Menus That Grab And Bite

By Dave E

Originally published in EUG #67

Image Is Everything

There's an old proverb that runs "You can't judge a book by its cover" which was probably muttered by an ancient philosopher who found himself surrounded by people that did. In the publishing industries, image is of paramount importance. The same holds good for computer games. Recently, perhaps one of the best PS2 games of all times, We Love Katamari, failed spectacularly to make the top ten bestsellers. The reason: it had the worst cover art ever seen. People just didn't pick it up, so they didn't turn it over to see the screenshots, and more importantly they didn't buy it. The situation was exactly the same 'when I were a lad': I remember well choosing between Arcade Soccer and Soccer Supremo, both at £9.95 each. Arcade Soccer had better cover art, so I bought it.

Like the games themselves, the 'grab and bite' factor of cover art for BBC/Electron games, is now long gone. With web sites like Acorn Electron World and Stairway To Hell providing every game ever manufactured for free, then you can either decide whether to download a game based on a review, or just download everything and trawl through each disc/tape image in turn to see whether you feel it's worth keeping. However, from the moment you SHIFT-BREAK boot anything you find, there is another factor working instead of the cover art to provide some initial 'grab and bite'. We speak, of course, of the menu system.

Rare Finds

On a tape image, you find a menu very, very rarely. They do exist; famous disc-style examples include The Introductory Cassette/Acorn Plus 3 Welcome Disc, Electron User and The Micro User. And, through necessity rather than design, complicated games like Buffalo Bill and Repton Infinity also had a menu at regular intervals recorded throughout the cassette. But in 99.9% of cases, CHAINing any cassette loaded a game. If it was prefaced with a seductive-looking loading screen then the screen provided the 'grab and bite' factor. Good cover art and a good loading screen let the user know, even before the game started, that the publisher had faith in the game itself. In the days of cassettes only (before emulation with speed-up hacks spoiled us all!) it also provoked a sense of anticipation in the player. With the BBC series, although examples do exist of bad games with good cover art and good loading screens (Baron and Footballer Of The Year, for example), these are the exception rather than the rule. This situation is rather dissimilar to the case with many other machines.

Grabbing the player's attention with a clam-shell case and snazzy loading graphics may be all well and good, but another factor with tape releases was the time that it took to load them. Professional disc releases of the tape-based equivalents could be more experimental, providing even better graphics and more atmospheric lead-ins (Compare for example Superior's disc releases of Codename: Droid, Life Of Repton and Palace Of Magic with the tape releases). With discs, the storage capacity is quadrupled whilst the loading time is cut to seconds - it's little wonder disc releases were graphically more spectacular than the tape ones.

Crying Out For Menus

All these extra possibilities for disc do literally, however, beg for a good menu. Once you start putting more than one program on a disc, then what comes up when the disc is !BOOTed is no longer that spectacular artwork that Johnston Vernon Miles spent a whole week pixelating. It is a screen asking the user to interact with it. If this screen looks cluttered, intimidating or if it just plainly doesn't work then it's in danger of jeopardising a disc chock-full of goodies. A large variety of menu systems exist on the discs you can download from Acorn Electron World and here we take a stroll through them, not particularly for any reason other than to illustrate how they evolved and whether, in our humble opinion, they work as an introduction providing the 'grab and bite' factor.

The simplest type of menu is a text-based one which simply gives a number of options, and we need look no further than long-running Electron magazine Elbug For The Electron for evidence of this approach. Mode 4 with blue background and white text. No graphics anywhere to be seen. Fair enough, in that a menu should above all be functional, but a rather uninspiring introduction providing very little to tempt you further in. To analyse the menu itself (without judging the quality of any idea of the games it points to), it appears it was thrown together in a few moments. It undoubtedly was.

Luckily, these examples are quite few and far between. The Danosoft Collection, reviewed this issue, also sports a functional menu of this type. However, in its case it is more understandable: the whole disc remains a Work In Progress, so here a menu thrown together at the last minute seems peculiarly apt. There are more inexcusable examples though: Let's Compute Club Disc #1 is an obvious example, particularly when you take on board that this was aimed at children. At least on the Electron, what appears on !BOOTing this disc is black and white, completely text-based, and uses unnecessary asterisks to indicate reference to the companion mag, plus less than and greater than symbols to indicate where the pointer rests in the menu. The result appears as an unsightly mess.

