My Life With… Joe Blade – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Joe Blade – ZX Spectrum

My Catholic school education across three schools in Bedford always involved a bus journey, and starting upper school in September 1985 took the bus journey right across town (and seemingly through most of its streets) into uncharted territory to me, far north of the river. The bus stop specified on my free bus-pass was ten minutes’ walk away, but over time us paupers from the south of the river realised that the drivers were happy with a flash of the card and probably wouldn’t notice if we started going rogue and getting off the bus in the town centre and changing to a more direct one that stopped right near my house. And for the most part, it worked, though there was the double-jeopardy of the mythical inspector getting on which provided an ever constant fear!

Then there was the additional thrill of sprinting across town from one bus to the next to not miss the first one home (otherwise there was little point in the whole exercise). But as we became more experienced in being teenagers, that sprint became a leisurely stroll via our favourite shops, namely WHSmith to see if the new Computer & Video Games or Smash Hits was out, a newsagent that was the first to stock Cherry Coke, and a tiny independent games shop in the newly opened Boulevards shopping arcade that had the biggest VIC-20 section I’d ever seen! Which in a very roundabout way brings me to the point that at this time, a lot of what you bought was solely down to judging a book / record / game (I don’t think anything else to buy existed then) by its cover.

On one of these trips, on a Friday afternoon towards the end of the VIC-20’s life when magazine coverage had all but dried up, I was completely seduced by a cops and robbers game that I can’t for the life of me remember the name of, but had some huge, impressive sprites on the back of its box that I just couldn’t resist but had no money to buy. And I’ve a horrible feeling it was full price… The following morning, with funds in place, I convinced my Dad to drive me into town, then drive around while I ran in to the shop and bought it. I’m not sure if I feel worse today for making him do that or wasting what was probably several weeks of pocket money on that button-mashing turd – you played the big on-screen robber on the run from the big on-screen cop and just waggled the joystick left and right as fast as you could until your hands hurt too much and he caught you. Game over.

But sometimes judging a game by its cover worked out fine, and there’s no greater example of this than Joe Blade. I don’t think there was a lot of life left in my favourite games shop (or the too-exotic-for-Bedford Boulevards shopping arcade) when 1987 came, but once again seeing those screenshots – on a budget title no less – meant must-buy.

Joe Blade was monochrome Spectrum graphics in all their colour clash-free glory – big, detailed black sprites and environments on garish yellow, purple, green, turquoise, etc. backgrounds that made complete sense providing you didn’t think about them too much! And the sprites were so big and detailed that you could easily have mistake the distinctly moustachioed Joe for Charles Bronson hoofing Germans all about the place, even at cassette box size!

Actually, they turned out not to be Germans but the minions of the evil mastermind Crax Bloodfinger, who’s kidnapped a load of world leaders that you need to rescue. But they did look enough like German soldiers to give it the distinction of being one of the first games banned there! Once you’re in his lair, you run about the flip-screen complex shooting up the non-SS goons, collecting stuff like ammo, keys to open cell doors, food and booze for health, disguises that give you temporary immunity and bombs that you need to prime in a letter-rearranging mini-game. Once you’ve sorted all the bombs and come across the six hostages, it’s time to escape from where you began.

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The gameplay was a lot like Dan Dare (see my post on that HERE) though probably a bit less frantic in terms of gunplay (especially as you didn’t get shot by the armed enemy but lost health on contact), but those cell keys were not easy to come by and that complex was complex, so a bit of mapping on some graph paper you’d nicked from your classroom stationary cupboard was essential! Whilst the box screenshots did do some justice to the wonderfully evocative (not World War 2) scenery and humorous touches such as the goon-like prisoners and sleeping hostages slumped on the floor with their arms casually behind their heads, what they couldn’t do justice to was the superbly smooth animation, and on my +2 at least you also had the benefit of some decent sound from the 128K version.

I don’t think I ever defused all the bombs or rescued all six world leaders, or even completed my map, but as was often the case with games at the time, it wasn’t about reaching the destination, but having a total blast over and over again without caring if you ever got there. Joe Blade is up there with the best of the original budget games ever released (the untouchable Feud excluded of course), and was more stylish and playable than most full priced games at the time.

Bonus Post – Steve Blower Imagine Software Art Uncovered

Bonus Post – Steve Blower Imagine Software Art Uncovered

I didn’t realise at the time, but those glorious old Commodore VIC-20 cassette covers, that were often the primary reason for buying a game (unless you were seduced by some misleading C64 screenshots on the back), were actually real pieces of art by real artists! Maybe it was all those logos and stuff all over them…

One such artist was Steve Blower, of Imagine and then Ocean. I was recently pointed towards some very special versions of some of his cover art by Mark R. Jones (@MarkRJones1970) who was himself a bit of an artistic legend at Ocean! They’re special because there’s no logos and stuff all over them. It’s the original uncommercialised real deal. 

