My Life With… Andes Attack – Commodore VIC-20

My Life With… Andes Attack – Commodore VIC-20

Without actually realising it, my first dalliance with well-known both-ways horizontal scrolling arcade shoot and rescue ‘em-up Defender wasn’t Defender at all, but Drop Zone on Commodore 64, a port of the 1984 Atari 8-bit game. And I didn’t even play that – I was just blown away by a couple of screenshots on an advert in the April 1985 issue of Computer & Video Games magazine – yes, a full four years after Defender!

Anyway, with its jet-packed spaceman and realistic (and classic C64) brown, crater-ridden planet, it looked absolutely stunning, but that was about as far as I got with it for the most part of another four decades. I didn’t even know it was a clone of something else, which was also exactly the case when I got my mitts on another Defender clone by the name of Andes Attack for the VIC-20 at around the exactly the same time.

What I did know was that it was by that llama guy who was everywhere in early 1985 with his camel games, Jeff Minter, and I also liked his Gridrunner on VIC-20 a lot… Gridrunner wasn’t quite a clone, but was very much inspired by what ended up being Minter’s Centipede on the ZX81, where he’d had to take some gameplay liberties to cram it onto there, though he’d also never actually played the original when he did it either! It ended up playing as much like Space Invaders as it did Centipede, but when the VIC-20 was later awash with as many variants of actual Centipede as it was Scramble and Kong clones, and with Atari on the warpath about it, Minter looked back it his old concept, made it more sci-fi than back garden, and added the peril of two sporadic horizontally and vertically coordinated lasers to the Tron-like play grid, where you were shooting at a descending chain of alien pod things. And even though Gridrunner had been around since 1982, since whenever I’d picked it up at some point in 1984, it was still one of the best games you could get for the unexpanded VIC-20!

There was more to Jeff Minter than llamas. There were moose and goats, sheep and centipedes, space giraffes and, of course, mutant camels too. There were also psychedelic lawnmowers, distressed minotaurs and rat-men. And there was his somewhat disturbing but unforgettable appearance as occult superstar Baphomet, the Goat of Mendes, on the cover of Big M magazine in February 1985! But Andes Attack, actually the very first game out of his company Llamasoft in 1982, was definitely about llamas!

Where in Defender you are patrolling a left and right horizontally scrolling planet-scape in your spaceship trying to stop aliens kidnapping your stranded astronauts and turning them into mutants (but not mutant camels), in Andes Attack you’re patrolling the Andes mountains in your Ramjet fighter, where the aliens are after the llamas that are dotted around the surface and demand your protection. You either need to get the aliens before they get to the llamas, or if they manage to grab one, you need to shoot the alien before it gets it to the top of the screen where they will both turn into a nastier alien thing that’s going to hunt you down and ram you out of the sky.

Once you’ve got rid of all of the aliens and mopped up any mutations, you’ll be awarded bonuses for the surviving llamas before moving onto the next stage, which is going to have more aliens and eventually airborne mines all about the place too, which is going to make all those fancy left and right turning shenanigans all the more difficult. If you’re feeling masochistic, you can set your starting skill level from the default zero up to nine on the title screen too, which is going to increase all that alien action from the outset.

Minter himself always seems quite down on Andes Attack in interviews, like he’d prefer the Llamasoft story to start with their big hit (especially in the US) Gridrunner. On his own website, he tells us that “Andes Attack was a relatively crude character-mode Defender-ish game for the Vic-20. It arose out of some ‘virtual screen’ routines I had written, which allowed one to designate a big screen as large as memory allowed, and then pan around it with the joystick. I liked Defender, which was a scrolling game, so it seemed natural to use my scroll routines to make a Defender game. Despite being well buggy (bits of mountain range had an alarming habit of appearing in mid-air for no good reason) Andes Attack sold fairly well, probably just because the other software around in the UK at that time was utterly, utterly crap.”

Apart from the VIC-20’s pretty much arcade-perfect port of Asteroids-inspired shooter Omega Race, and definitely Gorf and Pirate Cove Adventure, if we’re talking 1982 he’s probably not that far wrong in terms of software library. But why so down on the best version of Defender that ever existed? Okay, I have now actually played original Defender and it’s by no means my favourite game ever, but apart from The Perils of Willy, Andes Attack is my favourite VIC-20 game ever!

Graphically, it looks like Defender, and not just in screenshots either – as well as balancing peril, Defender is all about speed, and amazingly those Minter scroll routines manage to capture that even if the ship isn’t quite as zippy and there is a bit of artefacting on the mountains and the star field. His rogue mountain pieces really aren’t a problem though! Everything is colourful, you and the aliens are really well defined, and the llamas are simple but happily obvious as you’re gadding about the mountains. You’ve got some nice explosions and that huge laser trail that you could end up leaving all over the screen is still a treat to mess around with.

Manoeuvring mid-turn as you’re changing direction still looks and feels like the Defender one, and as ridiculous as it may sound today, that manoeuvre was a really impressive big deal on a VIC-20 in 1982 and still in 1985! Unless you’re ramping up the skill level, you’ve got a really well balanced difficultly too, not quite as punishing as its source material, but by the time you’re three or four levels in, almost as frantic, by which point it’s become a real tactical balance of shooting aliens and saving llamas for the best possible score. And it’s immediacy means that score is going to quickly become all encompassing, and the reason why you’ll genuinely struggle to stop playing, and why you’ll then be back the next day – this is properly old-school addictive, and I’m talking today and not mid-eighties!

If I’m picking hairs, now and again you are going to see your laser going straight through an alien without registering a kill, and if it then flies straight into you as you’re turning for another go you won’t be happy! It is also a bit simpler than Defender, but forgivably so as we’re talking VIC-20 versions, in that you can let a llama float back down to the ground of its own accord if you’ve just shot it out of the grasp of an alien, where in the original a large part of managing the peril was in catching the astronaut and bringing them down safely. You don’t miss it when you know it’s not there though. Speaking of which, Defender was quite dense on the sci-fi blips and swooshes, and whilst this is much less dense in the sound department – again, completely understandably – it is none the less doing a fantastic job at getting enough of the sound that unless you’re comparing them alongside each other, it’s doing a pretty convincing version of Defender!

Defender might be one of the great arcade games, but Andes Attack is one of the great VIC-20 games. No matter what Jeff Minter thinks! The timeless, endlessly compelling concept it’s built around might not be his, but the scrolling routines and all those other lines of code certainly are. Just like the llamas!

Rediscovering Soft & Cuddly on ZX Spectrum

Rediscovering Soft & Cuddly on ZX Spectrum

I think the 10th Personal Computer World Show, held at London’s Olympia from 23-27 September 1987, was the first of what became a brief annual trip for me, up to its end in 1989, though we definitely made at least one trip to ECES – the European Computer Entertainment Show at Earl’s Court – the following year because that’s where my original Game Boy with Tetris and Super Mario Land came from just after it launched! Apart from that, the first was definitely the most memorable, and not just for the vast amount of free stuff we came back with compared to the next two years, which really are not memorable apart from the diminishing amount of free stuff on offer!

Anyway, back in August 1987, I’d won a Microprose competition in Your Sinclair for an all-expenses paid trip to the show for a go in a real-life AH-64 Apache simulator as part of the launch of the wonderful Gunship helicopter game, which we’ll definitely come back to here very soon! As well as that, and copies of Gunship and Pirates and loads of other Microprose booty, I remember having a tenner to spend on games as well, most of which went on the just-released – and my future top 5 favourite game of all time – Renegade on the ZX Spectrum. With a couple of quid left over, we passed a tiny table-top stand for a company called The Power House, where they were selling a game I’d never heard of called Soft & Cuddly, but a quick look at the inlay and you had the most garish, gruesome graphics you’d ever seen, and it came in a sick bag, and it was £1.99! And obviously, to 15-year old me just discovering a lifelong love of horror, it was a no-brainer!

