It’s funny the things that set me off on one of these journeys! This time (that being October 2021), my 14-year old son wanted a haircut, and being the academy footballer and apparent social media darling (he does have thousands of followers somehow!), he’s now far too cool for the one that I’ve been going to in Bedford since before I was his age (still bedecked with the same hair-model pictures on the walls that were outdated even back then)! We struck gold with our first foray into alternatives though, with loads of swearing, hip-hop and talk about trainers (or sneakers) that he fitted right into. It’s actually just around the corner from the old one, and right next door to what used to be a tiny newsagent in those days circa 1986, with just enough room for a rack of magazines down one side, sweets and drinks on the other, and a counter that was always covered in piles of newspapers with people’s names on next to a till as ancient as the lady behind it, stood in front of her bountiful fag display. I noticed it’s one of those mobile phone repair shops when we passed it today – was only ever going to be that or empty or a tattoo parlour. Welcome to Bedford! At least you can still get a haircut even if there’s no other reason to visit though, which, thinking about it, is the only reason I’ve visited for years.
Anyway, even back in 1986 I don’t think I’d ever been in that little shop, until one Saturday afternoon, after we’d exhausted the usual game and record shops around town (of which, in retrospect, there were loads), as well as all the magazines we weren’t going to buy in WHSmith, my friend Thomas said he needed to go in there to collect his 2000A.D. It’s also funny the things you remember – it was drizzling and getting dark as I gingerly followed him in, so I reckon we’re late afternoon in November. I knew he read 2000A.D. but I’d been all about Eagle since it reappeared in 1982 and it had never really appealed. Until now!
It might be that I was a bit burned out on Dan Dare and Doomlord, or, more likely, everything in there that wasn’t Dan Dare or Doomlord, but as we marched back out into the late autumn murk I was having a quick read, and against all my better instincts, I was liking what I was seeing! I’d heard all about Judge Dredd, of course, but the darkly Catholic art style of Nemesis the Warlock really jumped out at me, with Rogue Trooper’s visually relatable but very alien war not far behind… The following Saturday I’d made up my mind and jumped ship, setting up the same reservation in the same tiny newsagent as Thomas, and over the next couple of years at least, my Mum and Dad arriving back from town at my Grandma’s house, where my brother’s and me spent most Saturday afternoons, with a new, named copy of 2000A.D. in hand, became one of the highlights of the week!
2000A.D. had been around for a decade at this point, launching in 1977 and published by IPC Magazines. Actually, the very first issue featured my old friend from Eagle, Dan Dare, but it would soon become synonymous with Judge Dredd, supported by a cast of other sci-fi and fantasy-tinged series like that Nemesis the Warlock, a demonic alien fighting against Torquemada’s galactic genocide; Rogue Trooper, a genetically engineered super-soldier hunting down the traitor that caused the massacre of his comrades; Strontium Dog, a mutant bounty hunter; ABC Warriors, unstoppable war robots; and (before I get too carried away!) Slaine, the Celtic Conan.
I quickly became a mega-fan (or Mega-fan) of the weekly series, also lapping up the fledgling monthly specials for my new-found favourite characters like Dredd, Nemesis, Rogue Trooper and Slaine in particular, as well as the Best of 2000A.D. Monthly and those fantastic Titan Books paperbacks that recapped everything I’d missed out on for years. And that’s where much, much less frequent visits to the bewilderingly huge and labyrinthine shopping centre in that exotic new Milton Keynes place came into play, but maybe we’ll save those for another day! But who’d have known that 35 years later it would be almost daily trips there to that academy we started with… Definitely doesn’t seem so exotic anymore!
It turned out that sooner or later almost every teenage nerd needed 2000A.D. and that made loads of these characters ripe for video games, but bizarrely, it wasn’t the most high profile ones that emerged first. Or second… Back in 1984, Strontium Dog: The Death Gauntlet had appeared on Commodore 64, followed by Strontium Dog: The Killing on ZX Spectrum. It might have been the C64 version being a bit crap that led to the Spectrum version commandeering a completely different game from a bedroom coder, but that didn’t exactly set the world alight either!
We’re obviously going to come back to Rogue Trooper, which came next, in a minute! Slaine then followed in 1987, with a kind of graphical text adventure that was given an absolutely unique (and visually stunning) user interface that might have worked if anyone had a PC and mouse back then, but on a Spectrum joystick – or worse, keyboard – it was a mess! For every scenario, you were giving a “cloud” of possible actions then sub-actions moving around the screen, which you pointed at by moving a skeletal-looking set of hands and then selected by clicking fire. Unfortuanately by the time you’d lined up your little on-screen fingers, realised they weren’t quite close enough for fire to respond, then realigned and tried again, your text action had long since moved on and you were just left in frustration, while Slaine was more than likely left taking a beating because this is how combat worked too! Kick… missed; Swing Axe… gone; Dodge… dodged! Actually, when I’m done here I’m going to fire that up again and see if I can rig up some other way of controlling it because I’m still convinced there’s a decent game in there. Watch this space!