And one of them is of the very game that inspired the name of my blog (separate post later I’m sure), Arcadia! Enjoy…

Interestingly, once he’d moved to Ocean, he also came up with some cover art that was cut out of C&VG and stuck on my bedroom wall, and as a super-fan should have been very special to me. But it’s a game I’ve neither owned nor even played, Frankie Goes to Hollywood. I’ll try and remedy that in a future bonus post – FGTH played and reviewed for the first time, right here, right now. Because Frankie Says so! Even so, I think I’ve probably missed out on the live version of Relax. 

You can catch up with Steve Blower on Twitter, @wsteveb. 

My Life With… Hard Drivin’ – Atari ST

My Life With… Hard Drivin’ – Atari ST

Just take a look at this for a second…

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Yes, it’s a loop. And in 1989, that was a complete groundbreaker. It’s why you had to own this game – the ultimate show off to your mates title; they’d simply never seen anything like it. It was seeing Virtua Racing on my brother’s MegaDrive all over again. But there was more! The more-or-less filled 3D vector graphics, cars and trucks [slightly inexplicably] on the track in both directions, the Dukes of Hazzard style bridge jump, the instant replay, and the cow! Take out the cow by the farmhouse [located at the side of the race track] and you got a beautifully sampled, realistic MOO! And the realism didn’t stop with the cow – the car drove like a real car, and I should know because I’d just turned 17 and started driving lessons! Which was great, but temporarily spelt an end to the riches from my Saturday job at Sainsbury’s that had funded my ST and its burgeoning games collection up to that point.

A year into my role there, and I was specialising in collecting trolleys. I was the master! I knew all the hiding places around Bedford town centre – the car parks, the alley ways, where the bins were at the back of Iceland… I could get ten of them into a car park lift at once. I could push fifty of them in a massive train like a supermarket Rubber Duck out of Convoy. Nothing annoyed the shopper more than no trolleys, so once the supervisors picked up on my brilliance, there was no more stacking shelves or till duty. especially as the old mechanical tills I knew had transitioned to electronic ones that were clearly beyond me once I’d missed the training. This afforded such freedom too, being paid to hang out on the top of a car park surveying the impressive Bedford skyline with a can of Dr Pepper and a Boost bar, putting a bet on the Grand National, buying tickets for a Simple Minds concert, or – wait for it! – taking part in a police identity parade and earning an extra precious tenner for the driving lesson fund! And in retrospect, fortunately not getting collared in the process!

I’d pass my test, first time, after 15 lessons, which I’m sure owed no small debt to Hard Drivin’. As I said, this game felt realistic, which I think had a lot to do with the mouse controls (a first for me) – they felt great once you got used to them, offering far more control than my days with a keyboard on Chequered Flag or Out Run with a QuickShot II on the Spectrum. It was also easier to pull off a deliberate skid (also maybe a first?) which meant faster lap times and meant slightly more forgiving cornering, especially on the speed track when a decent time rewarded you with the challenge of the Phantom Photon ghost racer (another first?) on the stunt track .

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Like collecting trolleys, the stunt track was where the glamour was at. And specifically, being upside down on the loop. In 1989, there was no thrill ride outside of the corkscrew roller coaster at Alton Towers that was like it. If you could stay on the loop, take the banked corners, pull off the jumps, avoid the trucks (that wouldn’t look out of place in Crossy Road with all those straight lines) and resist the urge to hear the MOO, beating the exotically named Phantom Photon would result in the Phantom Photon taking on the ghost of your ride in the next race, which you could even save to disk, providing endless challenge despite there only being two tracks.

This game looked and sounded like a stunner, moving at pace with great attention to detail – the cracked windscreen when you crashed, the engine sound, the skidding noise, the manual gear shifting from a separate joystick, but mostly the cow! And the replay was worth every crash, switching to a fully 3D rendering of your final moments.

A gorgeous,  groundbreaking 3D masterpiece at the time, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find something to match that precarious feeling half way around the loop wondering if you’ll make it around or just drop off!

 

 

Bonus Post – Gamerboy Art

Bonus Post – Gamerboy Art

During the course of writing this blog, my original Gameboy sadly gave up the ghost (RIP Game Boy), but I’ve also really got back into my Game Boy Advance – Mario Kart: Super Circuit, Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfing, V-Rally 3… 

I’d forgotten how great that machine is, so I got a real kick when I take across this today!

