Time Bandit

Atari Play field – Atari ST games #1 : Michtron.

Note: (This article was originally written by me – Jeff Fulton – in 2009 for the Retrogaming Times online magazine. The article does not show up anywhere in their archives anymore, so to make sure it is not lost forever, i am putting it here again. It might lead to new articles about ST games)
Atari Play field – Atari ST games #1 : Michtron.

This series of articles will specialize in chronicling the history of games for both the Atari 8-bit and ST (as well as STE, TT, and Falcon) line of computers. In this edition we will cover the very early ST game developer, Michtron.  The goal is to eventually cover all of the major and many of the smaller (some forgotten) releases along the way. Where I can find interviews with the developers and original magazine converge I will make sure to at least quote them to give some context to the games. Finally, if possible, I will re-play each game via emulation and discuss how they stack up with my memories, other games on the system, and games of the era in general.

I was and have always been an Atari guy. My twin brother, Steve, and I grew up with Atari machines and progressed from the 2600 to the 800 (and 800xl) then the  7800, 520 ST (and 1040),  Lynx, and Jaguar. Along the way, we were especially taken with the computers and had huge collections of games (most of them purchased, but a few by nefarious means) for both machine families. We purchased the Atari 520 ST in early 1987 and after the shops in the USA stopped carrying an array of decent games (late 1988), we switched to the import stores and found 16-bit gaming Nirvana from the shores of Europe.

Although the ST line of computers would see its peak popularity in Europe between 1988 and 1992, they were actually quite popular in the USA upon their launch in late 1985.  Many early games were produced for the 520 and 1040 machines from 1985 – 1988. For the first few months of the ST’s life, the games of Michtron (based in Michigan) were some of the only titles available. These games took full advantage of the ST machine’s powerful 16-bit capabilities, and some were nothing more than 8-bit games with a new coat of colorful paint.   In 1986, Time Bandit, Major Motion,  and Mud Pies were first titles  I remember seeing discussed in magazines such as Antic, Analog, and Atari Explorer.  Enticed by the look of these games, and by the need to move on to a next generation computer system, we sold all of our Atari 800 computer gear in late 1986.  Even with the fire sale, we did not scrape together all of the cash needed for the system right away. With the hope of some birthday money in January 1987, we planned  to purchase a system and make our 16 bit gaming dream a reality (a 520 ST with Mono monitor that hooked up to the TV for color games).  With a month or two lag in between computers (and games obviously) we had ample time to read over every magazine article and advertisement for available ST games. The name Michton was everywhere then from the start, so we will start there too…

Michtron published and distributed many games over the course of its short history. The company was initially named Computer Shack, but rumor has it that they changed the name after pressure from Radio Shack in 1984. Founded in 1982 by high school friends, Gordon Monnier and Bill Dunlevy to market Bills TRS-80 and Sanyo targeted game titles, they would expand to other platforms soon after. The most notable game in the early years was a very well respected TRS-80 classic called Time Bandit (more below) which would be translated to the Atari ST and Amiga a few years later.  Bill was very taken with the capabilities of the new 16-bit computers and in 1985 decided to translate some of his games to that Atari ST and then solicit and market games from other like-minded developers.   Michtron became affiliated with UK based Microdeal in 1987 to co-market and distribute each others games (especially as the State-side market for ST games started to dry up). Microdeal produced a number of good ST games (and will be featured in a later article). Michtron moved on to create some very well respected Atari ST development tools, but declining sales in the USA and eventually the UK led to its demise and was sold to Creative Computer Corp in 1991.

Now, on to the Atari ST games from Michtron.

Flipside (1985) by Ken Olson and Phil Hollyer

Flipside was one of the first ST games of any kind. It was a very simple Othello / Reversi variant.  This was one of the first commercial ST games to make use of the GEM interface (or a color mouse-based interface of any kind).

Flipside

(Flipside in the STEEM Emulator)

Re-play in Steem: Flipside is exactly as I remember it – a low-res version of the classic Othello game. There is no sound, but it plays a very good game and is a challenge to beat at the higher skill levels. There is nothing fancy here, but for one of the first games ever created on the system, it holds it place in time very nicely.

