Rediscovering Merlin on ZX Spectrum

Rediscovering Merlin on ZX Spectrum

When we were looking at The Trap Door (here), we had quite the discussion on Twitter (I may have even gone a bit viral for a moment!) about the best-looking Spectrum game – came up with quite the list, in fact! The Trap Door came out pretty well, as did stuff like R-Type, Exolon, Dan Dare, Light Force and Bomb Jack; no disagreement here so far! I discovered some absolulute corkers I’d never even heard of too, like Savage, Draconus and Astro Marine Corps, all of which possibly coincided with the arrival of my Atari ST! And we also covered a few more modern Spectrum games, like 1997’s The Dark, 2014’s Metal Man Reloaded, 2019’s Valley of Rains and the even more recent, very wonderful Wonderful Dizzy (more here!). Aside from The Trap Door, there were quite a few shouts for other Don Priestley games – the sequel, Through The Trap Door, Flunky, Benny Hill’s Madcap Chase, and probably just about as popular as The Trap Door, Popeye! I had a problem with Popeye though, because everything else (apart from Benny Hill!) looks as good in action as it does on screenshots; Popeye, on the other hand, moves like a dog, and delivers the exact amount of colour clash you’d expect a game with that much colour moving about on a Spectrum… Loads!

It’s not the first time we’ve been caught out by a screenshot though! All those VIC-20 games like Jump Jet with those beautiful Commodore 64 screenshots on the back of the box; the Spectrum wasn’t averse to those kind of shenanigans either, though we did occasionally get our own back with masterpieces like Enduro Racer! And it wasn’t the last time either, although the game missing from the list above may well have been the last time for me at least, with the aforementioned Atari ST looming large on the horizon, and that was, of course, Merlin!

There was no more effective way of selling your game than festooning it with some of the biggest and best-looking graphics you’ve ever seen and then sticking a £1.99 price tag on it, and that’s exactly what Firebird Software did with Mike Westlake’s Merlin early on in 1988. He’d still be plugging away at the Spectrum’s life support machine five year later, with a similarly big and bold pirate take on Merlin, Pieces of Eight, then another called S.A.S. Combat Assault, which appeared when the only people putting out games were Sinclair User magazine! But as good as all of them look, I’m all about his first Spectrum game, Tarantula, a 1987 cavern crawler where you’re flying about on a jetpack collecting stuff and avoiding insects, especially the giant tarantula, which is genuinely one of my favourite sights in all of gaming!

Anyway, back to getting sucked in by Merlin! I was, and whilst it’s nowhere near in the league of something like Kung-Fu Master, I distinctly remember coming home one evening from my Saturday job collecting trolleys at Sainsbury’s with this graphical powerhouse in my pocket, loading it up and just being so disappointed. Big generally isn’t beautiful, whatever wishful thinkers might say, and it also makes playing what thinks of itself as a modern-day Manic Miner an absolute stinker! We’ll get to that again, I’m sure, but however much that evening was just about all the chance I ever gave playing it, it’s always been on the tip of my tongue every time there’s talk of fancy 8-bit graphics, and over three decades on I reckoned this was the time to have another look at it, so here we are!

You might get glamorous screenshots for £1.99, but you rarely got a literary work of art to back them up, even when it’s based on one like this is! Yes, this Merlin is that Merlin! “Mystery magic and mayhem from Merlin the magnificent mage” is what the back of the box tells us; nothing else, but we are getting it in no less than seven languages! Let’s delve deep inside the inlay card instead… “Guide Merlin around the mystical Kingdom of Camelot collecting stars to recover his lost magic powers.” That’s it! No heavyweight medieval romances here, just wander about and collect some stars. For £1.99 I’m not even going to point out that the legendary Camelot is a castle and court, not a kingdom, though given that everything happens in a little castle and its spooky garden, I think we’re all square anyway!

I know I’ve come across as a little dismissive so far, but let’s be clear, one you get past the slightly ropey loading screen, this game is absolutely stunning to look at! It really is up there with The Trap Door and the rest as one of the best-looking things you’ll ever see on a Spectrum. It’s not just Merlin that’s massive, it’s everything. Except the castle! But everything else – the suits of armour (or are they actual knights standing about?); the intricate tables and chairs and bookcases; the lecterns holding a literal literary heavyweight; the giant fish that lives in the moat and the oversized barrels of booze in the cellar… all enormous! In the middle of the castle, you’ve got King Arthur’s Round Table, and we know it’s this and not any old table because it’s written in big capital letters on the side – twice – like some kind of old brand logo. Makes me laugh every time! The colour palette is classic Spectrum, but there’s an awful lot of it, with beautifully detailed magenta brickwork, some exquisite red woodwork and a subtly shaded bright green pikeman!

We could say all of that about Popeye though, so how is it in motion? Given that Merlin’s probably an old man, his stiff movement is forgivable, although he’s quick on his feet – too quick for something that relies on a bit of precision a lot of the time! That said, a lot of the stiffness of movement is very much down to the lack of animation – apart from bending his knees to either duck or jump, I’m not convinced there’s any whatsoever! He’s either facing left or right and there might be a bit of movement in his feet, but even despite his enormous size, it’s really hard to tell! There’s so many objects in so many colours everywhere, there’s an awful lot of the time that you won’t really be able to see Merlin at all, which, again, isn’t always ideal for this kind of game! And all of those colours do exactly what you think they will; there’s some glorious colour clash here! I think my favourite examples are any time his bright blue wizard’s hat goes past anything (which is a lot of the time given his size), and when he moves behind the red, green and yellow bookcases and almost completely disappears – all you can see is a total merging of the sprites as he moves across them, Predator style. Actually, with a lick of paint this could have been even better than the actual Predator game that I think came out at exactly the same time!

The sound is a bit grating. The unrelenting classic Spectrum footstep noise is just about tolerable, but there’s these higher-pitched, almost nasal variants on it for some of the enemies which are really annoying, or quieter versions for others, which range from big insects to ghosts to living broomsticks, though these are mostly normal game size, which is a little odd when you’re in one of the few less cluttered environments, but they mostly move about in an inoffensive way. Which isn’t the case for some of the other sound effects – the squelchy beep as you catch a star, or the squelchier one when you lose a life and the more high pitched variant when you’re just losing life force. It’s all just a bit of a cacophony of annoying Spectrum sounds! The title screen music isn’t much better – if I had to write a game theme, I reckon it would sound like this – random notes until you get a hint of a melod, then speed things up and repeat it!

I’m not sure how many screens make up the castle of the kingdom of the Camelot, but I reckon around thirty. There’s absolutely no variety in the gameplay no matter which direction you go and how many you make it through though – you’ll have a bunch of stars to collect on each one, which will involve some light jumping and ducking, and some pixel perfect avoiding of enemies that are usually synchronised to make anything less than pixel perfect mean either loss of life force or instant death. I never did work out which enemies would cause which outcome, but you’ll soon find out why you start with ten lives and a life force meter for each one! As we’ve already hinted, regardless of you being an overly fast but ultimately stiff giant, that pixel perfect thing really gets most problematic when you’re going all Predator in the colour clash jungle of death and you can’t actually tell where he is in relation to the baddies! And that’s the major fun-sucker here.

