Track & Field (NES) – A Retrospective Review

Author’s Note: Having spent most of the month following the Olympics, I thought the following review would be somewhat relevant.

First released by Konami in 1983 for the arcades and subsequently ported to a myriad of different platforms, Track & Field, as the name suggests, is a sports game revolving around track & field athletics events. One of the most notable ports of the game was the NES version, released in 1987 in America and re-released in Europe in 1992 under the title Track & Field in Barcelona, which included five of the six events from the arcade game and three events from the arcade sequel, Hyper Sports.

The gameplay of Track & Field is generally very simple, being played with three buttons: The A and B buttons usually representing one leg each and a third button representing the “action” button on the original arcade machine. Using these buttons, the player is tasked with at least matching a qualifying time or score in order to proceed to the next event, for instance by repeatedly pushing the run buttons in sequence in the running events, using the action button to jump over hurdles, or by using the run buttons to build up speed for the jumping and throwing events and using the action button to set the angle for the jump or throw.

As mentioned above, there were eight events included in the game: 100 metre dash and 110 metre hurdles for running events, long jump, triple jump and high jump for jumping events, javelin throw, skeet shooting and archery. Of the events originally in the arcade version, only hammer throw is missing, although personally, I would have preferred this over the awkward skeet shooting and archery events which are not only dissimilar in several respects to the other events in the game, but also not actually track and field events. There is also nothing in the way of longer-distance running events, which makes sense given the game’s arcade roots, but which would, with something like a stamina bar, have represented an interesting complement to the sprinting events. The other events are done very well, though, even with the running events representing button-bashing affairs which will wear out your fingers – and controllers.

The game can be played by one player versus the computer or two players, with two difficulty settings differing in the thresholds that players must reach in order to proceed. The game also gives you a choice of which event you want to start at. In the two-player mode, the players play head-to-head in the races and one after the other in the other events; if one player does not make the qualifying threshold, that player will be eliminated from the game and the other player will continue against the computer.

Graphically, the game is not the most impressive on the NES, but makes a good show of replicating the arcade game. The game also lacks the synthesised voices of the arcade version, but this shouldn’t be surprising given the sound hardware of the NES and the bleeps that the game does include are adequate for the purposes of the game.

Perhaps the most notable thing about the arcade version of Track & Field is that it set in stone the way in which following titles in the same category of games were played, with its simple button-bashing controls. As a consequence, the game is still very playable and represents rather simple fun as long as you can get your fingers or thumbs to cooperate with the speed at which you need to press the controls in order to succeed in most of the events. Strangely enough, I find it is the events that don’t require quick fingers that are the most troublesome; the skeet shooting and archery events feel out of place even if the game series soon expanded after its first title to cover other Olympic sports outside of the track and field events and can be particularly difficult to pass if you can’t get your timing just right. Given that there were events in both Track & Field and Hyper Sports in the arcade that would have fit better, I can’t see why they decided that those two events made a good fit into the structure of the game.

Aside from the criticisms I have regarding those events, the one downfall of the title is that the same simplicity that makes the game very easy to pick up and good fun also lends it very little depth. There’s always going to be the challenge of getting a higher score – and even setting world records if you’re good enough, but once you have the formula down, there’s not much else to learn about the game. There are a few Easter eggs scattered around the game in various places, but ultimately, the game sticks to its formula throughout. This is both a blessing and a curse and as a consequence, the game is more suited to two-player gameplay where you have another person to beat.

Bottom Line: Aside from a few stumbling blocks, Track & Field is simple, very easy to grasp and good fun – if your fingers are up to the button-bashing gameplay. However, it is also very formulaic and lacks depth, making it better in two-player mode.

Recommendation: This isn’t a title that is worth going out and spending a huge amount on a cartridge for, despite its fun factor, but if you can find it in a bargain bin somewhere or are willing to go down the emulation route, it’s a fun title which would be particularly good for short bursts of multiplayer gameplay.

The First “PC Master Race” – Part 1: The Start of the European Microcomputer Market (up to 1985)

While I have had my fair share of consoles, both home and handheld, through the years, I have always found myself predominantly drawn to my PCs as gaming platforms. From my first computer, with a 486SX running at 25MHz, a basic VGA graphics card and 8MB of RAM, to my current computer with an overclocked Core i5-4690K, an AMD Radeon R9 290 GPU and 16GB of RAM, each of my desktops has been used heavily for playing video games, even when they were not particularly suited to the games of the time.

Something I’ve noticed throughout the progression of PC specifications over the last fifteen or so years is that PCs have steadily become more compelling options against the dedicated video game consoles of their time. While, when I got my first computer in 1996, you could specify a computer that could outstrip the consoles of the time, it came at a considerably higher price and took considerably more effort to get games going on than the plug-and-play consoles like the PlayStation. Meanwhile, my PC with its standard VGA graphics card was more akin to the previous generation of consoles like the SNES in terms of graphical capability.

In 2016, not only does my current computer, which isn’t even on the pinnacle of PC graphics performance, far outstrip both the Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One, it is possible in the United States to specify a computer that beats both consoles in graphical capability, yet costs in the same region as them (well, OK, that’s if you don’t want a Windows OS). This PC would also, despite the low price, have flexibility and adaptability unbeknownst to the consoles including the ability to use it for general-purpose computing and tens of thousands of commercial games available in just about every genre under the sun. At the same time, the current generation of consoles have been losing some of the traditional advantages of console platforms, such as the loss of split-screen multiplayer allowing multiple players to compete using a single console and a single screen, as well as the plug-and-play advantages of being able to put a disc or cartridge straight into the console and start playing being eroded by the necessity for multi-gigabyte bug-fixing patches.

Despite the improvements to the PC platform which have made it possible to easily specify a computer that will easily beat the consoles as well as have the capacity to do things other than video gaming and media consumption, PCs are still lumbered with a reputation from their past from when they genuinely were expensive, temperamental and difficult to set up. Furthermore, certain game developers, allured by the easy money of the console market, have allowed these misconceptions to be treated as gospel by their customers, focusing their games on the consoles and then follow up with lazy ports to the PC which fail to take advantage of the superior graphical potential of the platform and which frequently feature control schemas and user interfaces that assume that players are using console-style control pads.

