Publisher: Misc
Compatibility: BBC B, B+, Master 128 & Acorn Electron
Reviewed by: Dave E
Originally published in EUG #64

Nowadays most people are familiar with the concept of public domain (PD) software - games and utilities distributed by their authors and by third parties for free. Yet it's hard to put one's finger on just when the first PD libraries started appearing. They weren't around for years after the Acorn Electron was on scene; anyone who could write even a half decent program either sent it to Superior Software or published it themselves from their bedroom.

In retrospect it seems almost as if the arrival of the 'super-machines' of the Nineties, the Atari ST and Amiga 500, prompted the appearance of PD software. The professionally released software for these machines was hugely overpriced - upwards of £25 per game! The market simply demanded an alternative and suddenly PD was upon us. Not to be outdone, and with professional releases for the 8-bit machines now waning, 8-bit PD libraries appeared too.

In the Acorn Electron world, this PD explosion sadly came far too late. While the BBC PD library appeared around 1987, Elk users had to wait another five years for HeadFirst PD. By this time, and in the days before internet, there was little chance of Public Domain world adopting any unreleased or unfinished Electron games. New releases had dried up and, apart from the submissions made to the Electron User Group, people simply weren't using their Acorn Electron computers any more.

However, the public domain disc archives of have now been steadily growing for quite a while. First came some of the 'pure' PD such as Adam Sandman's Aeronautical Dogfight 2, Dave E's Sunday and the Electron Music Disc. Then we saw the appearance of the complete but previously unreleased Tactic and Uggie's Garden from Superior/Acornsoft. Most recently we've seen discs appearing from the A&B, Acorn Programs, Electron User, EUG and HeadFirst PD disc collections.

As the first half of 2003 draws to a close, we've been further blessed with the discovery of four more BBC/Electron games which for one reason or another were never professionally published - two of them programmed by an ill-fated software house Livewire, one by Crazee Rider writer Kevin Edwards and the remaining one by yours truly. All are now available to download from the Public Domain section of Acorn Electron World and as you will discover all four are worth a look!

First off the pile is Braz, a ladders and levels jaunt written by Paul Branton for Livewire in 1984. You are a man called Braz and the loading instructions inform you that you have taken a job in a laboratory on the exact night a rogue and sinister bacteria is infecting all the chemicals stored around you. In a scenario which takes the biscuit as far as daft plots are concerned, you must recover a set number of keys to quarantine it, keep your job and not end up back on the Youth Training Scheme.

The game is something of a cross between Blagger and Woks in its idea of collecting keys and progressing through screens. However, it also has an element of arcade adventure in that you do not need to complete screens in a set order - you can traverse quite a large map, discovering and hopefully collecting keys in each room. Although you're only told to collect the keys, the game proper also tells you to look out for diamonds, gold, spades and umbrellas. What use these are you will have to discover for yourself.

Initially when the game itself starts, you are presented with a brick-border screen and need to define your own keys for left, right, jump and teleport. Everything is done in Mode 5 and, with a fair bit of machine code working away behind the scenes, you are treated to multi-coloured sprites and a speed of play which is just about passable. Despite this, the 8 x 8 block nature of all the platforms, ladders and ramps gives the game the feel of a BASIC type-in. Not to mention Braz's movements, which are annoying jerky. Judging when to move or jump to evade some approaching baddy always seems to end in Braz's 'death'.

On 'death' you are treated to a bizarre switching of the screen you were on and another where "GOD" is written in white 8 x 8 platform sprites with the message "Have you sinned (Y/N)?" dead centre. This switching back and forth carries on for about two seconds for no discernible reason before Braz returns to the room in which 'death' occured and the key, if he had collected it, is replaced where it was. One of your five lives disappears during this peculiar sequence.

You can also reach the 'death room', and many others, by using the teleport key. As it contains a key itself then it apparently is an essential room in the game but well you might wonder at such a confusing feature. You might also wonder why, in leaping some of the nastier inhabitants of the lab, each time you bash your head on the platform above you, your score increases!

