The next game I’ve picked out from the pile is Thexder, a 1987 release from Sierra which originally came out in Japan on the PC-88 in 1985 via Game Arts.  Sierra would go on to publish ports of several more of their games in the 80’s but this was the one that started the ball rolling.

I seem to be playing more than my share of Sierra games but I’ve been looking for Tandy compatible titles and most of the good ones seem to come from Sierra. They more than any other company were flying the flag for PC gamers throughout the 80’s, long before it became a mainstream gaming platform. This was presumably much to the detriment of sales on systems like the Amiga where games like Space Quest II weren’t exactly stretching the hardware in the same way as Defender of the Crown, despite both being released in the same year. The Japanese PC gaming market on the other hand had the likes of the PC-88 with an actual sound chip and better graphics. Sierra’s port  may have been 2 years later than the original version but it was still a step down in hardware terms.


The box is the typical Sierra affair and makes a big deal on the back of the merits of Japanese arcade games. The manual is actually a folded up poster with a map of the first level on one side and installation/play instructions on the other. I can only assume the plotline was lost in translation as it is barely hinted upon. You control the only Thexder in existence, a dual-armour robot-jet transformer armed with heat seeking lasers. The aim is to destroy the central computer on level 16 of the Forbidden Zone. Why you need to do this or where this Forbidden Zone is we will never know as that is as much plot as we get.

My original plan was to play the DOS version on my Tandy since it has a lot going for it on the Tandy with better graphics and music support. After trying a couple of ports out, I went for the IIGS instead which is a little more colourful, has better audio and most usefully allows you to load from the start of the last level completed. The PC version did appear to be slightly easier but it has you play through the whole game in one life. It’s difficult enough as it is without having to keep starting over.


The IIGS version has a slightly nicer title screen than the Tandy, still lacking the animated sky from the PC-88 mind you. It also has some sampled Japanese speech which I don’t understand any of except the word Thexder.


The audio reverts into English when starting the level with an unenthusiastic “Warning. Intruder.” and the action starts. The game is essentially a side scrolling action platformer in which you simply have to get to the end of each level. There are several things that make it unique, not least the transforming robot you control which can shape shift into a jet and fly around unconfined by gravity.

When in jet mode, firing your laser works as you might expect in any game with the laser coming straight out in the direction you are facing. When in robot form, it quickly cycles between any targets on screen in front of the player. This is both curse and blessing as you can automatically hit from very acute angles but have no control over which enemy is targeted first. If some enemies are behind a wall, your laser will try to hit them anyway wasting your energy and giving enemies you can see a chance to close in.

Another highly unusual feature is that none of the enemies move as soon as they go off screen. This may dampen the realism, such as it is, but you would be constantly swarmed otherwise. Enemies will continue draining your shields as long as you are touching them in this game and getting surrounded is a death sentence.


Firing lasers or getting hit drains your energy. If it drops to zero, it’s game over and believe me this will happen a lot. You do have some shields which can be activated to make you invulnerable until they run out (at the cost of 10 energy) but this removes the 100 points energy bonus you receive at the end of every level prior to using it. You start each new level in the same shape as you finished the last otherwise and will need this bonus to stand much chance. In other words, you don’t ever want to use the shield except maybe when first learning a route around a level.

There are about 20 enemy types that usually try to move directly toward the player but they have certain patterns like only moving diagonally. All of them have a tendency to get stuck on walls and a staple tactic of Thexder is to lure hordes of these to a narrow entrance so they all get stuck together and then shoot them as a jet from the other side.

Some enemies raise your energy when destroyed, a handful even increasing the maximum percentage you can store (up to a max of 500) but there is never enough energy available. This has to be one of the harder games I’ve ever attempted to play and around level 3 and 4 I was wondering if it was really worth the effort. I resorted to looking a couple of playthroughs and the enemies in this IIGS version seem to be a whole lot less sticky than others, honing in more quickly on the player. However, I did discover that holding down space (at least on the IIGS) causes the player to stop wherever they are after a couple of seconds. Since the jet mode causes the player to constantly move forward otherwise this allows you to hover taking out advancing enemies. This made a massive difference although I do wonder if it was intentional or not since I’ve not seen it in other ports.


