Conan: Hall of Volta (1984)

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Another of those early platformer game where the designers haven’t yet figured out the optimal controls for moving and jumping. It’s not as terrible as say Aztec, but it’s still far from pleasant. To move you speed up in one direction, but to stop you don’t let go of the movement key, instead you slow down again by hitting the other direction (this applies to the Apple II version).

Making your character stop at a certain point is quite trying and I’ve died often enough because I walked over a cliff. Jumping is iffy as well and doesn’t always work as you hoped it would. Once you have jumped, there’s not a lot you can do and you can only hope you hit the right angle and put enough power into the jump.

The game is an early forerunner for both cinematic platformers (simulationist movement physics and very concrete levels) and puzzle platformers. You have one-screen levels where you have to get to the ending often by finding keys, solving minor puzzles and doing all that in a set sequence to get out. Also there are lots of things that can insta-kill you (lava, water, spikes, wild animals).

What sets the game apart from other early platformers are the levels. Typical platformers have mostly abstract levels that follow a certain theme, but each level in Conan is modeled as if it were a real place. The outer part of a castle, a lava pit, a moat in front of the castle, some of its interior halls. It’s obviously still abstract to a large extend, else there would be no game, but each of them feels more realistic than was the norm then. You want to step outside of some of those screens and go explore further.

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The game was published on various western home computers in 1984 (Atari 8-bit, C64, Apple II) and from 1985 to 1986 on Japanese ones (PC-88, Sharp X1, FM7). While it’s not possible to see on these small screenshots, the Apple II (screen beside the cover) version had owning to the hardware a nice scanline effect that made its version look rather beautiful.

In comparison the Atari 8-bit version (the 2 screens above) looks rather drab and simple, though the controls are much better in the Atari version. Movement is less based on momentum and almost feels like a modern platformer. You move the left key, you move left, you stop, your character stops. You move the right key, and so on. Only jumping is still a bit off in this version.

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The C64 looks just as drab as the Atari 8-bit one, and also sports the same improved control scheme. One thing that stands out about it though is the sound. Compared to the primitive bleeps and blops of both the Apple and the Atari version, the sound on the C64 version is a noticeable improvement and actually sounds like real music (good too, though a bit repetitive after some time). One major drawback to this version are the loading times between levels. If you not accustomed to this you think the software has bugged out.

Alas, of the versions I tried one really did bug out after the fourth level (offering a horrendous glitch screen version of the the 4th level), and in the other where I could play to the final level, it bugged out once I finished the final puzzle. Instead of seeing the bird throw Volta into the volcano and bring Conan to safety and maybe an ending screen, everything turned black. Could be the software is still loading, but after a few minutes I gave up. Still worth for the music though.

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