Wednesday 17 November 2010

Billy the Kid Returns

Well... this is bad.

Billy the Kid Returns, another remnant from my DOS-based childhood. It was developed by a company known as "Alive Software", but trust me, this one's better off dead. Billy the Kid is a prime example of a truly poor and flimsy title worth the time of no man.

So lets spend some time finding out why!

There's never been a time where I've considered Billy the Kid Returns to be a "great" game. Even as a youngling I'd always considered the game to be "average" (though with no genuinely bad games to compare it to, I'm not sure how I arrived at that conclusion), but it's only in later life that I've realised how terrible this game truly is. It's still not the worst piece of programming out there, but considering it was released in 1994, in the days of post Doom DOS games, Sega Saturns, Sony PlayStations and a huge array of quality fourth-generation video game titles, you can't help but arrive at the judgement that this game underperforms by leaps and bounds.

Like many DOS games of the day, BtKR exists in two forms - a free "shareware" version of the game, with a limited number of levels, and a full version, which... is full. I'm lucky enough to have the full version on disk, though seeing as I lack a floppy drive these days, I'm having to make do with the free version for now. Demos of the full game's levels will appear if you wait long enough though... so you can get a glimpse of the stuff you're missing.

The shareware version of the game includes a grand total of three levels (out of ten), though as with most levels in Billy the Kid, each has a slightly different goal and gameplay style. Some attempt to be 2D platformers, others top-down shooters, and predictably the levels in the shareware version of the game are the least fun. I seem to remember the first level, for example, being the only stage in the game I never completed as a child because it was so dull. Not a great idea to stick it in the first slot... or in the game at all for that matter.

BtKR breaks most of the rules of game construction but we'll get onto the specifics in a minute. The premise is that you play as western "legend" Billy the Kid, doing... stuff... for... some reason. It loosely follows 15-year-old Billy the Kid's story but generally I can't help but feel things would be a little nicer for the child if he didn't go around shooting everything that moves. There is an option to turn off guns, however, so... uh... that might solve some problems?

The big issue with Billy the Kid above all else, is the graphics. They're incredibly poor for the most part, with sloppy animations, badly drawn objects and coupled with an unneeded fascination for gradients. But at least you're not given a false sense of hope by the cover art, which is as equally poor and uninteresting.

I've mentioned before that I believe this sort of tackiness filters down to the wonders of the VGA graphics standard. PC game artists were once trained in having to deal with 16 colours on screen, and this made them focus heavily on the details to make the maximum use of the graphical power available. But give a newbie 256 colours to choose from, and he'll ignore all of this, essentially painting a picture rather than spriting a game. Had BtKR been built for EGA (or CGA) machines, this mish-mash of graphical garbage would have been avoided. But the artists were spoiled and inevitably produced half-baked garbage. Or were blind. Your call.

For those worried I'm focusing on the now "anti-Nintendo" policy of graphics, the gameplay doesn't make up for any of the letdowns. The plus side is that the game is playable... sort of. The jumping is very stiff, and I'm not a fan of the floppy physics which have you and your enemies jump around aimlessly, but it's manageable... just.

The AI tends to cheat a bit, and despite having health, most things will kill Billy straight away. But one thing you can't really fault is the variation between levels. Some have Billy go on a side-scrolling adventure, others, top-down. It tries to be a decent game, and succeeds where Alive Software's other works have failed, but simply isn't up to the expected standard of a game released in the mid-1990s.

Other problems include the distinct lack of polish. The game seems to be aiming for 30FPS rather than the expected 60, and death seems to be more of an inconvenience than a punishment as you'll likely re-spawn next to your corpse. There are some nostalgic charms for me which distort my view of this section slightly, but when you compare it to the wide history of DOS-based sidescrollers, I can still claim it plays well enough to call it a game.

If you do feel like digging up this game for laughs, there is one worthwhile recommendation I can give - turn off your adlib/soundblaster support. Soundblaster sound cards give Billy a stupid voice, in which every jump will be accompanied with a "huh" and every death will be paired with a "aiee". The music is poor and unfitting, creating a lesser experience than if you relied on the good old built-in PC Speaker, which has none of these problems.

But I suppose the point is you'd never dig up this game for laughs, because it's a genuinely bad game.

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