In the golden age of gaming (which I am going to call the mid 1980s and anything before that) when home computing was proliferating in the United Kingdom, many software houses* sprang up and released variations on popular game formats.
For example, Alligata Software released ‘Defend Or Die‘ (a decent clone of William’s classic Defender)and ‘Who Dares Wins’ (which was a great copy of Capcom’s ‘Commando‘) which was covered here on TWLB a couple of years ago – see here.
The point of all this preamble is to celebrate one of the great British software companies, who, in the mid-eighties, brought great joy to Amstrad CPC464 owners with two seminal games ‘Dark Star’ (essentially a 3D Space Combat game, but more importantly it was a vector game that played like the Atari Star Wars Arcade game) and ‘Tank Busters’ which was to all intents and purposes the Atari vector classic ‘Battlezone‘. TWLB celebrate Design Design, who gave sunshine to Amstrad CPC464 gamers in the form of Dark Star and Tank Busters.
The brilliance of the Atari Star Wars Arcade game cannot be disputed. From the awesome cockpit cabinet;
to the bright and sharp vector graphics;
and the great music (which was a really good attempt at capturing the orchestral majesty of John Williams’ theme). All this, and superb gameplay, culminating in an exciting and evocative run down the Death Star trenches to shoot bombs down exhaust ports. Nothing came close to matching this excitement until the Nintendo Gamecube had the brilliant Rogue Leader nearly 20 years later (and, by the way, this game alone should have propelled sales of the Gamecube to match the PS2 – why it didn’t remains a mystery to me);
What I am trying to convey is that ‘Star Wars Arcade’ was a true experience. Playing it in a small, cramped, cigarette stained arcade on Aldergate in Tamworth amongst the fruit machines made no difference. My surroundings meant nothing to me – I could just as well have been in an X-Wing – it was that good, the whole Star Wars Arcade experience that evocative.
Naturally then, any game attempting to distill that experience and intensity into a home computing format was doomed to fail, but at the same time, any software developers attempting to recreate such a great game was going to get people interested, because the core elements of the game would translate well to home gaming. Providing it was done correctly. Design Design managed it, thanks to great vector graphics, gameplay that paid homage to its (Atari) inspiration, and some quirky elements of their own (like flying through portals that were comprised of lots of vector squares) that made Dark Star a great Amstrad game (it was also released for the ZX Spectrum).
Dark Star comprised of 3 gaming stages – the first was a space battle, very much like the first stage of Star Wars arcade. A 3d vector graphic battle in space – this was as good as it got at the time, and that was very good. Next up was the 3D warp tunnel, which was very much like a road race scenario as you triwed to keep your ship within the tunnel. This was the unique gaming element and for me it is the most memorable. The third stage was probably the best though – an attack on an alien planet, shooting down hostile towers and avoiding fire and hostile ships.
Dark Star was fast and smooth graphically, and played with an intensity that was unheard of in any other space combat game for the Amstrad (and I am thinking of the likes of Codename Mat 3D here). Dark Star is a true Amstrad classic, a great space game that preceded the likes of Elite and Starion on the CPC464. These are a few of the sites with information on the game (note that there are links to both Amstrad and Spectrum sites). So, in no particular order;
http://www.ysrnry.co.uk/articles/ystop100.htm – a review of the spectrum version of dark star
http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~jg27paw4/yr11/yr11_51.htm – joystick jury on dark star at your spectrum
http://equ.in/ox/spectrum/eggs/design_design.php – spectrum dark star easter eggs
http://www.carlylesmith.karoo.net/spectrum/gamefaq/gamefaq5.html – more spectrum dark star easter eggs
http://www.cpczone.net/game/262/postcomment/ – cpc zone entry for dark star
http://www.cpczone.net/game/262 – a proper review, screenshots, game cover from cpczone
http://members.aol.com/kjnash/update/DRGUP012.HTM – review of the spectrum game dark star
http://www.romguy.com/roms/amstradcpc/Dark_Star.html – dark star amstrad rom
What Dark Star did for 3D vector graphic space combat, so Tank Busters did for 3D vector tank-in-a-wasteland skirmishes and warfare. The basic premise is the same as Atari’s Battlezone (you control a tank on a desolate landscape and shoot anything that moves before they shoot you), although it eschews the unique arcade version controls and ‘periscope view’;
If you have ever played Battlezone (and if not, you can play it here), then you know what to expect. As an Amstrad gamer in the eighties, this was another great addition to my games, although not as crucial as Dark Star.
The other great thing about Design Design is the fact that the design of the front end was so damn nice to look at, functional and pretty;
I mean, how simple and good looking is that? The options page meant you could tweak the difficulty from easy to hellish (and with Tank Busters, having what seemed like having a hundred tanks face you down was not good).
Like Dark Star, there are some good resources on Tank Busters, and again, in no particular order, here they are;
http://www.cpcgamereviews.com/t/index.html – review of amstrad version of tank busters
http://www.cpczone.net/game/1605 – cpc zone entry for tank busters
http://www.cpczone.net/game/1605/screens – cpc zone has screenshots of tank busters
http://www.cpcgamereviews.com/amtix/amtix.txt – cpcgamereviews has a list of all the games ever reviewed on Amtix (the sister publication to Crash and Zzap64) and gives the ratings.
Finally, here is the really good news – Design Design Software have released all their CPC games (Tank Busters, Dark Star, Forbidden Planet) as freeware. With the permission of the author (Simon Brattel, email@example.com). For more information, see http://classicgaming.gamespy.com/View.php?view=ConsoleMuseum.Detail&id=42
Thank you Graham Stafford. Thank you Simon Brattel. Thank you for Design Design, Dark Star and Tank Busters.
More on Design Design;
* Software House being a very literal term in some cases, as a lot of ‘software houses’ were one man bands operating out of bedrooms throughout the UK and beyond…