Having never owned a Commodore 64 at the time, it’s only relatively recently that I’ve been catching up on Zzap!64 magazine, launched in April 1985 as a sister magazine to the far more familiar (to me) Crash magazine for ZX Spectrum. The passion-filled rebooted 2019 annual is about as close as I’ve come to owning an actual copy, but thanks to the wonders of the Internet I regularly flick through old copies, mainly on the lookout for hidden gems I might have missed.
That said, I must have spent hundreds of hours just around the corner on my friend Stephen’s machine, playing the likes of Ghostbusters, Impossible Mission, Commando, The Last Ninja and Winter Games. Apart from those though, I’m now struggling to remember many other full-price games we played a lot of together, and I guess that’s down to us being eighties kids with not a lot of money; they came once in a blue moon! Which is also why you’d find so many Mastertronic titles in our respective C64 and Spectrum collections!
There were some commonalities – multi-discipline cowboy game Kane, for example, with the best horse animations this side of Shadowfax on VIC-20, and still one of my top 25 favourite games of all time. Stuff like Finders Keepers, 180 and Speed King too, that one or the other of us would spend our pocket money on, then the other couldn’t live without owning themselves! In the main though, there’s quite a few of the Mastertronic budget titles that I know very well that I’d associate exclusively with the C64.
The one that always springs to mind first, because it’s always been such a disappointment, is The Last V8, with its initially impressive but ultimately tiny play area hosting a game so hard to control that it’s virtually unplayable. It does feature some nice early in-game speech and a great Rob Hubbard soundtrack, but unfortunately you’ll only ever hear about 20 seconds of it before it’s game over!
You’d get far more play out of another real favourite of mine, Master of Magic, an early fantasy dungeon crawler that masked its technical limitations with darkness, much like Silent Hill would later do with fog, and to similar great effect! Kikstart II might be one of Mastertronic’s most celebrated Commodore 64 titles, but the two player, two joystick, no mercy trial bike action I remember from its predecessor was such a great time! Then there was Michael Jackson-inspired platformer Chiller. Always liked the cover more than the game though, so time to move on!
Of course, if we’re counting Mastertronic offshoots like M.A.D. (which, based on the games already mentioned, we are!), then there must have been a good hundred games from them on C64 alone, so there was no way we’d have come across all of them. And that’s where being able to access old issues of Zzap!64 and the like so easily now isn’t just a wonderful way to pass some time, but is also perfect for filling in the gaps!
And that’s exactly how we arrived at Hunter Patrol, in the November 1985 issue to be specific. The lead review that month was Little Computer People, which was awarded no less than 97% for its pioneering pre-Sims life simulation of a guy in his house. I played this loads on the Spectrum, and can definitely vouch for the 99% Hookability score they gave it too – it’s one of the earliest examples of a game I can think of that was just impossible to put down! This was certainly the one to buy that month, with the closest competition coming from Wizard’s Lair, a Sabre Wulf meets Atic Atac rip-off that’s not going to turn any Spectrum owner’s head, but the actual Sabre Wulf review later in the same issue confirms it might be the better option on C64! Most of the rest was very average – Stealth, Trivia UK, William Wobbler… although there was one absolute stinker called Cops ‘n Robbers that I wonder if it might be a port of an old VIC-20 joystick-killer I had, as that deserved the 9% score they gave this one too!
At this point you might have noticed that we’re now most of the way through this piece, and we’ve barely even mentioned the game at hand at all so far! Well, as well as the very average games from this month that we just discussed, we had the almost perfectly average score of 51% attached to the Zzap review for Hunter Patrol! We’ll come back to that, but have a look at those screenshots too. Looks alright, right? And old habits die hard, when a screenshot from a magazine or on the back of the box (often from a system you didn’t own!) was all you had to go on when making a decision about a game, so I thought screw the vague method to the madness that is my selection process for what comes next on here, and let’s go wild and give it a chance!
It might be an obscure (and possibly average) budget game, but Hunter Patrol had a bit of pedigree, as it was developed by Steve Lee, who also developed the two Falcon Patrol games. These were like Defender in jet fighters over the Middle East, and reminded me a lot of one of the best takes on Defender, Chopper Command on Atari 2600, which I’d probably play before Falcon Patrol today, although I did appreciate being able to fly over the Pyramids of Giza in the sequel! With Hunter Patrol, we’re now shooting stuff in 3D, flying into the screen from behind the aircraft you’re piloting that I guess is a World War II era fighter-bomber if you combine the three different plane types you’re seeing on the cover, the loading screen and in the game itself!
The idea is that you’re on a mission to take out enough ground-based defences, like tanks and radar stations, so you can then have a crack at your main target. You’re going to do this by swooping down low and strafing everything in sight, and once you’ve shot enough of one wave you’ll move on to the next. All the while, you’ll also have to deal with enemy aircraft and avoid flak, tank fire and so on all over the rest of the screen. Progress towards your target is shown by a colourful (if not exactly intuitive) gauge at the bottom, but effectively you’re making your way through four types of ground defences before destroying your main target building, where you’ll get one strafing run at it for each of your lives left. Do enough damage and you’ll be rewarded with big points and a bonus life for your next target, otherwise you’re starting from scratch through all those ground-based defences again for another attempt at this one.
In reality the outcome is pretty much the same either way, and it just seems to speed up a bit if you did good, which actually brings us to the main problem with the game… While you’re moving across the 3D landscapes at a fair old whack, not a lot else seems to be! The enemy fighters meander around almost oblivious to your presence, and the tanks shooting at you, for example, or the flak from a distant anti-aircraft battery, is approaching so slowly that the greatest danger it poses is you forgetting it’s not part of the scenery! Enemy fire travels at such a sedate pace that it removes almost any concept of threat, and your most likely cause of death is going to be crashing into something because you’d misjudged how high you were, or were briefly confused by the inverted controls when you eventually did have to take evasive action!
Okay, you could call it boring, like an air combat walking simulator, or Afterburner meets Last of the Summer Wine, but sometimes that’s alright, right? In short bursts? I’m never going to be that harsh on a £1.99 game, unless it’s The Last V8 (which I think was actually £2.99), and Hunter Patrol is fine for a budget aerial shooter. The 3D effect is perfectly functional, with different shades of horizontal green showing movement towards a distant forested mountain range. There’s not a lot to the sprites – in fact, the main plane and the enemy planes reminded me of when you loop-the-loop on the masterful Spectrum version of 1942, colours and all! Your own plane gets a cool shadow to denote height, but that’s not as cool as the explosions, which are all small but perfectly formed, to the point I’d play this again just to see them in action!
There’s a jaunty war movie-esque Rob Hubbard tune on the title screen that’s vaguely reminiscent of his Commando theme (the greatest of all gaming anthems!), albeit a bit less sophisticated. This is the case for in-game sound too, with the low but wavering hum of your plane’s engines providing a backdrop to the various shades of white noise gunshots and explosions.
Overall, I’ve spent £1.99 on a lot worse than Hunter Patrol! I’d even go as far as to say that Zzap’s 51% score is a bit harsh, and 61% would be more like it. Once you get beyond it all being a bit bare-bones, and you get a feel for the movement of the plane, and the lack of movement of enemy munitions, going in low and taking out a load of ground defences on the bounce feels great, and doing enough damage to the main target in the handful of attempts you’ll get isn’t easy, but when you’ve come close you’ll want to keep trying… For a while. In short bursts! Which is what, I think, Mastertronic games were best at!