Game Review: Cyber Shadow – Xbox One

Game Review: Cyber Shadow – Xbox One

I’m not sure I’ll ever both love and hate any game as much as I did 2017’s jaw-droppingly stylish platform adventure Hollow Knight… 50 hours splattered with vicious difficulty spikes, filthy checkpointing and regular loss of everything that constantly had my blood boiling, with two rage-deletes before it kept pulling me back to finish it! Yacht Games’ Shovel Knight did come close though, offering a more focussed but equally polished, equally brutal take on the genre. And here they are again with Cyber Shadow, which sits somewhere in the middle in terms of gameplay experience, and comes even closer in terms of love / hate ratio! This time they’re publishing though, with indie dev Mechanical Head Studios the true sadists behind this genius nearly-NES side-scrolling cyberpunk platformer.

Creator Aarne Hunziker, who actually did pretty much everything here apart from the music, described the game as combining “the level design principles of Mario, the skills and action of Ninja Gaiden, the enemy designs of Contra and the dark visual aesthetic of Batman.” I definitely picked up the Ninja Gaiden vibe from the outset, not just from the ninja you’re leaping about killing stuff as, but also the very slick, almost cinematic way the gameplay feels. I’d also say there’s a strong whiff of Mega Man, especially in the way you progress into boss fights, and Super Metroid, both aesthetically and with some of the backtracking you can do later that makes further progress (marginally!) easier.

The plot begins perfectly lightweight and off-the-wall, with your cyborg ninja exploring the far-distant future of Mekacity to rescue his fallen clan, whose mystical powers are being harvested by nasty synthetic lifeforms. That translates to you fighting your way through ten chapters of varied sci-fi environments in and around the city as the story of the mad scientist, his robot army and your place in everything evolves into something a little more complex, and for better or worse, a lot more so than you’d find in Mega Man!

You start off basic, with your techno-ninja running, jumping and slashing, but as you progress you’ll start to discover and evolve regular genre tropes such as dashes, wall-slides and double-jumps, as well as health and secondary weapon or power lifespan upgrades. The latter are also unlocked as you progress, with a basic shuriken for longer-range combat then being enhanced with additional properties, and also being supplemented by special abilities such as energy bolts or an upward slash that fires poweful flame attacks; these are obtained and selected at most of the checkpoints you come across, in exchange for cash you’ve found on the way, and generally offer something useful for the next section or boss. As a reminder of the game’s cruelty though, take three hits with one of these equipped and you’re losing it!

Speaking of checkpoints and cruelty, once you get to about chapter four, you’re going to die and die and die again before you see the next one! As you might have worked out by now, whether you love it or hate it or both, this game only hates you! As everything naturally gets trickier the further you go, you’re also going to start to see things like robot enemies positioned exactly where you need to be landing, then between you and your landing point there’ll be an electric pit with a floating platform you need to recharge your double-jump on in the middle, but it’s covered in spikes except down one side! And that’s not enough because here come the robot spiders or a beam that’s going to trigger all sorts of homing destruction or just a wave of instant death! If it was just one such obstacle that you need to learn to get perfect at overcoming (because imperfection means instant death) that would be one thing, but increasingly there’s going to be screen after screen of them between you and the next checkpoint. But the most frustrating thing is that even when you know there’s no room for any error, you also always know it’s beatable if you try it enough times!

I think there were two points in the whole game that this frustration got me to the point of quitting though… The first was a huge mechanical dragon boss that you could start to predict fairly quickly, but killing floating robots so they turned into platforms you could use to launch enough attacks from while avoiding the dragon and the electrified water below added a whole new level of challenge. In retrospect, it was just a brilliant piece of punishing boss design, and by the time you’ve worked it out, practiced it to the point of being able to beat it and accepted you just need to be extremely patient with it, you’re going to beat it without losing any energy at all. The final boss turned out to be very similar, albeit with three stages, and the third being a bit more punishing and unpredictable, so you need a few planets to align before eventually beating it!

There were a couple of overly long, crazy difficult platforming sections too, the second of which really had me thinking life’s too short even though it was actually the approach to the final boss! The main problem I had with this one was a reliance on a clumsy pogo-to-double-jump mechanic once you got past a cruel, sprawling platforming ascent that reminded me of the awful sandcrawler section in SNES Super Star Wars! Over several evenings I was able to navigate this part unscathed (or it wasn’t worth continuing anyway), then you emerge into a multi-section ascent involving what is the only imprecise mechanic in an overall very precise experience. It was just horrendous, especially when you finally got within touching distance, only for some otherwise easy robot enemy to take your last bar of health – which, of course, is precisely why it was there! And because the checkpoint was a good ten minutes back, and you know perfectly well it might take another ten attempts before you get close again, it was just soul-destroying! That said, I’ve never felt such relief in a game as when I eventually landed on that checkpoint!

Apart from this though, the difficulty never felt unfair – it was just letting you know you weren’t good enough yet! And new abilities and power-ups generally gave you the crutch you needed to overcome the relentless introduction of new forms of sadism that never stopped right up to that final stage of the final chapter. In the main, checkpoints were just about right too; I was particularly appreciative of how they allowed you to jump straight back into boss fights (something Hollow Knight didn’t do so well). I used that last checkpoint, right before the final boss, so many times over the course of a weekend, though by that point, having got there at all, I was doing it a few goes at a time then having a break and coming back later when I’d cooled down a bit, taking time after each session to also appreciate the visible progress as you cracked the first stage, then the second, then worked out how to do it without taking too much damage so you had a fair shot at the third and final stage. And that final stage, in the game’s final twist of the knife, would have been a tough nut to crack without the other two!

Brutal difficulty is certainly not the only place that Cyber Shadow looks to the NES for inspiration. Graphically, this is the NES game of your dreams! It’s authentic, but it’s like any technical limitations have been removed, so it’s full of NES colour, full of detail and full of stuff that can kill you! I really loved the way it used big black spaces with muted highlights and shadows to invoke a very oppressive atmosphere at points too, and when you notice all that parallax scrolling, or the 8-bit rain coming down on top of it all, it just looks gorgeous! Pretty much the same can be said for Enrique Martin’s cyber-synth soundtrack too, which was noticeably sometimes the only saving grace at some of the game’s more bleak difficulty spikes!

I really loved Cyber Shadow, but I did really hate it too! And I reckon that’s what it was aiming for. I don’t think it’s going to rank as one of my favourite games ever (like Hollow Knight did), but finishing this on Xbox One certainly left me feeling that I’m not as bad at games as I often say I am, and over the course of thirteen hours and almost 1100 deaths I had a wonderful, very NES at its very best time! I know it’s only the first day of March as I write this, and I’ve not given Ghosts ‘n Goblins: Resurrection more than an hour or so yet (because there’s only so much punishment you can take at any one time!), but without doubt the most engaging and simply the best thing – old or new – that I’ve played in 2021 so far!

Top 25 Favourite Gaming Anthems – Part 2

Top 25 Favourite Gaming Anthems – Part 2

Here we be for the final stretch of my Top 25 favourite anthems in gaming, running down the top ten. Just like in our run down from 25 to 11 in part one (here if you missed it), there’s not really any rules, but I’ve definitely favoured sounds coming from the innards of a machine over a recording studio. I’ve also stuck with the versions I know, rather than seeking out the best possible version of anything. Let’s get on then, from number ten…

10. Shadow of the Beast II Game Over Music on Commodore Amiga

I never really got Shadow of the Beast on Atari ST. A lot of side-scrolling wandering about with minimal action then you’d find somewhere interesting and die. Looked and sounded incredible though; actually, at the time, maybe more so than pretty much anything else ever had, which I guess is what sold it to me! The 1990 sequel tried to up the gameplay with more complex combat, conversation systems and some puzzles. Unfortunately they just combined to suck out the last remaining fun that might have been there before! It was way too hard and you were dead before you knew what had hit you, but strangely that might also have been one it’s few saving graces… you saw the game over screen a lot!

