Monday, 5 August 2013

Rowtron Television Computer System Console & Games Review


In my review of the Acetronic MPU 2000 a few days ago, I mentioned that it was a member of a largely forgotten family of British and European games consoles called the VC-4000 family.

As luck would have it, my local retro games shop, M and M games (in Croydon, worth a visit if you're in South London) updated their facebook with a picture of a system 'made in Yorkshire' which looked suspiciously similar to the Acetronic. This piqued my interest so I ran over faster than light to pick it up.

Ee bah gum, it's T'Yorkshire Console Baht 'at. Ey up Eckythump!etc, etc.
After doing some research, I have found that the Rowtron Television Computer System is indeed part of the Interton VC-4000 family of games. If anything, this is a rarer and harder to find member than the Acetronic, and is quite different in appearance and general game style.I might have to start making a side-collection of these things, I love how varied the machines are while still having basically the same hardware.

Let's play like we were brothers... Let's play like brothers do!
I am going to be comparing the Rowtron to the Acetronic quite a bit, because of the VC-4000 link, but fortunately I have a lot more games for the Rowtron. I have 18 games, 4 of which are duplicates, so 14 unique games, out of 26 (I'll put in a full list later on). But are they any good? Who knows, there's next to no information about any of them I can find on the internet. So you may well be looking at the most complete amalgamated source of information on the Rowtron game library ever made! Isn't that exciting!?

Rowtron Television Computer System 

The Rowtron Television Computer System was manufactured by Teleng and distributed by Rowtron, supposedly in 1981, although I found a comment on the old computers museum page for the Rowtron that suggests it may have been available from 1979. The comment itself is unsupported, but there is so little information available on this system, and some of that information needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, that it seems enough to throw the exact dates in to the air a little. There are a few sites that claim that 21 games were available for the console, but I have proof that there were 26, or at least that there were 26 planned releases (see below: Games).


 The Console

This console is huge. I mean, really bloody big. It might not be as heavy as an Xbox one, I mean, original, and I don't have any other huge consoles like an Atari 7800 or a Neo Geo AES to compare it to, but it's big. Almost as big as the TV I'm playing it on.

But now I can't see the telly.
You can see in that picture how much bigger the Rowtron is compared to the Sega Saturn, which is a pretty hefty block of a console, too. It looks like some kind of retro-futuristic control panel for a spaceship. An odd thing about the Rowtron is that it isn't even that heavy, in fact it's insanely light. I have pong consoles heavier than this thing. Don't get me wrong, the plastic is good quality, there's nice heavy duty buttons on it and the controllers are nice and weighty, it just doesn't seem like there's much inside it at all. What would you expect from an old low-power console, I guess?

The cartridges are also massive. You know how I compared an Acetronic cart to an Atari 2600 cart, and said the Acetronic cart was huge? Take a look at this:

ENORM!

Other than NES cartridges (and they have an excuse, being super awesome and all) Rowtron cartidges are by far the biggest I own. They dwarf SNES carts, those weird tall EA Mega Drive carts, Jaguar carts, everything. If only I had some Neo Geo games to put them to shame.

The cartridges were packed in nicely sturdy cardboard boxes, unfolding to reveal the game and an instruction leaflet. Unfortunately, the boxes were all the same, bar a sticker down the spine telling you which game is inside. No lovely box art to admire or blurb to read, unfortunately.

UOI5VNUI U3I7U. What the hell does that mean?

Looking at the console, you would probably assume that the dark grey cartridge-slot-looking area in the top of the console would be where you plug the cartridges in. Not so, however. Rather than plonking it in the top like almost every other games console had done, the Rowtron went all Intellivision on our asses and put the cartridge slot in the side. Apparently, the reason for the not-quite-slot in the top was because of a last minute change of plan in the design stages.

Sometimes, when you stare too long into the abyss...

Having the slot at the side kind of makes sense, I suppose. Less dust will settle in there and you're less likely to drop something directly on the pin connection. On the other hand, it means you can't have your system set up with less than 3 or 4 inches leeway on the right side. When you have loads of consoles and not enough room for them (guilty as charged) that can be pretty annoying. Also, it looks like the console has grown a tumour.
I for one, embrace our new video game overlords.

