Sunday, April 28, 2019

Elite Squad

Published on Game On 07/90

For today's game, Elite Squad, I simply want to show you the loading screen without giving away any details just yet:

Based on the name and this image alone, what kind of game do you expect to play? A vertical or horizontal shooter with an exotic roster of enemies? A platformer depicting the player character's recurring nightmares? An action RPG in an unsettling sci-fi setting?

Let's go through the elements depicted here and I'll tell you whether they are found in the game or not:

A multicolored cloud entityNo.
Eggs that sprout functional wingsNo.
Giant, two-eyed spiders that want so slobber you with their weirdly human-looking tongueNope.
Grinning psychopaths in baggy sweaters and jeansNone to be seen.
A very angry flying ballHm, maybe? But it does not have a face.
WaterYes, and I wish it weren't in the game.

It's safe to say that the loading screen is rather misleading.

The backstory in the diskmag article doesn't fare much better, but it is so ridiculous and interspersed with technobabble nonsense, I just have to paraphrase it here. Imagine somebody doing a dramatic reading of the following paragraph:

The world is in peril! The evil Zodiac has captured Earth, leaving its inhabitants no other choice than to flee their home planet. If nobody stands up against Zodiac, he and his Empire of Terror will soon make Earth completely inhabitable. You are humankind's only hope. While piloting a hybrisjumper, you get beamed on board of Zodiac's space ship. Your vessel is a prototype that is usually only flown by the Elite Squad. The hybrisjumper allows you to hop over the ship's mass fields by reversing their intermolecular forces. Time is not on your side, and you have to look out for Zodiac's bodyguards who want nothing more than to see you dead. If you succeed in your mission and save humanity, you'll be allowed to become a member of the Elite Squad.

So far, so goofy. The Elite Squad sounds like a club of massive twats that really don't want you to join, so they give you an assignment that you have no chance of completing.

The article's backstory certainly wins the prize for the most ludicrous plot for a game that doesn't need a plot at all. As you'll soon see, the gameplay is so far removed from anything that's established in the narrative, Elite Squad might as well just be called an abstract puzzle game with some action elements.

Because that's what it actually is.

The twinkling title screen comes with a pleasantly soothing melody. It's quite the contrast to the foreboding music from the previous loading part. Markus Schneider composed the tracks for this game. If his name appears in the credits, it's usually safe to assume that the game won't be lacking in the audio department, and so far the tunes do not disappoint. The title menu allows me to switch to sound effects, but that'd be like going to a concert and only listen to the soundcheck.

And here's what the game actually looks like. I'm in control of the bouncing ball, but for the sake of demonstration, I'm not moving at all here. The floating robot (the "bodyguard") is my main adversary. It is programmed to reach my position, but it can't fly over black pits and thus has to follow the tiles.

As soon as I start moving, I am unable to stop. All I can do is change the direction when I bounce off a tile. Most of the tiles that I touch disappear, and if I jump into blackness or try to leave the playfield, I explode. My goal in each level is to make all the colored tiles disappear and then reach the red exit tile.

There are quite a lot of tiles with various functions, and pointing them out in screenshots would be a bit cumbersome, so here is a list of them instead:

These are Elite Squad's most common tiles. They disintegrate as soon as you jump on them, thus they only function as single-use stepping stones.

In order to complete the level, you have to destroy (i.e. jump on) all of these colored tiles. The color can vary from stage to stage, but it is always consistent within each level.

At the start of each level, your ball spawns on the blue version of this tile. The tile doesn't disappear, so it's safe to remain on it for a while and examine the stage before moving out.

Once all colored tiles have been destroyed, you can end the level by stepping on the red goal tile.

Teleporters appear in pairs and only work in one direction. The blue tile is always the entrance and the red tile the exit. If you step onto the red teleporter, the block simply acts as a static tile.

Jumping on these tiles makes them disappear and either speeds up the ball (red) or slows it down (blue). The effect is cumulative, so the ball can get pretty hard to control if it jumps on several speed-up tiles in the same level.

Walls function the same as black pits, except they look a bit fancier. Your ball explodes if you try to land on them. On the plus side, they're also an obstacle for the enemy.

This disappearing tile gives your ball a jump boost that you can use by pressing fire. This makes the ball jump two tiles instead of one. Boosts do not stack, so if you've already stored one, you should use it before picking up another one.

Water tiles can go to hell. The diskmag article claims that water delays the player's movement, which is completely false. Instead, it randomizes the ball's next moving direction. Preferably straight into a pit.

If you jump on this destructible tile, it causes the enemy robot to freeze for a couple of seconds. The robot remains lethal to the touch, though, so you can't jump past it if it blocks your way.

This tile awards you with an extra ball, but you have to step on it four times in order to get it. Since it's not possible to remain still on the same tile for several jumps, you are required to do some creative hopping around.

