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Thursday, 16 February 2017

Drelbs (Synapse Software, 1983)

Designed and written by Kelly Jones for the Atari 8-bit computers in 1983. Converted for the Apple ][ by Jonathan Tifft. Converted for the Commodore 64 by Miriam Nathan and William Mandel in 1984.

Published by Synapse Software in the North American market and by U.S. Gold in the European market.

Remake for the Commodore Amiga written by Simon Chin, and released into public domain in 1995.

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GAME STATUS


Here we have another cult classic from Synapse Software's catalogue, this making it the sixth game from Synapse to be featured on this blog. It is perhaps a bit odd that it took so long to come to this one, at least from my point of view, because it's one of the games that was requested early on in the blog's life, but for a long time, I wasn't aware of the unofficial Amiga remake or even the Apple ][ version. I remember this game having been a great favourite of mine and also a few of my friends back in their active C64 days, which makes it strange to realize that it wasn't much of a hit back when it was originally published, so in the hopes of spreading out the good word, here's my contribution to advertising this game.

Currently, the original 8-bit Atari version has a rating of 7.4 from 56 votes at Atarimania, while the version more familiar to us has a score of 7.6 from 41 votes at Lemon64. The unofficial Amiga remake has a surprisingly similar score of 7.5 at LemonAmiga, but only two people have voted for it, so I'm still not sure what to expect. So far, I haven't found any ratings for the Apple ][ version, but that doesn't really come as much of a surprise.

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DESCRIPTION & REVIEW


There is a certain kind of a draw in arcade-like games made for home computers that proper arcade games don't necessarily have, or if they do, you're likely not to know about them. In Drelbs, all the elements of unrestricted arcade game design burst forth in a fashion that epitomized the timeframe combined with the mindset of new and pioneering game developers making new and exciting things for home computers, although not necessarily in the most comfortable manner possible. With a certain amount of hits within a pile of ideas, there are bound to be some misses as well.

Now, bear with me, because this is probably very important for understanding the bulk of the actual comparison yet to come. The story of Drelbs is set in some microscopic area of a far away and long ago place, mostly occupied by the titular Drelb characters, which look like a single large eye with two legs underneath. One day, the evil log-headed Trollaboars (the square-shaped gnomes) came to occupy the land, captured all but one of the Drelbs (guess who), who would be guarded by the no less evil Gorgolytes (the green similarly roaming goblin-faced things). Naturally, the fate of becoming your kin's saviour befell on you. Your job is to rescue your fellow Drelbs from the Dark Corridor, but to get there, you must first form squares by flipping the revolving doors in the Atomic Flip Grid and wait for a chance to step into a seemingly randomly occurring Drelbic Window leading into the Dark Corridor. A level is completed after having freed all the Drelbs from the Dark Corridor. As the game progresses, more enemies are added into the levels, who will later on pick up some speed, and there are eight levels to conquer.


Although Drelbs cannot be called a completely unique home arcade game, as it features some basic elements from Ladybug and Berzerk!, the overall combination of gameplay elements, the logic and method of progression is very singular. Also, the game's visuals and sonics certainly give it an unforgettable character, in both good and bad ways - in fact, just the style of the graphics here might be wildly off-putting to some. Drelbs might be an acquired taste, but once you do get to appreciate it, you're hard-pressed to let go of it. Kind of like garlic.


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PLAYABILITY


In terms of controllability, Drelbs is one of the easiest games to play, since you don't have to worry about anything but moving your Drelb around after having pushed the required button in the title screen to start the game. In the ATARI version, you start with the START button; the APPLE version starts automatically after you have waited for all the text to appear in the title screen; the C64 version is started with the joystick button (in port 2); and the AMIGA version also starts with the joystick button, once you have actually managed to boot it up. The trick is, the AMIGA version requires a Kickstart 3.0 ROM or higher in order to work. Apart from the AMIGA remake, all versions difficulty settings - the ATARI original has three, which can be toggled from the OPTION key (F3 on emulators), and the C64 and APPLE versions have two, both which can be instantly accessed by pressing 1 or 2 during the game.

