Product: Public Domain Games #1
Publisher: BBC PD
Compatibility: BBC B/B+/Master 128
Reviewed by: Dave E
Originally published in EUG #68

For a few months now, Acorn Electron World has also been carrying the archives of the now defunct PD library, BBC PD. It can be termed a publisher in its own right. Pre-internet and pre-bulletin boards, the ambitious efforts of home-brew programmers in BASIC (and sometimes even 6502) could at least by enjoyed by a bigger audience when bought from BBC PD. It was one of the first 'companies' that started filling discs with PD software and giving the disc a menu. In all, it produced 171 discs, before finally shutting up shop in 1992. However, whilst the discs were actively managed in some respects - for example, adventure games and music demos had their own sections - the original BBC PD archive ended up in a bit of a mess. Frequently, some interesting utilities and programs were left off the menu systems; sometimes programs, or even whole discs, were removed for copyright reasons.

The BBC PD archive is however, currently being re-shuffled into a more user-friendly collection of discs, and this first release of PD programs is a welcome start to things. It contains fourteen games, three demos and one utility. Almost all of the games are written by different authors in BASIC and are complete in one file. First off the games catalogue is Artificial Intelligence Noughts & Crosses, which pits you against the stupidest computer-controlled opponent in the history of computing. As you might expect from the title however, the 'game' itself is more of an exploration of Artificial Intelligence than a pure test of gaming enjoyment. Whilst for the first few games you will win every time you play, the program is making a careful note of how it lost each game, and therefore not playing the same false move on the next occasion. Beyond 25 games and the computer has taken control of almost every game that begins, until it wins or draws every game and is practically unbeatable. This is actually one of the more fascinating pieces of PD around.

Banana Drama, which has previously been published in EUG, is a ladders-and-levels game done in Mode 5. The premise is simple: you have to get from one side of the screen, climbing and dropping down ladders, to the other. If the beastly gorilla captures your princess before you make it then you lose. This game is not going to hold your average gamer's attention for long as it is repetitious and humdrum, but the graphics are clear and it is a very very easy game to play, if you have any very small children or cantanerous crumblies that find computer games too tough.

Battleships is a two-player version of the old favourite. It is done better elsewhere (See the Bobrowski PD catalogue) and the screen displays on this version seem dull in comparison. But of course the game itself remains the same and, despite the clumsy BASIC it is programmed in, the implementation is not particularly bad. It executes reasonably quickly, as done the next game in the list Cells And Serpents, an off-line version of the old Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) games that used to be popular on old network computers. Essentially Cells And Serpents reminded me of Pharoah's Tomb without the graphics: You walk left, right, forwards and backwards and try to avoid being killed by strange creatures whilst collecting treasure. It is done in Mode 7 so is not compatible with the Electron.

Next comes the only text adventure on the disc: Easy Adventure, a Mode 7 BASIC jaunt which is flawed only in that the aim of the game is unfortunately not given to you on start-up. I can tell you now that the aim is to catch the bus into town to join your family on their shopping expedition! Everyone knows the drill for these text adventures; as this is a very basic one, stick to VERB NOUN commands throughout and it should not cause you any problems.

Another very simple game but which held my attention for a good few hours [You mean longer than a minute? - Ed] was Find The Ace, a game beloved of American street hustlers since time immemorial. You bet a certain amount of money that one of three cards laid flat before you is the ace card. The odds are 1:3 in your favour but playing it is surprisingly addictive...

Although I am all for amateur programmers like myself experimenting with what can be done with the BASIC programming languages, the rest of the games programs are a bit of a disappointment. Hedgehog Squash, which comes with an enhanced version for the Master 128, is an overhead scrolling road game whereby you must squash poor, innocent hedgehogs under the tyres (Honestly, what have they ever done to you?!) whilst avoiding barricades and other road users. Whilst it sounds fairly playable, the game is let down by reacting very poorly to keypresses. It also runs so slowly that the hedgehogs have often reached the other side of the road by the time you reach them even at full acceleration! Hmmmm. The only enhancements in the M128 version of the game seem to be to the barriers, probably because of the M128's ability to house larger numbers of VDU23 User Defined Characters.

Helicopter Holocaust is similarly laborious to play; even though the machine code graphics of helicopters do visually lift it one step above the rest of the titles on the disc. The idea is a much more inferior take on Slogger's Dogfight - For Aces Only. You and a friend control helicopters and attempt to shoot each other out of the sky. Once you do fire however, you have to sit patiently and wait for your bullets to fly off-screen before you can fire again, which is stupid, and fair ruins any playability that the game could have raked in. Each time your helicoptered enemy is hit, your two copters 'jump' back to the starting position rather like two sheriffs duelling in the sun. I am not sure if this is the intention but it stands realism on its head and also detracts from a game which has potential but seems to have been released before these bugs were ironed out.

There are four more games that can be touched on briefly: Lunar Lander, a Mode 7 "land the space-craft safely by manoeuvring, thrusting and gently easing it over the cyan base"; Nitemare Park, a truly awful clone of the early Commodore PET 'games' where you are wiped out randomly often within a few seconds of starting; Space Pods where you must zap falling bugs as they hurtle past two key-controlled cannons and Tapeworm, a Centipede clone where the centipede is replaced by a line (Not nearly as attractive to look at) and the berries are replaced with '+'s.

I was very happy however to discover the very last game: Tennis, which is a clone of the old PONG game on the very very first Atari home computers in the 1970's. Apart from the uninspiring Video Classics, this was never really done on the BBC/Electron and here is the first time we've ever been able to re-experience the birth of the video game on the BBC machines. The white bats on a green background are probably a mistake there, and it's worth opening the program up to change the background to blue.

We come then to the demos included on the disc. Bounce is well, a box with a thing bouncing around inside it. FAULTS draws landscapes in 3D, generating impressive Zarch-style landscapes (if you're willing to wait a few seconds whilst it computes them of course) and a machine code utility to add three new modes to your machine is also included. The dimensions of the Modes added are rather peculiar and it is difficult to see what the new modes could really be used for!

Whilst there are so many User-Defined Graphics generators for the Beeb machines that it is difficult to know where to start, the last demo included, Character Definer, is one of the best, with an easy-to-use interface and all the options you could possibly want if you are designing a new font or 8x8 characters for your new game. A Logo Subset language is also included on the disc but regrettably comes without instructions.

Almost all of the programs are compatible with all of the BBC series machines, including the Acorn Electron. Once again therefore, we see that a re-shuffling exercise of BBC discs ends up unearthing more treasures for the Acorn Electron World web site. There appears to be, at first glance over the titles in the BBC PD 'vault', to be enough games in total to fill at least 10 discs (or possibly even more) - and each showcase a small part of what is possible after just a few hours of programming. As many of the games have languished 'hidden' for many years, the discs in what will shortly be a full catalogue are well worth a download and play around with!