Operation Wolf

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Operation Wolf is one of my all-time favourite arcade games!

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Released in to the arcades by Taito in 1987 Operation Wolf immediately grabbed the attention by way of an Uzi mounted on to the front of the cabinet! And this wasn’t a neon blue or pink gun, this was black!

The gameplay sees you play a one man army Schwarzenegger / Stallone-style commando who has to work their way through six stages blowing away enemies and rescuing hostages (in fact, the movies Commando and Rambo II were released just a couple of years prior in 1985).

The game is big, noisy, colourful fun and alongside Outrun and Afterburner maybe best epitomises everything that made arcades so fun in the mid-80’s.

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zx spectrum operation wolfThe home conversions followed quickly and I was pleased that the ZX Spectrum version was actually pretty good! It featured some nice music on the 128k machine and like the arcade the sprites were nicely drawn, large and swamped you! But as was almost always the case, it was monochrome! This wasn’t just annoying when your friends would bring it up in the playground, but sometimes it was tricky to spot enemies against the background.

R-Type zx spectrumAs the game scrolls horizontally under it’s own control, I’ve alway thought that it could have been given a splash of colour – much like Bob Pape’s R-Type on the ZX Spectrum, which is perhaps the best example of an arcade to ZX Spectrum conversion in terms of retaining both fast gameplay and full colour graphics. So I set about mocking up a screen from Operation Wolf to show what it could perhaps have looked like.

The graphics for the ZX Spectrum version are really good, so rather than re-draw them, I opted just to colour them, using mostly horizontal bands of colour.

operation wolf smallIn my version the background enemies would still get lost in the detail slightly, but the mid-ground band of colour would help better pull out the gun boats and tanks, also simplifying the foreground floor detail would better allow for colour to be added to the foreground enemies without the issues of colour clash. I’ve also coloured the falling icons as they were easy to miss!

There are a few illegal pixels and pixel misalignments in this mock-up, but it’s 95% correct (I didn’t have the time to fix everything) and I’m pleased with the final result. Given more time I’d probably add some more colour to the gun boats and add some more enemies to the image to see where the issues are.

And dare I also suggest that the ZX Spectrum version could even have gone one better than the arcade? With the screen split in to three very distinct bands, the ZX Spectrum could perhaps have featured three different scrolling speeds to introduce parallax. It would be interesting to know if that would be possible, but having seen some very impressive parallax in Thantos, it seems it might have been in theory? Either way, Operation Wolf was a great game on the ZX Spectrum and I hope this colour version shows what could perhaps have been.

 

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Above The Law (aka Nico)

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My dream job as a child would have been creating loading screens for the ZX Spectrum. spectrum light pen

In about 1984 I asked for a DK’Tronics light pen for Christmas and had visions of myself painting masterpieces for Ocean, US Gold, Ultimate, Durell…

…the reality was that drawing directly on to a 14″ TV screen with the pen’s time-lag made it impossible (at least for me) to create anything other than a mess of lines and shapes!

It wouldn’t be until I bought an Amiga 500+ some time in 1992 that I was actually able to start creating the digital imagery I had in my head. And by then of course the ZX Spectrum was consigned to history.

Recently I’ve been enjoying creating ZX Spectrum loading screens for some of my favourite movies – kind of scratching that itch that I never could as a child. Back in the mid-eighties I could have spent all day working on them, whereas nowadays time as an adult is much more  limited and to date my work has simply been creating an image using an app called Retrospecs with some pre-filtering in PS express and occasionally some touch-up afterwards in Photoshop. But I’ve decided now to go a step further and finish them with the name of the game and a company logo to complete the loading screen.

Sometimes these loading screens are for games that did exist back in the day, other times it’s a loading screen for a fictitious game – either a movie that wasn’t made until after the life of the ZX Spectrum, or one that was never made for whatever reason. And with that in mind, Above The Law is the first of the loading screens I never created back in the day for a game that never existed!…

above the law posterI’m surprised that Above The Law was never a game on the ZX Spectrum. Released in 1988 the movie hit at the height of the Spectrum’s popularity and featured a (nonsense) plot line made for a game…

Ex-CIA agent, sicilian martial arts expert Nicolo “Nico” Toscani must uncover CIA wrong-doing on the mean streets of Chicago. And the film is really just a show-case for Steven Seagal’s aikido skills, as he walks from fight to fight with a little exposition thrown in between to justify another fantastic brawl.