The entire game consists of two grid-based arenas, which basically means that you can only move your Drelb in the four main directions. Both of the arenas fit onto a single screen, so there's nothing more that you need to keep track of, than what you see in front of you. The first arena is about aligning revolving doors on the Atomic Flip Grid in such a way as to form rectangles, but your mission is made more difficult by the roaming square-shaped Trollaboars, which kill you in contact, and the strange tank-creature that goes constantly around the edge of the arena, shooting bouncing balls that also kill you instantly. Every now and then, a square might open up to show you an evil goblin-like face, which is apparently a close-up of a Gorgolyte, which will eventually dismantle its occupied square; but the squares might also show a damsel in distress, which will give you bonus points if you manage to enter the square while the woman's face is shown - however, the woman is only shown for very short periods of time before the Gorgolyte takes over again. Once you have formed enough squares that you can form them no more, the Drelbic Windows start opening up to form randomly appearing portals into the Dark Corridor.

While in the Atomic Flip Grid, you will occasionally notice some bonus items appear in the grid. If you flip a door in such a way that will hit the bonus item on its way, the item will move to another spot, usually far away from its previous location. Picking up a diamond opens up a portal into the Dark Corridor even before completing the grid, and picking up a heart will freeze the Trollaboars for a short period of time. However, this frozen state doesn't render them harmless, but you can also try to trap the Trollaboars inside squares as you form them, which will imprison them and make them harmless for a short time.

Even though the Dark Corridor is a much simpler arena than the Atomic Flip Grid, I wouldn't call it any easier. Similarly to the number of Trollaboars in the Atomic Flip Grid, the number of Gorgolytes first increase as you make progress in the game into further levels, and then they pick up speed. The Dark Corridor is guarded by initially one and later more of these Gorgolytes, and they shoot in X-axis and Y-axis in turns, and in a clearly timed manner. They start from somewhere in the middle of the screen and move around in an unpredictable and twitchy manner. Your job is to walk over the frozen drelbs, and effectively free them from their imprisoned state, but you need to free all of them before you can move on to the next level. If a Gorgolyte or one of its bullets catches you, you will be transported back into the current Atomic Flip Grid.

A casual Drelbs player might not notice any major differences between the four versions, and truthfully, it's not easy to spot them, either, but there certainly are some notable ones. First of all, the original ATARI version is a bit faster to play than either of the two official conversions. Also, it seems the enemies are much more aggressive from the start on the Atari than it is on the other two, but the C64 version plays particularly easy in comparison. This shows in the Trollaboars roaming around closer to you and the Gorgolytes shooting more often. Then again, the Gorgolytes in the C64 version use faster bullets than the other versions. Strangely enough, I found no notable differences in difficulty levels.

The AMIGA remake differs quite a lot. In addition to being a bit slower than the others, it doesn't have the tank-creatures circling the arena's edges for the first two stages, which already sets it far apart from the original threesome. Other things missing from the conversion are the randomly appearing bonus items and the occasional damsels in distress. There's also a clear difference to the Trollaboars' aggressiveness, them being much less intelligent and hostile than just randomly moving. Also, I noticed a fatal bug in the Amiga version, which made the revolving doors sometimes immovable and possible to walk through them - thus rendering them useless for forming squares. Because of this, you might end up in a situation where progress was impossible. So, if we would base our preferences on how fine-tuned the original ATARI game is, we would have a clear order of preference - however, the two official conversions (and particularly the C64 version) are more beginner-friendly. All four versions offer a different sort of a challenge, but only the AMIGA version is clearly buggy and incomplete.


1. ATARI 8-BIT / COMMODORE 64 / APPLE ][
2. COMMODORE AMIGA

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GRAPHICS


The graphics in Drelbs have always been considered disturbing by many, even scary. Part of it has to do with the game's dark general surrealism, but the rather "in your face" effects for different transitions have probably an even bigger impact in creating this image.

Title screens, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, Apple ][, Commodore Amiga.


For what is a surprisingly rare occurence in games, particularly of this age, the title logo is actually of the same design as the one you see in the cover art. Of the three official versions, only the APPLE version has a different logo, but along with the title logo, the whole title screen has been modified to a less contextual one, but at least it's the only version, which shows the difficulty options. Apart from the text bits in all versions, the ATARI and C64 versions also feature a wide window, basically showing an open Drelbic Window that starts filling up with squares that change their appearance in a similar manner that they eventually do in the game. The AMIGA version of the title screen is the only one that has no animation of any sort, and is, if possible, even less thematically fitting for the game than the APPLE title screen. For what it is, though, it looks sort of good, but boring.

