Saturday, April 13, 2019


Published on Game On 07/90

Up until now, I've deliberately skipped over any Pong clones that I came across on CP Verlag's diskmags. Mainly because all of them were either tediously boring and/or made with minimal effort. Dynamoid is different. It's still Pong, but it does its best to hide the simple gameplay behind an outstanding presentation.

The high production values are already evident with this excellent loader picture. It tells you everything you need to know about the game's setting: In the far-flung future, Pong has transformed into a real-life sport that is played IN SPACE! The logo in the top left corner represents the letters XAP, the short form of X-Ample Architectures, the game development group behind this game. The initials 'TH' in the bottom right stand for Thomas Heinrich who contributed his graphical skills to quite a lot of X-Ample's games.

The image is complemented by a SID tune that starts out very somber but soon takes up speed. The game's music was composed by Thomas Detert, and it belongs to some of his best work on the C64, in my opinion.


We haven't even made it to the game, and we are already facing some technical trickery. At first glance, the color animation in the logo appears like it was done with raster bars, i.e. by changing one of the bitmap colors with each raster line. However, a closer look reveals that sprites were used instead:

I highlighted them here in purple. Using sprites is a clever way to avoid the color change affecting the rest of the bitmap. All sprites are set to multicolor and use the shared sprite color at $d025. This makes changing the color (line by line) very efficient, as only the value of a single address has to be changed while the raster is drawing the screen.

Pressing fire initiates the loading of the actual game, sadly without the music playing. Once loading is done, this cute animation is played:

I assumed those paddles were remote-controlled, but it turns out they are actually manned space ships. How the pilot didn't suffocate by irresponsibly raising the dome is not explained.

The abundance of special effects continues with this cinematic reveal of the title logo. The music is perfectly timed with the visuals, allowing for an even more dramatic entrance of the stylish lettering. Dynamoid doesn't need burly action heroes to feel energetic, it just needs fancy-looking words.


Something quite extraordinary is going on here. This screen is in Multicolor Character Mode, and it uses two charsets, one for the logo at the top and one for the text below. The charset gets switched when the raster is in the middle of the screen. This is not the extraordinary part. It's the colors. Look at the colors!

In Multicolor Character Mode, each character can only have four colors, and three of them must be shared across the entire screen. Here are a few examples of characers that seem to completely ignore those rules:

Seven colors? How is this even possible? It's a similar trick that was used for the sprites in the loader part. The three shared screen colors are changed with each raster line, thus making it possible for a character to have more than four colors.

Now try figuring out how this animation was created:

Notice how the dithering pattern is traveling up and down as the text is fading in and out. Surprisingly, this pattern is not present in the original characters at all. Here's how the text looks with the same four colors across its entire height:

These vertical stripes within the letters only become dither patterns because the three shared colors are changed with each raster line. And if those color changes are drawn a line earlier with each subsequent frame, the entire pattern moves upward as well.

The game allows for a couple of options. I can either play against a computer opponent or, if available, another human player. I can also choose how long the game is going to last, from two to ten minutes. For me, there is really just one reason why I'd ever want to play for the full ten minutes, but more on that later. For matches against the AI, there are three difficulty levels. If I set the game to anything else than 'EASY', I get the impression that my C64 is laughing in the background. Lastly, I can select whether I want to hear music or sound effects during the game. The sound effects are quite neat and go well beyond the primitive bleep-bloop one might expect from a Pong clone. That said, I still strongly suggest going for the music.

And we're off! I'm on the left while the computer resides on the right side. Compared to vanilla Pong, Dynamoid allows for both vertical and horizontal movement. This makes the game much more dynamic, which I suppose is where its name comes from. You can also see how bad I am at the game, as it takes the AI only seven seconds to score a goal against me.

The controls are very responsive, and there is some pseudo-analog movement implemented. The paddles start out moving slowly and then speed up the longer the joystick is held in a direction. The difference is subtle enough not to throw the player off. The C64 actually supports analog paddles, but since they only function in one cardinal direction (e.g. either horizontally or vertically), they wouldn't work for this game. Not to mention, hardly anyone owned paddles for their C64. Holding the fire button causes the ball to stop if it toches the paddle. This only works if the paddle doesn't push against the ball upon impact, otherwise the projectile just bounces off.

