If I had to choose six Gremlin Graphics or Gremlin Interactive games to stick on a no-holds barred, any system compilation, there’s no hesitation about the first two… Their ZX Spectrum conversion of Gauntlet for U.S. Gold in 1987 is a top ten favourite game of all time for me. Which I really need to cover here sometime soon! My brothers and me were huge fans, and to this day I remember every moment of the Saturday morning when we finally got to go to town and spend our pocket money on this mad multiplayer arcade fantasy dungeon crawler that we couldn’t believe we were going to be able to play at home! And close on its heels would be the Spectrum version of Auf Wiedersehen Monty, Gremlin’s brutal fourth entry in the Monty Mole series, where you’re flip-screen platforming around Europe collecting enough cash (which anticipated the Euro a full decade before the currency was introduced) to buy a Greek island. One of the last great eighties platformers in the tradition of Jet Set Willy and the like, and a joy to explore to this day!
Right, now we’re having to put a bit more thought into the third entry onto our compilation, but only because I’m not sure whether it’s Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge on Atari ST in 1990 or its sequel… I played more of the first, but I’m going with the second game, mainly because I’d be playing solo now so would appreciate its full-screen single player! They were both absolute showstoppers at the time though, with a brilliant sense of speed as well as being loads of fun in two-player split screen! As we’ll eventually be talking Evercade cartridges here though, it’s worth noting that Gremlin’s Lotus remix, Top Gear for the SNES, but under its Japanese title Top Racer, is already available on the fantastic Piko Interactive Collection 1, and the sequel appears on Collection 2. You might have noticed I’m playing for time now because I’m struggling for what’s next, although this time mainly because I’m trying to avoid another 1990 Atari ST racer, Toyota Celica GT Rally! Okay, I’m going for a wildcard instead – also on Atari ST, but back to 1989 with Switchblade, the thoughtful post-apocalyptic action platformer that I’ve never actually owned a legitimate copy of so this would be my chance to finally go straight!
Two to go, so I’m going HeroQuest, and another Atari ST game from 1991. I was a big fan of the original fantasy nerd-fest boardgame it’s based on by that point, even spending hours badly painting its miniature goblins and stuff that now mean the box in my garage that should be worth a fortune is probably worth bugger all! Anyway, the video game was a proper stunner, and really captured the essence of playing the boardgame, with the added bonus of being able to play by yourself and whenever you liked! Last game, and I’ve got to go with one of the Actua Sports games on the original Sony PlayStation, and it’s a choice of Actua Soccer, Actua Golf or Actua Tennis… I’m going Actua Soccer, which means I’m going to come back to that one because it’s high time we looked at an actual Gremlin compilation rather than my fantasy ones!
It is and was the end of March 2022, and we’re heading to the Nth Dimension with Gremlin Collection 1 for Evercade, the modern handheld and home console way to play around 300 mostly retro games on a load of themed and curated cartridges. Together with the also newly-released Renovation Collection 1, which brings together 12 Japanese 16-bit obscurities and might get a review here too shortly, this Gremlin-based cartridge includes six of their classics, and excitingly only one of which I’ve ever played before, so it’s a journey of discovery too! And who knows, there’s always Gremlin Collection 2 for the other five I mentioned before if any of the powers that be are listening!
Okay, plan of attack… The Evercade VS console experience is always a treat regardless of the cartridge(s) being shoved under its hood, so I reckon we’ll have a look at what we get when we fire this one up first, then have a quick dive into each of the games included, which will be Zool, Actua Soccer, Utopia: The Creation of a Nation, Premier Manager ’97, Hardcore 4×4 and Brain Bender. By the way, if you’re vaguely interested, we did end up doing an unplanned first impressions review for the console itself when we looked at Basketbrawl for the Atari Lynx from one of its other cartridges not long after its launch right at the end of 2021! It’s a Gremlin cartridge inserted now though, and we’ve got the artwork for each of the six games in front of us; I have to say it does look a bit sparse with only six, but that’s remedied with a second cartridge inserted and you can either sort the games on both or one or the other as you like – for the purpose of this review we’ll go in order of release. You can also jump into settings from here and set display ratios, scan-lines, bezels and all of that malarkey, while jumping into one of the games is going to give you the option to play or load your last save, give you the back of the box description and also a controls diagram specifically for the Evercade game pad. Let’s hit play!
If we’re now in order of release then we’re starting with Brain Bender from 1991 on the original Nintendo Game Boy. It’s a puzzler, and you’re rotating your little mirrors left and right to bounce a laser beam around twelve levels of ten puzzles each to destroy gas spheres, shut down Electrobrains and destroy the enemy satellite. It’s all against the clock, which at the start is going to be your biggest challenge as you get to grips with which way to angle the laser using one button to rotate a mirror left and one to go right, with a crosshair to select the next one – it’s simple but that doesn’t mean it’s easy! Things get more fiendish as you go though, with multiple mirrors at play at once just to get the angle right to hit an object, and where a single mistake can mean you’ll never finish the level, which forces a restart at the cost of a load of points. Trouble is, you’re never likely to progress that far because the timer is way too aggressive, even on the first level on easy mode! Which is a shame because there’s a decent concept in here, and you can even feel an element of addictiveness emerging as you just about clear the early puzzles. Unfortunately, that’s not the only problem though – it wasn’t really a looker to begin with, but even more than those Lynx games we talked about earlier, while it might work on the Evercade handheld it just wasn’t designed to be played on the biggest, highest definition TV in your house! I get that they were trying to mix things up a bit with this, but why not include the Amiga (or pretty much any other 8- or 16-bit platform) version of Deflektor instead, which is pretty much the same game?