One cannot however judge Let's Compute too harshly when you compare it with the first 'menus' on the Acorn User companion discs. We will say a bit more about Acorn User later as these discs now boot by default in a 'revamped' format. Incredibly though, on the very early discs sent out to subscribers, no 'menus' were included at all. The discs were set to load up a Mode 0 text-file, that listed the programs contained in the magazine, the page number and the filename the listing was saved as. When any key was pressed, all this information was erased and you were on your own, both to recover from eye-strain, and to remember what filename to now CHAIN.

Animated Menus

If a menu system is completely unique to a disc, it becomes a separate program, almost to be wondered at in its own right. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Larsoft Collection, which combines a new menu, a fade in/fade out technique and new loading sequences. At first glance this menu system appears to be very simple; exactly the sort of text-based functional menu system that got my gander up a few moments ago in fact. The trick here comes with what happens when you choose an option, and the fade technique seamlessly switches to a loading screen for the adventure you have selected. Even if text adventures are not your thing, the menu system and its associated loaders are worth viewing in their own right.

There is much to be said however, for keeping surprising menus on a bit of a tight leash. Firstly, for practical reasons of time and familiarity, the menu system on a subscription disc should not alter, for example, each month. You do subconciously recognise a familiar 'generic' menu (and therefore know what to do more quickly), and a form of menu system that is particularly attractive can be played with, in subtle ways, so that generic quality is kept, whilst the distinction between one club disc and another is well preserved.

Electron User Ripoffs

This is best illustrated by the Electron User menu system. It will be familiar to all of you and it appeared on no less than 82 discs over the years. It is a Mode 1 hybrid text and graphics menu, allowing the game selected to be highlighted. It also allows you to use the cursor keys to move up and down to select the program that you want and to jump to it immediately by pressing the letter which corresponds to that program. However you reach the game you want to load, RETURN then CHAINs it for you.

This menu probably has the enviable reputation of being the most ripped-off and adapted utility of all time - one can list the code of A&B Computing's, Acorn Programs', Big Ben Club's and Electron Computing's menu systems and find the code practically identical. Why? Well, the graphic section of the menu (at the top of the screen) and the text section of the menu (at the bottom), can both be altered with very minimal effort to give a menu system which looks surprisingly different, but retains all the user-friendliness of the original. The EU menu system allows thirteen separate entries, and this is more than enough for most companion discs - and the logo which looms over the menu can be redesigned in the art package of your choice, and saved over the original! To add those finishing touches, you can also, create bigger menus by designing a smaller graphic header (e.g. A&B Computing) and by changing the palette.

EUG Special Menus

A number of EUG Special discs, (e.g. Animeworld and Joseph Lavery Collection) use other adaptations of this menu, and a Mode 0 machine code version of it also looks to be at work on the HeadFirst PD discs by Gareth Boden and James Treadwell. There is but one flaw with this otherwise quickish way of producing partly redesigned menu systems. The EU menu system was originally meant only to handle 13 filenames, whereas magazines like Acorn Programs carried upwards of 26 programs. On the Acorn Programs discs, this has been fudged by containing three menus with the last option of each always being 'Other Programs' which steps you through each of them in turn. However, apart from looking inelegant, each new menu requires its own file and this quickly starts filling up the disc with menu programs.

Choosing A Menu

For the 'revamped' Acorn User, which also regularly carried over 13 programs, the generic EU menu system was adapted yet again. Here extra keys have been introduced if all listings included cannot be displayed (e.g. 'Press 2 for page 2') and extra procedures handle clearing the screen and displaying the new options, all within the one program. The menu program on the Acorn User discs available from Acorn Electron World should now therefore be thought of as the true generic menu system - memory permitting, this has no limit on the number of files it can hold.

Scrolling Menus

Some menus try to get around limitations on the amount of options that can be displayed on screen by introducing a 'scrolling menu'. The most popular scrollers are The Micro User companion discs for the BBC, and some of the later BBC PD discs (which probably stole the same routine). As a choice of menu goes they are someplace further down in preference than the colourful feasts provided by ad hoc designs or re-designed from the EU/AU menu system. For colour on the BBC/Electron, you need a high resolution Mode, such as Mode 1, but scrolling in a text window in Mode 1 is a frustrating process. Hence, menu systems either choose to abandon colour in favour of speed (Doing a menu system in black and white like BBC PD), or do the scrolling menu system in machine code (The Micro User).

