Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Encounter! (Synapse Software, 1983)

Developed for the Atari 8-bit computers in 1983 by Paul Woakes for Novagen. Originally published by Synapse Software.

Converted by Paul Woakes for the Commodore 64 in 1984, and for the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga in 1991, and released by Novagen Software Ltd.



Today's comparison was suggested by cubamanuel in the comments section of my comparison of Cybernoid, so this one's for you. Paul Woakes was a man who wasn't much for blowing his own horn, but he certainly had a huge impact on the 8-bit Atari and Commodore game developing scenes. Encounter! was his first commercial game, which quickly became a classic for good reasons. This masterpiece can boast of being one of the earliest first-person shooters, particularly as one that has an awe-inducing framerate, so it is no wonder that you can still see it spoken about with a singular sort of respect. As it well should be.

Currently, the scores for the four versions at our favourite websites are as follows: at Atarimania, the 8-bit original has a score of 7.9 out of 10 from 864 votes, while the 16-bit ST version has a whopping 9 out of 10, although it has only one vote, so we can't really consider it too reliable. The unhappily lower score of 6.31 at LemonAmiga does have 13 votes, so I'm guessing that should be somewhere in the lines where the ST version should be as well, but let's see. Finally, the C64 version has a 7.7 score from 54 Lemon64 voters, so we're in for an interesting lot once again.



I already mentioned this is a first-person shooter, and that's pretty much what we are dealing with here, in what could be said to be the purest of its form... although then you wouldn't be counting in the level transition bits, which are first-person avoid'em-ups. But perhaps I should elaborate.

The story goes... well, there's not much of a story, really. You are seated inside an alien Seeker, waiting for the inevitable encounter with two types of adversaries. Flying saucers will shoot at you, and drones are programmed to home in on your vessel. The adversaries will appear at random points on the planetary surface, and you will need to locate them with your radar, and kill them before they kill you. There are 64 pylons on the field which you nor your shots cannot penetrate, but you can move freely over the battlefield with a surprisingly great ease, so avoiding the pylons while hunting enemies should be no hardship. There are eight levels in the game, all displaying a different landscape and featuring two new enemy saucer attack strategies, so even if Encounter! is a simple first-person shooter at heart, there is some strategy involved there. The avoid'em-up bits are accessed after destroying the required amount of enemies, which opens up a gateway (a black rectangular hole) to the high-speed transition section, where you must avoid running into spheres.

Considering this was about 9 years before id Software's Wolfenstein 3-D made first-person shooters en vogue, and more particularly, as good as they could be considered a potentially workable genre for a wider market, Paul Woakes' Encounter! was a huge deal. Of course, Atari's Battlezone came a few years before that for the arcades, but the home conversion, which came out for the Atari computers much after Encounter!, and had worse playability, is a factor that definitely makes this game ahead of its time. And funnily enough, there are still plenty of first-person shooters made every year that aren't as comfortable or addicting to play as Encounter! has always been. Sure, it's a bit repetitive, but so was every other game released prior to 1984 or so. If only for the historical importance, I would recommend everyone to play this most heartily, but it still happens to be a very good game, and a perfect candidate for coffee break fun.



Loading screens. Top left and middle: Atari 8-bit 16k/32k (tape).
Bottom left and middle: Commodore 64 (tape). Right: Amiga / Atari ST.

On a rare occasion, the loading section has something of actual interest to offer, and this happens to be one of those times. Not because the loading times are all that interesting, really, but because the C64 version of Encounter! was one of the first games to feature  Novaload, one of the earliest and quickest turboloaders for cassette-released games. What I mean by "one of the first" is, Encounter! is one in the first batch of games to use the said fast loader. It is said that Cosmi's Forbidden Forest (1983) was actually the first C64 game to use this fast loader (with loader code A100000, compared to Encounter!'s N100000), but since Novagen was actually responsible for Novaload, it is difficult to say anything conclusive about the matter. Besides, even Forbidden Forest was originally released with a regular slow ROM loader, and the Novaload version was released a bit later, so I can't say one way or another about it. Anyway, after this, Novaload was slightly altered for the use of U.S. Gold releases, including the familiar screeching loader, and became the most popular loader for a while, until some more efficient choices arrived. Although the tape loading times this time aren't anything unusual to witness, it's still a good example of how things were back then. Here are the expected tape loading times, and you can see the loading screens above.

A16: 5 minutes 17 seconds
A32: 8 minutes 33 seconds
C64: 3 minutes



Playing Encounter! is as straight-forward as you would hope it to be, although not perhaps how you would expect, considering the game's rather surprisingly advanced age. The gist of the game you already got from the Description section, so I need only to elaborate on it a bit further before going into the actual comparison.

