Argus Software’s Arcade Creator is a package aimed at a very different market — people who definitely DON’T want to learn to program, but who still want to invent games. Arcade Creator is a package in the tradition of Quicksilva’s Games Designer and Hurg from Melbourne House. The aim is to distil the elements of a game design away from the underlying program — so that you can produce original games simply by designing the graphics and selecting from pre-set play options.
Quicksilva’s package was easy to use but very limited — it came with eight demo games, with each one packed into 1K of memory. Hurg was more flexible, but not much. Both had the flaw that you had to load the main package before you could load a game of your own. Arcade Creator removes that restriction, but brings its own disadvantages.
For £14.95 you get yet another black video box with two cassettes and a ten-page typeset manual rattling around inside. The documentation is rudimentary; just a tour of the tape contents from Tape 1 Side 1 to Tape 2 Side 2, with commentaries on the process of game design en route.
The text is readable and restrictions are clearly stated, usually with a helpful explanation. I found the ‘2’ key listed in place of ‘Z’ at one point, and could not find the game control keys listed anywhere, but both of these faults were easy to correct by experiment.
The first thing I do when judging any kind of design program is look at the examples provided. In this case I just got a ten-screen game, by the name of Nutty Gnome. This is a bad advertisement for the package, and certainly too poor a game to be published separately by any established budget house. It takes me back to early 1983, with its inaccurate collision detection and flickering, blocky graphics, including square-edged trees.
Arcade Creator forces you to build up backgrounds from user-defined characters; you can only use a total of 84 characters in all twenty possible screens, so background graphics have to be simple or horrid. If you abandon graphics altogether you can design a game with up to 40 ‘screens’ or, strictly, attack waves. Don’t bother if you’ve already got a copy of Arcadia.
The package lets you design two types of game: simple platform games (without lifts, belts or ladders, and with a fixed jump distance) or ‘chase and shoot’ games where a character moves around the screen shooting baddies and barriers, and collecting treasure, weapons, keys, glasses or whatever. Many commercial games have been designed around these formats, but they’re getting dated and ‘hit’ programs tended to add features to the bare bones, like the ropes in Jet Set Willy or the moving platforms in Chuckie Egg.
In either case you must start by designing the sound effects, sprites (moving graphics) and user-defined characters which will be used to build up background pictures.
Sprites are designed on a 16x16 pixel grid — about average for Spectrum arcade games and significantly better than the 12x12 of Quicksilva’s Games Designer. Sprites are drawn by colouring points on a grid; the complete pattern can be ‘rotated’ in 90 degree steps, ‘reflected’ to face the other side of the screen, or ‘inverted’ by swapping coloured and empty points. You can design up to 21 sprites, each of which can have up to four steps of animation. As the game is played the sprite cycles quickly through the steps, so that it looks alive.
User-defined graphics are drawn in a similar way, but on an 8x8 grid. The graphics are stored in four groups, each holding 21 patterns.
The sound generator is easy to use and versatile — you can get just about any noise that can be made up from a single fluctuating tone, including sirens, buzzes, bleeps and ‘white noise’ explosion effects. The program stores up to eight different effects, and any six of these can be associated with events during the game — collisions, level changes, and so on.
The graphics are frozen while sound effects are produced — as on most early Spectrum games — but this doesn’t matter much if you keep the noises short. There’s no continuous music during play, but a jingle is played before the game starts — there are three pre-set possibilities.
The screen designer is very limited. Your pictures must be built up from small user-defined graphics, rather than lines and shapes drawn freehand. The results look like a Lego building site.
After designing that lot you must save it all on tape and load a second program, which leads you through a set of questions about the game, such as its name, the number of screens, and the game type. A decreasing bonus score can be pre-set, with an option to stop play if the countdown reaches zero.
Then you assign sprites to be players, enemies, missiles, treasure and so on, setting their initial positions, movement (if any, in eight directions at twelve possible speeds), and the effect of collisions with other sprites and the background. You set the initial direction of movement, but the rest of the path depends upon what gets in the way.
When you’ve positioned and programmed every sprite on every screen you can load a third program to produce a separate game file which can be loaded on its own.
This is very clever, and neatly done, but it’s not the way that real games are designed. You develop real games interactively — you position the graphics and play for a while, then you adjust the background to make things easier or more difficult, fiddle with the speeds, add and remove sprites, and generally build things up piecemeal.
Even the most brilliant and experienced game designers use this ad hoc approach to get things absolutely spot-on. It is even more important for beginners to be able to experiment; yet it’s virtually impossible to work that way with Arcade Creator, because you have to save and re-load everything, end troll through the question and answer sequence, every time you make a change.
All three sections of the package should really be built into one program. The second two parts are largely programmed in BASIC, so it should be possible to make them much more concise by re-writing them in machine code. Arcade Creator runs on the Spectrum 128 but does not appear to make use of the extra RAM. Nor is there any support for disks or Microdrives.
If you’re interested in games you may be able to while away a few evenings playing with Arcade Creator. But if you really want to design and test your own games it’s no alternative to ‘real’ programming. Arcade Creator lets you fiddle with pre-set games, but it doesn’t give you the freedom to design anything really original.