As we are not primarily a BBC-focussed site, we have not had too much experience of these. However, on the rare occasions we have scrolled through a long menu to find a program it has made us tetchy, and scrolling past it tetchier still. Cosmetically, on top of the more difficult navigation, BBC PD menus appear rather drab. Despite a colourful appearance, The Micro User menus often appear to be very clumisly put together - the column meant to refer you to the appropriate page in the magazine is hardly ever given and on many occasions, highlighting a particular entry brings up the infuriating error "File not found". Because the program is generated in machine code, it's not possible to list it to see what it was searching for!

Evolving Menus

Often you will find that, in a collection of discs, an attempt has been made to slowly 'evolve' the menu system to meet a variety of needs. You can see this in the correspondence that flowed into EUG throughout its lifetime, and EUG's menu presents possibly one of the best examples of a user-friendly 'Configurable' menu, with sub-menus. Not only does it load games and utilities, it displays ASCII files, it changes Mode to suit those with a television screen, it allows you to redefine the keys and even prints out everything on the disc with one keypress.

With EUG #0 - EUG #64, and the discs in the professional library, the final 'evolution' of the menu system has been copied to all of the discs in the collection. However, this is not the case with, for example BBC PD, where some discs have a menu system that allows such configuration, but others don't. Furthermore, many of the BBC PD Music Discs are so packed full of files that they have their own menu system which is built up as a Mode 1 screen from a BBC PD Menu Creation Utility. [This utility is included on this year's companion EUG disc - Ed]. With discs of 58 files or more, the option that has been taken here is not to use scrolling, or a selection of different menus, but to redefine the font size so that more information can appear on screen.

Less Excellent Menus

Other less excellent generated menus exist: the Mode 5 The Soft Centre Collection is a hybrid graphics/text opener. Where in the BBC Music Discs menu, the text seems too small, here it is too big. The PCW menus also commit a rather henious sin of dallying with a different menu system per disc. PCW Software For The Electron forgoes with any letter to make a selection and instead you must move with the * and ? keys to the game of your choice then select it with RETURN. For some reason, you are not told this on the screen though and have to work it out yourself! Brainteasers For The Electron also has the same menu system. It's peculiar, as much in this respect as that you can actually use a joystick to move the cursor too! PCW Games Collection is another straight rip of the hybrid EU system; Educational Programs For The Electron is the only adaptation of the EU that splits the screen into two columns! These last two are perfectly navigable in the usual way, but ideally all three discs would use a similar menu, don't you think?

And Finally...

We've talked a lot here, mostly about the visually pleasing menus here that can be produced in Mode 1. Of course if you've got a BBC, you've got the brilliant Mode 7. Noteably, if you load up Let's Compute Club Disc #1 on a BBC, you get an infinitesimally more attractive front end to play with. Mode 7 could almost have been created for making menus. Programmingwise, highlighting selected text is much easier; screens take up as little as 1K; all seven colours can be used at once; and the list goes on. As EUG is primarily an Electron magazine, we can only allude to these and personally we prefer the fine detail of a Mode 1 picture to the blockiness of a Mode 7 one. But, of the small number of BBC public domain games carried by the site at the moment, both The Viking Collection and practically anything by The Yorkshire Boys demonstrate many of the same menu systems referred to above.

These days, we tire of not being able to find a file/play a game much more quickly than we did in the heydays of the Beeb and the Elk. Whilst the ways in which any computer can ask for information are as unlimited as the imagination itself, the menu system that greets you when you boot up a game affects directly how long you continue using that disc. As you can observe, there are very few 'bad' menu systems on the BBC/Electron, but there are some. Without cover art, the menu becomes the very cover that the proverb would tell us we can't judge by. Perhaps in time, BBC PD and The Micro User will be 'smartened up' by someone, the same way that countless other discs have been. Until then, don't forget about them - the better menu systems provide more 'grab' but the 'bite' comes most definitely from the games themselves.