Even without these strange features Braz would be quite a dull game. With them, it tends to leave the player wondering what on earth is going on a lot of the time. Its only real saving grace is its backing tune which plays on interrupt throughout the 'action' and manages to lift gaming to a level just above bottom.

Next off the pile comes something completely different, Laundry Cancelled, a software project begun by me way back in 1998. Generally I steer clear of critising my own games but hopefully the passage of such a large amount of time means I can remain fairly objective in this article. You may also feel the benefit of the information I possess which is not readily apparent from just playing it.

Firstly, and unfortunately, the game itself is only about 15% complete and there is no real control program - so don't expect to !BOOT this disc and start playing away. You can however, play the very first scene of the game by typing *FX 4,1 (to turn off the cursor edit keys) and then CHAINing the file "LOADER". At this point you will be whisked into a full-screen graphic adventure in Mode 4. You are Inspector Jack Shining, a detective from the old school who believes good old-fashioned Poirot-style questioning is the key to any crime. And the most evil crime of them all has been committed at Brott's Theatre - murder most foul.

The screen display shows several elements - top left is your current location within the theatre, top right the names and graphical depictions of the four suspects Adam, Rachel, Brad and Nikki, bottom left an overhead map of the theatre (which would in time have shown all small icons representing the suspects' positions in it) and bottom right a text box in which all spoken words appear. All the graphical elements are as intricate as is to be expected and the way the characters appear either in front or behind each other depending on how many of them are in a room is quite genial.

By paging through the text with the Spacebar, you learn from the scientist attending the crime scene that the janitor on the play Laundry has been gruesomely strangled by one of the suspects. On arriving you know very little and can only 'Ask About' the body. But with each question you ask, you gather more information and can ask more follow-up questions. You do this by moving up and down a list of 'topics', which appears in the text box area, with the * and ? keys then pressing RETURN when an area of interest is highlighted.

The procedures for searching the theatre and finding the suspects were never implemented so to begin questioning of the suspects you have to hit SPACE and watch helplessly as all those nice graphics get blanked by a primitive "Change Suspect To...?" prompt. Typing 1 gives Adam, 2 Rachel, 3 Brad and 4 Nikki. Your questioning begins to hint at all manner of dark deeds going on under the cover of Laundry and the characters' responses are pervaded by an absurd anarchic humour.

Sadly, that's it for the game proper. When your questions run dry, the only thing to do is to BREAK out of the game and have a look at some of the other elements that were completed. There is a utility (U.VIEWER) which will load in some nicely-designed screens, the procedure that pointed out a guilty suspect in the finale (U.POINT), a brilliant picture of a coat hanger ($.HANGER) and a very slow 'point and click' program for Nikki's office (U.MOUSE).

The third newly discovered treasure appeared some time ago on and is an abandoned scrolling platform game in the style of Super Mario Bros. Indeed, its author Kevin Edwards (No relation) declared Mario his inspiration for Amnesia, a nicely-framed, graphically impressive and smoothly-coded voyage through two tunnels before the game hangs.

You control a sidewards facing red blob complete with yellow arms and ears and white feet. It's actually quite a large sprite which can run left and right, move up and down, jump and shoot. The standard Elk arcade game keys (ZX*?, SPACE and RETURN) are utilised for these actions although whether the up and down keys would have been used in the finished game is unlikely. Using * and ? on this version, dated on the title page "15 Dec 1987", causes your blob to move up/down pixel by pixel until the key is released. The feature is probably included to allow otherwise (at this stage) impossible jumps to be passed over and for as much of the game as possible to be seen.

The title screen invites you to choose either a one or a two player game in a nicely redefined font and, although nothing registers on screen when either key 1 or 2 is pressed, the game does react accordingly if you press the Spacebar afterward.