Of all the games on here, Brain Bender wasn’t one that particularly influenced my pre-order, but Zool definitely was! In my eyes it’s always going to be an Amiga game, where its high-speed platforming first appeared in 1992, but quickly got ported to everything else you could shake a stick at, including the Sega Mega Drive or Genesis, and that’s the version we’re getting here. Zool’s not an ant, but the guardian of the Nth dimension, as well as its Protector of Creative Thought and Defender of Positive Action! You begin in the Sweet World, sponsored by Chupa Chups no less, where you’ll need to explore the level, collect objects, see off as many of the evil Krool’s Legionaries as possible and then take on the end of level beastie. As absolutely iconic as that level is, with a bit of perseverance (or a tweak of the difficulty or even a few sneaky save states!) you’ll soon be bouncing around the almost equally gorgeous Music, Fruit, Tool, Fairground, Toy and Desert Island Worlds too, and it’s all a joyful rainbow to behold. That sentiment transfers to the soundtrack too! It might be a corporate-branded Sonic rip-off, but it’s got a few tricks of its own (including some serious bosses!) and once you’ve learnt your way around a couple of the levels you’ll be having a blast with it. And with that, this compilation is right back on track!
It’s 1993 next, and we’re jumping to the SNES for Utopia: The Creation of a Nation, which is about as far removed from clambering around a load of sweets as you could imagine! But yes, it might be a world-building strategy game, but give it a chance and it’s not quite as po-faced as it’s back-story might suggest; and, dare I suggest, take the trouble to actually read the generous instruction manual in the box and it’s not quite as impenetrable either! You’ve been offered the job of Colony Leader in the proposed colonisation of the Omicron-Kappa planets orbiting the Rhebus Sun, with ten planets to colonise in the face of resistance from the Vacullo Federation. And all of that nonsense translates to something like SimCity, but with more focus on social modelling and combat, built around a user-interface like a sci-fi Populous, meaning it works alright on a console controller too! Bold choice including this one because it’s definitely not pick up and play, but it also doesn’t take very long for things to start clicking once you get to grips with a few of its mechanics, and then you suddenly you’ve had it on for hours and it’s way past your bedtime, just like the best of these!
It’s time to come back to one of my fantasy choices, except now it’s here in the flesh and it’s Actua Soccer, which I played endlessly when it came out on the PlayStation back in 1995! This really is vintage Playstation too, boasting “3D motion capture from top international footballers,” (or at least any that played for Sheffield Wednesday at the time – true!) “commentary from the legendary Barry Davies and TV-style presentation,” Most of which some might argue hasn’t aged particularly well! Not me though – I’m still looking at it through my wonder-filled 1995 eyes, and it took mere seconds for my hands to remember the simple controls (pass / shoot / speed burst and tackle / slide tackle / switch player) and we were away scoring goals. Admittedly it did take a bit longer for my brain to process the non-stop “TV-style” movement and rotation of the camera, not to mention the questionable non-player AI and occasionally mysterious collision detection, but all the same, this one is still loads of fun from when that kind of thing was still allowed in a football game!
Another PlayStation game next, and 1996 3D off-road racer Hardcore 4×4. I didn’t own this one, but I do remember it being the one that clinched the deal when I first watched Evercade’s trailer for this compilation! Again, like most games of this ilk, it might be a little grating for some modern eyes, but those are not the eyes that this is here for! It’s fast and loose all over though, including the gameplay, to the point that a couple of laps into my first game even this retro apologist was really forcing myself to keep playing, but then the controls clicked – literally as I crossed the lap three checkpoint – and from there it turned into a surprisingly tactical racer. You can pretty much drive wherever you like, and you’ll quickly be weighing up risky off-track racing lines or anticipating the bounce as you hit a hill a bit faster than you know you should for an unorthodox overtake! There’s loads of vehicles, surfaces, track types and weather conditions, and three race modes including single race, time trial and full-blown championship, so loads to keep you occupied too. And it’s got a cool rock soundtrack! Look past the creaking graphics and this one is a highlight here.
We’re finishing up with another bold inclusion, and it’s football or soccer management for the Mega Drive or Genesis from 1996 with Premier Manager 97, complete with even more instructions than Utopia! I really love that this is here because I would never think of going back and playing this one, but it’s worth every second spent getting to know it, and once you do, you’ll never leave! I think this was the perfect time for football management, where we’d got over focussing on more lifelike gameplay footage and instead added more depth to the management mechanics that had made these things so hopelessly addictive for over a decade by this point, but without going too mad with it yet! Matches now play out as a combination of text and animated sign boards, and in between you’ve got access to transfer markets (based on around 1,500 players from the 1994/95 English leagues), sponsorship deals, stadium improvements, finances, fixtures, scouting and youth teams, and, of course, a ton of team management stuff. There’s also the choice of a full career or a single season. And it’s all marvellous – not bad for a spreadsheet fronted by some pretty icons!
And with that, we’ve had a mostly lovely time with Gremlin Collection 1 on Evercade! The presentation is top notch as always, as are the in-game options and modern conveniences, not to mention the thrill of simply slotting in a cartridge in 2022! I haven’t quite given up on Brain Bender just yet, but for now it’s about the only low point in an otherwise beautifully crafted, eclectic collection of high points! I might have found immediate gratification in Actua Soccer and 4×4 Hardcore Racing, but I’ve got a lot of time planned with Zool, and in fact I’ve made a note to have a look at all three in more depth individually here like I did with Basketbrawl at some point. And speaking of depth, I’d like another proper season on Premier Manager now I’m familiar with it, then I’ll think about a bash at a career at my leisure now I know it’s to hand; and similar for Utopia, which I look forward to letting take over my life whenever the mood takes! Good stuff, I’m very happy with it, and all that’s missing from my life now is that best ever Gremlin Collection 2 I came up with earlier, please!