Game Concept: Parallaxian (ertswhile "Colony")


Timeline:


In case you missed the launch post on this blog, I made the decision in late summer 2018 to return to the game I invested a lot of time in back in the mid 1990s.

That project was called Colony, a name I believed at the time to be unique and original, highlighting both how oblivious I was to the other Colony for the Commodore 64 and, by inference, how internet-free and research-incapable my life was back then.

Several demos were released at varying development points, revealing a protoype shoot-em-up game built around a bi-directional parallaxed scrolling landscape.

1995 Colony
Colony Circa 1995


The game's other defining characteristic was its exploitation of the chroma noise side effect of the European C64's PAL screen output to yield additional colours beyond the standard 16 hue palette of the platform.

Sadly, I abandoned work on the game for personal reasons and drifted away from the C64 scene, not returning until several YouTube videos of new demos and, more importantly, a new game called Sam's Journey revived my interest.

It became clear to me that, albeit still a far cry from the huge market of its golden age, there nonetheless had now emerged a viable and vibrant retro market for the good old "Breadbox".

Before I knew it, I was back to the eyeballs in code, re-learning all the old registers and sifting through my old source code for my 1995 Colony.

Or, more accurately, an incomplete suite of source materials, given that all my sound effects and some other important parts were lost.

My initial aim was to develop a totally new fork of the project from the game's interrupt engine and call it Deep Winter (or Grand Teton).

But after examining the code to hand, I realised the quickest route to a finished game would be to renovate Colony and give it a 21st century makeover.

For me, that meant it must become (or make a good try at becoming) the C64 bar-raiser for shoot-em-ups that Mayhem in Monsterland (a game I still regard as the C64's pinnacle) was for platformers.

PROVISIONAL PREMISE / BACKSTORY

In the not-too-distant future, as the survivors recover from the turmoil of a catastrophic global war that left many regions of earth uninhabitable, a wealthy paramilitary group emerges from a fusion of disparate citizen militias to develop massive scale construction technologies with a view to capturing and transforming asteroids into habitable, safe haven micro planets in close proximity to earth.

This group, called the Directorate Of Terraformations (or simply "D.O.T.") is led by one known only as the Arch General, a very powerful but private individual.

In all, five such small planets are geo-engineered:

  1. Alpina, a forested, mountainous environment, where the Arch General and his circle like to hike and camp under the stars;
  2. Aridia, a dry, hot, dusty landscape where the boys like to ride their anti-gravity powered dirt bikes;
  3. Tropicali, a hot, wet, watery, island-strewn setting, designed to be stocked with fish and sailed around to soothe the psychological scars of the Terrible War that went before;
  4. Polariana, a cold, snowy world, a place to cool off and to enjoy some skiing;
  5. Mechanisia, the storage facility and de facto construction colony / repair shop for the other four microplanets.


All five planets are occupied by colonists from the D.O.T., along with highly advanced, human-looking, AI-powered androids known colloquially as the "DOTbots".

Whereas the role of the former is cultivation, research and recreation, the latter exist as the heavy-lifters, lifeless slaves of the Directorate.

All is well and functioning as designed until the DOTbots mysteriously malfunction and begin exhibiting erratic and aggressive behaviour.

Soon, each microplanet becomes overrun and the defensive systems designed to defend the colonists against outside assaults from rival technologically advanced survivors of the Terrible War are suddenly directed at the very people they were built to protect.

THE GAMEPLAY

Projected gameplay is built around the following key components:

  1. Air-to-air combat aka "dogfighting" - principally this entails the combative interactions between the player's plane and enemy aircraft, specifically Hunter-Killer drones and Backfire Raiders;
  2. Bombing of enemy ground installations and personnel, whilst avoiding "blue-on-blue" incidents against colonists' aircraft and damaging the environment as little as possible;
  3. Rescuing or physically assisting stranded colonists;
  4. On-the-ground combat, where the disembarked pilot must shoot and blast his way to his objectives and collect items that enable his mission to advance.