Once we got home though, the problem it had was that 15-year old me was also just discovering a future top 5 favourite game of all time! And let’s just say that once you’d seen a few of its surreal, grotesque screens, the part-platforming and part-shooter gameplay wasn’t quite on par with Renegade’s, so from then and forever after it would then only ever get the occasional look in! But after all this time, did it deserve more of a look in? Let’s find out…

Before Soft & Cuddly, there was Go To Hell. Developed in 1985 by John George Jones, after a title screen that ripped off the Alice Cooper Goes To Hell album cover, it had you searching a garish colour clash hell for your friend after you’d told him to go there. And he did. I only remember seeing this in magazines when I was still sporting a VIC-20, but I think once you got past its horrific graphical gimmick, there wasn’t a lot of fun to be had in the sub-Atic Atac gameplay. A couple of years later, and John George Jones is back with Soft & Cuddly, turning his hellscape up to eleven, introducing a bit more urgency to proceedings and having your little man fly around the ridiculous labyrinth of screens, moving across the Ultimate Play the Game back catalogue to Jetpac maybe… That said, I’ve always got a bit of a Manic Miner feel out of this despite everything. But we’re jumping ahead of ourselves!

The cassette, with its skinless fanged demon perched on a pile of bloody, decapitated heads, is a bit cryptic about what’s going on. “All dead, all dead, all dead and gone. But this is the Cyborg Age. Kids laugh and joke on the streets and say “we can re-build him!” Well you can, but it has to be the right mix of sinew and metal and first you have to enter the nightmare to retrieve the pieces of what spawned you… Eurgh! …Horror show, horror show.” Somehow poetic, but as said, a bit cryptic. Venture inside the inlay and we’re told that your mother, The Android Queen, has had an accident and been badly damaged. But apparently not before she locked your father in the fridge with a bunch of evil spirits. You need to find eight spirit keys, taken them to your father in the fridge, and exchange them for the lowdown on where the parts of your mother are hidden; which sounds a bit more than being badly damaged in an accident, but it was £1.99 so we’ll go with it! Once you’ve then found all the bits of your mother, you need to get them back to the fridge too, then go and find the needle and thread so she can be sewn back together.

First off, you’re going to be looking for the fridge, which is randomly placed in this 256-screen nightmare at the start of every game. Each screen is a room full of platforms and passages, spikes, falling objects and mundane things that might do you no harm on one screen then kill you in an instant on the next! There’s also various ghosts, aliens, pumpkin monsters, TV’s and unidentifiable machines of ill-repute flying about the place either shooting at you or just waiting for a touch to drain your life away. You can take these enemies out with your laser gun, but use it too much too soon and it overheats and jams. You can also become invisible three times per life, making you invincible as well, but then the only way you’ll know where you are is by shooting your gun to reveal yourself. Your gun can even be used to take out the scenery – spend ages shooting at a brick or a tree, for example, and eventually you’ll whittle away what’s probably going to be a very pointless shortcut!

The scenery though!!! Let’s cut to the chase… The gameplay we’ve just described is boring, and there’s no way you’re going to be putting up with it long enough to do all that collecting and sewing in a fridge crap. What you’re actually going to be doing is travelling from room to room marvelling at the sick and twisted scenery! Right from the off (assuming you avoid the falling anvil in the opening seconds) you’re going to be blown away by the half a screen high oozing fish head in glorious red and blue with big green eyes, moving surprisingly smoothly about the place without a hint of colour clash! You’ll soon be seeing an oversized bleeding head being repeatedly squashed by hydraulic spikes on a platform that simply says “DIE!”

Then there’s a framed picture of a skull in an army cap surrounded by green skulls in army caps, then a big one appears and chases you around as another set of spikes ominously hang from the ceiling next to a sheep with a fish’s head moving around on a trolley. There’s four co-joined babies being stretched on a rack over a dead body being drained of blood by some spikey hammer things. There’s gibbets and other medieval torture devices amongst the Spectrum-magenta brickwork; there’s piles of bodies and another baby, but this time its head is in a cobra’s mouth! And all of these things are huge and brightly coloured and moving around with gay abandon between all the platforms and moving catwalks and traps you need to negotiate.

And then you’ll enter a very plain black room with a load of bricks or some grass or something along the bottom, but hang on because here comes the big one! A huge scarred, slashed-up, very bloody wild-haired witch face thing has just appeared out of nowhere to take up most of the screen and absolutely destroy you!

And all of that is why you need to go back and play Soft & Cuddly! It’s not about the mundane and slightly confusing gameplay (which as I’m playing and writing still bizarrely think feels like Manic Miner even though it’s absolutely nothing like it!), or the very functional sound effects or the early-eighties enemy or platform designs (sounds like Manic Miner!). It’s not even about the free bonus music track by H.E.X. on Side B, which is actually a very good piece of pre-romo post-punk… It’s about what surreal, grotesque (but almost completely colour clash-free) monstrosity you’ll come across next. And how big it will be!

Before I started here, I did have a concerted effort for a proper run at the game, and I found the fridge and some other bits a few times, but there’s so much of it and once the nightmares start repeating you definitely reach a point where you feel you’ve seen everything even if you havent. But until you reach that point, it’s quite the sight to see all the same!

Discovering Kawasaki Superbikes on Sega Mega Drive

Discovering Kawasaki Superbikes on Sega Mega Drive

Back in 1991, I came upon a rather wonderful racing game called Vroom for the Atari ST; I know it’s called that because it says so in my very own handwriting on the disk! Ahem, a couple of years later, Domark created a Sega Mega Drive or Genesis (or actually various other systems) take on Vroom called F1, or Formula One in America. Not that they really care. Anyway, it had the same fantastic sense of speed as its ST predecessor, lots of tracks and customisation, but was a little stiff and jerky to control. A sequel came in 1994, which went a bit too far the other way on the controls, with you almost drifting around every corner, but it was a lot of fun and was very fast (albeit at the cost of much going on at the side of the road). I’m quite fond of the Game Gear version of that one too! That said, if I remember right it unfortunately came out at the same time as the much higher profile Virtua Racer on Mega Drive, and that’s certainly the one my brother went for on his, with no regrets I’m sure.

And then in 1995 (in Europe at least), along came Kawasaki Superbikes, built on the same F1 engine, but this time switching out the racing car with a more motorbikey-feeling racing bike, as well as adding a bit more detail back onto the track-side, though a turbo mode does allow you to zoom out and reduce all of that for a bit more speed, which I’ve always found a bit unnecessary. Incidentally, the US version, Kawasaki Superbike Challenge, had come out on the Genesis a bit earlier, in 1994.

Apart from the Kawasaki bit, everything is unlicensed, so you’re up against racers called things like Skid Mark, though I think all fourteen standard length tracks and the Suzuka eight-hour endurance race are all based on the real things. This also has a really nice Game Gear port (rumoured to be the remnants of an abandoned Road Rash II port), with all the speed missing (though unfortunately not the annoying crash animations) from its Super Nintendo counterpart… stick with the masterful F1 Race of Champions on there instead!

And that’s what I did all the way until the summer of 2020, when I was flicking through a May 1995 copy of Mean Machines magazine and came across an invitation to “feel the throbbing power between your legs…” Now, I’ve always loved a good motorbike racer, from Super Cycle on Commodore 64 to arcade Super Hang-On and everything in-between, but as well as that irresistible tag-line, I’d simply never heard of this and needed to find out more! And as happens from time to time as I’m exploring dozens of other gaps in my racer history (usually in the vain hope of finding a decent one on PC-Engine), it clicked. A lot. (Incidentally, the same happened a couple of weeks ago at the time of writing with The Duel: Test Drive II on SNES – just to show I really do love that system too – and we’ll probably come back to that on this bat-channel very soon…).

I think one of the things that clicked for me – also the case for most things – is the lack of faff here! With Kawasaki, everything is urgent and instant, getting you right into the action as fast as possible with minimal fuss. And this is evident the second you fire it up, as you’re hit by that classic upbeat “realistic” Mega Drive drum sound that goes on to dominate a sparse but bright sounding melody before trying out one of its repertoire of drum fills and changing things up it bit. It’s not magical like some Mega Drive soundtracks, but there’s something strangely addictive to it – you just want a bit more! Unfortunately, sooner or later the demo mode kicks in and it just starts again once that’s done. Aside from jumping right into the racing, there are options if you don’t want the default racing season though – you can mix up the difficulty, track order, set up the weather or that turbo mode or go split-screen two player.