This is a tile that remains persistent, no matter how many times you jump onto it.

If you jump on a tile with red diagonal stripes, your joystick controls get inverted for the rest of the level. However, if you sruvive for long enough to reach the blue version of that same tile, the controls revert back to normal.

Good luck wrapping your head around these when you encounter them in the game.

And that's all of them, I think. After these lengthy explanations, it's high time for me to actually play the game:


Without wanting to brag, I probably made this look easier than it is. If you're playing the game for the first time, this is a tough first stage. So many things get introduced at once that you are likely to lose some balls before completing the level. I vividly remember dying a lot here when I played Elite Squad nearly thirty years ago.

The joystick controls take some getting used to as well. They're not bad at all, though. Compared to the gameplay disaster that was JASG, Elite Squad's controls are an outright revelation: The ball strictly moves from tile to tile, so it's impossible for it to get misaligned. The ball's direction can only be changed when it touches a tile. Luckily, you can signpost the next direction while the ball is still in the air. In other words, you've got the whole time it takes the ball to jump to decide the next direction, and your joystick input only gets committed when the ball touches down. Depending on the build quality of your control device, diagonal jumps can be a bit fiddly to get right. I'm playing with the keyboard on an emulator which makes the game moderately easier.

Every five levels (starting with the first level), a bonus round is played. This is a simple memory test, where you have to follow the indicated directions to end up on the correct goal tile. When you think you are in the right spot, you can press fire and, if you are indeed correct, get some points and an extra ball. As one would expect, later bonus rounds become increasingly harder.


The second level introduces walls and jump boost tiles to overcome them. The most difficult part is getting the timing right to successfully trap the enemy robot. I played the level several times and marginally changed the order in which I destroyed the first few tiles before jumping over the wall. This was enough of a difference to cause the bodyguard's movement pattern to change. The robot does not move randomly, but it constantly reacts to your position. This makes his moves unpredictable enough to be almost random. However, if you follow the same route and keep the same timing, the robot always behaves the same way.

The music that's playing during all levels is a filter-heavy SID rendition of Jan Hammer's Crockett's Theme from Miami Vice. This seems like a pretty weird musical choice for a puzzle game and not something Markus Schneider would normally do. Indeed, there is a comment about that in the High Voltage SID Collection. It reveals that the unlicensed music cover was the idea of Elite Squad's coder, much to Markus Schneider's annoyance.


Level 3 presents you with the first occurrences of persistent tiles and water tiles. There is a potential extra ball in the top right, but I'd have to bounce on the tile four times to get it. That would require some jumps on water tiles, an activity which almost certainly equals suicide. Jumping on water causes the ball to jump off in a random direction and, in most cases, right into death.


This one is pretty straightforward to solve, except for the very last section in the bottom left where you have to step on a tile that reverses your controls. It's not a problem if you know in advance that this will happen, but since the tiles are not explained anywhere, a first-time player will very likely end up in the black void.


This is as far as I ever got. No matter how many times I tried completing this level, the enemy bodyguard always managed to cut me off and thwarted my attempt to save the world. The water tiles may look like an easy way to circumvent the robot (it cannot traverse water), but the water's random nature never worked in my favor. With the help of save states, I gave the level another try, and after about twenty failed attempts, I finally found a surefire way to complete the stage. Behold:

This solution requires that you start moving as soon as the level begins. The timing needs to be fairly precise, as the robot will start chasing you and get so close to the ball that you have to dive away diagonally to prevent a collision. It is quite a dramatic way of solving the level, I must say. Here's how it looks in motion:

I'm glad the collision detection with the robot is as lenient as it is. It's possible that the designer had a different solution in mind. Still, I like how my route gets the enemy trapped on a single tile island from where it can do nothing but angrily watch me finish the rest of the stage.

For a puzzle game that mainly features square blocks, there is quite some visual polish present. I like how stylish the tiles are. They also look very colorful because the game is running in Multicolor Bitmap Mode. This mode allows for more color variation at the cost of memory usage and speed. These downsides are not an issue here, as the levels remain largely static and the only background changes are just small blocks that get removed one at a time. The explosions that happen when tiles disintegrate are an interesting detail. I always thought they were sprites, but it turns out they're bitmap animations.

As much as I like the tiles' individual designs, I'm not a fan of how very similar and ambiguous they look. You can't tell what a block does just by looking at it, and some of them are easily confused with each other. You have to look real close to see the difference between the goal tile and the speed-up tile, for example.

From here on I'm wading through previously unexplored territory. Let's see if the game throws any more levels at me that are seemingly impossible to complete.


This one doesn't look too bad at first glance. Then you realize that your controls are going to be reversed for half of the stage, and you have to jump on water tiles in order to remove three mandatory tiles. If you are unlucky, the water will send you right back to the tiles you just removed and end your ball's existence.