This time around I was watching more than playing, on a friend’s Amiga, but I can still hear Tim and Lee Wright’s glorious, haunting title music so I’ve a feeling he might have been too! When he did play though, it wasn’t long before what could be the greatest music in video game history made an appearance! Why’s it at number ten then, I hear you ask? Well, as you might imagine, I’ve agonised over where it should be in this list, and whether or not it should be here at all, because in reality it’s more of an epic sound effect than piece of music – if you take out the fade in and out, you’re left with about 20 seconds. It’s a compromise! We start with a choral synthesiser ambience, then out of nowhere this incredible, echo-drenched soaring sampled lead guitar line makes an all too brief appearance. Listening to it again recently, it puts me in mind of the music you’d get in Miami Vice when one of Don Johnson’s big-haired love interests has just exploded and he’s leaning on a palm tree, staring wistfully out across the ocean. And actually, the more I think about it (and having just spent months watching the Miami Vice box set), I reckon it might have actually been sampled from Miami Vice because it really is that good!

9. Transparent Obstacle From Gauntlet IV on Mega Drive

I have serious form with the Spectrum version of Gauntlet! It currently sits at number nine in my top ten games of all time, after countless hours of play with my brother, starting one Saturday lunchtime in 1987 after we’d made a special trip to town to buy it; I remember every moment that day right up to loading it up and the absolute relief that it really was as good as we’d hyped ourselves (and our very limited pocket money!) up to hope it would be! I often wonder why we were so excited about Gauntlet over anything else in those glory days of the Spectrum, but I assume we’d seen the arcade machine somewhere. Anyway, the expansion pack and the sequel followed, then I wasn’t that impressed with the isometric Gauntlet III and skipped it on Atari ST. Mega Drive Gauntlet IV in 1993 was much more the ticket, combining the gameplay of the original with some RPG elements; the original was included too, which I think was my first time playing the arcade version! It was great but to this day I’d still rather play the Spectrum version, unless I’m in the mood for a bit of music…

Behind all the sampled speech and dungeon mastery sound effects – lifted straight out of the arcade version – we’re also at the very pinnacle of the Mega Drive’s musical capabilities! Hitoshi Sakamoto, Masaharu Iwata, Hal Canon and Earl Vickers’ epic dragon-synth soundtrack is as fine an electronic orchestra performance as you’ll ever hear, and Transparent Obstacle is its absolute climax! Sweeping pads juxtapose the shimmering introduction as the nineties does its best eighties action hero drumbeat, then this pure funk groove kicks in, and before you’ve had your fill of that the main melody comes crashing down on top of it all, leading to all kinds of atmospheric interplay. As good as it ever got on the Mega Drive!

8. Haunted Graveyard From SNES Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts

I’ve always loved this side-scrolling platforming series far more than I was any good at any of it! I was useless at the excellent Spectrum version that I picked up at a service station on the way home from our 1987 summer holiday (more here), but I’d happily play the graveyard section over and over and over… Same with my friend’s gorgeous Commodore 64 port – one of the few games that ever made me jealous of not owning one! I could get a bit further on the Atari ST version of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, where we’re now definitely in just about arcade perfect territory, though the rain drops versus the original’s full on storm were definitely a bit of a disappointment! Since then, I’ve sought out pretty much every version of every game, from arcade to WonderSwan and Arthur to Maximo, but never really got any further than the first stage or two on any of them! Aside from 1991’s Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, which I finally played much more recently on SNES Classic Mini, and something about the double jump combined with my sheer enjoyment of how it looked and sounded drove me on, way into the second stage!!!

Mari Yamaguchi didn’t just create a soundtrack for Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, but pretty much the only soundtrack to Halloween you could ever need! We go from whimsical drama to disturbingly sinister, but everything is just drenched in a joyous creepiness, and screams trashy b-movie in the best possible way! After your damsel gets in distress with the demon that’s run off with her at the start, there’s no better way of instilling a sense of eerie panic than my favourite track (possibly by default as I’ve never really heard much beyond it!) as you travel through the haunted graveyard. It’s actually a relatively simple affair, but the attention to detail is wonderful, using the SNES to expand on Ghost ‘n Goblin’s iconic first level theme, with big Phantom of the Opera organ riffs dressed with orchestral flourishes and an energetic but wickedly subtle bass-line inspiring the horror-filled chase you’re just starting out on.

7. Nemesis the Warlock Title Music on Commodore 64

If I were to list my favourite comic book characters, apart from Dan Dare and Doomlord from Eagle, I think they’d all come from 2000A.D. Actually, let’s have a quick go, in no particular order… Slaine, Rogue Trooper, Judge Dredd, Judge Death, Strontium Dog and, of course, Nemesis the Warlock, because otherwise there’d be no point in any of this nonsense! In a particular order, we’d probably go Judge Death first then Nemesis, then Slaine, then it doesn’t really matter here! Anyway, Nemesis the Warlock is a demonic alien out to free the galaxy from religious nut-job Torquemada’s tyranny. It’s all very swords and sorcery in a sci-fi setting. The 1987 Spectrum game arriving was a huge deal for me, though I think I mostly enjoyed it for being the character and how it looked (despite some interesting colour clash!); the single screen platforming as you shot your way through terminators (no, not those ones!) wasn’t that inspiring. Apart from being able to use their piled-up bodies as new platforms! I eventually got to the Commodore version, but whilst that didn’t even have the art style, it did have a very special title screen!

You’ll have noticed a couple of recurring names as we’ve travelled through this countdown, but as we might just continue to find out, there’s none so recurring as Rob Hubbard! And back on his rightful C64 throne this time too! Here we have what might be his most epic work, clocking in at a whopping seven minutes long! At the very beginning it harkens to the intro to Michael Jackson’s Beat it, but instead of going pop it goes even more ominous with a dense bass drum beat slowly picking up steam and this Tardis-type effect ushering in a militaristic heavy synth melody. About half way through and we’re in full flow, with a new, more high-pitched, more complex melody that puts me in mind of stuff like Devil May Cry where you get style points for how you kill – this is the soundtrack to Nemesis in full slaughter mode! As we approach six minutes, Hubbard’s SID chip magic show is in full effect, with everything going on around each other, interspersed with drum fills and snippets of new melody, which becomes more prominent as the tempo starts to slow and we gradually return to that ominous ambience where it all started. Don’t press fire to start, just stay here forever!

6. Mega Man X Spark Mandrill Stage Theme on SNES

I’m noticing a pattern here – a lot of my favourite sounds are from the games that punish me the most! I’m not sure, but I think Mega Man X was the first Mega Man game I played, and certainly the only one I played when it came out, albeit very briefly on a Super Nintendo demo unit; which would have been 1993 in if I’m right. About 25 years later I’d become a bit obsessed with Mega Man, playing through the original six brutal 2D platformers in the space of about a year, before jumping onto Mega Man X and realising that game I’d had a quick go on in a shop all those years ago was actually my new best friend! As well as a slick new look, you get all mod-cons here, with dashing and sliding and wall-jumps and stuff, but the Mega Man fundamentals don’t change as you take on boss-themed levels that absolutely hate you in any order you like. Interestingly, apart from the much more recent Mega Man 11, I’m still to play any game in the series beyond X. Need to fix that!

I’m not great at dodging, so the electric-themed Spark Mandrill stage is definitely not my favourite (although the boss fight can be one of the easiest), but if you want a good tune it’s the place to go! Setsuo Yamamoto and the team of Capcom musicians came up with some corkers for Mega Man X – you can just feel the love in every track – but this stage’s music just goes the extra mile for me. I think it’s the bass-line, which seems to be made up of strobing electronic drumbeats, that turns it into this intense energy fest, which couldn’t be more fitting! The proper drumbeats themselves are awesome too, with non-stop fills and rolls making sure the intensity never relents, and the multi-layered synth melodies sound like something Iron Maiden would come up with in an alternate dimension! Electrifying, literally!