Assuming you’re just here for regular single player throbbing between your legs, after entering your initials on a team contract, like a reverse high score table, you’re given some weather info on the first track and a choice of high or low gearing, which I think makes you go faster but with less acceleration or vice versa, so you can make your choice based on the individual track. Then you’re into a generous four lap qualifying, which is going to help with learning the track and where to avoid those pesky very-metal overhead sign poles that are positioned exactly where you’re likely to slightly overcook the same corner over and over…

You really feel the impact when you hit something at the side of the road, with a no-nonsense thud and the back wheel bouncing up as you go from 170mph to zero in a fraction of a second. That said, you’re getting away with this lightly as you’ve instantly back on the track with only a brief wheelie as you accelerate away again the only reminder of your embarrassing but death-defying detour. Beat yourself up enough though, and you will get bike damaged or pit-in messages, though they take some doing, and even then as long as you take those as a warning you should be okay to ignore them.

Qualifying done and all that’s between you and the race is another weather report and another choice of gearing. For a game so obsessed with the weather, it mostly amounts to sunny or has been raining, which affects the sky colour, general screen brightness and possibly the feel of the track but not to any great extent! Racing itself feels really competitive, and whilst there’s no Road Rash styled shenanigans if you get too close to another rider, you will be losing time, so piling into a corner and using the pack as brakes isn’t going to work! Instead, you’re being patient and picking your moment when the right gap is there, which results in a real sense of accomplishment when you’ve gone into that turn just right to go up the inside, or even more so when you’re right on the edge of your grip around the outside. You get a similar sensation simply by staying out in front if you get there too – there’s a constant risk of increasing familiarity with the track turning into complacency, and one mistake is five laps worth of good work down the pan, because more often than not you’re on the last lap when it comes!

The race is a constant wrestle with the bike, with continuous tiny adjustments to your steering and accelerator (which, incidentally, did remind me of Road Rash II), or sometimes it’s a heave up from a big turn, or even panicked back and forth as you get inches away from losing control from an oversteer. But conversely, you’re also getting the occasional Power Drift-style helping hand to throw you around some of the corners too!

At the end of the race there’s a rundown of racer and team point tallies, preceded by a boozy podium scene with a load of swimsuited lovelies draped around the place if you’ve come top three. Then there’s the longest password save system I’ve ever come across, and the choice to abandon or do the next race, which takes you to the next track’s weather report and gearing screen, no messing again!

Graphically you’re getting a unique mix of sprite bikes (both in your “cockpit” view and other racers, but everything else is 3D polygons (unless you’re still persevering on SNES for some reason), which honestly works better for some things like overhead signs or lights than for bigger things like entire pit lanes, which end up looking a bit devoid of detail. If I was making a tunnel I’m not sure I’d go for a checkerboard design either! Lots of nice undulation and general bumping around though, and there’s a variety of landscapes in the distance reflecting the location of the track you’re at. Look closely and there is some nice detail too – for example, seeing road markings or other bikes through the smoked glass of your bike’s windscreen.

This attention to detail extends to sound effects too, where on top of the up and down of the engine noise and those nasty metallic clangs when you crash, you can hear roadside stuff swish by if you’re close enough, and there’s some kind of air in motion sound in tunnels or along the edge of walls too.

With 15-20 minutes per race after all that weather forecasting, qualifying and the race itself, on all of those tracks, you’re getting a hell of a lot of game here. And once you’re in the zone and getting competitive, you’re going to keep wanting just one more race. It’s unique visuals might leave things looking a little barren, but the speed and variety of tracks more than make up for that, and the racing feels great – like you’re in a real race. And that’s where it grabbed me and that’s why I keep going back, just like that aforementioned all-time favourite of mine, F1 Race of Champions on SNES, just to give it a bit more love back before we leave! If you’re looking for a bit more meat than a classic arcade bike racing game like Super Hang-On, but not after some kind of bike nerd sim, you could do a lot worse than Kawasaki Superbikes… on Mega Drive!

My Life With… 1942 – Arcade / ZX Spectrum

My Life With… 1942 – Arcade / ZX Spectrum

My Grandma stayed on in England after World War II, and coming from an Irish family of twelve brothers and sisters, by the time we got to me that meant a lot of toing and froing of relatives for as long as I could remember. It also meant the occasional trip to Ireland for us too… And that always meant the Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire ferry at the end of a relatively epic car journey through darkest Wales, or a train to London then another west that I’m sure took far longer in the 80’s than the under four hours it does today! Fortunately, the ferry marked the end of the journey too, as our final destination was also Dun Laoghaire, a port town developed to serve Dublin in the early 1800’s, and where Bob Geldof and most of the rest of The Boomtown Rats come from too.

Bob Geldof was probably busy with planning Live Aid around the time I’m going back to now – I reckon we’re in the late Spring half term of 1985 and I’m just thirteen, sporting some great highlights in my hair and a part-new romantic, part-C&A lemon jacket that Don Johnson would have been proud to wear as he made his way across the Irish Sea! I reckon he’d have been just about cool enough to hang around the couple of arcade machines on the ship as well, once the cold had brought you in from standing on deck and the subsequent monotony of being stuck on there for another three hours had kicked in!

And of course, the highlight of whatever the rest of the arcade machines were on this particular ferry crossing was an all-new vertically scrolling war plane shoot ’em-up marvel called 1942! It originally appeared the previous year, at the hands of Capcom’s Yoshiki Okamoto, who, as well as designing its follow-up, would later go on to design Final Fight and a much under-appreciated series called Street Fighter! But back in 1984, he was very successfully following in the footsteps of another Capcom vertical shooter (and actually, I think it was their very first arcade game), Vulgus, where you alternated between being on a planet surface and in outer space taking out giant insect mutants from the planet Vulgus! Despite that, it’s not terribly memorable, though I do have a soft spot for it as a clear predecessor to 1942, and it’s also where that famous Capcom “Pow” power-up icon first began!

Back in 1942, it wasn’t giant mutant insects, but certain enemy planes (the red ones) that would give you this Pow power-up if you shot down the whole group, and that would give you a double-shot, wide-shot, a smart bomb that clears the screen or, a bit later, a pair of escort planes that lasted until they were shot or collided with something – easily done because suddenly your plane isn’t just your plane anymore! Speaking of power-ups, you also had what was a shooter super power at the time, the roll button, and that took you out of the 2D action and into a loop-the-loop, meaning you temporarily avoided any enemy planes or fire. You could do this three times in every stage, but got a decent score bonus at the end for not using it… No chance of that though – it was the coolest thing in the game and exactly what totally gripped me the first time I saw it in the middle of the Irish Sea because it was also one of the coolest things I’d ever seen in any game to that point!

The other thing that got me was the subject matter, which I realise I’ve virtually skipped so far, though there’s really not a lot to it and if you didn’t already know it you’ll have mostly worked out by now! In 1942 you’re the pilot of a “Super Ace” – the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a single-seat fighter plane used by the US Army Air Corps in World War II that was a real jack-of-all-trades including fighter-bomber, bomber-pathfinder and long-range escort fighter; it performed uncommonly well at very high altitudes too, and was responsible for 90% of all the aerial film captured over Europe. Questionable whether or not it could have taken off from an aircraft carrier though… And yes, at this exact moment in 1985 I was also a bit of a World War II plane nerd! Anyway, you’re in the Pacific Theatre, where the P-38 did most of its real-life fighting, shooting down the entire Japanese air fleet and its various fighters, light bombers and heavy bombers, plus four slighly less realistic big boss planes across 32 stages on your way to Tokyo, over the sea and over tropical landscapes. At the end of each stage you’re briefly landing on an aircraft carrier, getting a stage summary, then you’re on your way again. Simple stuff, but, having worked for a Japanese company for one month short of twenty years at the time of writing, and learnt quite a lot about Japanese culture from many visits, it’s curious subject matter all the same having the Japanese as the bad guys!

The first few levels are very sea-based, meaning lots of fighting over a mildly textured blue background! For all of the nicely detailed, mostly recognisable little planes flying all over the screen, it’s not that much of a looker yet, but then that aircraft carrier you strictly speaking cannot land on appears, and you land on it, and it’s a really wonderful sight! Get a little better, and things pick up as you cross very Pacific island-looking Pacific islands, with lush jungle foliage, volcanoes, outcrops, ruins lakes and beaches scrolling smoothly below the aerial warfare, then transitioning back into the contrastingly bleak but very blue expanses of sea.