Gamerboy is a great piece of art by Mike Stafleu and captures the time of the Game Boy’s launch perfectly! See more of his stuff here.

My Life With… Tomy Demon Driver

My Life With… Tomy Demon Driver

Now we’re going right back into my early gaming days! The first video game I remember playing was Tennis (Pong) on something with a wooden box my uncle bought in the late 70’s – we knew it was a special occasion when we were allowed into “the parlour” on our weekly Friday night visit to my Grandma and Grandad’s small mid-terrace house to see it! It had two paddles, a lightgun, and you flicked a switch to cycle between tennis, football (Pong with two bats) and a couple of games where you shot a square moving around the screen, providing you had the gun pressed against the TV! No idea what it was. A Telstar maybe? Some knock off? 

What I do remember is that it was also the first game I owned when we got our own Interstate 1160 console soon after, with exactly the same set up. And a garish orange box that I think still sits in my Dad’s loft. 

That would have been around 1978 when I was six years old. The same time that Space Invaders appeared. I don’t have any recollection of arcade games back then, and having a game like that at home was still science fiction, although in reality my Grandstand Invader From Space game was only a couple of Christmasses away!

But what I did have was my Tomy Demon Driver tabletop electronic game, which brought you “all the thrills & spills of Formula 1” right there in your hands!

To a six year old, you can only imagine how realistic this was – the steering wheel was the highlight, making it just like driving a real car. You had three gears too, that sped you up and slowed you down as you raced along the plastic film track filled with other racing cars to avoid as you racked up laps on the counter. Crash and it was game over, but a new game was only a firm push on the Start / Reset button away. 

It’s hard for anyone that wasn’t that age at that time to imagine not just how much fun this game was, but what a big deal it was. We’d flicked balls into plastic pockets, rolled balls into holes and, more recently, pumped balls submerged in watery cases into hoops and stuff, and let’s not forget Pocketeers (definitely worth a separate post!), but this was a whole different level with batteries and everything! A real taste of things that were, in retrospect, to come very soon, but were then still beyond our wildest dreams. 

And almost forty years on, with an engineering degree behind me, I still can’t work out how they pulled off the collision detection. Two films? Holes in one? The mind boggles to this day!

My Life With… Commando – Commodore 64 / ZX Spectrum

I usually start these posts with the year I first played the game and what I was up to, but not this time. I want to show you something from the 29th May 2017, just two days ago at the time I started writing, whilst watching my ten year old son play cricket…

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I’ve been persevering with Commando on iOS, complete with dreadful touch controls, since it appeared in its Japanese “Wolf of the Battlefield” guise a couple of months ago. But there was no way I was going to let something like that spoil an arcade-perfect version on my phone, so I played and played until the frankly bizarre nature of the controls was meaningless and I saw this screen for the first time ever!

Commando on the C64 was an incredible achievement – also arcade perfect as far as I could tell at the time (though I learnt two days ago that it was lacking a few stages), and that music… I normally switch off when I hear the words Rob Hubbard or SID, but this theme tune is as intense as the first time those big gates swing open at the end of the 1st Area! There’s a great quote from the man himself on this Hubbard remix – “[I] started working on it late at night, and worked on it through the night. I took one listen to the original arcade version and started working on the C64 version. […] By the time everyone arrived at 8.00 in the morning, I had loaded the main tune on every C64 in the building! I got my cheque and was on a train home by 10.00.”

But let’s get back to form, and probably Christmas 1986, which I think must have been the Christmas my brother Phil and me received our ZX Spectrum +2, though verifying that hasn’t been as easy as I’d expected of Google! I’d recently said goodbye to my VIC-20, which was part of the upgrade deal; we sold it and almost all of my games collection for £25 to my Grandma’s next door neighbour for her young son. And it still hurts! It was also the time my friend Steven and I officially went our separate ways. He’d got a Commodore 128 for his birthday the previous April. He’d later get an Amiga and I got an ST, then he went XBOX and I went Playstation, and so it continues to the present day. It was never really a Commodore vs Spectrum rivalry though – I loved his machine as much as my own, which looking back I don’t think he was so impressed with…

During this Christmas period, we played a ton of Winter Games and Commando at his house. And probably Oh Mummy! at mine, but the less said about that the better.