5. Aquatic Ambience From Donkey Kong Country on SNES

The SNES has been well represented in these parts recently, and now we’re at the very top of that particular tree with one of the few parts of this game that doesn’t involve trees! I would say I’m much more of a Donkey Kong fan than I am a Donkey Kong Country fan… actually, where’s the Donkey Kong music in this list? Anyway, SNES Classic Mini strikes again with this one all the way from 1994, and while I did have a fine old time with it, and have since played through the sequel on Switch and the 3DS games, I can kind of take or leave it. I think it’s all the monkey-folk. Not my bag. I do like a good pre-rendered background though, and I do really, really like the underwater sections!

David Wise was behind most of the DKC soundtrack, and has noted that Aquatic Ambience was its biggest technological achievement, where he created a waveform sequence on the SNES using a Korg Wavestation synth. It really is SNES audio to the limits, but I think it achieves far more than that too; it seems to transcend musical taste – whatever you’re into, this is an absolute masterpiece! The oceanic ambience, the crystal clear melodies and then about halfway this haunting lead-line that’s part guitar, part brass, and wouldn’t go amiss on a saxophone in the middle of some huge Dire Straits ballad on Brothers in Arms. And then it slides back into the murky depths. This is probably the most beautiful piece of music ever made for a video game (if you don’t count Shadow of the Beast 2’s game over sequence)! And it’s all about a monkey riding a swordfish!

4. Skull Man Stage Theme From Mega Man 4 on NES

First two Robocops, now two Mega Men, and even more sonic treats from something else that hurts you so bad! And who would have thought the humble NES would out-anthem its successor here too! Of all the Mega Mans, my heart lies with Mega Man 2 – it just has an extra bit of magic that I’ve never really been able to quantify! But of all the Mega Man bosses, Skull Man from 1991’s (or two years later in Europe) Mega Man 4 is the man! My Mega Man Official Complete Works encyclopaedia implies that a lot of this game’s bosses resulted from player submissions to come up with new ones, and the developers liked this guy so much too that they completely scrapped then redesigned the level he was originally intended for. Anyway, apart from a charge shot and a Russian bad guy, it’s familiar territory as you action-platform your way through eight punishing boss-themed levels in the order of your choice. It’s a very good Mega Man!

Minae Fujii’s soundtrack to Mega Man 4 is extensive and inspired, which is also familiar territory for the series on NES and way beyond! There’s an incredible density and vibrancy to all of the robot boss stage themes here, but I also want to make special note of the fantastic urgency in the level select music too – come on, make your choice, doesn’t really matter… Skull Man’s theme isn’t just my favourite because he is, but it goes to so many places, and as a result gets so much out of the NES! And once they simply couldn’t get any more out, they’ve just added a bit more at the end of the part where it should have been so you know that was the intention! The main riff is a real earworm, all electronic brass, but there’s always so much more going on with it and around it, from the relentless high-speed bass-line and chip-tune blast-beats trying to keep up as they throw in a roll or a fill, to the occasional haunting pipe melody reminding you you’re fighting your way through a literal boneyard! It’s like each element is looking at each other as it’s playing saying right, your turn, now your turn, okay, now top this, now let’s do that bit again but together this time! The only thing that would make this better is lyrics about Skull Man on top… Now there’s a project!

3. Ghostbusters Theme on Commodore 64

I’m not sure any game’s title screen made my jaw drop as much as this one did in 1984, and it was a double whammy! First what might have been the first sampled speech I ever heard shouting “Ghostbusters” (and if you’ve ever heard it I can guarantee you’re hearing it again now!) and then some actual real life music that you’ve heard in the movie or seen on Top of the Pops is actually playing on your computer. Or my friend’s C64 in this case! The game remains pretty much unique, and is absolutely faithful to the movie, with you buying your ghostbusting equipment then patrolling the streets of New York from a map view, then when you spot a ghost infestation you’re top down in Ecto-1, sucking up rogue ghosts on the way (if you bought the right gear) until you arrive at the haunted building. Now your setting your trap, positioning your two guys and teasing the ghost above it without crossing the streams, then when it’s near enough you unleash the trap and get your reward. As the city’s paranormal activity rises (together with your bank balance) you’ll eventually meet the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and head for the big Zuul climax. As you can tell, I could talk about this game all day – it remains one of the best movie licenses ever made, and I still play through it on both C64 and Spectrum regularly. And I still absolutely love it!

Back to the title screen, and we’re back to that incredible SID chip rendition of Ray Parker Jr.’s incredible Ghostbusters theme by Russell Lieblich. It’s a complete – albeit marginally slower – recreation of the seven-inch single, and just so you can be sure of that, there’s a little ball at the bottom of the screen bouncing along the lyrics at all the right times so you can sing along. It might not have had the very first sampled speech (Sinistar, right?), but I reckon it’s the first in-game karaoke! It may not be the most complex C64 tune of all time, but the attention to detail more than makes us for that. Every element is 100% recognisable, and each has its own take on every nuance in the song; when you get to bits like the “bustin’ makes me feel good” part, you’ll have a huge grin on your face over and over as you appreciate what he’s done here. That said, I have a huge grin on my face every time regardless, from the moment the spooky, wobbly melody of the song’s introduction starts, and only fractionally less so than the first time I heard it and realised what was going on! The very best thing, though, is that once you get into the game proper, it’s on an infinite loop, and nothing is better than infinite Ghostbusters!

2. Divine Bloodlines From Castlevania: Rondo of Blood on PC-Engine

My beloved Castlevania meets my beloved PC-Engine! Stuff like Ghosts ‘n Goblins might have made me want a Commodore 64 from time to time, and that Amstrad CPC version of Chuckie Egg might have even made me raise an eyebrow in that weird direction once or twice, but I never lusted after any machine like I did the exotic, unattainable PC-Engine! And as a Japanese exclusive on there, that made 1993’s Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (or Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo) even more unattainable! It was soon reimagined as Dracula X on SNES, though it took the PlayStation 4 double-up with Symphony of the Night for me to get my hands on the original version. A couple of years later I’d finally get them on the official Japanese version too, albeit on the wonderful PC-Engine Mini console rather than original hardware. But near enough at last! And after Splatterhouse, it would be the second game I’d complete on there, as well as be the last classic Castlevania I hadn’t previously played through. Super Castlevania IV on SNES is still the best though!

Castlevania’s soundtracks are crammed with standout tracks, full of intensity, tension and richly atmospheric gothic drama. Symphony of the Night has a good shout for the greatest video game soundtrack of all time. Super Castlevania IV is a game world I’d happily retire to, and that’s down to its atmosphere, and that’s mostly down to its soundtrack. Bloodlines on Mega Drive was another groundbreaker on that system. But nothing says Castlevania to me more than Rondo of Blood’s soundtrack, and on there, the all-too-short Stage 1’s Divine Bloodlines (or Blood Relations of Heaven and Earth, translated from the original Japanese) by Akira Souji says it the loudest! We begin with a tight guitar lick that’s always reminded me so much of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes, as the main song kicks in after the piano intro! From there, drums and keyboards kick you into the perfect rocking electronic guitar soundtrack with a simple riff that somehow perfectly complements everything burning behind you, then some sweeping synths emerge and your suddenly hearing the theme to an epic eighties American soap opera – something classy like Dynasty mind! The guitar riff brings you back down to Earth and the undead skeletons lobbing beer barrels at you, accompanied by an almost Doors-like haunted keyboard track that slowly introduces this gorgeous lead keyboard solo as orchestral strings crash across everything. Then the bassline that’s been hammering in the background suddenly wants a piece of the action too, and launches you back into the main riff and even more vampiric interplay. It’s just so rich and textured and brilliantly produced, and keeps the world burning so brightly.

1. Commando Theme on Commodore 64

No game says C64 to me more than vertically-scrolling run and gun Commando (more here). I first played it on my friend’s machine when I still thought it was about the ultra-cool Arnie movie I wasn’t allowed to watch that also came out in 1985! I’d also been well hyped by the big double-page adverts (my absolute favourite game adverts ever too!) in Computer & Video Games magazine, complete with what I think are hand-painted screenshots! Anyway, despite no Arnie, it didn’t disappoint. Some time later I played the Spectrum version a hell of a lot more, and it was a great version, but it wasn’t the same; and I’m not only talking about the weird colours! Actually, for pure gameplay the Spectrum was better because you had to hit space on the keyboard to throw grenades on the Commodore, but a flick of the joystick would do it on the Spectrum, and that made a big difference. But anyway, it wasn’t the same, and neither were the later 16-bit versions or even the arcade version when I finally played that about thirty years later, because it turns out a lot of the experience was down to the C64 music!

