You might have already noticed that this is the second (and final) instalment in this more epic than originally planned journey! If it’s your first time, don’t worry, none of it’s in any particular order, so I’ll quickly recap what’s going on and you can carry on as you were. But do be sure to check out Part 1 here afterwards to experience the full works! And if you already read that, well done for coming back for more!
As we said last time, this is now a third (or fourth) stab at this thing that started out as somewhat of a bonus post on a few favourite sights in gaming which, the more I thought about it, quickly then evolved into a top ten and more. That was around two years ago as I write, but after that initial flurry it’s been something that’s captured my imagination quite a lot, and as a result has been given a great deal more thought since, and while I can’t promise it’s now a final and comprehensive list, it is now an awful lot bigger than ten and more, so I thought it was a good time to share it again! No more countdowns though, even though at least nine of my last top ten probably still stand as such; no, this time I just want to take you on a tour of some really cool sights, explain where they’re from and why I think they’re cool, or, if you prefer, you can just enjoy some pretty pictures…
We unintentionally ended the first part a bit bogged down in horror stuff, so we’re going to switch things up a bit for a while here, although you could say that Renegade III: The Final Chapter is horror of a different kind! Renegade on ZX Spectrum is the second (but not the last) of my top five games of all time to get a mention in this collection of wonderful sights, and one of those rare occasions where a home conversion is better than the arcade original, but skip forwards to the 1989 third game in the scrolling beat ‘em up series and this thing stinks whenever you choose to play it! Despite Crash magazine bizarrely reviewing it at 91%, the rest of the game-playing public was in agreement that almost everything about it, from its time-travelling storyline to its broken gameplay, was unrecognisable as a Renegade and nothing you ever want to play for a second time… Unless you’ve got a thing about Ancient Egypt and the glory days of Commodore 64 graphics! We’re talking its second level, and once you’re done with endlessly punching rubbish dinosaurs in the first, you’re told to go get your girl against the same (but much worse) monumental backdrop we spent time in with Bomb Jack in part one. Things pick up once you’re inside though, and suddenly it’s gorgeous, with beautifully textured yellow sandstone, covered in hieroglyphics and dotted with sarcophagi. Okay, the mummies and Anubis-inspired enemies look better in a screenshot than in motion, but all the same, it’s worth a bit of pain to get there. Maybe don’t bother with the medieval castle up next once you have though!
We saw quite a few game openings in part one, so I’m going to issue a spoiler warning now because we’re going right to the very end of Super Fantasy Zone on Sega Mega Drive (but not Genesis in this case) now! I think Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa is still my favourite Fantasy Zone, but this last entry in the original series from 1992 is probably the one I’ve played the most, and is definitely second only to Road Rash II, also on the Mega Drive, if we’re talking gaming comfort food – both my go-to places if I’ve got nothing better to do during football half-time on the telly! Anyway, Dark Menon has invaded the Fantasy Zone and you need to to get rid of him, which is precisely what you’ve done as we join the action in the middle of the closing credits. This is a such a great example of cosmic psychedelia done in pixels, with these vibrant and intense flames of colour, all sliced up by the sinister and mysterious shape of the Dark Master. Beautiful!
These words you’re reading now are being typed at the precise moment I realised we might need to make this a two-parter! Anyway, we’re heading to the Game Boy Advance now for V-Rally 3 from 2002, and to this day my favourite GBA title. We’re obviously here for a snapshot of its visuals, which were pretty much home console quality at the time, running smoothly in full 3D in either cockpit or from behind mode, but the real joy is in the car handling. To this day I’ve still never played a rally game (and I’ve played a few) that feels as good as this does. Which is why I’m still always playing it! I’m also a sucker for weather effects in racing games, and as I write I’m playing Grid Legends on Xbox Game Pass which is a whole new level (and you can see that in our Weekly Spotlight #51 here), but realism isn’t always everything! We’re talking alpine stage, treacherous roads, mountain views behind the cockpit, which is keeping you nice and cosy despite all of that outside with your fancy gloves on in here, and it’s all got that slushy rain after snow vibe as the weather comes down! I could genuinely pick a dozen scenes from around the world in this game and justify them being included here, but as I said, sucker for the weather!