The sound is very unique, in the same way a dog whistle probably sounds “unique” to a dog; in fact, I think I know exactly what that sounds like after playing 1942 so much recently! There’s some vaguely war movie type music playing now and again, and some very functional gun and plane engine revving sounds as it loops, but there’s also a non-stop whistle! And it’s like the whistle you’d get at the start of Match Day or something on the Spectrum! A shrill, beeping impersonation of a whistle… Beep, Beep-Beep, Beep, Beep, Beep-Beep-Beep, [silence], Beep! I don’t know what it’s meant to be, or what the rhyme or reason is for the sequences it’s sounding in, but it’s terrible! I guess it made people look as they went by though, and while you’re playing it does add an air of chaos to that wonderful gameplay, especially when you’re fully powered up and mowing down everything before it’s even realised your on its screen!

Speaking of the Spectrum, I’m not sure I was ever more excited about an arcade conversion on there than I was for 1942! Okay, maybe Shao-Lin’s Road (more here), but sacred ground like that aside, I couldn’t wait for this to land! The main difference here was that I’d played loads of arcade Shao-Lin’s Road over a long period of time, whereas in reality I’d played minutes of 1942 on a single ferry journey, but somehow those minutes had had an enormous impact on me, and just to be able to play it again in any form – let alone one in my own home – just had me at absolute fever pitch!

Elite handled the 1986 conversion, which was promising after they’d recently scored big with fantastic conversions of Bombjack, Paperboy, Commando and Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and I think that 1942 is programmed with a similar philosophy to Commando especially – a simple conversion that focusses on the simple gameplay mechanics that work so well in the original. By which I mean yes, there’s not a huge amount to look at, especially in the first couple of levels, apart from reasonably detailed planes with some occasionally suspect colour choices! What is there has plenty of attention to detail though – the planes moving in partial 3D as they tilt their wings to turn; there are unique explosions depending on the plane type, with multiple explosions when you take down a big one; and all the planes have working propellors, even the ones that indicate how many lives you’ve got left! They nailed that special roll too!

It does all pick up once you start flying over islands though, as does the inevitable result of some of those colour choices, with some especially fine examples of colour clash when you make landfall! Sound is equally – and mercifully – bare bones too; can you imagine all that whistling coming out of the Spectrum??? They cracked the gameplay though! It’s a little less frantic than the arcade version, though no less challenging, and some very minor suspicions about collision detection now and then aside, it’s always held its own as both a Spectrum shooter and a great conversion. And most importantly for something as addictive as 1942, it was now in your bedroom, so no more bugging your mum for another 10p, and not a disembarkment in sight!

I have played other versions, though not to any great extent… The C64 version is a reasonable conversion, let down some very blocky larger enemy sprites, and what I’ve always considered a very geographically misplaced rendition of Ron Goodwin’s 633 Squadron theme – was there ever a more completely British tune that that, so why’s it playing over the Midway skies? The NES got a great version apart from the sound effects, which are a mix of a dumbed-down take on the arcade’s iconic beepy whistles and some white noise for guns! And I spent a fair bit of time with the Game Boy Colour’s version, which I think is a port of the NES version, but to me seems a lot easier, although the sound is definitely less offensive out of those tiny speakers! It would take the Capcom Classic Reloaded collection on PSP for me to finally get that holy grail of the arcade version not only at home, but in my hands too, back in 2006, and then another fifteen years to be able to play it on a telly as well with Capcom Arcade Stadium on Switch.

That PSP collection was also where I first got my hands on the sequel, 1943: The Battle of Midway, though it was some time later that I really took any version of that seriously with the Japan-only 1991 PC-Engine reimagining, 1943 Kai, which is actually based on the also Japan-only alternate arcade version of the sequel, 1943 Kai: Midway Kaisen, with reworked graphics, sounds and even lasers! But either version was effectively more of the same, with you now taking out Japan’s naval fleet as well as its air force, so you’ve got bombs for them, and a health bar rather than lives too. I must confess I’ve barely touched the original original on Capcom Arcade Stadium so far – after all, it’s got original original 1942 on it! But I have played the Spectrum version, which is graphically very impressive, going into complete overdrive compared to its 1942, but I find the gameplay a bit soul-less, and I’ll generally switch it off before my life bar is depleted! The NES version is also worth noting because it features a persisent upgrade system for your plane.

At this point, just don’t think too hard about the Battle of Midway actually taking place in 1942 or it will throw the whole space-time mess of the entire rest of the series into total destructive disarray! Not that I have much experience of the rest though – 1941: Counter Attack seemed like a 1990 update of the original; 19XX: The War Against Destiny in 1996 had multiple planes to choose from; 1944: The Loop Master in 2000 offered tactical invicibility; and then we had 194X: 3D Dogfight in 2005, 1942: Joint Strike in 2008 and 1942: First Strike in 2010, none of which I’d even heard of until two minutes ago!

Despite having multiple versions of the original 1942 now, I think it’s a testament to the deceptive quality of the Spectrum conversion behind that simple facade that I still play on there more than anywhere else. That fleeting glimpse at the arcade machine on a ferry with its loop-the-loops and exotic warplanes might have sparked my imagination, but the Spectrum is where the game really came to life for me, and it’s never really stopped living there, despite the bells and those shrill, beeping whistles of the original!

Discovering Devil Crash MD on Sega Mega Drive

Discovering Devil Crash MD on Sega Mega Drive

Despite my being there day one, I was a little slow on the uptake when Demon’s Tilt appeared on Xbox Game Pass at the end of 2019. I’m going to blame it on my kidneys briefly giving up the ghost during the first half of an MK Dons football match at around the same time! Anyway, once I was out of hospital a week later, and in the brief (usually very late night) moments that my son wasn’t plugged into FIFA or Madden or Fortnite on his Xbox, I was very quickly being reeled in by what started as the obviously best occult pinball action game I’d ever played, then maybe the best pinball game I’d ever played, and then just one of my favourite games of all time! It left Game Pass long before I’d got my own Xbox Series X, but its appearance on Switch had already given me unlimited access, and 14 months later as I write, it’s still often the last thing I do before I go to bed at night!

Demon’s Tilt is turbo-charged pinball and then some, with its demonic ritual-driven story spanning three intense screens, multiple hidden bonus rooms and special modes. It looks and sounds insane, often veering into bullet-hell territory, and the depth of gameplay is just incredible. My love of pinball games might have started with Pinball Wizard on the VIC-20 (more here), but it ends with Demon’s Tilt!

All that said, connoisseurs of nineties pinball games might have just felt the pang of familiarity that took me slightly longer to notice as I was dealing with my lower-right abdomen’s pangs of exploding! I got there eventually though, with a little help from some kind reviewers, who were starting me on an often obsessive journey, first making various stops on the PC-Engine, then ending by way of a couple more on the Sega Megadrive / Genesis. Our tale proper begins with Alien Crush, a game I’d actually played quite a lot of on PC-Engine at this point, but had no idea of its lineage or influence, and as obvious as it may seem now, didn’t immediately make the link…

Alien Crush is a 1988 PC-Engine three-screen, Alien-inspired sci-fi pinball game by Japanese developer Compile, possibly better known now for their Puyo Puyo series. And despite being a little dated today by its flip-screening, it still plays wonderfully, offering what must have been unprecented depth at the time! It was followed on PC-Engine in 1990 by Devil’s Crush, which replaced the sci-fi with the occult, and we’ll come back here later! After that little masterpiece, there was a Japan-only Super Famicon sequel, Jaki Crush, in 1992, inspired by Japanese depictions of hell, where I guess the demon jaki from the title lives! It still plays great too, with more complex pinball mechanics, some really cool graphical effects and a classic soundtrack to drive you onwards. Then for the official conclusion to the “Crush Pinball” series, we skip all the way forwards to 2008 with Alien Crush Returns, part sequel and part remake of the original for the Nintendo Wii via its WiiWare service. This one’s a little soul-less, with a lot of the incredible attention to detail of the original games sacrificed for more sparse big 3D graphics. Move forwards again to just over a decade later, and we’re finally up to date with very spiritual successor Demon’s Tilt, soul once again intact… At least until it tears it right out of you!