In the end, all those wonderful graphics are Merlin’s downfall. Too big, too much, and whilst a bit of all fur coat and no knickers can go a long way in delaying such simple gameplay quickly running out of steam, in this case it just serves to hinder it. But for all it lacks in any kind of long-term fun, I probably got my £1.99’s worth out of bringing it up over the years every time I get the chance to talk about the best-looking game on the Spectrum!

Discovering WEC Le Mans on ZX Spectrum

Discovering WEC Le Mans on ZX Spectrum

WEC Le Mans was an arcade game by Konami in 1986 that I never saw in the wild – I guess there was just too much Out Run everywhere when we went on holiday that year! In fact, I think the first time I ever really paid attention to it was when glowing reviews started appearing everywhere in early 1989 for the home versions. Which is a shame because this thing would have been a real showstopper in the arcades, especially if you came across the bonkers Big Spin version that jumped, turned and span 180 degrees! For an arcade game it was very simulation focussed though, with both day and night driving in a condensed but accurate version of the Le Man 24 race and some very challenging track designs. And with some impressive sprite-scaling it looks the part too – probably more so than Out Run – but while the soundtrack is no Magical Sound Shower, it’s pretty outstanding all the same!

Those home conversions came at exactly the wrong time for me, and to my shame I think I was pretty much ignoring Spectrum reviews by then no matter how big the score, especially when multi-format magazines like Computer & Video Games told you that Atari ST and Amiga versions were imminent! Actually, not just that, but the back page of that particular issue also confirmed this, with price information and some screenshots that definitely weren’t 8-bit, but in retrospect were probably from the arcade version. Regardless, that’s just about the last we heard of those versions and as a result it would be a very long time before I came back to WEC Le Mans!

The years have been good to WEC Le Mans, and if it missed out on challenging Out Run in the arcades, it certainly didn’t in the memories of Spectrum enthusiasts… I still love you though, Spectrum Out Run! Actually, the only reason I’m here now is because I was playing Out Run on there the other day, and that reminded me that I really should have a serious go at WEC Le Mans, so here we are with some first and several hours’ worth of subsequent impressions!

When you fire up the game for the first time, long before you think of reading the instructions or work out what’s being asked of you, there’s immediately two things going for WEC Le Mans on the Spectrum – it moves at pace and the car feels good to control. I didn’t really get much more than that out of the instructions when I did return to them – mostly marketing blurb telling you it’s the most realistic and addictive racing game yet, featuring four dramatic laps of the most gruelling and challenging car race in the world, with three checkpoints to pass on each one. Also some useful tips, like change the gear to go around bends, don’t oversteer, keep off the grass, don’t change gear too soon and always start in low gear. Everything you need to know to be successful in any racing game!

It might not last 24 hours, but hitting those checkpoints with enough time left to carry over a bit for the next one is rough! You’ve got 66 seconds to hit the first one, and if you make any mistakes here you might as well start again, but don’t because this game is way too much fun for that kind of seriousness, and anyway, you clearly need the practice! If you crash off the road, the timer does stop for you, but you’ll take so long getting back up to race pace that it’s not massively helpful. Everything is against the clock, but there’s loads of competitor cars to not crash into as well, and even though they all look the same, it feels like you’re racing them because they aren’t going to let you pass easily, and if you whack one of them you’ll be catching up with them again for another go – which is great until you get five or six of them at it at once to keep catching up with! They’re devious too, and you’re going to be trying to out-think them with every overtake; and there’s some extra realism with your opponents the further you get, with them sometimes losing concentration and spinning out just like you! Patience is definitely key, despite the very demanding checkpoint times. That said, get a few stages under your belt without any problems and bonus time starts stacking up, and you could always take a gamble on some dodgy collision detection, which will benefit you as much as hinder you once you’ve worked it out.

The graphics aren’t quite up there with Enduro Racer, but it’s as good as Spectrum racing gets apart from that (including Chase HQ, in this humble opinion). The track curves and undulates beautifully, and with the signs, adverts and trees along its sides, it’s all moving at a very smooth and a very fast pace. The backgrounds aren’t anything you’ve not seen before, and the car sprites are a little boxy, but they’re big and detailed, though I’m still not convinced about the choice of blue for your car, which is most apparent when you go off-piste and the colours start fighting with each other. But given the sense of speed, and the sheer amount of stuff being thrown around at that speed, I’ll forgive it a bit of clash, especially when the car’s in full spin. Sound is non-existent on the 48K version and barely functional on 128K, though it does have a nice bouncy title tune.

The final impression isn’t going to be so different from the first – this is up there with the very best of the Spectrum racers (even if it should have been up there with the very best of the Atari ST racers), but a lack of nostalgia means it has some catching up to do before it’s one of my very favourites. The speed and the handling make it an absolute joy to play, and whilst it doesn’t have the variety of Enduro Racer or Out Run’s changing environments, it certainly has the longevity – for all the hours I’ve now put in, I still haven’t quite finished it, and usually count myself lucky if I see the third lap! But this is the guy who spent 40 hours not giving up on Bay Bridge on arcade Virtua Racing, so watch this space!

My Life With… The Trap Door – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… The Trap Door – ZX Spectrum

FRANKIE SAYS that there’s all sorts of reasons why 1984 is the greatest year in the history of history! It was the be-all and end-all for pop music, from the majesty of Purple Rain to the stadium new romanticism of Spandau and Duran; when people talk about eighties music, what they mean is music from 1984! The arcades were evolving from sci-fi distraction to creating fantasies, from wartime aerial dogfighting in 1942 to being Bruce Lee in Kung-Fu Master in the arcades; we weren’t doing too badly at home either, with a non-stop parade of what would become all-time greats, from Jet Set Willy to Knight Lore to Elite. When the games got kicked off of the TV for the evening, Miami Vice introduced the world to the eternal definition of being cool, and Airwolf and Blue Thunder fought for helicopter supremacy. Over in the cinema, the classics just didn’t stop – Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones, Police Academy, Gremlins, The Terminator, Ghostbusters… And, of course, This is Spinal Tap became the last word in movie comedy, forever cemented in my top ten favourite films ever!

We’re only scratching the surface too! What about Wham and Van Halen, Radio Ga-Ga and Big in Japan, Pac-Land and Hyper Sports, Sabre Wulf, Moon Fleet, Fraggle Rock, Karate Kid, Romacing the Stone, Footloose, Footloose, kick off your Sunday Shoes…? And don’t forget, we’re still in prime A-Team, Knightrider, Dukes of Hazzard and ITV World of Sport Wrestling territory, and we’ve got 2000AD and Eagle, and the FA Cup Final is still a big event, and there’s the LA Olympics to look forward to, and Do They Know It’s Christmas… Okay, I get it, that last one’s got you convinced and I don’t need to go on! I was 12 in 1984, and there’s no doubt that this cultural tsunami is why I am what I am today, and, combined with an emerging taste for the weird and horrific, it’s also why I was perfectly positioned to completely fall in love with another new TV show that year, The Trap Door!