While I don't stand much of a chance against the computer opponent, I do appreciate how the artificial intelligence behaves. Its paddle moves in a natural way and apparently observes the same control restrictions as my own paddle. There are a lot of games where it's quite obvious that the computer AI is cheating on higher difficulties to have an advantage over human players. I'm looking at you, Civilization!

Oh, hey! I got a point, and I didn't even touch the ball! I think the key to scoring a goal against the computer is to shoot the ball at a steep angle with enough speed to get it past the opponent's paddle. Even then, it doesn't always work, since it's probably random when the computer "decides" to miss the ball.

The game sits at 2:2, and now it's HALF-TIME! The players swap sides and the background switches to a new image. At this point, the space theme has to make way for a rather massive X-Ample logo. If I had to guess why, I'd say that X-Ample are the in-universe sponsors of the Interstellar Dynamoid Games, thus they got exclusive rights on advertisement space. Also, I can use the distracting background as an excuse for why the AI just scored another goal.

The computer opponent isn't perfect by any means. Every once in a while, it can get stuck in an infinite loop, as shown here. If I were in the lead at this point, I could just wait for the timer to run out and I'd win the game. Sadly, I still have some work to do to secure my victory.

Look at that rapid exchange of shots! It's almost like real tennis! Except, not at all, but at least I manage to win the match. I have to admit, though, that some sneaky save-stating was involved.

The last couple of C64 games I played here all had disappointing endings. I almost dread to ask what I get for winning a match in Dynamoid...

What do you know, I get a pretty, sparkling cup with my name engraved on it! Or rather, my player number. The feeling of accomplishment is further enhanced by the brief victory music that plays on a loop. It's only eight seconds long and becomes a bit grating after about the third or fourth loop. I like to think that's on purpose, to remind the player that most victories are short and not something to dwell on for long.

If the computer wins, the cup is still shown, but with PLAYER2 on the plaque. The game behaves a bit weird in case of a draw. The cup is also displayed, but this time proclaiming PLAYER0 as the winner.

If I wanted to, I could push the joystick to the right to initiate an immediate rematch or push to the left to go back to the menu. But this is about as much as I intended to play the game, so I'll end it right here.

Oh wait, I forgot that there is a very good reason to play a match for eight minutes, even if you're as pants at the game as I am. That reason being Thomas Detert's cheerful background music which lasts about eight minutes. It is one of my favorite SID tunes, and I encourage you to fire up the game, if only to listen to this specific track. In fact, you don't even need to start the game, you can just play this video instead:

Please pay no attention to how badly I lose against the computer. Still, I managed to get enough goals in to reveal a bug: The score display for Player 1 doesn't work anymore once it goes beyond 9. I assume this is once again an issue with the conversion from a hexadecimal number to a decimal display (i.e. a decimal '10' is '0A' in hex). I already saw something similar happen in No Mercy (Preview), Decton, and Reaction.


Dynamoid's article in Game On's diskmag part does its darndest to never even mention Pong. It describes the game as a "screen sport" that's a cross between tennis and ice hockey. Let's be real here, Dynamoid is a Pong clone, albeit a very polished one.

I fully expected my opinion of the game not to change in any meaningful way, but after playing against the AI for a while, I learned to appreciate the gameplay a bit more. I got at least some enjoyment out of the few moments where I could play halfway competently against the computer.

The controls are as good as they can be, considering that the C64's joystick input is strictly digital. The analog approach to the movement works quite well and doesn't become irritating when split-second reaction is required. I still miss half of the balls, but that is squarely on me and not the controls.

Clearly, the presentation is where Dynamoid really shines. The pixel art is on a level with many full-price games, and the technical effects are a neat touch. My favorite part is the music, as you might have guessed already. The SID tunes are really what made this game memorable to me.

Dynamoid is likely more fun against a human player, but convincing anyone to play a C64 Pong game in this day and age would probably require some intense persuasive efforts.

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