The “PC Master Race” movement, named for a sly insult towards PC enthusiasts and their perceived elitism by the reviewer Yahtzee Croshaw of Zero Punctuation that was later adopted as a term of endearment, seeks to spread awareness of the merits of PC gaming at what they see as the first time in gaming history where PCs have surpassed consoles in every conceivable way for less money”. But what if I were to tell you that there was another period in time when personal computers represented a very compelling alternative to consoles, where they became the preferred gaming platform for most of a continent and where the comparatively high prices of consoles was considered to be detrimental? The story starts in 1982…

The 8-bit micros take off in Europe

The period between 1981 and 1982 represents a turning point in the history of personal computers. Commercially viable computers had been first put on sale in 1977 in the United States, but none, even the long-lasting Apple ][, would have the market impact of the IBM PC, which would later form the standard for the modern personal computer, the Commodore 64, which would become the best-selling computer model of all time and the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, which represented one of the few platforms that stood against the Commodore 64 toe-to-toe and managed to hold its own. Each of these computers was created in a turbulent market where dozens of manufacturers worldwide were already jostling for position and each computer managed to not only survive but thrive as many other models of computer dropped off the radar in later years.

The IBM PC was the first step into the personal computer market from the company that was then the largest computer company in the world, but it was then irrelevant to the gaming market – and will be discussed in passing in this section. On the other hand, both Commodore and Sinclair had precedent in the PC market, both having had previous sales successes. Commodore had been one of the pioneers of personal computing in 1977 with their PET 2001 computer, which competed with the Apple ][ and Atari 400/800, then followed it up with the first million-selling computer in the VIC-20 in 1980. Sinclair’s first releases, the ZX80 in 1980 followed up by the ZX81 in 1981, were even by the standards of the time very limited, with a scant 1KB of RAM by default, but with release prices of £99.95 and £69.95 on release respectively, they represented an affordable entryway into hobbyist computing.


The Commodore 64 and 48K Sinclair ZX Spectrum: Two of the fiercest competitors in the 8-bit home computer market.

A notable characteristic about both the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum was that both computers were particularly inexpensive. The Commodore 64 was released at a price of $595, which compared very well with the Apple ][+ at $1,330, the Atari 800 at $899.95 and the entry-level IBM PC at $1,265. Yet it was surprisingly sophisticated, with the 64 KB of RAM from which it got its name compared to 16 or 32 KB in most contemporaries, a very sophisticated graphics chip which was better than almost anything else on the market and arguably the best sound chip of any 8-bit computer in the MOS Technologies SID, with three voices capable of generating four different waveforms and each with their own ADSR (attack decay sustain release) envelope to further modify the output of each voice. Its only notable weakness was a comparatively slow processor, a MOS 6510 at 1.023 MHz (or 0.985 MHz in PAL regions) which might have matched the Apple ][ range, but did not compare well to the 1.78 MHz processor in the Atari 8-bit computers.

The ZX Spectrum was not as sophisticated, with less sophisticated graphics hardware that lacked the hardware sprites and had a more limited colour palette compared to the Commodore 64 and a simple one-channel beeper which was significantly more limited than the SID on the Commodore machine. On the other hand, on release, it was significantly cheaper at £125 (approximately $220 in 1982) for the 16 KB model and £175 (approximately $310) for the 48 KB model. Both computers would soon become even cheaper with Commodore engaging in a price war against its competitors in the United States which led to the Commodore 64 dropping to $200 by 1983 and Sinclair decreasing prices on the Spectrum in response.

The low price of both computers is significant in the economic context of the time. The economic recession of the 1980s had a greater effect on Europe than it did on the likes of the United States and Japan and hit the United Kingdom especially hard, the country having experienced a string of crises throughout the 1970s. In particular, the conversion rate of the pound sterling dropped significantly in the period from 1980 to 1985, from an average of $2.33 in 1980 to $1.29 in 1985. While adoption of computers was slow between 1982 and 1983, with an estimated 600,000 microcomputers in the UK by the end of 1983, sales picked up significantly by 1984, by which time the economy of the UK would dictate that less expensive computers were most likely to succeed. There were similar situations across Western Europe and as other countries in Europe lacked a strong indigenous home computer market, consumers in these markets were inclined to buy American or British models.

The low price of the Commodore 64 is also significant – and has been linked as a cause – for an event in the video game market which had a huge impact in the United States, but had little effect in other markets. The North American video game crash of 1983 has become legendary, as the glut of consoles in the market at the time succumbed to the arrogance of the marketing executives pushing such systems, who seemed to believe that customers would eat up whatever shovelware the game developers could push out and come back for more, ultimately while the rapid decrease in price of the Commodore 64 made it a compelling alternative.

As unsold copies of the overproduced E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600 were being buried in a landfill in New Mexico, causing a contraction in the video game market in North America that would last until the 1985 release of the Nintendo Entertainment System, if you were in Europe, you would be forgiven for not realising that the crash had happened at all. The games market in Europe was already based around personal computers, most notably the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, but also including several other predominantly British home computers such as the Acorn-designed BBC Micro, the Dragon 32/64 systems from Dragon Data and the Oric systems from Tangerine Computer Systems. The NES wouldn’t be released in Europe until 1986 and not in the UK until 1987, by which time the personal computer market had well-and-truly taken hold. Even by 1983, games like Manic Miner and Chuckie Egg, which would become known as some of the best games available on 8-bit platforms (and, incidentally, which would exemplify the “one man programming in his bedroom” sensibilities of the European game development sphere), had already been released – and things were only just getting started.

The home computer market picked up significantly in the UK in 1984, as more than one million home computers were sold, more than doubling the number of PCs in the country. Exposure of the home computer was helped by the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project and television shows like The Computer Programme and Micro Live. For the former, the BBC had put their name to the BBC Micro, an expensive, yet sophisticated computer designed and produced by Acorn Computers. While at a release price of £400 in 1981 (approximately $2,000), the top-of-the-line 32 KB BBC Micro Model B was too expensive for most households at the time, it did find its way into many schools and later sold a respectable 1.5 million units over its history.

