Saturday, August 10, 2019

Planet X3 - Review of a New Real Time Strategy Game for the IBM PC


Title Screen VGA
Retro video game homebrew is an ever maturing market.  Talented coders spend a ton of hours getting their games into a playable state and bugfixed, small teams combine their talents to handle differing workloads (graphics, sound, programming) and the result is hopefully a video game that will sell enough copies to make it worth all the effort.  Homebrew software has become popular with console platforms like the NES, Atari 2600, ColecoVision, Intellivision and Sega Genesis.  Homebrew software for personal computers has not quite taken off as the more popular consoles.  Nonetheless there are talented individuals making homebrew software for the IBM PC compatible  MS-DOS platform.  Today I am going to review the latest homebrew game for the IBM PC and compatibles, 8-bit Guy's Planet X3, identify its strengths and weaknesses, determine how well it met its design goals and postulate on its role in the evolution of PC homebrew.


CGA 4-Color 320x200 Mode
8-bit Guy and the Planet X Game Series

The 8-bit Guy runs a popular Youtube channel, (at 944K subscribers he will have his Gold Play Button soon), one I have previously recommended on this blog.  8-bit Guy in real life is known as David Murray.  David came to prominence when it was making videos about Apple products, calling himself the iBook Guy for the first several years of his channel.  But even in the early days he would have the occasional video about Commodore computers or retro video games.

David cut his teeth programming for a Commodore 64, but his first computer was a Commodore VIC-20.  In 2009 he made a homebrew game called Planet X1 for the VIC-20.  It was a freeware game distributed only as a download.  The gameplay had real time strategy elements in that your tank had to seek out and destroy the enemy base on a large map before the enemy found and destroyed your base.  In 2017 he was ambitious enough to release a homebrew game for the C64 he had developed called Planet X2. This time he wanted to sell physical copies of his Planet X2 game and had the resources to order a print run of boxes and manuals and find enough NOS floppy disks and cassette tapes to meet sales of physical copies.  Planet X2's Real Time Strategy gameplay was similarly ambitious with the player being able to control multiple types of units and being able to build, use and destroy multiple types of structures.  The game used more detailed tiles and had a music soundtrack and he sold a little over 500 physical copies.

When 8-bit Guy decided to make a sequel to Planet X3, he decided to focus on the PC/MS-DOS platform. The limitation that impacted the design of Planet X2 the most was the C64's 64KB of RAM, but MS-DOS machines, even early ones, could offer much, much more RAM.  The MS-DOS platform was definitely capable of accommodating a more advanced real-time strategy game than Planet X2, but how much hardware power would David need to realize his vision?  Would he target the relatively "lowly" IBM PC with a CGA card, a card that struggles to compare with a C64's VIC-II graphics chip?  Perhaps a more gaming friendly Tandy 1000 or a mainstream VGA/386 or 486 machine?  What about sound cards?  The C64 had a built in 3-voice SID chip, a very advanced Programmable Sound Generator.   The early IBM PCs only had the 1 channel PC Speaker and the Tandy Sound chip isn't nearly as capable as the SID, so maybe an Adlib/OPL2 card would be used.

CGA Color Composite Mode
Design Goals for Planet X3 and its Kickstarter

David decided that he target early IBM PCs and compatibles, so his game had to be playable running on a 4.77MHz 8088.  The game would support sufficient graphics modes to allow his game to run on any PC-compatible with a graphics card.  Only MDA-only machines would be unsupported.  He really likes the IBM Color/Graphics Adapter, especially its composite artifact color capabilities, so he decided that his graphics would have to look good using the 16-color capabilities of the 640x200 "composite color mode."  He also decided early on to support Tandy 1000 160x200 graphics mode, essentially using the same colorization as the composite color mode because every four pixels of the 640x200 mode maps roughly into 1 pixel of a 160x200 mode.  He also bowed to necessity because VGA-supporting computers with a 386 and 486 CPU are more popular machines among retro-computer gaming enthusiasts, so he does support the 320x200 graphics mode using 256 colors using MCGA or VGA. For sound, David decided to support the PC Speaker, Tandy Sound and Adlib, focusing on the Tandy chip as the middle ground from which the music would be derived for the PC Speaker and the Adlib.