The PC-Engine Mini, which was a belated birthday present when it launched here in mid-2020, took me on its own ongoing journey of discovery, but I think so far Alien Crush is still what I’ve played the most on there – it was made to be seen on a great big flat-screen! However, as my Demon’s Tilt-inspired journey of occult pinball discovery continued in parallel, we come to another “Mini” console, the PlayStation Classic and its very easy, non-intrusive modding to play almost anything, including the PC-Engine and its Devil’s Crush!

Devil’s Crush, direct sequel to Alien Crush as we’ve already discussed, is three screens high, but it’s now scrolling smoothly into a single continuous playfield containing three sets of flippers. They’ve also done wonders with the ball physics, and in the main the ball feels just like it’s supposed to feel. I was instantly sold on the occult theming, which is a joy to behold, full of sinister monks, oozing skulls and other exposed-bone monstrosities, the big vampire snake lady, dragons and hints of flame and all kinds of diabolical detail. Having worked for a Japanese company for just about 20 years, I’ve seen a lot of Japanese Powerpoint slides, and one way of identifying Japan as the source is that they like to fill every space on the slide with information – white space is wasted space! This game is the same, with not a single wasted pixel of space anywhere in the living, medieval dungeon-styled Devil’s castle backdrop.

There’s movement everywhere, with so much just waiting to respond or explode or squelch or fight back at the slightest touch from your balls, and completing the right challenges will open up one of eight special single-screen bonus tables. Get a perfect on all of these and you’re in for a big 4x score multiplier, but there’s also mega points available for all kinds of perfect shots, like dropping a ball into the snake woman’s crown without touching any slime. Actually, landing your balls in her crown regardless is going to give you the game’s trademark visual pay-off, with each one (followed by hitting the right bonus symbol) gradually changing her from some kind of vampiric sleeping beauty to alien snake monster as you play, then once she’s there you shoot her again and you’ve got another bonus table! Tilt is going to play a big part in scoring big too, with a single tilt “direction” making it a little hit or miss, but it is going to be far more forgiving than in many other pinball games, encouraging its use as part of your arsenal. Another mechanic of the Crush games is the last chance, where once you’ve lost your three balls you’ve got a spinning something-hundred number to stop; if that matches the last three numbers of your score, you get one more chance with an extra ball, so stop at 900 and your score is 427900, for example, and there you go!

There’s suitably eerie sound effects everywhere, mixed with more traditional pinball bells and whistles. Ball impacts sound suitably meaty, the plunger sounds suitably mystical, and there’s a suitably evil laugh from one of the bigger feature skulls when you lose a ball! We’ve also got a load of distinct theme tunes, with the title screen playing the pick of the bunch – a very Castlevania kind of haunted house music. Things hot up for the main in-game theme, which does a great job of eventually looping without ever getting annoying, and its high-tempo eighties keyboard-rock just hinting at something sinister. Then you’re brought back from the dead with the high score table theme taunting you with a vaguely oriental sound, somewhere in the middle of the other two! Bonus tables also have their own themes, all adding up to a lot of music, which isn’t the absolute best of the best on the PC-Engine, but it’s never very far off.

It should be noted that there’s a bit of censorship going on with Devil’s Crush, so make sure you’re on the Japanese version to get the original vision and the full occult beauty of this stunning game! Otherwise, you’ll be getting vases instead of coffins (which had those deeply offensive crucifix things on), and pentagrams and other such symbols of evil replaced by pretty pointed stars! Getting the right version is slightly easier as we move to the Sega Mega Drive (or Genesis) – and the title at the top of this page is also going to start looking less like a typo – though we’re going to have to muddy the waters of the Crush series even more to get there, which for me is just a couple of original PlayStation controller clicks away…

Devil Crash MD, to give it its full name, is the uncensored Japanese Mega Drive port of Devil’s Crush. However, it wasn’t just coffins that were deemed too much for western audiences, but the name itself, and America and Europe got the more fantasy-themed Dragon’s Fury, which was to all intents and purposes the western release of the PC-Engine game. There’s really not much between these two games whatever they’re called though, and on any given day I might veer between the larger playing area and more realistic physics of the PC-Engine version or the vibrancy and slightly more realistic flow to the game of the Mega Drive version. Overall the latter might just pip it at the post though, with its bit more gothic title music, set on top of a more flamboyant title screen featuring the snake lady. “More flamboyant” is a good way to desribe the main game theme on this version too, as well as some of the graphical flourishes like the steam going on around the base of the plunger, more flames and bigger explosions; it’s just generally all a bit more bold and in your face. It’s also got its own user interface down the right side of the screen, which does result in a comparatively smaller table size, but on the other hand is giving the serious player valuable progress information.

What the Mega Drive version does have is some really cool cheat codes. Both versions have a password save system, but enter the right password here and you’ll not only have 99 balls, but also your choice of changing the table music to the themes from Thunder Force II or III, Herzog Zwei, Elemental Master and more! I believe it’s also got an end game too, where if you score a billion points you’ll start a final boss battle, but I’ve definitely never seen that! And finally, it’s got its own sequel… Don’t get too excited, the 1993 Dragon’s Revenge is almost none of the things we’ve been so positive about with any of the games we’ve discussed up to now! Maybe that’s a little harsh, but it’s definitely a bit mediocre in comparison, with few of its own ideas except over-complicating the table design, going full on fantasy and making some dubious attempts at sexing everything up with some very 16-bit bikini-clad warrior women hosting the bonus tables! Demon’s Tilt might not be 100% canon, but it’s far more canon than this Mega Drive canon sequel!

Back to Devil Crash or Devil’s Crush – it doesn’t really matter – you’re going to have the absolute best time with either version depending on your system of choice! It’s a stunning looking, stunning sounding, imaginative pinball game that still holds its own as one of the greats despite making up the rules as it goes along. Demon’s Tilt might have had several decades to perfect the formula, but in my collection at least, Devil Crash, Devil’s Crush (and let’s not forget Alien Crush!) have just about equal billing.

Outriders, Genesis Noir, Narita Boy – Celebrating One Incredible Week on Xbox Game Pass

Outriders, Genesis Noir, Narita Boy – Celebrating One Incredible Week on Xbox Game Pass

Game Pass is great, and in the very short space of time since I got my Xbox Series X and have been involved, has completely justified my jumping to Xbox after four day-one PlayStation generations before it! Actually, it was the main justification for it!

On top of everything Xbox to explore that I’d previously missed out on, the past couple of weeks – and in the space of about a week – there’s been no less than three stone cold classics that I’ve immediately played the hell out of to completion (though Outriders is sure to keep on giving way beyond the story), and as a quick non-retro bonus post I just wanted to give a quick impression of each…

Outriders

Finally, I found my new Destiny! Fantastic feeling cover-shooter built around an addictive, repetitive, progressive level-up and loot loop that feels loads better if you jump in with others, though the flexible difficulty system means it works fine solo too. The magic classes mix things up, there’s various enhancement systems and all kinds of modification possible, a ridiculous amount of better weapons and armour to keep finding, and the story isn’t bad either. Looks mighty fine as well!

Narita Boy

A pleasantly modern-feeling sort-of-metroidvania homage to the eighties that starts a bit bewildering as you’re dumped into a complex story using complex language, but persevere a while and your back and forth will reward you with enormous environmental variety and loads of different enemies to overcome with increasingly fluid combat. And as you’re wandering and wondering at some glorious pseudo-Tron visuals and a fantastic synth-wave soundtrack, you’ll even start to work out what it’s all about too!

Genesis Noir

I should hate this! Pointing, clicking and jazzing isn’t me… Unlike Howard Moon, I’m definitely not the jazzy boy! But I’m okay with some film noir, and I like some Pink Panther cartoon aesthetics, especially when they’re so painfully stylish! And this isn’t really point-and-click; it’s very tactile, and, unusually for that genre, its puzzles are mostly logical. There’s no escaping a bit of smoky jazz club in this absolutely unique anti-creation tale though, but I can forgive it that.

If you’ve got access to Game Pass, definitely give these a go. And if you’re still holding out for an elusive PlayStation 5, I’d have a serious look at it too!

Game Review: Indiana Jones and the Fountain of Everlasting Life – ZX Spectrum

Game Review: Indiana Jones and the Fountain of Everlasting Life – ZX Spectrum

There was once a marvellous arcade game called Kung-Fu Master, and eventually it made its way to the ZX Spectrum where it became the most disappointing game of all time, and no matter how many times I give it a second chance, I reckon it’s always going to stink!

