Sunday, November 27, 2016

Prized Gems: Highnoon (Commodore 64)

As it was originally composed, my Memory Bank file consisted mainly of a mile-long list that exhaustively cataloged the insane number of games that I was aiming to cover on this blog. I'd planned to write somewhere between, oh, 300-400 of these "memory"-themed pieces, it being my ultimate goal to document my history with just about every game that had ever meant anything to me. However, once I'd settled upon the existing long-form template and consequently decided that providing anything less than an extensive chronology was an insufficient means of conveying my message, it became clear to me that numerous entries would sadly have to be axed; in particular, I'd have to cut any of those games from which I knew I'd be unable to mine a suitable amount of interesting material.

What else could I do? I mean, it wasn't like "Oh, man, I sure played this game a whole bunch of times over the years!" was so compelling a statement that it could be convincingly fleshed out and somehow inflated to meet the requirements necessary to warrant the creation of a full-length piece! I'd find myself in a position where I had intimate knowledge of a game and how it played, and I'd recall deriving an immense amount of enjoyment from it, but the fact would remain that I just didn't have enough outstanding memories of the game to justify the effort. And that was too bad.

So instead I came up with a plan to cover them in a more-compact format called "Bite-Sized Memories," wherein I could share a quick story or two and leave it at that. I even went as far as to excitedly announce this plan in a few of my blog updates. However, try as I might, I could never fully warm up to the idea; I couldn't shake the feeling that it was entirely inadequate to afford these old favorites nothing more than three or four paragraphs worth of text and a handful of screenshots when I knew that they deserved so much more. For certain, they needed to have meaningful representation on a site that was all about the games that shaped who I was. It's just that I couldn't think of a way to fit them in.

It took me way too long to realize that the answer to my problem was staring me right in the face: the Treasure Trove. Including games of their ilk here made perfect sense when I asked myself, "Why should I reduce my history with a game down to a mere blip when I can instead replay it and discuss the measure of its impact in a space that's tailored specifically for quantifying every part of it?" 

And so I've created this "Prized Gems" category, within which I'll walk you through my old favorites, communicate their sentimental value, and generally share my experiences with you as though you were one of the old friends who I used to try to convince to play them!

I'm talkin' about games like Highnoon, which I'd play on a regular basis. (There's a bit of uncertainty as to whether the title is one word or two, but reputable sources suggest that it's the former. Though, I can come up with no valid explanation for why the developers would feel compelled to compound it. They couldn't have been concerned about copyright issues, since there were already a number of movies and television shows bearing the name High Noon, so I'll just assume that the project manager was a militant spacebar-denier.)

Our developer is Ocean Software, a British company that was quite ubiquitous during the early years of computer gaming. If you're an 80s kid from the UK, you can probably attest to the fact that the Manchester-based outfit was all over platforms like the Commodore 64, the BBC Micro and the ZX Spectrum. The company later refocused its efforts on publishing and to the rest of the world became more infamously known for its low-quality licensed NES releases.

But in its younger days, its were unique, endearingly simple creations like Highnoon.

Above all else, I'll always fondly remember Highnoon for its terrific title-screen theme, which was one of my favorite pieces of Commodore 64 music. It does a great job of acclimating your senses--of permeating Old West vibes throughout your surrounding space. And, well, you might as well get used to hearing it, because it's just about all the game has to offer in terms of musical accompaniment (save for the death and wave-ending ditties). But it's a damn good one--a lengthy digital arrangement of Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling, otherwise known as The Ballad of High Noon and the main theme of 1952's High Noon, the film from which the developers obviously drew inspiration.

For how its music instantly conjures up images of those Old West settings that were prevalent in so many of the movies and cartoons I enjoyed during my childhood years, Highnoon will forever be linked in my mind to Law of the West, whose title screen boasts a similarly evocative old-style Western composition. It also happens to be another one of my favorite Commodore 64 shooters! I consider them to be kindred spirits.

"That's all great, you prattling nit," you shout toward your monitor as you swing your hand around with agitated energy, "but what's this game actually about?" Well, relax, man--I'm gettin' there! Sheesh.

So Highnoon is an unapologetic arcade-style game, which, as I've explained in the past, is different from the arcade-like variety in that it eschews the values consistent with the latter (generous time-limits if not a complete lack of time constraints, extended health meters, an abundance of 1up opportunities, level-select options, and other conveniences normally associated with these home-platform offshoots) and instead looks to replicate the malicious, uncompromising difficulty of its coin-op brethren. So don't expect to find any mercy here. In Highnoon, it's "be skilled or get killed."

