23 November 2008

 


 


 

 

 

 

 


 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 


 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"PUTTING THE STING INTO COMPUTING"
The semi-glorious history of Scorpion Software

Of course, it's terribly easy to criticise.

"I bet you've never written any games, Mr Cleverclogs Critic", extremely stupid people often jeer at your reporter. "So who are you to slag off other people's efforts?"

But as usual, those people are wrong and smell bad.

In the Thatcherite industrial wastelands of Bathgate in central Scotland, in late 1983, myself (on Spectrum) and my chum Louis O'Donnell (Dragon 32), both at the tender age of 16, formed Scorpion Software. With the aid of a Youth Action Fund grant from the Young Scot organisation in the princely sum of 45 (spent on two books on machine code which went tragically unread, and several boxes of Cadbury's 99 Flakes) we resolved to become the new Codemasters, before Codemasters had ever been thought of. The home computer market was still young and foolish, so making a success out of selling the sort of tat that we were about to come up with didn't seem as ludicrously unfeasible a prospect as it does now.

(Although you should note that of all the games that are going to be discussed in this feature, even in the primitive days of late 1983 and early 1984 we only considered Escape From Colditz, The Rat, Your Attention Please and the Last Arcade trilogy as even remotely commercially plausible - the others were just practice and mucking around, innovatively planned to be used as throwaway "B-sides" on the proper games. And actually, we were fooling ourselves about Colditz - it's an absolutely terrible game.)

Quite what happened to this crazy dream I don't recall, except that it wasn't our becoming rich. We eventually discovered drink and girls and rock'n'roll music and abandoned the whole business. But by then we'd amassed a pretty substantial catalogue of games  - read on and remember that these are basically one year's work by two people, which isn't bad going. Modern programmers are such lightweights. Below you'll find Scorpion Software's entire recorded works, in their last known versions, alongside a couple of mods we made of other people's stuff, a decade before modding was the commonplace pursuit it is now. Enjoy. And try to remember how bad games could be 16 years ago before you judge, okay?
 

ZX SPECTRUM GAMES
(in chronological order)
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ESCAPE FROM COLDITZ (1983/1984)

The only Scorpion game to actually be ported across different formats (a Dragon 32 version was also completed), Escape From Colditz is a six-level epic of extreme escapery, which sees the player imprisoned in a Colditz Castle of many years in the future, now guarded by evil robots and deadly lasers and surrounded by minefields. Based mostly on random laser fire, it's insanely difficult in "Hard" mode, but unimaginably simple in "Easy". (Once you figure out how "Easy" mode works, that is.) The fourth level was a blatant rip-off of the Speccy classic "Mined Out" - don't tell anyone, eh?

(Control: Q, A, O, P)

Download Escape From Colditz (41K)

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FLOGGING A DEAD HORSE (1984) (b-side)

Initially a conversion of one of the first ZX81 games I'd ever written, I realised this simple horse-race betting game was a bit boring and decided to pep it up a bit by having the races take place on a minefield and putting snipers in the grandstands, turning it into a sort of cross between the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Death Race 2000. It works okay as a game, except that as a result of some unsophisticated programming, when only one horse is left alive the game still allocates movement points randomly between all six runners, so it can take quite a while for the last horse to make it to the line. (I'm not sure if there are any safeguards in place to ensure that it does, or if it's possible for every horse to be killed.)

I can't remember why they all have such stubby tails. I think adding another pixel probably made them all look like spiders or something.

Download Flogging A Dead Horse (8K)

Download "normal" version with no death (6K)

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FORMULA 2/FOREST RALLY (1984) (b-side)

A simple little reaction game, originally inspired by a ZX81 type-in from Computer & Video Games but turned into something very different - basically a racing-themed version of those games where you have a little metal hoop on a wand and you have to move it along a twisty wire without touching it. I turned the type-in game's single open and rather boring racetrack into something a single character wide, and added two all-new courses. (The one that's a loose tribute to the original type-in is the one at bottom right in the shots above, trivia fans.)

The next step was going to be to replace the green boxes (which make it look more like Crate-Filled Warehouse Racer) with pretty pictures of racetracks, which would have been very easy to do on the Speccy without any clever coding techniques, but I can't draw for toffee (let alone within the Speccy's palette restrictions) so the plan never came to pass. The closest we got was to put little trees in instead and call the game "Forest Rally" instead.

