My Life With… Silent Hill 2 (PlayStation 2)

My Life With… Silent Hill 2 (PlayStation 2)

I gave the original Silent Hill a raw deal. Bought on launch day whenever that was in 1999, and – judging by my fairly meagre collection of games for the system – may have the honour of being the last game I ever bought for the original PlayStation. But not only did it take me over 21 years to finally complete, thanks to my recent play-through at the time of writing, I probably got 15 minutes into it first time around! And after that first 15 minutes (which, in my defence, I probably saw several times!), it went into a box with an old Babycham ashtray, some pin-badges from the mid-90’s (including a really nice Alice in Chains one), the first two Resident Evils and some old magazines. And over time, that box moved from my parent’s loft then three different garages until I thought “I wonder what’s in there” and fancied another go in the strange days of summer 2020!

And I feel worse about that than for the first two Resident Evil games, which also got similar treatment until recently, because I can take or leave them and their pre-rendered spooky stylings, but I absolutely adore Silent Hill! Something clicked big-time when I actually gave it a chance, and I properly rinsed it, getting one of the better endings just because I didn’t want to leave that wonderful fog-drenched, blood-drenched horror town.

Actually, as another side note, I’m playing Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 on Switch at the moment and I’m having exactly the same feelings there – I’ve now seen the credits three times but there’s one ending I’ve not seen yet, so I’m back in again. And whilst twice in two months might signify some new phase in my middle-aged gaming life, I can’t think of any other games I’ve ever done that with before now! 

Back to Silent Hill, and unlike many of the PS1’s 3D vistas, I reckon age works in the original game’s favour too, and all that fog and darkness that was there by design to disguise hardware limitations now combines with the pixellation of decades of screen evolution, and general graphical clunkiness by today’s standards, to create a new contemporary atmosphere all of its own. And for all the fantastic story in the first game, where you’re looking for your missing adopted daughter through exploration and puzzle solving, and for all the literal otherworldliness and gore and monstrosity, and the cults and rituals and symbolism and never-ending nerve-wracking tension, the real star of the show is that atmosphere in that town. Its tourist days might be behind it but I’d still visit!

“The name of that town is Silent Hill. Although it is known as a scenic resort area, it is a cursed place where the town’s former inhabitants were once driven away, brutal executions were once carried out, and a mysterious plague was once prevalent. The town is centered around Toluca Lake, from which a thick fog perpetually enshrouds the area and makes vague the reality and dreams of those who visit the town. And according to those who have seen them, there are also times when “things” that should not naturally exist appear.” Not my words, but a near-enough translation from the Japanese-only Lost Memories: Silent Hill Chronicle that was on the back of their Silent Hill 3 official game guide in 2003.

I still can’t believe quite how affected I was in 2020 by this old thing I’d mostly ignored since 1999. I’ve been back several times since first finishing it, sometimes only to hang around that first 15 minutes or so because there’s something I just find strangely comfortable in Silent Hill, and whenever my mind wanders, it often wanders there! Something definitely came out of Silent Hill with me the first time I left, but of course, we don’t need to leave it there because as you might have worked out by now, it got a sequel (and then some, but maybe let’s not go there…)! And from the minute I saw the credits for the first time, I then spent six weeks being incredibly restrained and incredibly patient on eBay until it appeared at a reasonable price for PlayStation 2!

And when Silent Hill 2 finally arrived I was also left not believing how affected I was in 2020 by this old thing I’d never given the time of day to whatsoever since it first came out at the end of 2001 because it’s the first game cranked up to eleven! But it’s so much more than one louder too, to the point that I’m actually feeling quite intimidated talking about it. Weird, maybe or maybe not… It’s an intimidating and disturbing game way beneath the fog and the sirens and the surface-level horrors, which is something subsequent sequels (and let’s not forget the movies!) seemed to forget from what I can tell. You come out feeling dirty, like you’ve witnessed something you shouldn’t have but didn’t want to stop witnessing, and still don’t even after you’re done. Unless you get the dog ending, and then all bets are off! At this point I’ll state I’m not going to avoid spoilers, and will give my view on what I think I’ve seen, but I’ll also not go out of my way to spoil too many individual plot points here, so you can look that little piece of insanity (and possibly the greatest video game ending of all time) up for yourself. And regardless of the ending you get – and there are several, including some that demand multiple completions on one save – you’re going to come away wondering what it was you’ve just witnessed, and long after the fact maybe looking at things that happened in a different lights. But even right after the fact, as soon as you get back to the title screen after the credits, you’ll probably even look at what’s on there again and start wondering…

I’ll get into the story a bit, but I’d also like to start with some commentary of the opening scenes, because I’d like to give some indication of how quickly the game also affected me too. And that will also give me an excuse to restart the game for the fourth time in one less month than that! And that will also give me an excuse to talk about toilets, because that’s where we’re starting our story, with the most beautifully-shot row of urinals I’ve ever seen in a game as your character reminisces about his dead wife, Mary, asking her if she can really be in this town? You’re playing James Sunderland, and he’s stopped off for a slash on arrival at the outskirts of Silent Hill to look for her after she sent him a letter saying she’s waiting for him in their “special place.” Which is complicated by her having died from an terrible long-term illness three years beforehand. Anyway, despite the interesting Hebrew graffiti on the wall, it turns out their special place isn’t this toilet, she’s not here, and he’s got a bit of exploring to do! After trying to clear his head for a bit outside the toilets, you’re in control and within a couple of minutes a huge grin is going to descend onto your mush as you realise you are really back in Silent Hill, but with the shackles of the original hardware a thing of the past, this is now Silent Hill to the max!

Leaving the toilets and that huge draw-distance panoramic view of the lake with not a hint of technical fog behind, you’re quickly descending into… fog! Actually, beneath your viewpoint up on the observation deck you’ve already noticed the fog swirling around the treetops, but it’s proper fog, and as you start your journey you notice wisps of it all around you, accompanied by an ominous single-chord synth drone. And I don’t think wisps of fog in a game have ever been bettered, nor the descent into ever thickening fog, hiding whatever creature is making those occasional dog-like sounds, and what might have been something falling or breaking or maybe it was footsteps? You can’t see it, but it’s close… And you keep going down and down further into the fog and that ominous synth sound starts to vary a bit and a well emerges. There’s something inside, and you touch it and the screen turns red… And it turns out to be a save point! And you keep going, down into the fog, through the gates that sound like a metal bin-lid being dropped on the floor when they open, and into the graveyard. And even though it won’t be the first time you hear it, it’s in here that you’re probably going to really notice the legendary Silent Hill 2 voice-acting for the first time!

And then you’re continuing your descent through the fog as everything you remember about Silent Hill gradually emerges in front of you. But this time – just like the fog – it’s “proper” Silent Hill like you’ve never seen it before, and it’s beautiful! The textures on the pavement and the wooden telephone poles and the chain-link metal fences, and the attention to detail in things like signs or posters or stickers on dirty shop windows, and the kerbs and drain covers and bloodstains on the ground… And that fog is still so cool and so real this time with its own dynamic textures and shades of grey! And by now those ominous sound effects are really doing a job on you too! You’re touching everything (except, perhaps, dirty urinals) because everything looks like it’s there to be touched, and you realise all the roads aren’t half a mile wide like in the first game anymore, and you’re trying to get your bearings, and then in the midst of all this tension that’s been building up in you for the last twenty minutes, is that finally something unnatural shuffling around in the fog ahead of you? And so it really begins!

Many years after Silent Hill 2, we got P.T. (Playable Teaser) from Kojima Productions, and of course it turned out to be teasing something called Silent Hills. “Tease” is one way of putting it, I suppose! It was creepy-looking and very realistic, and years after it was pulled from the PlayStation Store (along with any hope for Silent Hills), people still fawn over it. But for me, it was horror by numbers, like a Paranormal Activity movie; horror for people that don’t like horror; the horror Nickelback! Or in gaming terms, Resident Evil trying to be Silent Hill! Both Silent Hill and its sequel are different because they’re not about what you’ve seen shuffling around in the fog, but what you might have seen, or what you think you saw, and where that might be leading you next. A really good recent (relatively) movie example of this is The Conjuring II, with scares you might not even notice first or second time around! The Blair Witch Project is completely built on that premise too, or going back further when inspiring your imagination was a bit like the use of fog in the first Silent Hill, there’s The Haunting (the 1963 version which is not to be confused with the later Liam Neeson dull-fest!) or, going back even further, Dead of Night. That all said, to its credit P.T. did have a ghost right behind you the whole time that no one knew was there for years which is pretty cool!

Before long that thing you followed into the fog turns into a familiar progression through exploring unsettling environments all over the Silent Hill map, which is going to become your best friend, just like in the first game. And when you can’t read it for whatever reason you’re going to panic just like in the first game too! It’s not only essential because the town is so big, but it’s also going to mark out places you’ve been or haven’t been able to get into yet, give you clues and generally tell you where you should go next. When you’re outside, the glorious, realistic, scare-inducing-not-technical-reasons fog is ever-present, but inside the apartments, hotels and restaurants, prisons, strip-clubs and bowling alleys everywhere is often dark, and your waist-height flashlight is going to build its own atmosphere of uncertainty and claustrophobia, complemented by all those incidental details peeking into the torchlight that spell decay and murder and sickness on every floor, wall or piece of furniture in every building you visit. Lovingly crafted bloodstains on the walls, trampled wheelchairs, rotten bed-frames and stinking blankets, the general detritus of abandonment, and holes in the wall that you’re just willing the game not to ask you to put your hand into!

And of course there’s a hospital, and of course there’s the Otherworld, the very personal nightmare parallel or non-parallel reality or non-reality! This alternate dimension takes the previous oppressiveness of wherever it springs up and multiplies it by a hundred, where those bloodstains are not details any more, but entire walls, with floors piled with rotten meat and corpses, and rusty chains and cages and general nastiness. On subsequent visits there’ll be fire and burnt-up horrors too; and a freezing, bloody slaughterhouse; and something draped in scarred, decaying flesh in a room draped in scarred decaying flesh that’s moving and pulsating and as soon as you work it out will probably be more disturbing than anything else you’ll see in rest of the game. And these reflect that personal nature of the Otherworld depending on who you’re with when it appears, and what’s made them so messed up that they can create this version of hell. Then there’s the water. Always some water around… And the darkness is now pitch blackness.