Since the very moment I first heard Rob Hubbard’s Commando theme, it’s been my favourite music in any game ever! It’s an astounding, greatly enhanced, more complex version of the original arcade music, which he famously put together in less than twelve hours! He did a lecture where he talks about getting invited to Elite’s offices, so he gets on a train from Newcastle to Birmingham that same afternoon and when everyone else goes home, he’s left on his own there. After one listen to the original arcade music, he did an all-nighter, and by the time everyone else arrived back for work the next morning he had the C64 music playing on every machine in the office. Then he was given his cheque and was on a train home by 10! What he did to manipulate the C64’s three “voices” here is nothing short of black magic; it’s like getting Elite to run on a BBC B – not possible but there it is! The level of intensity in this military rave surely comes from loads more stuff than that going on at once! It all sounds like black magic too – apart from the electronic tom-toms and a relatively grounded bass-line driving it all along, the insanely complex set of main melodies are just terrifying sci-fi trance waveforms dancing around each other like maniacs! Then about half way through this sonic heart attack, everything goes crazy high-pitched, and just as you think your ear-holes are going to explode, for a brief second if relents and you think you’re safe as what might be identified as the melodic ringleader by now makes its return, only to be instantly replaced again by this high-pitched cacophony, which gradually turns into an exotic solo and we all go again! There’s just so much going on here that it can’t contain its own energy, and somehow that ends up amplifying the gameplay on the Commodore 64 version more than on any other machine. And some of that energy jumped right into my thirteen year-old soul back in 1985 and cemented itself as my number one favourite anthem in gaming ever!

Obviously, there’s stuff I’ve missed, even from my limited pool of gaming experience. There’s a few things particularly that jump out, but I’ve just not heard enough of them for them to have stuck yet… I’m not a big Michael Jackson fan (though he’s now had two mentions here), but I remember stopping and listening to the Moonwalker arcade game rendition of Smooth Criminal and thinking it was incredible. I am a very big Airwolf fan, and actually persevered with the famously difficult Spectrum version far more than it deserved, but if you want the theme music, you want the Commodore version; unfortunately they upped the difficulty even more here by also making it absolutely appalling to control, making it effectively unplayable. There’s also the similarly unplayable (for the same reasons) The Last V8 on Commodore 64, which features yet another Rob Hubbard classic, but you’ll never hear more than 20 seconds of it before game over!

I could very easily do a top Castlevania anthem list, such is the consistent quality of soundtracks in that series, but I tried to pick the absolute best of the best of most things in this list to keep it relatively varied, only repeating a couple of times where games might have the same subject matter but were different beasts on different systems. Similar for Mega Man and Thunder Blade especially. Likewise, I could have picked stuff from Shadow of the Beast rather than the sequel, and I could easily have picked the theme from that too. Then there’s probably stuff deep in a load of space shooters or run and gun platformers that I have got but will simply never be good enough to deserve to know about! Oh yeah, Robocop and Cybernoid 2 on C64 – just forgot about them!

Anyway, unlike a lot of my favourite things lists that I can usually put together in minutes or even seconds, this one turned into several months of very enjoyable thought and recap as I looked at my history in gaming in a whole new light, so while it might not be 100% comprehensive and will no doubt evolve over time, I’ve had an absolute blast doing it and definitely recommend the exercise to anyone else!

Top 25 Favourite Gaming Anthems – Part 1

Top 25 Favourite Gaming Anthems – Part 1

For someone whose life is so occupied with music, it often surprises me that I’ve generally had so little interest in game soundtracks! Now, of course I might appreciate them while I’m playing, but apart from a couple of listens to the Castlevania: Symphony of the Night soundtrack and a bit of Thunder Force now and again, I don’t think I’ve ever gone out of my way to listen to any in-game music.

That’s also not to say I don’t have favourite pieces of gaming music (despite owning a ZX Spectrum for much of my formative gaming life!) and that’s why we’re here and now! I’ve been thinking about this for a good few months, after seeing a couple of gaming soundtrack best-of videos on YouTube. Not really any rules, but I’ve definitely favoured sounds coming from the innards of a machine over a recording studio. I’ve also stuck with the versions I know, rather than seeking out the best possible version of anything. We’ve also split the whole thing in two because I didn’t quite anticipate its epic nature until about a quarter through, but that also builds up the suspense and gives you something to look forward to! But apart from that, this is what I’ve thoroughly enjoyed coming up with so far, starting at 25 all the way to 11…

25. Fear of the Heavens From Secret of Mana on SNES

I only got to Secret of Mana – originally released in 1993 – for the first time playing through everything that the SNES Classic Mini had to offer when that came out, and not being a JRPG connoisseur it got shoved right to the back of that queue, meaning my history with it is very recent at the time of writing. Also not being a JRPG connoisseur, my play-style possibly meant I wasn’t making life as easy for myself as I might (more here), but I eventually got hooked on the grind and completed it, and at the very least got to experience its wonderful soundtrack as originally intended!

This is actually the title music to Secret of Mana, kicking off a masterful soundtrack by Hiroki Kikuta, but I think it only really got its claws into me when it appeared again in the game itself when I found the Mana Tree. We’re starting our list here with something simple, but for the most part beautifully haunting too (but don’t worry, we’ll soon change that!). Just an electronic piano kind of melody with occasional flourishes from a cymbal, then a a melodic bassline takes over as some very electronic woodwind provides harmonies, then it ups the ante a bit for a brief combined climax before heading back to calm. A nice reflection of the game itself!

24. Splatterhouse 3 Title Theme on Mega Drive

You didn’t think it was going to stay all fairy-nerd for long did you? This is more like it, when Splatterhouse mixed things up by going all Streets of Rage! I love this series, and the original side-scrolling gore-fest is one of the few arcade games I’ve ever completed; the PC-Engine version is also one of my favourite arcade conversions. We then get to more of the same with Splatterhouse 2 on the Mega Drive, and it feels right at home there, but 1993’s Splatterhouse 3 didn’t just add new dimensions to the violence, but also to the gameplay as a whole, being a far more non-linear affair. And that possibly makes it the best game in the series… Mmmm, not sure about that thinking about PC-Engine… We’ll come back to that!

Eiko Kaneda’s whole soundtrack here is classic horror b-movie, and the when this song kicks in on the title screen you know exactly what you’re in for! After an intro that mainly serves what’s happening on the screen behind it, we start out proper, right in Munsters territory, with spooky haunted house melodies gradually joined by some gentle percussion and overlapped with a shifting, more complex and more electronic melody (and occasional very Doom-like monstrous sound effects). By the end it’s transitioned to something very upbeat, which strangely you’ll have barely noticed happening, though that might be down to the insane strobe effects complementing the title image going on throughout!

23. Xenon Sector One on Atari ST

Apart from what’s right at the top, this track was one of the first things that came to mind when I started thinking about this list. The Bitmap Brothers were absolute groundbreakers in sheer graphical and audio polish when they launched with this most metallic-looking ever vertically-scrolling shooter appeared in 1988, and that never stopped through Speedball, both sequels, Gods, The Chaos Engine, maybe some of the later stuff I never really played… Xenon 2 remains one of my very favourite ST games, though that’s more to do with that incredible organic aesthetic it has than “Music by Bomb the Bass” as proudly emblazoned on the box – not my cup of tea!

In terms of music though, the original Speedball title music is narrowly pipped here by the similar vibe, but just more bombastic first-level music of the original Xenon. They’re both by the incredibly prolific David Whittaker, whose stamp can be found all over eighties and nineties gaming! This one is all synth multi-melodies and harsh stabby string things over this Euro-disco rhythm that simply shouldn’t work – especially when the stabs completely intentionally drop slightly out of time – but it’s all just right!

