It’s been a couple of years since I started to seriously try and amass everything I’d ever wanted in my Atari ST collection, and I think that with the recent arrival Buggy Boy we’re just about there! There’s still a few that have turned out to be pretty hard to come by at all, let alone at a reasonable price, namely digitised WWF wrestling sim MicroLeague Wrestling, boat combat racer Hydra (which I’m still not convinced ever even saw a release!) and the Road Runner coin-op conversion. There’s a few I’ll still pick up if the price is right some time too – The Munsters, Time Scanner, Test Drive II, P-47 and Rodland in particular, but I reckon I’m happy with my lot now!
I actually started curating this list of stuff to look out for while I was just finishing off the same exercise for the Nintendo GameCube, although I think in general my ST hunt proved to work out a little bit cheaper even though there were a few more games to go after! In all it started out at about twenty games once I eventually picked up Luigi’s Mansion to finish off that previous project, but the list did grow to about thirty in the end, including those I just mentioned – not excessive, but filling in the gaps I couldn’t afford as a student at the time! That said, I do wonder how I still ended up managing to buy stuff like Kayden Garth and Grimblood when I always wanted the ST version of Buggy Boy in particular, from the very second I laid eyes on its arcade at home 16-bit glory in Computer & Video Games magazine!
I’m not going to list out everything, but before we get onto that in more detail we can have a quick peek at a few highlights to give you a flavour of the kind of things I was after… Buggy Boy was certainly a priority, despite taking a while to get to, but the highest priority was Stunt Car Racer, which was the only one I wanted that I already owned, and I know that one day I’m going to come across the missing original in some box in the garage! Apart from that, despite playing a ton of it at friend’s houses on the ST, Amiga and later the Mega Drive, not to mention absolutely loving the original, I’ve never owned a copy of Speedball 2! Similar story with both Lotus Turbo Challenge 2 and with Turbo Out Run, which actually took three attempts to buy successfully! The first time it turned out to be regular Out Run and not the advertised sequel that arrived, but as Out Run sits just outside my top ten games of all time and I didn’t own that on the ST either, it wasn’t the end of the world! It was also bundled with the ST version of Super Cycle, and I didn’t even know that existed! There’s a big link with Buggy Boy for me there too, because on any given day, one or the other of that or Super Cycle would be my favourite Commodore 64 racer, although I realise that’s possibly faint praise! Looking at its box, I also just realised it’s got “TURBO” written at the bottom, so I suddenly understand the seller’s confusion! Anyway, back to actual Turbo Out Run, the next copy turned up and didn’t work; not the only time this happened either – turns out that those 3.5” floppy disks aren’t quite as robust as some other media from the time, and Batman the Movie, Pit-Fighter and Battle Chess all took a couple of attempts. It took a third to finally get my hands on Turbo Out Run for the very first time on any system though, on the Wheels of Fire compilation with Hard Drivin’ (which I think was also a Christmas present the year I got my ST), a really cool conversion of Power Drift and Chase H.Q. which I’ve never really seen what all the fuss is about.
Also like Buggy Boy, The New Zealand Story was a game I’d wanted on the ST since I first laid eyes on what I still maintain is one of the ST’s best-looking games in C&VG, but there was a financial choice between that and another of its best-looking games, Xenon II, when they both came out at exactly the same time, then other stuff came along and I never went back. Apart from those, there was a bunch of old Spectrum favourites I’d never tried on ST, like Joe Blade, BMX Simulator, Badlands and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and a few things I’d always liked the look of but were never going to be priorities for my cash at the time – TV Sports Football and Ghostbusters II would be a couple of good examples of those. And I said I wasn’t going to list everything, so just before I do, let’s jump to Buggy Boy!
My copy of Atari ST Buggy Boy ended up being part of another compilation, and one I’d never heard of before – Elite’s Thrill Time Platinum 2, featuring eight pretty high-profile games as well as a “Special Leisure wear offer” although sadly a previous owner had obviously taken them up on that, so I never did find out what could possibly justify that upper-case L for Leisure! Anyway, apart from that it’s a decent compilation! Live and Let Die is interesting here because before it got a James Bond reskin, it was originally intended as a follow-up to Buggy Boy called Aquablast, and once you know that, there’s no escaping that it looks and feels like Buggy Boy on water however many 007 logos they shove down your throat! It’s no Licence to Kill, but it’s great compilation fodder all the same, and I’ve had fun with this. And I believe that Aquablast did make it out intact on the Amiga, so we might have a look at that sometime too! Thundercats is a too hard to be much fun side-scrolling hack and slash, with a weird-looking Liono but a very cool-looking Mumm-Ra on the splash screen; stick with the Spectrum version though!