David announced that he had officially started development on Planet X3 in January, 2018.  Planet X2 was mainly a one-man show, although the music was mostly done by Anders Enger Jensen.  However, the enlarged scope of the game meant that he could not complete everything on his own with an appropriate level of quality within a reasonable period of time, so he took on others to help him with the game.  Six other people (Jensen, Renaud Scheidt, Alex "Shiru" Semenov, Noah Aman and Jim "Trixter" Leonard, Bendikt Freisen) contributed their talent and skills to Planet X3, helping with music, graphics and coding.  Generous with their time as they were, a little compensation helps out.  The demand for the product meant that David had to go to Kickstarter to raise funds.  He asked for $30,000 and raised over $113,000.  There's definitely some life left in the vintage-PC gaming scene!

Unfortunately I was not in a financial position at the campaign's time to contribute to the campaign but I vowed I would do my best to become a slacker backer.  Now I can call myself a slacker backer.  Let's see whether David was able to meet his design goals for the game or the limitations imposed were too much for his vision to fly out and sing.

Tandy/PCjr. 160x200 16 Color Mode
Unboxing Planet X3

David went to a lot of time and trouble to get floppy disks and have boxes and manuals printed up for Planet X3, so I wanted to judge the complete package as might have been found on store shelves.  Fortunately every purchase of the game comes with a digital download, so I could play the game immediately while waiting for the boxed copy to arrive at my house.  Everything and more in the box, except the disks themselves, can be found in high-quality PDF format in the download.

Contents of the Combo Box Edition
The two-piece box is longer or thicker than many PC game boxes of the late 1990s.  It measures 9 1/8" x 6 3/16" x 1"  There is printing or color on every visible exterior surface face of the two box pieces and even printing on the folded-in box flaps.  With the combo set you will find one 5.25" double density disk (with sleeve), one 3.5" double density disk (both disks have full color labels), a (shrinkwrapped) compact cassette containing the original soundtrack as recorded from a Roland MT-32, the 40-page full color User Manual and a twenty-page full-color Tactical Manual (which acts as a hint guide).

I really appreciated receiving the complete package, which was shipped within an appropriate shipping box.  The whole package felt extremely high quality, I was not expecting this level of quality.  There are no cheap paper printed disk labels, crookedly applied labels, thin box material or photocopied manuals.  Even the weight of the game box with all its contents inside was extremely pleasing.  David posted a video where he (and helpers) spent hours out of every day building and packing and shipping the boxes, applying the disk labels and copying the games onto disk.  His efforts are certainly appreciated by this customer.

The box text does its theoretical job, it tells you what you need to know about the game, and most specifically for the IBM PC platform, what hardware you will need to run it (even if it makes a silly  statement that the CGA composite mode was rarely used, I've shown otherwise).  I was also pleased that the original soundtrack cassette came liner notes where the two of the three composers, Anders Jensen and Noah Aman, discussed their musical influences and limitations of the various sound devices with which they had to work.  The manual gives you background on the game's development, the information you need to play the game, the background story told in comic book format and a technical section describing how to run it.  It does its job.

CGA 640x200 Monochrome Mode
Gameplay Mechanics

Planet X3 is a real time strategy game that has clearly taken inspiration from Dune 2, Warcraft and Starcraft.  David was wise to learn from the best.   I was never really into strategy games until I discovered Starcraft, which was unmatched for the ease of learning its gameplay.

In Planet X3, you play as humans competing with the alien Protoids to colonize the newly discovered Planet X3.  Your mission is to wipe the Protoids off every map in the game by destroying all the structures at each of their bases.  There are 13 designed maps in the game (8 in the 5.25" floppy version).  There are Easy, Normal and Hard difficulty modes, and I would strongly recommend starting off with Easy mode to learn the feel of the game.