Once I’d learned this trick, Thexder got a whole lot easier after level 4 until I got quite near the end. Some levels are even repeated with slightly harder enemies, meaning I already knew the best route before I started. The numbers of enemies seriously stacks up in later levels with the game able to handle 30-40 at once. The screen above has a whole tank of them that fall on top of unwary players destroying the one block holding them up. It’s the open areas that are the real killers though where it’s much tougher to control the enemy movement. I only got through levels 14 and 15 with use of the shield and really didn’t have much energy left by level 16.


Just as well for me, the final level is a simple blow everything up affair with no real opposition. There is a tile graphic representation of the central computer to shoot, then the game loops back to level two. Not getting an actual ending is a big letdown after a couple of weeks of effort to beat this game but not all that unusual for the time.

It took a while to warm to but I really did enjoy Thexder in the end. It’s quite slow-paced on the IIGS and is far more of a strategy game than arcade. Beating Thexder is all about working out how to get through the level without getting hit and there are usually tricks to any situation. Since enemies only move while on-screen, they can be lured out of harms way, or you can approach just far enough to get one or two on-screen at once which can be killed off before they reach you. Many of these tricks require the player to be pixel perfect though. Expect to replay levels over and over early on.  Much of each level can be bypassed when you know your way around but they do need properly exploring to find sources of energy and any secret areas (revealed by blasting away the walls).

The graphics are reasonably nice, if a little blocky and the music that there is excellent. I just wish they had changed this music every level as a brief loop is not enough for a game that takes this much time to finish. The 16 levels are huge scrolling affairs and offer a real challenge to any player. Possibly too much challenge really. I could definitely give Thexder a guarded recommendation but don’t expect it to be easy. It could really do with a slightly more modern presentation in truth which may be where the sequel comes in. I’ll definitely be playing that in the near future but will have a quick look at the next Game Arts release Silpheed first.

Apple II Adaptive Firmware Card

This post will be something of a departure from the usual topics on this site but it’s an area on which there is precious little information available so I’m sharing this in case it will be useful for anyone else. To give the background first, I was contacted by Barrie Ellis from One Switch who is writing a book about the history of one switch gaming which he intends to sell in order to raise money for the charity Special Effect. One of the earliest gadgets aiding accessible gaming was the Adaptive Firmware card for the Apple II/IIGS but there is next to no information available about it these days. From somewhere or other Barrie had managed to get hold of one of these cards but the snag was he didn’t have the IIGS to try it out or any details about how it worked which is where I came in. I’m not going to go into any great depth in this post but we aren’t aware of there being any footage of one of these being used available anywhere else so I’d like to put this out there for anyone interested. If you want more details, no doubt Barrie’s book will be the place to look.

I can’t say I knew any more than your average person about one switch gaming going into this. I certainly knew about Special Effect largely through the GamerDads podcast and was keen enough to help. Besides which, it’s an excuse to play around with some old hardware which isn’t something I’d ever turn down as a rule. The principle of a disabled person being able to control a game with a single switch sounds simple enough but achieving it in real life another matter. The AFC wasn’t the absolute first device to do this but it was certainly one of the forerunners. As such it’s arguably not the most user-friendly of devices for an Apple II novice trying to figure it out without a manual.
AFC Card AFC Adaptor

The card goes into slot 5 on the IIGS with the adaptor box plugging into the pin connectors at one end of it. For some reason these are at the wrong end of the card to route the rather short cables out of the back of the machine. The upshot of this is that I can’t put the top on my case when using this. Not sure how this was handled back in the day but I can only imagine it would involve making some extra holes in the case.


The AFC could connect to quite some list of gadgets. For my purposes here, I’m just going to be using a single switch but it could also connect with various specialist keyboards and speech synthesis devices to make the IIGS usable for the blind/partially sighted.

