The Back Burner #1 – Cloud Skipper

Anyone who has programmed or done any kind of work for any length of time has what is often referred to as the “back burner.” It is here that projects that one has lost enthusiasm for working on or have grown beyond their intended scope (or insert other excuses here) are placed, to be worked on at a later date. Unfortunately, as many have discovered since the microprocessor was first unleashed on the world multiple tens of years ago, this later date often never comes, and so these projects end up languishing. There they sit, in a directory we used to browse through daily and whose contents we knew intimately, gradually fading from our priorities until they eventually wither and fall off the stem. Years later, we stumble across an old .zip file filled with source code and graphics, and we’re reminded of what could have been had we had the tenacity to finish the job, right before we go back to the more pressing concerns of the present day.

The preceding paragraph was an overly verbose way of saying that there’s a lot of stuff that we start but we never finish. Cool ideas dissolve into the mists. Bleary, dark-circled eyes stare into the distance, perhaps as the brain they’re attached to imagines what these ideas would have formed into if they were given a chance to blossom.

There are several projects in the archives of T³ Interactive that have sat lonesomely on that back burner for many years. One such game is Cloud Skipper, a simple Java-based arcade game inspired partly by Icy Tower.

cloud_skipper_title
Title screen for Cloud Skipper

The goal in the game would be simple: reach the upper layer of the atmosphere without falling to your death. This climb could be achieved by leaping from cloud to cloud, reaching progressively higher altitudes. There would be no scoring other than the current altitude and a timer that would record how long it took you to make the journey.Cloud Skipper was destined to be an arcade game in the strictest sense, at least as I originally envisioned it.

Game Mechanics

The gameplay in Cloud Skipper would be very arcade-like, with a player-controlled sprite who would skip along the clouds (hence the name) as he made his way skyward. You begin each game on the ground, and the only thing you see are random clusters of clouds floating across the playfield. The catch is that once you land on a cloud segment, that piece of cloud will disappear, forcing you to leap to another one. In theory, this would increase the action and force the player to continually move. You get about half a second or so once you land on a cloud segment before it evaporates, so you have a bit of leeway, but not that much. Once the player reaches an altitude of 20,000 feet, he wins the game. If you manage to fall off the bottom of the screen at any point along the journey, you’re met with the dreaded Game Over.

cloud_skipper_ingame0
Starting at ground level…

I decided to simplify things and make both the cloud segments and the player circular. I did this for two reasons. One, detecting collisions between circles is pretty straightforward, and I already had collision-detection code for circles from previous projects (vGolf and Dot to Dot, and probably some other ones I’m forgetting). Two, making everything circles would simplify the leaps for the player since they would be aiming for objects with uniform shapes (with differing sizes) throughout the adventure.

One thing you’ll notice if you play the game is that the clouds wrap around to the other side of the playfield once they go off the right edge of the screen. This ensures that there will generally be at least somewhere you can leap to, though it may be difficult to do so successfully, and if you just miss hitting a cloud segment before it glides past the edge, you’ll always have another shot at it once it reappears on the opposite side.

Graphics

The graphics for this game were meant to be very simple and cartoon-y. In fact, everything that shows up on the screen during the main game (with the exception of the player sprite, the Game Over image, the moon, and the victory sequence) was created using Java graphics primitives. As you scale higher and higher, the background gradient darkens, signalling the thinning of the atmosphere, and the moon’s visibility becomes more prominent. As you can see from the screenshots, I decided to make the playfield more vertically oriented, since the game is focused on continuous upward movement.

cloud_skipper_ingame1
Movin’ on up…

The HUD is rather sparse, but the player doesn’t need that much information in this game. To the right is a gauge that indicates how high up you are presently and how much further you have yet to ascend. There are two white lines on this bar, one showing the current highest-reached point, and the other demarcating how far you can fall before you drop off the screen and to your death. Centered at the top of the screen is a display of the current altitude, in feet, and the current time elapsed in this game session.

cloud_skipper_cloudseg
Highlighting the cloud segments

I wanted to make sure that the cloud segments were differentiated so that the player could discern when he’s standing on one specific segment. Since I made all the clouds in the game white (possibly a bad decision), I decided to add little gray arcs along the top of each cloud segment to make the division between them clearer, especially in large bunches.

cloud_skipper_gameover
That guy looks familiar…

When you reach 20,000 feet and land on the top of the atmosphere, you’re treated to a little dance by Cloud Skipper‘s rotund hero, and the moon in the background sends a cheesy grin toward you across the vacuum of space.

cloud_skipper_victory
Time to celebrate!

Conclusion

I had a lot of fun working on this one, and it may not technically be considered “on the back burner” since the main game itself is basically complete. The gameplay is a little rough, because there are many times where you will land on one cloud segment and several adjacent segments will disappear all at once, putting you in immediate peril. Plus, the randomness of the clouds means winning isn’t always a matter of pure skill so much as getting lucky in the cloud placement. It is somewhat entertaining, though, and I think it could have been molded into something better if I had the time and inclination to smooth out the rough edges.

If you have the Java browser plug-in installed, you can can play it here if you so choose. The controls are the left and right arrow keys and Z to jump. (For testing purposes, I left these cheat keys enabled: W for a big jump and Q for a massive jump.)

Thanks to Todd for giving me the idea to do this write-up. Until next time…

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