The BBC Micro is not just significant for its role in the BBC’s efforts in trying to spread computer literacy, however, as it also plays a large role in computer gaming history. In 1984, a pair of students at the University of Cambridge, David Braben and Ian Bell, would work together to release the seminal game Elite, creating a legacy that lives to this day. Elite is one of the earliest sandbox games, a space simulator in which the player is given the freedom to play the game in any of a multitude of ways and in which there is no true victory condition. This contrasted heavily with the general pattern of games of the era, which were still generally simple, arcade-style affairs. Yet, despite this, Elite was very successful, soon spreading from the BBC Micro and similar game-focused Acorn Electron to be ported on platforms ranging from the Commodore 64 and Spectrum to the Apple II to the Japanese MSX range, even to the Taiwanese Tatung Einstein and then to the next generation of home computers in the mid-1980s.


Elite on the BBC Micro: Wireframe 3D graphics and a universe to explore on less than 32 KB of memory.

Elite was arguably the most sophisticated game of its time and, being designed for a home computer with more memory than consoles would have until the Sega Mega Drive in 1988, was very much a PC-focused game. While it was eventually ported to a console – the NES – in 1991, this required additional hardware and memory mappers to make up for the limitations of the console. In any case, until that point, if you wanted to play Elite, you needed a PC of some sort.

While discussing the efforts of British coders during this period, I do not intend to ignore the fact that American development studios were also developing sophisticated games for home computers at the time, including the Ultima series of role-playing games from Richard Garriott and while the ZX Spectrum design only reached America in the form of the largely incompatible Timex Sinclair 2068, the Commodore 64 was also wildly popular in the United States. However, few of the American games became a sales success in the UK or the rest of Europe for various reasons, largely linked again to the economic downturn in Europe. While European audiences predominantly bought their software on cassette tapes, which had excruciatingly long loading times even by the standards of the day, but were cheap and could use a standard cassette player which was likely already in the home, American games were written for floppy disks, which granted greater capacities as a consequence of not having to load the whole game into memory at once and significantly improved the loading time for software, but were more expensive and required the purchase of an additional floppy drive on top of the base package.

On the other hand, not scared off from the games industry by the collapse of the predominant game market like the Americans, the European coders felt free to exploit their home computers to the limits. Several elements made the home computers much more friendly for hobbyist coders to make the step to commercial game development, including the use of rewritable media like cassettes and floppy disks rather than the cartridges of consoles (although several home computers did have capacity for cartridge-based games). As a result, a huge number of one-man projects were started and had the capacity to become commercially viable. This did, predictably, lead to a lot of dross mixed in with the good games, but it created a crucible for innovation and diversity which would rarely be seen in the industry.

1985 saw the Western release of two systems that would, in the coming years, very much illustrate the differences between the American and European game markets. The Commodore Amiga 1000 was the most sophisticated home computer of its time and while that model itself would not become particularly successful, successor machines such as the Amiga 500 would find far much more success in Europe than they would in the United States from which they came. On the other hand, the Nintendo Entertainment System, derived from the Japanese Famicom (or Family Computer), would be seen as the saviour of the games industry in the United States but was far less successful in Europe. In the meantime, though, the 8-bit home computers had a lot more to offer… and the Germans had not yet illustrated their best.

Part 2 of this series will discuss the years leading up to 1990, which represented a golden age for the home computer in Europe, but where complacency, bad business decisions and the growing threat of the IBM PC would soon after cause the demise of the supremacy of the personal computer for several years afterwards.

FROM THE ARCHIVE: Battlezone – A Retrospective Game Review

“Let them have their ticker tape parades, their ‘space races’ and their commemorative packets of dehydrated ice cream. While Von Braun takes credit for his Redstone bottle rockets, I am finalising plans for an inter-planetary fleet that could plant an American flag on every rock and pebble in this solar system by the end of the decade. I will be watching the sunrise from Olympus Mons long before NASA takes their first steps on the moon.” – Dr. Wilhelm Arkin, Battlezone

Battlezone is a 1998 PC-format first-person vehicle shooter/real-time strategy, developed and produced by Activision. Despite the innovative “field commander” concept, the ambitious and impressive gameplay, and the interesting and various range of settings, it remains an obscure title to this day.

The story of the game starts in 1952, when an investigation into a meteor shower near the Bering Strait leads to the discovery of a strange extra-terrestrial material, soon dubbed “bio-metal”. Further investigations of this material lead to the discovery that weapons can easily be fashioned from it, weapons which appear to be derived from some sort of “memory” of the material to reshape into its previous form. These weapons systems, shaped into vehicles resembling the tanks of Earth, have very promising properties, like the ability to counter-act gravity, to redistribute damage over their entire bodies, rather than taking damage at any specific point, and a single ammunition source for every sort of weapon.

As both the Americans and the Soviets have both acquired samples of this bio-metal, it is clear that both of them will have discovered the material and investigated its properties, and with its properties being so promising, it is also clear that both sides will compete for the bio-metal which is believed to exist in the solar system. With the bio-metal at their disposal, either side could drive through their opponents’ cities with impunity, ending the Cold War with a single stroke.

In order to collect this bio-metal, Dwight Eisenhower establishes a secret space organisation under the control of the National Security Agency, named the National Space Defence Force, or the NSDF. Recruiting under the auspices of NASA, the NSDF, with the overpowering weapons constructed from the bio-metal at their disposal, set forth to set up a lunar outpost, and thus begin gathering as much of this strange alien material as possible.

However, the NSDF are not alone in space. The Russians have earned a substantial lead with their technical advantage in developing space technologies, and their Cosmo Colonist Army, or CCA, outnumber the NSDF contingent, with superior weapons systems. With the Soviets overpowering the NSDF, the commanders of the American forces must quickly make up for their slow start.

But many questions remain about this bio-metal. Where did it come from? What relation do they have to seemingly alien structures located around the celestial bodies the NSDF and CCA pursue each other over? With all of these questions and more, the future of humankind rests on the secrets of bio-metal.

The plot of Battlezone is not necessarily the strongest I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely in the upper echelon, told exceptionally well through the game and the manual – which comes from the days when games came with a substantial manual in the box. I’m especially enamoured by the connections with the space missions undertaken by the Americans and the Soviets during that point in time, and I’m glad to finally see a space conspiracy which doesn’t suggest that man ever landed on the moon. The angle of having a secret space war raging while the American and Soviet populaces remain occupied with the political concerns of the era is also interesting, and overall, it gives the game a nice political and military angle.

During the game itself, the plot is never made too elaborate, with little snippets of details coming from the player character’s reminiscences during the loading screens, and the general feed of information coming through the game. The plot never interferes with having a good time in the game, which is an imperative of action game design.