Had this licence ever been picked up, I imagine it would have fallen in to a standard Ocean template and found itself as a slightly modified version of Cobra (1986), where Nico runs from left to right punching generic bad guys and avoiding bullets. But wouldn’t it have been better if it had been a full-on fighting game like Street Fighter or Renegade!

So with that in mind, I’ve re-imagined the game as a US Gold licence of a Taito arcade game in the style of Renegade where Seagal’s Nico has to fight his way through several levels of differently themed Chicago thugs, deploying a range of aikido moves to despatch them, and then facing off against an end of level boss at the end of each stage.

ABOVETHELAW-small2I created this loading screen using Retrospecs to first convert an image of Seagal in to ZX Spectrum format, with some pre-filtering in PS Express to get the levels of the source image to best read and convert. For whatever reason, I’m finding that warmer skin tones convert better to ZX Spectrum images in Retrospecs. At the colder end of the palette the images don’t convert so well – possibly a limitation of the ZX Spectrum palette.

Then I took the the title of the movie from a different poster, cleaned it up a little in Photoshop and then converted it via Retrospecs in to a monochrome image.

Finally, I found some existing loading screens with some nice examples of the US Gold and Taito logos.

Then I took everything in to Photoshop, blowing everything up to 2560 x 1920 and setting a grid to work to, and then arranged everything so adhere to the colour clash rules. I didn’t need to clean up the image of Seagal at-all as that came straight out of Retrospecs in pretty good shape. Given a bit more time I might have looked to tidy up some of the square edges, but actually they make it feel a little more Spectrum-like, so I quite like them. Finally, I shrunk everything back down to 256 x 192 for the finished image above.

I’m pleased with the final result for a few hours work and had I been able to do this back in the late 80’s I’m pretty sure I would have been able to get that dream job creating loading screens!

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I’ve been arguing the merits (or not!) of The Last Jedi with friends and colleagues. On the plus side, the movie certainly has got people talking about Star Wars, but on the negative side, it’s for all the wrong reasons!

I stand by my feeling that it has a great third act that is undermined by an OK first act and a terrible second act.

I’m hoping JJ pulls the series back in the direction I thought it was taking with The Force Awakens and less Harry Potter and The Last Jedi!

THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: A LINK TO THE PAST

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I recently painted a mock-up of Out Run on the ZX Spectrum as it could perhaps have been had someone been given more time on the graphics. I was quite pleased with how it turned out for my first attempt at some in-game Spectrum graphics, so I thought I’d have another go on another notoriously monochrome game…but then I got distracted playing The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past!

I’ve never played any of the Zelda games before, but since getting a Blaze Tab Plus from FunStock I’ve been getting in to the SNES, and particularly this game. It’s incredible!

While looking up various Zelda material, I came across this video of a brilliant work in progress version of Zelda on the ZX Spectrum by a guy called David Clarke, and it made me wonder what Zelda could look like on the Spectrum?

ZELDA actual resolutionThe picture shown is my attempt at an in-game screen (shrunk back to 256×192 here, and shown larger at the top of the page).

I found this one more complicated than Out Run and it took me a couple of days in all to get it to this stage.

So for those interested in what I did, another explanation follows…

ZELDA SNESFirst I took an in game screen from the SNES version and cropped it to 256×192 resolution to match the ZX Spectrum resolution. I then increased that image in Photoshop to 2560×1920 so I could work on the image.

Like the Out Run image, I selected two square brushes to match the sizes of a single blown-up pixel and an 80×80 block of colour (at the new high resolution). Then I went to the view menu and turned on the grid option, altering the grid dimensions in the preferences menu so my screen was divided in to 80×80 sections. This made it easy to lay down blocks of colour and pixels so that they didn’t break the colour clash rule and aligned correctly; my practice on the Out Run image made this a fairly slick process this time around.