Grade: C+
Many better games would follow in later years, but this classic is still one that I would play today.

What the media said back then:
From Antic Magazine (Feb 1986) Review: “Flipside plays a formidable game. It beat me most of the time, at the lowest skill levels. And I’ve been playing Othello for several years.”

From Computer Gaming World (Jan/Feb 1986): “Flip Side, also from Michtron, which is a competent implementation of Othello for one or two players. It’s also the only game that works with both the color and monochrome monitors”

Major Motion (1985) by Jeffrey Sorensen and Phillip MacKenzie

Major Motion was a very well done version of the arcade classic Spy Hunter. It was controlled using the mouse (a mistake that would not be duplicated in many future ST action games).  Basically, you race your car up the screen (with the mouse?), collect bonus weapons (by docking with an equipment van – ala Spy Hunter and Knight Rider) and blow other cars away.

Back in the day: We had a copy of this game. I’m pretty sure it was one of the first titles we purchased for the machine. This game was lacking in the visual department, but played very well I remember being very happy to have a Spy Hunter clone for our shiny new 520 ST.

Major Motion

(Major Motion in the STEEM Emulator)

Re-play in Steem: Like almost all Michtron games, Major Motion used the mouse. That version was virtually unplayable via emulation because acceleration was very difficult to emulate properly. I found a Joystick (a later re-released version) on an Automation compilation. There is something funny about this version also. Many early ST games used the mouse port for joystick control. That means the player had to unplug the mouse and plug in a stick to play. It took me a few minutes to realize this because I had forgotten all about it. When the ST had its “hay day”, in the late 80’s, very few games made  this mistake. 99% of ST games used port 1, not port 0. Anyway, this is a nice little game with competent visuals (more colorful than Spy Hunter on the Atari 8-bits) and very fun to play.

Grade: B-
It looks dated now, but plays a mean game. The racing, shooting, and docking action is all there and I had a nice few minutes playing this once again. The sound fx are only passable, but the (mutable) music score is very well done.  It has better visuals than Mudpies and actually looks like it could be a 16-bit game rather than an 8-but re-tread.

What the media said back then:

From Computer Gaming World (Jan/Feb 1987): “However, this leads me to an ethical dilemma. I like the game, but it is, strictly speaking, about 80% a thinly-disguised copy of Spy Hunter and 20% unique material.”

Mudpies (1985) by Jeffrey Sorensen and Phillip MacKenzie

I remember this as being the first commercial game for the ST of any kind advertised in Antic and Analog magazines. It was a pretty simple 8-bit game that seemed to have been re-skinned and placed on the ST. The action is pretty good – run around the screens, throwing pies (Food Fight style) at clowns.  The game has also seems like a slow moving Robotron, and didn’t really show off the audio/visual capabilities of the machine.

Back in the day: We had this title, but I don’t think we purchased it. Either it was a legit copy that we borrowed or it was a copy (sorry Jeff and Phil). I don’t remember playing it very often, but I do remember being frustrated with the controls and not really being blown away by the visuals. I think even back then I thought it looked like an ugly C64 game.

mudpies

(Mudpies in the STEEM emulator)

Re-play in Steem:  It was actually pretty difficult to get this game to work properly in Steem. No matter what I did I couldn’t figure out how to get the Joystick to work. Then I pushed the mouse by accident and my player ran in the direction pushed…OH YEAH!  This was one of several early games that relied on the ST mouse for input. The game plays pretty well actually with this control configuration. Now that I play Mudpies once again, I actually find it fun and quite good. The graphics are not very pretty, but there are some fun animations and the music tune (which can be turned off) didn’t detract from the game.   It actually reminded me of a colorful Apple IIe game  and is a combination of Berzerk / Robotron and Food Fight.

Grade: C+
While it doesn’t look very pretty, it’s action packed and combines elements from two of my favorite games: Food Fight and Berzerk

What the magazines said back then:
From Antic Magazine (Feb 1986) Review: “Mudpies essentially takes no advantage of the power of the ST. In fact, were it released for the 8-bit Atari, I’d be disappointed. It looks very much like a game designed for an 8-bit that was quickly transferred to the 68000 machine to reach a software-starved market. ”

From Computer Gaming World Magazine (Jan/Feb 1986): “It’s competently programmed but as forgettable as dozens of microcomputer arcade games; buy it only if you have the money to burn.”