“Somewhere in the dark and nasty regions, where nobody goes, stands an ancient castle. Deep within this dank and uninviting place, lives Berk, overworked servant of the thing upstairs – “Berk! Feed Me!” – but that’s nothing compared to the horrors that lurk beneath the trap door, for there is always something down there, in the dark, waiting to come out…”

What I didn’t appreciate at the time, but with the benefit of a horror collector’s hindsight can very much appreciate now, is that this was a parody of the introductions Vincent Price used to do at the start of his horror movies like The Haunted Palace and The House on Hanted Hill. Slightly more child-friendly, we were then treated to the iconic theme tune, which was penned by none other than the guy who wrote then equally iconic Shakin’ Stevens’ Merry Christmas Everyone – “Don’t you open that trapdoor, you’re a fool if you dare! Stay away from that trapdoor, ’cause there’s something down there…”

What follows is a stop-motion plasticine animation set in the gothic psychedelia of the aforementioned ancient castle – we’re stylistically somewhere between the simplicity of Tony Hart’s Morph that we already knew and loved, and those dreadful Wallace and Gromit things, which some of the team here would actually go on to be involved in. Most of the action takes place in the castle pantry and cellar, where Berk, a big blue blob from the West Country lives with Boni, an intellectual talking skull, and his pet spider Drutt. Then there’s his master, The Thing Upstairs, who we never actually see but in most episodes he’s ordering Berk to make him food, fix things or clean him; and in most episodes, these orders spark some kind of misadventure involving Berk opening The Trap Door, which shuts out the monsters and “horrible things” living in the caverns below.

As an aside, even though we never see The Thing Upstairs, the clues are there if you pay attention… There’s sponge-like tentacles in a flash of lightning in one episode; Berk also refers to his three eyes and later asks which of his heads is suffering from toothache; we also see bits of him – that sore tooth comes out and is more than half the size of Berk, and at one point one of his eyes ends up in The Trap Door, and that’s almost as big as him; there’s also references to three humps and having wings, which we hear beating at one point. Anyway, the sort of thing you’d probably jump through monstrous hoops for!

Creators Terry Brain and Charlie Mills, supported by the instantly recognisable voice talents of Willie Rushton, gave us 25 episodes of The Trap Door, which if I remember rightly ran on weekday evenings on ITV to begin with, then on one of their Saturday morning shows, and lasted about 5 minutes each. There was a second series, but not until 1990, and as far as I know those episodes were mostly re-hashes of the first one, but being 18 at the time I was probably more into Sarah Greene on Going Live on Saturday mornings! Actually, I’d have been collecting trolleys for Sainsbury’s in Bedford, but that’s far less exotic than Sarah Greene! Anyway, back in 1984, two years later we’d finally get The Trap Door game of the cartoon, released by Piranha Games on ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC, and written by none other than Don Priestley, who by this time had made a bit of a name for himself – especially on the Spectrum – for really groundbreaking oversized and very colourful graphics. I think a friend’s copy of Popeye was one of the very first games I played on my Spectrum +2, and I was just blown away by these enormous, detailed sprites that really brought one of my favourite comic strips to life, even if they didn’t move so well and the game wasn’t really that much fun to play! But you can see the seeds sown in the not dissimilar but even less fun predecessor Benny Hill’s Madcap Chase starting to grow into something that might end up really good!

And in 1986, The Trap Door evolved his signature format into something really good that didn’t just drag the Spectrum kicking and screaming way beyond its normal limits to perfectly nail the look of the cartoon, but captured the essence of what made it so engaging too, masterfully transporting its plot mechanics into solid puzzle-solving gameplay mechanics. Like the cartoon, you as Berk are grudgingly carrying out the orders of The Thing Upstairs, but there’s an end game – a safe full of loot – if you successfully carry out five increasingly bizarre tasks in the harder but more rewarding Super Berk mode, or four in the easier but lower scoring Learner Berk mode. You need to do them quickly and accurately before his anger boils over, sending your completeed offerings Upstairs on the dumb waiter in the hope that The Thing accepts it. As you might have guessed, each of these tasks is going to involve opening up that Trap Door and letting out one of the ‘orrible monstrosities that lurk down there, which, if you’re lucky, is going to play a role in in completing it. And if you’re not lucky, you’re going to have to get rid of it (somehow!) before you either run out of time or worse. If that wasn’t bad enough, having the trap door open in Super Berk mode risks letting spooks out, and like everything else in Berk’s world, they’re hungry and the only way to get rid of them is to feed them whatever you have at hand (even your mate Boni!) before they do you mischief.

There’s more to Boni than being ghost-bait though, and if you pick him up he’ll sometimes give you a clue on what to do next. Drutt the spider isn’t quite so useful though, generally getting in the way as he hops around trying to catch worms to eat. Apart from that, you’re relying in The Thing Upstairs to tell you what he wants, then finding whatever it is you need to give it to him. These will be scattered around the place, and you’re going to have to work out what’s needed and when, then how to use it and what monster you’re going to need to complete it. The first mission gently introduces you to this multi-dimensional puzzling… You need to send up a can of worms, so you’re going to find a can in the kitchen and take it back to the room with The Trap Door, which you’re going to open to release some worms then try and catch before Drutt eats them. Get a couple in the can and that’s it, you can put them in the dumb waiter and send them up to your master.

Obviously, things soon get more complicated! You’ll be working out how to transport small eyeballs so you can grow them into bigger ones in plant pots before getting them into a vat so one of the monsters can crush them; you’ll be using fire-breathing robots to roast slimes; you’ll be using The Trap Door (sorry, has to be capitals!) to fling bullets or anything else at hand at bizarre birds that, after a load more equally bizarre steps, will end up as fried eggs, and so on. There’s some strategy at play with this puzzle solving as well though; The Thing Upstairs’ anger is measured by an anger meter, and you need to get stuff done before it gets too high, but once you know what you’re doing with the puzzles, you can use any time left over to maximise your score. For example, you might want to start those eyeballs growing or move objects to the locations they’ll need to be used in later before you send your current delicacy up in the dumb waiter. Get your four or five tasks done and it’s time to tidy up, which involves throwing everything down into The Trap Door, then working out how to open the safe and taking your place as a true Super Berk!