The game, therefore, is a bomb-em-up-shoot-em-up-collect-em-up, set amidst chaotic action taking its more frenzied cues from the hyperactive game for the Steam platform, Broforce.

Levels (i.e. microplanets) are not presented in a linear fashion, but rather are unlocked as cyphers are collected from the ground interactions.

Accordingly, the progression schema is as shown:

1995 Colony
Levels Schema


The player can start the game at either level 1 or level 2, but both must be completed to unlock the next two levels which, as before, can be played in either order.

Finally, the last level is unlocked when the player collects the cyphers from levels 3 and 4.

MERIT, NOT SCORES

I know I don't speak for everyone on this matter, but I really HATE scores on games.

I mean, it's just a number to convey a measure of your skill and success.

But why does it always have to be a number?

Wouldn't a rank with insignia be nicer, as per the screenshot below (taken from the last of my old mid-90s Colony demos)?

1995 Colony
Ratings Screen in 1995

MUSIC AND SOUND EFFECTS

Speaking of things I don't like - and I'm probably in a minority here - music in shoot-em-ups.

I want to hear the guns, the lasers, the explosions, the chaos, not have my mood manipulated with a sound track.

That means I envisage no in-game tunes, just filtered and ring-modulated sound effects which I am hoping to design on Audacity and then reverse-engineer into SID.

Having said that, I want title screen and "interstitial" music and have been working away composing the tracks in my weary head.

(Note: The old demos used a music score taken from a free-use disk; it was the least awful free tune out there at the time, but isn't close to what the new Colony requires).

Time will tell whether or not it will be good enough, but I'm currently up for it and have a very rigid and clear concept of how it should sound (hint: no arpeggio!!!)

GAMEPLAY PREVIEWS

To date, I have released only a few video clips of the gameplay - I have been more focussed on developing the game than showcasing it, but that is set to change as work on all the more difficult parts is completed and a playable demo is released (all being well).

The first video below (apart from displaying my early troubles with recording the clips!) shows the basic agility of the plane, the open top and bottom borders, the weapons selector (I use the space bar to switch between laser and bombs as the primary weapon), and the prototype blast effects when bombing enemy personnel on the ground.

The next clip shows some first draft air-to-air combat sequences with the Hunter-Killer drones, and also showcases the ostentatious explosions and respawning effects when the player's plane explodes.

It additionally highlights the shields indicator in the airspace indicator below the play area.

Finally the third video shows the laser flak harassing the player's plane and gives a bit of an early feel of the pandemonium that picks up as the plane flies away from the safety of its home base.

Note that the rest of the gauges are still not functional; because the instrumentation would be easy to implement and wasn't a high priority, I tackled the tougher programming challenges first.

HOW ARE THE OTHER LEVELS SHAPING UP?

Design work on the first level is at a very advanced state, since it's plainly derived from the old source material and serves as the development backdrop for the rewritten game core.

Level 2 in its incipient form actually has its own clip from old code patched together back in 1995; it doesn't do anything other than scroll a very basic, desert-like landscape on an infinite loop:

Level 2 is, however, being substantially altered.

Meanwhile levels 3, 4 and 5 remain in the concept art phase, in the form of the crude photo-editing software mock-ups shown below:

1995 Colony
Level 3 Concept Art: Splashy & Wet!



1995 Colony
Level 4 Concept Art: Cold is Gold



1995 Colony
Level 5 Concept Art: That won't be Easy!


Obviously, it ain't the prettiest and thus a lot of design work needs to be undertaken to get these rough ideas solidified into playable landscapes, plus nothing is yet set in stone with regard to the superlative look, but the key point is a basic outline exists which, for me, is a good foundation to build on at this stage.

WHAT ABOUT A NAME-CHANGE?

It was suggested to me that the name Colony, already having been claimed by an old commercial release as described earlier, should be replaced.

Personally, I had no objection to this and in fact, over the intervening years since the 1995 demo, I often drifted off to sleep at night while musing on possible new names for the game.

After many deliberations and musings, I finally decided to run with PARALLAXIAN, as it references the game's stunning parallax effects but is also redolent of some of the titles used in the golden age of 8-bit gaming, such as [i]Zaxxon[/i] or [i]Galaxian[i].