However long you’ve been playing video games, at some time we’ve all had that moment where we thought graphics can’t get any better than this! I’ve had loads, but the first was early in 1986 by the time it arrived here, and an arcade game by Sega called Space Harrier. It was originally conceived as what would later become After Burner, but ended up with a fantasy setting due to technology restrictions, though you’d have done well to spot any while you were being blown away by this thing! It’s a third-person rail-shooter with no storyline until its sequel, and legend even has it that if you beat stage eighteen it just says “The End” although I’ve never got past stage six! No matter for now though because we’re talking the huge, colour-changing Chinese dragon boss at the end of the first stage! The first thing that hits you from the outset is the speed, and then the panic about the speed and how the hell you’re supposed to avoid all this stuff, let alone shoot back at it, but you’ll quickly be admiring the quirky trees and other bits of deadly landscape until a moment of total calm before this enormous, elongated green thing starts approaching at pace from the far distance, chucking loads of fire your way. Then just as it looks like it’s about to burst out of the screen at you, it majestically turns and heads off before trying again. I’d never seen anything of this scale in a game before, and that’s why it’s stuck with me so much, even if some of the later bosses are, in theory, more technically impressive I guess.
We’ve mentioned a couple of games from my top five favourites of all time on this journey so far, and we’re not done with those yet, but we’ve also got a couple from the top ten, and one of those is Olli and Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle on ZX Spectrum. And I bet that doesn’t appear in the top ten of many top games of all time ever lists! This is an old-school platformer of the highest order, released by Firebird in 1987 at a lovely £1.99 budget price, although I got it as a Christmas present that year from a school friend. The cheapskate! Anyway, this game has just eight screens (and good luck with those!), with you collecting ingredients for a ghost spell to scare off the Americans wanting to buy the castle and ship it over the sea. Considering how much yellow there is on the first couple of screens, the creepy atmosphere is incredible, but you wouldn’t change the colours for the world – all castles should look like that! There’s detail everywhere too, in the backgrounds, the character animation and everything else. Yes, it’s brutal, but I loved it from the minute I set eyes on it that Christmas Eve evening. And it’s all summed up by a wonderful single image of the second screen, with its subtle 3D landings and staircases, beautifully textured portcullises and those slightly less subtle yellow brick walls. And who’d believe quite how cruel that lovely sight can be!
Apart from trying to get a decent shot of that Space Harrier boss we just looked at, everything else we’ve looked at has been sitting waiting in my picture folders, but this one’s a bit more difficult because it’s more of a transition than an individual sight, and that’s the moment you drop from the surface of the Death Star into the trench in Atari’s 1983 3D vector graphics masterpiece, Star Wars. And yes, ideally we’re specifically talking sit-down X-Wing arcade cabinet with the analog yoke! Vector graphics don’t make for great screenshots at the best of times, but there is something timeless about them, and no more so than when they’re dropping you right into the climax of the (proper) first movie, especially with all those voice samples booming out around your head! You start out fighting TIE-fighters before the Death Star looms into view and you’re dragged down to its surface, taking out cannons and stuff, and then the magic happens as the horizon spins and you’re suddenly going in for the final run down this hazardous gulley towards the exhaust port to let loose your one in a million shot down it. And that moment, as you get your bearings and the instruction to use The Force, is one of pure exhilaration! Do remember to use The Force while you’re down there too – nice bonus waiting if you do!
There’s been a couple of those gaming sunsets I love so much to experience already during this journey, and by my reckoning there are at least two more to come, which is also the case for horizontally scrolling shoot ‘em ups, so we’re going to have a look at another one of both now! The original arcade version of P-47: The Phantom Fighter became a bit of a favourite of mine relatively recently when it got an Arcade Archives release on Nintendo Switch, and even more recently as part of the Jaleco Arcade 1 collection for Evercade, but the game itself had already a huge favourite on the PC-Engine for yonks by then. It’s a “celebration of freedom” set in World War II with you flying your Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter plane through eight stages in the skies over eight countries, shooting and bombing and missiling (depending on your current power-up) everything that moves to bring down the Nazis. And it’s stage two of those that we’re interested in here, where I’ve always thought the use of colour is absolutely jaw-dropping, and couple that with loads going on on-screen and at least 7-8 layers of parallax-scrolling clouds going by under the setting sun, and you’ve got a sight that will keep you coming back to the game for that alone. Good luck getting past it though!
