Saturday 10 December 2011

Oil's Well

There's nothing I hate more than crazed trade unionists disrupting my Friday night TV viewing schedule. I spy an opportunity to return the favour.

It's Oil's Well, a 1983 computer game by Sierra On-Line, demonstrating how complex machinery and robotics can replace the working man. Where's the GMB now?! Though... I guess you could be part of the team who builds the machines... and I guess you don't tend to send humans underground to extract oil anyway, so this complex and poorly thought-through political reference is a bit redundant. Still, no reason to postpone that episode of QI, and maybe if he watched it, Chuka Umunna would develop a sense of humour.

"But Squirrel", you cry, "I thought this was released in 1984", and yes, you're right, this one was. And "this one" is the DOS version, because I felt I needed more blurry composite video screenshots in my life. I find it to be quite interesting technology, and this is a version that's easy to get ahold of online. I hope you're counting the references by the way.

Oil's Well is a game I ran into accidentally, as is often the case when browsing the delights of YouTube. It's a industry-flavoured clone of Anteater, a 1982 arcade game that nobody remembers. Oil's Well likely has a stronger following as it spread its wings across numerous home computers of the day, as well as onto video game consoles such as the Colecovision. It also returned to DOS computers in 1990, sporting VGA graphics and cutscenes, but that's another story.

The basic premise of Oil's Well is similar to Pac-Man, except you start at the top of screen and are attached to an extending pipe. You have to make your way underground and suck up oil, possibly to fuel a Volvo XC90, but it's not that simple - your pipe connecting you to the surface is vulnerable, and if it is touched by an enemy, you'll die. To compensate, you can retract yourself at any time, and you don't need to rely on power pellets to suck up enemies too.

You can move in any direction, but if your extending pipe is blocking the path you'll have no choice but to retract to avoid getting stuck. And predictably as the game progresses enemies spawn more often, adding to the challenge. You'll also encounter un-suckable bombs that need to be avoided at all costs (unless they spawn on the first "row", because then they're unavoidable. I hope that's an error exclusive to this version.).

Often you'll find yourself losing lives for not completing stages within 100 seconds, which is equally tedious, but there is a powerup that allows you to slow down your enemies and get revenge. I suspect the trick is to complete the deeper sections first, as the game forces you to spend a lot of the time at the top of the field defending yourself.

This DOS version won't win any awards. It'll run freakishly fast on a modern computer and certainly isn't much of a looker (though it's nicer on the eye than some of its cousins). There's an odd control scheme in place in which both starting the retraction process and stopping it is done by pressing space (and by that I mean you'll have to press it twice - you can't hold the key down to retract and release it to stop like you might expect). I would imagine you're better off with another version of the game, but don't worry, there's quite a few.

I think this is game worth checking out. You'll probably have more fun with the 1990 version but I was feeling a bit more retro today. I found 300-ish CPU cycles with DOSBox delivers the optimum experience, though you'll have to speed it up again to deal with the long level introduction screens. As with many DOS games of this era it was built with a specific IBM PC setup in mind and doesn't cope well when faced with better equipment, but it's still playable. Provided you don't opt for this version, it's definitely a game I could recommend.

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