In Retrospect: Dropzone
In a somewhat disparaging, if not brutal recent retrospective assessment of Raid Over Moscow on the Commodore 64 (released in 1984 by U.S. Gold), I made reference to the technical superiority of its contemporary stablemate Dropzone from the same publisher, coded by Archer Maclean.
Dropzone was actually a near direct byte-by-byte port from the Atari 800 original version of the game, which Maclean coded first, so it wasn't even designed from the outset for the Commodore 64's relative strengths, making its technical ascendancy over almost everything that preceded it on the C64 all the more astounding.
So what was so special about it? Why the lavish praise for its technical qualities?
- It had variable speed, bi-directional horizontal smooth scrolling, complete with inertia / momentum effects, which came at a time when this wasn't exactly commonplace.
- It featured in-game AI based on "feedback loops" that responded, on the fly, to the player's inputs and on-screen actions; to this day, very few C64 games have come close to that.
- Its sound effects raised the bar on the platform, which is apparently attributable to it being the first C64 game to use wavetables.
- It was graphically superior to most games of its era... well, its landscape and title screen were, even if the aliens and main sprite in the game were markedly less so. (On the landscape issue, for quite a while many people in the scene believed it was a scrolling bitmap, but according to this online discussion, it was, in fact, 100% chars).
- Unlike many games of its era and well beyond, it exhibited no jagged unstable raster jitter between the scrolling area of the screen and the panel zone; now this may have been a happy accident caused by lack of critical change in background colour, or it may be the result of Maclean knowing how to stabilise the raster at such interfaces... I have never examined the code, so I can only guess!
But, despite all of those positives, there are reasons why this is not a What Makes This Game Great article.
Or rather, there is one elephant-in-the-room, king-sized, over-riding mega reason why this cannot be considered among the greatest of the C64 games:
Yes, I'm sad to say it, but Dropzone - probably like its Defender inspiration - is not a very playable game.
While there are no playability issues with collecting and depositing the little "men", the rest of the gameplay is a stressful chore at best and a fingernails-scraping-on-a-blackboard irritation at worst.
I refer, of course, to the utterly horrible experience of shooting the enemies, a playability problem which can be deconstructed thus:
- The enemies (which mostly consist of software sprites made of chars) are too small, especially with regard to their vertical height, making them extremely hard to hit; this problem is compounded by their propensity for sudden dives or climbs.
- The player's weaponry is too thin... a broad "arc" or other vertically substantial projectile would have been much preferrable.
- Despite the presence of a radar display to warn you what's off-screen (a feature sadly lacking in Uridium), the central location of the player's sprite plus the high speed at which the scrolling occurs, gives very little reaction time.
- It may also be the case that the collision detection appears a little squiffy at times, seemingly erring on the side of you missing the enemy, but I have yet to see that really confirmed.
This, of course, provides important lessons / warnings for me as I continue to develop Parallaxian.
I have long been aware of the playability issue of bi-directionally scrolling shoot-em-ups with a centrally located sprite and the Dropzone-like
(or Uridium-like!) unfairness and frustration that can result.
The go-to remedy is to have the main sprite drift backwards to allow for more screen real estate between it and whichever side of the screen it is flying towards, and that is something I am considering for Parallaxian.
But there are bigger issues plaguing the gameplay in these games than the centralised sprite dilemma, issues which Parallaxian should fundamentally circumvent by virtue of it NOT being based on any of those games.
So if you've been imagining Parallaxian is a Defender clone, it's time for me to say no, it's not.
It won't have attack waves or unfair formations of enemies materialising off-screen and then charging at you, and your plane won't explode if it brushes against a 1 pixel sized enemy projectile or even if it strikes another craft.
Parallaxian's gameplay is much more nuanced as it seeks to avoid stale clichés, yet without falling into the trap of being incomprehensible or "so smart, it's stupid".
No, it's an action game, taking cues from the best parts of Choplifter on the C64 (and even on much newer platforms) and from Falcon Patrol, while refining those features and adding totally new, yet fun and therapeutic additional gameplay components, such as the carpet-bombing action.
Nevertheless, Parallaxian owes something to Dropzone beyond hard-earned lessons in gameplay; the sheer technical finesse of the older game is a lesson to anyone aspiring to make a groundbreaking game.
Because, let there be no doubt.
For all its shortcomings in gameplay, Dropzone remains a seminal moment in C64 gaming history, simply because it set new standards for professionalism.
And for that, it deserves to be considered a C64 classic, even though its playability problems mean it cannot justly be called a great.
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