Product: Acorn Programs 3 (Apr 84/May 84)
Publisher: Acorn Programs
Compatibility: BBC/Electron
Reviewed by: Dave E
Originally published in EUG #68

Those Acorn Programs discs just keep on rolling into EUG HQ, and the overall quality gets that tiny bit better with each new one. This disc is the third in the collection, and contains another 25 programs by the home-coders of the early Eighties. Although the disc itself was released a good few years back, these three demos, eight utilities and twelve games have not been pored over as yet so today we're diving in to let you know what you are/are not missing. As the programs on previous discs are usually mediocre or dross, and without exception all written in BASIC, you'll be happy to know that at least eight of the 25 programs on Acorn Programs #3 are in fact quite high in playability.

The first game, 3D Maze, is modelled on the professional Acornsoft and IJK equivalents. The good news is that it holds its own remarkably well, with a colourful wire-frame playing area and a timer ticking down from 120 seconds in the top left-hand corner. You can move around the maze using the Z,X and * keys (You cannot move backwards; you have to press Z or X twice to do a 180 degree turn and then move forwards) and the aim is, of course, to get from the entrance to the exit before the time runs out. If you die of suffocation, then a screen appears showing your tombstone. Many of the professional releases of this game do not have a timer, and the addition of one really adds a sense of urgency to the proceedings.

Subsequent games also have some feel of individuality which adds sparkle to what is really quite simple code. In-Order Maze is a Mode 7 only (Electron owners take note) sliding block puzzle game. It is fully explained by instructions on screen and it simplicity itself to operate, yet incredibly difficult to put back together in only a short number of moves. The number of moves you have made needs to be keep as low as possible, with your score and the high score both displayed on screen. At the other end in terms of difficulty is Dice (aka Number Game), the rather peculiar Monte Carlo casino game that Robert Retford plays in the film "Indecent Proposal". Although full instructions are given on screen, I still find this game incredibly difficult to understand. Basically if you the numbers on the two dice add up to seven, you win big money. The Mode 5 graphics of this game are also quite engaging, although the version on this disc uses the : symbol to represent two dice - which means that they always 'roll' in parallel!

Another Mode 5 game which leads the way is Protector, a sort of BASIC alien-zapping game with a twist on the Space Invaders theme. You are under attack from your squidy things (8x8 character definitions) and need to line up your droid with them and then zap up the screen to oliberate them. Although the screen is nicely laid out, and the controls are the familiar Z, X and RETURN ones, the game itself is incredibly difficult to control. The game over sequence also lasts far too long, meaning each time you get zapped you have to sit through a black and white flashing screen for ten seconds.

Shooting Gallery is quite a nippy little blaster, where a little 8x8 animated man appears above a particular number on screen, and you have to hit that number as quickly as possible. Nothing particular difficult about it at all - yet it really is amazing how satisfying it is to take out a little jumping, waving man - as opposed to the stationary, lifeless characters in similar games (e.g. Sitting Target on Cascade's Cassette 50). There's also a fully graphical version of the memory game Simon (a non-graphical version of which I recently blasted in my review of 40 Educational Games For The Electron) which not only plays tunes but also includes animated flashing colours to lift the gaming experience.

Higher/Lower just scrapes a mention - not because it is any good but because I wonder who on earth had the audacity to design a computer game based on the famous card guessing game, and then not include any graphics of cards!! You start with £200.00 and have to get £10,000.00 to win 'a car' (also not displayed naturally). Seven goes is my best so far.

My pick of the bunch, however, and unlikely as it is for a game which is purely 'educational' is Search For Gold. Again, it's a very simple co-ordinates game, the like of which we've all seen a hundred times before. However, the difference with this version is that you are not just asked for the co-ordinates of the map that you wish to search but that the map constantly updates graphically to 'section off' all of those areas which your previous guess eliminated. It is fascinating to watch the computer doing much of the work for you and really demonstrates to anyone using it how useful a machine can be.

To give the rest a passing mention, there is a Steve Lucas pelmanism game called Monster Hunt; on which nice tunes and loading sequences cannot really disguise a very, very dull game. There's also Driver, a scrolling screen packed full of cars through which you try to drive as as long as possible, typically a few seconds. There's Bomber which, despite the scenario the name uses conjures up, is here a kind of BASIC version of Rig Attack and puts you in control of a submarine instead of a helicopter. Finally there's a disappointing Pontoon implementation with no graphics, a random, skill-less Choose Your Own Adventure adventure Bank Robber that constantly asks "Will you go further?" until you type N and Golf. This last one is really in its own league in terms of crappiness and allows you to play a textual game of golf by simply choosing different sizes of clubs!

Three demos are included, one of which, Keyboard, is a simple program that turns your keyboard into a small electronic musical keyboard, allowing you to play Chopsticks on the keys of your little Electron. It includes a key which you can press for an "Explosion" which is a particularly nice touch, although the program itself is very limited. Prediction Maths Demo is more of a true demonstration and, whilst not particularly teaching its user anything other than the opposite sides of a dice always add up to seven, does this in a rather an entertaining if long-winded way. Octal Characters Demo is a curious one which displays any key you type at the keyboard in large text. One could presumably adapt this quite easily to produce a vertical scroll of the ilk seem in THE's demo Ayana The Yellow Star and, considering it runs in machine code (!), can be considered quite a useful utility, as well as a demo in its own right.

The majority of the utilities do not merit much of a mention. One converts metric units to imperial, another illustrates long multiplication, another long division, another is a simple calculator, another a simple user defined graphics designer and yet another one offers you some typing practice on an infinite loop. All are purely text only and barely worth a look-in.

Evidently aiming for the school market, two other more comprehensive utilities - Question Master and Distillation - offered more in the way of experimentation. The idea with Question Master is that you can make a database of questions and answers and then leave students alone with the computer to take the test. However, it seems rather unfinished, with a very oddly laid out menu. In particular, I found it curious that option 3 is 'Enter questions' whilst 'Display questions' is option 1. You naturally press 1 and so the game reports an error because you haven't entered questions into it!

Distillation had me quietly crying, as I don't remember much about my old Chemistry lessons and asking me to try and reconstruct the apparatus required to distill water is almost the same as asking me to fly. Still, I guessed correctly that a bunsen burner and a beaker were needed, and when I typed these in both of them did appear graphically. I'm sure you need more to distill water, but at least I have enough elements there to singe William King's hair again!

All said therefore, Acorn Programs #3 is rather like a sackful of freshly picked apples. About half the programs are ripe and juicy, others just lack pzazz and a few are rotten and should be discarded. What is rather surprising is that the magazine publishers did seem to be eliciting a higher standard of programming from their readers, even by this third outing. That said, none of the programs are great when compared to the mainstream equivalents but, as there are eight discs in the collection, it may just be that by Acorn Programs #8 that we will uncover some real treats.