A very long time ago, back in the graveyard, I mentioned the legendary voice acting in Silent Hill 2! That’s when you met Angela, who’s looking for her missing mother and warns you that there’s something very wrong with the town. Taken out of context, and, admittedly, the first couple of times you come across any of the conversational cut-scenes, you’re going to find the voice-acting jarring. On one hand I can forgive it a bit – these were the pioneer days of this kind of thing! But on the other, by today’s standards, it’s comical, to the point it was all re-recorded in 2012 for the PlayStation 3 HD Collection. But you do also get used to it, and you stop noticing it as it becomes normal to you, and you’ll soon forget it as a possible detraction – in fact, the strange pacing and sometimes primary school nativity play delivery could even be argued to add something other-worldly to these personal… No, we’ll come back to that! But the HD Collection voice-acting stinks even worse – nothing other-worldy here, just weird and a bit disrespectful!

One thing you’ll never get used to is the amount of vomiting that’s going on the first time you meet Eddie Dombrowski, hunched over a disgusting toilet after he’s found a corpse in a disgusting fridge in a disgusting apartment. And the vomiting goes on and on and on! The gluttonous, paranoid Eddie has been bullied to hell all his life to the point that he’s killed a dog and shot a footballer in the knee for revenge reasons, and as defensive as he is about the corpses piling up around him, he’s come to Silent Hill to reach breaking point. “From now on, if anyone makes fun of me I’ll kill them. At least a corpse is more useless than I am.”

As there’s only a couple more characters, and because they’re, well, you’ll see, we’ll quickly cover the other people you meet on your travels through Silent Hill 2. Back to Angela, after the initial warning shot in the graveyard, our next meetings start to expose one of the most tragic characters you will ever come across in any form of media, let alone in video games. Lifelong abuse by her alcoholic father and her brother, which is justified as being deserved by her mother, culminated in her slitting her father’s throat, then spiralled into all kinds of guilt, zero self-worth and suidicidal depression, which promises both the escape and the punishment she also now feels she deserves. She’s left disgusted at herself by both her actions and those of her abusers. And eventually, after sharing her Otherworld for the last time, we’re left to assume that she finally found peace. And let’s remind ourselves, all of this in a 2001 video game. Good on you for being so bold so long ago, Konami!

Just when you think you’re making some progress in the game’s first building, along comes a little girl and puts a stop to it! This is Laura, an eight-year old orphan who’s also somehow found her way to Silent Hill to look for her friend from a time she spent in hospital, Mary – yes, your dead wife Mary – though she doesn’t know she’s dead yet. You’ll meet up with her all over Silent Hill, alone and with some of the other characters, and all the time you’re wondering how? And how? And how…

Finally, still relatively early in the game when you’ve made it through the apartments where you’ve met the others, you make it to Rosewater Park and there you meet Maria. Maria is a slutted-up version of Mary. She looks and sounds just like her, but the hair and clothes are like a fantasy Mary to James, and he doesn’t know whether to be scared or attracted, and is generally confused from hereon in! Maria end ups being both guardian angel and antagonist, and also ends up very dead several times!

At which point it’s probably an idea to talk about the other inhabitants of Silent Hill – the monsters! There’s clearly sexual overtones pretty much everywhere you look here, with possibly the least messed up being the bubble head nurses, with legs and cleavage everywhere, mangled oversized heads and epileptic movements. The Flesh Lips are masses of meat attached to a cage-like bed, complete with what appear to be vaginal lips mouthing animal abuse above the hanging legs that are going to strangle you. The mannequins are headless and armless dummies with two sets of legs (one for walking, one for killing) in some kind of putrid skin ensemble that covers the joins! Then there’s insects and a various humanoids that are all skin and sinew but with too many or too few of any given appendage. But then we get to the really nasty stuff. Abstract Daddy comes in both boss then lesser form at various points, and seems to be a combination of two figures on a bed frame wrapped in a covering of skin, intertwined to represent both rape and suffocation, highlighting that this is potentially James’ perception of Angela’s Otherworld rather than being a part of it. Maybe?

And then there’s Red Pyramid Thing. Also known as Pyramid Head, who’s undoubtably become the Silent Hill poster boy thorughout the series’ lifetime since! He’s a human-like giant in a bloodstained butcher’s apron with a huge triangular helmet, echoing an ancient executioner with his knife that seems to be a mega version of the knife Angela is waving about just before you meet him for the first time! But unlike her knife, we’re in one hit kill territory with this thing. You can actually find this knife later on and use it yourself, but it’s way too cumbersome to bring out in anything other than special boss occasions! You’ll meet him (and his friend) (and his spear) a few times, several of which are going to start with you wondering if Konami would really go as far as making him do what you think you just saw him doing when you turned up. I think the answer is yes… Maria’s also not coming out of these encounters well, again, several times.

If it’s alright with you I’m going to leave out the final boss and move onto gameplay. Everything is kind of fixed camera plus, where you’ve got the advantages of the set piece coming from the best possible angle, but you can also manually move the camera around in most situations, and where you can’t, you’re not going to pay a price for something cheap coming out of the fog at you! A lot of what you’re doing is classic survival horror – go here, fetch that, find the key for this, look into this dark hole and hope it doesn’t look back at you, etc. Combined with the aforementioned map, which is the first thing you need to seek – usually on a wall or a reception desk or similar – every time you enter a new area, you’re going to be following what are in the main logical clues to what are in the main logical puzzles.

Now, I’m not a big one for puzzles in games that aren’t puzzle games, but I actually found myself really enjoying a lot of these, to the point that in the one I’m going to describe in a minute, I didn’t want to backtrack between rooms one final time because I knew I was going to solve it! A lot of it is simple stuff, just relying on your sense of exploration to find the answers – need a safe combination? Then check the blocked toilet upstairs in the place that you thought you couldn’t get into because the door was locked because the wallet in there might have it written on a note! What’s really cool here is that there’s four puzzle difficulty levels when you start the game, though having only ever done them on normal I’m not entirely sure how that works – I think the hard version of the toilet wallet puzzle, for example, used Roman numerals for the combination, and for stuff like riddles are more complex the higher the difficulty.

The puzzle I wanted to mention is called Hanged Man. You come across a room with six bodies with a note on each face telling you of each persons’ crime – kidnapping, arson, murder, etc. You’re then going to a second room with six nooses hanging from the ceiling where the bodies were in the first room. Near the door is a poem on the wall, and you need to work out from that poem which man is innocent, then go and tug on his noose; get it right and there’s a key waiting for you in the first room. My poem documented a bunch of crimes (as well as graphic detail about the hangings that followed), including one where three houses were burnt down and the sheriff just arrested a stranger in the town for it because he was a stranger. So there’s your innocent man. And yes, in this puzzle there are four different poems depending on your puzzle difficulty, and I really can’t fault that commitment to the cause because they’re actually pretty good poems too!

You can also set the combat difficulty at the start of the game. Combat is rarely the strong point of any survival horror game, and here it’s just functional! As well as Pyramid Head’s big chopper, you’ve got the standard handgun, shotgun, plank of wood, lump of metal, etc. You can strafe and spin 180 degrees, and apart from bosses generally avoid combat altogether by just running in most cases. The boss battles are relatively straightforward, and just need plenty of decent ammo in reserve and a bit of patience. As said, functional but certainly not offensive in any way!

We’ve talked about the PS2-stunning graphics a few times, and how everything combines to create this incredible atmosphere, but that atmosphere only works because of the sound design that we’ve only briefly touch upon so far. And yes, we are currently pretending the voice-acting is not part of that sound design! The ambient sound is everywhere and it’s incredible. There are times when some kind of animal noise or possibly human scream or moan seems to be being carried across the fog from miles away, where you can’t see it. Attention to detail isn’t spared here either, like with different footsteps on grass and concrete and broken glass; the things you barely notice but contribute immeasurably when you are creating atmosphere. I’m fairly sure a lot of the sound effects are random too, and combined with periods of silence, create an incredibly unsettling audio experence to go with the unsettling Cronenburg-esque visuals and unsettling everything else!

Before we get somewhere near the end, quick mention of the Theme of Laura. I know this won’t be a popular opinion, but I’m not really fussed by it – melancholy melody with a strong beat, meaning it sounds like a Cure b-side idea that didn’t make the cut. It’s fine and does the job, but Silent Hill 2’s soundtrack isn’t something I listen to in my spare time.

Now let’s move on to my very amateur conclusion about what’s going on. Whatever happened to the town of Silent Hill for it to end up like it is, it’s now a pull for messed up people with messed-up pasts, and is populated by their own very personal monsters. The question is, are the other people you come across in Silent Hill there because they’re messed up like you, or because you are? Like the monsters, I reckon the town made them just for you… Eddie eventually represents James’ disgust at killing a human, charatecterised by his remorse after the meat-locker encounter. Maria is the dying wife manifested as the perfect wife she couldn’t be, back to mentally punish James forever through witnessing recurrent violent deaths at the hands of Pyramid Head, who, like most of the game’s other monsters, is a manifestation of James’ repressed but increasingly violent sexuality coming from years of sexual frustration at the hands of disease. Angela is James’ acceptance that he deserves what he’s going through, of his guilt and not being worthy to live anymore, albeit in reverse as the abused and not the abuser – her father, your wife, just different sides of the same coin; the guilt is the same. And then there’s Laura. She’s not so messed-up and so the town isn’t dangerous to her; she’s not seeing what “everyone else” is seeing. She’s James’ guide towards the truth – if she hadn’t kicked that key away from him in the early game, where would he have gone next? So I think that unlike the other characters you meet, she is real and is in Silent Hill to find her friend – your dead wife – just like you are, but without the horrors of the past to cloud (fog) the way to the end-game… The guilt of being a sexually deviant murderer that demands punishment at your own hands is a horror that is yours alone.

And would you believe I got there without ever once actually spelling out that naughty thing you did, though I’m sure I might as well have by now! I’m mostly happy with my conclusion so far, but I’m still not sure about the sexual deviance thing – it’s clearly there, from the relatively innocent (keep telling yourself that!) manifestation of your sexy nurse fantasies shuffling about the place, to the women as sex-object mannequins, to the more disturbing symbolism of the Abstract Daddy and the more blatant actions of Pyramid Head; as well, of course, as in the characterisation of the dreadfully abused Angela and overly-sexualised Maria. Is that whole messed-up mess really all borne of not getting your leg over for a while? Not for me to say, and like what we think we might have witnessed with Pyramid Head and what he was actually doing to the mannequins, I can’t really be sure. Maybe James has always been a sexual deviant and when his wife couldn’t be party to that anymore he went over the edge on that front. But without getting too stereotypical, as a frequent visitor to Japan, I am now probably in the realms of over-thinking this point!