PAL ONLY?

Let me state this plainly now: this is a PAL-only release.

The reasons?

  • NTSC can't deliver the chroma noise colour-mixing forming the basis of the next generation graphics.
  • NTSC machines, though faster at displaying output (60Hz versus PAL's 50Hz), are slower at wading through the raster code and, since timings are tight on this game's raster engine, this just ain't gonna work.
  • NTSC is a small cut of the retro market, at least according to my inquiries.


A game as ambitious as this one, with the code, graphics, sound effects and hopefully the music too all being undertaken by one person isn't exactly a trivial matter to put together.

The workload, in other words, is vast as it is; altering it for another video output used by a minority system seems unjustifiable.

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATION

These are the game's key technical features:

  • Extensive use of non-standard colours using next generation graphics techniques.
  • Multi-speed, bi-directional, composite vertical-within-horizontal parallax scrolling (a C64 first!)
  • Multiplexed sprites, software sprites and "toggle-plexed" sprites. This is a spritey game.
  • NMI-based game engine as a countermeasure preventing ugly, legacy-era raster interrupt bad line artefact effects.
  • Possible IRQ-based secondary interrupt handling SFX and additional effects.

FORMATS & EXTRAS

As you may rightly have deduced, this isn't going to be a tape-loader.

Instead, I am projecting its availability on:

  • Disk (obviously)
  • Cartridge


I have no plans for any C128-in-C64 mode extras, even though I coded a special version of the old Colony demo that actually did that, just to take advantage of the extra speed the C128 imparts.

As for extras, I'm open to suggestions at this stage, even though I have some unique ideas in mind.

C64 GAMES THAT HAVE INSPIRED ME...

...Or rather, games that have played a major part in shaping my vision for Colony, would include:

  • Mayhem in Monsterland, for its full colour scrolling, its use of non-standard colours and its multi-level game world and concomitant polish.
  • Uridium, for its clean style, bi-directional scrolling and the subtle details, such as the ship's animation and the shadow it cast.
  • Choplifter, which gave me the idea for little men running around the landscape and for flags fluttering from friendly bases; but the game, despite being a classic, suffers from unsightly graphics design.
  • Dropzone, yet another bi-directional scrolling game adorned with many slick little touches, one of which is the rank it awards you with for your efforts; it's hard to play, though and suffers from era-typical monotony of gameplay.
  • California Games... Yeah, seriously. It was the first game I bought with parallaxed landscapes and the effect blew my mind at the time and sowed the seed for Colony's parallaxing.
  • Parallax, not for the parallax effects (which don't resembles those in Colony), but for the pilot being able to disembark from his craft and perform critical game actions on foot.
  • Deadline, by Philip Nicholson, for its bi-directional parallaxed scrolling landscape which, at the time, was pretty unusual.
  • Rescue on Fractalus, for its laser pillboxes on the hills, which may have subliminally inspired Colony's "chrome dome" laser pillboxes.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

This is plainly a huge project and won't be completed in a few weeks, despite the head start the old source code gave me.

To date, something like 95% or more of the original game logic has been rewritten from scratch, with the main interrupt engine also being refactored bar the scrolling routines for the top 3 layers of the landscape; the foreground layer has been converted from compact but slow loop code to bloated but very fast "speed code" to accommodate a full colour scroll capability.

Another example of successor code is the main interrupt engine replacing the old demo's IRQ with an NMI, and the sprites being handled and updated exclusively from that source rather than from the amateurish game loop method used in the old demos.

So, while it may be "Boy's Own" stuff putting this together, the workload is immense which means that at some point I may launch a Kickstarter to justify the full-time effort this stunning game (if I can say that about my own creation) needs if it is to mature into the commercial product it deserves to become.

And if Colony - or whatever it ends up being called - is the success I believe it can be, I would feel confident to proceed to fully develop the other jaw-dropping game built around the parallax scrolling engine: the mysterious and frankly beautiful, Deep Winter.


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