What the Commodore 64 might have lacked in colour clash compared to its only rival, it more than made up for in blockiness. And brown. And rubbish racers. And arcade ports… Okay, maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves now, but there was a time in the mid-eighties where, to my mind at least, its trademark graphical style had this uncanny ability to bring almost anything to life, whether sucking you right into the supernatural heart of a movie like Ghostbusters, or dropping you onto a jaw-dropping alpine mountainside in Winter Games; it could even add a certain charm to a stinker like Friday the 13th – something the Spectrum had no chance of ever pulling off, even when it reached what I think was it’s own graphical peak a couple of years later, around 1987!
And all of that was never more true than when I bought my very first copy of Computer & Video Games magazine in April 1985, and in particular on an advert for a game called Gryphon! As you’ve no doubt worked out by now, we’ll come back to Gryphon shortly, but as it’s such a landmark in my gaming history, I thought we could have a quick mosey around the rest of what’s in that issue too because it really is quite the time capsule! I could happily go page by page, but for your sake I’ll do my best to stick to what jumps out at me, the first of which is a preview for the follow-up to Pyjamarama, Everyone’s a Wally, although sadly the very best of the Spectrum’s colour clashing capabilities is hidden away behind a couple of black and white screenshots! Onwards to page 16, and one tiny (full colour) screenshot that would stay with me forever, to the extent that as I type there’s a significantly bigger version of it in a frame on the wall above me, and it belongs to the C64 version of Cauldron!
Undoubtedly one of my favourite sights in all of gaming, with its evocative little hovel in front of what remains one of the best-looking forests to ever grace a video game, with your witch on her broomstick hovering around it with some bats in front of a huge full moon. It’s absolutely stunning! Unlike The Evil Dead, which they keep going on about like it’s not a total turd all over this nearly full-page preview because that was also made by Palace Software, the main subject of the feature. The next page has a very homemade-looking advert by Games Workshop, and I only mention it because I’d never noticed it mentions a Spectrum take on their Talisman board-game before, which would become incredibly important to me a couple of years later, so once we’ve discovered Gryphon we’ll have to come back to that too!
Game of the Month is Impossible Mission on C64, which was one of the very first games I ever played on there not long after, and it quite rightly scored big, as did the Spectrum version of Ghostbusters and the aforementioned Pyjamarama on Amstrad CPC. Gryphon did alright too, with 8 out of 10 across the board, and then there’s a stack of other games that look really interesting but are also mostly forgotten to time now… Conan on Atari 800, which looks like a more muscular 3D Ant Attack; Squish on VIC-20, which is Pengo with frog spawn; then there’s Staff of Karnath on C64 and Buggy Blast on ZX Spectrum… Need to try all of them too! Next we’ve got an advert for Dropzone on C64, which is another one whose screenshots totally blew me away.
A bunch of type-in game listings next, including the second part of Starship Victory on VIC-20, and I remember having to borrow a friend’s copy of the previous month’s issue so I could type the whole thing in. Worthwhile take on the old Star Trek games too! Then more reviews, including some really big-hitters on the Spectrum… Alien 8, Finders Keepers, Brian Bloodaxe and Technician Ted, all in the space of three pages! The reviews ended with another big-hitter on the CPC, Sorcery, another witchy game I should love but has just never clicked! We’ll skip the boring adventure game stuff (although it did get a look in when we covered Dick Turpin on the Spectrum if you’re interested) and finish off with Arcade Action, featuring Kung-Fu Master, which at the time I had no idea would soon become an all-time favourite!
Wonderful stuff, but I know you’re only here for Gryphon, so let’s do it! Gryphon comes from the prolific hand of Tony Crowther, who I definitely remember for 1983’s Blagger and its sequel, Son of Blagger, but the first game of his I think I ever played was Wanted: Monty Mole when he was working for Gremlin Graphics, and that would also go on to become a favourite series of mine over on the ZX Spectrum! 1985’s Gryphon is based on the mythological gryphon or griffon or griffin, a legendary creature dating back to both Ancient Egypt and Persia with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle, often known for guarding treasures and building nests lined with gold nuggets. And gold is where the game picks up, along with a dash of Alice in Wonderland, in “a world separated from our reality by a twist, a step and a dream. Here are the mystical woods, the surreal cities, and the infinitely dangerous darklands. And it’s a dangerous dreamspace, with poison lakes, strange barriers and “ID” monsters prowling.” You need to help your Gryphon escape these dangerous lands to a new home, and to do that you need to use gold bars to build bridges over the most difficult areas. Which is one of the most mystical aspects of the game when you think about it, considering it can fly, but anyway, on the left of each level are a six gold bars that you need to transport in your beak, one by one, all the way to the right of the level to lay out across the “most difficult” few feet water so you can cross to the next stage, of which there are three plus a bonus level between each one.
Before we leave the back of the box, the best description of a high score table I’ve ever seen! “A MEMORY OF SUCCESS… Write the name of your Gryphon in computer memory, along with its high score.” To help you achieve your high score, as well as moving bars from one end of the sideways scrolling map to the other, then going all the way back and doing it again, you can shoot magical bolts out of your mouth to take down the swarms of enemies you’ll encounter – a different type each time. And to help you do that, your Gryphon can, as we’ve established, fly… Kind of! Flying is a real ball-ache, where you need to start moving in either direction for a run up, which sounds reasonable except in reality it means you’re constantly wrenching the joystick diagonally upwards to ascend, then letting go to change height, which causes your creature to face outwards towards you and float down rather than facing any action so it can shoot at it, and then when you’re at the desired height it’s left and right controls to maintain that level and allow you to either dodge or fire. I’d love to say it’s simpler than it sounds, but it really isn’t, so be ready to give your poor joystick hand a workout!