In my opinion, the generational leap from 8- to 16-bit was the most dramatic and impressive of them all, particularly, as I was, coming from the ZX Spectrum to the Atari ST! And there was no better way of showing it off at the time than with Defender of the Crown – like Space Harrier earlier, another case of it’s never getting better than this! That said, in retrospect I’ve always maintained that Xenon 2 and The New Zealand Story were the best-looking games on the system, but you can read about that by clicking the links you’ve just seen! Defender of the Crown was originally created by Cinemaware for the Amiga in 1986, and it’s a Middle Ages strategy game where you are fighting for control of England by amassing the biggest armies then using them at the opportune moment against the competing land barons, all while they’re doing the same. There’s sword fights, jousts, romance and Robin Hood to be enjoyed along the way, all in a very cinematic way, but none more cinematic than the incredible castle sieges with rocks being chucked at their dramatic walls by these huge catapults. These were genuinely the most realistic graphics you’d ever seen at the time – like a medieval photo! The colour depth is as exquisite and the castle as spectacular, and I think it does a remarkable job even now of bringing a mostly unexplorable moment in history to literal life.
When we looked at our top ten sights first (but kind of second) time around, I said I could probably put together another top ten using stuff from Super Castlevania IV on SNES alone! And actually, before I came up with Stage IX (or the glitter and gold level as I like to call it) to use here, my initial thought was climbing the ubiquitous Castlevania steps to the final boss with the huge moon behind the castle. Absolutely stunning, and in every Castlevania this sight is an indicator that you’ve nearly made it! As for the rest of this game, it’s my series favourite (assuming I’ve not played Symphony of the Night in the previous 12 months) and I absolutely adore the unique gothic art-style, the sumptuous colours and the sheer imagination – like Silent Hill, I could live there! The game has already put you through the ringer by the time you get to Stage IX, but seeing this unique environment in comparison to everything you’ve been through before it is like a reset, refreshing you for one last push! The ghosts that float up all around the screen are harmless but remind you that in Castlevania all that glitters – and there’s a lot here that does – might not always be gold. What is gold, though, is this little tip – jump on any treasure chest in this level 256 times and you’ll be rewarded with a big hunk of meat to boost your health. It’s all just glorious, and you’re welcome!
Considering my passion for shoot ‘em ups tends to be more vertical than horizontal, it might come as a surprise that Light Force on the ZX Spectrum in 1986 is the only example of the genre here, but I suppose it’s easier to be beautiful from the side than the top! No such problems for this one though, because there’s no better way to view an incredible yellow space jungle! The premise is simply shooting naughty aliens across five levels of asteroid belts, deserts, icy wastelands and factories, as well as our jungle, and it’s undoubtably just about the best example of a vertically scrolling shoot ‘em up on the system! A lot of that is down to the speed and smoothness that everything moves with, and some revolutionary animation too. Amazingly, not a hint of colour clash anywhere either! The moment you appear over the surface of the jungle planet, which is effectively level two, is truly amazing, emerging from the blackness of space onto this bright yellow jungle land, filled with all kinds of huge space flowers and vegetation, and some really great enemies. One of the sights of the Spectrum!
As well as sunsets and Ancient Egypt, I like a nice graveyard in a game too, and we’ve got a couple of those still to come, the first of which is to be found right now in Resident Evil 4, also my number three video game of all time! Like Silent Hill 2 that we encountered in the previous part, I’ve usually got a game of this on the go on one of the PS2 or PS4 or Wii or Switch or Xbox, but the place it’s most at home for me is where I played it first, on the GameCube, but surprisingly, maybe, far more recently than in 2005! You can read about that elsewhere, but I can’t remember any other game having such an immediate or profound impact; it’s got everything I could ever want from a game – looks and sounds, gameplay, story, atmosphere and variety, especially of locations, and while some offer pure exhilaration, this one here is seeing off a load of zombies then suddenly noticing this beautiful old church behind the kind of graveyard you dream of being buried in, with its crumbling memorials and lifeless trees all set off by this perfect dusky sky. I’ve spent ages in this place, just taking in the view. I love it!
I’d never played Thunder Cross before the Konami Arcade Classics Anniversary Collection came to Switch and elsewhere back in 2019. Apart from a very cool layered background scrolling technique and some smart enemy behaviour, it’s the classic horizontal shoot ‘em up from 1988, with multiple weapons and big bosses set over seven stages of sci-fi nonsense, and I really don’t have much more to say about it other than it was a real hidden gem for me to discover on this compilation! It’s the third of those stages that we’re specifically interested in here though, and while we’ve already been treated to some very nice environments so far, this is where that fancy background thing really comes into its own, with this absolutely stunning cloudy sky of fiery reds and oranges, pinks and purples behind this impossibly big boss ship, opening and then closing back in on you as its occupants keep on coming from all over its intricately metallic superstructure. And then in the briefest of moments of respite you suddenly notice that totally gorgeous backdrop one more time before the claustrophobic pummelling begins all over again!