There’s one more small conflict I’ve got over one of the endings I’ve seen. I’m not going into each of the endings here, but I’ve got a theory about James and dead Mary ending up at the bottom of the lake in a car; the lake you were looking at while you were next to your car at the start of the game. I can buy into that he simply came to Silent Hill to kill himself in their “special place” but here’s the conflict. I initially assumed this was happening at the end of the game, but what if it happened before you started?

That aside, I think we can conclude that you are the monster and you are the horror in Silent Hill 2! And with that concluded, I can also conclude that in my view, Silent Hill 2 is without doubt the greatest horror game of all time. It’s also potentially one of the greatest pieces of horror art of any kind of all time – now there’s a list I need to create, with this and M.R. James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies all right near the top! And whether you’re talking about the story, the metaphors and symbolism, the dark places it creates or the dark places it goes to, the soundtrack or the atmosphere… it’s also probably one of the most important video games of all time too. And the voice-acting really isn’t as bad as people say!

Favourite Sights in All of Gaming

Favourite Sights in All of Gaming

A year or so ago I was playing P-47 on Amstrad CPC (and that’s P-47 Thunderbolt or Freedom Fighter depending on where you’re looking in that package at any given time), and thinking what a great job they’d done on capturing the atmosphere of the sumptuous, sun-setting second level of the 1988 arcade version… Far more so than the Spectrum version I was far more familiar with, where atmosphere by complex colour gradients was a bit more of a challenge! And then I thought about the arcade version and how that level was still just one of the best-looking things I’d ever seen as I approached my sixth calendar decade of gaming.

Being a bit useless with MAME and arcade emulation, I went straight to the next best thing with the PC-Engine version, quickly remembering that this was a bit more of its own interpretation of the original. My old band rarely did cover versions, but when we did, we’d make a point of not listening to the original and just going from memory and what we thought it sounded like (which is how our Brown Sugar ended up being an 8-minute goth-punk odyssey)! And that’s just how this feels! You know what it is, but, for example, the train “boss” at the end of the first stage is now the big plane that briefly drops into the arcade version mid-stage. Fortunately, they remembered the sunset background on the next level and got it pretty spot-on; actually, the second level is a pretty good conversion, though overall, for a machine so well-known for its shooters, it does feel a bit floaty to control, and the CPC and Spectrum versions are more fun to play, if not quite as fun to look at.

Since then, earlier in 2020 we got the Arcade Archives release of the orignal P-47 on Switch and elsewhere I expect too, giving us that ancient holy grail of the arcade-perfect version to play at home. And also the holy grail of that wonderful, sumptuous, sun-setting second level in all of its glory on the TV in our living rooms! Now, as regular viewers will know, I like a list. And all of this has had me thinking for months about my favourite sights in all of gaming, and here we are!

I wanted to keep this focussed on quality over quantity, so I’ve been thinking about top five rather than top more. But interestingly, that five was pretty straightforward for me to come up with, where a top ten, for example, would be more of a challenge because I’m still struggling to really come up with anything else that has had the same visual impact on me. Actually, the only thing I have come up with in those months as a potential number six is that glittery ghosty gold level in Super Castlevania IV on SNES (also known at Stage IX)!

I’m also not sure about the right order yet, so I’m going to start with the undisputed winner then just see what happens! And the undisputed winner is, of course, a very specific moment near the very start of the very first stage of Out Run, where you’ve just hit the first hill and then the initial dual three-lane bits of road you’ve been driving on come together into this vast, exotic six-lane coastal highway, giving you the first of many exhilerating moments of speed and gravity as you take in that glorious view. And whilst I’m talking about the arcade version here, the Spectrum version – which I’ll defend forever (see here) – had a similar visual impact at that exact moment! The more I play Out Run, the more I think it’s perfect, which is an accolade I’d maybe only also apply to Tetris and Super Mario World aside from that. And whilst that’s very subjective, I think I can be less subjective when I say that this 1986 vintage arcade machine is still an absolute stunner!

Next up I’m going with the aforementioned P-47’s second level. I’ve just always thought that use of colour here is absolutely jaw-dropping, and couple that with loads going on on-screen and at least 7-8 layers of parallax-scrolling clouds going by under the setting sun, and you’ve got a sight that will keep you coming back to the game for that alone. Good luck getting past it, but if you do get a bit further along there’s some more really nice cloud effects to swoon over, but they’re grey not orange, which means they’re not quite as good!

We’ve been from 1986 to 1988 so far, and now we’re landing right back in the middle with 1987’s Olli & Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmore Castle on the ZX Spectrum. Apart from Feud on the same machine, more than anything else this is my go-to gaming comfort food, and whilst the first screen is my chicken wings and garlic bread, here we’re talking about the second screen and a giant ham, mushroom and pineapple (yes, pineapple!) pizza all to myself! The game itself (more here) is old-school brutal and unforgiving pixel-perfect platforming. And it’s also absolute vintage ZX Spectrum colour scheming, and I can’t think of any better background colour than yellow for the final atmospheric flourish in this beautifully detailed haunted castle! If I could live in any computer game, it would be a toss up between here and the aforementioned Super Castlevania IV. And as for this screen, I could just sit staring at it all day!

Even now, I still think of the PC-Engine as being a graphical tour-de-force, and can still remember every untouchable screenshot that Computer & Video Games had a habit of shoving down my throat every month in the late eighties! For the next entry we’re still hanging around 1987, albeit in the last couple of days of the year, with the release of Victory Run. And yes, it’s another racing game, and yes, it’s another sunset, and yes, I might be some kind of orange pervert! The PC-Engine (or Turbografx-16 if you prefer) isn’t exactly stacked with racers, but this one is unique. It’s based on the Paris-Dakar Rally, it has a deep vehicle maintenance system (but not in a car-nerdy way) and it’s tough, but my favourite thing about it is that it’s also totally unpredictable, which gives it real longevity too, even after you think you’ve cracked it. The sight we’re looking at now is in the second stage, generated by the day-night cycle that accompanies your progress. The look isn’t a million miles from Out Run or a load of other contemporary racers, and actually you’ve had a preview of the sunset effect in the previous stage, but here in the mountains as you head south through France the effect really comes to life as this brilliant solid orange sky appearing over the top of perfectly tinted clouds. I can only imagine how it looks if you actually make it to Dakar, but until then I’m happy for my game to end around here just about every time I play!

We’re going to conclude this tour of my favourite sights in all of gaming with something that I was going to say is a bit less orange until I looked at it again just now, and that is the pirate ship in Stage 3 of Streets of Rage 2 on the Sega MegaDrive. At the time of writing in October 2020, Streets of Rage 4 is sitting in my top three games of the year so far (spoiler, the other two are In Other Waters and Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2). And that is a looker! Best looking toilet graffiti I’ve ever seen in real-life or a game, and such is the attention to detail that you’ll be noticing something new (or old!) play-through after play-through. Speaking of looker, Blaze has only strengthened her case as the hottest video game character of all time too! Anyway, in Stage 3 back in the second game, you’re in an amusement park and eventually you’re going through a door with a “Pirates” sign over it, through the inside of a ship and ending up on the deck full of ninjas. Not pirates. Ninjas. Don’t worry, the only thing that could have made this pirate ship deck look any better was ninjas coming down the rigging at you! This ship is such a contrast and such a surprise after the gritty journey so far, with so much detail in the wood and the ropes and the general ship’s decoration. There’s also a lovely touch with the dark blues of the night-time sky and coastal town in shadow in the background, swaying around like it’s been painted onto a canvas sheet on poles behind an amateur theatre production. And yeah, pick Blaze and she’s also there, all muscle and violence with her eye-catching minimal martial arts-wear, and if you’re lucky maybe a sword pick-up in her hand as well! Thank goodness for pause, because that ship moment is all too brief (and yes, who’s the pervert now?) and you really need to slow down the fighting and take it all in every time you get there.

And there we are, but you didn’t think I was going to let you escape without that Spectrum Out Run moment did you??? Hope you enjoyed the tour, and I would be truly fascinated to find out about your favourite sights in all of gaming!

Commodore 64 vs ZX Spectrum Power Drift Power Face-Off!

Commodore 64 vs ZX Spectrum Power Drift Power Face-Off!

Power Drift passed me by for a very long time. I remember the arcade game in the late eighties, and thinking it looked like Out Run on a rollercoaster, but don’t think I ever played it, and never got a home version, which at the time would have been the Atari ST one for me. Much like Stunt Car Racer (see here), it’s a bit of a mystery why I didn’t get it because it was right up my alley and I seem to remember it reviewing pretty well. That said, looking at it on the ST more recently, the cars look too big for the tracks and it seems to struggle a bit with some of the more exotic track furniture, so maybe steering clear was a good move. I also remember the PC Engine version being reviewed, and like most things on there, wished I had one of them!

That’s about it until 2016 and the Sega 3D Classic Collection on 3DS, and suddenly realising how much I’d wanted to be able to play Power Drift for all those years without ever knowing it! And it’s the arcade game in your hand, which will never cease to amaze me whether it’s this or R-Type or Elevator Action! That said, in this case I’m still pining for the arcade version of Power Drift at home on a big screen, and hope that one day Sega will do the right thing on the Nintendo Switch so I’ve got the best of both worlds! Just like its predecessors Out Run and Super Hang On, the sprite scaled 3D with loads of parallax scrolling is still a wonder to look at, with all those huge ramps and bombastic environments. And the game still feels great to play, where your car is always just about under control as you fling it around some really fun track designs. But that’s not why we’re here today…

We’re also not here to talk about Fantasy Zone II on that compilation, but I need to give it a mention because I’d never even heard of this gorgeous side-scrolling shooter franchise until then, and it would not only become the game I played more than even Thunder Blade on there, but it would also become a beloved series for me as a result! Since then I’ve obsessed over seeking out every Fantasy Zone game on every system I can get my mitts on, and whilst I may never admit it again, any number of Fantasy Zone variants might top Andes Attack on the VIC-20 as my genre favourite when I get around to thinking about it properly!

Back to Power Drift, after the arcade game was released in 1988 it was ported all over the place the following year to the 8- and 16-bit computers, then the PC Engine and I think the Saturn too. But as was often the case for stuff like this at this time, versions for my old flames the Spectrum and Commodore 64 would be way off my radar for decades to come. Until now!