Screenshots of the Atomic Flip Grid, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, Apple ][, Commodore Amiga.


The game starts from the Atomic Flip Grid with nothing in it except for revolving doors, a Trollaboar, and if you're not playing the AMIGA version, a tank creature circling around the room. In the AMIGA version, the tank thing comes into the game in level 3.

Let's start with the info panel. The ATARI original is the only one, which uses a green background, which doesn't really work too well with the blue text. Also, the text is a bit too basic in style, and features only the current score and the number of lives. The APPLE conversion fixed the blandness issue with a unique font for the score and showing the lives as animated Drelb-sprites. The C64 conversion went back to the text-only style for the info panel, but it added a unique feature among the offical versions of having a level number display as well. The AMIGA conversion has all the information the C64 version has, but the font is as basic for the Amiga as the ATARI version's text is basic for the Atari.


Now, the things within the action screen have a fairly similar appearance in all four versions, although as you know already, the AMIGA version is missing a few things. The Drelb you're controlling is a strange-looking creature with a huge animated eye on top of two legs, and he hops around the screen in a sort of a rabbity kind of way. Your primary worry, the Trollaboar, is a squared angry face that changes colour when it freezes as you pick up a heart bonus item. The tank creature looks almost like a worm in the ATARI and C64 versions, while in the APPLE version, it is a diamond-shaped creature with some green and red matter inside the frames, which are probably supposed to make it look more like a tank of some sort. At least when a tank shoots a bullet, it is without any variety, a clear white dot. Finally, the revolving doors are just flat flaps that are two grid spaces wide, with a flip mechanism in the middle. In the APPLE and AMIGA versions, the flip mechanisms are of a different colour than the doors themselves, while in the ATARI and C64 versions, it's all blue.


Different types of squares, if available.
Different levels have differently coloured squares, but their other contents always have the same appearance. The squares are always more or less animated, with the trapped Trollaboar having the least animation frames, and the opened Drelbic Window the most. For some strange reason, three out of the five square graphics are interlaced monochrome in the C64 version, while the other two official versions use at least three colours. Well, the opened Drelbic Window in the APPLE version is decidedly black-and-white, but otherwise, the amount of colours is opposite to what you would expect. As previously mentioned, the AMIGA version doesn't have all the contents for the formed squares, but what I didn't mention earlier was a graphical omission: the Gorgolyte squares have been replaced by randomly appearing squares that look the same as if you had captured a Trollaboar in one.

Going through the Drelbic Window, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, Apple ][, Commodore Amiga.


You enter the Dark Corridor by walking into an opened Drelbic Window, and the visual effects for going through the window differs surprisingly drastically. The simplest effect is, perhaps not so surprisingly, on the AMIGA conversion, where the only visual representation of stepping into the Dark Corridor is an enlargening rectangle coming out from the Drelbic Window you just stepped in - as if you'd be falling into a frame. In addition to a very similar effect as witnessed in the AMIGA conversion, the ATARI and C64 versions travel through the frame into a full field of Drelbs, which then rapidly decrease to the random set laid out for you to free from their imprisonment in the Dark Corridor. The APPLE version goes really wild with the already disturbing visuals here, and goes through a number of weird graphic patterns after entering the Drelbic Window, before abruptly entering the Dark Corridor.

In the Dark Corridor, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, Apple ][, Commodore Amiga.


The Dark Corridor itself is really nothing more than a black area with lots of your fellow Drelbs in a frozen state (blue in appearance in all other versions except for the APPLE version, in which the frozen Drelbs are green) and the required amount of Gorgolytes roaming around the area. Since the appearance of a Gorgolyte is supposed to be a green, somewhat goblin or monkey-like head, the APPLE version failed a bit in this regard, because the Drelbs are already green - the Gorgolytes are white there. The AMIGA version doesn't have a proper Gorgolyte sprite, but for a placeholder, there's a Trollaboar sprite with its mouth looking a bit like Poirot's mustache. Also, the Drelb you control takes on a different colour here, from the one in the Atomic Flip Grid: the ATARI and C64 versions have him turned light blue here (as opposed to the original red colour), and the AMIGA version has a white Drelb instead of blue.