Learner Berk mode is definitely where you want to cut your teeth, learning the layout of the castle’s six screens and  just enjoying being there for a while as you work out the puzzles without stuff trying to kill you. The puzzles do require a bit of lateral thinking, but this isn’t Monkey Island, and a lot of the objects can be used in a variety of ways, so if for some reason you’ve lost the thing that might have been best-suited to doing something, you’ll most likely have a back-up if you give it a bit of thought. The game might be 35 years old at the time of writing, but I’m not going to spoil it too much more than this because its complex logic still deserves your attention way more than that! But it does involve a lot of moving a huge sprite up and down and left and right, manipulating objects and shoving them around, and where this game really deserves credit it the way it makes this so easy, almost guiding you in as you approach an item or a door. Super Berk mode is going to ramp up the difficulty, adding far more danger even if you are repeating a lot of what you’ve done before, but it’s also where you’re going to have the most fun, juggling escaping monsters breathing fire at you while avoiding the ghosts and trying to collect worms before your pet spider eats them all with that anger meter counting down in the background! And unlike Benny Hill and even, though it’s always pained me to say it, my beloved Popeye, for all its bells and whistles, The Trap Door really is fun!

But what bells and whistles they are though! There were a couple of times I remember the Spectrum going bigger later, for example that dreadful Merlin game, but apart from maybe its sequel and spiritual follow-up Flunky, I’m not sure the Spectrum ever got bolder. We should also mention that for all of those huge sprites, that would sometimes take up about a third of the screen, and all of that boldness, and all of that colour in them, there’s barely any colour clash. It really is a remarkable achievement, especially when you compare it to the other versions – not sure about the Amstrad, but the C64 actually had worse colour clash; actually, I always found that struggled a bit in comparison on most fronts, closer in performance to Spectrum Popeye than Spectrum Trap Door. The animation was impeccable too, with a smoothness that defied the sheer scale of some of the monsters especially, and you’d often just sit back and watch like it was a cartoon as Drutt and all the little nasties just wandered about doing their own thing; it really brought the characters to life too, providing a level of individuality to everything that moved! There were some great looking games on the Spectrum – Starglider, Exolon, Merlin, Savage, R-Type, Bomb Jack, Lightforce, and not forgetting Popeye of course… but if you’re talking visual aesthetics as a complete package, I’m not sure anything tops The Trap Door.

There’s not a huge amount going on sound-wise once you’re in the game, but before that there’s an occasionally bombastic rendition of the theme tune on the title screen! If only the Spectrum had even a bit of the Mega Drive’s finesse when it comes to drum sounds! Then it’s just a few blips and beeps as you open doors and pull levers, accompanied by a few more that act as audio highlights when Drutt is bouncing around, for example. It’s a little sparse, but less is often more when it comes to 48K Spectrum sound!

I think Don Priestley’s Flunky appeared before the sequel proper in 1987, but being utterly indifferent to anything royal, I gave it a miss then and still give it a miss now! From what I understand it was a similar affair, but in Buckingham Palace rather than a cool horror castle, and from what I’ve seen it still did the business graphically! As did Through The Trap Door, which appeared later the same year, but now the gameplay is getting mixed up a bit, with you able to switch between Berk and Drutt in a single-player co-op effort to rescue Boni from inside The Trap Door. I didn’t play a massive amount of this – you could argue it’s more interesting, but for me it was more Dizzy than the cartoon I loved. Definitely worth playing for Berk’s facial animations alone though!

The Trap Door was an absolute work of art on TV, and the same can be said for the original Spectrum game at least. If you ever wanted to impress your friends with your new Spectrum, this was the game to show them! It was a lot more than immense sprites though – just think of the turgid licenses for Miami Vice, Streethawk and the like; this was a TV license done absolutely right that completely tapped into the soul of the source material! And how many puzzle games have so much longevity after you’ve solved them? Super Berk, indeed!

Discovering Frankenstein’s Monster on Atari 2600

Discovering Frankenstein’s Monster on Atari 2600

For all of my various obsessions with 19th century gothic horror, Universal monster movies and Hammer Horror, I’ve never really been a massive Frankenstein fan. Apart from that Escape From Frankenstein board game, with the big rubber Frankenstein’s monster that carted off your little player! Definitely up there with Talisman, Chainsaw Warrior, Rogue Trooper and Chaos Marauders in my top five board games ever – there’s a new list for me to dwell on further that I wasn’t expecting to come out of this!

Anyway, that possibly explains why an old-school horror afficianado and first time around Atari 2600 enthusiast like me took so long getting to Frankenstein’s Monster on there! Not sure what it was about 1983, but as well as the wonderful board game we just talked about, that’s when Data Age released this. As I’m a little prone to do, I’m going off on a tangent about Data Age here, but this is a good one! By this point they’d only released five other games, but through no fault of its own, Frankenstein’s Monster turned out to be their very last release; you see, while Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial might get all the headlines from this period, Data Age had their very own E.T. moment the year before with a game called Journey Escape!

Journey Escape features Journey, the popular musical act, and is based on their 1981 album Escape, home to their mega-hit single, Don’t Stop Believing, and which you get a little Atari 2600 version of when you load up the game! It’s a very odd game, involving you sneaking each band member past “hordes of Love-Crazed Groupies, Sneaky Photographers, and Shifty-Eyed Promoters” to the “Journey Escape Vehicle” (which you’ll also find on the cover of the album). That translates to you dodging some weird graphics that push you back down the screen if you hit them. Which we’ll come back to later, but in the meantime, it’s crap!

Journey Escape didn’t just not sell, but they’d also spent $4.5 million on marketing it, and that after spending what must have been a fortune on licensing on of the early eighties’ hottest American rock bands. And that’s why, as we slowly head back to Frankenstein’s Monster, it ended up spelling their demise. However, the greatest shame of this was that we never got to see the Mr T game they had in development when they disappeared! It wasn’t the end for Journey though – 1983 also saw the release of Journey, the arcade game, where you had to reunite band members – represented by digitised photo heads on cartoon bodies – with their instruments. And let’s just say there’s probably a good reason why you had no idea that existed either!

Right, Frankenstein’s Monster! Firstly, unlike some other games, it’s not crap. The back of the box tells us that in the cold dark night we make our way through the ghoulish castle of Dr Frankenstein. There we must prevent him from completing his creation. Our only chance is to gather stones from the dungeon and bring them to the tower where we must build a barricade around Frankenstein’s Monster before he’s accumulated enough energy from the Power Probe gathering it from a storm to come alive. And to succeed, we’re going to have to move fast, avoiding poisonous spiders, vampire bats and terrifying ghosts. Complete the job and the village will be safe forever. It’s no Mary Shelley, but it’s as good a reason to be here as any!

This then manifests as a kind of a single screen Pitfall. You’ve got the monster and his Power Probe in the middle of the battlements gathering up energy, and you’re starting on his right, immediately avoiding a ghost and starting your climb down to the dungeons. On the way you’ll have to jump over pits, avoid spiders, jump on logs over acid pools and then collect your stone. Once you’ve got it, you need to get all the way back, and then on approaching the monster the screen is going to change view to you making the final part of the journey (not Journey!) through a mass of bats, and any contact with them is going to push you back down the screen – just like Journey Escape, but much more frantic, much more challenging, and much less rubbish! Once you’ve found a route up to the top of the screen, which might take some doing given the sheer number of bats at any one time, you’re going to drop the stone near the monster then head off looking for the next bit.

