Product: Hell Hole
Publisher: Alligata
Compatibility: Acorn Electron
Reviewed by: Dave E
Originally published in EUG #70

What? Why? What the hell? These rhetorical questions, and ones containing increasingly colourful language, came sprouting from my lips as I attempted to get my head around Hell Hole, a compilation-only number from the established Alligata.

The instructions are mostly neither use nor ornament, and seem to be written by someone who had never played the game. It isn't a multi-screen adventure hunt where the cursor keys move the screen around, as they imply, and yet there is a time bonus and you must attempt to collect crystals, so there's evidently some truth to them. This is the worst of both worlds as you desperately try to fathom what exactly the objective is, bang away on the cursor keys to scroll the screen and become increasingly frustrated when you are sucked into the game's traps.

Do yourself a favour, forget the instructions and read this: You are a tank, situated at the top left hand corner of a maze of earth. To be able to move through the maze, you need to blast the earth away, and the blasting happens automatically whenever you try to move. That is, if you try to move left and left is blocked by earth, the tank blasts the earth away to create space and moves into it. So as you move around you leave a trail of the way that you have come.

Certain trails in the earth are already in existence when each level begins and an alien is parading around inside them, so once your trail crosses these the tank is open to attack from him. Also in the maze are two distinct areas, an airlock and a cave.

The airlock (a sort of black hole with a thin cyan cover) is triggered if you pass too close to it. If you get sucked out of it then it's death but, provided you're heading in the right direction when you pass it, it opens slowly enough for you to get out of the way. However, it can never be closed again. This is important for planning your strategy through the maze on later levels.

The cave contains three crystals which should be collected for maximum score. Unfortunately, on entering the cave the tank triggers an alarm which drops loads of stalactites from the ceiling. These fall in a completely random sequence and so you can occasionally be unlucky and have the first one fall onto the first crystal, the second onto the second one and the third onto the third! If this happens there'll be no big score for you on this level at all!

More likely however, some stalactites will fall either side of the crystals and so you need to rely on quick reactions to get in, grab the crystals and get out as quickly as possible.

Throughout the maze are also scattered some cartoony-looking rocks. Blasting the earth from underneath them makes them rock back and forth for a second then plummet downwards. If you're in their path, you will be crushed. If the alien is in their path then he won't be (which is certainly a bit weird if you're used to games like Repton!). Often these rocks block crucial routes and need to be repositioned before you dash into the cave, so that you can navigate back through the maze - often hotly pursued by the alien! - without having to worry about strategy. You cannot push rocks either, they can go one way only - down!

And just to let you know - because the instructions don't! - after you've been into the cave, and got as many crystals as you could, you need to go back to your starting position at the top left of the maze.

Right, now you're probably thinking that crappy instructions aside this doesn't sound like too bad a game. Indeed, it certainly requires a fair amount of brain power. You need to first of all think about how you can get to and from the cave before your time runs out. On the first level this is relatively easy to work out but as the level of difficulty increases, so do the number of rocks blocking the obvious routes. Also, rocks appear at the very entrance to the cave, meaning that after you enter it, you can only exit by getting to the other side of it!

On later levels you will find that you can get to the cave correctly, but in doing so, you drop rocks in such a way that you can only return to your starting position by tripping the airlock. When heading for the cave, you need to stay away from it. But it is positioned in such a way that, on the return journey, you just have time to squeeze past it to safety.

So what's the verdict on this one then? It is certainly not a clone of anything else and it's interesting to see a variant of the maze game which relies on brainpower as well as arcade skill. So these are good points in its favour. On the other hand, the graphics are nothing special and survival has a ridiculously high 'random' factor. And to continue in this vein...

What is very difficult to describe in a review is exactly how the game operates in practice. It is normal in games of this type for the central character to move one full square when moved in either direction, hence you more or less expect this from Hell Hole. But the tank can move any number of pixels in any direction, and a single pixel of earth in its way will prevent it moving without blasting. This can cause pandemonium when the alien clocks your position, moves towards you and you try to navigate pre-determined trails in order to get away. If you are off, on any turn, by one pixel, your tank pauses. Those few wasted nanoseconds are often enough for the alien to make mincemeat of you.

This is frustrating enough in itself but the same problem rears its head when navigating past the airlock. Turn away one little pixel too late and you'll be sucked into deep space!

Sometimes the alien plods around without any real intelligence; sometimes you have to spend countless minutes shaking him off. There is a time limit ticking down that is merciless; therefore if you are unlucky that's just tough. Again, deeply frustrating.

I've already mentioned the randomness of the plunging stalactites. So in total that's six completely random events - not being captured by the alien, not running out of time, not being hit by a falling stalactite, not getting stuck blasting away because you are out of alignment with the trail by one pixel, not being sucked out of the airlock because you are out of alignment by one pixel and not running out of time! - that all need to come together for you to complete a level. Aaaaarrrrrrggggghhhhhh!!!!

There are some nice touches to the game - the fireworks exploding in the background of the high score table and the author's signature on the opening screen are two. And it's colourful, and written in machine code.

Yet despite this, it's really too laborious to be fun. The layout of the level never really changes; the airlock and cave are always in the same place; the alien never gets any more intelligent; collecting the crystals is always just a matter of pure luck... If you don't find this too random to be fun then you might enjoy it. Personally, after fathoming all this out with no help from its downright misleading inlay card, I didn't.