I started by trying to painting directly on top of the image, replacing the SNES palette with the Spectrum palette but I quickly began to appreciate how difficult it was for the old Spectrum artists to work with colour clash! It was incredibly limiting! So I looked to a few old Spectrum games to see how they worked around the problem and one in particular stood out called Robin of the Wood. It’s not a game I’d ever played, but I was really impressed at how they’d managed to use the colour palette, and it’s quite a Zelda-like adventure.

I decided that Robin of the Wood worked so well because they used a black background as the base colour, and then black as the main line-art colour with other colours being used to fill each ‘sprite’ or ‘tile’. So using that inspiration I started again!

ZELDA monochrome

This time I ran the SNES image through a handy App on my iPhone called Retrospecs to take a pass at making a monochrome version with Spectrum-sized pixels. After playing with the settings I got a good result out of Retrospecs that served as a good starting template. Then I started cutting that image up it to ‘sprites’ and aligning them to the 80×80 grid.

This simplified image was much easier to work with. It still took a while to see where to use black to define an image and where to use a colour, but it gradually turned in to selecting the most suitable base colour for the object and drawing on to it with that, using black to draw in the detail.

For larger objects like the house, after adding the base colour I could then look where I could use other colours to add highlights or details. If I was painting more screens, like the various towers in Zelda, I’d use this kind of technique to add more colour.

The only aspect I’d like to improve is the Link sprite. I’ve left him bright green in this image as he’ll spend most of his time walking over grass in the game, and that fits his costume colour. As you’d want him to move by the pixel rather than in blocks of 8 pixels I haven’t tried to add colour to him like Karnov – Zelda isn’t that kind of game.

I’m really happy with the final result! I totally want to play Zelda on the ZX Spectrum now! Any comments, let me know!

(I’ll try and do Robocop next!)

OUT RUN

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Outrun arcadeI have a soft spot for Out Run on the ZX Spectrum. I was probably blinded by my love for the arcade version and my desperation to own it in some way that made me enjoy playing it so much on the ZX Spectrum. Even looking back on it now, it was a valiant effort at porting the arcade version in to a tiny 48k, 8-bit machine. And the game is actually much better on the 128k machine with no multi-load to interrupt gameplay and even a couple of in-game sound tracks that play alongside the sound effects.

 

Outrun in game screenAnd yet, even at the time there was that nagging feeling that it wasn’t quite as good as it could have been. It ran quite slowly until the third stage where I thought my machine had broken when I first played it, as it slows even further to a near stand-still due to the attempt at remaining faithful to the arcade’s tunnel section. And you always had to explain to friends why the road was green…and hope that they didn’t make it to stage four when it turns bright magenta! But that’s the best you could do on a Spectrum, right?

Chase HQ in game screenWell no! Just two years later, Chase HQ appeared on the ZX Spectrum and showed what Out Run could have been. It was fast, the graphics were beautifully drawn, and even retained sampled speech from the arcade on the 128k version! And tunnels? Not only did they fill the screen but the developers even changed the pitch of the sound as you drove through them! But maybe best of all, the road was either concrete grey or desert sand yellow, which meant that your friends no longer asked why you were driving on grass…or began laughing when someone reached stage four!

But as good as Chase HQ was, it was still predominantly monochrome. And I always felt that there probably could have been a little splash of colour given how fast it all moved – colours jumping in 8×8 blocks would look fine at Chase HQ speeds. So I thought it would be interesting to see what might have been with Out Run – what could it have looked like if the graphic artist had worked around the colour clash limitations.

OUTRUN colour smallThe picture shown here is my version of an in-game screen (shrunk back to 256×192 here, and shown larger at the top of the page). I’ve only spent about a day on it and I’ve adhered pretty closely to the original graphics so as not to end up with a completely different looking game. I’m sure it could be done better than this, but it’s interesting to get a glimpse of what might have been!

For those interested in what I did, a little explanation follows…

First I took a ZX Spectrum in-game screen shot at 256×192 resolution and increased that in Photoshop to 2560×1920 so I could actually see what I was doing!

Next I had to consider both the working pixel size and how colour clash worked. I selected two square brushes to match the sizes of a single blown-up pixel and an 80×80 block of colour (at the new high resolution). Then I went to the view menu and turned on the grid option, altering the grid dimensions in the preferences menu so my screen was divided in to 80×80 sections. This made it easier (but still a bit fiddly) to lay down blocks of colour and pixels so that they didn’t break the colour clash rule and aligned correctly.