Annoyingly there aren't separate high-scores for each course, and the scoring in general could have been better thought out (it'd work much better as an endurance race than a time trial, since there's almost no scope for varying lap times), but the core of F2/FR is a hypnotic and gripping little game that was excellent value as a bonus freebie. (In fact, I might yet knock up a Director's Cut with some tweaks and maybe another track or two.) In the early days, the Speccy saw an awful lot of games much worse than this released as A-sides.

(Control: Q, A, O, P)

Download Formula 2 (8K)

Download "Forest Rally" version (8K)

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MOTHERSHIP (1984) (b-side)

The year is 2029. The Earth has been infiltrated by an advance guard of alien invaders. Now the motherships come to enslave the planet, but only if they can get their troops to the surface using landing ladders. (They can't use parachutes because of, er, their tentacles. Yes that's it, their tentacles.). Defence ships block their way, so the mothership must drop enough ladders for the ground aliens to climb up and zap the defence ship and clear the path for invasion. Ooh.

Frankly this one's total rubbish, but we were quite pleased with the big spaceship graphic. (Seriously, you should have seen how bad some professional Speccy games looked.)

(Control: O and P)

Download Mothership (3K)

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NUCLEAR CITY BOMBER aka B1 ATTACK (1984) (b-side)

These days, it's all "realism, realism, realism" in videogames, which more often than not makes for excruciating tedium instead of the glamorous, escapist excitement that characterised the Speccy days. This version of the classic City Bomber, years ahead of its time, took the "realism" doctrine to its natural conclusion, being a scarily accurate and complete simulation of global thermonuclear war from the perspective of the crew of a B1 bomber (albeit apparently a non-partisan crew happy to bomb all sides with equal vigour). Naturally, you play the bombardier in this biting political satire.

I did actually think of a way to turn this into a "proper" game with scoring, without altering the basic gameplay mechanic (you'd only move onto the next city if you managed to bomb the lowest possible building, ensuring that your bomber had time to get away and wasn't caught in the blast), but decided that would only perpetuate the ideological myth of a "winnable" nuclear war, and therefore contribute to an enhanced risk of apocalypse. When you're working at the cutting edge of culture, you have to exercise responsibility.

(Control: Press "B" to drop a bomb.)

Download Nuclear City Bomber (3K)

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Ace title screen by Simon Reid.

THE RAT (1984)

Showing a keen eye for a controversial angle even 16 years ago, The Rat was probably Scorpion's finest hour, both technically and conceptually. It's a Dictator-style text-based game about software piracy, but with the twist of being depicted from the pirate's viewpoint. The object is to trade bought, borrowed and stolen games, both originals and pirate copies, with a varied cast of characters until you own every title available, including the legendary Yomp. (Yomp was a heroically terrible Frogger rip-off published by Virgin, and which only became available when you'd got all 49 other titles in the game - the joke, obviously, was that pirates were like magpies, obsessively collecting everything regardless of quality, and would prize even a terrible game if it was sufficiently hard to find.)

Challenging and subtle, to your reporter's admittedly biased eyes The Rat is the equal of several of the Speccy's most popular management-based titles like Football Manager, Software Star, It's Only Rock'n'Roll, Millionaire, The Biz and the aforementioned Dictator, though some of the juvenile humour and gratuitous swearing is a bit embarrassing now. It'd also be interesting to rework it slightly to take advantage of the ability nowadays to run emulators at double speed, enabling the interface to be a bit friendlier.

With painstaking realism (all the games featured are actual real-life Speccy titles with accurate relative pricing), artificial intelligence (beat people up or steal from them and they won't be your friend any more), considerable freedom in strategy formulation and fairly well-balanced resource management (buy games, copy them, and return them to the shop; put money in the bank for safekeeping and interest), in many ways The Rat blazed the trail that would later be so successfully exploited by Command And Conquer.

(Controls: Menu numbers, plus "A" to return to previous screen and "S" for status report.)