This real time strategy game has three things to consider, resources, buildings and units.  The main unit is the Builder.  The Builder is the Peasant/Peon/SCV/Drone/Probe of Planet X3, it can build buildings, harvest resources, destroy minor obstacles or build walls and bridges.  There are three resources in Planet X3, Minerals, Gas and Energy.  Minerals are found strewn across the maps in the form of rocks and crystals.  A Builder manually takes rocks or crystals to the Smelter to process them into Minerals.  A Refinery built on top of a gas vent gives you a steady supply of Gas.  Energy is acquired by building a Power Station and building Solar Panels next to it.  The player always starts with a Headquarters, which is not really useful beyond telling you how many units and buildings you have.

More advanced buildings include the Factory, which builds Tanks, Heavy Tanks and (if placed next to water) Frigates.  There is also the Radar Station, which can scan the map for enemies, water and resources. Finally there is the Missile Silo, which can fire missiles to destroy enemy bases from a distance.

"CGA" 4-Color Grayscale 320x200 Mode
 Human units are rather limited to the Builder, Tank, Heavy Tank and Frigate, but you also have to consider the Missile and Radar Scan as human abilities.  The Builder cannot fight and the Frigate operates only on water, so for offensive units you are usually limited to the Tank and Heavy Tank.  The Tank is your basic offensive unit, it can attack units with or without targeting or self-destruct to cause maximum damage to enemy formations and buildings.  The Heavy Tank is more powerful, more expensive to build and has a sentry mode where it can be told to sit and attack enemy units automatically.

Protoid offensive units are the Clone Scout, Clone Soldier/Warrior and Tank.  The Clone Scout must be next to a unit or building to damage it, but the Clone Soldier/Warrior and Tank have ranged attacks.  Your Walls and other obstacles will keep out the Scouts and Soldier/Warriors, but not the Tanks.  The Protoid bases will begin with a Pyramid and will build a Clone Facility, an Academy, a Factory and a Research Building and multiple Sentry Pods.  The Sentry Pods are the base's defensive structures and have a ranged attack.  How many Sentry Pods at each base and whether Factories/Tanks will be available is determined by the Difficulty Level.

The game is tile-based, meaning that all movement and building is done on a grid of 16x16 pixel tiles.  All units and buildings are controlled via the keyboard, there is no mouse support in this game.  Using a good mechanical keyboard, therefore, is a must and IBM's were the best (except for the PCjr's).  I highly advise printing out that page of the manual showing the keyboard controls and keeping next to you until you master the keyboard commands.  I also advise printing out the reference charts for the units and buildings.

It would have been nice for the the game to tell you the resource price in the information window when you select a Builder and tell it to build a building or a building when you tell it to build a unit if you have sufficient resources to build.  If you fail to build a Smelter early, you can turn your game into an unwinnable state because you don't have the minerals to build a Smelter, an without the ability to process minerals, you cannot build any structures.  Also, the Headquarters should have more of a purpose in the game than just providing information and the Research Building for being a Protoid base's insurance policy.  I also wish you had the opportunity to build soldier-type units like the Protoids do and repair structures and tanks.  A map editor to make your own maps would have been welcome.  There is no technology tree to upgrade your units abilities, you build your buildings and they perform whatever functions they do and you can afford in resources once built.

VGA 320x200 256 Color Mode
Platform Limitations

The design goals for Planet X3 are limited by the platform which it was designed to run on, an 4.77MHz 8088.  A faster CPU (8088 @ 8MHz recommended) can make the game run more smoothly, but it cannot add features that would so overburden the CPU that the game would not run or run intolerably on the 8088.  So features we take for granted in real time strategy just do not have the resources present on such a modest platform.  There is no automatic harvesting of minerals unlike Warcraft II where Peasants/Peons will fell whole forests if left to cut wood.  The addition of the mouse would have added another layer of regular input checking and the game always has a lot going on.  While the music was originally composed for the Roland MT-32 and arranged for the Roland SC-55 (recordings and MIDI files included in the digital download), it has no support for MIDI in the game itself.  There is no two-player/network game support and you cannot play as the Protoids.  Planet X3 has a lot going on during each frame, it has to run the enemy AI, grow the enemy bases, update the screen, make music and sound effects, time the construction of new buildings and processing of resources, calculate damage in combat and report error messages.

