I’m struggling to remember how this went exactly, but there were a couple of bars at the University of Hertfordshire when I was there from 1990 – the big raucous Student Union bar, The Font, with the barmaid that looked like Summer from Baywatch, and a more civilised affair in a separate building called the EleHouse. This was so named because that building was based on the designs of the Elephant House at London Zoo. By day it was somewhere that anyone who could afford it could get some fast food while watching MTV – hopefully the saucy Maria McKee’s Show Me Heaven theme from Days of Thunder was on – and there was a shop, possibly a bank (although that might have be somewhere else), and a couple of times a month you’d get a record fair for all your bootleg cassette needs, and, of course, a poster sale for student essentials like a replica of Munch’s The Scream or an oversized image of Bob Marley doing drugs! And by night, you had the imaginatively named Mandela Bar, which if you were lucky you wouldn’t have to share with the role playing nerds’ weekly club night or similar.
Now, all of that is a bit hazy – I can’t even remember it being called EleHouse, but by process of recent elimination, I reckon I must be in the right place! Maybe Elephant House is ringing a bell though… No matter because things get hazier; now that we’ve solved one of gaming’s great mysteries – whatever happened to Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery on ZX Spectrum (see here) – it’s time to move on to two more that I don’t think are going to be quite so straightforward to research. And I think these two are closely related… Mystery number one: where was the Pit-Fighter machine I used to play that always had a crowd of people around it? By another process of elimination based on time and a vague recollection of a couple of arcade machines there, I also reckon it was somewhere in the vicinity of that Mandela Bar. Mystery number two: what was the name of the other arcade machine we played to death that either stood next to it, or might have been there before or after it?
Wondering where I played Pit-Fighter has never really kept me up at night, but not being able to remember what that other game I remember playing with my student friends, probably in that same bar, drove me mad for years, because, being an enthusiast, I just wanted to know what it was so I could play it again! Some kind of boat racing game was all I could remember, and over the years, every time I went back and saw something like The Living Daylights on Spectrum with speed boats in it, I’d be racking my brains all over again trying to remember what this thing was! I did think I’d nailed it when I picked up old arcade racer collection Midway Arcade Treasures 3 on PlayStation 2, albeit way after the fact. Hydro Thunder, an inshore powerboat racing game, was what caught my eye, and as much fun as it is, I’m afraid we’re several years too early for that. But now it was ringing bells, and how close it turned out that we were! Shortly after that, around the middle of 2019, and my Game Boy Advance screen backlight died, and I decided to try out a PocketGo handheld to host a curated list of my Game Boy and Game Boy Advance collection in ROM form. Very nice it was too – so nice, in fact, that I decided it should also host my brother’s old Sega Game Gear collection, and then his Atari Lynx collection, but those weren’t very big, so I may have supplemented them with a few others! I have genuinely tried to keep that wonderful little machine well curated though, rather than just dumping romsets onto its SD card, in an effort to actually play everything. And during that curation process, I started looking into the best of the Atari Lynx because outside of After Burner rip-off Blue Lighting and the absolute system stealer California Games, I didn’t really know much about what it had to offer. And there it was – not quite Hydro Force, but Hydra!
Even by my standards, we took some time getting there, especially when you consider that within minutes I’d decided I was massively underwhelmed with that Lynx game and was playing Klax again as usual! I don’t give up so easily though, and as I recently discovered with the coincidentally similar Bimini Run on Sega Genesis (not Mega Drive because it was a US-only release), there’s sometimes far more fun to be had when you read the instructions! Doing so then transformed it into the game I was trying to remember, though I’m still not very keen on the controls on there, and that tiny screen… Apart from having no money, I’m not entirely sure how the Atari ST version passed me by – I wasn’t exactly an arcade game connoiseur at this point, so I’d have thought that I’d have jumped at what appears to have been a decent conversion. We’ll put it down to money, but I’ve also spent the last six months or so waiting for it to appear on eBay and it just doesn’t, so it’s also quite possible it just didn’t really appear in the wild much here. As an aside, it’s worth stating that like MAME, I’m completely baffled by emulating Atari ST and Amiga, so we’re leaving those versions there and turning to 8-bit!
The Commodore 64 version of Hydra is a bit of an oddity. I’ve never been able to get it to work, and there’s very little trace of it outside of the full C64 romset that I will admit to keeping! Almost like it was never actually released though. There’s a bit more around on the Amiga version, but again, bit of a hidden gem like the ST version. And that leaves us with the ZX Spectrum, which isn’t so bad because that’s where I’ve been playing Hydra the most!
Now that we’ve established the name of the game and the platforms it’s vaguely playable on, let’s have a quick look at what it actually is! It’s Atari, it’s 1990, and we’re in the future where terrorists rule ths skies and the seas. You work for the only courier company that the world’s governments can trust to transport things like doomsday devices, mutant viruses and crown jewels about the place, and that courier company isn’t Hermes or even Hydro Force, but Hydra! You’re faced with nine delivery missions to complete by driving your Hydracraft (hovercraft) with its supercharged speed and firepower, taking out enemy forces such as boats, jet skis, mines, helicopters, zeppelins and more who all want a bit of your package. This translates to mostly driving, but sometimes hovering, dodging and shooting your way through some very pretty digitised landscapes as you travel the world protecting your parcels and making sure you stay fuelled. At the end of each level there’s a bonus stage where you can stock up on more fuel, power-ups and other goodies, then there’s a shop to spend any money earned on better weapons. In reality, Roadblasters on water isn’t a million miles away!