Time Bandit (1986) by Harry Lafnear and  Bill Dunlevy

Time Bandit was a action adventure maze-based scrolling shooter that too often has been mistaken as a Gauntlet clone (it was actually based on an arcade machine called Tutankham) .  In fact, it even pre-dates Gauntlet, having been a TRS-80 (and Sanyo) game in 1982. Even though the graphics are relatively simple (but well done), the game play and action in this title was some of the first to show off the capabilities of the new Atari machines.

The goal in each of the 16 beautifully crafted lands is to collect artifacts and BLOW STUFF UP! The lands vary in theme through various recognizable time periods, such as Ghost Towns and Egyptian ruins. You start with 14 lives and receive an extra after you collect 1000 cubits. You can earn the Cubits by solving puzzles, collecting artifacts, and shooting stuff – like snakes and hilarious rolling eye balls.  There is even a level that contains an entire text adventure to play through.

Back in the day: After reading about this game for months, it was one of the first titles we purchased from the old Software Etc in a mall (remember those?). I must have played this game for days on end. The colorful graphics and humorous sprites made the game very enjoyable to play.

Time Bandit

(Time Bandit in the STEEM emulator)

Re-play in Steem:  When you first boot up Time Bandit you realize that a lot of time was spent creating this quality title. It’s for one or two players (each can use a joystick) and player one uses the port one stick (or joystick 2). No fiddling with the mouse for a single player game – the way the games were meant to be played on the ST!  Everything in the game still has an slight 8-bit feel to it (compared to later 16-bit games), but the sheer quantity of animations and sprites, as well as the colorful presentation could not have been done on any machine before the 16-bits were introduced. You will have a blast running around, Gauntlet-style, blowing up all of the enemies, but the game has more to it also. I still love blowing up those rolling eye-balls, and the adventure elements make it a must play for anyone who missed it the first time around.

Grade: B+
It has very pretty early 16-bit (more like colorful 8-bit visuals). The scrolling is masterful for this early in the ST life. There were later games (Great Giana Sisters, etc) that couldn’t figure out how to do what the Michtron guys did with barely a decent dev kit.  The quality of American Atari ST games was high at the beginning, and it is a shame that no more than a few handfuls of good games were created released for the system in the USA.  More importantly, the game is FUN, and should be played by anyone who enjoys the genre of games.

What the interviews and magazines said:
From a Atarilegend.com interview with Harry Lafnear,  “Actually, the game was originally called “Pharaoh” and was heavily based on the arcade game, Tutankham..”

From Antic Magazine (Oct 1986)  review: ” it will be the ST arcade game by which all others are measured for some time to come. ”

Time Bandit Box

Time Bandit Box

The Original Time Bandit Artwork, Courtsey of Richard Davey, www.atari.st
Notice that this version is from microdeal and is the UL version of the game.

8 ball (1985) By Stanley Crane

This was one of the first physics based sports titles for the machine. I remember playing it quite a bit and have the Entertainer song from the title screen firmly implanted in my brain. This title is well done, but limits the player to just one game of pool (8-Ball).

8ball

8ball

(8-Ball in the STEEM emulator)

Re-play in Steem:   The “Entertainer” chip tune is very well done and the physics of the pool action are modeled nicely (especially for the early date of this title). Everything is pretty small graphics-wise but colorful, and since I am not much of a pool player (darts and Foosball are my bar games), I may not be the best judge of the accuracy of the action.

Grade: B
It looks nice, it plays nice, but there certainly were much better looking pool sims that came after.  It is a very well done early ST game that used the 16-bit processor and might have been a stretch to re-produce on even the best 8-bit machines.