Speaking of game design, the gameplay is a great strength of this game. The first-person shooter and the real-time strategy are not necessarily genres that you would expect to work very well together, but Battlezone manages to meld the two genres together very well, through the process of making the player a field commander instead of a rear-echelon general. As such, the amounts of forces that are available are limited, and the clever commander will have to use those forces in the most appropriate fashion.

All of the commands can be accessed using a small selection of keys.

Battlezone is first and foremost a first-person shooter, with the player taking control of a number of the bio-metal constructed vehicles, bringing them into combat versus the enemy forces. These vehicles, due to their anti-gravity, have a large amount of momentum, presenting them as moving targets at all times, and makes first-person strategies such as strafe-running still viable in this game.

Due to the concept of “one ammunition source for all weapons”, there will never be any logistical problems where you lack ammunition for any weapon in particular, and logistical requirements are quickly resolved by the production buildings in the game. This sort of unrealism is acceptable in a game which never claims to be anything less than fantastical. Another feature of unrealism is the concept of equally distributed damage, or EDD, armour, which renders the real life tactic of flanking obsolete, and generally simplifies the game.

The gameplay isn’t limited to vehicles either. It is possible to hop out of vehicles and transfer to others, or to bail out when your vehicle is destroyed, progressing on foot, although infantry are far weaker than vehicles. To balance the game when the player is on foot, it is possible using a high-power sniper rifle to take out the pilots of other vehicles and commandeer their weapons against them. This generally improves the survivability of the player, although there is a mission during the campaign where it is necessary to use this technique of commandeering enemy vehicles. Unfortunately, this mission doesn’t use this game device particularly well, and I prefer using it as a matter of expediency rather than a necessity to progress through the campaign.

The other section of the game, the real-time strategy, takes a back-seat to the action, but is necessary to proceed, because the odds will definitely be against the lone-wolf. The central unit in this part of the game is the Recycler, the fundamental construction unit from which all other units are derived. It is imperative to the game, and if it is destroyed, the game is lost. The Recycler creates the most basic units in the game, including the Scavenger, used as a resource collector in the game, and also produces the Factory, responsible for building advanced units, the Armoury, which produces weapons systems and provides long-range logistics, and the Constructor, which builds bases, and is also used as a resource stop-off point.

The other creator units all come into their own roles nicely, with the Factory making everything from tanks to rocket tanks up to the Walker, a huge and extremely slow but very powerful attacking unit which can steamroll over the enemy if used correctly. The Armoury delivers replacement weapons systems, allowing players to customise their vehicles appropriate to different situations, and also delivers repair and ammunition units to any spot on the battlefield, but the further from the Armoury, the longer the delivery takes. The Constructor takes care of the process of base building, providing power plants, fixed emplacements, and supply and repair facilities.

The resource unit in the game is the unit of bio-metal scrap, gathered by the Scavenger. The game goes to long lengths to make sure that the player will never get bogged down in the standard real-time strategy process of “peasant watching”, by making the Scavenger units relatively autonomous and able to find scrap supplies easily by itself.

Another way in which the game makes sure that you don’t get bogged down in the more monotonous aspects of many real-time strategies is by restricting the numbers of any various type of unit to ten for each type. This means that not only is your population not dominated unnecessarily by resource collectors, but the “Zerg Rush” idea that plagues most real-time strategy games is removed, replaced by a concept of tactics which transcends throwing everything you have at the opponent and hoping for more kills on your side than theirs.

The game further allows for the survival of the units under your control by allowing them to use the same repair and ammunition resupply facilities that you, yourself, can use, and allows a commander to re-organise their army by recycling units for their scrap value, thus ensuring that you should never be left with units that are no longer of any use.

The Recycle option makes up for that restrictive population limit.

I found this gameplay to be refreshing, and still do, especially after being crushed by the likes of an army of Zealots and Dragoons in the original StarCraft, but you can’t really appreciate the full complexity of the game in single-player. Unfortunately, due to lack of internet at the time of playing the game, I never played the multiplayer, but I did investigate it, and it seems like an ideal multiplayer experience for those looking for more tactics than evidenced in most first-person shooter, while not moving over to the hardcore difficulty of looking after every unit as evidenced in many RTS games.

For those looking for a quicker thrill than the strategy-based main game, there is a more traditional deathmatch style multiplayer mode, but the real meat of the game is definitely in the strategy game, and most of the multiplayer maps are set up with that in mind.

Unfortunately, this game isn’t perfect, and there are quite a few flaws lying around the place. It is a particularly buggy game, and is somewhat incompatible with modern operating systems. The most obvious bug that I found was an inability to get the hardware 3D renderer operating properly – no matter what system I tried it on, the game crashed. Windows 98, Windows Me – well, of course it was going to crash there! – Windows 2000, Windows XP – all afflicted with this 3D renderer bug, meaning that I had to run the game in the decidedly inferior software rendering mode. I tried this on a multitude of graphics cards as well, and every one of them decided to choke up when the hardware rendering was on.

This doesn’t render the game unplayable, and I was rather glad for the software rendering in an era when I only had a 1MB 2D graphics card and I was running Windows 95, but it is a disappointment, because the software renderer creates quite a few jaggy and grainy images, particularly noticeable on the pylons in the training area and on some of the vehicles.

This isn’t assisted by the low maximum resolution. 640×480 was acceptable when I was running Windows 3.1 on my first computer, but it’s not exactly what I want to play games at in this day and age. System Shock played at 640×480 four years before this, and Half-Life went 1024×768 and above that very year. I don’t normally complain about graphics, but it does seem a bit ridiculous considering that other first-person perspective games that year could go to the sort of resolutions that I typically use. Again, I wasn’t complaining when it was a matter of expediency with my ancient S3 graphics card – which, incidentally, I still own – but with the gift of hindsight, I can see that they left little room for posterity.

To be honest, though, it doesn’t matter that much. Battlezone is fun, it’s original, it’s clever. Gifted with a great plot, fantastic and intelligent gameplay and bringing new ideas to the world of first-person shooters, Battlezone deserves far more attention than it received.