Screenshots of the "Level Complete" sequence, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, Apple ][, Commodore Amiga.


Completing a Dark Corridor section will throw another of the game's more disturbing animated sequences at you; only this time, there's a clear idea of a positive outcome. On top of a bunch of Gorgolyte-squares, or in the case of the APPLE version, Gorgolyte-squares alternating with trapped Trollaboars, which themselves are set over a bunch of other weird random graphics, new squares of rescued Drelbs pop up, until the screen abruptly clears up and changes to another Atomic Flip Grid. Once again, the unofficial AMIGA conversion is missing some graphics - this time the missing element being the Drelb squares, which are replaced with regular Drelbic Windows. However, the background has been changed to a more optimistic light grey.

Screenshots from other levels, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, Apple ][, Commodore Amiga.


Although further levels add very little of extra graphics, there are still some slight differences. Most notably, the formed squares have different colours in all versions, but on a smaller scale, you can see the Trollaboars and the tank-creatures have different colours in the ATARI original, while the APPLE, C64 and AMIGA conversions use a single colour for each enemy, even when there's more than one of them on the screen.


The End sequence, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, Apple ][, Commodore Amiga.


For many of us, Drelbs features probably one of the most disturbing Game Over screens ever featured in a game. Perhaps it doesn't look like much here, but the quickly and randomly increasing trapped Trollaboars and the evil Gorgolyte-squares on the screen were not too far from being nightmare fodder for a young gamer back in the day. At least, after having played Drelbs for the first time ever, and seeing the effect of these things within the game, the Game Over screen came as a bit of a shock the first time I saw it. Also, for a change, the "Game Over" message is actually "The End", bringing the game's end to a considerably more dramatic one compared to the tradition.

Apple ][ version: comparison of TV mode (above) vs. monitor mode (below) screens in emulation.


As much as I am a fan of the original visuals, in both ATARI and C64 form, the APPLE version is a considerable upgrade in colours and animation. Perhaps it doesn't encompass the slightly claustrophobic and disturbing feel of the original as well with the more colourful graphics, but it is nicer to look at, particularly if you choose the TV screen emulation from your Apple ][ emulator instead of a sharper monitor output, because the colours in the interlaced graphics blend together on a television screen. As for the other two, I would say it's more a matter of taste than technicalities, because the even cruder colours in the C64 version make the already disturbing graphics even more so due to the drastic change in balance, but the ATARI original does have the advantage of having more colours in use, however inconsequentially they might be distributed into the game. The AMIGA version's graphics have the potential of being rather nice, but they're just too incomplete.

1. APPLE ][
2. ATARI 8-BIT / COMMODORE 64
3. COMMODORE AMIGA

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SOUNDS


Minimalism is not an often used style when it comes to game soundtracks, and when it is used, it's often either unintentional due to the programmer's capabilities, or if intentional, it's usually not very successful. At least, such occurrences were the most common back in the early 1980's. Nowadays, of course, indie developers know the importance of style and have better knowledge on how to do things for their games. Drelbs represents one of the rare examples from its time, where the minimalistic style of sounds complements the betrayingly simplistic style of graphics, although I cannot honestly say, whether it's due to the original developer's and the conversion artists' capabilities or chosen style.


In all the official versions, the game's theme song is a rendition of "Wilder Reiter" from Robert Schumann's "Album für die Jugend", Op. 68. The ATARI and C64 versions have it as a "fully" orchestrated (meaning, as fully as you can expect from 1983) three-voice rendition, including the second part of the song, while the APPLE version features only the first part looped as a monophonic beeper rendition for as long as it takes for the title screen animation to play. In the APPLE conversion, the only other piece of music in the game can be heard in the Dark Corridor, which is a loop of seven short notes with pauses in between. The ATARI and C64 versions have another monophonic tune to the Atomic Flip Grid, which is a bit more quirky loop of two whole bars, and is faster than the Dark Corridor theme. Although you can barely consider them music, the little minimalistic tunes' structures certainly render them as such, and add their own fair share of atmosphere to the game. The unofficial AMIGA version only has one tune, which is another basically monophonic two-bar loop, and it plays during the game at all times, except for when you complete a stage or die. It's considerably less quirky in melody and rhythm than the original Atomic Flip Grid tune, so it kind of fits the Amiga version's less refined and incomplete gameplay and graphics.