22. Metal Squad From Thunder Force IV on Mega Drive

I love the Thunder Force games – gorgeous multi- or just side-scrolling, weapon-switching space shooters that I think I’ve mostly experienced backwards, from Thunder Force V on PlayStation to IV then III on Mega Drive to AC (an arcade port of III) on Switch, then most recently Thunder Force II back on the Mega Drive! It’s a toss up betwen IV and AC as to where my favourite lies, possibly for no other reason that I’ve played them both the most – along with Road Rash II, they are both my regular football half-time games depending on which room I’m watching it in! Thunder Force IV is an absolute stunner, with some incredible parallax scrolling, but in reality doesn’t add much in gameplay terms, and that’s absolutely okay!

The soundtrack by composer Takeshi Yoshida is among the strongest on the Mega Drive too, and not just because it must be among the most complex to ever come out of that FM sound chip, but it’s probably the most metal too! If you listen to the whole thing you’ve got about an hour and a half of jaw-dropping creativity, but we’re stopping here at Stage 8 for an incredible piece of space-thrash, where layer upon layer of pure metal energy emerges on top of this pulsing bassline and high-octane drumbeat. If Judas Priest called up Dragonforce and said let’s make some Mega Drive music, it would sound like this!

21. Hard Road From Arcade Super Hang-On

One of the few benefits of not having regular exposure to arcades in the eighties was that by the time the my Atari ST came along, as far as you could remember (if you were lucky), most arcade conversions were pretty much arcade perfect! Star Wars, Operation Wolf, Pac-Land, Bubble-Bobble, Championship Sprint… Loads of them! With Super Hang-On, it’s really not far off either, with everything intact except maybe for a bit of pace and some graphical fidelity, and it was on the Atari ST that I first came to properly appreciate the soundtrack, even if that turned out to be a little less impactful than the original too, which I’ve more recently enjoyed on PlayStation 3 and 3DS.

It might not be as magical as its sibling, Out Run, but the four tracks by Katsuhiro Hayashi and Koichi Namiki that you get to choose from at the start of each race in Super Hang-On absolutely scream out arcade game music circa 1987! Hard Road has always been my go-to track regardless of platform, with pacey rock drums supporting a lead-guitar-like bassline and an increasingly intense (dare I even say prog at its heady heights!) keyboard track, that in its defence mostly veers between eighties b-movie theme and early Spandau Ballet in its some of its chord changes. I’ve just described the best song ever…

20. Big Blue From F-Zero on SNES

When I bought my launch day Game Boy Advance, I also got my first exposure to legendary space race series F-Zero – sitting on a toilet in the Milton Keynes hotel room I was staying in for a work night out because that’s where I could get the most light onto its pitch-black screen! That was Maximum Velocity, and I’d later work my way through later GBA releases, then GX on the GameCube and finally back to where it started in 1990 on the SNES, or for me the later Classic Mini variant.

It doesn’t take long for you to get to the original F-Zero Big Blue theme. You’ll know it because for a second you’ll think you’ve reached the final boss on some insane bullet-hell shooter instead of beginner track number two! I often think this course was all about showing off colour on the SNES, and I reckon composers Yumiko Kanki and Naoto Ishida wanted to deliver the the audio equivalent with this. Electronic drama, an impossible bass-line and enough melody for a dozen bonkers eighties cartoon soundtracks!

19. Warhawk on Commodore 64

Warhawk is very nearly a very forgettable vertically-scrolling shooter from 1986, just like a hundred other budget tiles from the time. It’s generic, it’s hard as nails, and is one of those games that we all took a punt on because it was only £1.99, but that was also all the money you had in the world and it just became an object of regret! Except this one had the most incredible music!

One name is synonymous with C64 music – Rob Hubbard! He was truly at one with the machine’s SID chip; its sonic cyborg! And this track won’t be the last time we’ll hear from him in this list… Stripped back melodies alternate with supernatural synthesiser ambience before launching into this epic, complex, driving fist-pounder, then doing it all over again. It’s a shame the gameplay itself didn’t offer similar peaks to complement its troughs! It’s also a shame that whilst the title track also plays while you’re playing, you won’t hear most of it because it’s sharing the same chip as the sound effects, and that fire button is also going to be taking a pounding!

18. Robocop 3 Title Music on SNES

The original Robocop, which I loved on both Spectrum then Atari ST, was a masterclass in polished, varied, fun movie tie-ins. I wasn’t so keen on the sequel, which just tried a bit too hard and was less fun as a result, and less fun can also be used to describe the third instalment from 1992, but that’s now down to it being way too hard… and then it made you start from the beginning every time either the difficulty or the dubious collision detection killed you! In its defence it’s got a great look, but once you get past the title screen there’s not a lot else to recommend it!

If this was a list of the best NES music, Jonathan Dunn’s Robocop 3 title music on there would be at the top. This version is not my favourite SNES music (and not even my favourite Robocop music!), but it’s certainly an unmatched take on this amazing song, and certainly has the most accomplished rhythm section you’ll ever hear in a game! Moody guitar licks layer on top of each other, with subtle but complex synth melodies adding colour to, er, panpipes, but don’t worry – it all works, and it all screams Robocop!

17. Gotham City Street From Batman on Mega Drive

The world went Bat-crazy in the summer of 1989 for Tim’s Burton’s uber-stylish Batman movie. The Bat was everywhere, and Prince’s iconic soundtrack wasn’t far behind! Batman: The Movie came out on everything 8- and 16-bit in 1989, was equally stylish and didn’t just give you some fighting goons across platforms, but you also got to drive the Batmobile and fly the Batwing (and play a Bat-version of Mastermind). The Atari ST version especially blew me away, but it was no Prince to listen to! A year later, the NES got its own game that was very much its own thing, then once Nintendo’s strangehold on the license expired, the Mega Drive got something far closer to the plot of the movie. It looks really nice, but is distinctly average in its sub-Castlevania platforming and side-scrolling shooter sections, and although you can beat it in 45 minutes, you probably won’t!

The very first level, Gotham City Street, sees you simply beating people up from left to right, but while the action here is a bit sparse, you’ll be thankful for the lack of interruptions to Naoki Kodaka’s beautiful piece that accompanies you (especially when the rain kicks in and demands that bit more atmosphere). Some big drum hits instantly set the drama as these almost siren-like synth sounds start to weave you around what would surely have been the best Batman cartoon theme song ever, then the drums start filling and accentuating, and these wonderful chord changes bring you back around and it’s all over way too soon!

16. Mega Turrican Stage 1-2 on Mega Drive

My history with Turrican begins with the February 1991 Zero magazine dual-format Atari-ST and Amiga cover disc, and in yet another decisive victory over the Amiga, a Turrican II demo that only worked on the ST! And it gave you 99 lives for very good reason because if you escaped the level with half of them intact you were doing very well! As we’re discussing music though, if I was stuck with only the ST or Commodore 64 versions I’d be happy taking either Turrican II soundtrack here! By 1995, Super Turrican 2 on the SNES was a different matter, all well-balanced shooting and grappling and some less well-balanced Mode 7 effects! The first level features some absolutely stunning backdrops too, with the wrecks of these old galleons atmospherically rotting away against a desert sunset! I got to 1993’s Mega Turrican on the Mega Drive much later, which is another graphical stunner that plays great, with huge levels full of secrets and huge enemies, weapon upgrades and a sci-fi twist on Sonic the Hedgehogs spin-dash!

There’s little that this game does wrong, especially in the music department! Chris Huelsbeck’s synth-rock soundtrack clocks in at an hour, and the craftsmanship never relents, but you’re getting the best first, with the intro, then the first stage, and then when you’re wondering where it can possibly go next, Stage 1-2 comes along and blows you away! If Nick Kershaw had stuck some words over this ten years earlier it would be on every hits of 1983 compilation ever, with its painfully catchy melodic interplays over those seminal Mega Drive drums driving your attention. It’s simply Turrican in song form!