I think with Gauntlet we’re now wrapping up the last of our entries from my top ten games of all time list, though we’ve still got a handful from the top 50, 100, 150, 200…! One day I’ll publish that list here so everyone knows I’m not joking either! Anyway, Gauntlet on ZX Spectrum, which I picked up in early 1987 and has another big backstory you can read elsewhere, is the U.S. Gold port of the Atari arcade game from a couple of years earlier. And as far as Spectrum arcade conversions go, you couldn’t ask for more – it’s all there, and it feels just like Gauntlet, which is a fantasy affair where your choice of up to four characters originally but two on the Spectrum have to cooperate (or not) through a maze filled with absolute hordes of enemies, collecting treasure, potions and food along the way, then finding the exit to the next one. It’s those hordes of enemies that are the subject of our wonderful sight here, which I was a bit loathe to use because it’s hardly the best advert for the game I could have come up with, but is the example I’ve always gone back to, I think from about twelve levels in or thereabouts. There’s loads of different enemies, often all on the screen at once, but it’s when you get a load of monster-spawning generators all lined up at once that I like the most because that’s when you get this huge mass of enemies between you, a tiny doorway and the generators that spew out more monsters than you can possibly shoot to get at them and somehow progress. As hopeless as it seems you do though, and that’s what elevates Gauntlet above its shinier contemporaries like Space Harrier wherever you’re playing it.
I was asked recently about my favourite beat ‘em up, and as we discussed earlier, the answer was instinctively Renegade (Spectrum not stinky arcade version!), but I also mentioned I’d been playing a lot of Alien vs. Predator and Growl recently too, and if I had to choose a top three (assuming Kung-Fu Master doesn’t count) they’d probably be the other two. But then I thought about Streets of Rage 2, so the inevitable agonising over order of preference has been going on ever since, though I suppose if that’s the biggest dilemma in your life then you’re not doing too badly! Anyway, I’ve been playing Streets of Rage 2 since it came out on the Mega Drive in 1992; barely touched the first or third ones mind, but do really love the recent fourth. And in case you’ve been living in a cockerel’s boot, it’s a side-scrolling beat ‘em for one or two players where you’re on a rescue mission through some wild locations all over the city, fighting off waves of equally wild enemies along the way. The third level, based in an amusement park, is where we’re picking up the story here, and before long you end up in the bowels of a pirate ship attraction, which is no Monkey Island but it’s all nice enough, and then you climb outside, and it’s wonderful! I’ve never seen browns pop like this, even in the heyday of the Commodore 64, and there’s lights flickering above the wood-grained decks, and ropes realistically coiled then reaching up from metal clasps to intricate rigging where a ninja, no less, is waiting to pounce! Best of all is what you think are the twinkling lights of the city in the background until you notice they’re scrolling back and forth, and actually belong to one of those painted theatrical backdrops! It might not be my favourite but no amount of Predators can top that attention to detail!
Speaking of favourites, while it might be my favourite console I never owned at the time, the PC-Engine is second only to the Commodore 64 for its rubbish racing games! Actually, it might even be worse because at least the latter could do top-down with passable style! There’s always one exception though, and where the C64 had Buggy Boy, the PC-Engine had Victory Run, a 1987 Paris-Dakar Rally racer by Hudson Soft. I’m not sure if it was the first to be set in that race, but it does have a unique and pretty deep (but not in a car-nerd way) vehicle maintenance system. It’s tough too, but the highlight for me is that it’s also totally unpredictable, which gives it real longevity, even after you think you’ve cracked a stage. The sight we’re looking at now is in the second stage, and is generated by the day-night cycle that accompanies your progress. The look isn’t a million miles from Out Run or a load of other contemporary racers, and actually you’ve had a preview of this sunset effect in the previous stage, but here in the mountains as you head south through France it really comes to life, where this brilliant, solid orange sky appears over the top of heavily tinted clouds. I can only imagine how it looks if you actually make it to Dakar, but until then I’m happy for my game to end around here just about every time I play if I can look at this every time! I was about to announce that’s our last sunset here too, but looking at the three games left to cover I’m not sure it is…
By total coincidence I was messing around on the Amiga A500 Mini last night as I write, and decided to have another crack at Navy Moves, which I have a habit of doing every now and then, either here of late or on my original Atari ST copy, just in case I was wrong about it being an absolute stinker the whole time after all! I never am though. Same for its predecessor, Army Moves… No way past the first level, especially if you suffer from red-black colourblindness, so it’s lucky that’s where we’re headed now! Is it a sunset though? We’ll come back to that, but first, Navy Moves is from Dinamic Software in 1988, and it’s a side-scrolling run and gun adventure where your special forces guy is out to destroy a rogue nuclear submarine by way of an ocean minefield you need to cross in a boat, then make your way through shark-infested caves to get onto the submarine itself where you’ll shoot lots of people before planting a bomb and getting out of there. Except in reality you’ll just float for a couple of seconds, explode on a mine then do it again until you’re out of lives. What a place to do it though! Was there ever a more dramatic setting in a game, with that insane red sky and the most dangerous-looking waves ever put to pixel? One thing’s for sure – it’s the real reason I keep forcing myself back there!