It does make sense in the end though, and it needs to because even from the very start this game isn’t pulling any punches! The first pile of gold bars is just to your left as you begin this mostly deep, dark, wooded first area, but you’ll already have ghosts bearing down on you to take out before you even think of picking one up, which is done automatically, as is dropping it off – just don’t get to close to the water because that will be a cheap life very easily lost when you’ve done all the hard work traversing the level! Flying is going to let you do that the fastest, but if you’re lucky you can walk a decent distance across any solid ground and simply slow down for any enemies on the way until they’ve moved somewhere else. Once you’ve moved a few gold bars there is a nice flow to the gameplay, and you’ll have a feel for when to walk or fly, when to hang around or when to rush through, and when to shoot or when to run. Once you’ve got all the bars and built your bridge, meaning you’ve now traversed the level no less than twelve times, you can cross to the next, but first there’s the bonus area, which is a strange thing! You’ve got your Gryphon moving very slow across the top of the screen under its own steam, while you’re in control of one of its precious gold bars near the bottom, which you use to shoot at the creature to make it change direction and speed up, and you need to keep doing that until it makes it back off the screen one way or the other. Really not very exciting, and I quickly found myself shooting it as it first entered the screen just to make it turn around and leave as soon as possible so I could get on with the game! Once that happens, you’re onto stage two, and now you’re in a built-up metropolis full of tall office blocks and big industrial buildings against a modern city skyline, and it’s time to start dismantling that bridge so you can carry the gold bars, one by one all over again, right to the other side of the level to build the next one. And so on…
The third area is where things get really rough because there’s now noticeably more enemies but nowhere to land for a walk as we fly over a starlit ocean. You can’t even land on the big cruise ship you fly by to give your poor hands a rest! They’re getting a real workout now too because if you get as far as the third wave of enemies – a literal swarm of flying saucers – their movement patterns mean you’re constantly wrestling with the over-complicated flight controls where what you really need is simply up, down, left and right for a bit of accuracy. By this point I was getting the feeling that the whole convoluted flight control thing was just there to up the challenge a bit though – the game would be very easy otherwise, and the repetition even more apparent. Instead though, what we now have is a diagonal-up-left, diagonal-up-right game of cat and mouse as you try to find a gap between enemies either side of you, and painfully try to hover in one place until you can either shoot a big enough hole to dash through or one appears by itself. Then you repeat again. Then you repeat again…
Move all of your little blocks from one end to the other on this third and final wave (which, according to the on-screen display, equates to level 26), and after one more weird bonus level thing you emerge right back at the start with not so much as a well done and good luck on your hand ever coming back to life! After this first loop, we’re apparently beginning again at level 100 and everything (including you) is moving way faster than before, and I never even got off the very first little strip of swampland. What a glorious sight that is though, and in fact I’d have loved for that whole game to have been those few pixels of Scooby Doo-style swampland, with its dark and foreboding overhanging trees and vines and long grasses, and the vague outline of distant mountains. So atmospheric, especially when you’re starting out with that first wave of traditional ghost enemies, but, alas, so brief! Once you’re flying over the rippling surface of the not very swampy water though, the ruined brickwork of the next environment is full of the detailed shading that’s the very foundation of that distinctive C64 feel I mentioned at the beginning, and we’ll see a lot more of that in the next bit as it turns to full-on cityscape. The overall game is distinctively styled around various shades of blue, and a very clever sense of perspective is created by using white on one of these blues for foreground details while the background, for example a line of skyscrapers, is black on another set of blues, and you’re going to be moving in front of and behind things as you go.
Things do get a bit messy in a couple of places as a result of this graphical exhuberance, with enemies either getting lost behind the architecture of some big dockside warehouse or office building so you don’t see what’s about to hit you, or, when they’re the bigger ones like hot air balloons, they just merge with the foreground and their evil colleagues into unidentifiable chaos. The enemy designs never really surpass the character of the initial ghosts for me, but there’s all-sorts that follow – birds, bats, insects, flying rock things, flying doll things, those balloons, skulls, cruelly small tiny electric cross things… None of them behave especially differently, but given the repetitive nature of the gameplay, it’s always exciting so see what’s coming next when you pick up the next gold bar, and they all disintegrate into a nice flowery brown explosion backed by a full-screen strobe effect when you shoot them! Speaking of brown, your gryphon looks fantastic despite that, especially in fast, smooth motion with its lifelike flapping wings and non-stop trot, even when in full flight! The screenshots in that C&VG advert really didn’t lie – this is a great-looking game!
Music is limited to the title screen, and it’s pleasant enough with a couple of nice melodic flourishes, but nothing especially memorable and you won’t be hanging around to listen to it for long. Prepare for a full-on audio assault as soon as you hit fire to start the game though! It’s a mass of shrill blips and white noise scales, mostly all at once, and together with the non-stop strobing it’s pretty effective, if not especially evocative of the ancient mythology of its subject matter! I suppose once you’re out of that swampland at the start, the rest of the game isn’t really either, but no harm done – behind the characteristic bold and chunky visage, and despite the cumbersome controls and repetition, there’s a simplistic fun to be had with Gryphon… I even found myself properly “in the zone” with it after a while, ready for one more go, at least for as long as my aching hands would allow! It’s just a shame that every time I read the April 1985 issue of Computer & Video Games magazine now, I’m not going to see that advert and think I’d love to play that sometime anymore!