It was terrible – a mass of colour clash; played like a dog (in slow motion); scrolled like a speech impediment; had one of the most grating theme tunes that even the Spectrum could manage… Although if you were really lucky, the collision detection would take out the enemy behind you while you were kicking something in front, or if the screen “scrolled” when a knife-throwing enemy appeared it would turn into a regular one!

Unlike Kung-Fu Master, Indiana Jones and the Fountain of Everlasting Life isn’t terrible – in fact, it’s the exact opposite, and that’s why it’s almost equally disappointing! In its defence, it was released as an April Fool’s joke in 2017 by Misja van Laatum, developer of the still in development at the time of writing point-and-click adventure The Fountain of Youth, a game “in the spirit of LucasArts’ classic Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis”. And the joke is that it’s over before you know it, and there’s the precise nature of our disappointment here, because it’s not only nearly the best Indiana Jones game on the Spectrum, but given that’s not a major accomplishment in the eyes of many, it’s also nearly an absolute classic Spectrum platform adventure. And in the company of Manic Miner, Monty, etc. that would be a hell of an accomplishment!

We start with a lovely loading screen – even more lovely than Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a Spectrum game that I am hugely fond of – with Indy in front of a burning pyramid and two flying saucers firing laser beams at stuff, and then were ready to begin for real in Bora Gora, French Polynesia in 1939. The first screen is called Fortune and Glory, and you’re at the rainforest entrance to some ancient ruin full of ropes, platforms, occult-looking bull statues and what might be magenta spikes or poisonous flowers, but they’re magenta so just steer clear! You’re running, climbing and jumping your way up to the top and then into the Snake Pit! Indy might not like snakes, but there’s a statue a bit like the one at the start of the first movie down there, so we’ll grab that on the way down and back up, avoiding the patrolling snakes and more magenta flowers, but stopping on the way to get a tantalising glimpse of the crazy UFO screen you’re about to encounter next. This screen, The Dig Site, is the cruellest part of this April Fool’s joke, because unless you’re already in on it, it’s the point where you get excited about this game maybe being a classic, as the platforms get more complex in layout, and there’s a guard as well as giant insects and magenta flowers, not to mention the mystery of that big flying saucer at the bottom of the screen… And then once you’ve made the leap of faith down the big drop at the end of the screen, it all comes crashing down with “Happy April Fool’s Day” and a message about them having been making this game for a long time but not 31 years. And then in your disappointment you treat yourself to another playthrough, because what’s another 90 seconds when you’ve been so close to a classic, but now you’re so far away!

I was actually in on the joke by the time I played this, having seen my friend Nick Jenkin suffer the disappointment live on his wonderful YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/njenkin) – if you’re into retro-gaming, be sure to check that out, with a load of video reviews every week that are about how much you’d enjoy the game on those first few goes rather than expert gameplay… though in the style of gameplay we’re talking about here, he is a bit of a master! And there’s also a couple of live streams per week that are always an evening well-spent with the great community he’s gathered around him. Definitely never a disappointment!

Even after all of that, I still wanted to play the game and I still wanted to write about it because, for as long as it lasts, it is really good! I’ll never buy their real game, The Fountain of Youth, because I have absolutely no desire to ever play a point-and-click adventure, but I would pay good money and play the living daylights out of a Spectrum (or even Spectrum-inspired) platformer if this is the quality they can knock up as a joke! It’s a great looking game, with all kinds of detail in the different blocks and platforms, simple but perfectly functional character designs, and some very well thought out (and very varied) use of Spectrum colour, with only a bit of clash adding to its modern-day charm. Less is more in the sound department too, with perfectly well realised sound effects and thankfully no ten second loop of a dreadful Spectrum rendition of a nursery rhyme or something, as was the case with many of these games! And they’ve nailed the all-important jump controls too. It’s just great, and they need to abandon that other thing and just make more of this please!

My Life With… Shao-Lin’s Road – Arcade / ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Shao-Lin’s Road – Arcade / ZX Spectrum

The mid-eighties video rental experience offered endless possibilities for the martial arts-obsessed teenager; you might have rented them a dozen times, but there was still a whole world beyond Enter the Dragon and Way of the Dragon that didn’t stop with other Bruce Lee films, or even those of the Bruceploitation greats like Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Lie, Bruce Lai, Bruce Thai, Brute Lee and, of course, Lee Bruce! The works of Jackie Chan were the natural progression, with stuff like Drunken Master, Police Story, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow or Brazil-based food-truck vigilante classic Wheels on Meals easy selections from the bulging martial arts video shelves. We’re just pre-Seagal and Van Damme here, so Chuck Norris was the big western alternative with the likes of The Octagon, Code of Silence and An Eye For An Eye, featuring loads of signature roundhouse kicks and Christopher Lee as his drug-baron nemesis.

Outside of these heavyweights we had more niche stuff like New York- based The Last Dragon, with its classic Shogun of Harlem bad guy, or Five Deadly Venoms, where different fighting styles are represented by five different animal masks, each with its own deadly venom – you had Lizard, Centipede, Scorpion, Snake and, er, Toad! Crippled Avengers offers a similar concept, but with the fighters having a unique disability rather than a fancy mask! There was also a ton of more generic warring faction (or more likely warring kung-fu school) stuff like Martial Club, Opium and the Kung-Fu Master, Shaolin Temple or The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter – you really could start watching these now and never run out!

And I’m almost forgetting all that ninja goodness we loved so much in the eighties too! American Ninja is maybe the pinnacle of the genre (closely followed by its four sequels!), but there was an endless supply of these as well – Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, Ninja in the Dragon’s Den, Pray for Death, Nine Deaths of the Ninja, Ninja Terminator and The Ninja Strikes Back, which brings us full circle to Bruce Lee… No, hang on, it was Bruce Le, which has also taken me right back to that very easy early-teenage beginner mistake of picking up something you thought was a Bruce Lee film you hadn’t seen yet!

We’d always be watching these things, whether at home or in our slightly older next-door neighbours’ house, who were members of the other video rental shop in Bedford, which was a bit further away but had an even bigger selection of martial arts movies! Being a bit older also meant that when we were all at the local leisure centre after kung-fu or a Saturday morning roller disco or whatever was on, they’d also get first go (or most goes because they had more money) on whatever the current selection of two arcade machines was in the refreshments area where the drink and snack machines were; at least my brother and me could enjoy a Dr Pepper in the only place you could get it at the time while we watched!

In this very limited experience of arcade games, I often wonder if my favourites are favourites because they’re actually any good, or if they were just there and made a lasting impression because they were better than anything I’d ever have at home! Looking at my big list of all-time favourite games, and the top 25 specifically, there’s not a lot on offer from the arcades, but from what is there, I doubt that many would argue with Star Wars, 1942 and Out Run being subjective top likes, but then as we approach my top ten we have Elevator Action, and finally, right inside my top five, we have Shao-Lin’s Road… and I’m sure that many haven’t even heard of them, let alone ever put them in any kind of best-of arcade list!

But back in our local leisure centre in our 1985 and 1986 heyday, those two sat side by side after Shao-Lin’s Road replaced Kung-Fu Master in the very slow, very infrequent machine rotation that – apart from fun fairs twice a year – dictated my exposure to that golden age of arcade games. And coming back to my previous point, I still play and absolutely love both the arcade and ZX Spectrum versions of both as much as other all-time favourites like arcade Out Run or Spectrum Renegade or Atari ST Supersprint, for example, so it’s not all rose-tinted. And yes, these non-arcade versions of Renegade and Supersprint are stories for another time, but as a point of interest, exclusively ports and not originals of Gauntlet, Enduro Racer and Commando also feature in my top 25!

Whilst we’ve established that I might not have been that well informed on arcade games in the mid-eighties, there certainly wasn’t much I didn’t know about Bruce Lee, Brute Lee, nunchuks and ninjas! And after our first taste of the union between the two media with Kung-Fu Master’s hero-versus-many rhythmic scrapping that we knew so well from our beloved movie rentals, when Shao-Lin’s Road came along there at some time in 1986, it added a whole new vertical dimension to that against the odds brawling, and I can still picture watching over my neighbour’s shoulder as he played it for the first time and just being blown away!