I have to admit that Commando, as great as it was, wasn’t quite what I expected – where was Arnie??? His film of the same name had come out the previous February, and despite it having an 18 rating and me being 14 (and looking 12), I’d obviously seen it just after release thanks to the magic of pirate video! When we’d started upper school at Bedford’s St Thomas More the previous year, there’d been an influx of kids from Milton Keynes, about 15 miles away and without a Catholic school of its own, so they were bussed in; and out, fifteen minutes earlier than us Bedfordians, much to our chagrin. Naturally, after a few months friendships formed, and I became friends with a kid called Clive. Back in those days, the modern metropolis of Milton Keynes had Sky TV, which just wasn’t available to us yokels. He talked about American wrestling a lot, which the rest of us got to see once or twice a year as a special treat in the Saturday afternoon ITV wrestling slot, though my only real recollection of this was a guy called Moondog Rex… when I later became an WWF connoisseur, I learnt that he had a tag partner called Moondog Spot. The Moondogs. Great days. Anyway, at some point he lent me a video of that week’s WWF show, which was the one where Macho Man dropped the ring bell off the top rope onto Ricky The Dragon Steamboat’s throat. And that hooked me, so he’d start recording it every week for me. And along with that the movies started to flow, generally filmed off a primitive camcorder in a cinema, complete with people walking by to go to the loo. Notably that year, we had Platoon, Top Gun, Highlander and Cobra, which was a close second to my favourite pirate video that year, Commando, with Arnie as a retired special forces guy on a massive killing spree to rescue his daughter, Alyssa Milano, who’d grow up to be a right old sauce pot. This film influenced me so much that I actually bought a camo stick like he used for my face; I never used it, but it was probably a safer bet than buying a massive gun and not using it.

At some point in the distant past I was talking about a video game, and the point is that despite sharing a name with this film, it was actually nothing to do with it. Which took about thirty seconds of play to stop being a problem. There may have been no Arnie, but the premise was the same – you’re a crack commando travelling up the screen, shooting everything in sight, lobbing your limited supply of grenades and freeing the odd hostage across eight areas on the way to taking out the enemy fortress.

When I picked up the Spectrum version at some point in 1987, it took a few more seconds than that to get over a different problem, which was the graphics. Or more specifically, the colours. The loading screen is kind of what would have you’d have expected of the Spectrum, with all colour removed, but the developers had other blue and red and yellow ideas for the game itself, which resulted in some lovely colour clash if one of the enemy soldiers ended up behind a tree!

Aside from the colours though, this was another great conversion. The graphics are beautifully detailed and everything seemed to have been translated over from the arcade machine in all the right places – something else that the new iOS version revealed! It’s missing the great C64 tune, of course, but the sound effects are fine. The gameplay remains outstanding though, with a relatively easy first area that culminates in a frantic onslaught out of the first mini-fortress, but then the action really heats up with bunkers, bazookas, gun emplacements and barracks full of enemy soldiers appearing from all directions. It controls so well though that it rarely feels unfair when you die, generally in the second area if you’re as skilled at playing as I am, which kind of negated the high score table for me – it was only ever about getting to the third area!

This is a Spectrum classic, and standing waiting for those big gates to swing open and unleash hell at the end of each area is an enduring magical moment in gaming! Until next time…

My Life With… Jump Jet – Commodore VIC-20

My Life With… Jump Jet – Commodore VIC-20

I’m not going to lower my teenage cool credentials any further than I have already by admitting that I was into planes, but I kind of was. World War II planes mostly. I’d had my share of Airfix models that looked great until the paint came out. I had huge St Michael encyclopaedias about them that came down off my bookshelf regularly and I’d pore through them, making notes on what I read  and badly drawing my favourites  – which reminds me, I have a fantastic aside on these to share later! And I’d dream of being a fighter pilot, at least until I was 16 and had my red / black / green / brown colourblindness well and truly confirmed by the RAF. But that was still three years away in 1985. Top Gun was still a year away too, so what on earth would make a thirteen year-old boy want to be a fighter pilot? The Harrier Jump Jet, of course!

Without getting too bogged down in it, the Harrier was a fighter plane that could take off and land vertically. A bit like a helicopter, though generally it took off from a kind of ski ramp at the end of an aircraft carrier to save fuel. And that’s as technical and nerdy as we get in my yard; for this post at least… And in the mid-eighties, it was the coolest plane in the world – everyone knew what it was from the Falklands War build up –  images of them lined up on aircraft carriers, then 20 confirmed kills, and probably a couple of Blue Peter appearances too; who needed Kelly McGillis with her incredibly hot eighties hair and little pilot sidekick when you had Christmas decorations made out of coat hangers, Sarah Greene and a sunken garden. Which is something I’d love to make an aside about but footballers have far more money than me and I’ve no chance of winning that battle! Sarah Greene though. Mmmmm. 