You have to go through this process a total of six times, gradually building the wall around the monster with each new bit of stone from the dungeons. And each time, things are going to get trickier, with more obstacles and enemies, bigger spiders and smaller logs to jump across. Hitting spiders (or bats on the bat screen) is going to reduce your score and slow your progress one way or another; interestingly, you start at 500 points, and depending on how effectively and how quickly you play, you’ll get more or less score. A more serious incident like falling into acid is going to cost you one of your three lives, and when you’ve either lost all three or the timer runs out (either 8 or 5 minutes depending on your difficulty switch settings) it’s game over, but don’t worry because that might just be the best bit!

In fact, apart from Shadow of the Beast II on the Commodore Amiga, with its mesmerising, Miami Vice-styled (and possibly actually taken from Miami Vice) soaring guitar solo, this might be my favourite game over screen of all time! When you’re done for, the monster breaks free and starts marching out of the screen towards you, its big bold pixels getting bigger and bigger until it fills the whole thing and you’re engulfed in a green and yellow strobe. Quite terrifying! That’s not the only way your game’s going to finish though, because once your six pieces of stone have successfully entombed the monster, you’ve won! Honestly, the winning screen isn’t as impressive as the dying one, but all the same, I do love an Atari 2600 game with an ending! A few hours of play should get you there, but despite the ending, this is really a high score game – you need to get to the end well, and then you need to get to the end well and get there quickly. And that’s a very addictive brew!

As well as the cool game over screen, the rest is a really fine looking Atari 2600 game too. There’s great use of solid and gradiented earthy colours – the Commodore 64 could take some lessons on making these pop from this! Your character and the enemies are simple but perfectly identifiable, and there’s some great attention to detail in the animation, which adds a bit of interest, but also things like having a separate animated viewpoint for climbing down a ladder, for example, is quite unusual for a platformer of this vintage – normally it’s the same side-on view but moving up and down instead of left and right! There’s a nice moment when you drop down a hole and kind of hesitate for a second before falling. There’s also a nice effect where the Power Probe, which flashes at the top of the screen, is interruped by lighting flashes behind the castle and connects to the electricity. This is accompanied by the sound of white noisy thunder, which, together with an occasional ominous two-note melody, adds some variety to the regular sounds of footsteps and jumping and dying!

What really elevates Frankenstein’s Monster for me – even above Pitfall and its sequel – is the way it plays. There might not be as much to it, but your character feels fast and solid, and every jump quickly becomes predictable. That, combined with the horror theming (even if it is only Frankenstein!), the best game over screen ever, and just the vibrancy of the whole thing, makes this the top platformer on Atari 2600 for me, and certainly up there with stuff like Seaquest, Alien and Chopper Command as one of my favourite games on the system! Unlike Journey Escape!!!

Game Review: Danterrifik III – ZX Spectrum

Game Review: Danterrifik III – ZX Spectrum

I might be rubbish at games, but me and brutal platformers have some history! Of course, stuff like The Perils of Willy on the VIC-20 was just a normal platformer when I was spending dozens and dozens of hours playing that. Same when I got to Willy’s better-known adventures on the ZX Spectrum a couple of years later, or stuff like Chuckie Egg on the Amstrad CPC. I reckon stuff being “difficult” rather than just par for the course started with the likes of Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and definitely its sequels, if we’re counting those as an evolution of the platforming genre. Castlevania was definitely a tough old platformer, and the Mega Mans went even further, refining difficulty as a badge of honour. Me and platforming went our separate ways a bit for a while, but I remember Rayman on the PlayStation was too hard for its own good, as were moments in Super Mario Sunshine on GameCube – a game I love and hate in equal measure! Coming quickly up to date (as this wasn’t supposed to be a history lesson), the same is true for Cuphead, Hollow Knight and Shovel Knight’s gorgeous, punishing adventures. And, of course, we have the more retro-looking modern branch of cruel platformer too, with the likes of Celeste (though I’m not a huge fan of this despite several attempts to be on several systems), the minimalist N++, which I’ve played to death on the Switch, and the undisputed heavyweight champion, Super Meat Boy, where you – a cube of meat – are literally a celebration of tough-as-nails platforming death!

Super Meat Boy is a very apt place to start (several hundred words later) as we turn to brand new ZX Spectrum platformer Danterrifik III, because unlike its early eighties forebears, its singular mission is exactly the same – it just wants to destroy you, in very rapid succession! I must confess that at the time of writing (although this will definitely get fixed very soon) I’ve never played either Danterrifik or its sequel, both released in 2020, also for the Spectrum, but can provide a quick recap from the cassette inlays… In the first game, protagonist Dan wakes up in a cemetery having been turned into a skeleton, and he’s making his way through hell (probably literally) to recover his soul, his body and his identity. In part two, he’s lost in the labyrinth of his own mind and pitted against both the satanic dangers of hell and his own surreal hallucinations. Some serious ZX Spectrum colour insanity too from what I can tell!

The setup for this, Danterrifik III, is a little less well signposted! No cassette inlays this time, and before I first played all I had were some words on a map I found on the wonderful Spectrum Computing website that I assume was from one of the incarnations of the creator, David Gracia. And I quote…

DAN HAS ESCAPED FROM DANTEMONIUM
BUT THIS IS NOT GOING TO BE
A HAPPY ENDING.
WE HAVE RECOVERED
OUR SADISTIC IDENTITY.
WE HAVE PAID FOR OUR
VIOLENT ACTS IN THE PAST.
TO BE CONTINUED…
DAS LEBEN IST NICHT
SCHWACHE VERZEIHEN. “FUHRER”

Doing a bit more digging now, we get a bit more information (or just different nonsensical words, depending on your point of view) and a much better translation of that German than my original attempt… Life does not forgive weakness [that’s the German bit]. Dan will have to pay for all his unpunished acts. Dantemonium [sounds like a song by Fields of the Nephilim] will be his place of reception as punishment. And apparently these are the words of the high priest of the German Catholic Church. But fear not, we’re getting to the meat of the game now… “Dan will face all kinds of physical and mental torture. The only option to get out alive is to escape from the Dantemonium Cathedral, where all kinds of monstrosities and despicable beings are housed who have also paid for their actions in the past, and have been locked up to unleash their heinous murderous instincts. Can Dan regain his identity and find out what happened to him? Why has he been locked up in a German Church called Dentemonium?”

Now that we’re completely clued up on why we’re here, you start the game in black and white, and you’d better stop trying to work out if that really is a Nazi bishop holding a decapitated head over there and move sharpish because there’s three bats about to fly at you and claim the first of your 99 lives! Reminds me of the Atari ST Turrican II demo from a Zero magazine cover disk – you know you’re in trouble when a game gives you 99 lives! That said, just to ramp up the difficulty a bit more, it’s two for one because every time you die you lose two lives!