Something I did know around this time was Yie Ar Kung Fu, mainly from the very distinctive advert for the home computer versions with its own take on Bruceploitation, as well as those really distinctive characters in Commodore 64 promo screenshots, with all those chains and poles and absolutely groundbreaking variety in what was still the very early days of one-on-one fighting games. And when the home conversions of Shao-Lin’s Road appeared on the horizon, it got even more cool points with me because it turned out that all this time it was actually a follow-up to Yie Ar Kung Fu. Or at least that’s what the adverts said, because in the very same issue of Computer & Video Games magazine at the end of 1986, there was another advert for something called Yie Ar Kung Fu II, which was surely a more likely follow up, right? It was definitely adamant it was, highlighting it was officially endorsed by Konami and it was a sequel not a follow-up!

Actually, I was so excited about home ports of Shao-Lin’s Road that I didn’t pay much attention at the time, but it turns our that while Ocean had been sorting out the licence to the official sequel, competing publisher The Edge had done the same for Shao-Lin’s Road, and decided to advertise it as “The smash hit follow-up to Yie Ar Kung-Fu.” Taken literally, you might argue that was not incorrect because it’s also by Konami and it did come out a year or so after Yie Ar Kung-Fu in the arcades, in April 1985, so technically it was following it up, but it’s a pretty outrageous thing to do all the same! Even more outrageous was when reviews for both started appearing in early 1987 and Road was outscoring Fu II, albeit generally as signficantly less average rather than anything outstanding in its own right! It had a couple of 8/10 reviews though, and I remember Your Sinclair liking it a lot, as well as being quite sure it was the sequel to Yie Ar Kung-Fu! All that said, I’m not 100% sure how much Ocean’s official sequel is a real official sequel either, or where the planned Konami sequel that ended up being Martial Champion fits in, but we’ve spent far longer on a possibly unrelated game than I planned to here already, so we’re moving on!

Anyway, we were going to talk about this home version advert because this is our first hint at what’s going on in the arcade game we’ve been playing all this time! And it starts with another allusion to it’s follow-up status… “Our hero has finally mastered the secret martial art “CHIN’S SHAO-LIN” but is trapped by triad gangs. With kicks and other secret powers, escape from and travel SHAO-LIN’S road to freedom!” Not sure about Yie Ar Kung-Fu, but that’s definitely along the lines of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow or something!

When we finally get our mitts on the home versions, the cassette inlay goes even further… “As our Hero Lee you have finally mastered the secret martial art, “Chin’s Shao-Lin”. You find yourself trapped in the temple by hoards of Triads. Using your kicking skills and magic powers you must fight off the Triads and get out of the temple and head for the road to freedom. At each step on your way on your road to freedom you will encounter more and more of the Triads, and at each stage you will discover one that is particularly skilful! Look out for flying kicks, breathing flame, and punches that come clear out of nowhere!”

And there we were thinking we just had a great arcade game on our hands! Unlike its predecessor – one way or another – Yie Ar Kung-Fu, which is a pure fighter, Shaolin’s Road is more arcade platformer, where you’re working your way through five multi-tiered environments packed with goons to kick and magic away, and once you’ve done that the level restarts with more goons and the aforementioned particularly skilful boss characters; get rid of them all and you move on to the next level. Beat the last one and you’ll start all over again, but with even more particularly skilful characters on top of even more goons – some of which now throw knives or throwing stars or themselves – from the outset, as well as birds dropping eggs of death onto you! Some of the goons (you’ll know them by their trousers) release power ups after a good kicking which you have to quickly catch to get one of your magic powers. The first is a spikey ball that you can kick to knock over any enemies on your level of the level, and you can even catch and do this jumping super move with if you time things right. Next is a fireball that shoots out of both sides, but only seems to work on enemies a fair distance away. Last is a ball of energy or the like that spins around you, taking out enemies as it passes by on its rotation. The boss characters are nicely varied, with demonic looking things that breathe fire, some Yie Ar Kung-Fu style weapon wielders, an angelic looking lady with a lethal flying kick and just some big, bad dudes, but here’s an expert tip – just anticipate them going up and down, kick them, then go up or down! Patience is king in Shao-Lin’s Road!

Apart from one or two expert moves with power-ups that are completely superfluous to beating all the levels, the gameplay is simplicity itself, with you jumping up and down levels and kicking your way through loads of enemies. Jump. Attack. Nothing fancy! There is a bit of strategy needed in the boss characters, and in timing your up and down movements to avoid taking unecessary damage if you want to go far, but you’re going to be on the second level and feeling like Bruce Thai in one or two goes! Most of this happens on a single screen, but at each end you’ll get a very short side-scroll that extends the play area a bit, and within each stage’s three platform levels you’ll also get some gaps in the floor or roofs to jump between to add a bit more danger, with a fantastic slapstick animation if you get too close to an edge! Clearing a level of enemies gives a slightly more rewarding animation though, with a strongman pose and the word “GUTS” captioned about your little guy Lee, who’s got three lives, and three hits are allowed per life per level.

The action starts in a temple with an impressive looking big golden Buddha statue dominating an otherwise sparsely decorated opening scene. It does highlight all the onscreen characters though – big, detailed and full of personality, and their dress-sense really pops against the dominant blacks on this level; they really move at pace too. It’s also a good place to appreciate the bouncy, if slightly stereotypical oriental theme tune, which gets more frantic as the action hots up, with an ominous bass-line warning of impending doom! Sound effects are really meaty as well – you feel like those kicks are connecting! Stage two is where the graphics really come into their own, with you outside the temple (I guess) and everything is bold and bright and really nicely detailed against a rich blue sky; it would all look great in a big SNES JRPG! Stage three sees you at what is probably the grand entrance to the temple grounds, similar in style to stage two. Stage four has you outside a long, lower building with some huge bonsai-like trees behind it providing the third layer of verticality this time, and a bit of variety to the impressive but similarly styled array of traditional Japanese architecture elsewhere. Even more variety in the final stage as you make your way through some kind of desert canyon, with the temple far behind you in the background. Really nice looking stage – especially on the Spectrum…

Apart from being the most hit or miss game to load I ever (legitimately) owned on the Spectrum, it was a superb conversion, and whilst the arcade version might have been the one that always stuck with me, the Spectrum is certainly where I spent the most time. They absolutely nailed the easy to play, hard to master, utterly addictive feel of the original, though I think it gets harder quicker before it evens out a bit in the later levels. There’s also a bit less of the enemies moving up and down to get some vertical advantage, but there is an awful lot more bonus items (vases, possibly pizzas…) flying about here to kick for extra points, which does add a risk-reward element and some high-score longevity once you’re finding yourself good enough to be going around all the levels.

The characters are a bit less varied and a bit less cartoon-like than the original, and, of course, the colours have been toned down a bit, with a lot of use of different types of monochrome with just the odd (really welcome!) colourful flourish in the background, but in the main it looks just like the arcade version. The third level does go a bit more wild, with the resulting black characters feeling a bit like you’re playing in negative, but otherwise they’re nicely detailed, full of personality and everything moves smoothly enough, apart from a little jerkiness when it scrolls, but nothing especially jarring. Just don’t spend too much time analysing the flying kick – I think his leg is shrinking a bit when he does it, and who knows why doing one forces you down a floor! It sounds alright too, with a great rendition of the arcade theme playing on the title screen and a good scattering of pleasingly inoffensive sound effects!

It took me a very long time after the fact to find out that the arcade version had been available on the original PlayStation for several decades, as part of the Konami Arcade Classics compilation, together with Yie Ar Kung Fu – which is fine too, but not a patch on its sequel! And that’s where I generally play it now, before jumping over to the Spectrum version just to see if I can finally decide which one is really the one that makes it number five in my all-time favourite games list. But it’s always both! Simple, addictive and just like being in an eighties martial arts movie!

Game Review: White Jaguar (ZX Spectrum)

Game Review: White Jaguar (ZX Spectrum)

The year 2020 might be remembered for other things before its ZX Spectrum game releases, but it’s definitely worth pointing out that towards its end we were really spoilt by some serious quality! We talked about late December’s wonderful Wonderful Dizzy here, but a month or so before that we were treated to something not a million miles away from the legendary Oliver Twins’ all-new epic, both in terms of gameplay, polish, and pushing the Spectrum to its graphical limits!