Highnoon is basically a single-screen shooter situated in the Old West. We're the sheriff of a small town, and we're tasked with halting crime waves as carried out by gangs of bandits that seek to rob the town of its riches. Our goal is to survive for as long as possible and accrue as many points as we can before inevitably biting the dust. If we hope to earn a high score, we'll have to gun down bandits as they appear--do whatever we can to prevent them from escaping with precious loot. Our only weapon is our gun, which we can fire in all eight directions; its ammunition is unlimited. Run out of lives and our sheriff will be retired permanently.

Stages are called "Waves," and you'll face five of them in total. That may sound like a paltry amount, yes, but know that Highnoon's waves are quite exhaustive, each potentially lasting several minutes. So there's more content here than you'd expect to find if you were merely going off of a description. Even then, the designers are able to flesh out the experience by offering 8 additional difficulty-levels, the next of which will naturally occur if you survive the current difficulty's initial five waves; otherwise you can cycle through them on the title screen by tapping either left or right on your controller. At higher difficulty levels, the bandits emerge at a quicker pace, and their rate of fire increases.

You start with three lives, and you'll earn an extra stock for every 2,500 points you earn. You can score big points--and pile up lives faster--by chaining together two or three kills within a short time-frame. You don't restart a wave from scratch if you die, but the game will penalize your failure by advancing time forward a bit.

"So you're only losing out on an opportunity to score more points?" you ask, wondering how at all this outcome is undesirable.

Well, because like I said: This is an arcade-style game! Earning the highest score possible should be your top priority! Why would you want to miss out on a chance to mow down all of those high-value targets?!

Honestly, I can't confirm whether or not Highnoon has an ending for view if you're able to endure through all nine difficulty-levels, because I've never personally managed to advance more than two. And as it was when I was a kid, I don't really care; I'm just happy to play it as long as I can before I ultimately succumb to the bandits' relentless onslaught. You know--like an arcade game! (From what I've seen in videos, there doesn't appear to be an ending scene; rather, the game abruptly returns you to the title screen.)

For convenience's sake, I'm going to be playing through Level 1, the easiest difficulty.

The 1st Wave on Level 1 is the most logical place to start if you want to explore Highnoon's core elements without being immediately overwhelmed. It's your standard introductory stage, its constrained pace offering a convenient opportunity to experiment with the shooting mechanics. The game's controls are admittedly stiff: The sheriff moves about sluggishly, and he can't fire his weapon while in motion; you'll want to use the wave's opening moments, when there's a drought of bandit activity, to acclimate yourself to this potentially uncomfortable control scheme. Be advised, though, that the bandits are bound by these same rules, so they have no mechanical advantage over you. Well, the grounded type, at least. More on this later.

Mainly, you'll want to take out as many bandits as you can and avoid getting yourself killed. The bandits, whose choice of garb color ranges all across the spectrum, gravitate toward two locations: the bank and the saloon, from which they'll look to plunder money and townswomen respectively. Bandits will cease firing if they're currently in possession of a money bag or a saloon employee and thus render themselves defenseless targets. However, it's in your best interest to take them out before they can ever encroach upon either location; that is, the sooner a bandit is sniped, the greater the point reward. You won't receive a penalty if a bandit escapes with his loot, but you'll rightfully feel bad about yourself.

Note that only three bandits can appear onscreen at once.

The graphics aren't amazing, sure--the buildings and their identifying features are crudely drawn--but I always found the game's visual presentation to be charming. The buildings' marquees bore simple text labels, yet each establishment was so memorably distinguishable to me: You had the jail with its sawtooth-patterned roof. Saucy Sue's rectangular, two-story Salloon with its yellow-picket-railed balcony. The bank (established in 1876!) with its triangular gable. The Rig + Mortis Undertakers (the name an obvious pun on rigor mortis) funeral home with what looked like paper-hat adornment. And the cutoff hotel/motel on the far left. I used to wonder about what the building on the far right was supposed to be; by matter of reduction, taking into account the types of services that were available in the Old West, I'd theorize that it was either a doctor's office or a blacksmith's shop.

Get used to this decor, too, since its static imagery is recycled for almost all of the waves in following.

A cool little touch that an undertaker emerges from the funeral home whenever a character is wasted and drags the departed victim back to his place of work. Litter the battlefield with corpses and watch him bustle as he hopelessly endeavors to keep up with the action. Sadly, neither the sheriff nor the bandits can shoot the undertaker, who, like the saloon's "workers," is apparently invincible! Oh, that doesn't mean that I didn't put a huge amount of effort into trying to find a way to drop him; I did so with the hope of creating a Spy Hunter "conga line" moment, where an endless stream of undertakers would pour out from the funeral home in a desperate attempt corral their fallen comrades. Alas, it wasn't possible.

Experimenting with Commodore 64 games in this manner was an important part of the experience for me--a big part of the fun!