Download The Rat (42K)

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VIDEODROME (1984) (b-side)

A stupid, slightly sick and pointless waste of time, which amounted to a simulation of when people say "first up against the wall when the revolution comes". Execute screen after screen of grinning Pi-Men (the star of Pimania, produced by the much-missed Automata Software, who pioneered non-violent games) with a laser gun, shooting off individual limbs first if you so desire. No scoring. No lives. No entertainment. Just killing and maiming. Erk.

(NB Due to some troublesome machine-code elements, Videodrome must be run in 48K mode. Keys are 1, Q, G and H for movement, and anything on the bottom row to fire.)

Download Videodrome (2K)

Download MacSpeccy-compatible version (Q, A, O, P, Space) (2K)

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WIPEOUT (1984) (b-side)

A traditional "Snake"-type effort (except this is a trans-dimensional space snake which doesn't only grow longer when it eats things - it grows all the time, so you have to scoff all the humans on each stage before you run out of room and inevitably crash into yourself or an obstacle), but notable for being, as far as I know, the only Speccy game ever written in BASIC to boast continuous music. (For, as will become obvious when you play it, extremely good reasons.) Another technical first for the wizards at Scorpion.

I still guiltily enjoy playing this one, and the "tune" is burned in my mind, but it would probably have been more addictive with only one life. Still, the way the length of the notes dictates the timing of your movement probably makes Wipeout the world's first rhythm-action game. Man, we sure did break a lot of ground in a short amount of time.

(You can also play the game without music, which makes everything faster and smoother. Incidentally, if certain passages of the soundtrack seem naggingly familiar, note that one of the elements making up the tune is actually the Death March - or Beethoven's Symphony No.7 Movement 2 to give it its proper Sunday name - which was the traditional computer-game signifier of a lost life in the early 80s, but speeded up to make it sound jaunty.)

(Control: Q, A, O, P)

Download Wipeout (V1.4, apparently) (4K)

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Ace title screen by Simon Reid


YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE (1984)

With it being 1984, the Apocalypse was of course on everyone's minds. Around this time, a survey on ITV's World In Action news magazine showed that 85% of the people of Britain believed that nuclear conflict was "inevitable" within 10 years. With that in mind, we produced a text adventure game about surviving the atomic holocaust. I'm quite proud of it, since it's totally written in BASIC with a reasonably comprehensive interpreter (albeit in a slightly cheaty way), yet response times averaged under 1 second - there were plenty of professionally-written commercial games around at the time with much less impressive performance. (Plus they all had wanky plots about orcs and trolls. Plus ca change, eh?)

On the other hand, there are so many colossally annoying "sudden death" incidents that playing it now, I want to invent a time machine, go back in time 16 years, and punch myself in the face over and over and over again for writing the adventure-game equivalent of Rick Dangerous several years early. Swings and roundabouts, there.

You probably can't tell, but the guy on the TV is supposed to be George Orwell.

Download Your Attention Please (35K)

 


DRAGON 32 GAMES
(in chronological order)
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THE LAST ARCADE (1984)

The first game in a trilogy which represented Scorpion's main Dragon 32 focus - adventure games in the then-popular multiple-choice Fighting Fantasy style. The Last Arcade Trilogy told of a horrific dystopian future where arcades had been outlawed by an ultra-pacifist government. The world, as you'd imagine, had regressed to a strange and primitive state - an environment clearly recognisable as today's, yet inhabited by a strangely medieval populace. For the good of mankind, you must locate the last surviving arcade - kept by the evil rulers to satisfy their own secret gaming lust -   reveal its existence and remind the world of the joy of games, that sanity might once again prevail.

Download The Last Arcade (39K)

Xroar emulator

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QUEST FOR THE DISCS (1984)

On reaching the Last Arcade, the bold player discovered that even this oasis of technological entertainment and wonder was not immune from the catastrophic changes sweeping the planet. The Arcade's showpiece games, the laserdisc machines (these, remember, were the times when Dragon' Lair, Space Ace, MACH 3 and the mighty Firefox appeared to represent the absolute pinnacle of coin-op achievement) stood as silent, empty hulks, the all-important laserdiscs having been stolen by forces unknown. Having only just found the Last Arcade, the player must now leave its welcoming embrace again in order to save it...