What follows is some of the most fiendishly difficult platforming I’ve ever come across, where you’re not just looking at pixel perfect positioning, but split second timing too, with some of the tiniest windows you can imagine to react and move in and out of the tiniest of spaces before death comes knocking! And this might be one of about twenty such timing and moving conundrums of a single screen, so you’re going to be spending a lot of time just perfecting them, one at a time, usually at the expense of many of your lives until you’ve got it right, and then working out how to do the next in the same way, then pairing them together until you’ve made it across to the exit. And then doing it all over again across each of the 25 sadistic screens!

As well as platforms that have been shaved down to almost the point of impossibility, you’ve got all sorts of enemies to contend with, from giant spiders and vampire bats to scarred, disembodied heads, glowing demonic eyes, spikey mines floating about in the water (or is it blood?) and various fanged monsters. As well as your usual flames and spikes and moving objects you really shouldn’t touch! Dealing with all of this isn’t quite Mario, but you have a very predictable jump that’s also loose enough for some very necessary and very frequent mid-air adjustments that combine to make this feel almost as much a puzzler as a platformer. Despite that, the hit detection is going to have you seething, but I reckon as cruel as it is, it’s pretty much always fair once you’re aware that even a sniff of danger is killing you!

Everything is black and white (or white and black) with more or less red depending on the screen you’re on, very similar to something like the relatively recent Downwell if you’re familiar with that, though I was often put in mind of the old Spectrum Nemesis the Warlock in graphical style too. The opening screens are mostly black detail – some nice crumbling brickwork, church pews, church windows, murderous nazi bishops, etc. – on a pure white background with the odd red flame. Then you get red being introduced as liquid, often filling most of the screen, and then you’ll get white stone platforms on a mostly black brick background, again with the odd red highlight. The only real variation I remember is a grey minimalist impression of Hitler at about the halfway point! It mostly works really well, especially when it’s just white behind everything, though I did find a couple of screens a bit busy, possibly not aided by my red-black colourblindness. One thing’s for sure – you’ll forget you’re playing on a Spectrum because I’m fairly certain this is how it’s supposed to look whatever the platform. All in all very intricate, very stylish and very bold though, and as well as the slightly jarring appearance of blocky Hitler or a giant swastika, there’s a few really nice surprises to be found, if you have the time or inclination to get good!

While sound effects are as minimal as blocky Hitler’s moustache, the in-game music is absolutely incredible! This is about as close as I’ve heard the Spectrum coming to the Commodore 64’s SID chip, in the way you sometimes got it sounding like it had all kinds of channels playing at once when in reality it was all smoke and mirrors! It’s as sinister as it is impressive too, ranging from Castlevania-esque gothic flourishes through to a more thoughtful ebb and flow, before a classic Spectrum drum roll launches us back into the dense main melody. And somewhere it there it’s subtly restarting and looping again, but it really is as seamless as it is varied. Now I’m thinking about it, I’m struggling to think of any better in-game music than this on the Spectrum, and even if the brutality of the gameplay isn’t for you, you’ll want to play for the soundtrack alone!

At this point I was planning on saying I got as far as Hitler then gave up – I just wanted to give you that screenshot! But arguably harder than that young pretender Super Meat Boy or not, I’m a Perils of Willy veteran and there’s no way I’m being defeated by only 25 screens worth of the purest torture! That said, being a Spectrum game, unlike Super Meat Boy there’s no checkpointing, and modern life demanded I use the modern concession of a save state at the end of every one of those screens from Hitler onwards. All the same, that took me pretty much all of those hundred lives, as well as several hours of tearing my hair out, just to “cheat” my way to the ending. Speaking of which, I don’t know what it was about the last screen proper because most of the preceding few screens had really turned every move into a puzzle, but working out the correct timing as you leap around this upside-down bloodletting (to avoid spoiling my favourite bit completely) between a load of floating monsters was just completely bonkers to me, and having done it once after dozens of goes, I’m not sure I could ever repeat it.

And I never plan to repeat it! But I do plan to seek out the first two games to find out how bad they hate me too, and it sounds like there’s more to come, so keep watching the skies in the direction of Spain for more of this insane sado-masochistic old-school and then some platforming brilliance!

Game Review: Resident Evil Village – Xbox Series X

Game Review: Resident Evil Village – Xbox Series X

I know this isn’t retro, and I’m weeks behind any other reviews that actually mattered to anyone, but as well as having some form with Resident Evil, when I finished the game I wanted to try and reconcile some of the feelings I had about the experience, especially in relation the well-known fourth entry in the series, so I thought why not!

With the possible exception of Shaolin’s Road coming to ZX Spectrum in 1986, I’m not sure I was ever as excited about an upcoming game as I was Resident Evil Village. It was the January 2021 first gameplay trailer that did it, when the doors of the castle swung open and you were greeted by this majestic, shimmering chandelier hanging from the grandest of intricately carved vaulted ceilings, over the grandest of intricately carved wooden staircases, accented by gold and flames and all that fancy next-gen lighting! In fact, it was that very moment that I decided it was time to take the plunge, leading to weeks of Xbox Series X hunting, but I had five months and it arrived long before panic needed to set in… In fact, the only moment of panic was the day before the game’s release, when my wife informed me she’d never actually had an order confirmation (for good reason, it turned out!), so the two day wait I was already prepared to endure between 7th May and my birthday on the 9th was about to stretch to ruinous levels!

It didn’t, thanks to the eighth wonder of the world when you live in the middle of nowhere, one-day delivery! Anyway, why all this excitement? Firstly, even from the trailers, you could tell that the stench of Resident Evil 4 (more here) was all over it. And that’s not only my favourite Resident Evil, but my number three favourite game of all time; now, I might have been very late to that party, it being the last major game in the series I’d never played because back in 2005 I didn’t like the look of the first chapter that was in all of the screenshots we got, but this year alone it’s been played on GameCube twice, and Wii, and PlayStation 4. I love it, and so by extension, I should love this as well! Then there’s secondly, which is how it looks. Again, a moment in a trailer was all it took – I’ve written a bit about favourite sights in all of gaming, a couple of times in fact (here and here), but that castle hallway stomped all over what’s come before. I think it’s breathtaking! And as trailers became bizarrely timed Sunday night-only demos spanning my PS4 then Xbox Series X, I was getting similar feelings about the village before the castle, and then the rest of the castle… I’ve always said I could retire to Super Castlevania IV, and Castle Dimitrescu was that wonderful Super Nintendo pixel art brought to the most stunning real life in 2021! From what I’d seen in the trailers and the demos, they really couldn’t have made a game look more personally appealing to me than this one, and combine that with the Resident Evil 4 context and influence, and we have what might be the best game ever just over the horizon…

Before we go any further – even more important than saying I’ll do my best to avoid any spoilers – is turn on ray tracing if you’re on a next-gen console! It’s off by default but needs switching on to make a great-looking gaming the most sumptuous, gorgeous game you’ve ever seen! As I’ve mentioned this a couple of times already, we’ll start with graphics, and confirm that this is a really beautiful game; I know we’re only scratching the surface of next-gen consoles so far, and with this being available on the old ones there’s sure to be some compromise, but all the same, apart from some of the gorgeous lighting effects in the enhanced Dirt 5, this is the first time I’ve really felt that I’m experiencing Xbox Series X. The domestic scene setter at the beginning of the game is fine (and we’ll come back here shortly), but it’s when you’ve taken in a stunning vista of everything that’s about to come your way, then you finally arrive in the titular village that you start to really notice all the shadows and reflections, the glisten of snowflakes and flickering candlelight, and stunning details literally everywhere you look.