I think there was a sit-down version of the arcade game, but we had a cool mini-upright cabinet with a flight controller and speakers that made the top section look like a boombox, and that would make an appearance, together with some nice arcade screenshots, on the back of the Spectrum cassette box when it was released by Domark in 1991! I’m still convinced there’s more to this than the laziness that might meet the eye… The lazy eye? Anyway, the full-page advert that appeared in Computer & Video Games magazine around June 1991 did the same, but unusually there wasn’t a mention of any of the formats it was being released on, but a preview in that mag did confirm all the usual 8- and 16-bit suspects. The following month it got less than average reviews in there on Atari ST and Amiga, and a news flash somewhere else confirmed a Spectrum version was coming soon, although the Spectrum magazines like Crash and Your Sinclair seem to have got their hands on it around the same time. Apart from Sinclair User’s 79%, the rest of the reviews came in pretty average on Spectrum too, but we all know that your own opinion is the only one that counts, so let’s dive in!
If you don’t look too closely, the Spectrum’s loading screen is a pretty good approximation of the arcade game’s title screen, with your wet-look tough guy and his black sunglasses in his hover thing, burning up a tropical river and burning up an unseen enemy with a preview of my favourite weapon upgrade, the flamethrower, shooting out of the front. I really like the trees in the background here – they just demand a Predator lurking about in them somewhere! Things stay very colourful as you get to the first mission briefing too, informing you you’re off to Baja, Calfornia with a fairly pointless map, what might be you or someone else in sunglasses, and your package getting ready for despatch. There’s a simple but quite jaunty piece of almost new romantic electronica playing in the background too, which is going to accompany you through the game – not at the expense of a few sound effects at least either, even if they are all a little on the lightweight side and I’d have really liked the feedback of some engine noise.
Things do revert to more familiar ground as you start the mission proper, with a behind the boat view as your parcel is loaded onto it from the side of a shed (albeit a very nice looking shed)! It’s a similar look to the likes of Enduro Racer or Out Run on the Spectrum, with a changing dominant colour for most of the background marking each stage; for example the opening one, Colorado, is yellow, then Baja will be a pale green-blue, and so on. The background scenery itself is generally black on the sky’s colour, but some of these are really well detailed and quite imaginitive, ranging from mountains to cityscapes to ocean sunsets, although the latter is a little disappointing, with the big sun just being a circle the same colour as the sky! They repeat across stages a fair bit too, regardless of the location name changing and some of the obstacles being location specific, like the famous floating trees in Germany, but you’ve got to get pretty good for repetition to be a big problem! You also get repeating tunnels of varying lengths, usually at the end of a stage, though some are stages in themselves, and these are a bit jarring, switching everything to white on black until you come out of the other side! The end of level bonus stages do mix things up a bit, with some wild background colours in what looks like a giant circus tent full of water, ramps and power-ups! The sprites are reasonably detailed when you’re up close, but from a distance everything does all look a bit messy and indistinct, especially as you get further into the game and there’s more stuff demanding the attention of your guns or needing dodging. There’s not that many different enemies either – occasionally you’ll get a speedboat or something exciting dropping mines in your way, but more often than not you’re just blasting loads of Dalek-looking things. Given this came out in 1991, it should probably have tried harder (especially at the very expensive £10.99 they were charging for it)!
Apart from the fairly intrusive, but admittedly necessary multi-load, repetition is probably the biggest criticism I’d level at the game. I think the arcade game got away with it a bit, with big, bold sounds and fast, explosive graphics driving things along, but once you’ve seen all the colours and all the backgrounds, you are wondering do I keep trying to get better in the hope that things might change up, or will I get bored before that’s possible, or even have I seen it all now already? In terms of gameplay, you have experienced most of it by the time you get to the first bonus stage, The Hydradome, and Ziggy’s Weapon Shoppe whenever you come a cropper in there (or get to the end, though I don’t think I ever have), and then it’s a case of shooting more enemies and dodging more floating mischief. But maybe I’m being harsh, because doing all of that is quite a lot of fun!
Similar to the Atari Lynx version once you’ve read the instructions, there’s some depth to the controls here that you’re going to have to get your head around to make it fun though. Regular water driving (is driving what you do on water?) involves pushing up to accelerate, fire to fire your normal weapon, enter to select your special weapon, then down to fire it. Hitting space is going to give you a boost, and when you boost you can fly, which switches to a regular inverted down for flying up and up to go back down again, and once you’re back on the water it switches back. It’s reasonably intuitive after a few goes, but I’ve never been a fan of switching between joystick and keyboard, especially on an arcade racer!
As well as the flamethrower from the loading screen, Ziggy’s psychedelic weaponry emporium offers you homing missiles, anti-gravity flight without using up your boost, shields, uzis, bombs and a nuke to obliterate everything on the screen; possibly overkill, especially at the crazy prices of even the most basic of these upgrades, which mean you won’t be experiencing many of them until you’ve been around enough times for second and third visits! It seemed like you were getting the bonus stage and the shop every third level, each representing a different geographic location, of which there are 31 across the nine missions.
Smash the controls, get a couple of upgrades and work out some of the enemy patterns (and occasionally dodgy collision detection) and it all feels pretty good to play. It’s certainly not an all-time classic, and it really is a bit of a Roadblasters knock-off when all of its original arcade finery is replaced by different shades of monochrome – you can look at a screenshot and if you didn’t know you’d think it was a Spectrum homebrew of F-Zero… Now there’s something to look into! All the same, another gaming mystery solved, an enjoyable time solving it, and now I can go back to pondering the delights of Pit Fighter, which hopefully isn’t going to involve playing that Spectrum stinker!
Footnote: It took some time but I eventually tracked down the Atari ST version…