I’d probably recommend the same for the ST port of Bomb Jack here, but only marginally because it’s not a bad port at all – the controls are just a bit less floaty on the Spectrum. Maybe nit-picking though because they’re both loads of fun! I think I’d go Spectrum on Ikari Warriors too, with this version being a bit too zoomed in and a bit too slow. Not so with Space Harrier though! As blown away as I was with that on the Spectrum when I got it for my fifteenth birthday (which, by amazing coincidence, is the same birthday my son is celebrating today as I write), this one has always been my favourite version of the game – close to arcade perfect with the added bonus of being able to play with a mouse, which feels great! The only downside here is that I already owned it, but you can never have too many copies of Space Harrier on any platform. Never played Beyond the Ice Palace though, and while it’s a little on the unforgiving side, it’s a very Atari ST fantasy action platformer, and it’s not bad at all once you start to work out when things are about to get unfair! Finally, Battleships is an alright version of the board game with some nice animated scenes, but unless you fancy a solo game I’d stick with the board game in this case – you can’t beat the tactility or the tension of the original!
That just leaves us with Buggy Boy then, but of course, Buggy Boy didn’t begin life here – first we need to head back to 1985 and Tatsumi’s arcade version, which was then licensed to Data East in the US where it’s known as Speed Buggy. The original arcade version was nuts, with a three-screen cockpit which explains the weird screenshots you might see of it running very widescreen on emulation today, like you’re peeking out through a ninja mask! A more practical upright version – also known as Buggy Boy Junior – was released the following year, with all of the action squashed into a single screen, and it was this that was my first experience of the game in the wild, although I have to admit not much thanks to still being totally enthralled by Out Run on the rare occasions I was in the presence of either when they turned up here!
The game takes place around five selectable courses, and each of those is made up of five legs which you’ve got to get around in your two-gear dune buggy as fast as possible against the clock. The first course is Offroad, which is different to the others in that it takes place over five laps rather than checkpointed stages. It’s also off-road too! Then you’ve got North, set in Monte Carlo, and East, which is a kind of African safari, then West, Paris–Dakar, and finally South, and that’s Southern Cross, which I always thought was a constellation rather than a place, but it is set at night I suppose! Each course is littered with obstacles like rocks and fences, as well as narrow bridges over treacherous water and tunnels that you’d never get anything bigger than a buggy into! There’s also tons of coloured flags to run over, and if you collect them in the order shown at the top of the screen you’ll get a load of bonus points; likewise, a series of gates will offer increasingly big bonuses and then more time if you go through them, although they are quite often fiendishly positioned! As well as avoiding the obstacles, hitting logs will make you jump and hitting certain rocks will get you up on two wheels, and if you spot a football later on you want to give that a boot for an even bigger bonus.
Elite’s conversions started rolling out in 1987, although it was a slow trickle well into 1988 before it had reached the full rainbow of 8- and 16-bit computers. I really don’t remember whether it was the ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64 version I played first, but I know which one I stuck with in the decades that followed! And that’s a shame because the Spectrum version is so nearly an absolute classic. Graphically it’s not quite on par with Enduro Racer, but the clever use of colour where it is used makes you almost forget that it’s mostly monochrome, especially when you crash and become part of the best-looking explosion this side of Exolon! And while it’s not quite the fastest or smoothest either, everything is recognisably Buggy Boy, including how it plays… It even sounds pretty close too! The problem is the dirty great buggy your boy is gadding about in. It’s massive! Looks lovely in a screenshot, mind, with all that red and magenta and green pseudo-3D detailing, as well as its characteristic bounce, but for a game so reliant on dodging obstacles, it would be even more lovely to be able to see them coming in front of your dirty great ride!
In time you do get used to where everything is, and if you didn’t know any better I reckon you’d be happy with it, but once you’ve experienced the C64 conversion I’m afraid there’s no going back. And yes, you heard that right – I’m bigging up a Commodore 64 racer over the Spectrum one! It’s up there in terms of best arcade ports on there too, but there’s a point – what else is there? Well, aside from Buggy Boy, I think Commando and Ghosts ‘n Goblins would probably top my list of favourites, then it also did a nice spin on Power Drift, and there’s Bubble Bobble and Badlands, Track & Field and Spy Hunter, maybe Saint Dragon, but I’m starting to struggle a bit now! Anyway, whatever its esteemed company, Buggy Boy just plays absolutely incredibly here! They’ve gone the opposite way to the Spectrum version, with the graphics slightly scaled down, and as a result everything is visible and you feel in total control of your destiny. It still retains the cartoon stylings of the arcade game too, as well as the pace everything flies by at, and they’ve captured the little bounce when you land a jump beautifully! It really is a joy, and the only thing that could possibly top it is one of those new-fangled 16-bit machines going whole-hog with arcade-perfect!
If Space Harrier was made for an Atari ST mouse, then Buggy Boy was made for a Quickshot Python joystick! And like Space Harrier, I think this is an outstanding arcade port. More than anything, it captures the essence of the original, and the bulk of that essence is pure, undiluted fun! I think a quick tour through each of the tracks is a decent way to get to know all of that, and they’re all open to you from the outset on the game’s simple title screen; as was often the case by the time something got to a compilation, it’s mercifully all crammed into a single load too!