Also in 1987, we got Nemesis the Warlock. This was a very stylish single-screen platformer that had you exterminating the evil Torquemada’s goons before trying to work out where the exit to the next screen was. The Spectrum version looked and played better despite some interesting colour clash, and piling up the dead bodies of your fallen enemies to create new platforms was always fun for a while, but the music on the Commodore 64 version is just outstanding! Have a look at my run-through of my Top 25 Gaming Anthems to find out more about that particular Rob Hubbard Classic!
Judge Dredd also finally got a look in the same year, but this uninspiring and hard on the eye shooting-platformer from Melbourne House was only marginally less disappointing than Kung-Fu Master on the Spectrum! I tried so hard to like it too, but in retrospect I can count myself lucky it wasn’t the C64 version, which is just horrendous in all regards, from the unrecognisably blocky graphics to the outrageous jump controls and out of tune soundtrack! There was another stab at Judge Dredd on C64 in 1990 though, which I’ve not played but definitely looks a bit more like it; what happened to the Spectrum and Amstrad versions of this is a bit of a mystery though – it seems to have got to the point of review then just disappeared, with the former at least thought lost until a copy surfaced on eBay in 2014, which reminds me of an old Batman game I used to have on the Game Boy… Or, indeed, 1995’s Judge Dredd on the Game Boy, another action platformer that came out on allsorts around that time, but you want the SNES version for what remains Dredd’s best video game outing even if it is yet another bit too hard platformer on there!
A couple of other licenses were also lost by the wayside, but this time that’s easily explained by the demise of Piranha Software – also responsible for Rogue Trooper, which I promise we’ll get to in a second, as well as the wonderful, wonderful The Trap Door and almost as wonderful Nosferatu the Vampire, which I really need to get to soon as well! Anyway, The Ballad of Halo Jones was actually finished and delivered to Piranha on the very day of their demise, but that was the end of that, forever apparently because the developer binned off everything a decade later. Honestly though, future non-super hero Halo Jones was about the only strip in 2000A.D. I wasn’t into so I’m not really fussed about that… Unlike the other game that went down with Piranha, Judge Death – possibly my all-time favourite comic strip character! This seems to have been a first-person shooter, no less, on the Commodore 64, and must have been really close to release because there were adverts all over the place for it. While it’s also never been released officially, what appears to be what was left of the unfinished game was picked up by Novotrade and released as Horror City, which is a nice curio but doesn’t play great and chugs along a bit – imagine House of the Dead demade to a snail’s pace! For your Judge Death needs, there is a Dredd vs Death game on PlayStation 2 that I’m yet to play, but it’s another one that I’ve just prompted myself to sort out, so another space for you to watch!
Until then, there’s about two decades (and potentially loads of other stuff I’ve completely missed out on) to jump forwards to bring my own 2000A.D. games timeline to a conclusion, and conveniently bring us back to Rogue Trooper… This one was originally another PS2 game, but like many PS2 games, it took me a while to get to, and when I did it was actually on PlayStation 4, and 2017’s Rogue Trooper Redux. Understandably, it still plays like a third-person shooter from 2006, but a really good one, and any Rogue Trooper fan is not going to stop being thrilled by everything they’re looking at as they fight their way through the Quartz Zone, the Petrified Forest and other familiar locations. I do remember a bug where if you ran too far forwards without killing all the enemies you could enter the next area, but all of its enemies would be just standing there until you went back and finished off everyone in the last one! But apart from that, this remaster brought with it what would have been absolutely unfathomable when I was excitedly opening an early present back on Christmas Eve 1987 and firing it up before being dragged to midnight mass!
As we discovered some time ago now, Rogue Trooper on the ZX Spectrum was published by Piranha in 1986, as usual together with versions on the Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC which, as far as I can tell, both look just like the Spectrum version. The developer was Design Design, formerly Crystal Computing, who were also behind that Nosferatu the Vampyre that we’re now definitely going to get to soon because, behind the curtain here, I just spent quite some time on a big tangent that you didn’t get to experience but involved playing it again and very much enjoying it! Anyway, until then, we’re going to get a helping hand from the cassette inlay from my copy – which was actually Alternative Software’s budget re-release from 1987 – to tell us a bit more about this Rogue Trooper guy and set the scene a bit!