A General’s View – Complete Game

Author’s Note: I mentioned in my last post that I had been working on my final year project for college. Just wanted to share what I came up with in the end. The project is a two-player game based on A General’s View, the tabletop strategy game that I designed in 2015 and is written using the Allegro 4 game library. The game is not particularly sophisticated and there are a few interface bugs that need to be ironed out, but it works and could be used for the basis of a more sophisticated game in the future.

The game is played by two human players with the following controls:

Map keys

Up, Down, Left, Right – move cursor

Enter – enter menu

Menu keys

Up, Down – move cursor

Enter – select menu option highlighted by cursor

For full rules and objectives of the game, please see A General’s View: Rules (Alpha Version). Please note that in this version of the game, at most one unit from each player can occupy a tile at once.

The game (in both Windows executable and source code forms) can be downloaded from the following link:



Elite: Dangerous – A Gaming Review

Author’s Note: Hey there, first post in a few months – I was busy with my final-year college project and didn’t have the time to write up anything else. Now that I’m free again, I’m planning initially to move back to a monthly update schedule at first and investigate the possibility of a fortnightly schedule in the future.

Until recently, the space combat simulator genre of video games seemed to be moribund. Following the genre’s golden age of the 1990s, where such games as the Frontier series, the Wing Commander and Privateer titles, the Descent: FreeSpace series and the variety of Star Wars space sim titles enjoyed commercial success, the genre had descended into a niche where a few games kept the genre on life support, most notably CCP Games’ space MMO, EVE Online and Egosoft’s X series. Over the last few years, though, it appears that there has been a renaissance of the genre, with several very high-profile games currently in development. This includes the return of two of the masters of the genre during its golden age: David Braben of Elite and Frontier fame and Chris Roberts, known for Wing Commander, Privateer and Freelancer. Braben’s company, Frontier Developments, has returned to the space sim market after almost twenty years with Elite: Dangerous, while Chris Roberts has established Cloud Imperium Games with the purpose of making Star Citizen.

Star Citizen, known for its phenomenally successful crowdfunding campaign, is still in alpha, with a full release scheduled for this year. On the other hand, David Braben’s Elite: Dangerous was released commercially in December 2014 and has recently received its first expansion pack, Horizons. (As I own, but have not yet played Horizons, this review will focus on the base game.)

Elite: Dangerous follows from the previous game in the Elite series, Frontier: First Encounters, set in the year 3300, in a Milky Way where three major factions, the Galactic Federation, the Empire of Achenar and the Alliance of Independent Systems, vie for control of the galaxy. In the midst of this, the player takes the role of a spaceship commander, who was recently, out of the blue, provided with a Sidewinder spaceship and 1,000 Galactic Credits with which to make one’s fortune by whatever means they desire.

The gameplay of Elite: Dangerous, as with its predecessors, revolves around three main aspects: Trading, combat and exploration. With trading and combat, it is possible to make money through both legal and illegal methods, with smuggling and piracy providing opportunities for those so inclined. One of the objectives of the game is to appropriately use your spaceship to make as much money as necessary to buy new spaceships or upgrade existing ones as to best deal with the challenges of the game and achieve success at trading, combat or exploration. The measure of one’s success is calculated by a number of ratings. The combat rating system, where a player starts off as Harmless and attempts to reach the exalted rank of Elite by defeating other spaceships in battle, returns from the previous games, while similar ranks for trading and exploration have been included in Elite: Dangerous.

Notably, the game focuses more heavily on exploration than its predecessors. In Frontier: Elite II and Frontier: First Encounters, the extent to which you could explore was limited by the possibility of critical components failing on one’s spacecraft, while the lack of incentive to exploration other than personal satisfaction meant that it was not explored as much as possible. In Elite: Dangerous, there has been a concerted effort, which appears as if it will continue into the future, to expand and give more purpose to exploration by providing financial incentives and a rank system based on the earnings from exploration, with a colossal game universe that expands on that presented by its predecessors.

Elite: Dangerous continues to use the same sort of first-person, cockpit-oriented perspective as with its predecessors, but updates it for the modern era. The game includes a wonderfully responsive diegetic interface, where holographic screens pop up around the cockpit as the player turns their head and a variety of options can quickly and relatively unintrusively be selected during the middle of travel and combat. Unlike the Frontier games, but like its earliest predecessor, Elite, the game steps away from Newtonian physics and uses a model more like a flight simulator, with a maximum velocity that can be achieved in normal flight and combat, but a Frame Shift Drive which allows for considerably higher velocities when travelling between different astronomical objects in the same system or between different star systems.

The game does, however, retain the model of thrust vectoring that existed in the Frontier games, allowing you to fire thrusters to the left or right for horizontal movement along with thrusters on the top or bottom for vertical movement. This provides a bit of unpredictability in combat, with an experienced pilot able to take advantage of these features to attack from unexpected angles, while also being necessary in order to successfully dock at the game’s space stations.

Combat in Elite: Dangerous is also unlike its immediate predecessors in that the spaceships are a lot more resilient to damage than in the Frontier games, resulting in generally more tactical battles which take longer to resolve. Combined with the flight sim-esque flight model (although this can be deactivated to some extent by choice), combat feels more like a traditional dogfight rather than the jousts that often occurred in Frontier: Elite II or Frontier: First Encounters, along with being more friendly towards newer players as they aren’t sitting ducks until they significantly upgrade their spaceship. As well as this, losing a combat is not punished as harshly as in the previous games, as there is an insurance policy implemented that allows one to buy back a spacecraft of the same specifications as the one they had for a fee of a few percent of the total cost of the spacecraft, or to buy a basic Sidewinder with the same specifications as they started the game with.

Elite: Dangerous takes the first steps in the series towards multiplayer, with an MMO structure and a persistent universe populated by a mixture of AI NPCs and human player characters. It is possible to play the game in a single-player mode or a private multiplayer group, but as various elements of the game will still be dictated by the actions of other players, the game requires an internet connection along with a persistent connection to the game’s servers. That said, because of the size of the game universe, along with the low player count compared to most MMORPGs, it is usually not that detrimental to jump into the multiplayer aspect of the game.

There’s also a mode of the game for those who prefer to get up close and personal in combat rather than exploring the universe. The CQC Championship mode is structured more like a traditional first-person shooter in terms of multiplayer, with a maximum of eight players engaging in Team Deathmatch, Deathmatch or Capture the Flag with a variety of spaceships and equipment that gets unlocked as you gain experience and ranks. The ranking system in this game mode is separate to the combat ranking in the main game, which means those who prefer not to engage in that sort of game mode are not unnecessarily disadvantaged.