Starting with Offroad, we’ve got a deep orange sunrise that’s gradually going to turn into blue skies as we progress through its five laps, and we’re behind a car that’s very similarly proportioned to the arcade version, and while slightly less bold in its colouring or detailed in its 3D perspectives as it turns, it isn’t noticeably different to look at either. You’ll also notice it’s inherited the buggy’s bounce and then some as you start to move, and while it might be missing some of the turning animation – opting for a more fixed behind the car view – you’ve got the same dust clouds off your tyres, roly-poly crash animations and slapstick cartoon explosions and splashes depending on where you’re crashing! The first lap is pretty forgiving once you’ve got a feel for the car, which is responsive and solid to control, and there’s more of those coloured flags littering the track than danger. It doesn’t take long before you’re glancing up at the top right to see which one you need to collect next too, but that becomes riskier as you pass each checkpoint, with fences, gates and boulders all appearing just where you don’t want them on subsequent areas. And they’re even appearing out of nowhere when you’re just racing the same laps, as is the case here! Once you’ve worked out where the narrow water hazard is you should be nailing this one though, and working on those scores!
North is next, and the previous track’s dusty backdrop is now replaced by a snowy mountain vista, which is a little sparse but has some lovely detail this time, with grass on some of the lower slopes in the distance and generally as much attention to colour as a snowy mountain can afford, and as a result it reminds me a lot of Winter Games on the Commodore 64. In fact, the whole game has a very C64 look about it – just bigger, brighter and faster! Much like the arcade version though, I think it’s all about overall visual impact through use of large swathes of bold and contrasting colours over any kind of graphical fidelity, encouraging you to not look too closely at any of the backgrounds or various obstacles and general road furniture that you’ll encounter! In terms of the course itself, we’re point-to-point now, and you’ll immediately notice increased complexity in its design, with loads more turns than before, as well as a much more rapid introduction of obstacles and multi-path hazards. Again, you’re going to get it in a few goes though – work out where the key dangers are so you’re not reacting to them and the timer is generous enough that you’ll get away with a few silly mistakes.
Now we head East, taking in a mix of desert, water and vegetation, and this is a much longer and faster track that the previous two, with plenty of obstacles but also plenty of room to avoid them without having to quickly flick down to the low gear to allow for a tight and urgent avoiding manoeuvre. That results in about two-thirds of this track being the absolute best of Buggy Boy, offering madcap, seat of your pants driving that’s as reliant on the loose collision detection as it’s often hindered by it! There’s very little margin for error here though, which is a problem at the business end because unless you’ve managed to get on two wheels somewhere along the way and manage to keep it there, it’s totally impossible to avoid the walls of obstacles that are now appearing, rather than almost impossible!
West is more Dakar than Paris in its more desert-like design, and while it might start out feeling as fast as the last course, it’s deceptive and you’ll soon realise that you’re now crashing way more than you were on that one! There’s a few fiendish sets of obstacles in this one, especially when the main part of the road narrows into lamp-lit sections, and while the logs that make you jump are often your best friend, there’s some here that are pretty much unavoidable and exactly where you don’t want them, like on the curve of a bridge that means you’re going for a swim whether you like it or not! The shadow underneath the car when you jump is one of the few things about that game that I don’t like – it’s an undynamic grey lozenge shape that does little more than distract through its unnatural simplicity! Speaking of simplicity, there’s not a huge amount to the sound, but there wasn’t in the original either – a few incidental chimes and melodies when you select a course or get all of the flags in order or go through a gate and so on, but otherwise it’s mostly a generic engine sound and a jolly but jolly-forgettable tune on the high score table.
The final course is South, and this is more of the best but also the worst of Buggy Boy. Let’s get the worst out of the way first so we’re not ending on a bummer – that “loose” collision detection I mentioned earlier can plain old stink here! There’s been times – generally on corners – where I was a good half a car width away from the trees at the side of road, and then I’d explode out of nowhere. And while this course can be surprisingly forgiving with its timers, there’s only so often you’re being allowed to crash at the game’s hardest! If I’m being pedantic, it now reminds me of Out Run on Commodore 64 too, but it’s moving way faster than that turd could ever imagine, and while it’s no 60fps Virtua Racing on Nintendo Switch, let’s not forget the depths the Atari ST could plumb with the likes of Days of Thunder! It feels really great though, with you often frantically wrenching the joystick left and right (and doing it no good whatsoever) as you bounce around all over the place, hitting the final checkpoint by the skin of your teeth as the car begins to automatically slow to its game over stop!
When I start writing these things, I usually have a general idea of where they’re going, but this time, as much as I’ve enjoyed discovering Buggy Boy on Atari ST, I’d have never guessed that we’d get a surprise appearance from undead supervillain Mumm-Ra out of Thundercats! As a great man called Spider Webb once said, “never mind, Den, it’s all anarchy, innit?” A Bad News reference too! I’ve hardly gone without a load of decent ST racers in the years I’ve gone without Buggy Boy, but now it’s here it’s up there with Lotus and Vroom and Stunt Car Racer and Super Hang-On and the very best of them! So accessible from the outset and, like the very best racers on any platform, so much to enjoy regardless of how many tracks are on offer. What’s here has depth, especially once you get beyond completing and into scoring, but above all it’s as fun as it looks, just like its arcade original!