John Minson is despatched to the land of Wally Week to discover what Mikro-Gen have in store for the Mikro Plus.
Last month, CRASH revealed the secrets of the Shadow ROM, Mikro-Gen’s astounding add-on which transports the Spectrum into a 64K machine: the Mikro Plus. But what about the software? This month we reveal the secrets of the Shadow of the Unicorn.
Shadow of the Unicorn, which is to be the first game in the Mikro Plus range, is scheduled for release in mid September and will sell for £14.95. For your fifteen pounds you’ll get an innocuous-looking black box, (in appearance very much like any number of Spectrum peripherals), a tape containing the bulk of the game code, a map and a seventeen-chapter illustrated novel. Mikro-Gen have commissioned the book-with-the-game from program author, Dale McLoughlin, and it sets out the background to the adventure. Oh ... and five pee change!
The book tells a tale: long ago, far away in a land where peace had reigned since before living memory, an ancient locked book was found. When its key was turned all manner of evils were loosed and two hitherto peaceful nations were plunged into bloody war.
As the novel ends, the game begins. You have a cast of ten characters to guide towards the completion of ten separate tasks that will return the land to its former idyllic state. Prince Mithulin; Avorath, the wizard whose staff has been lost; Holdin, a military commander, and Queen Rolquin. Ulin-Gail is a satyr, part of a race whose members normally shun humans, while Sharmek is a dwarf leader; Guinol belongs to a race of subterraneans and Vilyan is a woodman. Kielmath, the sorceress, and Lairmath, an apprentice wizard, were turned evil when the book was opened, but will come over to your side as the game progresses.
The land itself is vast, with six and a half thousand locations, each one looking onto three more distant ones. There are towns and castles to contend with, as well as the Nalesh — unpleasant half-sized creatures which have to be killed swiftly.
All this has taken 500K of source code, developed on a six-user HM Systems Minstrel. Obviously there isn’t room in the Spectrum to develop it all until the shadow rom is connected — and as this must be dedicated to the game it’s a chicken and egg situation. Certainly all 64K will be packed with code, and the programmers are currently busy trading off features to make best use of that memory. There may still be alterations to both the game as I saw it and the characters shown here before the final version for release is completed.
Mikro Plus offers more than just larger programs. On connecting the unit you’re immediately presented with a menu that allows you to load the game from tape or microdrive, or you can enter the tape alignment routine. Previous tape-based Azimuth adjustment routines, as well as costing extra, have depended on you getting the program into memory in the first place — from tape! As this one is contained in the firmware, all you have to do is enable the routine and then play a tape into it; obtaining maximum tape head response is simplicity itself.
Once you’ve loaded a Mikro Plus game, you’ll encounter another feature: a second menu allows you to copy the loaded code onto tape or microdrive automatically. It’s all most sophisticated, and when you consider that there’s also a built-in joystick port, it really does look like Mikro-Gen have made a breakthrough in user friendliness. This is of course totally alien to the doings of their previous hero (hero?!!) Wally Week. Does this voyage into the realm of fantasy signal an end to the Wally clan? Not a bit of it. Some more downloading and it’s time for a special early sneak preview of the Christmas Wally game, Three Weeks in Paradise. Sworn to secrecy, I can’t say more than that it takes the Wally format another step forward and features W Week in a loincloth! And of course it’s a Mikro Plus game, but if I reveal more they’ll send Harry the Hippie round to play me his Grateful Dead bootlegs!
Another quick download and I’m watching some of the fastest, smoothest 3D vector graphics I’ve seen on the Spectrum. They’re part of the next Mikro Plus release which is a science fiction adventure.
Mikro-Gen have invested the greater part of £130,000 in this breakthrough and ordered 25,000 units of Unicorn. I don’t think their trust in it is misguided — in fact it could take the home micro world by storm. If you can’t wait until the official release date — 17th September — you can enjoy a preview of Unicorn at the PCW Show in London a couple of weeks earlier.