Menu MsPacman Array

The card comes with a setup disc allowing the user to program the card with control templates. This is a complex tool especially without a manual but I managed to get far enough to create some basic templates. One switch gaming with the AFC is largely based on scanning arrays whereby the user can create a menu of options which will cycle on the screen. The player can select one of these by clicking at the appropriate time and then that option will be linked to a macro, a keypress or another menu. Thankfully, there are some predefined templates on the disk to guide me through some of this so the first thing I tried was a pre-built keyboard template with Infocom classic Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

Ideally, I’d have the button in screen at the same time but it was all I could do to record a half decent picture off my TV. The clicks are audible enough anyway and it shows how it’s possible to enter text commands with just a button. It’s clearly a whole lot slower than typing but the scanning speed can be adjusted as appropriate for the person using it and it certainly makes the game playable. An alterative to scanning is the use of morse code which I briefly show at the end. If I actually knew more than SOS in morse code, this would a whole lot quicker for this sort of game. The morse code can also be done using two switches (one each for dots/dashes) which would be faster still.

The card will also slow games down which is potentially a useful feature for all gamers. I have to include something to do with Origin in here so I tried this out on Ultima 3 where the introduction seemed to run full speed but then the title screen was clearly being reduced to a crawl. The AFC is definitely not 100% compatible with everything I tried it with, this being a case in point as the game would subsequently run at full speed after the title.

My next effort involved creating my own template from scratch to control Ms Pacman. This was a very simple menu with just the four options each mapping to a key on the keyboard. This showed up a feature of the AFC in that the whole game pauses while selecting an option from the menu making this highly playable even at full speed. It’s quite a different experience becoming more tactical but still quite good fun.

The AFC also supports mouse/joystick commands and I had serious difficulty getting these to work. I eventually figured out that sending an command from a menu would switch the device into mouse mode. From here any menu option outputting a @ character would start up an inbuilt menu with a rotating arrow + C and X buttons to move, click or close the menu. Unlike the other menus this one doesn’t pause whatever program is running and the user clicks when the appropriate arrow is on the screen and either holds down the button or clicks again to stop it moving depending on the set up. This was all well and good except it still didn’t work in many games. For instance, I thought Battle Chess would be a good candidate for this control method but it hung the moment the mouse was clicked. I did manage to run Dungeon Master above but I can’t imagine it would be all that suitable in the long run without a much more complex template.

I also tried mouse control in Arkanoid with a reduced speed, also adjusting the rotating arrows to just have two directions. This was sort of playable thanks to the slowdown but I can’t say I’m entirely convinced. The mouse pointer accelerates through 3 speed levels all of which are adjustable so it can be tailored to each game/user in this way.

That’s about as much success as I’ve managed to get out of this and the above represents a good number of hours of trial and error. I’ve skipped over no end of games which didn’t work in this post. The AFC is quite an unusual gadget effectively turning the IIGS into a multi-tasking machine with the second switch input process being able to run on the card simultaneously to the regular program on the motherboard. I can’t say I’ve found this process always to work flawlessly with numerous titles crashing or input getting stuck. I have a strong suspicion that the AFC does not particularly like working in conjunction with a CFFA3000 card and that it would have been a much smoother process at the time. I wasn’t even able to run a lot of the software that had predefined templates which more or less confirms this. Either way, it’s still quite capable and I’m surprised to see something like this was available back in the mid 80’s. The software isn’t all that easy to use but appears to be extremely flexible – I expect most games could be made playable using the AFC but it would require a deal of programming skill and knowledge for much more than the basic examples here.

Paintworks Macros

I never did get joystick control working despite my best efforts, only being able to get the fire button to respond. I had a look through some of the predefined templates for some guidance but these are relatively complex to figure out from scratch with menu options having little BASIC like macros behind them as above. If anyone reading this happens to have any knowledge (or better still a manual) for one of these cards I’d very much appreciate it if you could get in touch with either myself or Barrie.