At this point I need to thank my kindred spirit and favourite YouTube streamer Nick Jenkin for taking me on this particular journey of discovery, as well as several others – on top of the C64 version of Power Drift, which led to the Spectrum version, there’s also Pacmania and Super Monaco GP on the C64, and Komando 2 and Enduro on the Spectrum to name just a couple. I’ve been watching his retro gaming reviews for a few years, but have recently really enjoyed his company several evenings per week in his live streams. Very nice man and very nice community having a very nice time with retro games on a variety of systems, and you should check out his channel here!

Racing games were never really a big part of my original C64 experience (not being a big part of my C64-owning friend Stephen’s C64 experience), but I’ve always loved that version of Buggy Boy. I’ve latterly spent a lot of time playing Super Cycle too. And I’ve played some stinkers, with WEC Le Mans probably being the greatest culprit of all… Play it on the Spectrum instead! And we’ll come back to that later.

My first impression of the C64 version wasn’t that great. And keep in mind that at this point, this is my only experience of an 8-bit version of the game, not Spectrum bias! The road edges looked rough, and when you hit the hills you’ve got a jarring journey up the screen on a straight, flat floating road with no ground on either side, versus the exhilerating gravity rushes of the arcade version. I’m not a fan of the sound either – if I have to make a choice, I want engine sounds in a racing game and not a chiptune. But for all of that, it’s so much fun to play! I had no expectations that this was going to run at any kind of pace at all, but apart from the lacklustre hills, everything flies by in beautifully varied 3D across the different courses. Cornering feels really tight but loose enough at the same time to make you feel like you’re hanging on for dear life in the later tracks. This is a really, really good conversion!

Over on the Spectrum, it starts off looking and feeling very much like its superlative version of WEC Le Mans. With rollercoasters! And no, I know what you’re thinking, but I won’t have a word said about the Spectrum version of Out Run (see more here)! Anyway, it’s by the same guys that did the Le Mans game, and carries over all of its detail and all of its speed (as well as its colour schemes, for better or worse), delivering not only a great-looking version of Power Drift, but a very faithful rendition to play too.

This just feels like a much more ambitious conversion that the Commodore 64 one. The graphics have loads more going on, with all sorts of bumps in the road that you really feel, as well as the arcade-like hills going off in all directions. The 128K version (which is the one you want to avoid multi-load) kind of fixes the lack of sound effects too… Until someone in front of you finishes before you, in which case everything seems to go silent in sympathy! And sometimes it seems to just decide you’re getting music instead of the preferred engine sounds on some tracks too.

Compared to the C64, the Spectrum version is a harder game which feels more tactical and more like you’re in a race. Actually, I’m even tempted to make that comparison with the original arcade version too! It reminds me a lot of Enduro Racer on the Spectrum. And that is high praise indeed!

But now that Spectrum bias is back, right? Just look at all those Spectrum words! Well, maybe they’re compensating for how I’m going to close this. For everything the super-slick Spectrum version does right, and for the really, really crappy hills in the C64 version, the latter is just more fun to play! It absolutely nails the spirit of the arcade version, and doesn’t try to go one better like the Spectrum one.

Which, in conclusion, means that you need to be playing both versions of this for two different, but probably equally engaging versions of the wonderful Power Drift.

My Life With… Stunt Car Racer (Atari ST)

My Life With… Stunt Car Racer (Atari ST)

Not for the first time in its lifetime, as I write this my Spectrum +2 has just had to make way for my Atari ST! I’ve got Spectrum emulators coming out of my ears, but the ST isn’t as straightforward, and a recent obsession over an old ST favourite on other platforms meant it had to come out to play again!

And there’s a sore point we’ll come back to shortly, but for now, my ST has sat in a plastic Selfridges carrier bag in my loft for the last two years, that was also its home in my Dad’s loft for the best part of thirty. (And that’s the same plastic bag it came home from London in when I bought it in Selfridges all those years ago). Apart from looking a bit dishevelled and grubby (which is probably how it looked when it went in the bag), everything just about worked fine. My Quickshot Python 1 joystick has seen better days, with left sticking a bit, and that stupid joystick port under the front next to the mouse port is still a right pain to get at, but otherwise it powered on and the possibly pirated disc containing Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and Kick Off which was still in the drive worked great! It was a little jarring going back to that ST homescreen and remembering how to boot up a game from the floppy disc though – too much Windows in the interim when all I needed to do was press the reset button!

Neighbouring the ST in its bag in the loft was a far more appropriate Lion bar cardboard board full of games, organized to completely fill every space in the box to perfection, with all the skill of the Tetris master that once packed it. Unfortunately he’s not been a Tetris master for a while now, and there’s no way they’re all going back in that box ever again! Not that we’ve got any more plans for the box any time soon – we have everything we need right here! Well, almost everything…

Apart from having a good idea what was in there, opening that box must have been like when Howard Carter opened Tutankhamun’s tomb! There was Pac-Land (more on that here) sitting on the top with another incredible arcade conversion, Star Wars. Poking out underneath was Starglider, glorious flight-sim Falcon and game creation language suite STOS, with two Spy vs Spy games and the Gunship manual padding out a gap on one of the sides. Then there were the boxes of “loose” floppy discs, not all of which were of dubious origin I might add! Actually, I think most of them are issues of short-lived disc-based magazine Stampede. There was probably a hundred games in there in all, and as much as I enjoyed browsing through every single one in turn for the first time, then carefully deciphering the faded pencil labels just to make sure the second time, I was less enthralled with the denial then realisation the third time around that Stunt Car Racer simply wasn’t there!

Yes, for a couple of months now I’ve been playing tons of this on the Spectrum, because I had no idea it was on the Spectrum until recently, then on the C64 because I had no idea that existed either for even longer! And as wonderful an achievement as the Spectrum version is, the C64 version isn’t far off Amiga quality, which isn’t far off my beloved old Atari ST game, and it was only a matter of time until I had to get everything out and get playing that version again!

I still can’t believe that as far as I can tell, absolutely everything except Stunt Car Racer – the one game I was prepared to sacrifice my Spectrum for the second time for – is in that box! I’ve no idea why it wouldn’t be in there. I mean, it was in one of the big style Atari ST boxes where you’d get the manual and a special insert to stop the precious disc bouncing around that vast cavern, and they do take up a lot of box space, but there’s some right old crap in there (what even is Kayden Garth and why do I own it???) that could have gone in another box! And I’ve got any boxes with old copies of 2000A.D. or Murder Casebook in that it might have been shoved into instead to fill a space, and that wouldn’t have been easy to miss when I sorted those out on re-arrival with me a couple of years ago too.

I won’t bore you with the rest of the stages of grief I tore through yesterday at the time of writing, but on reaching acceptance I was immediately on eBay looking at precisely two listings for Stunt Car Racer on the Atari ST. Oh dear, thinking I was going to be spoilt with choice and pick this up for a fiver plus about the same in postage for that huge box was turning out to be wishful thinking. I added them both, at £30 each, to my watch list. Within a couple of hours, there was an offer from the seller for one of them for £26. I ignored it for 18 hours then went back with what I’d decided was my maximum price whenever I was eventually going to buy it of £20; especially knowing perfectly well that my original copy is going to turn up as soon as I click pay on anything! And within minutes they went for it, and we are now back in business!

Buying Stunt Car Racer first time around came late in my Atari ST relationship – probably in 1991 – and excluding multiplayer games of Super Sprint and Rampage with my brothers, was definitely the only single-player game that ever got a look in once Kick Off – the game I’ve still played more than any other on any platform – got its hooks into the three of us! In fact, Kick Off would extend the lifetime of my ST beyond even that of the original PlayStation! But, as much as I loved Stunt Car Racer, it’s very much associated with a specific timeframe during my second year of university.

During my first year, we were offered a kind of year-long exchange with l’ecole d’ingenieurs de Tours in France, and being an unnaturally fluent French speaker – the background for which will forever be a mystery – I decided I’d give it a go. When September came, me and another guy on my course, Stuart, who I’d become as thick as thieves with when we eventually reunited in our final year, went off with the guys (it was an engineering degree in the early 90’s!) from the year above who were doing their sandwich year for an induction week… And what a holiday that week was with the guys from our own year when it was our turn proper the following year! Anyway, we were abandoned at the end of the week (but not as badly as happened the following year!) and eventually found our way to the campus and our halls and our new life in what is the perfect university city. We made some great friends and had a great time, including some of the craziest fresher’s week antics I’ve ever heard of, but over time the course wasn’t quite what I’d signed up to and when I was offered a get-out before the end of the year I decided to take it and get back to normal. Unfortunately everyone else was already back to normal, and I ended up renting a room with a family where I certainly wasn’t hanging around for the weekends, and for the rest of that term I remember two very specific things about those weekends. First, my insistence on having U2’s Achtung Baby album playing on the car journey back there with my parents every Sunday night, and second playing Stunt Car Racer until I couldn’t put that journey off any longer!

We’re now a few days removed from all of the above, and it’s turned up in the post, so we can finally talk about Stunt Car Racer! It had been out for a couple of years before I got it first time around, and given some of the rubbish my big Lion bar box suggests I bought (let alone copied!) in the intervening time, that gap from release to purchase is a complete mystery! I was certainly aware of it, from the very first time it graced the cover of Computer & Video Games magazine in August 1989, with the headline “The best race game ever?” And that’s a very good question!

Ignoring cars, because the question also does that, I’ve got to go with SSX 3 on PlayStation 2 as the best, but that was decades away in August 1989, so we’re then looking at Supersprint on formats such as arcade, Spectrum and Atari ST as the best race game ever, with the caveat that its top-down nature is maybe not in the spirit of the question. Does Out Run qualify as a race game? That’s next if it does; arcade and – always controversially – Spectrum (more here)! Then Destruction Derby 2 on Playstation, also a big while away, so doesn’t count yet either. Then Enduro Racer on Spectrum (see here this time). I reckon Stunt Car Racer can come next in my list, just before the arcade version of Virtua Racer (also three years away), making the answer to the question “No, but it’s maybe top three” when it was asked!