“Welcome to Nu Earth!” This is the planet on the edge of the galaxy that’s been so ravaged by chemical warfare that no one can breathe its atmosphere or swim in its seas (though why you’d want to do that I don’t know)! Anyway, this is where you’ll find the fighting legend of Nu Earth, Rogue Trooper, genetically engineered to live and breathe (and swim, I assume) in the planet’s poisonous chem-clouds. You, Rogue, are the sole survivor of the Quartz massacre, when your entire regiment of Genetic Infantrymen was betrayed by the Norts and destroyed by their crack Sun Legion. You’re not alone in these poisonous killing fields though, because at the moment of their deaths, the personalities of three of your fellow GI’s were stored in bio-chips now mounted on your gun, helmet and backpack.
You are now on a quest to expose the traitor responsible, forcing you to desert your own side, the Southers, and search Nu Earth for eight security videos from the wreckage of the field control satellite that transmitted the signal that informed the Norts of the fateful GI drop. These tapes will provide the only concrete evidence of the traitor’s identity, but are spread across the vast, chemical terrain of Nu Earth, so you’ve got some exploring and some fighting to be getting on with, because the Norts are everywhere and the Southers will be in no mood for deserters! On your way, your three chip buddies will advise and support you (and occasionally attempt to go Rambo), with extra protection from Helm in your helmet, extra firepower from Gunnar in your gun, and Bagman is going to give you all sorts of gear as and when you need it most. Find all the tapes, get them to the Millicom space vehicle and prove the traitor’s identity so you can be happy and your three friends can be re-gened into their former GI existence.
All of this translates to a kind of isometric collect-a-thon, although the nature of a lot of the locations around the relatively compact map (given its “vastness”), such as Nu-Forest and Rad-Desert, mean that the isometric visuals often fool you into thinking you’re looking at a more traditional 3D layout, which doesn’t always pair that well in your mind with the very isometric controls! For all of the implied depth from your three bio-chip companions, what you’ve actually got is a very simple affair under your direct control – left and right, up and down, and fire your gun. The others will regularly come out with quips about shooting Nort scum, or more useful things like you’re down to your last med-kit, but it’s all taken care of in the background and you’ll not be paying any attention to what they’re up to at the top of the screen before very long. That’s not to say it’s not a nice touch though, and definitely makes it a Rogue Trooper game.
Those simple controls aren’t quite as simple as you might like though… when we say “up and down” here, what we actually mean is diagonal-right up and diagonal-left down, which in theory ties in with the isometric 3D scenery, especially when you’re walking through ruins and the like, but in reality you’ll be spending a lot of your time clumsily edging left and down then right and up and so on to simply get from the screen you’re on to the one you want to get to! It’s all flip-screen, where each screen blends into the next, so scenery might cross the border and enemies will follow you, but the screen above you, for example, is directly above you, not isometrically above you, so getting there can be awkward. But I’m not talking about that anymore at risk of making it sound far worse than it is – yes, it’s a bit jarring if you’ve never played it, or even haven’t for a while, but you’ll be used to it before you’re ignoring Gunnar’s zenophobia!
Most of the screen is taken up with this action area, then top left you have a map, which will indicate the presence of Norts as well the ship you need to get to with your tapes, but, most importantly, it will also indicate the type of terrain you’re on, and you want to be in some of that more than others. Spend too long in the Rad-Desert, for example, and you’ll notice your strength indicator in the next status box at the top gradually depleting, but other areas are going to have healing properties, so sometimes it’s worth taking the less direct route! As well as strength, you’ve also got a score, which is a bit pointless in this kind of game but I suppose puzzling out how it works might lead to some replayability; then there’s number of med-kits and ammo held, as well as the number of video tapes you’ve found so far. These, and additional med-kits and ammo, appear around the map and you walk over them to get them. Just watch out for the Norts, because they’re better at walking around this weird perspective than you are, though you’ll generally be quicker on the draw if you position yourself right. While you’re looking around for the tapes, there won’t be more than two or three of them on any given screen, and sometimes you can go a while without seeing any at all, but once you’ve got the tapes I’m fairly sure their numbers pick up as you try to make it back to your ship. And by this point, the chances are you’ll be out of med-kits, low on ammo and down to your last bit of strength, so it’s a tense run to the finish line!