The VGA mode does present one exception to the "8088-feature friendly" design goal.  Where the CGA and Tandy graphics overlay unit tiles onto map tiles, the VGA mode implements software transparency so the pixels of the map tile which are not covered by a unit tile can still be seen.  Software transparency adds another layer of comparisons to the graphics display and therefore requires more CPU horsepower (286 @ 12MHz is recommended) to run the VGA mode.  You can turn off transparency and reduce the number of tiles shown on the screen to improve performance.  Some of the potential features were undoubtedly left out because the core of the game had to fit onto one 360KB floppy and the time the Planet X3 team could afford to devote to the game (they didn't quit their day jobs).

Do these limitations compromise what Planet X3 is trying to do?   My answer is "No, if you take the time to learn the gameplay mechanics."  The input limitation to the keyboard does provide a challenge, you can hardly be expected to focus on building your base and harvesting your resources when you are trying to find the enemy base with your tanks.  This is why you need to build all essential structures for your base first and make defensive walls to block the Clones before you send out your armada of tanks.  Use the Factory's ability to process eight mineral tiles automatically to reduce the time you are spending on gathering resources.  Scan the map with the Radar Station to find enemy bases and new deposits for you to harvest resources.  Do not be afraid to sacrifice a tank to take out a Sentry Pod or two, but you have to time the attack to get your tank to explode before it is destroyed.

Your attack force is likely to be limited to 10 offensive units because that is the number of units you can assign to the hotkeys.  Even with the 10 hotkeys, things will get hectic when you are attacking the enemy base and trying to juggle what each unit is doing.  This is undoubtedly the design of the game to keep things exciting when running on such an old platform, but some will find it frustrating.   The enemy is very efficient at building units and can overcome water and eventually trees and their tanks can destroy walls.  Wall building can sometimes put your Builder on the opposite side of the wall, so you may want to use rocks to build defensive walls whenever possible.

While this game plays like Warcraft and Starcraft, its limitations means you must adopt a different type of strategy to win.  If you think you will win by biding your time to build up sheer numbers to overwhelm the enemy, think again.  The enemy becomes ruthlessly efficient at replacing units and probing your bases for weaknesses.  The game only allows for 64 units total, but yours and the Protoids.  The Protoids do not need a clumsy keyboard to control their units and they do not harvest resources.  You must figure out the best way to destroy a base, whether by suicide tank rushes, a defense with missile launches or a combination of both.

Hercules 640x300 Monochrome Mode
Hardware Support

Planet X3 was originally intended to run on an IBM PC Model 5150 or better with a CGA card, a Tandy 1000 or a generic PC with support for CGA or VGA graphics.  The minimum RAM required is 256KB (384KB for VGA).  VGA graphics and the extra maps are only available on the 720KB disk and in the digital download included in every purchase.  Planet X3 will run on the IBM PCjr. supporting the same graphics as the Tandy 1000, but 512KB is required.  The IBM PC and XT almost always come with 256KB or more RAM and the Tandy 1000 and PCjr. have new upgrades available at this time of writing which can take the cards to their maximum RAM.  Planet X3 is not a PC booter, so you will need some version of DOS (PC-DOS, MS-DOS, DR-DOS) to run it.  The game was tested with DOSBox and runs very well on that emulator.

As shipped, the game supports four graphics modes.  The first is the 4-color CGA mode, intended for users with access only to a 16-color RGBI monitor.  This mode allows the user to cycle through the four BIOS-available CGA palettes. cyan/magenta/white, light cyan/light magenta/bright white, red/green/brown, light red/light green/yellow.  The background color is always black.

The second is the 16-color CGA 160x200 composite color mode, which is intended for users wishing to play the game on NTSC-color CRTs.  David designed his tiles for the late IBM CGA card but not all CGA clones will produce the same colors as IBM's card.  He included four four options to adjust the colors for clone CGA cards.  David personally owns a Compaq Portable and a Tandy 1400 LT, so those computers will show good color (blue water) with this mode in game.  CGA composite looks best on a CRT.

