Shiuming Lai recalls a marvellous gothic platform adventure from the 8-bit years


When I got my Atari 800XL in 1985, I had the distinction among my peers as the only computer owner with a floppy disk drive, they all had to make do with pedestrian loading speeds. Up to 1987, when a lucky few of my classmates at school got shiny new STs, I was alone in that respect.

Five years later I met some other 800XL owners at a new school, a few had 1050 disk drives like myself and some had 1010 cassette program recorders. I borrowed one of these with a stack of games to find out what I'd been missing - many games (particularly budget ones) had come out on cassette because they, along with the hardware, were more affordable. As far as I knew, more people had cassette recorders than disk drives.

The first thing to hit me was how excruciatingly slow Atari's cassette recorders were, even compared to cassette systems on other 8-bit computers. The guy I borrowed the 1010 from had every Atari accessory under the sun including a 1050 disk drive, so I co-funded the purchase of a magical cassette-to-disk transfer program called The Alchemist. Most of his games were in cassette format and the advertisement sounded appealing to us. When we got it we found things to be not so easy, the process was so fraught with techno-babble about inter-record gaps and other quirks that we didn't understand any of it and hence failed dismally to transfer any games.

Worth the wait
One of the cassette games I borrowed was a monster-filled platform epic called Draconus. I'll never forget the moment the title screen appeared, with that slick presentation and wonderful mesmerizing music.

[Screen-shot: Loader picture]

[Screen-shot: Draconus title screen]

[Screen-shot: Draconus starting record slab]

[Screen-shot: Draconus]

[Screen-shot: Draconus]

From here the superb inimitable Zeppelin Games graphic style and animation of all the sprites roped me in with a vice-like grip, this was quintessential late '80s gaming for the Atari XL/XE. Being published under the Cognito label, the full-price range of Zeppelin (king of quality budget games in the Atari world), Draconus was also available on floppy disk. I ordered a copy together with Spy vs Spy Trilogy from Miles Better Software in Stafford.

[Image: Draconus case sleeve front]

[Image: Draconus case sleeve back]

To be truthful, I bought Draconus just for the title music, I thought it was that good. I hadn't counted on there being a superb game underneath it. For the next few months I became totally engrossed in the world of Draconus, exploring the murky dungeon-like caverns and getting a little further each time I played. The atmosphere was at times truly adrenalin-pumping with the repeated shock factor of reaching a new screen that was teeming with large monsters and swirling, squidgy pulsating blobs. I remember one time during an IT lesson at school, while programming the BBC Model B sound chip as I did in those days because we boys knew it all anyway, I accidentally found the very simple algorithm for producing the seemingly orchestrated background noises in Draconus! I was astounded, the BBC sounded exactly like Draconus on my 800XL!

[Screen-shot: Frognum]

At the peak of my Draconus-playing phase I could remember the entire map of the game, consisting of some 100 rooms, together with the exact location of all the record and morph slabs, every magic spell and room layout. I could complete the game in around 20 minutes, taking on the manic Tyrant Beast in a final screen no-holds-barred showdown.

It occurred to me that I should share my knowledge of the game with other players, so one day I stayed behind after school in the technical drawing room, drafting an A3-sized map in painstaking detail. I submitted it to Page 6's New Atari User magazine, my bi-monthly fix of all things Atari. To my disappointment all I received was a New Atari User Tipster badge, I never saw my map for the rest of the time I subscribed to the magazine.

[Screen-shot: New Atari User on the internet!]A few months ago I discovered a prototype web site which was something I thought somebody should have initiated long ago: an electronic archive of New Atari User magazine, in the vein of the Digital Antic Project and others, transferring these cherished old magazines into the digital domain for posterity. The person undertaking this mammoth task is none other than Paul Rixon, the magazine's 8-bit games reviewer for a long time. Now the site is live and official with a proper domain, I encourage all NAU fans to give their support to Paul on this project, which is officially sanctioned by Les and Sandy Ellingham. After some mail exchanges with Paul, I remembered my Draconus map and asked him if he could check whether it had been published after issue 54 (when I was too hyped-up with ST fever to remember to re-subscribe). The answer was no, but a map by someone else had been published in issue 39. Which single issue did I miss between 38 and 54? That's right, 39! So with that, I end this retrospective. Draconus remains one of the most influential games I've ever played and I look forward to producing a CD of its soundtrack to play in my car.

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MyAtari magazine - Feature #7, September 2002

Copyright 2002 MyAtari magazine