The Yandex Retro Games Battle is an annual ZX Spectrum development contest, with the best fifteen published and voted for by the public, then the top three get cash prizes. Keeping in mind everything is in Russian, I think I’m right in saying the eventual winner was Marsmare: Alienation, a metroidvania-infused arcade platformer; we’re going to have to come back to that because as fantastic as it looks, I didn’t know it existed until about thirty seconds ago! But what we can talk about it what I think was the runner-up, White Jaguar, a metroidvania-infused arcade platformer by developer and probable future legend romancha, alias Roman Varfolomeev!

I’m a great believer in you can judge a book by it’s cover, and the very first time you lay eyes on White Jaguar you know you’re in for something special… Just look at all the detail in those graphics and all those Spectrum colours all over each other! It really is one of the best-looking Spectrum games you’ll ever come across, drenched in Native American atmosphere set against this pinky, bluey, blacky forest skyline. It’s not just the fantastic use of minimal-clash colour too, but the incredible attention to detail, from distant birds and twinkling stars to the staggering variety in the stones and bricks and other environments, all meticulously and individually crafted and coloured. And the more you notice it, the more you look, and the more staggering you find it all! And this all goes on across multiple levels, each comprising a load of distinctive, just beautiful screens, filled with smooth-moving enemies and the fluid running, jumping and chucking of your little man. Not to mention his smooth-moving, fluid long hair too – this guy could bathe up a mountain and flick it about the place and Timotei would be all over him!

As implied previously, your little man is a Native American, and now we’re past the cover and onto his story, which actually, having played through the game, I’m still not that sure about! It seems to involve him seeking out his destiny and general greatness, and becoming “one of us” which I think means turning into a jaguar! This translates into a pretty intuitive arcade platformer, where you’ll be collecting items and new abilities that will allow you to backtrack and collect more, which in turn open up new areas until eventually your destiny turns up, and we’ll come back to that later! On the way, you’ll be platforming across rivers, through caves, over cactii and among ruins, avoiding obstacles, animals out to do you no good, and some really nasty mystical pieces of work that are going to gobble up your three lives in a heartbeat!

As well as a really precise jump, you can duck and throw an axe, which is very limited use and you’ll be desperately seeking out more as you go. It really does feel as good to play as it looks, and you’ll soon have a lie of the land, a handle on how to manage each of the enemy types, and will be going backwards and forwards through magical portals between levels making serious progress. It’s definitely not easy, and there were a couple of real difficulty spikes, but it’s not brutal by old-school Spectrum platformer standards by any means, and after a few goes you’ll have explored everything and be well on your way to completion well within an hour or so. Intriguingly, once you’re past the final double-boss fight (very reminiscent of a certain port of Ghosts ‘n Goblins), you’re informed youve completed Part 1, and it’s to be continued. And I certainly hope it is!

Just playing through it again, I still can’t get over how good some of these screens look, but the sound is definitely worth a shout out too, with pleasingly inoffensive and sparingly used Spectrum sound effects backed by a really impressive soundtrack that – like the graphics – ranks as some of the best the system has ever offered.

Like Wonderful Dizzy, anyone with any kind of interest in the Spectrum needs to play this, but it’s not just a great Spectrum game that more holds its own in one of its strongest genres, but a great game in general, and I can’t wait to see what romancha comes up with next… Part 2, please???

Discovering Alien on Atari 2600

Discovering Alien on Atari 2600

For all the hours I spent playing on my best friend’s Atari 2600 in the early eighties, it would take the best part of another four decades to discover my favourite game on there (submarine rescue ‘em up, Seaquest), and then even longer to discover it was also home to what I genuinely think is my favourite Pac-Man game ever (not counting Pac-Land as a Pac-Man game, of course)! And not only that, but it’s also not a Pac-Man game at all, but Alien, which, amazingly, given my love of the films and it’s now 2021, is also the first Alien game I’ve ever played! But that’s not a bad place to start, given it was the very first Alien game, and surely one of the earliest officially licensed movie tie-ins too; there was a Death Race arcade game in 1976, but not a lot else until a flurry on the 2600 in 1982, starting with Raiders of the Lost Ark, then stuff like Alien, Tron, King Kong, Star Wars, E.T…

The game’s plot, all explained onthe back of the box, couldn’t provide a better justification for ripping off Pac-Man; in fact, it does such a good job that I’m wondering if Pac-Man might have ripped off Alien! Ever since you blasted off from the last planet you visited, you’ve been hearing weird sounds around your ship, Nostromo, so you set it onto auto-pilot and have a look around… Turns out every hallway in the maze-like hull has been lined with alien eggs, so you have to run around all these corridors, crushing them underfoot as you go. But what could have produced such terrible eggs? “A hideous being with jaws like a beartrap” of course, and as you run away there’s another just ahead, and don’t forget that no one can hear you scream in space!

The manual goes further, telling us that we have to run through the hallways of the space ship, crushing all of the Alien eggs which have been placed there while also avoiding or destroying the adult aliens, and snatching up as many prizes as possible. And what do prizes make? Points of course, which the manual helpfully has space for you to write down at the back! You just move the controller up, down, left and right to run over the eggs and steer clear of the aliens, where the slightest touch from the albeit slightly forgiving collision detection means instant death. On either side of the screen you have a “Hyperwarp Passage” that is better than Pac-Man’s version because it’s called a Hyperwarp Passage, but similarly takes you to the other side of the screen. However, in an even larger departure from Pac-Man, you’ve also got a flame thrower which you can use up to four times to scare off or immobilise or potentially have no affect at all on the aliens, unless you’re on the extreme right or left of the screen where fire doesn’t work – I’m sure there’s a great reason!

Each maze also has three pulsars (or power pills) that you can destroy to weaken the aliens and, er, gobble them up or similar. You can also use the flame thrower to run over the pulsars so you can save them for later, adding a nice expert tactical touch that Pac-Man simply cannot equal! What Pac-Man also cannot equal is Frogger! Clear mazes and you get a bonus round, which involves you making a Frogger-style dash up the screen between moving groups of aliens against a harsh clock, so you need to make your route choice and stick to it quick.

As was often the case with the Atari 2600, the developers had to make the most of all those levers and switches on the console, so Alien also gives you four difficulty switch settings, where the aliens travel randomly or in fixed patterns, and where a pulsar has an effect or has no effect on the aliens (which actually equates to three settings because one of those makes no difference)! You’ve also got four skill settings, from practice to expert, though for all of these options (same as for pretty much all 2600 games), I’ve not had any more fun in any of these endless variations than by not touching anything!

Alien looks and sounds like an Atari 2600 game – it’s hard to dress it up much more than that, except it looks like a good one! The mazes are well defined, movement is smooth, the alien eggs look like dots and the pulsars look like asterisks, but there is real character in the aliens – especially the sinister yellow one! Barely any flicker either (apart from the sinister yellow one, but let’s say that’s intentional to up the scares), which you definitely can’t say for the strobe-ghost horror show of official 2600 Pac-Man! There’s a really cool effect when you go into the hyperwarp thingy at the side of the screen too, where you dissolve as you enter it before re-emerging on the other side. In the sound department you’ve got various siren noises that either up the tension or just drive you mad, and there’s a constant crunch as you take out the alien eggs underfoot. Again, classic Atari 2600, but I’ve heard an awful lot worse on the Spectrum and they work absolutely fine!

Apart from Pac-Land (more here) – and the Pac-Man cartoon it’s based on – I’m not the world’s biggest Pac-Man fan, though I’ve definitely had my fill of all kinds of revisions on all kinds of systems for over forty years! I even became something of an expert on Pac-Man 256 a few years ago, absolutely playing it to death until free-to-play arrived and sucked out most of its soul. Anyway, I like Pac-Man. But I like this more! It plays a very pure version of Pac-Man, to the point I generally forget about the flame thrower even existing. The character is responsive; the seemingly random nature of the alien AI is challenging and often panic-inducing; the mazes feel good and the Frogger bonus screen is a really nice incentive to keep going, though the concept is arguably just as addictive without it. And it’s got 2600-cool aliens from Alien chasing after you, which is loads better than crazy flickering ghosts! And for me at least, that all combines with a clear love of the film that might not be able to transcend the technical limitations of the time and the system, but is just about enough to transcend all other versions of a similar game!