That said, the rest of the game isn’t massively difficult, and if you’re lucky with video tape placement and ammo and med-kit dumps, you can even finish it in fifteen minutes or so. But Rogue Trooper is all about the atmosphere – while it might lack the pseudo-realism of the PS4 game, it more than makes up for in fan service, bringing Nu-Earth to life and giving the impression of ravaged scale, even if it is only made up of about seventy screens in total! Impressive when it’s all monochrome too, although you are treated to the Spectrum’s traditionally garish colour palette on a regular basis! You start in the blue on white maze-like ruins of a city, with Norts patrolling its walled corridors, to eventually emerge into the blue on yellow desert, littered with those big wooden cross barbed wire barriers you see in old D-Day films, complete with devastating Nort pillboxes. The forest is a lovely shade of black on bright green, then there’s more yellow minefields and cyan moonscapes and ominous grey graveyards, and all of this is exactly why I loved this game from the first time I played it – if you’re a fan of the comics, there’s just enough there for your imagination to fill in what isn’t! Outside of the ruins, with their wonderfully detailed (if repetitive, if you look too close) crumbling walls and bullet holes that you can even see enemy movement through, things get more sparse – by design – but you’ll make out what’s left of mine-damaged vehicles, fresh dirt on helmet-decorated gravestones, toadstools and alien trees, all starkly presented on often plain backgrounds.
Rogue himself is perfectly identifiable, even if he’s not all blue-skinned, and while you can’t see individual bio-chips, you can clearly make out his gun, backpack and helmet from all direction, and there’s some nice use of the limited sprite space to add some texture to his helmet and uniform. Those bio-chips do get their own display top right though, each with their own speech bubble for “the only good Nort is a dead Nort” and the like! Speaking of Norts, they wander about in a very sinister way, rifles on the hip, though they’re not going to engage in any kind of nuanced combat – just line yourself up and just shoot the most the quickest! Character animation is inoffensive, though I’m fairly sure that Rogue Trooper moves twice as fast up and down than he does left or right! Inoffensive is a good way of describing the sound effects too, which is always as much as you can ask on a 48K Spectrum! There’s regular blips and beeps and white noise variations for spot-effects, but nothing more.
Wander around a small monochrome map, kill Norts for points and keep an eye out for video tapes and other stuff so you can get to an incredibly anticlimactic screen of text telling you that you won is about the sum of Rogue Trooper. But that’s probably about the sum of a lot of games from this period, and it’s quite a lot more than the sum of a lot of the 2000A.D. games that have arrived since! But somehow it pulls it off where Judge Dredd and Slaine and Nemesis the Warlock didn’t! There’s a bleakness to it all that perfectly captures Nu-Earth, and in that chemical detritus, the limitation of control of your perfectly realised 8-bit Rogue Trooper, combined with his singular mission, adds that layer of personality that was also intended to come from your bio-chip buddies, so whatever they offer comes on top of that.
I’ve probably now written more words than have ever been written before about Rogue Trooper on the ZX Spectrum, but I’m going to quickly jump to a completely different medium to summarise how I feel about this. Which I might have already just done, but anyway… Also in 1987 (though I came to it in 1988 when I had a Saturday job and could afford such extravagences), Games Workshop released the Rogue Trooper board game. You’re Rogue Trooper, and you and up to five other players are searching Nu-Earth for the traitor before a deadly chase when he’s been unmasked, which all sounds very familiar by now! I was never a massive board game player; I’ve got this and Chainsaw Warrior and Talisman, and there’s HeroQuest knocking around in the garage somewhere, though I think I enjoyed painting figures for that more than playing it. Fortunately, this one isn’t massively complex and can be played in well under two hours, so roping in my completely disinterested brothers to play was usually an option! But, what it does do in that limited form, with tiny plastic figures on a slightly bigger hexagon map representing different regions of Nu-Earth, supported by equipment cards, mission cards and so on, is build up this incredible atmosphere that draws you right in to Rogue Trooper’s world. Again, it’s drawing on that element of imagination that role-playing games draw on so successfully even more – get the right-minded person, and those physical gaps get filled in to create a whole new world.
And that’s exactly what Rogue Trooper on the Spectrum managed to do when it found this right-minded person! As said before, there’s not a huge amount of difference between the 8-bit versions of the game. I’ve played a bit of the C64 version, and for what it gains in beefier sound effects, it loses a bit in slower transitions between screens, but otherwise it’s the same game. Rogue did get an outing on the 16-bit machines in 1990, interestingly lifting the same image from the front of the board game box for the front of the video game box and magazine advert art. There’s some fantastic black and white comic-strip cut scenes in there, but otherwise it’s a fairly generic and very average (albeit colourful) side-scrolling platform-shooter. I think that’s then about it for Rogue Trooper until he re-emerged on PS2, Xbox and PC in 2006, followed by a variant on Wii in 2009, and finally that remaster we started here with in 2017. Now that we’ve come full-circle, all that’s left for me to do is get onto eBay and grab myself a copy of the Dredd vs Death game I missed out on (because it appears to be dirt cheap!) so we will, no doubt, reconvene there at some point later!