Next I took some Chase HQ and Out Run screens for misc roadside items, mountains etc and re-drew these at the larger scale and coloured them in. I tried to keep different objects on different layers so I could work on them separately.

The first thing I wanted to do was have a concrete road to match the arcade version, so I took my cue from Chase HQ for the look of that. I think it already improves the game!

I was never sure why Chase HQ left the mountains the same colour as the sky. Probably because of the line that would have been created between the top of the mountains and the sky. So to get around that issue, I added a layer of silhouetted mountains behind the FG mountains which allowed me to colour the FG a sandy yellow and use the black colour to separate the yellow of the mountains and the blue of the sky. It works quite well I think and doesn’t look like a tactic to avoid colour clash. I also worked a couple of shades of yellow in to the mountains just for a bit of variation.

I figure that objects would be flying towards us pretty quickly as in Chase HQ, so having FG objects jump in blocks of 8×8 pixels wouldn’t notice. In fact, in Chase HQ I’m sure FG objects jump in at least blocks of 8×8, so there is no reason not to colour them! Here I admit that my alignment of the trees and signs in the final image might have broken the colour clash rule if you measure it all out carefully (I could do better if I spent another day on the image), but the trees and signs themselves do adhere to the colour block rule within the sprite itself, and it’s only their on-screen placement that might be a few pixels out here and there. But in principle, this image is possible. The trees were the most awkward object to work with as the palms taper to a point and that doesn’t work so well with large squares of colour, but I think I did OK with them. For further levels it’d be better to stick to buildings and other square objects!

I decided to leave the sky as it was. With more time I probably would have gone for an IK+ sort of thing, but actually I quite like the banding of the Spectrum Out Run sky. At the very least I’d shift it all up a bit and add a nice yellow sun to the sky and some fluffy white clouds as that wouldn’t cause any colour clash issues against a plain cyan sky.

I decided to move all the HUD graphics to the top of the screen. These could look much better, but I wanted to concentrate time on the game graphics themselves so I left them much as they were and just realigned them and compacted them. I did recolour the speed indicator which looks much nicer I think (again, there may be a few pixels of error there, but it’s possible to lay it out like that).

Finally, the biggest issue of Out Run on the Spectrum for me what that the iconic red Ferrari Testarossa was green or whatever colour the BG was! Considering that the car doesn’t move, and the screen instead moves around it, there was no reason I could see not to make it red (at least no reason colour-wise). The shape is a little problematic for the blocks of colour, but I always felt that the car itself was well drawn so I didn’t want to alter it too much and just add colour to what was there. There are some compromises, but I managed to paint it red and even add some different colours to the lights, the Ferrari badge and even your girlfriend’s hair! For my efforts I also gave myself a personalised number plate!

Over-all I’m pretty happy with this effort as it was my first attempt at taking an old Spectrum screen and trying to add colour. Now I’ve had a little practise, I could do better (I’m thinking of looking at Robocop next) and also iron out the small errors I can see where the colour clash rule has been broken. But if this was the game I’d bought back in 1987, I would have been ecstatic…and would never had to explain away that green road!

 

 

STAR TREK BEYOND

Imagine if those rumours about William Shatner being in Star Trek Beyond had panned out in a sort of young Kirk and Spock meeting old Kirk and Spock way!

I’d love to see an Elite-style Star Trek game on the ZX Spectrum! Was there even an official Star trek game on the Spectrum?

Meanwhile, you’ll have to make do with some Star Trek Beyond ZX Spectrum artwork!

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ALIENS

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Alien Isolation is one of my favourite games of all-time. It’s so tense! Yet I’ve never tried Alien or Aliens on the ZX Spectrum, though surely among the multi-load levels there should be a sub-game where you play Bishop and have to “do the thing with the knife” between Hudson’s fingers!

Cobra

I have a bit of a soft spot for the movie Cobra. It’s quite terrible really, but one of those mid-80’s action movies that’s just so watchable. The ZX Spectrum game seems to have almost nothing at-all to do with the movie (the prams?) but is still a good, if difficult game.

The loading screen for the game is really very good on the Spectrum, but here’s my own alternate version.

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Created with Retrospecs