As with its predecessors, Elite: Dangerous has a lot to do, between the multitude of activities and the massive universe. Most of those activities are also quite well-polished, with things working quite well together. However, a common criticism of Elite: Dangerous is that these activities are not especially deep and that the game is “wide as an ocean, but shallow as a puddle”. Indeed, in some respects, the game has less depth than the Frontier games, with planetary landing only available (and quite limited at present) in the Horizons expansion pack and a lack of gritty military missions like the photography missions of the Frontier games. There are plans to expand the game much further with expansion packs over the next few years – and perhaps up to ten years – but at an additional cost compared to the base game and with no guarantee that interest in the game will last that long. If Frontier Developments manage to achieve their expansive goals – bearing in mind that Frontier: Elite II took five and a half years to complete in the 1990s and the goals of the developers seem to be set out well – it will lead to an incredible game. At present, though, the game has a lot more potential for development than features currently implemented.

Speaking about polish, something that Elite: Dangerous does get very right is its aesthetic elements. I’ve already mentioned the diegetic cockpit interface, with its context-sensitive menu screens. This is beautifully laid out, but also functional and easy to navigate. The graphical polish here extends to the rest of the game, with beautifully glowing stars, elaborate space stations that look fit for purpose and a range of spacecraft designs which pay tribute to the previous Elite games by being somewhat blocky, but each achieving their own distinctive aesthetic based on their purpose. The game also manages to achieve fairly good performance despite the outstanding graphics; on my AMD R9 290, I manage to achieve 100 or more frames per second during nearly all aspects of the game at 1080p and maximum settings, although there is an issue on AMD cards which can drop performance drastically during supercruise between different planets in the same system.

Another place in which the game excels is its sound design, enough so that I think it’s one of the few places where sound in space is justified despite its lack of realism. The Frontier developers claim that the sound heard by the player is based on what is being picked up by sensors and scanners around the ship and include various pulsing sounds from the ship’s engines, whooshing sounds as the ship prepares for supercruise or hyperdrive, or when scooping fuel from a star and even muffled radio chatter when close to a space station. The sounds that are in the game are exquisite and are backed by a great, yet subtle soundtrack that plays in the background based on various events, including supercruise travel and combat events.

As it is, then, Elite: Dangerous is a solid and beautifully presented title that achieves the goals of being a space simulator in the vein of its predecessors. However, the game has a huge amount of untapped potential, especially with a universe as large as it has. It remains to be seen whether the game can live up to that potential with future development – and whether, with Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky, for instance, in development, interest can last for long enough for Elite: Dangerous to be given a chance to live up to what it can achieve.

Bottom Line: Elite: Dangerous is a solid and enormously broad space simulator which brings the Elite formula into the 21st century, but lacks depth and has a huge amount of untapped potential with expansion packs necessary to fill the gaps.

Recommendation: Despite previously giving my unreserved recommendation for Frontier: Elite II, a game that is more than 20 years older, I would recommend waiting for a sale if you’re interested in Elite: Dangerous, as you will require a $60/€54/£40 expansion to get the full potential of the game at present.

A General’s View – Rules (Alpha Version)

Author’s Note: I’ve been rather preoccupied with other things at the moment, including the Rugby World Cup and getting to work on my final-year college project. With respect to the latter, the following post illustrates some of the work that I have had to do for this project.

An industrial era turn-based strategy game for 2 players.

Section 1: Play Rules

  • The game is played between two players, one who is identified as the red player and the other who is identified as the blue player.

  • The game is played on a square grid, called the battle map, where each square on the grid has one of three states of ownership: neutral (or no ownership), owned by the red player, or owned by the blue player.

  • At least 2 of the squares on the battle map are identified as –city– squares. The same ownership rules apply for these squares as any other squares.

    • Each player starts with an equal number of the city squares on the map, where the number of city squares owned by a player at the start of the game is at least 1.

    • A player wins the game when all city squares on the map are owned by that player.

  • The game is played in turns, where one of the two players acts and is referred to as the acting player, with the other player referred to as the opposing player. At the end of their turn, the current opposing player becomes the acting player and vice versa.

    • Before the game begins, both players roll a 6-sided dice. The player who gets the highest value on the dice chooses whether they wish to act first or second. If the value rolled on the dice by both players is the same, the players reroll the dice until the values that each player receives are different.

  • The ownership of the squares on the map is contested by units controlled by each player.

    • A unit is a single game entity representing a company-sized group of 100 soldiers of a specified type and represented by a single game piece.

    • A unit possesses several characteristics which will be discussed in more detail below: ownership, cost, attack value, defence value and movement points.

    • Units may be put into play on a player’s turn. In order to put a unit into play, they must pay the specified cost for that unit type and then place that unit on one of the city squares which they own. The player who put the unit into play is its owner.

  • Each player starts with a predetermined and equal amount of gold, which is called their total gold value.

    • Gold is used to pay for new units, with the cost of each unit specified in gold and subtracted from the total gold that a player possesses when that unit is put into play.

    • If the cost of a unit is greater than the total gold possessed by a player, they may not put that unit into play.

    • Each city square on the map has a specified gold generation value which is determined before the start of the game. This is used during the gold collection phase of a player’s turn, discussed below.

  • Each player’s turn is composed of four phases: Gold collection, unit movement, attack and cleanup.

    • During the gold collection stage, the acting player adds the sum total of all of the gold generation values of the cities which they own to their total gold value.

    • During the movement phase, the acting player may move any number of their owned units (including zero units).

      • A unit may be moved a number of squares adjacent to each other horizontally and/or vertically across the battle map. The number of squares that a unit may be moved is determined by the unit’s movement points, which represent a unit’s movement capability in a single turn. For each square that a unit is moved, 1 point is deducted from the unit’s movement points for that turn if the square into which the unit is moving is either not owned or owned by the acting player, while 2 points are deducted if the square into which the unit is moving is owned by the opposing player. A unit may move any number of squares horizontally or vertically until they do not have enough remaining movement points to move into any adjacent squares. These rules are illustrated in Figure 1.1.


