My Life With… Kane – ZX Spectrum

Like everyone else of a certain age, my memories of Saturday afternoon TV in the late 70’s up to the mid 80’s obviously start with sitting with your grandmother while she made roll-ups watching ITV’s World of Sport wrestling, then some time after the football results there was The Muppets and The Incredible Hulk, or later The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazzard and Knightrider (all of which are likely to get individual goings-over in later posts so I’ll leave it there for now). Were Airwolf and Streethawk in those late afternoon slots too? One of the reasons for doing this blog is to get all of this down before I get too senile and forget more important things like that! Anyway, you get the picture – the golden age of TV, despite there only being three channels to choose from.

My Saturday afternoons were spent with my two brothers at my Grandma’s house – she didn’t smoke roll-ups; Benson & Hedges if I remember right, and this was probably the period when she was vowing to give up if a packet of fags ever reached a Pound! We spent a lot of the time between classic TV programmes outside, climbing trees, seeing how many neighbouring garden’s fences we could chuck stuff across, fighting, and all the other good stuff kids used to be allowed to do. But even in those glorious times, sometimes the weather got too grotty, and you’d have a choice on TV of guessing which horse would win on the racing, an ancient musical starring Mario Lanza, or a black and white western like My Darling Clementine or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; High Noon or Red River. To the boy from the 70’s, nothing was more glamorous than seeing the white man slaughtering the evil Apaches. Except maybe shooting Germans. We all had a cowboy outfit, a sheriff’s badge and a collection of cap pistols and rifles. For those of us fortunate enough to holiday in Great Yarmouth, there was the Wild West show where the sheriff and his posse had a real-life shootout with a band of outlaws in what I remember to be an entire frontier town recreated on the Norfolk coast. And in 1986, Mastertronic gave us Kane on the Commodore 64!

I played this a few times on my friend Steven’s Commodore, but don’t have much recollection of that version beyond frustration from never getting far enough to ride horses like did on the second stage, but it must have made an impact because when I later got my Spectrum+2, it was the first game I went out and bought. Although the familiarity in a bewildering mass of titles available compared to the now meagre pickings for my VIC20, combined with £1.99 price tag, may also have been a factor! With a bit of practice, I soon worked out the secrets of that first stage, and soon realised I was in cowboy heaven, and some thirty years later Kane would work its way into my top twenty games of all time when I started compiling that list that inspired what you’re reading now.

fullsizeoutput_8a8.jpeg

In Kane, you’re a cowboy doing different cowboy stuff over four stages. The first stage sees you in front of a colourful Red Indian village surroumded by some even more colourful (clash inducing) mountains, armed with a bow and arrow. It was all about lining up a crosshair just in front of some birds and timing your shot to hit their undersides as they flew at different heights from left to right. The higher the bird, the more time you had to allow for the arrow to get there, less as it got closer and flew twice as fast. Kill enough, and you’re on to stage two, but if you didn’t kill a few more than enough you were still screwed because the amount dead dictated how many lives you carried on with – lives traded for lives with the injuns or something. Clever. Then you got to ride your horse across the arid western prairie, jumping over some rocks and bushes for what seemed like forever, especially if you’d missed a few birds earlier. This was all about timing again, because it was all too easy for your horse’s back foot caught on an obstacle and get thrown off if you were a fraction out, especially on the dreaded double-rocks! Or if you were on a keyboard, missing the jump completely. Eventually you got to the Wild West town for stage three, a fantastic shootout where the outlaws appeared from behind barrels, wagons, in windows or through the saloon doors, and you had a second or two to get your revolver’s sight on them and get them before they got you. Kill enough and it’s back onto your trusty steed as you sped along the side of a runaway express train to slam the brakes on.  And if you thought that the imaginatively titled “Horse Ride 1.” stage required superhuman timing, then you were in for a treat on Horse Ride 2. with some cruelly positioned rocks and cacti and stuff! Get to the front before the timer runs out and you get to start the whole game all over again!

fullsizeoutput_8a2.jpeg

I love the presentation of this game, despite there being minimal sound of any kind, and some of the most garish colours the Spectrum ever produced! And there may have been four stages, but in reality this meant not much more than four different screens. But what screens they were! You got a bit of every western ever made in them, and they all did a great job of telling your brain that you were The Duke in all his finest roles! The character design was simple but with some great animation, especially the horse accelerating from a canter to a gallop.

fullsizeoutput_8a9.jpeg

Apart from Horse Ride 2. it wasn’t the most challenging game once you’d played it a few times and worked out the timing, but every stage was satisfying in its own way, and you made your own challenges as you went round the loop again and again after saving all the train passengers, trying to kill every bird, clear every jump or shoot every baddie. Endless cowboy fun. Literally!

As much as I’d adore Red Dead Redemption many years later for finally bringing all those childhood cowboy fantasies virtually to life, it was no Kane. One of the best £1.99’s I’ve ever spent… But not quite the best. Stay tuned!

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.

fullsizeoutput_72a.jpeg

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…

fullsizeoutput_633

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 .

629292-hard_drivin___advert.jpg

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…

fullsizeoutput_57b

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…