I was always more than happy with my lot as a Spectrum owner, but I’ll openly admit to the three occasions that, as much as I loved my own versions, I still looked on with jealousy and contempt as my best friend played the definitive ones of Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Winter Games and Ghostbusters on his Commodore 64! I mentioned my thing for graveyards a while back, and who’d have believed that this specialist in chunky sprites and colouring everything brown could pull one off so elegantly? This Ghosts ‘n Goblins is, of course, a port of the 1985 Capcom game, with your knight Arthur crossing a supernatural world to rescue his kidnapped princess from the demon king Astaroth. And on the C64 he does this by platforming his way through a more limited but equally brutal selection of stages, filled with hordes of undead to shoot and avoid. It’s crazy hard but crazy good, and is right up there with the best of the C64’s arcade conversions, which is, I know, damning it with faint praise! Like our last game (and, by no coincidence I think we concluded earlier, many of them here before it), we find ourselves on stage one – repeatedly – although this version did actually give you five lives so there was a chance of seeing the forest beyond the graveyard too! You’re alright in this graveyard though, with genius layers of grass punctuating the fetid earth, which you don’t want to think too much about because they just work… Just like the blue fences and gravestones! It’s the zombies that make the scene though – little blobs of pixels that are somehow impossibly transformed into exactly what you remember shambling about in Michael Jackson’s Thriller video a few years earlier! Stupid, sexy Commodore 64!
That was supposed to be the end of our original journey, but as you’ll know if you’ve read the first part, there was a bit of a last-minute, Darius-based conundrum when we were looking at Darius Gaiden, and the decision was to throw this one into the pot as well as a bit of a bonus, so here we are with my favourite in the horizontal shooter series, G-Darius by Taito in 1997. We did review the fairly recent HD remake fairly recently, and that’s the version of the game you saw right at the top of the page here, and is the version you should be playing now, but all the same, the sight that’s stuck with me is the one I saw playing the PS1 version for probably the tenth time (because it’s hard and I’m rubbish!), sometime around 1998. “Warning! A huge battleship Eclipse Eye is approaching fast!” We’re talking the unforgettable first encounter with the iconic giant yellow mechanical broadmouth gibberfish stage one boss! It’s a mass of big metallic polygons, mangled together into this terrifying boggled-eyed, razor-toothed monstrosity, and that’s before it starts unleashing death rays and bullet curtains! The muted psychedelic background doesn’t exactly help alleviate that scary vibe either! While things might, in reality, get more creative and way harder within just a few short stages, if I had to explain why it’s my favourite game in the series then Eclipse Eye would be where I begin!
And with that we’re done. Undoubtedly we’ll be back another time though – already I’m thinking what about some of those incredible space station docking sequences in Elite Dangerous. Or the trippy mineshaft in Dungeons & Dragons nerd-out Secret of the Silver Blades on the Amiga. Or the swimming level in Pirate Pete that’s way better than the one in Jungle Hunt it’s based on. There’s all sorts of sights involving Silk, my bikini-clad fairy love from the Cotton games, who we first met back in the first part of our journey through these wonderful sights. And what about the lovely Morrigan from Darkstalkers… In seriousness, there’s a few sights I can think of across that series, especially the gaudy gothic exuberance of the second game! And there’s a jungle bit from the jungle level in Sonic the Hedgehog on the Master System, and the fancy casino bit at the start of Super Double Dragon on SNES, and the castle through the thorns in that crappy Dragon’s Lair game on PS2, and the boat in the telescope in Symphony of the Night… I’m going to be adding to this list forever! Hardly a chore though, just like putting this together, and I really hope you’ve enjoyed coming with me…
And don’t forget part one if you still haven’t seen that yet!