Back to C&VG, and in their gushing 93% August 1989 review they start by bemoaning that aside from Super Hang On – which would be next in my list – there’s not much going on in 16-bit racing. They’d clearly forgotten about the similar-scoring Test Drive II from a couple of months earlier. Anyway, they decided it was the best race game ever. Outside of the arcades. On a home computer. Just looking through my Lion bar box, apart from Super Hang On, there’s Hard Drivin (more on that here, but also recently positively reviewed by C&VG), RVF Honda (which C&VG has also just very postiviely reviewed), Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge (I won’t labour the point) and Vroom (predictable now). Some serious quality there, so no complaints if that lot still all counts as not a lot to choose from, but I’m not disagreeing with much they say about Stunt Car Racer itself!

For all the race games we’ve just run through, Stunt Car Racer can undoubtely call itself the most unique. It’s a one-on-one car race in a first-person cockpit perspective, but on a raised 3D track that you not only have to stay on, but, as you might imagine, there’s stunts too, in the form of ramps, bumps, hurdles, gaps, massive ski jumps and all kinds of rollercoaster shennanigans. At the start of each race, you’re winched onto the track, held up by chains that let you loose when the man says go. Fall off the track, and after what seems like an agonising wait – especially for some of the more flamboyant crash scenarious you might find yourself in – and you’re going to be winched back onto the track again. The winch is genius, building up big anticipation with your car swinging all over the place before it finally settles in position for you to drop.

The races themselves are hugely strategic affairs of cat-and-mouse with your opponent, and it’s going to take some experience – especially on later tracks – for you to know when you should stay and when you should go. That said, there’s nothing like the thrill of firing boost and just going hell for leather out of the blocks (or being unchained), getting your nose in front and then just trying to defend your lead for the whole race! Even when your opponent is out of sight, a very simple mechanic of telling you how far away they are adds an amazing amount of tension when you can see how fast they’re catching, or how you’re running out of laps to catch them, or even worse, that big lead you had disappearing as you’re being winched back on after a crash! And aside from deciding when to sit back, when to overtake and when to fly with your limited supply of nitrous boost, depending on your specific track situation, you’re also constantly balancing speed for the different obstacles and even for the normal turns, just to make sure you stay on the track.

And the strategy goes on. Winning a race gets you two points, which contributes towards your league position against two computer opponents. But getting the fastest lap nets you a bonus point, so what you’re going to have to consider on top of everything else is making sure that second lap is an absolute corker, because if the computer is in the lead on the last lap then you might not be scoring a time before the race ends, and if you’re in the lead you’re likely to be concentrating on staying in front and not getting a record lap time! With two tracks in each of four increasingly tough divisions, each with two different computer opponents (which the computer works out the results for), and two races each per track per season, those fastest lap points become all important towards deciding whether you’re promoted, relagated or stay where you are.

We need to come back to crashing, and one final tension-building strategic mechanic, which is the big crack that gradually spreads across your roll cage as you sustain damage! Take a corner too fast, small crack; come off the track, bigger (and bigger) crack; hit the opponent or they hit you, devastating crack if you hang around too long! If your crack gets too big, you’re wrecked and it’s race over (so make sure you got a decent lap time in before that happens)! To compound this, once you get past Division 4, there’s going to be permanent serious impact damage in the form of holes in the roll cage that the crack just jumps across, accelerating your doom!

Winning Division 1 is going to take you ages, not just from learning the nuances of each track and each opponent, but also puzzling out how the hell you’re going over some of those obstacles in the first place! And there’s some really fiendishly designed tracks on offer here! But do it, and it’s not game over yet – you’re going into the Super League with a hugely overpowered new car! Don’t worry about that for now though. First you’ve got to get over the thrill of the race on a crazy track, then you’ve got to get to know the tracks in every division, then you’ve got to get your racing strategy down. And that’s going to take some time and you’re going to love every second of it!

By chance when I was looking through my ST floppies, I found my brother Phil’s old Division 2 save on one, under the name of Bern Rubba. I sent him a pic and he replied saying how much fun it was, but he bets it looks like a dog now. I’d say it’s a little primitive by today’s standards, but the 16-bit versions at least run like a dream, even if the backgrounds are sparse, and the opponent’s car is only marginally less sparse, being made up a less 3D polygons than you could count on one hand! The lovely detailing of your cockpit and front of the car – especially the flames coming out of the exposed engine when you boost – take a lot of the graphical pressure off what’s going on outside though. But all the same, the raised 3D tracks do exactly what they need to, and all of this combined was more than enough to blow anyone away at the time! There’s some lovely between race, very 16-bit cartoon-like scenes too, celebrating your victory or having you dejectly looking on at someone else doing it. Sound isn’t spectacular, but is more than functional, and I reckon any more than that would be a distraction in a game like this.

I’ll quickly mention the 8-bit versions, as, like I said, that’s actually where this recent story begins. I was well beyond the Spectrum when I was playing this on the Atari ST, and although C&VG really bigged that version up, saying it was identical to the ST apart from being monochrome, it was only very recently that I came across it again and actually paid attention. I would say that it runs like my brother imagined the ST version to run like now, but the gameplay is all still there! And I very quickly got very addicted to it all over again! C&VG said it promised to be one of the most amazing games yet seen on the Spectrum, and I can’t disagree on that point!

Even more amazing is the Commodore 64 version. Yes, it’s got more colour (even if a lot of it is C64 brown), and the cockpit really isn’t far off looking like the 16-bit versions, but it also runs at a slightly more comparable pace. And so my addiction jumped to that platform, until I finally thought why not go to the effort of opening the loft hatch right above where I was playing and getting the ST out, because I had a nagging feeling that despite being technically close to the experience I remembered now, there was something still missing…

Playing them all in tandem now, there’s one subtle but massive difference for me between these 8-bit versions and both the Atari ST and Amiga (which I’ve also played a bit, emulated on a MacBook Pro) counterparts, which is what makes the game stand out over everything else, and that’s exhileration. Yes, if you’d never played on 16-bit, you’d never miss it and you’d have a wonderful time, but there’s something about the extra fidelity, the longer draw distances, the speed and something about the car physics that makes driving feel more tactile. You’re going to feel every bump, and that’s going to make you also brace yourself for every bump, whether just going into a curve a bit too sharply, or landing a huge jump and bouncing around from the impact. And as a result, your stomach will often be in your mouth and you’re going to be leaning all over the place as you try not to wrestle your joystick too hard because you remember just how easily they can snap by pushing a bit too far in one direction!

This game on the Atari ST is just so immersive, and has so much going for it that you’ll be coming back forever. Eventually, when you’ve admitted to yourself you aren’t going to find it again and need to splash some cash! I still question C&VG’s complaint about the lack of racing games on the platform, but if there is a lack, then no problem because this is the only racing game you need on there. It might not be the best race game ever anymore, but it’s still not far off, and there’s no question in my mind that it is still one of the most exhilerating too!

Finally, next month in C&VG… Xenon II – the most amazing shoot ‘em up ever? Yeah, maybe!

My Life With… Pac-Land (Arcade / Spectrum / Everything Else!)

My Life With… Pac-Land (Arcade / Spectrum / Everything Else!)

There are very scientific reasons about why I can remember not only every second of Live Aid, but also where I was sitting when Status Quo came on, for example. Same for what I was eating for breakfast (toast) when the Mary Rose was pulled up, or what music was playing (1999 by Prince – see here for more on that) the first time I played Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. It’s a bit like those ghost theories about high-impact things being imprinted on places, but more real and that place is your brain, not the creepy underground boiler room in your middle school that I had forgotten all about until just now… But while that works for high-impact, I am wondering why I also remember what I was wearing (blue La Coste tracksuit) when I bought Queen’s Greatest Hits from the record section downstairs in Boots in Bedford in about 1984. And also why I don’t remember almost anything about what was an hotly anticipated, but in retrospect horrendous sounding, annual church trip to Great Yarmouth that was in full annual swing around the same time. Incidentally, I also have very few memories of why I bought Queen’s Greatest Hits as I’ve never been a fan!

Anyway, I’ve mentioned the church trip before, and playing Mini Munchman on the bus on the way there one year, and the arcade by the big funfair with the giant outside where we were dropped off and picked up that had a Track & Field machine. And on top of that, I vaguely remember thinking that one of the rollercoasters there seemed really rickety as we were going around it one time, but generally, I was thinking my only memories of what we actually did there revolved around that arcade. Now, a apart from a section in Computer & Video Games mag, an arcade was a once-per-year novelty in itself – so kind of makes sense according to our theory – and we’d be in it as soon as we arrived, then be hanging around in it with no money left to play anything anymore for a bit before we left. But coming back to memory, apart from “arcade” and exactly where the Track & Field machine was, in the far back-right corner, I really don’t remember anything else about what else was inside it either… At least until one year something new appeared, around the corner and about five machines to the right of Track & Field, that immediately demanded your full attention and pocket full of 10p’s!

Look it at it today, and it’s probably hard to imagine why Pac-Land might have that impact on a passer-by, but try passing-by this on the way to Track & Field in 1984 or 85, when you’re getting a double-whammy of not only seeing the Pac-Man in a new perspective, but a whole new side-scrolling perspective on gaming too!

Let’s get into the first new perspective, and its cartoon inspiration. As much as I’m a huge fan of Hanna-Barbera’s 1960’s and 70’s output, when it comes to the 1980’s it’s all about Pac-Man: The Animated series, which first aired in 1982 and ran for 21 episodes and a couple of specials until then end of 1984. And that makes it the first cartoon ever based on a video game! It was always going to be a hit with me because it was shown as part of my absolute school summer holiday favourite, Rat on the Road, the Roland Rat [Superstar] show that came on at the end of TV:AM! Which gives us a probable first airing date here of summer 1983. Interesting fact about this is that Roland Rat’s appearance then boosted the ailing breakfast show’s viewer numbers from around 100,000 to 1.8 million. Yeeeeaaaaaaahhhhhhh, Rat-fans!

Back to Pac, you’ve got Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man (known as Pepper for some reason) and Baby Pac (in his only speaking role!), and they live in Pac-Village in a place called Pac-Land, of course! Actually, as we’re going far deeper into Pac-lore than I ever intended, what about the older Pac-kid, Jr. Pac-Man? I get that his love antics with Blinky’s daughter might have been problematic to the storyline, but it’s like he never existed! As some compensation, you do get Super-Pac in the second season! The plotline in most episodes is Pac-Man protecting the village and its power pellets from his familiar ghost foes (and Sue from Ms. Pac-Man) and their evil uncle, The Ghost Wizard of Mezmeron… And let me tell you something, if I ever decided to change my name, I would change it to The Ghost Wizard of Mezmeron!