15. Central Park Music From The Last Ninja 2 on Commodore 64

Winter Games was the first thing that really blew me away on Commodore 64 – those trees! It took a couple more years to get to The Last Ninja, but that did it all over again – those flowers! It wasn’t always as good to play as it was to look at (or listen to), but all the same, this was eighties ninja obsession being acted out in the palm of your hand (by your joystick) – who needed to rent American Ninja 2: The Confrontation by the time this appeared alongside it in 1987? Well, luckily someone did or we’d never have got all the way to number five!

What’s incredible about the soundtrack here is how much music maestro Matt Gray got out of so little memory! There’s about an hour’s worth of deep, expertly composed and bewilderingly polished audio in six distinct stage themes and one for the final boss, and it’s all in about 40K of data! The Central Park music starts ominous – like a John Carpenter horror theme – then so much texture comes out of nowhere, climaxing in a classic action-hero melody that meanders into this atmospheric extended drum break and back into classic slasher territory before going even more action-hero than before! I can’t remember the theme to American Ninja, but I really hope it sounded just like this!

14. Agent X Title Music on ZX Spectrum (and the 48K one no less!)

We’re now on sacred ground, with my number 12 favourite game of all time (more here)! Never did £1.99 provide such quality and attention to detail from such variety, as you took your Bond-type character through four stages of multi-load heaven! First it’s isometric driving, then a side-scrolling beat ‘em up that slightly numbs the pain of the Spectrum Kung-Fu Master horror show, then it’s indoor Operation Wolf before chasing off the dastardly villain Airwolf-style but with sensible difficulty! I love this game now as much as I did in 1987 (to the point I had to interrupt writing this until I’d completed it again).

If you locked Brian Wilson away with a 48K Spectrum and one-too-many packets of Chewits, the Agent X title music is probably what he’d have come up with! This impossible polyphonic rave by Tim Follin simply shouldn’t exist on a Spectrum! The 128K Spectrum might have had all the sounds – including some marvellous stuff in the less than marvellous Agent X II – but I can’t think of any original Spectrum music that came close to this for originality, for sucking the machine’s sonic capabilities dry, or for sheer bonkers-ness. Absolute genius!

13. Robocop Title Music on Game Boy

At this point I’m wondering if any other top 25 gaming anthems list ever has ever approached its halfway point with a 48K Spectrum game followed by something on the Game Boy? Maybe more likely there’s been one with two Robocop games in it though, because everyone knows that Robocop is the best music! Anyway, Game Boy Robocop came out in 1990 and isn’t quite as brutal as other Robocops we’ve already talked about here, but being a conversion of a late-eighties arcade machine, isn’t far off! It’s a side scrolling gun ‘em up with occasional first-person hostage rescues, and it’s no Operation C, but it’s alright.

As hauntingly beautiful as it is (yes, we’re still talking Game Boy!), I’m not entirely sure why this title music by Jonathan Dunn (remember him from the other Robocop?) exists – it’s not only pretty much hidden away on a niche handheld game on a screen that’s gone in the click of the Start button, but it’s also completely at odds with anything to do with Robocop! This is a lesson in melancholic composition that is somehow perfectly at home on this ridiculous audio output, creating far more raw sound than it has any right to! It also turns out to be perfectly at home on home appliance adverts and well-known rap songs, but you can’t carry them around in your pocket!

12. Pacific Coast From Mega Drive Road Rash

As we already discussed, Road Rash II on Mega Drive is what I’d describe as my gaming comfort food. Road Rash is a series I knew from the outset, but could take or leave until relatively recently – I think it was playing the original game for the first time on Master System in about 2017 that properly converted me. It’s an incredible technical feat even if it’s not massively challenging for a very long time. But I loved it, and migrated to the Mega Drive version, then everything the PlayStation had to offer (which is mostly soulless in comparison despite some wonderful licensed alt-rock sounds), then back to the third instalment on the Mega Drive which was great until I got to number two on the wonderfully curated Mega Drive Mini and it just absolutely clicked for me.

There’s some great music in all three Mega Drive Road Rashes, especially the gothic Knight Rider vibe of the Redwood Forest course in the 1991 original, but even that mystifying concept is narrowly surpassed by the sublime intensity of Pacific Coast in the same game. The complex rhythms; the dramatic melodies; the high-speed pan pipes being overtaken by this haunting guitar-thing… oh, the intensity! If you’re going to punch a fellow motorcyclist in the head, you want to be doing it with this on your Walkman! Oh yeah, it’s by C64’s best-known musician Rob Hubbard too. Don’t tell those Commodore fans!!!

11. Magical Sound Shower From Arcade Out Run

Yes, you’re reading that right – eleven not one! Out Run completely upped the ante for video games when it was unleashed in the arcades in 1986. Nothing else looked like it, sounded like it, played like it, or was quite so exotic, exhilarating and aspirational! I wrote about my favourite sights in all of gaming here, and the moment where the coastal highway spreads out into six lanes near the start of Out Run easily tops the list. It’s just stunning! No surprise it’s also one of my favourite games ever (even more here), but what might be a surprise given how rubbish at games I generally am is that I’m actually quite good at it too – every route on pretty much every version now! Only took 35 years of practice…

Before every race you’re tuning in your radio to choose from what’s still one of the most iconic soundtracks to any game ever – Passing Breeze, Splash Wave and, of course, Magical Sound Shower. (You’ve also got post-race Last Wave later too). Composer Hiroshi Kawaguchi has tied everything together with a kind of Latino-Calypso feel, part rock and part jazz, but all feel-good! They’re all to love too, but I’m going with Magical Sound Shower just because it can transport me right back to the mid-eighties just a little bit quicker than the others! If Miami Sound Machine had written the theme to Miami Vice it would sound exactly like this, and if you were driving down that coastal highway in a Ferrari with your hot girlfriend by your side, there’s no other track you’d want to have blaring out of your cassette player! That said, my wife just walked by as I’m listening to it and said that’s the most irritating music she’s ever heard! Maybe she’s more of a Splash Wave girl…

Anyway, as we exit that glorious coastal highway we conclude our journey for now, and look forward to the next instalment where we count down the top ten.

My Life With… Resident Evil 4 – Nintendo GameCube

My Life With… Resident Evil 4 – Nintendo GameCube

On the 1st August 1996, I was a couple of months into a five year career working for an electronic components distributor in the glamourous town of Leighton Buzzard. As well as being notable for rampant inbreeding (so a bigger boy told me!), it’s also known for the Great Train Robbery and actor Rusty Goffe, who was a Jawa and several other similarly-sized things in a film called Star Wars, though many of us will be more familiar with his work as The Canary Dwarf, Britain’s bounciest weather man, on the sadly defunct Live TV’s Topless Darts. None of that is relevant whatsoever here, except there wasn’t anywhere to buy games in Leighton Buzzard, so I had to call in to Toys R Us in Bedford on the way home to buy Resident Evil, because that was the day it came out here and I needed it immediately!

And there begins my rather disfunctional history with Resident Evil. There was never any question of me getting it the instant it came out – the violence, the realism, the zombies… It was going to be the best game ever! And for quite a long time, I absolutely loved it. Wandering around the best spooky mansion since Scooby Doo, shooting stuff in the face to that epic soundtrack, the first (and still one of the greatest) jump scares in a video game was all fantastic. But there was this ridiculous inventory system, and I kept finding all these items that I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in working out what to do with. Then Wipeout 2097 came out and Destruction Derby 2 and Twisted Metal 2 and WWF in Your House and Legacy of Kain, and then it had no chance of being the best game ever!

That didn’t stop me going through exactly the same process with its sequel a couple of years later though! Or Resident Evil 3: Nemesis in 1999, though in my defence having just played Remake on PS4, I reckon I was most of the way through that one when I ditched it! When I got a GameCube at the end of 2001, more than enough time had passed to justify getting its shiny new remake of the original, as well as Code: Veronica and Zero as a bit more time went by!