Also, I liked to enter into the buildings, whose layers of dark space could be tread upon, and hide out there. Specifically, you're allowed to move about the innards of the funeral home, the bank, and the saloon, whose doors swing open as you pass through them, their swinging animation realistically winding down. Being indoors makes for good cover, since you're protected from damage, but the trade-off is that you can't fire your gun. Realistically there's no benefit to entering buildings; that you can simply makes for another one of those interesting little details that provides the game character.

It only takes me a few moments to recall my old strategy, which you should look to replicate: First, be mindful of the fact that the characters' hitboxes are limited to their head and upper torso areas. Adopt a strategy of keeping your distance and taking advantage of the fact that hitboxes are narrowly mapped. Basically, you'll want to position yourself somewhere around the stage's absolute-center portion and attempt to limit your horizontal movement. If a bandit comes in from above, start firing diagonally upward toward the area through which you expect him to pass; if one of them comes in from below, wait until his hat reaches about waist-level and fire straight ahead. Positioned as such, you'll be practically untouchable during this first wave; the bandits will simply wander directly into your hail of bullets. There are no ammo limitations, and the sheriff can fire pretty rapidly, so there's little reason not to spam bullets.

The wave will draw to a close once a number of bandits have appeared and the undertaker has finished piling the deceased into the funeral home. Once the grounds are clear, you'll engage in a Bonus Draw--a tense duel--against a darkly clad bandit who I assume to be the ringleader of this particular invading group. To win, you'll have to react on prompt fire a shot the moment the bandit's gun becomes visible; you'll need fairly quick reflexes if you hope to respond in time. Though, the encounter is nothing you should sweat over. There's no real penalty for losing; rather, you simply miss out on a chance to score some big bonus points.

I find that my reflexes have sharpened quite a bit since I was a kid. The younger me was likewise fast of finger but altogether shaky when it came to reaction-based challengers. I'd often psyche myself out and react to soon, almost jumping out of my chair as I'd excitedly pound the attack button in response to imagined stimuli. Maybe I was drinking too much soda. Or perhaps I was emotionally disturbed.

Whatever the case, I've since learned how to focus my energy.

The light challenge of Wave 1 is merely a set-up. The difficulty spikes significantly from this point on. Oh, the action at the start may play out somewhat similarly, but inevitably a new threat will be introduced: bandits on horseback. In comparison to their grounded gangmates, horse-assisted bandits move swiftly across the battlefield, and they can fire at any time and without warning; instances of their proliferation, and indeed all of the stages in which they appear, will potentially lead to a rapid decrease in stock--particularly if they keep riding in from unfavorable spawn points. That is, keeping your distance from them isn't a matter of choice, since a poorly positioned sheriff, with his lethargic movement-speed, will have little time to react to their arrival. Ideally, you'll want to be positioned slightly above them so that your firing hand is lined up with their heads; this places you somewhere in between their available shooting angles.

My strategy is to get as close to a horse's head as possible and fire diagonally at its rider; this is a riskier tactic, but it tends to produce better results. Considering the speed at which horses move, there's no guarantee that a ranged shot will reach a passing target in time, and you may be left vulnerable if you miss. 

Otherwise, it's best to hope that it's one of those cycles wherein the bandit chooses not to fire at all.

It should be noted that our right-handed sheriff doesn't switch shooting hands when he changes direction. I appreciate that the designer took the time to draw unique sprites for each left-facing pose rather than choosing to cheap out and simply mirror the original set. But this turns out to be more than just an aesthetic touch; it has a significant effect on how gunplay is handled: It changes the release-point of a diagonally fired bullets when it's shot from a left-facing position, so you'll to calculate how the slight change in distance will affect its trajectory. The sheriff's safe zone is reduced in size when he encounters bandits who enter from the west, so you'll have to remain more vigilant when exchanging diagonal gunfire with them--avoid standing in place after releasing a shot and shift over to the right, which will help to minimize the chance that his hitbox's lower edge will be nicked by return fire.

Interestingly, as I was just reminded, bandits can accidentally kill each other! A green-garbed miscreant managed to take out one of his horse-riding buddies from all the way across the screen! This is just an observation, of course. In no way am I suggesting that could, or should attempt to, willfully replicate this occurrence, since doing so carries too much risk. Voluntarily maneuvering yourself into the line of fire is never a good idea in Highnoon.

Wave 3 adds a little spice to the formula: Before turning his focus to the buildings up above, a freshly arriving bandit will first aggressively pursue the sheriff with malicious intent. When he draws to within a certain range, he'll drop a stick of dynamite onto the ground and then quickly flee in the opposite direction. The dynamite will explode approximately two seconds later, leaving the sheriff little time to shift away from its damaging net, which spreads out over a ridiculously large area though the explosion's animation can be perceived to be relatively contained. I'd say that the attack's deadly net reaches as far as twelve pixels away in all directions.

