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The CURSE of WHO: WHY has there never been a decent videogame with the Doctor?

The Antique Code Show desk gets the facts

By Tony Smith, 7 Nov 2013

Doctor Who @ 50 Doctor Who has not done well as part of the videogame industry. There have been a fair number of professionally-made games based on the series, but few with the BBC’s official blessing and of them an even smaller number that were actually worth playing for any length of time.

"Good" in this context doesn’t necessarily mean that the game sticks to established continuity. In fact, one of the better Doctor Who games, possibly the very best, played a little fast and loose with the character of the Doctor, but it made for a decent arcade experience.

Doctor Who: The Adventure Games

Join us, then, as we look back at game developers’ attempts to bring the Doctor’s adventures into the hands of computer buffs, from the 8-bit era right up to the present day.

The first official Doctor Who game was, appropriately, called The First Adventure and equally aptly, it was released for the BBC Micro and published by the BBC itself. Written by one Jeremy Ruston, First Adventure was simply a compilation of four popular arcade games - Pac-Man, Frogger, Galaxian and Battleships - each given a Who-style graphical makeover and linked by a very basic storyline centring on the recovery of the Key to Time and its placement at the middle of the universe.

Doctor Who: The First Adventure

All The First Adventure’s levels, like the first, were based on popular arcade games

As a player you got 15 lives - “regenerations” here - and you had 60 minutes to complete all four sub-games. Only the first involved finding the Key to Time - only three segments, not six, mind - with the other three about rescuing a companion and zapping monsters. Having found three Key segments, rescued your assistant, dealt with the Terrordactyls and recovered the Box of Tantalus from alien tea-leaves - presumably you need the Box to put the Key parts in; who can say? - you were done, and the process of taking the Key “to the centre of the universe, where it can be used to initiate the Second Age of Time” was left to your imagination.

As were the graphics. The first game, "Labyrinth of Death", exchanges Pac-Man for the Doctor, but he’s represented as a plus symbol. Ghosts become snakes, which are horizontal or vertical lines. The maze looks more like a cavern, true, but it’s basically "grab the goodies before the baddies get you".

Level two, "The Prison", was more obviously Frogger: guide your little stick Time Lord past rockets, riverine beasties, asteroids and flying saucers to reach the safe spaces at the top of the screen.

Doctor Who: The First Adventure

But the second and third levels were less well disguised

Part three is called "Terrordactyls", which are birds that hover around at the top of the screen trying to crap on you from a great height, but occasionally swoop down for a better shot. You have to shoot ‘em all. The token Who reference is a Tardis graphic up on a ledge. Finally, ‘Box’ is Battleships played on a cross-shaped grid: enter co-ordinates to try and blast the hidden aliens.

Quite apart from being poor, The First Adventure had a painting of Peter Davison on the box. But he quit playing the Doctor in 1984 - around the time the game went on sale - so his picture hindered demand when Colin Baker took over that same year.

The First Adventure starts up

“Really, The First Adventure is just a taster,” admitted BBC Soft spokesman Meyer Solomon at the time. “The next Doctor Who program will probably be a far more elaborate program: an adventure possibly with some graphics and should be ready some time next summer.”

Meanwhile, unofficial Doctor Who games were starting to appear. Back then, before BBC trademarkers went eagerly and greedily to work, it was easy to include references to the Doctor, perhaps even to include an 8-bit image of a Police Box, and get away with it. Proper nouns were harder. Red Shift, a company based in London’s Stoke Newington, released Time Lords on the BBC Micro in 1983, a role-playing game designed by Julian Gollop (who had only just left school) and programmed by Andrew Greene. Instead of Daleks, Cybermen, Zarbi and Autons, the game featured Kaleds, Cyburmen, Zarby and Nestines. Humans too. Locations included many planets featured on the TV show but with subtle changes to avoid complaints from the BBC and the attention of m’learned friends.

The game divided the universe into five separate locations - the omes of “the five great starfaring races” - each accessible in any of 15 time segments. The five races have been battling for millennia, but history has come to an end with no victor in sight, and so they’ve all “hired powerful Time Lords” to change the course of history and thus win the war. One to five players can take part, each assuming the role of a mercenary Time Lord.