Level 7 is pretty easy to complete: Follow the diagonal tiles up, then take the zig-zag path down, then turn to the right, and finally move diagonally up to the goal tile. I guess the red robot freeze tile is just there as a distraction, as this is the only path you should not take.


Does this look familiar? It's the old "draw a house with one continuous line without crossing it" puzzle. I prefer these kinds of levels where luck isn't a factor at all.


This one may look a bit tedious at first, but there is a certain satisfaction in removing all tiles from the level. The only tricky part is the right side where some tiles are missing, and you are forced to adjust your movement pattern accordingly.


I probably would have hated this level if I had played it on my original C64, as diagonal joystick inputs could be hard to pull off at times. Other than that, the stage is not that difficult to complete.


You have to react pretty quickly to not die within the first few seconds. The bodyguard immediately moves in your direction, and you have to reach the fork in the path before your enemy gets there. The bottom part is a rather cruel exercise where your controls get reversed and un-reversed several times.


Level 12 made me audibly curse when I first saw it. Just look at that disgusting line of water! You have to cross it twice, once to get to the tiles that need to be removed, and the second time to get to the exit, which is guarded by the enemy robot. I've lost count how many tries it took me until the water tiles decided not to murder my ball. There is a reason why you get a free extra life here. This is the worst stage in the game, as the outcome is purely based on luck.


Back to more manageable levels: Here you simply have to jump over walls to reach the three mandatory tiles in the middle areas. Just make sure to keep the robot at a fair distance.


This one has the exit on a small island in the top right with the bodyguard stuck on it. First, you have to gather several speed-up tiles to maximize your movement speed. Then you hit the robot freeze tile and hop over to the island, hopefully before the bodyguard wakes up and gets in the way.




This one is quite the challenge: The goal tile is right next to your starting point. You have to make sure you still have a way back once you've reached the blue tile in the bottom right. Like in level 6, this is another case where you have to figure out the right path so the bodyguard doesn't get in the way. With some trial and error, I found the following reliable way to successfully trap the robot:

After that, it's just a matter of concentration to get to the blue tile and make it back to the goal tile while your controls are reversed.


This level also has the start and goal tile right next to each other, but its challenge comes from the sheer number of jump boosts. Solving this stage feels like a game of peg solitaire where you have to skip every other tile and ensure you can still hop back to the exit. It helps to know that you can also perform boosted jumps in diagonal directions.


We are getting into the home stretch here. Level 18 is not particularly difficult, you just need to make sure to remove all tiles from each island before you boost jump to the next one.


The penultimate level is another boost jumping puzzle and quite an enjoyable one at that. It is equally intense as it is quick to solve.


All right, we've made it to the final level. If we disintegrate all of the blue tiles here, we will be victorious over the evil *checks notes* Zodiac. I am sure the game's ending will totally explain how exactly jumping on various colored tiles can cause the downfall of a malevolent madman.

Well, here is a video of me completing the final stage and then being presented with Elite Squad's ending:

This Is It. This final revelation is so Off the Wall, it makes the villain look like a Smooth Criminal, an unreachable Man in the Mirror who Beat It before we could ever figure out Who Is It. We didn't get to Heal the World, and no Earth Song was performed in our honor. I think after this Thriller I just want to Scream.


I'm in two minds about Elite Squad. Upon replaying it in an emulator, I found it more enjoyable than I had almost thirty years ago. The convenience of save states made repeated attempts at solving certain stages much more tolerable.

On the technical side, the game knows how to present itself in a very shiny coat. The bitmap graphics make use of the C64's full color spectrum, and the music by Markus Schneider is of his usual high standard.

When it comes to the game itself, I think some mistakes were made. The enemy bodyguard, while always acting the same way, is very hard for the player to predict. Sometimes it just moves back and forth, and sometimes it homes in on the player's location with single-minded determination. But my main gripe, as you may have guessed already, is of the aquatic nature. Almost all levels containing water tiles make success a matter of luck, and I don't enjoy losing balls simply because the Random Numbers God is in a bad mood.

On the other hand, I find myself enjoying the levels that are purely based on finding the right path. The numerous tile types add quite a lot of variety to the levels.

As for the game's story, let's just say it obviously didn't need one at all. I have to admit, though, while I didn't expect the ending to have any connection to the plot, I was still taken aback by what I got to see.

In the end, I am of the opinion that Elite Squad is borderline unbearable to play without either a trainer for infinite lives or the use of save states in an emulator. There are no passwords or any other ways to skip past stages you have already completed. If you lose all of your balls, you have to start from the beginning. That quickly becomes very frustrating, especially if you get stuck in one of the later levels.

If you want to play a nicely presented puzzle game that also requires some quick reactions, Elite Squad might be for you. For your sanity's sake, I highly recommend playing with infinite lives.

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