As you would expect from a game of this age, Encounter! starts off with no ceremony, you just suddenly find yourself in the middle of a field of monolith-like pylons randomly placed around an otherwise empty planet surface. Wait a few seconds, and one of two enemy types will be spawned in the area - a homing missile or a flying saucer, which will shoot you in a manner suited for each level. A missile will come without much other warning than a rising sound and the red lights flashing on your dashboard, but a flying saucer will come through a randomly appearing gateway, out of which you might occasionally have the luck to shoot the arriving saucer straight away. Otherwise, these can be detected by seeing the yellow light turn on and a white dot appearing on the radar. The blue light flashes when an enemy is shooting at you, so you have some chance at dodging the enemy bullets if you haven't noticed the enemy vessel yet. The pylons' function is not only to offer some sort of cover, but also to bounce off any bullets into another direction, which can be useful in later levels.

At the top of the screen, you have four indicators, which are from left to right: score, level, enemies left, and shields left. Shields are what you would usually call lives, but I guess it's more logical to have a few shields lost and then get killed, rather than get killed several times.

Now, let's get to the difficult part. The game was originally developed and released for the 8-bit Atari computers, so it has a 16k version and a 32k one, both available on the same media. Unfortunately, apart from the title screen, I haven't been able to find out what the differences are in the two versions. I'm suspecting it might have something to do with the enemy attack patterns or strategies, but detecting differences in behaviour modeling is out of my league.

The most immediate conversion was made for the C64, which shouldn't be all that different, considering it was made by the same man. But it has been said that Paul Woakes for first and foremost an Atari programmer. There might be something in that statement, because the C64 feels somewhat different. The gameplay hasn't been altered in essentials, but a seasoned Encounterer can easily notice some slight speed differences. Surprisingly, at least for me, it's the quick transitional bits that feel quicker on the C64, while the battlefields feels somewhat slower. Also, I'm not completely sure about this, but the homing missiles are somewhat harder to focus on, since they seem to wobble about a lot more than they do in the original. And that's pretty much what I could gather from my hopefully thorough examinations.

Atari ST version cover art. The Amiga version's cover
looks the same, but has "Amiga" written instead of "ST".
It might be of some interest for those of you who like to know more about the history of game developers, that after the original Encounter! for the 8-bits, Paul Woakes turned his focus on other games, such as the Mercenary series, Battle Island and Backlash, which is often considered to be the official sequel to Encounter!, although no official word is known to have come about it. Only after Backlash - three years after it, in fact - Woakes decided to release a remake his original classic for the 16-bits, both releases strangely titled "Amiga Encounter" and "ST Encounter", as if the platform of release wasn't clear enough without a big tag on the box cover.

Anyway, by the time the 16-bit version came out, the game was considered horribly outdated. But when you compare the 1991 remakes to the 8-bit versions, how do they fare? Well, you could definitely say the game has been upgraded, or at least modified in some ways, but whether the changes are for better or worse is for every gamer to decide for themselves. There are four very important changes made for the 16-bits, which are: 1) the turning speed has been tweaked to accelerate up to a point with a restrained haste, and is a bit quicker than in the original; 2) there is more cosmic debris floating at you in the transition bits, but the transition bits have been made slightly slower to make up for the surrounding chaos; 3) if you crash in the transition section, the penalty is only to kill a small number of enemies in the previous level instead of a full amount; and 4) after the first level, there are more enemy types per planet than what was possible to see on the 8-bits. While this all makes for more interesting gameplay in the long run due to increased variety, the same strategies from the 8-bits don't apply on the 16-bit versions anymore. For the most part, though, the gameplay is similar enough not to bother, but if you want to think on this all through logic and conceptual progression, the original game feels more reasonable than the remake.

Depending on which platform you played Encounter! first, you might think that version is the best, since you have accustomed to it. And that's fine, really, since every version is quite as playable as the other. However, considering the concept and its originally progressive nature, the 8-bit versions do their job better than the 16-bits, which only seem to have more variety in every way just because they can. That just doesn't quite feel right.




When you consider that Paul Woakes designed this game 10 years before the likes of Wolfenstein 3-D and Doom, and made it work so amazingly well on 8-bit platforms where others failed for quite some time, you can't help thinking there has to be some sort of trickery going on here. Sure enough, it's that old "two-dimensional graphics tricking into acting like it's three-dimensional" thing we're dealing with here, and even that has been made as simplistically as possible - no real details in anything other than the backgrounds. Proper 3D didn't get done quickly and pretty'ish until the late 1990's, and those famous titles by id Software and many similar games of the time played with that 2D sprites in 3D-built environment idea. Only wireframe-3D (Battlezone, Mercenary, Elite) and filled polygon -based graphics (The Sentinel, Castle Master, I of the Mask) were sort of "true 3D" at the time, and rarely performed as well as the Encounter! engine. Advantage in simplicity.