My favorite part of the Rowtron's hardware is definitely the controllers. They are similar to the Acetronic controllers but so,so much nicer. The small, unmarked keys are replaced with a huge, high quality phone keypad. The buttons are much larger and nicely beveled, very ergonomic. You can tell that these controllers were made with far higher grade parts than the Acetronic ones, the keys click very definitely in, much like a phone (I wouldn't be surprised if the parts were actually straight from a phone). The joysticks are far more sturdy, but still easy enough to move around precisely. The whole controller is shaped more to fit your hand than the Acetronic and is really quite comfortable to use. The best part is: no curly wiring! Sure, the wire only reaches about a foot, but still. At least I don't feel like I'm being pulled back towards the console all the time.

Games

As I mentioned earlier, there seems to be a bit of confusion about the number of games released for the Rowtron. The general consensus seems to be 21, although I have cartridge 22 (Alien Invasion) and 26 (Monster Muncher) , the latter has a list of 26 games 'Available to fit Rowtron and Teleng television computer systems'. It could be that some of those games weren't ever released, or (and I highly, highly doubt it) I have some super-rare games that nobody thought were released.
Anyway, if anyone is traversing the world wide web looking for a full games list for the Rowtron and Teleng Television Computer Systems, here it is:

1. Sportsworld
2.Combat
3.Horse Racing
4.Maze
5.Maths Two
6.Four In A Row
7.Mastermind
8.Air-Sea Battles
9.Boxing
10.Black Jack
11.Sporting Shotgun
12.Motor Race
13.Maths One
14.Circus
15.Galactic Space Battles
16.Reversi
17.Video Pinball
18.Flag Capture/Memory Match
19.Face the Music
20.Golf
21.Draughts
22.Alien Invasion
23.Home Programmer
24.Cowboy
25.Chess
26.Monster Muncher

Again, I can't be sure that all of these were released, but I do own number 26, with suggests that they were manufactured up to number 26.

Without further ado, I'll do some quick reviews of the games, from 1 to 26 (well, the ones I have anyway).

Cartridge number 1: Sportsworld. 

Right, so this will be pong won't it? Yup, but for what it's worth it's quite good pong. On a pink background with very bright and vibrant colours for the bats, it looks a bit garish but nice. I was somewhat blown away by the sound and the control. The sound is really varied for this kind of game. Normally the most you get it a 'bip...bip...bip' but with this you get a different beep for each bat, and for the wall, which decreases in pitch as your rally gets longer. The control is really good, normally with pong you want to be using a rotary controller, like the Atari Paddle controller, or like the ones built in to pretty much any pong console back in the day. However, the joystick control on the Rowtron is really precise, with little or no bat-flicker, which gets really annoying on old pong machines. There are then your game variations like Football, Volleyball, Netball, Basketball... pretty standard pong variations, similar to Atari's Video Olympics.
It looks super-washed out because of the difference in refresh rates in the camera and the telly, but trust me, it's like an explosion in a paint factory.

But what's this... Wipeout, Defender, Demolition? These sound new... Oh awesome! Breakout/Arkanoid clones and pong clones on the same cartridge! Madness! The blocks are just lines, rather than blocks, but these are still genuinely fun versions of the game. And you get two player modes, modes where you have to defend your wall rather than attack it in Defender, modes where you have to work together (very rare in old games) in Demolition. This is actually awesome, in fact I might even say that I would rather play this than the Atari 2600 equivalents.

This cartridge has really filled me with hope for this system, fingers crossed that the rest of the games are just as good.


Cartridge number 2: Combat. 

Once again, I'm expecting this to be a clone of Atari's Combat. The last cart managed to surprise me though, so maybe this will too. 
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? I can't tell, it's too blooming small!

No surprises, really. It's just combat. A few different tank arenas, a few different plane arenas. Unfortunately, the control here really let the game down. Unlike in pong and it's variants, where you move the joystick in the direction you want to move, combat has left and right turning the tank/plane left and right, and forward and back being thrust and backwards thrust. This works really well on the 8 direction Atari Joystick, but on these somewhat wobblier and wamblier joysticks, you end up thrusting when you want to be turning, and vice-versa. 


If I had to pick out a few positives about Rowtron Combat, it would be that, again, the sound is far better than expected and, again, the graphics are very colourful. Also, unlike in Atari's Combat, there is a large flashing explosion animation when a tank or plane is shot. Also, while the tanks seem pretty small, the shots they fire are large flashing blobs, which is quite a nice touch. People with epilepsy should probably stay as far away from the Rowtron as possible, though. 



 Cartridge number 4: Maze.

Once again, I'm surprised by a really high quality game. I mean, mazes aren't really my kind of thing, but this one is quite fun. I was expecting a simple 'go through the maze' game like that crappy Snail Maze game that was built into Sega Master Systems. Instead, while the first game is pretty much Snail Maze, cycling through the programs you find invisible mazes, mazes with changing segments, mazes with monsters (blue squares) moving towards you. You can also play all these modes two player. 

