Game Review: Rockman (Commodore 16 and Plus/4, Mastertronic)

Rockman, Commodore 16 and Plus/4, Mastertronic - 2C0068
  • 6/10
    Score - 6/10
6/10

Summary

Fifty screens of action crammed into 16K sounds promising, and with some perseverance there is a large challenge to be played and enjoyed with Rockman.  However, the initial Plus/4 incompatibility issues along with the sometimes finicky controls, awful in-game music and frustrating gameplay can spoil the experience somewhat.  It is without doubt a case of so near and yet so far, and not as impressive as the original Vic 20 version.

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Ricky Rockman is his name, collecting diamonds is his aim, beating the baddies on the way, to become very rich in a day.  So says the blurb on the Commodore 16 release of Rockman, and, despite being programmed by the same author, has an entirely different plot to the Vic 20 version.  In this case, Africa is where you can find diamonds and get very rich, with one Ricky Rockman from England being an adventurer heading with a true pioneering spirit, aiming to collect as many diamonds as possible and to return rich and famous.  Many baddies lurk and await to steal those diamonds.  So, no sign of any amulet in this plot, and more in the style of Boulderdash too when you play the game.

Plus/4 Problems for Rockman

I played this at a friend’s house back in 1985, who had a Commodore 16, and borrowed it for my newly acquired Commodore Plus/4.  The game loaded, but all the graphics were corrupted and was basically unplayable.  At first, I thought it was a hardware failure with my Plus/4, but all other games worked fine.  But both machines were supposed to be fully compatible, right?  Well, not in this case.  It does make you wonder out of the considerable sales of this game how many were returned to the shop with the same issues.

In fact, it transpires there were three versions of the game released. The first was blue screen slow loader my friend had at the time, and the second (Novaload, serial N103104) exhibit the same behaviour.  This was finally fixed with a third release (Novaload, serial N103106).  On examining the code, it was an error due to the way that the TED chip register was being set to read the data for the user-defined graphics, and on a Plus/4 (or a C16 with RAM expansion) this would read an area not set error.  I have since now got some POKEs working – details of which you can find here – so that all versions can work on a Plus/4, but back then without that technical knowhow, you would be disappointed with the game not working.  So, if you are searching for an original, it needs to be the third release if you have the Plus/4 machine.

Rocking the Introduction, Reaching for the Volume Control

The title screen displays with information about who programmed the game scrolling into the central Rockman logo, and you are also given a choice of if you want to use the joystick or define the keys.  Note on the keyboard that all other keys apart from the directions are used for pushing the rocks, so you may need to be careful if using the keyboard that your hand does not glance over during play.  A set of rocks spells out rock man, and then the game starts with the first screen.  And I guarantee you will be reaching for the volume control in around five seconds or less.  If you thought the supposed rendition of Popcorn for the Vic 20 version was bad, it is if anything even worse on this version.  One played with the sound off, or do as I did and create a POKE to turn off the in-game music, which makes the game much more enjoyable.

Rock Hard Initially

The first screen introduces you to the core elements.  On each screen there are ten diamonds to collect, and only then will the exits flash to go on to another screen.  There are rocks which will drop if not being held up by another rock, dirt, or yourself (for a small time.)  Of course, some of the rocks need to be moved and you can dig the dirt to drop them, or push them with the fire button or any key for pushing.  This clears the way nicely.  There’s also a pink square where the baddies spawn from, and straight away you can see a design flaw on this first screen – unless you go past there early on to get the diamonds on the left-hand side, it becomes very difficult to pass. There is also a green square to walk into which increases your score and gives you a nice bonus.

The screens are effectively squares of dirt, rocks, diamonds, blank spaces and so on.  However, you can dig half a square into the dirt, which you need to do in order to complete the first screen – this allows the rock to fall once you have moved out of the way, clearing a path for a diamond to pick up. A lot of players never worked that out and as such were not able to complete the first screen.  Undoubtedly, this would lead to frustration, and also shows that an easier first screen design would have allowed players to get into things at a gentler pace.  Oh, and did I mention the time limit?  There is also a 99 second time limit of which at the last 25 seconds it sounds like an alarm going off to give you the hurry up to complete the screen.

Perseverance Reaps Rewards

Once you exit the first screen, whilst the difficulty is still fairly high, you are introduced to other elements, such as rocks that bounce with diamonds below them.  If they are trapped in dirt, the rock clearly is animated to show it will bounce if the dirt is moved, so be wary.  They can also stop bouncing once you have retrieved the diamond.  Whichever way you have left the first screen, the puzzle elements are strong to work out which way to collect the diamonds to ensure you have not trapped one you need to get, or the baddie has ran under a rock, been killed, and disrupted the dirt you wanted to keep to hand to prevent the rocks from falling, which can happen.  The frustrating thing is that once you get into a few screens, and you have persevered, there are rewards to be had, whether you go for a high score with the bonus blocks or try to complete all fifty screens, no mean feat.

Control Conundrums

Being able to move that half square to dig out part of the dirt and allow the rock to fall is a fine art, but also you being able to move that half block does mean that occasionally the control can feel a little finicky, especially if you have a screen where you need to be precise to get diamonds buried under rocks and then move quickly to avoid another bouncing rock.  Several screens close to the start have that, so it is well worth noting that you may go too long or too short and inevitably be hit by a rock.

When this happens, the little animation and tune that plays in full screen, showing a happy Ricky Rockman and then a sad one, almost like a ghost, is quite well done, and does at least give you a suitable interlude and break from the gameplay.  It is simple but well executed.  And then it is back to the screen you were on, and yes, you must do the whole screen – again.  No continuing where you left off, the whole screen resets and that can no doubt also be a cause of frustration, especially if you had only one diamond left.  And only three lives too, so you really do have to make the most of them.

Final Thoughts

There is plenty of technical achievement in this game worthy of merit: it is bright and colourful, with some neat use of the colour palette both on the title screen and during play, and fifty screens of action crammed into the 16K of memory is a good effort all round.  I do think though that some of that got in the way of the gameplay, with a high difficulty level from the start which may put players off, along with that awful in-game music.  See beyond those issues, and there is a playable game in there albeit with finicky controls on occasion.  It is a case of so near and yet so far in terms of being a game you may come back to, unless you are willing to put considerable time and effort in to learn the layouts and progress each time.

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