You’re going to have some of these shoved right in your face very early on too – hair effects are always a mark of next-generation machines, and lycans and werewolves (there is a difference!) are the perfect showcase for seeing these in action! There’s just so much fidelity in everything, whether static or in motion, and some of these early encounters are not just graphical showstoppers, but they also serve to absolutely terrify you with the prospect of everything else that’s going to be out to get you in the ordeal to come! An early introduction to pre-launch sensation Lady Dimitrescu and her three fellow Lords also hints at the variety to come, and even very deep into the game I was constantly jumping into the pause menu, opening up photo mode and getting a shot of the latest thing to blow me away as we travelled through their various distinct domains. Some of these had a real Universal horror vibe as well, which I really appreciated, both literally and also where everything exists to have an atmospheric purpose. And you’re constantly encouraged to take all of this in, looking for that tiny glint that tells you there’s something valuable to be dislodged by a bullet, but sometimes you’ll also just decide you need to sit back and admire it, whether the sight of a mass of crows circling some ruined battlements, or just watching resident merchant, The Duke, ignoring you and enjoying his cigar before hunting out a book, flicking some ash out of it as he finds the right page, then exhales a puff of smoke as he starts reading. So much effort has gone into not only creating a realistic gothic fantasy with startling attention to detail, but also by bringing almost everything in it to life. There’s no doubt that this is the best looking game that these eyes have ever seen!

Quick note on the story. This is a direct follow-up to Resident Evil 7, continuing the story of Ethan Winters after he rescued his wife from supernatural Texas Chainsaw country, but now they’re in exile somewhere in Eastern Europe and he’s got a baby daugher to rescue this time. After being kidnapped by Resident Evil stalwart Chris Redfield and his cronies, she’s kidnapped again by our aforementioned four supernatural crime-lords, who are all at the behest of wicked witch Mother Miranda. As well as being the best looking game I’ve ever played, this is undoubtedly my game of the year so far, trumping even Ghosts ‘n Goblins Ressurection, Outriders and Cyber Shadow, all of which I thought were utterly wonderful, then there’s Genesis Noir, Narita Boy, Pac-Man 99… And we’re still in May! Anyway, I choose to say this now because the first time I was introduced to this baddies collective in a very early cutscene, all of that pre-launch excitement about having a new and improved Resident Evil 4 on my hands got a teeny bit tempered. Lady Dimitrescu was fine, and her three insect-infused daughters even more fine to this particular old goth! Modern-day Frankestein Karl Hesienberg was alright too, even if he was no Ramon Salazar. But then there was this doll running about shouting like some crazed Harley Quinn nerd figure, who turned out to be representing Donna Beneviento, a creepy dollmaker. Now, I’m not saying that either of the first two are any kind of realistic, but they were at least grounded in the same kind of horror reality that we were treated to in most of the previous game with the Baker family, but all these in-your-face Bride of Chucky histrionics just seemed a bit out of place at this point. As did the fourth Lord, an oozing, deformed aquatic worm-man thing by the name of Savatore Moreau – I might have loved the lake monster boss from Resident Evil 4, and this might have been a strong hint towards something similar to come later, but all the same, it’s not really what I wanted as I transitioned from a lycan-infested scene of rural slaughter into the golden vampiric opulence of Castle Dimitrescu; a couple of Scooby Doo villains making an overly dramatic entrance was all a bit jarring!

Fortunately, you’re not given too long to dwell on this as you’re dumped into a rip-roaring Indiana Jones-style set piece; it really is a testament to the game design that when I finally got to the end of this frantic little interlude that I wondered quite how I’d managed to escape first time and in one piece, but some clever pacing and some subtle funnelling quietly served its purpose here, and it wouldn’t be the last time I’d have a similar feeling after some of the game’s later set pieces too. This might be a good time to mention the puzzles, which is something else I really appreciated, though for reasons that others might bemoan them! I’ve never come to Resident Evil for the puzzles, and anything beyond the lightweight brain teasers we recently saw in Resident Evil 3 Remake have been things I’ve learnt to tolerate more than enjoy; thankfully, the puzzles here might be even more lightweight, sometimes being a test of your brightness settings as much as your logical thought! As I said, maybe a turn-off for some, but you’re rarely going to be scratching your head about what to do or where to go next, especially if you’ve played any of the series before. There are definitely some secrets to find off the beaten track though, and after my first playthrough I had a list of various non-critical puzzles to go back to that I’d encountered but not found the right gear to solve, or just stuff I knew must exist but I hadn’t had the right gear to access at the time.

I’m not going to describe much beyond what everyone with any interest in the game has already seen in either trailers or demos or bigger boys’ reviews, but after spending a good chunk of time in Castle Dimitrescu, you are going to use the village as a bit of a metroidvania-inspired game hub, and then travel through each of the other three Lords’ themed worlds doing things very much inspired by every Resident Evil game you’ve ever played, and not just spiritual predecessor Resident Evil 4. Although one of them very much reminded me more of Doom 3 than any previous Resident Evil, but as my favourite shooter ever that’s something I can forgive! Actually, as I think about it, it did go a bit Call of Duty at one point too, though again, in a fun, chaotic scrap with guns kind of way, so again, quite forgiveable! As I may have hinted, the castle is my favourite area in this game, but there’s not that much to where you’ll spend the most time while exploring here, and whilst that’s not necessarily a criticism – especially from someone with my sense of direction – I did feel that you were too-quickly whisked through some of the later areas it expands into in comparison as you reach the end of your time there. On a related note, there’s one dominant puzzle that appears here very early on, but you spend several hours not being able to do much about; and when I say several hours, it may be less if you’re not soaking in every decadent detail like I was! Anyway, that puzzle contain various elements, and the first and even the second of these are going to take some tracking down, but then this was where the pacing caught me out a bit as suddenly the rest of it all fell into place in quick succession; pacing is undoubtedly one of the hallmarks of Resident Evil 4, and this could have taken some cues from that game’s castle area by just taking its time a bit more instead of excitedly getting you on a roll and then out of there.