Download Quest For The Discs (34K)

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REVENGE OF THE ARCADE REJECTS (1984)

Tragically, Scorpion Software's collective memory completely fails us as to the plot of the third and final part of the trilogy. (Inexplicably, it starts off in what appears to be the middle of some World War 1 trench warfare.) If the truth be told, it's fairly irrelevant anyway - all three parts of the trilogy were developed more or less simultaneously, with the result that none of them are properly finished, and all are prone to one extent or another to crashing when attempting to visit locations or manipulate objects whose existence hadn't yet been fully defined. Revenge Of The Arcade Rejects is by far the most incomplete of the three. But hey, feel free to debug any of the games and send them back to us if you feel like it...

Download Revenge Of The Arcade Rejects (57K)

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ESCAPE FROM COLDITZ (1983)

The Dragon version of Escape From Colditz is, for many observers, implacable proof of the superiority of the Spectrum over the Dragon. In fact, the Dragon version is less a game and more a blueprint - it contains the same levels as the Speccy version, and plays in fundamentally the same way, but it's full of bugs and (largely for Dragon technical reasons which made it all but impossible to combine graphics and standard text) uses letters to represent all the items rather than the Speccy's pretty sprites. (Though "F" representing a key was always a nice touch, I thought.)

Download Escape From Colditz (23K)

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HEAD-ON (1985)

After the first appearance of this Scorpion Software page a few years ago, Louis wrote from his desk at the Royal Bank Of Scotland in Edinburgh to correct my assertion at the top of the page about the machine-code books we'd purchased with our Youth Action Fund grant. While mine remains in immaculate unused condition to this day (I started to read it while relaxing in the garden with a lime milkshake one gloriously sunny summer's day, but immediately gave up in favour of the Sandman comics my mate Simon had brought round), Louis had begun to study his with honourable intent. Optimistically, he began to conceive far more technically ambitious titles, planning to convert them into machine-code when sufficient mastery of the language was attained. Sadly, Lou eventually gave up too, leaving a legacy of nicely-designed but catastrophically slow BASIC games like this one.

Download Head-On (9K)

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GRUNT'S REVENGE (1985)

...and this one, a simple survival horror which took the theme of the classic Robotron, but deprived the unfortunate player of the ultra-powerful laser guns of that game, leaving him at the mercy of the cannon-fodder enemy robots (known in Robotron as the Ground Roving Unit Network Terminators, or GRUNTs). Luckily, in Grunt's Revenge, the evil robots are almost at the end of their energy reserves, so if the plucky player can survive a certain length of time in each screen, the robots will power down and the player will make it to the next level.

If we'd put as much effort into actually knuckling down and learning machine-code as we did into coming up with stupid plot justifications, we'd probably both be millionaire programmers by now. Tch.

Download Grunt's Revenge (10K)

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ROYAL ASCOT

The obligatory horse-racing game, about as straightforward as they come. The nicest feature of Ascot was the way that fallen horses could sometimes get back up again and rejoin the race. But thanks to the Dragon's rudimentary graphics capability in text mode (what you see above is pretty much the most sophisticated thing it could do in that particular mode), this was achieved in a really stylish way - using just two characters - that made it look as though the stricken horse was actually twisting itself round and getting to its feet. Load it up and watch in wonder.

Download Royal Ascot (7K)

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CHUMPIONS! (1984) (mod)

Not, properly, a Scorpion Software game at all, but a hack of a dodgy football management game called Champions! (by, if I recall correctly, Peaksoft), modified to give the players hilarious names (well, they were hilarious if you were one of our friends) and replace the game's mundane weekly news items ("Income from tea stall - 3.75") with tremendously amusing ones like "Your share of TV pool - four buckets of water". Look, we were 17, okay? Give us a break.

Curiously, though, history wasn't quite finished with Chumpions. In June 2008, I got an email  from a writer on football magazine FourFourTwo, who'd stumbled across the old Scorpion Software page on WoS while doing a regular column about people's odd footy-related obsessions, and wanted to know if I could help him get the "Chumpions!" hack running so he could write about it. This turned out to be a trickier task than imagined, as all the Dragon 32 emulators I'd used before turned out to be DOS-only, leaving the aptly-titled MESS as the only other alternative. Since the guy clearly wasn't emulation-literate, I balked at the idea of trying to talk him through installing and running that (brrr!), and instead set to trying to find something that'd run in Windows.