Doctor Who: The First Adventure

Never put a departing Doctor on your cover
Click for larger image

It was a turn-based strategy game with a little role-play - well, stats and scores - as each player attempts to lift their chosen race to the peak of civilisation. You also need to find four Key to Time segments and a companion, all hidden in space and time. You can lay Time Traps to snare other players, but you have to spend Time Points to use your temporal scanners and such. Arrive in the same place and time as another player, and you use a scissors-paper-rock-esque combat system to work out the winner. Last Lord standing wins the game, or whoever has the most points at the end.

The Key to Time is missing. Again

It was clear Gollop was a fan: who else would know about the insect Zarbi, not seen since a single William Hartnell story, The Web Planet, back in the mid-1960s?

The writer of The Key to Time, published by Leeds-based Lumpsoft in 1984, was probably a fan too. This was a text-only aventure which involved travelling to a number of planets mentioned in the TV series - none of their names were disguised the way Red Shift had done - as you seek to free the Doctor from Time Storms on the orders of the High Council of the Time Lords.

Lumpsoft's The Key to Time

Lumpsoft’s The Key to Time steered clear of Who branding

Once again, the game is all about finding the (five now) segments of the titular Key. In addition to Who locations Skaro, a Sensorite Temple and Gallifrey itself, you found yourself typing in commands - N, S, E, W, Get, Enter, Pull, Drop, etc, etc. - to navigate around a zoo and a field and interact with the objects there. The latter has a solitary Cyberman to deal with - with gold, of course: "Use gold on Cyberman".

The Key to Time was written by a Leeds University Doctor of Pathology - a Dr Halkin - using Greame Yeandle’s popular text adventure compilation tool, The Quill, which allowed Lumpsoft to release the game on the Spectrum and the Commodore 64.

“Good-humoured, well written and a joy to play,” judged Sinclair User magazine at the time.

Doctor Who and the Mines of Terror

Big-budget scrolling adventure: The Mines of Terror

Both titles had relatively low production values, but Micro Power’s Doctor Who and the Mines of Terror, announced in 1984 but not released until well into 1985, was a big-budget affair which actually featured the Doctor himself - in his Colin Baker incarnation - there on the screen in a kind of cross between an adventure, a side-scroller and a platform game.

For all Micro Power’s cash, it didn’t want to splash out on licensing the Dalek name and design, so coder Gary Partis created a broadly similar looking robot enemy, the Controllers, for the Doctor to encounter as he romps through the mines of Rijar in search of the Master. No other series monsters or companions were licensed, so the Doctor had a Time Lord supplied robot cat, Splinx, to help him out with the shooty stuff.

Doctor Who and the Mines of Terror

Mines of Terror was the first game to feature a clearly recognisable Doctor

Partis wrote the BBC version; Tony Sothcot converted the game to the Commodore 64, while Ian Clemments worked on Amstrad CPC 64 and Spectrum versions, though the latter was never released. All of them had the Doctor roaming the mines and associated installations - he stayed at the centre of the screen while the world moved past him - seeking objects that can be then used to access special parts of the mines in order to locate other objects. In short, just like a text adventure but without the tedious typing in of commands.

Micro Power promoted the game heavily but had to charge £14.95 for it because it shipped with a 16KB Rom chip that needed to be insterted into the BBC Micro (which otherwise lacked memory to hold all of the game’s data). That wasn’t a problem with the CPC 64, which got its version of The Mines of Terror in 1986, but it effectively prevented Micro Power from releasing the game on the Spectrum - at least not without extra, cost-raising hardware. Spectrum users were used to paying at most a fiver for games, not three times that.

Doctor Who and the Mines of Terror

The Mines of Terror was promoted heavily for a mid-1980s game
Click for larger image

Thanks to the price, The Mines of Terror was not a major success, and the huge cost of its development did for Micro Power. Zzap! 64 magazine gave it 86 per cent, but Amstrad magazine Amtix only thought it worth 48 per cent.

Doctor Who and the Warlord

Not the same Warlord as seen in The War Games

In 1985, the BBC tried its hand at another Doctor Who game, this time a text adventure, Doctor Who and the Warlord. It was designed by former show producer Graham Williams in partnership with a design company called Pluto, with the coding handled by Chessfield Microgames. “This adventure has been written entirely in machine code generated by the purpose-built TAG langauge,” the packaging boasted. It featured such refinements as a “sophisticated parser allowing more natural commands” and “magically fast responses”.