What the magazines said:
From Antic Magazine (Mar 1987): (In comparison the another pool game called ST Pool) “Overall, 8-Ball has the most realistic action, although even it falters a bit when the cue ball goes crashing into a pack of closely-clustered balls. ”

Tanglewood (1988) By Ian Murray-Watson and Pete Lyon (Later to be published by Microdeal also)

I don’t remember playing this one much (if at all). It involves you taking control of 5 robots on an alien planet by remote control to solve problems and puzzles. The game screen is made up of controls, switches, and other devices to monitor and program the robots. The story involves you helping your uncle reclaim mining rights (for Dog Crystals and Ice Emeralds) on a strange planet (Tanglewood). The game is long and complex and very little of it is explained in the thin manual. This was one of the last games we ever purchased from a normal USA software store for the ST. (The actual last one was copy of Phansasie III that we had to order from Software Etc because they no longer had an ST section). I remember being both enchanted and pissed off at the game. The graphics were outstanding, but the control and the puzzles (especially right from the outset) were frustrating to say the least.

Tanglewood

Tanglewood

 

(Tanglewood in the STEEM emulator)

Re-play in Steem:  FAIL! I failed to get this game working in Steem the first time around and had to consult Richard Davey, who runs The Little Green Desktop, for some assistance. He provided me with a working version of Tanglewood, the docs, and the beautiful screen shop above (in Vista?). The game is complicated, but I had a fun 30 minutes trying it out. More time will be needed to really delve into this one.

Grade: B+ – The game is very well done and warrents a lot of time spent replaying. The graphics and animation are very well done and anyone interested in GOD style games or strategic puzzlers should yake a look.

What the magazines said:
From ST-Log Magazine (Feb 1989): ” Tanglewood is a great, sprawling, complex complex? that utilizes 700K of graphics. It’s all mouse, not one keyboard poke. The animation is faultless, smooth as this page; but it’s the detail that’ll knock your socks askew. If the colorful graphics don’t get you, the multiple sound effects will. They’re superb, from the underwater gurgles to the mobile motors.”

From Antic Magazine (June 1988): “Ultimately, the game becomes a search in which you try to locate objects and use them properly. Tanglewood can confuse, and possibly challenge, you for days to come.

 Lands Of Havoc (1985)
Contrary to popular (well, some popular belief) Lands of Havoc is not a Michtron game, but the first ever UK Atari ST game by Microdeal. It was produced by Microdeal’s in-house wizard, Steve Bak (Gold Runner, Leather Neck, James Pond, etc).  It is unclear exactly when this game was distributed by Michtron in the USA, if at all. I never had a legitimate copy, but did have a pirate version. It was an ambitious, maze-based, 2000 screen shooter (a C64 conversion).  It didn’t take advantage of any of the ST machine’s 16-bit power, but holds its place in time as certainly one of the first, if not the first commercial game for the system in the UK. We will cover it in more detail in the next ST edition as we explore various other ST games from 1985 – 1987.

Other Michtron Games (some distributed by Michtron but developed by other companies). Some of these will be covered  in detail in later articles.
– Cards (1986) by J. Weaver Jr. – A selection of solitaire card games
– Perfect Match (1986) by Mark Nelson – An educational game.
– Techmate Chess (1986) by Szabo Software
– Gold Runner II (1988) by Microdeal (Alex Herbert, David Whittaker, John Dower, Martin Kenwright) – A sequel to Microdeal’s Gold Runner, but a very different game.

That’s all for this month. Next time we will switch over  to the Atari 800 and look at the early launch titles as well as a couple Atari Program Exchange games.  We’ll be back to the ST the following month, still sifting through the early years.

Jeff Fulton runs www.8bitrocket.com with his twin brother, Steve. The site specializes in tutorials and articles on programming optimized retro style games for the Flash platform. It also features retro game reviews, stories, and features.  The “Atari Playfield” name is a tribute to the long running series of articles with the same name in the wonderful, but sadly now defunct USA based magazine, Computer Gaming World. They covered Atari computer games from 1981 – 1986, but sadly stopped all but spot coverage (if any) in the following years. Still, they held out with Atari computers coverage longer than most multi-format magazines before finally moving on.

Special Thanks To Richard Davey of www.atari.st. He provided invaluable help with this first part of the series and I am sure will help out a lot in the future. If this has piqued your interest in Atari ST games, please visit his wonderful site, The Little Green Desktop (www.atari.st).

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