I think I just liked the idea of Resident Evil more than actually playing it! And that’s partially behind my decision not to buy Resident Evil 4 the day it came out, or, indeed, for about thirteen years afterwards (when I’d then sit on it for a couple more). For all the hype the game was getting ages before it came out in 2005, to me it just wasn’t Resident Evil – I was interested in zombies, not crazed Spaniards in mud huts. Even if one of them had a chainsaw and a bag on his head! I really was the worst hardcore Resident Evil fan ever! Anyway, I didn’t like how it looked in screenshots either – all that brown was like playing on a Commodore 64 all over again! I just wasn’t interested, no matter what the reviews said, ironically echoing all that best game ever stuff I’d had in my head when I handed over my money for the first game.

Before deciding I was finally going to play through Resident Evil 4 on the GameCube over Christmas 2020, there’s a bit more history to add. I finally played through the remaster (such as it is) of the original on PS4 a couple of years before that, prompted by being lent a copy of Resident Evil 7 and thinking I can’t play the new one without at least a refresh after all those years, particularly after it had been free one month with PlayStation Plus. And lo and behold, this time something was clicking here, no doubt down to the patience that comes with age; or more likely getting less good at just shooting stuff! I finished it then immediately dived into Resident Evil 7, and being decades beyond all about my aforementioned misplaced loyalty to the original games, loved the tense Texas Chainsaw vibe of the first two-thirds before it get a bit more mundane and unnecessarily dragged-out towards the end. Then I went back to my original PS1 disc, this time on the PS3, then the same with the original sequel before playing the absolutely brilliant Resident Evil 2 Remake on PS4 in 2019, followed by the less brilliant but – in my opinion at least – fun all the same Resident Evils 5 and 6 on Nintendo Switch. And through all of this, my impulse (i.e. cheap) eBay pick-up from some time over the last few years, Resident Evil 4, still sat there unloved next to my GameCube; and also next to a to-this-day equally unloved copy of Zelda: Wind Waker, but that will be another story!

In summary, aside from two GameCube games, we’re now caught up in the series to a respectable level at least, having at the time of writing in January 2021 literally just finished the also absolutely brilliant Resident Evil 3 Remake on PS4, so that makes it time to talk about its sequel! And would you believe that for all the years of first having an aversion to it, then having complete indifference to it, Resident Evil 4 has now had a remarkable impact on me and my long history in gaming.

We could go all the way back to way before the start of our tale here when the first one came out, and if you’d asked me what my favourite games were, without any hesitation whatsoever I’d have said Feud on the Spectrum, Kick Off on Atari ST and Renegade, also on the Spectrum and not that arcade version with its weird controls. And whilst my favourite games list has got much bigger, after all these years the bit at the top has never changed… And then we get to about halfway through Resident Evil 4, and this voice in my mind-brain starts telling me that this 15-year old imposter might actually be my favourite game ever, however outrageous that was sounding and however much I genuinely didn’t want to hear it! I mean, Silent Hill 2 (more here) entering the top ten not that long ago was bad enough – poor old Elevator Action – but now we’re talking about complete disruption to a load more things that have been not only been even more deeply pondered over, but have also been even more utterly sacred for so long…

It ended up at number three; nothing will ever top Feud and Kick Off! What’s even more shocking, though, is that it ended up there after such strained beginnings! By the time we got here, right at the end of 2020, having been through all those Resident Evils and developed a proper affection for what the series actually is – even if affection was all it was – I really wanted to get stuck into this. I duly inserted tiny little GameCube Disc 1 (which thankfully has you covered until the final chapter), pressed start and got into the opening Umbrella and its misdemeanours in 1998 recap; jump to six years later and returning hero Leon Kennedy is in “rural Europe” looking for the American President’s missing daughter, who was kidnapped by a strange cult just before he started an assignment to protect her. Someone’s spotted someone that looks like her, so here we are in the back of a police car with two distinctly Mexican-sounding local police escorts, on your way to your start point at a distinctly medieval-looking village, in the middle of nowhere in what is obviously meant to be Spain!

A couple more cutscenes later and we’re on our way, in what was a revolutionary over-the-shoulder viewpoint that would completely re-write action-adventure gaming… Except now, after all those re-writes you’ve been playing for the last fifteen years, the controls absolutely stink! And that’s before you’ve drawn your gun or pulled out your knife. Oh dear! Okay, we’ve come this far down this very atospheric dirt track in the woods and that looks like a house in the distance, so we’ll have a look. Now, this being a Resident Evil game, you’re obviously not going to use any gun ever given the choice because you have to save up all of your ammo for the final credits, so this first guy you’ve got to kill because you’re now in his house is going to have to get stabbed up. Shoulder button, knife out, slash, try and slash in the right direction, and what the hell is going on with this direction button??? Now we’re dead. Restart the game!

A couple more deaths later and you’ll have resorted to your gun; it’s twitchy as hell, the sight is moving wildly all over the screen in the opposite direction to where you want it, and you’ll be lucky to shoot this guy anywhere, let alone in the head where you know he wants it! He’s dead, so time to search the house then jump out of an upstairs window to go through the same process with two more guys (at once if you’re not quick enough). A couple more restarts later and you know where the items near them are, so decide to grab them then do a runner instead of fighting, right down to a save point in a shed! At this point I decided not to save but keep practicing my knife skills instead, but they didn’t get any better, so we save and move on down towards the village that had turned me off in all those screenshots, occasionally stopping to shoot one of the loads more enemies hanging around the trail if you have time to line up a shot because their back is turned, but otherwise just running, stopping only to try and smash open item boxes in more sheds with that stupid knife, then get out before one of them comes in and corners you!

Big gate ahead signifies a checkpoint and we’re in the village and there’s tons of angry villagers with a dead look in their eyes, and you know perfectly well that for all the creeping around you do at the start, you’re in for the most hellish fight you’ve ever been in – just because of these awful controls! Eventually you’re trapped in a house, and it goes all Night of the Living Dead with you trying to block up windows while you try and shoot and stab (good luck!) your way to some kind of safety upstairs, where they’re also now coming in through the windows on ladders! Somehow you get by and get out of one of them, and just start running frantically – at least you’re getting used to how that works now, even if you can’t shoot anything! And then the guy with the chainsaw and the bag on his head appears with a load more psycho-villages, and you can keep running but you can’t hide and eventually – more checkpoint restarts later – you concede that you’re going to have to get some tactics down for a scrap, but at least by now you’re starting to get used to shooting stuff, and eventually you’re starting to appreciate the incredible tension of being stuck in that house with loads of stuff coming through windows, or coming up against Dr Salvadore, the chainsaw guy, because now you’ve got a chance.

A couple of hours later, with the village sections behind you, the archaic controls are going to feel the most natural and pretty much perfect you could ever wish for, even by today’s standards! You’re going to be combining quick leg shots with knives and kicks, jumping between pistols, shotguns, sniper rifles and grenades, dodging and spinning and knowing what’s going to work for cover or just slowing things down, and then you can relax a bit and start marvelling at how everything looks because it turns out it’s not all about brown!

So far I’ve liked the initial creepy but too short woodland stroll, and the wooden-hutted village and farm bits actually turned out to be pretty cool as you run around them, with tons of detail giving a real sense of oppression and a surprising amount of claustrophobia, like that you might experience being stuck in a big city rather than rural Spain. You’ll eventually emerge into a valley, absolutely riddled with wooden platforms, rope bridges and all kinds of huts and a swarm of different enemies, and this is where you really first notice both the scale of the game and also its incredible visual quality. It’s also worth noting that we’re talking visual quality on a GameCube on a modern TV, so when it came out I can only imagine how impressive what they were getting out of that little purple box must have been! What really got me though, not long after this, was going up an even creepier wooded path then emerging into a big graveyard with a church towering over it on the hill in the distance. At this point I actually stopped playing the game, turned off the lights, and started taking photos of the TV, adjusting Leon until I got the shot of the scene over his shoulder that I wanted, and with the benefit of hindsight and far more thought than you should give something so trivial, can say it’s one of my favourite sights in any game ever!