Beware the Square!

In Maze, the control seems alright. It's not fantastic and, again, would probably be better with an Atari controller. Maze isn't the most fun I've ever had, but I imagine if I was a kid in the early 80's I would probably have loved it. 

Cartridge Number 6: Four In A Row 


Do I really have to write about this? It's four in a row and it's boring. 
yawn

Why couldn't they just keep it as a tabletop game? This version is probably just as good as any other electronic Four in a Row games, I just don't see the point. 

Cartridge Number 7: Mastermind.
Unfortunately, I couldn't get this one to work. It just came up with a blank screen. I would be willing to bet, though, that if it had worked, it would just have been Mastermind, another game that should probably be left to the tabletop version. Having said that, it might have been fantastic, we don't know. Let's pretend it was fantastic. Yeah.

And I was so looking  forward to Level 2 (Solo Shapes) :'(

For the sake of documentation, this cartridge came in a Teleng case, which has a little plastic window instead of the tiny pizza box style cases that Rowtron distributed. Mastermind IS listed on the Rowtron game list though so I doubt that is the reason for it not working.

Cartridge Number 10: Black Jack 
So this is the game of Blackjack, Pontoon, 21s, whatever you want to call it. Again, this is just not as much fun as playing with your friends. I do like a few casino style games, I quite like Slot machine simulators like Pachisuro Aruze Oogoku Ohanabi (Bam! Obscure Japanese Pachislot reference!) or Ceasar's Palace, but card games should probably be kept as card games.




If you don't have any friends and/or don't want to gamble real money, this may well be the game for you! Or you could use sultanas instead of chips, then you can use your fantastic wit to come out with hilarious quips like 'I see your bet, and I'm raisin' you!' ho ho, he he, ha ha.


Cartridge Number 11: Sporting Shotgun
 That's better, something not board/card game based. A shooting game!
It's blurry because I was shaking from the adrenaline rush this game gave me.
 This one is very similar to any other 'things scroll past and you try to hit them' game, like Air Sea Battle or Carnival. One problem I have with this is that in half of the game modes, you can't move your gunman, and in others you can't keep him still. I guess that it does add a bit of variety, but really seems like they only made these modes so they can advertise having more 'games' on a cartridge.

The guided shot modes are pretty cool though, you can move the bullet left and right after it's left your gun, a bit like in some modes of Combat.


Cartridge Number 15: Galactic Space Battles. 
This one is good. Just to let you know how good, let me tell you this: When you win a game, it plays an incredibly simplified and poop-sounding version of the Star Wars main theme. 

The first game "Space Battle"  is a surprisingly fun attempt at a 3d shooter. It's completely 2d, of course, but the enemy ships do get bigger the closer they are to you. The control for this is actually pretty good. The movement is quite quick and responsive. You just have to shoot the enemy before they get close and shoot you, but it's harder than it sounds. 

The second game is "Asteroid Landing". As the name suggests, you have to land on an asteroid. At first I was imagining something like Lunar Lander,  but no such luck. Nevertheless, this game is alright. It's certainly not as much fun as "Space Battle" but it does the job. Basically you need to be using your thrusters as you land on the asteroid and make sure you land right on the top of it. You would imagine it to have gravity, but no, it doesn't. You literally just have to press a button as you land. That said, the controls on this one seem even more responsive, so it's got that going for it. 

He's on me tight, I can't shake him!

The final game "Space Hunt" (pictured) is the same as "Space Battle" but the background is black instead of blue and the enemies are green UFO shapes rather than the Tie-fighter-ish shapes in "Space Battle". Other than that it is exactly the same, but I think I like this one more. Black space and UFOs are way better than poxy yellow planes. 

Cartridge Number 17: Video Pinball
These really old pinball 'simulations' are, in general really bad. The machines couldn't deal with ball physics very well back then and for the most part everything looked blocky and rubbish. This is what I thought while playing Video Pinball on the Atari 2600. Video Pinball on the Rowtron however, is far, far, far, better. 

...And I've been on the Pinball, and I no longer know it all...

The ball physics seem more realistic (still way off, but kudos for the effort). The bumpers and ball are actually vaguely circular, whereas in Atari's version everything was square. The control is far better too. On the Atari game, in order to flip the flippers you had to nudge left or right on the joystick. Because of the Rowtron's nice clicky button pad, 8 releases the ball and 7 and 9 are the flipper controls. This makes it far easier to use. 