I forgot to explain how the "Bonus Points" system actually works. So let's see here: You're awarded a fixed number of bonus points for every bandit you kill. The number grows progressively as you advance: You receive 10 points per victim in Wave 1, 20 points per victim in Wave 2, and so on. The game's even nice enough to supply you some free bonus points to start each wave--again progressively: 100 points for Wave 1, 200 for Wave 2, etc. And all of the bonus points accrued during a wave will be added to your score if you're able to outduel the ringleader during the Bonus Draw.

Good deal, huh?

Wave 4 throws in a new wrinkle: bandits that briefly appear in the buildings' windows, Hogan's Alley-style. There's no pattern to their emergence; they can show up randomly at any location. Also, they fire instantly--almost before their character sprites fully come into view--and with a greater degree of accuracy. If anything, this mechanic works to add an element of paranoia. since you'll have to remain vigilant even when the battlefield is bereft of normally functioning bandits.

In particular, choosing to hang around the stage's top portion for an extended period will reveal itself to be an ever-more-dangerous strategy, since there's no chance that you'll be able to react in time to a shot fired by a proximate window-lurking bandit. You can't kill bandits of their variety, anyway, so there's absolutely no advantage to lingering up top.

The main problem is that they tend to appear outside of your field of vision, when your attention is focused elsewhere, and fire off shots that you likely won't see coming. Also, the action is generally hectic at this point, so there's a strong chance that the sniping bullet will be obscured by explosions, galloping horses, the busy undertaker, and the standard bandit activity.

If you're lucky, the entire wave will elapse without a single window-lurker appearing. But don't count on this happening; instead, stay alert, remain in control of your senses, and try to keep the battlefield as clear as possible.

Wave 5 is the finale. The most immediately obvious difference is that it's the only wave to feature a unique setting--a mountain range with a cave carved into it. This is the bandits' hideout, and we've come here to cut off the crime wave's direct source. That's right: We're taking the fight to them!

There are no treasures for them to plunder here, so they'll instead be focusing their undivided attention on our pencil-necked sheriff. Also, the action is boiled down to brass tacks; there are no tricks this time (no horses, dynamite or sneak attacks)--just straight gunplay between the sheriff and a murderous bandit horde.

The bandits pour in from all directions--from the cave entrance (into which the sheriff can't tread, sadly) and the screen's borders--and in larger numbers than before (the simplified background graphics combined with the dearth of activity obviously freed up enough memory to allow for a greater object limit). So there's the potential to become completely overwhelmed if you're not quick to gun down a bandit the moment he arrives onscreen. Generally the bandits aggressively pursue the sheriff, though, strangely, some of them will elect to meander around for a bit before simply wandering off. There ain't no gunfight exciting enough for the disaffected, I guess.

There's no undertaker to corral the fallen bandits, so their corpses pile up on the battlefield.

"Surely there'll be processor overload if this keeps up," you logically deduce.

Well, actually, Wave 5 flows differently in that it tosses a large group of bandits your way and draws to a close only when six corpses are visible. In short: The quicker you act to dispose of them, the more abruptly the wave will end. Accomplish as much and you'll face off against the ringleader in a final Bonus Draw.

And that's it. There's no congratulatory message. No static image of a sheriff riding off into the sunset. No ending scene in which he celebrates with the townsfolk. Nothin'. Rather, the game simply loops you back to Wave 1 and automatically raises the difficulty by one level. And then it's up to you to keep on playing--keep on padding that score!

Hey--what else were you expecting? It is an arcade game, after all!

And that right there, pardner, is Highnoon, one of my ol' Commodore 64 favorites. It doesn't feature a massive amount of content, no, but a game of its type doesn't need to. It has a single job: perpetuate a wonderfully simple idea and therein provide the player the incentive to return again and again. The point is that you become so enamored with what's there that you can't help but come back for more--lovingly dissect every mechanic as you endeavor to develop greater skill and improve your high score. That's what Highnoon does for me. It's just pure arcade fun!

Whenever I get on one of those nostalgic Commodore 64 kicks every couple of years or so, I'm always sure to pay a visit to Highnoon, whose finest qualities, from its evocative main theme to its satisfying shooting action, work in harmony to remind me why I so adore its platform of origin and games that carry the spirit of arcades.

In truth, the Commodore 64's library is loaded with games that fit the above description, and I've been lucky enough to have lifelong access to a great many of them. And you can bet that I'll be covering a whole bunch of these prized gems on this blog! The way things have worked out for the site, I don't have any excuse not to.

Until then, clip on that sheriff's badge, tighten that duty belt, and keep that revolver at the ready, 'cause you've got some bandit-huntin' to do, son. So get to it.

And don't let me catch you slackin' now, ya hear?

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