The only option seemed to be something called Xroar, and as you might gather from the name it's a Linux-originated prog with all of the insufferable pompous user-hostile tech-nerd ramifications you might expect that to entail, such as not including system ROMs and having (hngh) real-time virtual cassette loading with no speedup option.

Still, I persevered, as the online poker game I was playing at the time was exceptionally dull, and eventually managed to get the game running. Not only had I forgotten quite what a poor football management game it was in the first place (happily letting you send out a team with only six players in it, which might still win, and with an interface that made the simple act of bringing a substitute into the team an agonising multi-stage chore, more often than not resulting in sending out a team with only six etc), but I'd also forgotten quite how much of an understatement the disclaimer at the end of the first paragraph of this entry was - 1984 was a very long time and a lot of intellectual, social and emotional growth ago, but I'm not sure that's any excuse.

Anyway, in order to make things as simple as possible for his readers, I knocked him up a quick webpage with all the necessary downloads and step-by-step instructions, also taking the opportunity to spare Scorpion's blushes by putting the proper original version of Champions! in. You can see the page here.

Download Chumpions! (61K)
 


ZX81 GAMES
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RETURN TO THE CURSE OF THE AZTEC TOMB (1982/1999) (mod)

Not strictly a Scorpion Software game, but it's included anyway for completist/nostalgic reasons. Curse Of The Aztec Tomb was originally a type-in game from the first games magazine I ever bought, the magical Christmas 1982 issue of Computer & Video Games. Huge chunks of the listing were completely missing due to C&VG's traditional printing cock-ups (which they always claimed were typesetting errors, but sometimes were clearly just the result of sub-editors hacking chunks out of the listings so they'd fit on the page, knowing they could print the rest as corrections next month), so I made up my own bits to get it working. Overcome with the thrill of programming, I then went on to add several entirely new sections to the game, a scoring system (originally you either won or died, and that was it) and a bunch of fancy graphical effects. Well, fancy for the ZX81, anyway.

The Commemorative Edition, specially adapted for emulator use in 1999 and with still more new areas and features added, even boasts persistent high-score saving, although I'm not absolutely sure how I actually did it. Even though half of the game's hazards are completely random and unfair, I still really like Curse, mainly for the incredibly evocative atmosphere somehow conveyed by the simple black-and-white block design of the tomb. That's you at the top left, by the way. You're doing pretty well for a guy with one leg.

(Controls: 1 to move, 0 to jump.)

Download Return To The Curse Of The Aztec Tomb (10K)

Download Special Commemorative Edition v2000 (14K)

Download Oddbob's 2008 PC remake of Aztec Tomb 2000
 


ATARI ST GAMES
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OIDS (1987/1989) (mod)

Again, sadly Scorpion Software can't actually claim the real credit for this fantastic game (which is essentially a cross between Thrust and Defender, but even better than that), since it was written by the inestimable Dan Hewitt and published by Mirrorsoft, and nothing to do with us. However, it's so great that it's the only game I've ever used a level editor to create my own suite of levels for.

I liked Oids so much, in fact, that I designed no fewer than five entire multi-planet galaxies of my own for it, ranging from the nice'n'easy, bad-pun-laden Arkanoid (planets include SaturdayNoid and AHardDaysNoid) to the moody Bewilderness (inspired by the 2000AD comic strip Bad Company), the inordinately taxing Championoid and the completely over-the-top Devoid, in which all the planets were named and designed after Devo songs. (Devoid also featured the planet Oid-Ching, which wasn't a game planet but a fantastic decision-making device. Simply start the planet and allow your ship to fall untouched through the various random teleporters until it eventually alights on one of the two landing pads.) And Eviloid, which was just evil.

Further evidence of Oids' greatness is that many years after it had been seemingly forgotten, someone went to the trouble of writing an entire Atari ST emulator (called Echo) solely for the purpose of playing it, because the game didn't run on any of the existing ones. Tragically, Oids is still almost completely forgotten, but it's one of the mightiest games of all time. Try it now and see for yourself.

Download Oids with Stu's custom galaxies (643K); Echo (140K)
 

* "We need the money"

 

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