I’d had a couple of VIC-20 flight sims at this point. The first was 1983’s Flight Zero – One Five…

You had a map in the bottom right showing progress towards your goal – a O at the top of it – and basic controls to manage variables like fuel, height, speed and so on. The idea was to keep them all in the right ballpark for each stage of the whole flight, managing various hazards that occurred like being blown off course. If they went out of the right ballpark, the screen started flashing blue and there was a horrible alarm sound. If you corrected whatever was wrong in time, you were back on track, and if not you were screwed. No one can say this game aged well, even six months after its release, but its significance to me can’t be underestimated. I was actually flying a plane in my bedroom! That was something you only imagined doing at that time, so using that same imagination to fill in the gaps demanded by the presentation of this game was a very short stretch. I probably flew enough hours in this to get a pilot’s license! 

1984 would then bring Bomber Mission, complete with my first proper cockpit view!

Okay, proper cockpit view was a bit of a stretch. More like view of a cockpit, as most of the time there wasn’t a lot going on outside the window. If I remember right, there was the odd appearance of a fighter plane, but what was great was the feeling of helplessness when you met flak over enemy soil (represented by a cockpit view full of flashing asterisks). This was another groundbreaker though, because now you were really flying a plane. And it was a World War 2 bomber! You chose your target, chose your bomb, took off, navigated to the target, dropped your Tallboy then flew home and landed. And it was brilliant! 

Then there was Flight Path 737, which I borrowed from my friend Steven, who lived around the corner. That had a real cockpit view, but for some reason I didn’t borrow the instructions, so never actually got beyond take off before I crashed. Over and over. Which made it rubbish and therefore it doesn’t count…

Now we are in 1985, and with a 16K RAM expansion stuck up its jacksy, VIC is in its prime! I got Jump Jet for my thirteenth birthday and looking at the back of the box couldn’t believe what I was looking at on the back of the box… From the “CBM64 screenshot version.” Oh dear, this didn’t bode well. And I genuinely remember feeling that. As I remember playing this two months later on the morning of Live Aid. But that really is going to be another story! 

I didn’t have too much to fear though. The VIC version held up pretty well to those screenshots. In fact, the first time I loaded it up, my black and white portable TV screen was displaying something beyond my wildest dreams! The realistic cockpit instruments. The aircraft carrier take off section. And once you got high enough, the endless blue ocean where you’d hunt the enemy in virtually lifelike splendour! 

That would come some time later though. Taking off wasn’t that straightforward. You had to sort out your flaps, give it some vertical thrust them up you went. But get anything wrong and you incurred penalties. After nine penalties it was game over. And you could easily incur those while you were still looking down from above onto the aircraft carrier deck. Get off the deck and you got split head-on and sideways views of your plane ascending off the deck, as long as you got your thrust back under control in time or more penalties. Get to the top of the screen and you’re flying properly, for a few seconds at least, because there’s plenty more penalties to be had if your thrust isn’t right before you sort out your flaps. But once you prove to the game that you’re not flying that badly, it’s time to seek and destroy. Or be destroyed, as shooting down the lurking enemy plane isn’t that easy either. Once you’ve nailed it though, it’s time to find your ship and land, refuel and restock on weaponry. And good luck with that! Taking off and taking down enemy planes was nothing compared to landing on the deck of the split-screen aircraft carrier! You would need to fiddle with your instruments no end here, with pinpoint accuracy, to get back on the deck safely. Fortunately, the instruction book included a handy guide to your cockpit instruments…

But for all these control formulas you had to get exactly right in each phase of the game, once you got them you got them. Then it became fun, and they just served to keep you alert and occupied as you trawled the skies, which was probably for the best… The instrument panel was cool, as were the various carrier views, but in reality the flight graphics were a bit plane. I mean plain. The horizon didn’t even tilt when you turned like the crappy 737 game’s did! But it was well after Live Aid that I even noticed that, and I didn’t care. There’s more to a dream coming true than a tilting horizon. 

Together with Pinball Wizard and Submarine Commander, this was a game I couldn’t part with when I eventually sold VIC, though it once came close after I rescued it from a school car boot sale, as the £1 sticker still on it attests to! 

Oh yes, I promised an aside! I dug some of my big plane books out for my ten year-old son recently, who is way too cool to show the slightest interest. But I had an interesting flick through anyway, especially when this dropped out….