But of course, we must start comparing the graphics from the title screens, as usual. It's not much to look at in any version, but it's a bit surprising that there were so many variants of it around, particularly for the 8-bit Atari.

Title screens. Top row: Atari 8-bit versions - 1983 Synapse (left), 1984 Novagen 16k (middle), 1984 Novagen 32k (right).
Bottom row, left to right: Commodore 64, Atari ST, Commodore Amiga.

Right from the start, we can see that the 16-bit versions look not only very similar to each other, but also much more detailed and colourful than the 8-bits - even in the title screens, where it isn't even necessary to look all that funky. What is more interesting, though, is that the original 3D logo was featured in the original Synapse release, but seems to be the only thing that was dropped from the 16k Novagen re-release. However, the title screen was rearranged for the Novagen re-release to fill the screen better than in the Synapse original, and the 32k Novagen version featured the original game logo back in the title screen, albeit in a stretched format. Or maybe that is how it was supposed to look like in the first place? The C64 version has the ugliest title logo (you can do that sort of thing with basic character graphics) and the red background colour feels a bit out of place... but then again, it's a good continuation from the loading screen, so it's no big deal.

Level 1 screenshots. Top row: Atari 8-bit. Bottom row: Commodore 64.

In a way, the graphical style of Encounter! reminds me of all those behind-view racing games from the early 1980's, like Pole Position, Enduro and such. You get a basic set of colours for your surrounding environment, which switches to something different as you make progress, and there's some very basic background elements in the distance that merely scroll with the view as you move around. Mind you, the same sort of background picture idea is still in use in plenty of first-person shooters, but is less noticable.

The first level is a green field with a blue sky and white clouds, as if this was an Earth-like planet. There are even some barely noticable mountains far away in the background. As usual, the C64 graphics are less blocky than in the ATARI version, but that's really not much to brag about. I'll get to the details and colours later on. The three flashing colour indicators look a bit more stylized on the C64, however, which I like more. 

Level 1 screenshots. Left and right: Atari ST. Middle: Commodore Amiga.

As you would have probably imagined, the AMIGA and ST versions differ graphically in no other way than the AMIGA screen being a bit wider. But both of them are a considerable upgrade from the 8-bits, as they probably should be. The first level looks similar enough to the original - an Earth-like planet, but the pylons have been given a slightly more tree-like appearance by painting them orange, and there's a great Earth-styled city in the background. The more advanced bits here are, of course, the depth-enhanced cockpit of your alien vessel, all the indicators now being fully shown in writing, and all the enemies have now taken a more detailed form, making everything look more their part. Not that it ever was necessary, but sure, it does look better than the original minimalist look of everything. The coolest thing about the remade graphics is, at least for me, the gateway to the transitional zone.

Screenshots from the transitional sequences, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, Atari ST.
All the transition levels have the same idea: fly through what I suppose should be a wormhole or something similar, navigate your spacecraft through a vast field of meteorites or other space junk, and drop out at another planet's surface. Of course, on the 8-bits, the meteorites (or whatever) are represented by white, yellow/orange and blue round objects, while on the 16-bits, these objects actually look like bits of rock in various shapes and colours. Also, on the 16-bits, the rocks also fly above and below your flight path, which looks more hazardous and realistic than just flying through a field of horizontally placed circular things. That doesn't mean the 8-bits feel any less hazardous.

Level 2 screenshots. Left: Atari 8-bit. Right: Commodore 64.

Level 2 has been given a radically different look on the two 8-bits. On the ATARI, the planet has a red surface, but otherwise looks very similar to the previous level. On the C64, the area is dark, the ground is brown, the pylons are green instead of black, and the sky is starry instead of blue and cloudy. I would even go so far as to say the C64 version has a much quicker progression in changing the atmosphere of the game than the original, but I cannot tell whether that was Woakes' intention all along, or was the C64 version made so in order to avoid some colouring problems.

It's useless trying to get screenshots of the visual effects of having shot down an enemy, because it's all just bits of debris flying around in various directions, where the differing element is the colour cycle of the explosions. In the original 8-BIT ATARI version, the colour cycle depends entirely on the colour of the enemy - if the drone is blue, the explosion will show be of a blue light gradient from the lightest to the darkest, and if the drone colour is more towards red, the explosion will be similar, but of a red variety, etcetera. On the C64, the explosions are always the same: from white through yellow and orange to red, brown and finally black. Considering there's not all that much graphics to go around in the game anyway, this sort of thing can become an important aspect in a comparison.

