally, pressing the SHIFT LOCK key allows you to keep away from the keyboard for most of the time. On C64, Tom has no separate walk and run speeds, but is capable of ducking. The necessity of ducking, of course, comes from hazards above your head that you can avoid, which is absent from the C16 version. But then, large spaces are not very common in the C64 version. Not only does the C64 version feature a barely useful beam-type weapon, not featured on the C16, but it also features a map system you can access by hitting F5. Obviously, the C16 version doesn't need one, because its single map is such a vast thing that it wasn't probably even meant to be completed. At least more than once, since the harder version of it has a badly placed spike on top of a ladder, making it impossible to beat the game on a higher difficulty setting. But what the C16 version does have instead, are checkpoints - any item you pick up or door you open acts as one, and if/when you die, you can continue from the last such spot.

The way I see it, both versions have their pros and cons, although I have to agree with most others who have commented on the differences of these two games, that the C16 version is the more playable one. It is less buggy to begin with, and it isn't more complex than it needs to be. And this, I think is a shame, because the C64 version has more good ideas in it - most of them are just spoiled by bad gameplay and needlessly long waiting periods.



None of the three Tom games feature actual loading screens (at least, nothing worth mentioning), so logically, we would have to start from the title screens. The problem is, though, all the games look so different that there's very little to compare, so we shall have to deal with each version on their own.

Screenshots from the VIC-20 version.

For starters, the VIC-20 version has a singularly animated, if not exuberant, title screen. At the very beginning, the blue-and-red flashing game logo is displayed at the top area of the screen, as well as the low right corner in the info panel, which is displayed throughout the game. The info panel also shows your scores, lives, collected boxes, amount of energy left and which round you're on. However, what's so animated about the title screen is: all the other text bits in the black area arrive in a different manner. Under the title logo, "by Udo Gertz" arrives in a snake-like wriggling manner, taking its time to move around the unoccupied black area as it comes. As the snake settles to its rightful spot, a text scroller of credits starts rolling just above the info panel, and all the rest of the text bits are typed in one letter at a time. The wandering snake-animation is also used later in the game for "Get Ready" and "Game Over" messages. It should be probably noted, that if you smash the F5 key to see your opponents, you can also see some specifically crafted level screens to show all the opponents in action.

The in-game graphics are fairly simplistic, but nothing less than expectable from a VIC-20 game. Everything looks wide and blocky, and all the character animations have no more than two frames. However, the very clear and varied colouring and the no-nonsense style of the graphics really works in the context. There's just enough unnecessary detail to create an atmosphere, and the atmosphere is good, even if it's quite a bit different from the other two Tom games.

Screenshots from the Commodore 16/Plus4 version.

Tom 16 starts off with a bunch of garbled graphics sealed by a spirallingly built brick wall, after which the camera moves to your starting point. Once it reaches that point, the camera halts and a simple text scroller appears at the top of the screen, which includes the title, the credits and some plotline. Not very impressive, but seeing as most of the C16's memory is taken by the huge map, no wonder Udo had to cut down on some other things.

Once you start the game, the text scroller is replaced by the info panel, which includes all the necessary and even some unnecessary information related to the game's proceedings, just to fill the space. Tom himself looks a bit different from the VIC-20 and C64 versions, since he's wearing a red cap on his head in those two, while here, he has a blue top hat, making him look more like a distinguished gentleman adventurer. The camera follows Top Hat Tom in a very restricted manner, always keeping him in the middle, but then again, you wouldn't expect anything more from a 1984 game. In case you were wondering about the black and blue borders, the blue borders are activated by picking up a key, and they turn black again after using one.

The environment is mostly made of large bricks and other elements that mix mostly red and small amounts of light brown, giving it all sort of a fake orange look. Happily, there are some passages that feature water, fire, vegetation and collectable items to make the game look occasionally acceptably colourful. The animations are certainly a step up from the VIC-20 version, and there are plenty of new enemies and structures to see here. While I'm not a big fan of the colouring in the game, I can only agree with the consensus, that on the whole, it's one of the more impressive older games for the C16.

Commodore 64 title screens and game intro.