Figure 1.1: For a unit with three (3) movement points, the green squares represent squares into which the unit can move during one turn if the squares are either not owned or owned by the unit’s controller. The squares marked with yellow crosses represent squares into which the unit can move if the squares are owned by the opposing player. The red squares represent squares that are always outside of this unit’s movement range for this turn.

      • If a unit moves through a square which is not owned by the acting player and which contains no units owned by the opposing player, the ownership of that unit is transferred to the acting player.

      • If a unit moves through a square which contains one or more units owned by the opposing player, the unit may move no further squares during that turn.

    • The attack phase involves all squares in which units owned by both the acting and opposing player are present.

      • For each square containing units owned by both players, the acting player selects the unit in that square which they own with the highest attack. The opposing player selects the unit in that square which they own with the highest defence. If two or more units owned by either player has the same attack or defence value respectively, they may choose any of the units with that value.

      • The attack value of the acting player’s selected unit and the defence value of the opposing player’s selected unit are added together. This value is referred to as the reference value.

      • A suitable random number generator or fair pseudorandom number generator is used to generate an inclusive integral value between 1 and the reference value. If this value is below or equal to the attack value of the acting player’s unit, that unit wins and the opposing player’s unit is removed from the battle map and from the game. Otherwise, the opposing player’s unit wins and the acting player’s unit is removed from the battle map and the game.

      • If the acting player’s unit wins, the opposing player selects the unit in that square which they own with the next highest defence. Otherwise, the acting player selects the unit in that square which they own with the next highest attack.

      • The above steps continue until all units remaining in that square are owned by a single player. If that player does not own that square, the ownership of the square is transferred to that player.

    • During the cleanup phase, 1 supply point is subtracted from all units owned by that player and not currently receiving supplies as per the supply point system, described below.

  • Each unit when created starts with 3 supply points, representing ammunition, provisions and other military supplies.

    • A unit receives supplies every turn if there is at least one adjacent square owned by that unit’s owner and if, from that square, an unbroken, direct line can be drawn in horizontal or vertical steps from square to square in a manner similar to unit movement to a city owned by the unit’s owner. This is illustrated in Figure 1.2.


Figure 1.2: In the first example, there are two squares adjacent to the unit which are owned by the unit’s owner. From both of these squares, one can trace a direct line in horizontal or vertical steps from square to square to a city owned to the unit’s owner. In the second example, there is one square adjacent to the unit which is owned by the unit’s owner; however, as one cannot draw a direct line from this square to a city owned by the unit’s owner, it is not supplied through this square. Similarly, the squares to which direct lines can be drawn from the city are either not adjacent to the unit or are not owned by the unit’s owner and therefore the unit is not supplied through these squares.

    • A unit that does not receive supplies at the end of the unit owner’s turn subtracts 1 from that unit’s current supply points until the number of supply points for that unit is 0.

      • A unit which has 0 supply points is treated as having an effective attack and defence value of 1 rather than its usual values until it receives supplies again.

    • A unit that receives supplies at the end of the unit owner’s turn does not subtract from that unit’s supply points and if that unit has less than 3 supply points, it adds 1 to its number of supply points.

Section 2: Unit types

  • Militiamen: Poorly armed and poorly trained, this unit represents an impromptu group of irregulars, such as a volunteer town militia or a set of conscripts pressed into action.

    • Cost: 50 gold

    • Attack: 2

    • Defence: 2

    • Movement Points: 5

  • Line Infantry: The core of an early industrial era army, line infantry represent a significant step up from militia, being drilled to stay in lockstep along rectangular formations designed to present a coordinated line of fire to the enemy. With their discipline and morale, they present a strong defensive line.

    • Cost: 100 gold

    • Attack: 2

    • Defence: 5

    • Movement: 5

  • Skirmishers: This infantry unit forms looser formations than line infantry and, armed with more accurate muskets than other units, their goal is to harry oncoming formations and break their coordination by attacking their officers. However, their loose formations can also represent a weakness, as a committed and concentrated attack can easily divide them into units too small to effectively fight back.

    • Cost: 100 gold

    • Attack: 5

    • Defence: 2

    • Movement: 5

  • Hussars: A type of light cavalry, hussars are most regularly used for reconnaissance and raiding, but can, if an opportunity arises, attack effectively against a vulnerable and coordinated foe, using their sabres to great effect. Lacking armour or long-range weaponry, hussars lack the ability to effectively defend themselves if they are outmanoeuvred.

    • Cost: 120 gold

    • Attack: 4

    • Defence: 2

    • Movement: 7

  • Dragoons: More like mounted infantry than true cavalry, dragoons ride to battle but will usually dismount when the fighting starts, forming a rectangular formation similar to line infantry and attacking with their shortened carbines. Not as effective as line infantry, but able to provide support where necessary, dragoons can, nevertheless, be used as cavalry in a pinch.

    • Cost: 120 gold

    • Attack: 2

    • Defence: 4

    • Movement: 7

  • Lancers: While the style of lancers may have changed drastically from the armoured knights of the medieval era to the altogether more lightly equipped troopers of the industrial era, the lancer has lost none of its potential to destabilise an entire front if used properly. With a devastating attack that can shatter enemy infantry formations, lancer squadrons represent the shock troops of the age, but are no less susceptible than any other light cavalry unit.

    • Cost: 160 gold

    • Attack: 6

    • Defence: 2

    • Movement: 7

  • Cuirassiers: The elite of the battlefield, cuirassiers are one of the few armoured units on the industrial era battlefield. Wearing a metal breastplate and backplate, the armour of a cuirassier does little to protect him against musket shots or artillery, but provides an extra layer of defence against sabres or bayonets. Slower and more cumbersome than other cavalry units, cuirassiers nevertheless possess an élan which can be hard to overcome.

    • Cost: 160 gold

    • Attack: 5

    • Defence: 3

    • Movement: 6

  • Artillery: The so-called “King of Battle”, artillery batteries have the biggest guns with the greatest power. Used effectively, an artillery strike can have terrifying effect, smashing through infantrymen and cavalry alike. However, its immobility – even with the use of horse-drawn limbers and caissons – means that it is particularly susceptible to attack if not appropriately protected by other forces.