The hugely vibrant look of the show was ported wholesale to the arcade game, as was the iconic music that looped throughout, which you could sniff out in an arcade like a pig sniffing out truffles; in an audio kind of way! The detailed character designs, complete with hats and hair – not to mention their super-smooth animation style – were also a big feature of the game. Pac-Man alone had 24 different frame patterns, where one or two was the norm at the time. As a[nother] side note, something that didn’t come from the cartoon, but by coincidence is relevant here, are the controls – they came from Track & Field, using buttons instead of a joystick, which allowed for those lovely springboard long jumping bits that will always be my favourite part of the game!

And this brings us to that second new perspective. Super Mario Bros. might spring to mind when you think of side-scrolling platformers, and rightly so because it pretty much set the template for anything else that followed it, but Pac-Land was doing the power-upped walking and running and jumping bidirectional horizontal scrolling thing a good year beforehand. It was far more influential than it gets credit for, but seeing it moving in an arcade was seeing that cartoon brought to life, from left to right and sometimes back again, and at the time that was very probably something you’d never seen the like of before!

Back to playing the game, each of the levels is a multi-stage journey to Fairy Land to get a lost fairy home, rewarding you with some super boots that will make your journey back through the level to your family a bit easier. You’ll be going through towns, forests, deserts then castles, and each stage ends with Break Time at the church on the hill where you’ll be awarded bonus points for your jumping performance as you come to a stop (preceding Mario and his flagpole), and I can’t emphasise how welcome that Break Time sign is on some of the more frantic stages! That said, it’s worth saying that things never really gets that frantic, which I think is why I appreciated the arcade game so much – good value for money for the casual player was as important as anything!

Obviously, there’s the ghosts that are constantly on your tail, driving buses at you, chucking stuff at you out of planes and allsorts more to hinder your progress. Then there’s enviromental obstacles like the aforementioned springboard, quicksand, ropey wooden bridges with spinning logs, fire hydrants and other water-based hazards ready to spray you down and take you down. But as well as the boots and sporadic power pills that do exactly what you expect them to do, there’s also a bunch of hidden stuff that will help you out. For example, turn around and push the right fire hydrant in certain stages and you’ll get a hat that will stop you being harmed by dangers from above. There’s also hidden fruit behind certain jumps (something else it preceded Mario with) and even a Galaxian flagship worth loads of points!

And the whole thing comes together to be such a joy to play! On the arcade machine, you’re going to get your 10p’s worth out of the first couple of stages for the visuals alone – the transitions from one distinct stage to another are just wonderful, and no matter how far you go, everything will soon become reassuringly familiar, and after each Break Time you’ll be fondly entering the next bit… before you realise that at some point things got a bit hard and you’re starting again!

In the grand scheme of things, whilst it had the biggest impact on me, the arcade machine is the version I played the least. That’s not unusual for me, having had infrequent access to arcade machines back then, but what is unusual is that I might have played a lot on more different versions of Pac-Land than any other game I can think of. It came out on nearly everything, and somehow I’ve spent a lot of time with it on nearly everything!

As was often the case, the Spectrum was the first version I really spent a lot of time on. Strangely though, the Spectrum version did come out about four years after the fact in 1988, along with CPC, MSX and Atari ST versions, and then the C64 version arrived even later. The Spectrum conversion gets a bad rap – it’s got weird colours and Pac-Man has a funny nose and it doesn’t scroll (meaning you need to remember that falling log is right after the next screen-flip!), but its genuinely only latterly that I’ve had those thoughts! It was and still is a very competent port with nearly everything else present and correct, and as was also often the case, it was Pac-Land in your house, on your Spectrum, and that’s all you needed for it to be fun! In terms of reviews at the time, I do remember it getting a bit of a hammering though. If it had come out in 1985 it might have fared better, but we’re not only years after the original (which was decades in eighties home computing terms!), we’re also years after the new Super Mario yardstick.

The version I’ve played most seriously on – not quite finishing it but not being far off – is the PC-Engine conversion from 1990, though actually playing it was much more recent. As much as I’d love it to be a part of the mostly beautifully curated library on my PC-Engine Mini, it’s not, but another machine in my collection does a very good impression of a PC-Engine and plays whatever game you care to throw at it right with no fuss, right through an HDMI cable! Much like the Spectrum conversion of Pac-Land, the PlayStation Classic is very unfairly maligned; at least when it has a USB stick with a certain emulator suite stuck on it! For me this is the ultimate conversion of Pac-Land. I know I’m going from almost 40-year memories, but this is exactly how the arcade version looked, sounded and played. In the last couple of years I’ve played dozens of hours, having a couple of games at least once a week. And that’s a beautiful thing to be able to do!

Trying its best to be as beautiful is the Commodore 64 version, and as a contemporary conversion for an 8-bit machine, you couldn’t expect any more. I’ve been playing this on the C64 Mini for a few years at the time of writing. The colours are a little muted, there’s only 16 levels (I think in common with most if not all other 8-bit conversions) and you can’t jump on top of some of the enemies so a touch from below is death here, but the soundtrack is classic C64! And it scrolls! It’s also a bit easier than the other versions so getting to the end of this one is very achievable.

I’ve not played a huge amount of the Amstrad CPC version – actually, when I finally got around to emulating a CPC for the very first time in 2019 (also on the PlayStation Classic, albeit a bit more fiddly to do than the PC Engine), it was the first thing I fired up and has been about the only thing I’ve regularly gone back to! It’s a real mish-mash of the other two 8-bit versions here, and would be on a par with the C64 version if it hadn’t inherited the Spectrum’s lack of scrolling!

Jumping back to around 1990, and the Atari ST version was a whole fantastic different matter. When I made the jump from Spectrum +2 to Atari ST, I very distinctly remember this being one of the games – together with Star Wars and Operation Wolf – that announced that arcade conversions were finally that mythical arcade-perfect we’d been hearing about for years! In retrospect it stuttered a bit in places, and was lacking parallax scrolling, but do you think that mattered coming from the Spectrum version? This was the holy grail of Pac-Land conversions to that point!

My brother was also a big fan of Pac-Land in the Great Yarmouth arcade, and he also owned a Lynx! And a couple of years later again, Pac-Land on there was also a fantastic conversion. I’d say in some stages it’s even more vibrant than the arcade version, with very faithful graphics, sound and gameplay. And let’s not forget, that’s a contemporary conversion in your hand, which the Atari Lynx was very good at! It moves at pace but the scrolling is a little off when it’s got big stuff like buildings to move along the screen (though I’ll take this over flip-screening and even the ST suffered from this). It’s checkpointing seemed a bit broken too – die in the forest and restart in halfway through the town, for example! It’s main crime though – and I’ll say “apparently” because I’m not the target audience for stuff like this – is that it has no ending! Just keeps going, I assume replaying the same levels over and over. No complaints from me about this version at all though. Still massively impressive!

Moving forwards half a decade again, and the original PlayStation was being peppered with loads of original arcade game version compilations covering loads of ancient stuff, and Namco was front and centre with no less than six of them! Pac-Land finally appeared in 1997 on Volume 4, drawing a short straw I think, being packaged with lesser known games in the West like Ordyne, Assault, The Return of Ishtar and Genpei Toma Den… Where’s Metrocross, Pac-Mania and Dragon Spirit??? (For information, coming a year later in Volume 5). But now we finally have the real holy grail of the actual arcade version in your home. And now I’m sitting here wondering why I spend so much time playing the PC-Engine version when the actual original is also sitting on exactly the same machine… Having just fired it up again, one thing is for sure – all that PC-Engine practice has made me really, really good at the arcade version now!

Most recently, we come to Namco Museum Archives Volume 2 on Nintendo Switch, which along with a favourite version of classic vertical shooter Xevious (Super Xevious) and loads of other NES goodies, we also have the NES conversion of Pac-Land. Firstly, it takes some getting used to, because as far as I can work out, unlike the PC-Engine version that allows you to press Select to switch from default “button” controls to regular “lever” controls, this one only seems to have button controls. And they take a bit of getting used to because you’re walking and running and changing direction on your right hand, and jumping with a directional button on the left. It’s also very minimal looking, Pac-Man is tiny on the screen, and it suffers from a bit of slowdown despite there being very little detail in the characters or backgrounds. There’s a few bits missing too, including the fairy screen – you get a Fairy Land sign like for Break Time instead – and also no super boots for your return trip. And like the Lynx version, I think it loops after 16 levels. I’m not doing a great job of selling it, but despite all of that, give it a chance and it plays absolutely fine and is a great version to have if you’re out and about with your Switch!

And that’s a whole lot of Pac-Land, one of my top five favourite arcade games (we’ll cover that another time) and probably in my top five on a lot of other systems too! Now do yourself a favour and dig up that cartoon!

Not So Silent Hill

Not So Silent Hill

The original Silent Hill on the original PlayStation is a game that I adore, but it took me a while to get there! Actually, at the time of writing I’ve just embarked upon Silent Hill 2 on PlayStation 2 for the first time, having finished the first game for the very first time about six weeks ago… And then it took me six weeks of patiently bidding then dropping out of eBay auctions to get my hands on the sequel at a reasonable price! And four hours in I’m pretty much adoring that too, but that’s another story.

I started Silent Hill on launch day sometime in 1999, and judging by my fairly meagre games library (hacked PlayStation Classic notwithstanding!), I reckon it was one of the last games I bought for the original system. And yes, it took until the 20th July 2020 to get to the end! If I took a run at it now, I reckon I could get as far as I ever did originally in about 15 minutes, but much like Resident Evil, which suffered a very similar fate give or take a year, if you’d asked me in the intervening 21 years, I’d have definitely said I was a fan all the same!

And I can now back that claim up, having properly finished both, and in the case of Silent Hill, properly rinsed it too, getting one of the better endings simply because I didn’t want to leave! Whilst some of the original PlayStation experiences can feel a little tired nowadays, something there finally clicked for me, and I just couldn’t get enough of that wonderfully atmospheric fog-ridden (and not forgetting blood-ridden) remnant of a town and all of its mysteries.

Anyway, my love for Silent Hill isn’t why we’re here today. I’m sure I’ll go into more depth at some other time soon, but for the time being I wanted to focus on the aforementioned opening few minutes. Having finished it, I wanted to get a few screenshots of some of the more evocative areas while they were fresh in my memory in anticipation of writing something about it later, so I started the game again. I was especially interested in the start, because the very claustrophobic alleyway you are quickly running through really left an impression with me.