Another hallmark of Resident Evil 4 for me is the boss fights. I’m not a massive fan of boss fights in general, but I did enjoy most of those, as well as some of the other giant enemies it introduced in between. I also really enjoyed most of the nerve-shredding but ultimately dumb Nemesis fights in Resident Evil 3 Remake, and I think it was these I missed the most here once the first main boss fight was done – which it should be said was great, with its frantic and often overwhelming chase around the ramparts! After that, and right up to the final boss fight where things get a bit more traditional again, I was just a bit underwhelmed by the rest of the bosses, and none more so than when one of them turned out to be a very straightforward game of hide and seek, with absolutely no user input outside of a glorified game of Where’s Wally!

I’m going to stop finding fault in a second, but while I am there’s just a couple more things that bothered me. Before launch there was a big debate about the pronunciation of Dimitrescu, with everyone that had ever had any exposure to anything Eastern European (i.e. not an American being told what to say by a Japanese guy at Capcom) knowing it’s pronounced exactly how it’s written. But in the game, it is actually pronounced “Dimitreesc” and having worked for a Japanese company for exactly twenty years and one week at the time of writing, I’ve a feeling that this is grounded in the Japanese language handling of the letter “u” at the end of a word being assumed to also directly translate to Romanian. A mistake, in other words, but even if not, it sounds ridiculous every time you hear it! Final moan is the punishment that Ethan’s hands take in the first hour of the game. Even more ridiculous! One of them literally gets torn apart, and there’s fingers bitten off, and you find out exactly why people say that if Jesus was crucified like the popular story says then the nails would have gone in his wrists and not his palms in the most graphic detail (twice), and he even has one sliced completely off. But a bit of rag and some magic healing juice and they all come back again, which is fine, but what about the sleeves that get sliced off too? Did I miss the magic sewing kit as well? And if you’re planning on explaining that away, do it sooner before it becomes an ongoing annoyance rather than later, by which I mean during the absolute end-game.

I know, to the normal person neither of these are likely to be a showstopper, but these little details can nag away, and combined with similar, relatively minor issues definitely contribute to why Resident Evil 4 is my number three favourite game of all time and this isn’t even in the reckoning, as good as it really is over its ten hours or so duration! As an analogy, there’s a well-know way of approaching seemingly insurmountable ingrained problems in large corporations, like a huge giant block of stone that’s stopping you continuing down the path; you just start chipping away a the corners, and even though getting rid of each tiny bit isn’t going to let you pass, eventually you’ll be able to roll the block out of the way. And that’s how I feel about Resident Evil Village versus my beloved Resident Evil 4, but in reverse. I think! All that said, I’m sure there’s also an argument somewhere in my head for the groundbreaking and more epic nature of 4 over this one’s eye on the past to add to its sense of wonder.

And make no mistake, it is wonderful, so let’s talk about some more good then, and a really nice nod to Resident Evil 4, The Duke, who even knowingly spouts a line from his Resident Evil 4 counterpart, The Merchant, and over time you’re going to appreciate this guy (and his familiar backing music) just as much. For me, his first appearance was actually one of more horrific moments in the game too; this huge obese aristocrat crammed into the most unlikely of spaces, found in the most unlikely of places to sell his wares. As well as selling ammo and upgrades, and taking unwanted treasure off your hands, he’s also going to offer weapon upgrades and permanent stat boosts by taking meats you collect from killed wildlife and crafting them into various recipes. It’s worth saying that the crafting scare stories you might have heard before launch are no more than this, so take it from someone who dislikes crafting almost as much as stealth, but not as much as deck-building, that it’s really nothing to worry about! The Duke is also going to move the story along in places, and a bit more besides, and for something I initially took to be little more than window dressing lifted out of Tod Browning’s Freaks, he really became a surprise highlight, full of character and full of detail, as well as that familiar source of relief when you see him so you can save and fiddle with your inventory in peace for a while, just like with The Merchant before him!

Apart from The Duke, the Four Lords (and saucy insect offspring) and Mother Miranda, you’re going to come across a skull-wielding hag to also point you in one direction or another, various villagers in various states of panic, illness or death, and they all combine to keep the story moving and giving you just enough rope to hang yourself with too! There’s also much more than lycans and werewolves of all varieties to fight, with zombies, fire-wielding archer ghoul-things, mechanical soldiers, living gargoyles, big hairy things and everything in between waiting around any given corner, alone or in a big group, ready to spell your doom. They’re not massively scary, and running to preserve precious ammo is often an option, but there’s good variety and plenty of ways to strategise when you do have to take them on. Shooting stuff feels really good too, and the non-stop parade of upgradeable guns, explosives and other supplies you’ll come across, then picking and choosing what to do with them is also a fun side-story that really adds some extra depth to proceedings.

What else? For all of its gameplay and character influences from earlier games, as well as the direct link to Resident Evil 7’s plot, if you’re perceptive (and by the end, even if you’re not) you’re going to get some nice loose ends tied with regard to the Umbrella Corporation; I’m not saying the narrative isn’t bonkers by any means, but there’s more to it than I expected! As I’ve mentioned, it’s not especially horrific, but there are some great moments of tension, in many cases relating to your lack of ammo, which is classic Resident Evil design! As is the sound – stick some cans over your ears and that tension is ramped up another 100%! Much like the graphics, there’s enormous attention to detail in this department too, with all sorts going on in all directions, and as much as you’re going to be constantly panning up to the ceiling for that tell-tale glint of some precious jewel, you’re also going to be listening for the creak of a bird cage and its hidden bonuses, or just what direction the next insane danger is coming from! The soundtrack is suitably haunting, and also injects the adrenalin when it needs to, but its not especially memorable; that said, I’ve a feeling it might be a bit of a slow-burner, and is something I’ll definitely pay more attention to on future play-throughs. You’ve got some trademark Resident Evil voice-acting too, but let’s stay focussed on the very, very good!

Resident Evil Village is definitely a Resident Evil game, but for me it’s not much of a pure horror game despite the vampires and werewolves; there’s no sense of dread, shock or revulsion, and you’re not going to get scared like I know some did in Resident Evil 7’s claustrophobic opening few hours, though there is one area that some might find disturbing in a similar way to why some people won’t watch the movie IT! But that’s absolutely fine because the very best of the previous Resident Evils took a similar approach, and as was just pointed out to me, just because I wasn’t scared doesn’t make it not a horror game altogether! Overall, the tense, varied and mostly brilliantly paced gameplay, combined especially with the jaw-dropping, atmospheric visuals, makes Resident Evil Village absolutely essential, especially if you’re already on next-gen machines. It’s not perfect, and even though it controls like a dream in first-person, it’s still not quite up there with Resident Evil 4, but apart from Feud on the ZX Spectrum and Kick Off on Atari ST, what is? That beautiful, beautiful castle though…

My Life With… Andes Attack – Commodore VIC-20

My Life With… Andes Attack – Commodore VIC-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rediscovering Soft & Cuddly on ZX Spectrum

Rediscovering Soft & Cuddly on ZX Spectrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discovering Kawasaki Superbikes on Sega Mega Drive

Discovering Kawasaki Superbikes on Sega Mega Drive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Life With… 1942 – Arcade / ZX Spectrum

My Life With… 1942 – Arcade / ZX Spectrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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