Level 2 screenshots from the Commodore Amiga version.

Since the two 16-bit versions look similar enough in screenshots, apart from the width, I have decided to go with the AMIGA shots for the rest of our journey. Now, it is entirely possible that the C64 version of level 2 was done in a different way due to some restrictions or other ideas, but for the 16-bit remakes, Woakes took the original idea back, and made the second area into a reddish brown thing with purple pylons and put an industrial motif in the background. As for the explosions, for some reason, the colouring effects are closer to the C64 version when it comes to the impressions of a fire-like effect, but the explosions always start off with a few frames of similarly coloured debris to how the enemy was coloured. Perhaps this is the best possible choice from all the options used for the explosions, but it feels slightly overdone for how the end result actually looks like.

Screenshots from crash animations, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga x2.

One of the most interesting points to consider in comparing the graphics of this game is this: the crash animations. In the original 8-BIT ATARI version, the whole screen goes stripy and weird-looking, with two different layers of colourful stripes animated to flash around in their own ways. All the other versions have the colourful stripes randomly flashing in the action screen, and the C64 version even leaves out all the solid objects from the playing field out of the animation. While the 16-bit versions have all items in the action screen stripe-flashing in their own way, the crash sequence has an upgrade, where the action screen gradually dissolves to black and you are spawned back from the darkness. Not very necessary, because it takes away some of the game's immediacy, but it sure looks nice.

Level 3 screenshots, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga.

As we make more progress with the different versions, it becomes clear that the C64 version clearly has its very own level design, at least when it comes to the colours and backgrounds. Every odd-numbered level is a daytime arena, and every even-numbered one is a night-time arena. This time, while the original version and the 16-bits have a light grey surface and red pylons, the C64 version has a pink surface and black pylons. Curiously, though, the 16-bit versions have this planet played during night, but the background graphics have been made to fit this style better.

Level 4 screenshots, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga.

For the fourth level, all the versions have been made to look surprisingly similar again. The 16-bits, as well as the original ATARI version have a red dusk-like setting on a red planet with some random mountain-like shapes in the background, while the C64 version has a regular starry nightsky over a red surface. All versions seem to feature differently coloured pylons, which is a bit odd again, but no matter.

One thing I have yet to mention, which I purposely left for the end of this section. The original 8-BIT ATARI version has an ace in its sleeve - the enemy vessels have shadows under them. The C64 version doesn't feature any shadows. This could be considered a great loss, even at the cost of framerate, but since I have no idea why were the shadows left out of the C64 conversion, I cannot comment on it further. Naturally, the 16-bit versions feature shadows under every necessary thing, even bullets.

Game Over screens, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga.
I don't really think we need to go through all eight levels, since the graphics are fairly similar throughout the game, and doing so would leave you without anything to see for yourselves. Therefore, we end this section with the inevitable game over screens. Frankly, this feels a bit unnecessary, but why not, since they do look a bit different. I really have nothing to say about this lot - you can see for yourself which is the most to your liking, if any.

And so, the 16-bits win quite clearly, because better graphics are better, although I do think the original, less descriptive graphics work strangely better with this game. But then again I'm more used to that. Out of the two 8-bits, I guess it's also clear that the ATARI version wins this round, since it has more to offer in terms of explosions and shadows, not to mention a marginally better looking title screen.




I can't believe I'm saying this, but I actually like the fact that this game has no music whatsoever. It fits the game's unique atmosphere to offer no melodic accompaniment to the battle proceedings. Instead, every sound effect is certainly designed to fit its part, and thus the game feels easily complete even without music. The question is, which version has the most fitting sound effects for the game? And I have to admit, it's a difficult question to answer, because the game takes place in a number of completely alien environments, so how are we humans (humen) supposed to know, what sorts of sounds would be heard in these kinds of places? All I can do is tell, which ones I like the best.

The original 8-BIT ATARI version has a very noisy and explosive set of sounds. Shooting, killing an enemy, bumping into pylons and crashing into either an enemy or a bullet will play some sort of loud crash noise, all different enough to notice. Moving fowards in your Seeker will make a rather irritating droning noise, as if you were riding a two-cylinder engine at best, but turning makes a more distorted noise. Different enemies emit a different sort of sound: a missile can be detected by a slowly rising beepy noise as it comes towards you, regular alien spacecrafts will make a quick repeating pip-pip noise from two pitches depending on what they are doing at any moment, time-bomb type alien crafts will tick like a clock for a while before exploding, that sort of stuff. Also, depending on the enemy's relative location to you, the enemy's sound will be played at an accordingly appropriate volume. High-quality stuff, I'd say. The only truly irritating thing I can say about the sounds is when you get to full speed in the transition section. Before you reach full speed, and once you start slowing down to the next gateway, your Seeker will make an ascending/descending swooshing noise, but once you're at full speed, you will hear a hellish multi-beep noise from two pitches clunked together (which I think are an octave plus a semi-tone), until you either crash or get to the end. Also, the gateway opening sound is similarly ear-aching, but is thankfully short in duration, if you're quick.