And after reviewing the product of the first 10 minutes of gameplay, I came to a terrible realisation that by complete chance, I might have just outed the main character as some kind of infantile moron that I’d completely missed first time around! What do you think?

At risk of ruining my feelings about Silent Hill, I am really curious about how many more irritating questions he’s going to ask in the next 10 minutes and then the rest of the game!

My Life With… Winter Games (Commodore 64)

My Life With… Winter Games (Commodore 64)

When my friend Stephen got his Commodore 128 for Christmas, I couldn’t spend enough time at his house. And his house was so close to ours that I couldn’t even use the racing bike I got the same year to get there! The best Christmas present I never got… Except maybe my brother’s Mini Munchman and BMX Flyer handhelds! Anyway, that Christmas, and any other time I could get away with until I got my Spectrum +2 a year (or possibly two) later, I was at his house playing almost exclusively C64 games on his C128!

I think my very first experience of his better Commodore than my VIC-20, possibly the day after Boxing Day, probably in 1985 though I’m not 100% sure, was Impossible Mission. To this day I still have no clue what was going on, but somersaulting over electric robots, searching computers and stuff, and going up and down those awesome huge lifts where you could see “under the ground” either side of the shaft was more than enough to say this was the best game I’d ever played!

It was certainly better than the next game we played, Special Delivery, where you flew about in Santa’s sleigh avoiding lightning while you caught presents from angels in the clouds, then landed on a roof, climbed down one of three ladders in an unfeasibly oversized chimney dodging unspecified baddies, then crept around a crude 3D house to deliver it under a tree while avoiding its inhabitants. I recall landing was pretty cool, and actually the variety did give it a bit of life, but there’s a reason why it’s not mentioned alongside stuff like Impossible Mission or The Last Ninja and the like!

What can be mentioned in the same breath as those classics, though, is what came next. And that was, of course, Winter Games! And Impossible Mission instantly became the shortest-lived best game I’d ever played of all time!

As a graphical showpiece for what any home computer could do in 1985, I can’t think of anything more mind-blowing than Winter Games on the C64. The trees were undoubtably the standout, with multiple shades of green that made them look more like trees than anything I’d seen on a computer screen before. Even in Horace Goes Skiing! Then there were the clouds and the snow-capped mountains, and incredible details like the shadows under the fences in the biathlon… The whole thing just transported you to an alpine environment with almost no imagination needed, which is saying something for even the greatest games of that golden age! More than anything, it felt suitably cold!

But we’re jumping way ahead of ourselves! What about that opening ceremony when the game first loads, with its bombastic anthem playing in the background as the torch-carrying athlete runs towards the huge Olympic cauldron and lights a fire that looks and acts like real fire, as doves fly by the fluttering flags in the background! And such was the depth of attention to detail throughout the game, this was just the first of many incredible first impressions you’d be getting for hours to come!

Epyx had released Winter Games earlier in 1985, and it followed the previous year’s Summer Games and then its 1985 sequel, neither of which I’d ever played, but distinctly remember being very impressed by in one of my earlier copies of Computer & Video Games magazine – actually, I think it was the great-looking fire from the opening ceremony that got me in that advert screenshot too!

Now, I recently responded to a Facebook post about albums where you never skipped a track… I was aghast that people actually did that! I mean, I was never a big fan of Round and Round on Spandau Ballet’s Parade album, but I’d have never dreamt of skipping it! I could say the same about Kiss on Prince’s album of the same name. If you’re playing an album you’re playing an album! Especially when it’s on vinyl and skipping involves a steadier hand than you’d need removing the funny bone in Operation if you don’t want to scratch your disc up! And anyone that’s played Winter Games knows exactly where I’m going with this diatribe!

Once you’d torn yourself away from the opening ceremony, there were a very generous seven events included in Winter Games. You had Hot Dog, where you did ski tricks off a ramp. Then there was Biathlon, which was all about skiing speed versus breath control to make sure your shooting bits were up to scratch. The big glamour event was Ski Jump, with its massive ramp and massive tension as you fly past some of the game’s most beatiful scenery. After that you’ve got the rhythmic joystick waggling of the Speed Skating event. Another glamour event was the unique Bob Sled with its big turns and big crashes. And then there was Figure Skating (Spandau’s Round and Round)… And then there was Free Skating (Prince’s Kiss)! In one you had to do a set number of tricks and in the other you could do what you wanted but it went on longer. Which wasn’t ideal, but regardless of the ability to play individual events or some events and completely avoid these two stinkers for the rest of your life, it was not an option. You shall not skip the skating events!

Actually, they weren’t that bad, but when you could have had slalom or downhill or moguls or something else instead of at least one of them, and when everything else was just so cool, your heart did sink a little bit when they appeared as the next event! And as a 13-year old at the time, I didn’t play computer games to pirouette! At the time of writing my son is the same age, and if I went and suggested to him now he should turn off Fortnite and try something where he has to pirouette instead, I know what the answer would be! 

There was also a practical reason to not only play them, but to be really good at them, and that was multiplayer, and even in spite of its graphics and sounds and music, this is where Winter Games really shone! You could do an incredible 8-players turn-based, or two players simultaneous (at least in events like Speed Skating where that was practical), and with occasional help from Stephen’s sister and my brother, we caned the hell out of both to the point that Free Skating at least became critical to overall success or failure. And it’s definitely worth looking at the events from the viewpoint of the expert player (which is a viewpoint I’m rarely familiar with so need to take advantage of whenever the opportunity presents itself)!

Going in order of choosing “compete in all the events” you’re starting off with Hot Dog. This is marked out of ten, so getting ten is essential to start competitive! And to do that, you’re pressing fire to start, then doing one trick (for example a mule kick which is joystick left down) then returning the joystick to neutral and doing one somersault (for example joystick right), or doing two different somersaults, then returning back to neutral in time to land. Those tricks are all about timing though, and you’re holding the joystick in position for the duration of the trick, no more and no less!

After a little awards ceremony, national anthem and maybe one of your multi-loads that cue up the next set of events (yes, I know, but it’s a small and very bearable sacrifice), it’s Biathlon. You’re cross-country skiing across a perfectly animated little alpine stream at a nice steady rhythm onto a downhill screen which is also fairly laid-back, but you want to get three downward thrusts in to give you some speed on the uphill screen that you need to frantically waggle your joystick up and is going to completely ruin your breathing, highlighted by an increasingly fast-beating heart indicator. This is important because every few screens you’re going to be shooting five targets (down, up, shoot, down, up shoot…), and the higher your pulse, the less accurate you’ll be. This event is all about overall time, with each missed target giving you a five second penalty, but you shouldn’t be missing anything so whether or not you’ve taken the lead after the second event is going to be about tenths of seconds.

That’s your fun over for a while because now it’s Figure Skating! As I said, it’s not that bad, but it’s just so very bland compared to other events. Most of the screen is ice white, with some crowds behind some flags scrolling by at the very top, though I have to say that the music – which wouldn’t be out of place in a Robocop game – is fantastic! Your execution of the mandated tricks is going to be down to how well you judge foot positions and the little shadow that signifies where your skater is jumping or spinning or whatever. I am being really harsh here again though, because the absolutely stunning character animation is far more useful for getting your timing right than the also well animated shadow alone! Anyway, do your sixty second routine with enough double-axels and triple-lutzes without falling over and the honours for this event should be even with maximum points all around as you get back onto the mountain!

Ski Jump is going to be most people’s favourite event. It looks great and it’s skilful, but it’s also unpredictable and is somewhere else where you’re going to need to score points! You start in a tower at the top of this enormous ramp, then a second fire button press as close to the end of the ramp as you dare is going to launch you onto the jump proper screen, with its wonderfully vibrantly coloured ski resort welcoming you at the bottom. Once you’re in the air, it’s all about the keeping your posture as perfect as possible to get the maximum distance, with continous joystick adjustments of your little man shown in close up in a second screen in the top right as you see him flying through the air in the background. If the skis are crossed, joystick down, leaning back too far, joystick right and so on. The longer your posture is good, the further you’ll go, and the more likely the next anthem played will be yours. Which would probably be the same as your opponent’s too if you’re sat in their bedroom unless you’re trying to be cool and choose USA instead of UK…

Now we’re Speed Skating. I always found this a bit disconcerting because youv’e got four lanes for four racers but I’m sure you only ever saw two of them at the end, and regardless of whether or not you won I’m also sure one of them was always in front on you. I might be overthinking my memories though, and regardless this was a lot of fun, especially because in simultaneous two-player play you’ve got a very clear and instant winner (if you ignore the other two)! You’re waggling your joystick rhythmically rather than especially frantically to try and get your speed guage to the max and keep it there, but actually this one is all about getting the best possible start. Of all the events, this one just feels really good once you’re in the zone.

Just Free Skating between you and the home stretch now! Precisely two minutes of Free Skating… This is like the other skating event, where you’re looking at big air and perfect landings care of a well-timed press of fire when the shadows are right for decent points, though you’re going to want to perfectly transition from pirouette to sitting piroutte with perfect timing for the best possible points! This is free style so you’re needing to do a decent mix of tricks and transitions, and because it’s less prescribed than the other skating event, it’s not all about both of you making sure of maximum points so don’t fall over now!

Of all the events on offer here, Bob Sled is probably the most memorable to me. By which I mean I can still hear in my mind the swish as you hit the corners, and feel exactly how hard do push that joystick from middle to left or right! Half the screen is taken up by an overhead view of your progress on the course, but you’re going to be staring intently at the other half, anticipating the glorious 3D turns with a bang of the joystick to the left, then a bang to the right, and don’t forget that double right at the end. And even more glorious is you and your fellow players watching that all-important big stopwatch underneath you! This one is over in less than 22 seconds, but play this game enough and it’s going to boil down everything that’s happened in the half an hour or so before it into that short period of time, and as the final standings appear, someone it going to be jumping up and down on the bed like a loon, and someone is going to be trying desperately to be sensible with the Atari joystick still in their hands!!!

Winter Games was baked into the wonderful C64 Mini, so around 2018 I did eventually own my own copy (complete with that clunky old-school joystick we used to use), but naturally, when I got a Spectrum long before that I had Winter Games there too, and became just about perfect at everything all over again! And while it doesn’t look or sound quite as good (and that all important skating shadow is completely missing in action), it still looks and sounds very good, and most importantly plays just as perfectly.

