Meteorites And Red Alert For Sinclair/Timex
Tom R. Halfhill
As popular as the Sinclair ZX-81 computer has been in the U.S. (reportedly 300,000 sold), it has been an even bigger hit in the country of its birth, Great Britain. There, the ZX-81 (and its predecessor, the ZX-80) is the microcomputer most often found in thousands of households and hundreds of schools. For one thing, it has been available there longer than in the U.S.
It's no surprise, then, that some of the best software written for the Sinclair has come out of Britain. The large number of Sinclair users there has created both the market and the labor pool for quality software development.
A New York firm, Softsync, Inc., recently arranged to import some of that British software. Softsync's first two releases are arcade-style space games. They are being sold in Britain by a company called Quicksilva under the names Asteroids and Scramble. However, Softsync is repackaging and selling the games here as Meteorites and Red Alert.
The games are as playable, and the action as fast, as games available for machines costing many times the Sinclair's $99.95 price.
Both are one-player games compatible with the new Timex TS-1000, a version of the ZX-81 that Sinclair has licensed the watch company to market in the U.S. Both games come on cassette tape and require the 16K RAM memory expansion module.
Meteorites (neé Asteroids) is patterned after the popular coin-op arcade game. Basically, you have to defend your spaceship against oncoming hailstorms of space rocks. The game starts with your ship centered on the screen while meteorites drift randomly by. To aim, you press the "6" key to rotate the ship counterclockwise, and the "7" key to rotate clockwise. Pressing the "0" key fires a stream of torpedoes. Hitting the "9" key fires the engines and moves the ship in whatever direction it is pointed.
Because of the Sinclair's low graphics resolution, it was not possible to represent the ship with a graphics shape. Instead, the game uses a numeric character from "1" to "8" to represent the ship and its orientation. That is, the character "1" means the ship is pointed "north" (the 12 o'clock position); a "2" means the ship is pointed northeast; a "3", east; and so on. Although this might sound awkward, I had no trouble adapting to the system.
The meteorites start off as graphics shapes, and split into five "0" characters when hit by your torps. These smaller pieces are then blasted out of existence by further hits. Screen wraparound is supported, which means objects can leave one side of the screen and emerge on the other.
Although the graphics effects in Meteorites are sparse (there are no fancy explosions), it is a tribute to the 3K machine language program that so many objects can be moving on the screen at once without noticeably slowing down the action.
According to the instructions, a bonus spaceship is awarded at 10,000 points, although my coordination deficiencies foiled persistent attempts to verify this feature.
Interestingly, the game's skill level can be varied by POKEing numbers into certain memory locations. For example, you can increase the number of points at which bonus ships are awarded, or vary the number of ships you start off with, or change the firing pitch of torps. These features should keep the game challenging for advanced players.
Red Alert resembles the popular arcade game Defender. A random landscape of mountains and valleys scrolls horizontally at the bottom of the screen, lending illusory motion to your spacecraft. This ship can be moved up or down with the cursor-up and cursor-down keys (the "7" and "6" keys, respectively). The control is surprisingly responsive, and it takes some flying practice to keep from clipping tall peaks or bumping into the top screen border – especially since either mishap blows the ship to pieces.
There's not much opportunity to dally around practicing, though. For one thing, flocks of alien ships keep zooming across the screen head-on into your path. The aliens try to destroy you in three ways: by firing missiles, by kamikaze charges, and by tricking you into dodging so fast that you hit either a mountain or the top of the screen. The last tactic is often the most annoying; just when you're congratulating yourself for evading the latest wave, you suddenly notice that your ship is rocketing headlong into a cliff. Unfortunately, there's no ejection seat.
You can do more than just dodge around, of course. Pressing another key fires your own missiles at the aliens, and they're even worse at evasive actions than you are. Knocking off a couple of them at the outset makes it easier to dodge the rest.
Red Alert would be good enough if this were all you had to worry about, but the programmer tossed in two more wrinkles. First, there are alien bases on the ground which present additional scoring opportunities. Daring (and presumably skillful) pilots can skim the surface, blasting the alien bases with missiles. This is a risky maneuver, however, since the slightest descent (accidental or provoked by the aliens above) reduces your ship to flying fragments.
Anyway, some of the bases are in valleys, protected from your missiles by flanking slopes. This forces you to resort to another method – your bombs. Pressing the "9" key drops one or a few bombs at once, destroying anything on contact. Like flying the ship, however, it takes some practice to learn how to properly "lead" the targets.
As a final twist, there are also some alien ships based on the surface. If you don't destroy them before they take off, they launch into a kamikaze path straight for your spacecraft.
The most amazing thing about Red Alert – and Meteorites – is that so much complex action happens simultaneously at relatively high speeds. Many Sinclair owners have been frustrated because so much software for their machines is written in BASIC. Both of these games are written in machine language, and it shows. In both cases the programmers have made the most of the Sinclair's capabilities. Of the two, Red Alert has the better graphics and arcade-style play, but both are topshelf games that Sinclair users deserve.
Meteorites Red Alert
Murray Hill Station
New York, NY 10156
pins $1.50 shipping/handling