On The Run – GameHammer episode 19

Some games stick with you forever from the first moment you play them. Other games pass you by entirely, unplayed and (mostly) unwanted. The last type of game is one you pick up, play for a while, then forget about because there’s nothing to grab you in it. Which category a game falls into is partly down to luck, but mostly due to just how much planning and effort the developers actually put into it.

Let’s see which category On The Run falls into.

I first came across On The Run on the cover tape for Amstrad Action issue 85. As was typical at that point in time, the cover tape was a secondary concern; the magazine itself was the real draw because it was just so damn good. So what usually happened was I would put the tape in my CPC 464, shove a blank 3″ disk in the floppy drive and then read the magazine while the tape copied all its data to the disk.

I would usually get about half way through the magazine before the copying process was finished, at which point I’d give that month’s free software a try. If the software was good, the rest of the magazine got read the next day. If it wasn’t that good, the magazine got read that night.

Issue 85 was read that night.

The thing is, On The Run isn’t bad per se, it’s just that there’s nothing more than a couple of hours’ play time in it. It’s a large game – it boasts 300 rooms – and there’s a lot in it to keep you occupied while you’re playing, it’s just that there’s not a lot of staying power to it. Once you’ve seen a couple of screens, you’ve essentially seen the entire game. Every screen is more of the same, with little variety; and the 300 rooms feels like nothing more than a shallow attempt to make the game seem like it’s bigger than it really is. Because let’s face it, you could fill any game with 300 levels but if they are 300 of the same level, you’re still going to feel pretty cheated.

If that sounds harsh, it’s not meant to – not entirely, anyway. It has to be remembered that this game retailed at £1.99. It’s a budget release, and a fairly early one at that – the game came out in 1985; the year after the Amstrad CPC 464 launched. Budget games, especially at this time, weren’t the all-singing, all-dancing mega hits of the day (although that changed later on, when some budget-only companies started to take games more seriously).

So in many respects, the way to review this game comes down to asking “is there enough here to justify the £2 cover price in 1985?”. Probably, yes – but only just. There’s the fact that each time you play the game, the items are in different locations; which makes every play through unique. However, you’ll quickly notice that the “random locations” for each item actually appear to be hard-coded. It’s not that an item can appear anywhere, it’s more that which item appears where is randomly decided; and sometimes the random number generator can decide that no item appears at a certain spot. So yes, each play is unique but it’s uniqueness within strict constraints.

Then there’s the issue of colour. The ZX Spectrum is the original development computer for this game, and its colour palette is notoriously limited. The game gets around this with large, bold sprites and a nice use of colour when you come into contact with an enemy – both you and the enemy turn red; which eliminates colour clash. It’s simple but it’s effective.

When most companies port a game to the CPC from the Spectrum, they do it the lazy way: they link the two machines, share machine code in memory and make the smallest number of tweaks to to the code to make the game work on the CPC, and that’s it. It’s cheap, it’s nasty and it gave the Amstrad a very bad name, because these Speccy Ports almost universally sucked. Sometimes I wish the CPC hadn’t used the wonderfully adaptable Zilog Z80 as its CPU, just to stop this from being possible.

On The Run doesn’t do this. It’s a Speccy Port, yes, but it’s done properly. The CPC’s enhanced colour palette is used very nicely, as are its ability to handle colours properly on screen. We get a much more colourful, much more expressive looking game. It’s also a game that is tweaked to run at high speed on the CPC – the game plays very well in that respect. We even got more sounds than on the Spectrum version; although there’s still no music in the game (but it’s a budget game for £1.99, so we can let that slide).

In other words, there’s a lot to like about this little old game. It’s one of those rare examples of a Speccy Port done right, and in the face of so much dross that would come along in the years after its release, that makes it stand out. So if you get the chance, give this one a try. It’ll entertain you for a few hours, and that’s all you can really ask of it.