For the lack of more elaborate music, Drelbs makes it up with a wide variety of different sorts of sound effects. You get your Drelb's walking noise, the doors flipping, the squares forming, the bullets getting shot by the tank creatures, a death sound, going through the Drelbic Window sound, bonus item noises, completing a stage and The End noises, and probably a few more on top of all that, but it's difficult to tell. Nothing sounds like anything realistic in any way, and the busy nature of the game makes it hard to keep track of all that you're hearing. From the three official versions, the C64 conversion has the clearest soundscape of all, as most sound effects can be clearly separated from the others, and there are not too much continuous noises that would eat up focus from other sounds. The ATARI version has the advantage over the APPLE version by not playing the sounds from a beeper, but even the APPLE version has some pretty good sound effects for what it is. The sound effects in the AMIGA version are mostly a bit bland, and the nearly constantly playing music actually feels more prominent than the sound effects. Only your death sound and the level complete sequence sounds take clear priority, and are actually rather nice for the Amiga version's advantage.

Perhaps the results here are not quite what one would have hoped, but I have a reason for this. Drelbs is not a particularly chaotic game as such, only fast paced. Its graphics are dramatic to say the least, and you need good reflexes and quick thinking and controlling to be victorious, but it's not a chaotic game, unless it's somehow rendered uselessly so by unnecessary inconveniences, which it so far hasn't been. The C64 version's sounds complement the other parts of the game in a way that none of the other versions do, and the AMIGA version is really an inversed experience of it all. The APPLE sounds are good enough to make them more fitting for the game than the Amiga sounds, but the ATARI version is only barely worse than the C64 in this regard.

1. COMMODORE 64
2. ATARI 8-BIT
3. APPLE ][
4. COMMODORE AMIGA

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OVERALL


Being such an early game, Drelbs has a lot of character typical for its age, but happily, it has its very own thing going for it as well. Due to the rather strange and perhaps intentionally simplistic yet darkly moody graphics, it's definitely an acquired taste, but if you want to find some good use for Drelbs, let it serve as an antidote for the overly colourful, honed out prettiness of the Nintendo-approved games. More games should have more intended ugliness, if only for the sake of balance.

Regardless of the game's comparative ugliness and subsequent unique character, however, there are enough of differences between the four pre-remakes era versions to put them in a relatively clear order, even if it's a questionably calculated one at best:

1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 8
2. ATARI 8-BIT: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 7
2. APPLE ][: Playability 2, Graphics 3, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 7
3. COMMODORE AMIGA: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 3


Couldn't put it much clearer than that, even if I wanted to. Simply put, the C64 version wins just because it sounds the best, but I still have to urge you to test out at least all three official versions to find your own favourite. The APPLE ][ version was a very positive surprise for me, if only for its very singular graphics. I wouldn't necessarily recommend the unofficial AMIGA version to anyone due to its bugs and lack of graphics and sounds, but it does offer a unique challenge, at least.

Like it has been often called as such, the Amiga version can be considered a remake of Drelbs, since it was made so much later than the original threesome. The results, as you can see, left something to be desired, but for an amateur attempt, it could also have been much worse. If you're into remakes, though, the 2006 Retro Remakes competition also produced a Windows remake of Drelbs, but this time its programmer, James Hannagan, actually attempted to improve or upgrade the game in some ways. This remake features a co-operative two-player mode, two distinctly different difficulty levels and in-built instructions. It also has bird's eye view 3D graphics, and the vast majority of the graphics have been completely redesigned. I'm not sure if it's any better for it, but it definitely looks more modern. The 2006 remake is quite difficult to find these days - practically impossible as a standalone package, but you can find it at archive.org within a downloadable set of the complete remake competition, featuring plenty of other brilliant retro remakes.

Screenshots from the 2006 remake for Windows by James Hannagan.


That's it for today, stay tuned for another FRGR entry before the end of this month! Thanks for reading, bye!

1 comment:




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