The comp.sys.sinclair Crap Games Competition 2021 - 25th edition!

 

COMPETITION ENTRY #16: BALLOONATIX

Author:  Paul Equinox Collins Model:  48K Spectrum Formats:    .TZX
Submission date:  13 March 2021 Documentation:  instructions for Balloonatix Builder Tested on:  Spectaculator 8.0

Download it here

After a brief diversion down Blunder Boulevard, Paul Equinox Collins is getting the CSSCGC back on track with his second entry of the year, with a game that's simple in concept... and which ranges from "as easy as killing bunnies with axes" to "harder than French kissing a cobra".

Your task is to move two balloons - or "loons" as Paul calls them - from their respective starting places on the screen to the two flashing exit squares, with standard Q/A/O/P controls, which, due to the use of the IN function, will allow diagonal movement but will be completely foxed by input from an Issue 2 keyboard (so make sure you're on Issue 3). You can only move one balloon at a time, and switch between them using keys 1 (to control the red balloon) and 2 (for the magenta one). It does not matter which way round they are deposited in the exit squares, as long as they're both delivered there safely.

The first hindrance to your progress is the wind, which can be seen on a yellow stripe at the top of the screen. Any balloon you're not actively moving will be carried in the direction of the arrow highlighted on the stripe. This is a mild inconvenience on level 1, but from level 2 onwards comes the game's main (and, actually, only) hazard: the dreaded spikes. On this screen it should be easy enough to avoid them, but soon enough they'll become far more of a threat. If the balloon touches a spike, whether you've moved it that way deliberately or the wind has carried it, what happens is... exactly what you'd expect to happen.

Fortunately, if a balloon is reduced to many shreds of latex, you'll only be returned to the beginning of the level; there are only eight levels, and there's no system of lives, you can retry as many times as you like. So if I've made the game sound easy... it isn't. Level 4, which I've shown in one of the screenshots (it's the one with the N-shaped course) was the first time I had trouble manoeuvring the balloons while keeping them both away from the spikes. Level 5 took 20 minutes to clear, not just because of the spikes, but because the exits are completely unsurrounded and it's almost down to sheer blind luck more than judgement in trying to get them both perfectly aligned with the exit (so if anyone has a sample of Dr Hildegarde Lanström's luck virus, now would be an excellent time to use it). Level 6 was where I first felt the need to resort to using savestates. And level 7, another one I've shown a screenshot of... is downright sadistic. I am hard-wired not to be able to multi-task, and in this game it's essential. You have to keep an eye on both balloons, and the wind, judge which way the wind is going to carry your uncontrolled balloon, and switch between them accordingly. Level 8 looks worse than it actually is, and I can confirm there is a victory screen, but level 7 required a lot of luck, extreme save state abuse, and more obscenities in more languages than the neighbours will ever be able to not thank me for teaching to their primary-school-aged kids if they were listening, to get through.

Half the problem is the controls - 1 and 2 are considerably less responsive than Q/A/O/P, and this game requires you to smash those keys in a fraction-of-a-second window, also taking your left hand off the Q/A position to do so. Furthermore, on level 7, F2 and Pause on the PC keyboard (when using Spectaculator, at least) also came into play to record a quick-savestate with even more precision timing required - timing which I just don't have. As with ASMR Eye Examination, the game has been compiled with HiSoft BASIC but Paul has been good enough to provide the original BASIC listing at the end of the tape (LOAD "source.bas"), where I can see that 1 and 2 are detected by INKEY$ rather than IN at one specific stage in the listing. I reckon it would have been better to have one key (M or space) to toggle between the two balloons which doesn't required taking your fingers off the other control keys to operate, and which could also have been detected by IN.

There's no accompanying instructions - everything you need to know appears before the loading screen. But there is some bonus material - Balloonatix Builder, a level editor written in C# by which you can design your own levels in a graphics program (I recommend GIMP), save it as a Microsoft icon file (.ICO) and the C# program will convert it into a .TAP file containing 17.8K of DATA statements that hold the level layouts. You'll have to load the BASIC original and manually load the UDGs, then MERGE the custom DATA lines in. Nobody should have any trouble with that - and Paul helpfully emailed me some noob-instructions on how to compile raw .CS files into a working .EXE. (If you're on Linux or a Mac, you're on your own!) The screenshot of the level which is obviously Maria pointing at pig-morphed Willy from The Nightmare Room is a custom level I made, proving that the level editor works.

Overall: this is a cut above the two-mask games I've had a few of recently, so I'll give it three; it could have been four if level 7 hadn't sent my blood pressure to near-lethal levels, although my not-totally-superhuman reactions and compromised finger coordination can't be allowed to drag it right down. For effort - I think it ranks the same as Paul's previous submission, in that it follows much the same path - the type-in test is well and truly passed, there's a loading screen, nice-looking UDGs, use of a compiler that makes the game play at a reasonable speed (it's deathly slow in regular BASIC!) and whereas I'm not giving the listing a credit for the Magenta Challenge this time, the Balloonatix Builder more than makes up for it. It's not 99 Red Balloons, but it is five Ricks.

EFFORT:      ATTAINMENT:      DEMERITS:   none