The game came in two parts, one on each side of the cassette. Each part had more than 250 locations. Solving the first section yielded a code you needed to key in at the start of part two. Side One of the tape took you into the far future to tackle King Varangar, his “moody Bloodguards”, “interstellar gypsies” and “lurking androids”. Deal with that lot and you were up against Napoleon next, at the Battle of Waterloo.

The Warlord was released for the BBC Micro. A Spectrum version was announced too, but never went on sale.

Back with a bang

And that was it for Doctor Who games for the best part of a decade, though various other titles parodied the show - Doctor What, Doctor Goo - or included references to it: Micro Power’s 1983, pre-Mines of Terror Escape From MoonBase Alpha contains numerous thinly disguised Who characters, along with Marvin the (presumably paranoid) android; Odd Job Eddie, a Manic Miner clone from Strobe, has a Dalek, as does Brian Bloodaxe, Graftgold’s Paradroid and Mikro-Gen’s Herbert’s Dummy Run; Superior Software’s Stranded featured a time machine that looks like a Police Box and has a hexagonal control console.

Dalek Attack

Enter Alternative Software which attempted to graft Doctor Who characters and monsters into a true arcade-style game. The result was Dalek Attack, released in 1992 on a new generation of hardware: the PC, the Amiga and the Atari ST, though Spectrum and Commodore 64 versions also made it to market.

Dalek Attack was novel for a number of reasons: first, you could choose to control one of three Doctors - Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker or Sylvester McCoy - and a two-player mode allowed a chum to control either the Brigadier or Ace on the same screen. The graphics were faithful to the series, and the game included a goodly range of monsters, including Daleks, Special Weapons Daleks, Ogrons and Robomen, plus a number of home-grown baddies, such as gang members, giant rats and mutants.

The graphics were produced by John Gyarmati and Wayne Dalton, with Nick Kimberley coding the PC, Spectrum and (never released) Amstrad versions. Richard Turner did the Amiga and ST conversions; Jason Heggie the Commodore 64 port. Paul Tankard did the music.

Dalek Attack

City of Death

After a side-scrolling opening level in which the Doctor and companion have to fly on Dalek hover platforms through the the London sewers while avoiding obstacles, zapping gloop creatures that slide down from the ceiling and shooting free trapped UNIT troops before eventually fighting a Dragon-like boss, the action shifts to the London streets and becomes a Mario Bros-style platformer. There are coins to grab, Sonic Screwdriver power-ups to find - here, the Doc’s handy gadget doubles as a raygun - human hostages to rescue and building interiors to explore.

Three more Earth cities - Paris, New York and Tokyo - need to be sorted out before the Doctor gets to travel to Skaro, this time to locate and capture Davros. Sometimes K9 pops in to lend the Doctor some extra firepower. Now and then a Time Lord would appear with a choice of goodies.

Dalek Attack in action

There wasn’t, I recall, much in the way of puzzling and the Doctor here relied far more on shooting things and lobbing Dalekanium grenades than he ever did in the TV series, but Dalek Attack was a lot of fun. It wasn’t particularly original, but unlike The First Adventure all those years ago, the Who elements were right up front, not relegated to the wording on the box. The problem was, it was a bit too hard: enemies just blast away when they see you, making it easy to cop it while trying to enter a building, and they also regenerate after death. The graphics didn’t give visual clues as to which parts of buildings could be climbed and which you could jump on.

And with no game saving, lose all your lives and you were right back to the start in the sewers. This happened frequently - Dalek Attack was hard. Some would say, ridiculously hard.

Dalek Attack

Advertising Dalek Attack

Alternative released Dalek Attack under its Admiral Software low-price label, and re-released it in 1993 in a modified form for the Spectrum. Not everyone liked it: Amiga Power magazine is said to have given the game a very low score, much to Alternative’s ire - it threatened to sue the publisher. Commodore Force gave it 80 per cent, but Your Sinclair was only willing to go to 56 per cent, perhaps not surprising given the cuts made to the Spectrum version.

Dalek Attack was, nonetheless, the pinnacle of Doctor Who videogames. The BBC had yet another go five years later, with 1997’s Destiny of the Doctors, a 3D adventure in the style of a first-person shooter - but a lot less smooth and graphically sophisticated than the likes of Quake, so it’s no wonder it fared badly. It had plenty of Doctor Who content - the monsters included Daleks, Cybermen, Autons, Ice Warriors, Quarks, Sea Devils, Silurians, Sontarans, Yeti and Zygons, for instance: but they were a slow-moving lot. Real Doctors four through seven provided voice-overs, as did Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier. Anthony Ainley made a video appearance as the master. Existing recordings were used to provide the voice of dead Doctors Jon Pertwee - impersonators did William Hartnell and Patrick Trougton.