As an aside, around the same time I also got a very similar game called Winter Sports, which did have downhill and slalom skiing, and ice hockey too, and it was a lot of fun, but in a world where Games existed with all of its polish, just wasn’t enough fun to be in the mix for what I’d later consider to be in my top five favourite sports games ever. Or, indeed, one of my top two winter sports games ever… Sorry Winter Games, you might beat Horace in the tree department, but with its lack of ice skates, SSX 3 on my PlayStation 2 and my GameCube just edges it!

My Life With… Milk Race (ZX Spectrum)

My Life With… Milk Race (ZX Spectrum)

Nothing says 1987 like the Milk Race. Except maybe Lethal Weapon. And Robocop. And U2. And big storms in the south of England that meant we spent an afternoon in the school sports hall watching Clash of the Titans instead of lessons. But anyway, apart from those, round-Britain pro-am cycling extravaganza the Milk Race was a big deal! To put it into context, Tour de France was a song by Kraftwerk, but everyone knew the Milk Race – in no small part, simply due to it being televised, and at the time there wasn’t a huge amount of early evening viewing choice. Just like snooker in its BBC Two 18.5 million viewer heyday a couple of years earlier.

However, unlike snooker, the Milk Race can be traced all the way back to 1945, and the Victory Cycling Marathon from Brighton to Glasgow. It would soon attract the News of the World newspaper as a sponsor, then the Sporting Record, then the Daily Express until they decided to put their money into a new sport called Formula 1 motor-racing instead. In 1954, Quaker Oats got in on the act until their breakfast bowl bedfellows the Milk Marketing Board took over in 1958, and that partnership would go on for another 35 years until 1993, when they got wound up because of pesky European monopoly laws. And as that takes us well beyond our start date of 1987, I think this completely unplanned history of the Milk Race, its politics and its sponsors can come to a close! Except to say that nowadays you’d be right to think its now called the Tour of Britain.

Despite all of its relative popularity, and despite the £1.99 budget price tag, I still wonder how confident Mastertronic were when they signed off on a niche game about a niche sport. But I suppose that once it was on the shelves the inlay looked pretty cool, the screenshots suitably conveyed its likeness to what you could see on telly, and the blurb did its best! “In May cycling nations from all over the world send their best competitors to England for the 1000 mile trek…” And there wasn’t much more you could ask for when you were staring at cassette boxes in your local games emporium, desperate to spend your pocket money.

The most fun you’ll have is in the first stage (which is lucky because unless you get serious it’s where you’ll spend all your time) where you’ve got forty or so riders in front of you and you get a real sense of being in the pack. It’s also much harder to position yourself to pick up milk from either side of the road, which is how you’re going to keep your energy bar topped up enough to manage all those hills and keep up a decent enough speed to make your way fowards.

Stay near one edge or the other and you should be able to pick up milk regularly enough, so just  keep an eye on your gears and speed when you’re going uphill and energy won’t be too much of a problem for most of the race. 

After a couple of stages you should be somewhere near the lead and you just need to stay there or thereabouts, which shouldn’t be too much of a problem for a while. Actually the only problem you’ll now have is the cars that don’t just drive by you, but might decide to swerve up and down the whole width of the road – this is the only way you’re not going to stay in the lead for now…

That’s until you get to stage 12 of 13 because for some reason the Milk Race has apparently run out of milk! And where the other riders couldn’t steal it away from you fast enough in the early stages, they couldn’t care less about the lack of it now and will sail past you as you panic about conserving energy, and you watch that top three position you’ve now held through most of the race dwindle away. And that’s not the only thing to be in a panic about, because there’s no way you’re completing a time trial with enough energy left to finish the next stage though the mountainous region that is apparently Chelmsford to Milton Keynes! What a treat to have Milton Keynes featured so prominently in a game in 1987 though…

This penultimate stage is all about luck. The gradients you’re going up and (sometimes) down throughout the game seem to be randomly generated. If you’re lucky here you’ll avoid any really nasty slopes, avoid the ridiculous swerving cars, and have enough after the time trial to trundle to the finish in the top few.

The milk’s still off the menu in the final stage around the streets of the capital, but this is short and you’re unlikely to be in first place at the start, so you’re just going flat out to get back in front before you get to the finish. Again, assuming the gradient gods allow!

Then you have one of the most anticlimactic endings to a game ever. Mainly because it’s not the end – after your 1000 mile trek, win, lose or draw, if you get there it’s just a Race Over message and you’re starting stage one again!

I always thought the game captured England (if not central London specifically in the last stage) in 1987 perfectly, with its monochrome hills, housing estates, shops and churches scrolling pretty smoothly by in the background at a decent lick, and brightly coloured spectators right in the foreground flying by slightly less smoothly. The completely monochrome cyclists, while all looking the same, move along equally well, with a nice sense of speed coming from the simple animations in the detailed wheel and pedal movements. Just don’t think too hard about the size of the bottles of milk at the side of the road!

The user interface at the top gives you a clear view of your all-important energy and the current gradient so you don’t need to take your eyes off the road, then look a bit harder and you’ve got speed, gears and position, and bizzarely a score, though given the ending I guess that explains why! Whilst there’s not much sound going on during the race stages themselves, there is one of the better examples of Spectrum chip-tunes on the between-stage map!

I remember Crash magazine being down on this game. Too simple, too tedious, and didn’t justify the price tag. (Yes, that’s the £1.99 price tag)! But I’ve always been a cycling fan, Milk Race or not, and there’d never been anything like it before so I’m glad I ignored them a took a punt. Or pint maybe.

And yes, I know. Snooker, India, 19th Century…

Crash! PC-Engine & Bimbos of the Death Sun

Crash! PC-Engine & Bimbos of the Death Sun

As a current employee of what used to be NEC Electronics, I couldn’t resist sharing this page from the August 1989 issue of Crash magazine. But I’m really not sure what caught my eye first – a very unexpected “advert” from NEC in a Spectrum magazine, or the the proper advert it shares the page with for Bimbos of the Death Sun! Actually, it was the latter, but I think they both deserve a bit of attention…

I started working for Japanese electronics monster NEC just under 12 years after this was published, but you’d still see occasional material with this old, very Japanese logo, especially when you visited one of the two offices I used to frequent in Tokyo. As well as being very Japanese, I really had to laugh at how typically corporate the message on this advert was, even though the readership of Crash was mainly kids who owned Spectrums – if we did it now, I’m sure it wouldn’t be all that different either!

This is all about the PC Engine, and how “NEC Corporation, NEC Home Electronics Ltd, and NEC (UK) Ltd (collectively ‘NEC’ hereafter)” didn’t want it being sold in the UK. Therefore, you need to know it’s not compatible with our old European PAL TV’s, and if it is then it’s been surreptitiously modded by someone that shouldn’t be selling it to you regardless, and if anything goes wrong with it, tough!

Obviously, it probably wouldn’t be wise for me to offer too many more opinions than I have already, but all the same, this is such a wonderful snapshot of the transition from our beloved 8-bit machines to 16-bit computers and consoles. I’d just about moved to my Atari ST at the time, but I do remember the PC Engine was a very exotic-looking piece of kit, with its exotic-looking arcade ports and just generally stunning graphics in screenshots. I also remember it seeming very expensive to own, even once you’d got hold of a console you could actually connect to your telly!

In hindsight, through emulation then much more recently my beloved PC-Engine Mini, it’s also become the one machine I wish I’d owned at the time, but personal favourites like the wonderful Devil’s Crush, Pac-Land and Victory Run, and all the other stuff it’s probably better known for, are maybe stories for another day!

What I can offer an opinion on is the second advert, featuring “MURDER MOST FUN!” with Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb. Firstly, why has this never been made into a movie? You might be surprised to hear that in 1988, this won the Edgar Award for Best  Original Paperback Mystery, though apparently it was less well received from the sci-fi and fantasy scene it parodied. And in that case, I assume it parodied it very well.

It’s all about a nerd convention called Rubicon, where the guest of honour Viking fantasy author, Appin Dungannon, gets murdered with a bullet through the heart. Everyone hates him, so who done it is anyone’s guess, but according to the back of the book, fellow author James Owens Mega, “…dons the role of Dungeon Master, and solves this uproarious whodunit in the ultimate Dungeons & Dragons role-playing climax!”

It’s still in print (and digital), and apart from some out-dated technology references, seems to still be pretty much spot-on in terms of nerd culture and their stinky gatherings, as well as being a decent pulpy thriller.

Follow Up: Deathstar Interceptor on Commodore 64

Follow Up: Deathstar Interceptor on Commodore 64

Previously on Retro Arcadia, we took a look at Deathstar Interceptor – a game I first came across being advertised in the May 1985 issue of Computer & Video Games magazine, liked the look of, but wouldn’t play for decades.

I won’t bore you with any more recapping because you can read all about it right here, but I will just mention again that the Commodore 64 version was very much an afterthought in the advert…

I recently went back a year or so further into the C&VG archives, to July 1984 specifically, and that gives us a bit more to go on than the assumption that it was an afterthought because it’s a stinker in comparison to the Spectrum version. Which it certainly is, but with this new context, it’s all about the Spectrum because the C64 version had been the subject of previous advertising. And the headline might confirm this, with the fight continuing on the Spectrum because the C64 version appeared already. Maybe?

Apart from the word “Deathstar” we are not really getting the very in your face Star Wars vibes of the Spectrum advert, so we are possibly pre-licensing of the Star Wars theme tune. And when we previously mocked the C64’s hamburger and coat hanger enemies, they might simply have been what was there in this original(?) version before any Star Wars association – as loose as it was – materialised on the Spectrum.

A disservice then? Absolutely not! It’s still garbage, though that does make the outrageous advertising blurb even more comical. And I quote…

52K of pure machine code giving you 12 screens of 3D graphics, super smooth 3D animation, unbelievable sound effects music, 4 skill levels and hiscore table… this is the ultimate challenge? This game has to be played to be believed! You have not seen what the Commodore 64 is capable of until you have played Deathstar Interceptor! – Commodore 64

You’re really better off not knowing what it’s capable of if that means playing this awful game! However, thanks to this advert you don’t even need to, because look closely and in one final twist, their strange insistence on showing every gameplay element on offer in tiny numbered screenshots includes “Victory (Screen 12)” – the end game screen!

History once again teaches us everything if we care to look. And I’m glad I came across this older advert and could maybe shed a bit more light on this version – and a bit more context on the Spectrum version – of a true Star Wars (or not?) curio.