Review: Cobex (Cruising on Broadway Extra)

Longtime retro remaker Caffeinekid recently sent me a headsup, about his latest classic game remake. It’s an interesting project, in both its legal – and ‘financial’ – status.

Let me explain…

Non-commercial retro game remakers usually don’t seek permission from the rights holders. As their remake is destined to be freeware, they assume that releasing a “tribute game” won’t be a problem.

In the vast bulk of cases, the owners don’t hear about the remake, or don’t bother taking any action. A tiny percentage will be contacted by the rights holder with a “Cease & Desist” letter (boo!) or sometimes, congratulations/encouragement on updating their old game. (hooray!)

COB - Title & instructions

COB - Title & instructions

In the case of Crusing on Broadway, CaffeineKid contacted the original author (Jeff Naylor) who not only gave his blessing, but happily gave him lots of feedback as he worked on the remake! This makes Cruising on Broadway Extra (COBEX) one of very few retro remakes where the original author has happily said “yes” to a remake, and even contributed to the project.

The next variation from the norm with COBEX involves money – it’s what CaffeineKid calls “a donationware experiment”. But I’ll get to that in a minute. Firstly, lets start our review!

COB - level & game over

COB - level & game over

Cruising on Broadway was a 1983 release for the ZX Spectrum. For those of us (myself included) who were busy playing our Commodore 64′s, it played a bit like Qix (minus the drawing part). Each screen consisted of a track, made of lines meeting at right angles. The player controlled a block that traversed the track, changing it’s colour… aiming to do so, in the possible shortest time. Unfortunately, you weren’t alone. There were one or more enemy ‘chasers’ patrolling the track – and touching a single one would end your game. Dead. No extra lives.

The wonderfully-named Way of the Rodent put Cruising on Broadway at number 9 in their “Top 64 Speccy moments“. Your Sinclair reviewer Stuart Campbell ranked it 97 in his top 100, calling it a game “unparralleled in the history of gaming addiction”.

COBEX title screen

COBEX title screen

And COBEX is a great update. The game opens with a pleasant vector-style title screen, with understated music by remake music king InfamousUK. (We interviewed him earlier this year, regarding the very-nearly-released PC remake of Armalyte) People who like to fiddle with lots of settings will be disappointed – it’s ‘full screen’ or ‘window’ – that’s it. I for one was hoping to use a gamepad rather than keyboard – if such an option is available, I couldn’t find it.

Once the game starts, intructions popup to guide beginners, but the font size may be small if you’re playing in a window. Thankfully, you don’t really need to be told what to do. Arrow keys move your little ship around (looking very much like the old Asteriods triangle), with the space bar making a temporary break in the path. This break can be just enough to help keep your distance from the enemy “stars” that patrol the track.

It's just a zoom to the left...

It's just a zoom to the left...

You can move around the track at a fair rate of knots, and travelling on an unbroken ‘new’ section of track, builds a combo meter. Finishing the level leads to bonus points – and possibly a bronze/silver/gold/platinum award. Another nod to modern gameplay is the energy bar, which (not surprisingly) drops whenever you touch the enemies. I’m not sure about an energy bar though – I think it’s the kind of game where a simple ’3 lives’ might have worked better. Often you’ll touch an enemy – and keep touching them by accident – meaning you can lose a much larger amount of power than necessary. With a ‘lives’ model – you could reset the enemy’s position – and get a chance to catch your breath.

The graphics (from COB to COBEX) have been nicely updated, with vectory style glows, and a hypnotic ‘Gravity Wars-esque’ grid background. Moving your craft along the path causes little vector ‘pieces’ to fall off the track, and when you die, there’s a BIG shower of sparks. Despite the fast-moving gameplay, the muted colourscheme & ambient music create a pleasant combination.

Like a whirlpool... it never ends...

Like a whirlpool... it never ends...

COBEX is simple, but addictive. I have no history with the original title, but I can see some good clean fun happening with the remake. And now we come to Caffeinekid’s interesting ‘twist’. You’ve heard of freeware, shareware, and maybe even careware. But here we have an experimental version of ‘Donationware’.

You can download the game for free. There’s no nag screens. But if you’d like to send your highscores to the online score table – that will cost you. To quote Caffeinekid, “anything from a single pound coin to the national debt will do”. So – rather than paying for more levels (Doom shareware) or paying for extra items (almost any free-to-play MMO) – you’re paying to show off & compete. And how’s the experiment going so far?

In the first 6 weeks, COBEX has been downloaded thousands of times, but only a handful of players have donated to enter the online scoreboard. To put my marketing hat on for a moment, the title is getting a conversion rate of around 0.1%. That is, 99.9% of players are happy to play the game free (even briefly) but didn’t feel the need to donate for online score competition.

Star awards are given for fast level completion

Star awards are given for fast level completion

At this stage, if the experiment aimed at buying Caffeinekid a new computer, it’s not looking very promising. But it’s a great start to an interesting discussion. Why the 0.1% conversion here rate?

  • Were players unfamiliar with the original game?
  • Did they not enjoy the remake?
  • Did players like the remake, but not feel the need to compete globally?
  • Were they interested in global competition, but disinterested in paying for it?

Maybe other factors are at play here. If you’ve got any theories, please leave ‘em in the comments.

Meanwhile, Caff’s not the only member of the Retro Remakes forum who’s been doing some ‘paid’ indie gaming experimentation… I get the feeling we’ll see more of that in 2010.

Exhaust your energy - and this happens

Exhaust your energy - and this happens

All in all I liked COBEX, but there were a few things that annoyed me.

  1. Lack of a pause key. (I *needed* to answer that phone!)
  2. Lack of gamepad support. It’s not the kind of game I enjoy via keyboard.
  3. ‘Cornering’ is too precise. I was hoping for ‘Pacman-esque’ cornering when you can ‘start turning earlier’.

Give it a spin, yourself!

COBEX is a free download – for Windows, Mac & Linux (with optional donationware online high score access) available from CaffeineKid’s website.

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