Compared to the original, the C64 conversion sounds more composed in many ways. The explosions are not quite as powerful, but all the beepy things have much more character to them, particularly the basic enemy saucer indicators, which are now more melodic and feature two simultaneous voices. Even the horrible beepy noise in the transition section when in full speed is now less arduous to listen to, because the augmented octave (or minor ninth) interval is actually pitch-perfect, unlike on the Atari. Unfortunately, the most impressive sound-related thing about the Atari original was left out of the C64 conversion: expressing the distances.

Well, of course I rejoiced too early when I said this game has no music whatsoever - what I should have said was, the original 8-bit versions have no music. This lack was "fixed" for the 16-bits. Don't get me wrong, the music is not bad at all, it only feels a bit out of place, and frankly, a bit on the generic side - something that feels like you've heard in one of those mediocre Gremlin games in the late 80's. Happily, the music only plays on the title screen, so it's not as if the game was attempted to be more artificially entertaining by force-feeding you music where no such thing was needed. The most curious thing about the 16-bit conversions is how close to each other the AMIGA and ST versions actually are. I think I already mentioned this regarding graphics, but sound-wise, it's the same thing. Whereas in the graphics, the Amiga version only has a slightly wider action screen, in sounds the Amiga version has the ST soundtrack otherwise as a complete carbon copy, if you will, but the AMIGA music and sound effects sound slightly darker, probably due to the soundchip's own characteristics. The only thing I don't like about the 16-bit sounds is that the acceleration and deceleration bits for the transition sequences have been made in the same beepy sound that plays when you go full speed - the irritating beepy noise is still irritating, and the more you have to hear it, the more irritating it is, even though it's conceptually more logical. Otherwise, the 16-bits beat the 8-bits quite easily in terms of sound variety and expressiveness. But not by as much as you would have expected.




Paul Woakes' first masterpiece still remains a classic among the best of them, but due to the limited exposure and releases only on machines from Commodore and Atari, is known less than it deserves. So, I hope this bit of praise brings some new fans for the game. Now, though, all I need to do is reveal the traditionally mathematical results...

1. COMMODORE AMIGA / ATARI ST: Playability 1, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 7
2. ATARI 8-BIT: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 6
3. COMMODORE 64: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 4

Although this looks a bit worrying for the C64 fans, I feel I must point out that it's still the most impressive FPS for the machine, regardless of how it holds up to the other versions. And to be blunt, while the 16-bits certainly have an enhanced version in pretty much every way you should wish for, it's not nearly as impressive nor atmospheric as the game is on the 8-bits. But you shouldn't trust my word blindly, and the mathematical results even less - see and try it out for yourselves. It certainly is worth the bother.

If you're not comfortable with the outdated and simplistic graphics, you can always try out this remake from 2006 by Shinobi called 2nd Encounter - which itself is already 9 years old, but still newer than the originals. And if that wasn't enough, you can also hunt down the only possible, yet unconfirmed sequel by Woakes: Backlash, which was only released for the two 16-bits we dealt with here - Amiga and Atari ST.

Screenshots from the Commodore Amiga version of Backlash.
That's it for now, hope you enjoyed that one! And thanks to cubamanuel again for the suggestion! Next time, something completely different. Until then, remember to wear your seatbelts and helmets.


  1. The .tap file I have of the C64 version has a different loading screen with the screeching noises and a counter. Here's a video of it: The earliest games that I found that use Novaload which have loading music are the US Gold ones, some of Ocean's early titles (such as Daley Thompson's Decathlon), Ancipital by Jeff Minter, and Gandalf the Sorcerer from Tymac.

    1. BTW, Ancipital could possibly been the first game to use the Special variant of Novaload (Novaload S100101).

    2. Very strange and interesting. I haven't really put that much time into doing research on loaders, but I do love all the Novaload and Freeload variants. Funny that I didn't come across your version of Encounter tape, perhaps I shall update that loading section later on with all the loading pictures and times included. Thanks again for your input!

  2. Interesting look at the differences between each version of this game. Always fun to compare and contrast like this. Thanks for sharing!