    • Cost: 120 gold

    • Attack: 10

    • Defence: 1

    • Movement: 3

Why I’m not a big fan of present-day television

There’s a strong argument for saying that television is currently going through a Golden Age of Drama, with such shows as Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy and Game of Thrones becoming the office-talk fodder and media darlings of the last few years. It is interesting that this has come at a time of transition for the television industry; after a period which I would consider a nadir for TV with the rise of reality television in the late 1990s through to the late 2000s, as television executives recognised the decreased costs of these shows versus scripted drama, new technologies including streaming and new writing methodologies have forced studios to adapt to a changing television market, leading in some cases to some huge critical and commercial successes. It seems somewhat peculiar, therefore, that even with all of these critically acclaimed shows going around, I have less tolerance for television now than I might have had ten years ago, when television was going through a slump.

At present, I watch very little television and the little that I do watch has almost all been on British television stations. I watch a moderate amount of sport – Formula One, rugby union, association football, motorcycle road racing including the Isle of Man TT and some other sporting events here and there – along with Doctor Who, Top Gear (I’ll give the new formula a try as well) and strangely, Downton Abbey. Of the much lauded television shows I listed above, I have only watched a single one at all, Breaking Bad, with part of the reason for that being because as a former chemistry student, I wanted to see how the chemistry played into the story.

The majority of the television shows that have come into public prominence recently have been American, which is relevant, as there are a number of significant differences in the way that American programmes are made versus British programmes which causes me to favour British shows. Probably the most significant of these differences is the number of episodes produced per British series versus an American season and consequently, how long many British shows will run versus their American counterparts. A British television series will regularly consist of four to six episodes, with the shows often wrapping up after two to four of these series. In comparison, an American television series will regularly have at least 13 episodes per season, with 20 to 26 more common, while six or more of these seasons is not rare for a successful show. While shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire and Sons of Anarchy have typically stuck to a 13-episode season, this is still long by comparison to most British contemporaries.

There are a number of reasons for this disparity, including the much smaller writing teams on British shows – perhaps even a single writer for a whole series – along with the economics of syndication and advertisement space, but whatever the reasons, an American programme will regularly be more of a time sink than a British show. With considerably more content to go through and much more of it filler, I’m reticent to watch an American show until its run is up just so that I make sure that I don’t end up throwing my time into a programme which shows early promise, but trails off near the end because the writers wrote themselves into a hole and couldn’t dig themselves out. This, of course, increases the chances of being hit by spoilers.

Even in the case of the shows that do remain consistent to the end, the sheer bulk of most of the American shows makes me reluctant to face the prospect of what may be 40 hours or more of viewing unless the show is going to be a phenomenon in the vein of The Sopranos or M*A*S*H or the like. I am not a natural binge-watcher; I only have tolerance for about two hours of television at a time and that’s when I’m in a mood to watch it. Given that in the time it takes to watch an entire American show, I could complete at least one decently-sized video game, most of the time, I’d rather do that and have the sense of achievement.

The disparity between British and American television is most starkly seen when American television networks, for some reason or another, decide to remake a successful British show. For me, the most risible example of this was The Office, which in the American remake had a frankly obscene nine seasons and 201 episodes. The British version? Two series, 12 episodes plus three specials. This is an interesting case since the creators, writers and producers of the UK version, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, were heavily involved in producing the American version and while I frankly can’t fault them for being tempted by the fat stacks of American currency they must have been offered, I think this is a cautionary tale for how elephantine an American show can get even when based on a tightly written British concept.

The Office is also notable because it illustrates how much more willing the British television producers are to cast people who look much more normal and down-to-earth than the Americans. In British shows, you’re more likely to see people who aren’t necessarily conventionally attractive, while in American shows, with the exception of a few people made to look “Hollywood ugly”, if you don’t have straight, sparkling-white teeth and perfect skin, you can forget about being cast. Then again, this manifests itself in the different senses of humour in British and American television; British shows tend to be bleaker, with far more self-deprecation and dry wit compared to the more blunt, bombastic affairs on American television.

I’ve identified why I’m not particularly inclined to watching the big American television shows of the moment, yet I don’t have time for much British television either right now. While I might be more inclined here and there to pick up a new British show off the cuff, I still don’t go out of my way to find new shows on British networks either. A lot of what has made British television interesting in the past is at risk of slowly fading into non-existence. British television – on the terrestrial end at least – has traditionally revolved around a small number of stations. Two of these, BBC One and BBC Two, are run by the British Broadcasting Corporation, which is almost unique in its largely non-commercial funding system, being largely funded by British taxpayers through the use of a licence tax. There are no advertisements on BBC television; in fact, there have been – which may still apply – some very strict rules on the use of brand names and product placement on the BBC channels in the past. The other stations, including ITV and Channel 4, are more traditionally funded through ad breaks.

Recently, there has been somewhat of a public backlash against the BBC, catalysed in part because of the very licence fee that sustains it. There has been criticism of the licence fee in the past, but such criticism was difficult to sustain when the BBC were making shows which people considered worth the price. However, the BBC has been hit as hard with the reality television bug as many other networks, which has removed a lot of its unique character. As well as that, the current politics of the United Kingdom have not helped the BBC’s case; the leading Conservative Party and in particular, its leader David Cameron have been closely linked to Rupert Murdoch and his media empire, which among other things includes BSkyB, Britain’s largest commercial satellite television provider, along with several newspapers including the Sun and the Times. Murdoch serves to benefit if the BBC gets defunded. Given Murdoch’s influence over the Conservative government, this has the potential to create a vicious circle, where as the funding for the BBC diminishes, the quality of the shows the BBC can put forward diminishes correspondingly and in turn, the case for keeping the BBC publicly funded grows weaker.

I happen to quite like the advert-free structure of BBC television, which not only doesn’t have awkward breaks in between the programs, but leads to more actual content per hour as well as a place where commercial enterprises can’t apply leverage to censor content that they don’t like. This was important when it came to Top Gear, where the now-departed trio of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May could openly criticise various cars without having to worry about losing funding from automotive companies. In an increasingly partisan news environment, it would also be nice to see a more impartial news broadcaster, a role which has been fulfilled well by the BBC before and could work again given a few tweaks – as long as the BBC doesn’t have to buckle under pressure from Rupert Murdoch and his Conservative buddies.

What I can say about that matter at least is that if the BBC are forced to adopt a commercial model, whether by advertising or subscription, I will probably stop watching television altogether. The alternatives, which include overlong, filler-heavy American shows at best and a lot of things that are much worse, isn’t worth the cost of admission.