The C64 version has so many different sorts of screens to show, that I have no option but to separate the intro sequence from the rest of the game. As the game has loaded, you will be greeted by a... well, honestly, a quite badly drawn title screen, which, apart from Tom himself, looks like the screen was drawn by an 8-year old. I'm not sure if Tom is horrified of the giant snake or is he trying to scare the snake away. Either way, it's still better than what comes after you press the button to start the game. That little barely animated sequence shows Tom heading into the badly drawn very brown pyramid, as the non-chalant sun is shining on the right side of the pyramid, while the left side is occupied by a badly drawn monster, larger than the pyramid, looking like a mix between a huge dog, a huge kangaroo and a bad-haired blue-faced witch. Somehow, though, this doesn't bother as much as it should, because these images still have some odd charm to them, and will stick in your mind like bubblegum. All this cheapness is also reinforced by the borders, which are rhythmically looping through all 16 colours of the C64 palette during the title and options screens.

In-game screenshots from the Commodore 64 version.

Unfortunately, graphically the most interesting bit in the game is the map screen, which shows all the necessary elements in clearly different colours. The graphics during play are sadly lacking in colour and variety, with a heavy emphasis on grey, turqoise and white. Only Tom himself and the more mobile enemies wear any differing colours. At least the animations are just about as good (or bad) as on C16, but really, one would expect a lot more from a C64 game.



Udo's sister Brigitte was given the responsibility of writing the music for the C64 and VIC-20 versions. For the VIC-20 version, she programmed a few fittingly arcadey sound effects and two children's songs, or more precisely, piano etudes that might be some of the first tunes a young pianist might practice. The title screen features a song known by different names in different countries, but the English-speaking world knows it as "Chopsticks". The in-game tune is something not I nor my select group of musician friends have been able to recognize, but it's likely some German children's song. It plays for about half-a-minute, before it stops, and lets the sound effects take over, and after another half-a-minute, the song plays again. Both tunes feature two beepy channels in use - the melody and a bass line, so it's not as cheap as it could have been.

The C64 version features just one song, which I don't even care to investigate further, because it's most likely an original tune. It's basically made of two melodies - one low and one high - with quite a lot of loops in both cases and slight variation on both the main instrument and the bass line, which is often considerably off the scale and out of key. At least it has some similar feel of belonging here as the soundtrack in Cosmi's Caverns of Khafka has, and the music sort of fits the nightmarish quality of the game's general cheapness. The sound effects here are, of course, played on top of the forever looping music, but you will only hear some quiet tap-noises of different pitches, depending on whether you're walking or climbing.

Again, the C16 version takes the cake, as it has the least badly programmed music, and the tune is more in tune with the theme of the game than in either of the other two versions. Still, two channels and a full minute of gloomy tomb music on the C16 is the best any version of this game has to offer. Actually, that's not entirely true, since there is also music to be heard while the actual theme song is on pause, and sound effects are on. Your walking sound is based on the melody of Udo Gertz's earlier C16 game, Ghost Town's theme tune. There are other, more particular sound effects made for sliding down slopes, jumping over things and collecting items. This all you will be hearing to your heart's content for 2 and a half minutes between each time the theme song is played.



Let's recap, shall we. All three versions of Tom are different enough to call them basically different games. Apart from Tom's look on the C64 and VIC-20, and the basic genre similarity of the C64 and C16 versions, there isn't much to connect here. The graphics have similar a thematic, perhaps, and certain sprites and styles have been used for all three versions, and all the animation is minimalistic in a similar manner. The music and sound effects, however, are different in all versions, although their execution is similar. Also the atmosphere is different in all versions due to the differences in gameplay, music and graphics. In the end, I am practically forced to give scores for the three versions of Tom, based more on intuition and opinion, rather than plain and simple comparative scores.

That's how I feel, and I guess these scores are still rather optimistic, even considering the game was made in 1984. In the end, all three versions deserve to be taken a look at, if you have managed to miss them so far somehow, if only for the reason that it really was the game that established Udo Gertz's talents most suited for the C16. Concerning that: the game wasn't originally compatible with the Plus/4, so a fixed version for it was made in 1986, and released through Anirog. Now, let's end this on a challenge: if someone wanted to make things more interesting regarding this game, perhaps a remake of any of the other versions for any Commodore - I believe the C16 would be most particularly welcome on the C64.

There you go - another RESET magazine Format Wars article done into blog-mode. Be sure to check the recent issue proper, though - there's plenty of other great reading material there, now enhanced with a larger size for the magazine, new funky layout and another brilliant Mix-i-Disk to go with it. Link at the top of this article, in case you missed it. Now, let's head for the Halloween special. Thanks for reading, see you next time!

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