It appears we lost a gem when Amnesia was abandoned. It is certainly unlike anything which subsequently appeared on the Electron. A cross between Mario and Cyborg Warriors, the blob responds well to keypresses and, as he reaches the centre of the screen, the screen scrolls right to keep up with him. As in Mario, you cannot backtrack - the screen only goes in one direction - and you can jump off platforms and collect bonus question mark icons which instantly destroy all the baddies around you. However, unlike Mario, you are also under attack from alien 'pedes' more reminiscent of a sideways-scrolling shoot-'em-up.

Hanging from overhead are deadly water droplets which are fatal on contact, as are the cool red bouncing balls that you must duck under in pixel-perfect timing. That is, unless you hold down *, rise to the top of the playing area and then just 'walk' along the top of it to the end!

There are many more sprites in there such as mushrooms, platforms and explosions. Plus the nice touch that crossing the boundary between tunnels one and two causes the colours to be redefined and if you die afterwards, you are returned here and not to the very beginning.

The Energy Bar and Hits Counter on screen are completely without purpose, the game has no sound at all and, as noted before, it's only possible to traverse two tunnels before you are abruptly cut off and returned to the title page. Nevertheless, if you limit yourself to only using the up and down controls when it is impossible not to then the game is definitely worth a play.

Now I've saved the best for last. Unlike Braz, Livewire's second game now saved from forgotten history is an absolute winner. Fruit Catcher is the only existing fruit machine simulator for the Electron in Mode 2 and more to the point it's a fast, buzzing, colourful, feature-laden one-armed bandit simulation that's a real joy to play.

Both of the Livewire games were originally rescued from a dusty cupboard somewhere in Manchester on two C15s labelled with their names and the message 'Final Version'. As indicated, the aim of Braz remains somewhat elusive as the loading instructions do not appear to correspond to the game itself. Fruit Catcher was originally even more enigmatic as there were no loading instructions at all. The screen simply emblazoned itself in colour graphics and from then on it was jab away at the keys and hope for the best.

With full instructions now supplied on the Haven disc version though, you are spared having to work out all the strange rules associated with Fruit Catcher. Oh yes, this is not simply a run-of-the-mill fruit machine such as those of the Alligata and Superior stable. Fruit Catcher is a 'themed' fruit machine - and its theme is the Acornsoft game Snapper which (as we all know) involves wandering around a maze collecting fruit!

There are thus two playing areas - the reels of fruit which you spin, hold and nudge using the 1, 2 and 3 keys are appropriate, and the labyrinth in which Snapper resides. When you spin the reels, small numbers in the corner of your winning line are added together to give the amount of places the little Pacman must move. He lands on all kinds of bonuses which usually result in the little Elk sounding off a vast library of bleeps and jitters. Deft use of the 'G'amble and 'C'ollect keys can also result in huge wins.

In a rare treat for Electron owners, you'll find that all of the Elk's eight colour palette is on display throughout. The wheel-spinning is also very speedy and the sprite size and detail is stunning, if a trifle blocky in places.

Each spin costs 20p (Testament to the superiority of the machine possibly - the other sims available for the Electron only cost 10p) but the amount of money you have spent and the amount of money you have won are counted on separate indicators. This means the game itself can continue indefinitely as you will never run out of money. In another nice touch, each display also displays the information in a digital font. Indeed, with the caterpillar of Snapper characters forming a money chain which blinks away through some adept machine code palette switching, you're left with an Exilesque-style feeling to the tune of "How did Paul Branton cram so much into 32K?!"

I would go so far as to say no games' collection is complete without Fruit Catcher and that, if it had been released professionally, it would not have been out of place on a Play It Again Sam compilation. High praise indeed but I'm sure you'll agree once you play it.

To conclude this trawl through the additions to PD world then, let us appeal to anyone harbouring any program not yet uploaded, finished or unfinished, to do so and set it free. With thanks to Dave M at Stairway to Hell for rescuing all the titles (except my own), let us hope to see the PD section of similarly boosted in the coming months. And to start any of you off who may have such gems hiding in the back of your BBC/Elk disc collections, note that almost all of HeadFirst PD's titles remain lost...