Memoirs of an Action 52 Programmer

In which I chronicle my memories of working on Action 52.
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Starevil, Illuminator & G-Force Fighter

Albert Hernandez
United States
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The show on solitaire boardgaming.
Microbadge: May the wings of the butterfly kiss the sun...Microbadge: Merry ChristmasMicrobadge: Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) series fanMicrobadge: Merry ChristmasMicrobadge: ...and find your shoulder to light on.
Okay, so it's been quite a long time since the last post. So much for that once a week thing, huh? Sorry but December was just really busy and other excuses. I spent about 30 minutes just now playing Starevil, Illumninator and for the heck of it, G-Force Fighter. It's sad but with Action 52 games, it doesn't take much playing to pretty much feel like you completely grok a game.

I think this is a sign of the rushed process. When Mario came up with the games, he created some really neat backstories for each one but we barely developed them more than a backstory. Personally, I find the space shooters suffer the most for this. Games like Starevil & G-Force Fighter both feel very similar even though one is a vertical scroller with a top-down view and the other is a side scroller with a horizontal view. Mechanically, they play just about the same. The differences are subtle or maybe trivial. This really amounts to not having enough time to develop each game.

A second thing I find obvious from playing is that we never had play-testers. We tested all the games ourselves. What I have come to learn over the years is that people get used to what they have to work with and learn to just deal with it. While making these games, it wasn't obvious that the pause between levels and the splash screen at the start of each level really aren't enough. They are short. They don't say much and you have no way to stop the game from starting. From the instant you die, you have about 1 second to read the screen and hand over the control to player #2. When the game ends, you don't really know what your final score was or anything. It's frustratingly anti-climatic. Honestly though, we just weren't looking for those kinds of issues. We didn't have enough time and were mostly rushing to make sure the gameplay worked. If we'd had the forethought to get an actual tester... even just one, we might have seen these issues and fixed them. They wouldn't make the games any more fun to play but the frustration would be just a touch lower. So be it though, the games are what they are and it's easy to armchair develop 30 years after the fact.

Between Starevil and G-Force Fighters, I much prefer Starevil. The game is unreasonably difficult with the fast scrolling and the large obstacles in the way. I played the first three levels. I barely remember the third even just a little later but the first two, start with a big block in the way and you have to avoid it or die instantly. It's pretty annoying. At the time, we thought it was a bit clever and just an added challenge.

Befgore talking about Illuminators, my favorite of the three, let me get a bit too technical without really getting technical and thus just making a mess of things...

While playing, I came across two technical issues. The first is that in Starevil, you can see the top of the screen getting re-drawn as you advance. I don't know if this is because I am playing on an emulator or it was also like this years ago on a TV. What is going on, is that for a game like this, you are supposed to draw the new section of screen before scrolling it into the visible area. You always draw a couple of rows ahead. For whatever reason that isn't happening here.

The second thing I saw was while playing G-Force Fighters. The screen suddenly glitched and then a row was drawn incorrectly with some junk. This is related to the timing of the page. I think it's pretty standard, or at least was, but with a game like this, you only had a bit of time to re-draw the screen. I don't know how modern screens work, but with an old TV, the image on the screen was drawn one pixel at a time starting at the top. The ray or tube or whatever it was would from left to right drawing that row, then go down to the next row and repeat until it got to the bottom. It did this like 20 or 30 times a second. Once at the bottom, you had a split second while the thing reset to start the next frame at the top again. During that brief interval, you can write to the screen memory to update it. The rest of the time, while the frame was being drawn onto the screen, you could do the rest of the code.

The NES had an interrupt that would trigger each time the screen was done drawing. The code is tied to that interrupt. Probably what happened was the code was still working when the next interrupt was triggered and it tried to draw the screen when other stuff was going on.

Okay, on to Illuminators. As I said, this is my favorite of the three. I really like the idea behind this game. You are in a haunted house and all you have is your flashlight. The evil creatures live in darkness. Whenever you hit one with your flashlight, you destroy it and for an instant everything is visible, but then, you are plunged back into darkness. Hopefully you saw enough to careful avoid the monsters while you hunt them down. I really think that's cool. The game does an okay job of recreating that. I do wish there was a bit more to the game. If the story had been more developed and the game had some more variety and depth to the levels, this could really be cool. I've always liked this game and is one my favorites.

I'll come back and add some pictures once I figure out how to get them out of my RetroPi
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