I have far better pinball games to play, but I might bust this one out again sometime. It's quite fun.

Cartridge Number 19: Face The Music

A similar game called "Electronic Music/Follow The Leader" was included in my Acetronic review. This is exactly the same. I don't mean to sound too disappointed... I mean, both machines belong to the Interton VC-4000 family, so the sound output was bound to be almost identical anyway. Sigh. 

Same old, same old.

On the plus side though, I like using these controllers more than the Acetronic ones, so I will probably use this version of the program more than the Acetronic version. 


Cartridge Number 20: Golf
Golf! I have a history of liking golf games, I'm really big on them. From the Bandai Pro Golf handheld from 1984, to NES Golf, to Neo Turfmasters, to Actua Golf, to Tiger Woods PGA tour to Golden Tee... et cetera. I really like golf games. 

The rare and elusive First Hole in it's natural habitat.
I can't say I like this one. I like it up until near the first hole. I first started playing and it all seemed so straightforward. Move your guy around, press 5 to go into shot mode, press 8 to thwack the ball. Off it goes! Hurray! Then you get up near the hole and suddenly my skill at thwacking goes downhill.Whenever I touch the ball it flies off the screen. I've tried lightly tapping the button, holding it down, I've tried pressing every button on both controllers, I've tried restarting umpteen times and I still can't seem to get the ball in the hole. Also, sod's law, it's the only game I don't have instructions for. Ah well. 

 Cartridge Number 22: Alien Invasion
Is it going to be Space Invaders? 

Of course it's going to be Space Invaders. In fact, this one is identical to Invaders for the Acetronic. Same diagonal aliens, same chubby barricades, everything. 
SpAcetronic Invaders, more like!
One distinction to be made, though, is the control. Once again, the joysticks on this thing have proven to be far superior to the Acetronic. However, once again, an Atari joystick would have done the job better.

Cartridge Number 26: Monster Munchers
Sorry to end on a down note, but this game sucks. It's broken. It's obviously supposed to be a bit like Pac-Man, but it just doesn't work. Half the time you don't move the way you want to go, there's only one ghost and it runs into a corner and stops, the fruit doesn't move in the first place, there aren't any dots to eat, just 4 large batteries in the corners. The maze layout looks crap as well. 

This is it. Nothing moves except you (the green blob). What a pile of tosh. 

It's hardly a shock that they stopped making games after this, and it's a real shame to have to end on such a sour note after just warming up to the console throughout the rest of the games. 


So...

The Rowtron Television Computer System... Was is any good? Well it's no Atari, but for home-grown British gaming, yeah I think it was alright. Having a proper look at these games made me not only appreciate this machine but also the Acetronic MPU 2000. I think that given that 2 of the programs were identical, it is fair to assume that the Acetronic would also have had some of the other, better, Rowtron games written for it, so maybe I gave it a hard review before. The Rowtron certainly made me feel better about the Interton VC-4000 family of consoles. Now that I have a collection of 2 of them, maybe I should go after the whole lot! (My wallet screams in agony).

On top of that, I actually had a lot of fun playing with this system. Some of the games were terrible. Monster Munchers certainly was. However, I think that some of the games like Sportsworld, Maze, Galactic Space Battles and Video Pinball will probably be dusted off and played again at some point in the not too far distant future. 

Cheers for reading, 
Dusty Old Games



4 comments:

  1. I've still got my Rowtron somewhere! Games I've got (I think)

    1. Sportsworld
    2.Combat
    3.Horse Racing
    4.Maze
    6.Four In A Row
    8.Air-Sea Battles
    9.Boxing
    11.Sporting Shotgun
    14.Circus
    17.Video Pinball
    20.Golf
    22.Alien Invasion
    24.Cowboy
    26.Monster Muncher

    Many early eighties hours spent playing those!

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    Replies
    1. Awesome! You should dig it out for old times sake :) Horse racing sounds interesting. I'm guessing it's more of a betting game than a racing game?

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  2. I would love to get updates from you. Keep blogging. All the best.

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  3. Excellent blog post, so pleased I found this! I started collecting retro systems a few years back and picked up one of these. It's been sitting in the loft unloved for too long. Just got back into the Philips G7000 (much under-rated system) and was thinking about other systems at the time - then remembered I still had the Rowtron.

    Just pulled it out the loft and unfortunately the TV aerial connector is missing. Thankfully it's an easy fix and I'll have her up and running in no time. Looking forward to getting some first hand experience with the system. When I got it, it came with quite a few games.

    ReplyDelete