Destiny of the Doctors

Destiny of the Doctors featured Who enemies but a very muddy Tardis interior

Essentially it was a collection of puzzles padded out with seemingly unnecessary quests and much aimless wandering around the Tardis avoiding the baddies. Gagdets would help you defeat them, but you’d have to interrogate the “Master’s Monster Database” to learn which one. Some were armed but none were particularly quick, so they were easy enough to avoid.

But who’d bother with all that when there were Strogg to slaughter? Quake II went on sale in the same month as Destiny of the Doctors.

Reboot

In 2008, after the Russel T Davies relaunch and with David Tennant now playing the Doctor, Eidos released a version of its Top Trumps game to tie into Tennant’s second series. Two years later, Asylum Entertainment released Doctor Who: Return to Earth for the Wii and a companion title, Doctor Who: Evacuation Earth on the DS.

Doctor Who: Return to Earth

Return to Earth? Return to shop, more like...

The former was a third-person platformer and put you on control of either the then eleventh Doctor or companion Amy Pond. It had a nice no-shooting approach - problems were solved by firing off coloured crystals from the Sonic Screwdriver - and voiceovers from Matt Smith and Karen Gillan lent it verisimilitude. Daleks and Cybermen were on hand as enemies, but the whole thing proved too boring for most players. The graphics were poor, even for the standard-definition Wii, and it received a critical panning. Evacuation Earth fared slightly better because it was so obviously aimed at young kids.

Rather better were the BBC’s own series, The Adventure Games, a set of five interactive stories rendered in 3D graphics by developer Sumo Digital. They were not too badly done and, if at times too easy, that can be attributed to the fact they were aimed at kids and given away for free from the BBC website (from which they can still be downloaded) in both Mac and Windows forms. And don’t forget the BBC website has been offering a wide range of Who-themed Flash-based games since the series came back in 2005.

Doctor Who: The Adventure Games
Doctor Who: The Adventure Games

The Adventure Games: more (slightly) interactive episodes than videogames

The BBC also released, in 2010 - the same year that the Adventure Games began to appear - The Mazes of Time, an "avoid the hazards and find the exit" room-by-room puzzle game for iDevices featuring the eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond. An OK puzzler, most folks said, but the graphics were a bit rough.

Doctor Who: Mazes of Time

Mazes of Time

Not so the Unreal Engine 3-based The Eternity Clock, released last year by the BBC and developed by Supermassive Games on the PS3, PS Vita and Windows. It’s a side-scrolling platformer rendered in 3D and equipped with the obligatory star voice-overs, in this case Matt Smith and, as a companion, Alex Kingston as River Song. She has a blaster, he has a Sonic Screwdriver, and together they go off to find all the pieces of the broken Eternity Clock. Heck, why not call it the Key to Time, just like all those games did at the start?

Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock

The Eternity Clock: looks 3D plays like 2D

Despite all the familiar eleventh Doctor monsters - Daleks, Cybermen, Silurians and the Silence - placed in a varierty of visually impressive worlds, The Eternity Clock missed a beat with its basic "push the boxes" gameplay, irritating time limit for completing a level, and that bane of modern gaming: the mini-game. The initial version was widely slammed for its many bugs, and while some of those have since been fixed The Eternity Clock has been consistently given low scores.

Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock

Boobies, sweetie

The result: The Eternity Clock’s planned sequels have been postponed, possibly indefinitely. Disappointed gamers can always try their hand at Worlds in Time, the Three Rings developed MMORPG that’s still in play, more than a year on from its launch. One snag: it’s a cartoon offering that’s, you know, for kids. By all accounts, though it’s had a better reception than most of the Doctor Who games released since the early 1980s.

Looking back from 2013, 30 years on from the release of the first licensed Doctor Who videogame, it’s clear no developer has yet done Doctor Who right. Even the better Who-themed games haven’t quite hit the spot. Tardis keys crossed, then, that a canny coder will come up with the perfect Doctor Who game sometime in the next 30 years. ®

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