The third mode is the 160x200 Tandy 1000/PCjr. 16-color mode.  This mode is intended to use the same colors as the CGA composite color mode, but the colors will appear much sharper on an RGBI display.  If you have an NTSC television, the mode will still look pretty good through composite video, but it won't be as sharp.  One drawback of 160x200 modes is that the text is rather blocky.  This mode is only available on the Tandy 1000s and IBM PCjr.

The fourth mode is the 320x200 256-color MCGA/VGA mode.  MCGA was never released as a discrete graphics cards and the systems that support it use an 8MHz 8086 CPU, so I highly recommend upgrading to a NEC V30 CPU if you wish to use this mode on those systems.

Additional graphics support can be found with a patch available on the 8-bit Guy's site here.  This adds Hercules 640x300 monochrome graphic support, support for the Plantronics Colorplus' 320x200 mode in 16-colors, support for the 640x200 16-color modes of EGA and Tandy 1000 SL/TL/RL series and a special 320x200 4-color grayscale mode for certain CGA cards.  The Hercules graphics were converted from the 4-color CGA graphics, the Plantronics card uses the graphics of the Tandy 160x200 color mode (but with sharper text) and the 640x200 graphics modes are dithered versions of VGA 320x200 graphics mode.  With this patch, no one should feel particularly left out (except the monochrome-text only MDA card owners).  The lack of true 320x200 EGA/Tandy graphics is the only odd thing about this game given the late 1980s limitations that it accepted.

Three sound devices are supported, the PC Speaker, the Tandy 1000/PCjr. sound chip, the Adlib sound card.  Adlib music can be heard through a traditional Adlib/Sound Blaster-compatible expansion card.  Planet X3 directly supports the OPL2LPT and OPL3LPT parallel-port devices, so it can be used on computers with a parallel port but without a traditional PC bus like the IBM PCjr. and most laptops.  Other than the lack of MIDI support, this is an excellent selection of music devices.  Sound effects are solely generated by the PC Speaker, which was not uncommon during the late 1980s.

The manual lists 28 beta testers by name, so you can be sure the game was well-tested on a variety of PC compatible devices.

EGA/Tandy 640x200 16-Color Mode
Conclusion

Before you judge a game's worth, especially if it is a retro game, you must always take into consideration the game's price.  The base price of Planet X3 is $15, the extra is for essentially feelies.  If you absolutely must have a disk because you have no other way to transfer software to a vintage PC, then an extra $5 gets you a 720KB disk version and the manuals.  A modern game typically retails for $60 for a physical copy of a triple A title and digital-only budget titles rarely get a physical release.  Planet X3's box content would put some pricey "Collector's Editions" to shame.  For $15, this game has a lot more content other modern commercial DOS games like ($10) Shenzhen Solitaire.  Also, unlike ($14.99) Retro City Rampage 486, Planet X3 has a full sound track and runs on many more systems.

What does the future hold?  I am not aware of any DOS games in development for commercial release.  I might expect that someone will try to truly embrace the 386/486 era of DOS in a more comprehensive manner than Retro City Rampage 486.  But with more power comes greater ambition, so a team of five guys would probably be the bare minimum to get a game to work that could stand with games of its time like Planet X3 can.  A DOS-based Planet X4 would have serious competition from DOS RTS classics Dune II and Warcraft II.  I do expect the next highly anticipated game will almost certainly cheat a little and use DPMI for full access to memory when that really was not used in DOS games until the end of 1993.  I do not expect Windows 9x homebrew retro-games.  At that point the sound card hardware was standardized, video was homogeneous and the development environments are more annoying than fun to work with.

I highly recommend a purchase of Planet X3 to anyone who likes new PC/DOS-compatible PC games.  The in-game graphics get the job done as best as possible on the lower end and are quite pleasing in VGA and its derivatives.  Units and buildings are usually distinct and there aren't so many that it becomes hard to tell them apart.  The sound track is best on Adlib (great use of tracker here), good for Tandy but the PC Speaker may become distracting if you start out with either of the better audio choices first.  The gameplay is well-thought out given the limitations and sufficiently challenging to put the hardiest grognards to the test.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this review, I hadn't heard of this game (or its author) before.

    I'll be ordering the physical copy soon, always glad to support this sort of thing, even though I had to get rid of my Tandy 1000SX some time ago. Damn bills...

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