After a bit more killing (zombie wolves not dogs for a change!) and a bit of classic Resident Evil item collection and puzzle-solving, it’s around here that we’re going to find Ashley, the President’s daughter, and oh no, next disappointment, she’s coming with us and it’s not only going to be dreadful escort missions, but she’s a 20-year old American girl that acts like a 15-year old American girl! Actually, neither turns out to be so bad, and for a mostly non-playable character from 2005, she even displays a modicum of intelligence and tactical nouse in combat! Anyway, I was going to say, this is probably a good point to expand on the plot, because it’s now clear that there’s more to all of this than just finding your newly un-kidnapped sidekick!

This mysterious cult that kidnapped her is called Los Illuminados, and it turns out that all these villagers that keep attacking you have not only renounced farming to pledge their lives to it, but have also become infected by a parasite called Las Plagas that’s taken over their minds! On your travels so far, you’ll have been captured and infected by it too, and while captive you meet Luis Sera, an investigator who was researching the cult; once you both escape he’ll become useful for filling you in on the plot throughout the game! And then we find Ashley, who it turns out was also injected with the parasite, and the cult leader’s plan is for her to take it home to inject her father with it, which will in turn allow him to take over the world. Once you’ve found her, you’ll end up in freaky man-child Ramon Salazar’s castle, get separated then have to start searching for her all over again. In the lead-up to fighting mutated Salazar, you’ll meet saucy blast from the Resident Evil 2 past Ada Wong who’ll both help and hinder you as you go on.

Next you’ll go to an island research facility to find Ashley, and someone else from Leon’s spec-ops past, Jack Krauser, appears as the mercenary that kidnapped Ashley. Now we learn that both he and Ada Wong are working for star (also STAR) of original Resident Evil Albert Wesker, now a born-again nutcase who also wants a piece of the Las Plagas action. After dispatching him you’ll find Ashley again, discover a big machine that can cure the pair of you, then have a showdown with the also-mutated big bad cult leader, assisted by Ada Wong and her inevitable Resident Evil final boss rocket launcher! As a final twist in the tail, Ada’s going to do a runner with Leon’s parasite sample, and all that’s left to do it escape the island on a jet-ski before it explodes!

The parasite enemies versus zombie enemies of previous Resident Evils do change things up quite a lot, where they’re quicker and have some intelligence about them, though shooting them in the head still works fine – especially when it’s from miles away with a fully-upgraded scope on your rifle! It’s not just zombie cult farmers, tooled-up chanting monks, very well-armed (and sometimes shielded) soldiers, walking suits of armour, chainsaw bag-head guys and the like you’ll be shooting up though. There’s different, much tougher (and far more sinister) versions of them that wouldn’t look out of place in Silent Hill; there’s various parasites, flying bugs and those undead wolves; there’s lumbering giants that act as regular mini-bosses and Iron Maidens with extending spikes on the outside; and there’s the regenerator – no doubt one of the most feared monsters in gaming history, relentlessly moving towards you, with multiple parasites regenerating body parts, each requiring individual attention from your rifle (or just shutting a door on them)!

That’s regular enemies, but you’ll come across a wonderful menagerie of bosses too. I’m not that keen on boss fights, but I think I only really struggled with Salazar when he turns into a humungous zombie flower and you need a bit more precision at speed than I’m capable of any more! It only took a few goes though. The rest are wildly varied, from a set-piece filled epic with superman Krauser to more regular shooting all the pulsating sacs filled with ooze Lovecraft-style monsters. The final boss – cult leader Osmund Saddler now mutated into a huge four-legged oozing thing – is a lot of fun, and when that rocket launcher is thrown into the mix there’s a great feeling as you realise you’ve just about done him in, but my favourite boss I think was the very first one. This was a lake monster, brought back to life by Saddler to stop anyone crossing it, and you’re hunting it down in a tiny fishing boat that is being dragged around by this giant whale thing after it got caught up in the anchor. And it’s from this vantage point that you’re trying to harpoon it, while steering and trying to avoid being capsized, which results in a frantic swim! Once its done for, it’s not over though because you’re still attached and now being dragged to the bottom. Thank goodness for quick-time events – one of many you’ll experience throughout the game, but I don’t remember this one being quite as punishing as others that may assume far more familiarity with a GameCube controller than you may have so long after the fact!

The aftermath of this fight sees you end up in a cabin on the other side of the lake, and another visually stunning moment as you look out of the window into the rain. This was another favourite moment for me, and that went straight into another! As you go outside and peer across the murk of the lake, you can just make out some blue flames, which you’ll now be starting to recognise as the welcoming signal of the Merchant having set up shop there. As fantastic as this guy is, you don’t want to be thinking too much about him and his various impossibilities though, like why he’s not dead, how he travels in the blink of an eye, who else he’s selling to and various other stock management issues – just enjoy this constantly out-of-place walking weapons shop with his wares hidden inside his long black coat or in his backpack, or in some of the more permanent establishments he frequents around the game, like this one! You’ll be buying new weapons and upgrades using coins you’ve found or by selling him treasures or stuff you don’t want. At certain locations he’ll also have an optional shooting gallery on the go, and he’s usually near a save point too!

Recalling all these things I enjoyed one after the other is testament to the game’s pacing throughout the 25 or so hours it took me to complete it. From the very start, it’s relentlessly pushing you forwards, whether to progress the story or to progress your ability to progress the story. You’re rarely going to be wondering where to go next or trying to fathom obscure puzzles involving myriad items and all the related back and forth Resident Evils before this loved to throw at you so much. There’s a bit of backtracking and a bit of puzzle-solving, but I’m struggling to remember anything that bothered me whatsoever, and on the whole you’re on your way from one set of set-pieces in one area to another set in the next, interspersed by different levels of adrenaline rush. This might be from something as simple and frequent as taking down a regular enemy with some style, getting through an onslaught of firey catapults, completing one of the frantic on-rails sections, or finding yourself face to face with Dr Salvadore and his chainsaw in a minecart, but the biggest rush for me came from just turning around and looking back at one particular room…

In Chapter 4 (of 5, each split into 3-4 areas plus one final chapter), you’re after a lion ornament to go into something else and open up a new part of the castle – all classic Resident Evil! You go through a door in from a very steampunk area to be faced by a cavernous room full of maze-like stone stairways and walkways across a sea of volcanic lava spraying all over the place. There’s also a load of dragon statues ready to spit flaming death all over you too, manned by monks in skeleton masks that you’ll need to snipe while taking on a load of their mates out to get you as you make your way across various platforms and obstacles. This took me a few goes, but once you’ve got the lie of the land you do fine, and the pay-off when you pick up the ornament and head back is incredible! You’re faced with this incredible, impossible set of structures across this vast flaming pit, smoke and fire everywhere, and you just think did I really just do that? Absolutely stunning. Again! When you combine so much fun from so much variety with that pacing we talked about, you’re getting close to perfect gameplay, but surely there’s a catch?

It wouldn’t be a Resident Evil game without some inventory management, so you’re going to spend a fair amount of time playing Tetris in your attaché case and making painful decisions about what to store or just abandon. As usual, it’s expandable as you make your way through the game, and key items and treasure are kept separately so they’re not taking up slots. And as usual, you can combine some health items, ammo and bits of weapons. I think there was one instance where there was a rocket launcher that just wasn’t going to fit, but otherwise there was usually space for all that handgun ammo I didn’t actually need!

We’ve not talked about how things sound yet, and as you’d expect from a game in this series (and genre in general) there’s some very ham-fisted dialogue delivered in typically unique ways! Actually, the voice acting isn’t bad – it’s certainly no Silent Hill 2 – and the script is mostly fine, even offering up a couple of genuinely funny lines, but it definitely gets cringeworthy at times, and I’m sure that in any remake that might come along in the future, Luis won’t be talking about her dad equipping Ashley’s with ballistics! And probably no close ups of his crotch when he says he’s got something for you guys either… You are going to get a lot of abuse coming your way in Spanish too, which is probably more effective if you don’t know Spanish (which I assume Leon doesn’t which is why it’s never translated), but it is proper good abuse!

The soundtrack is responsible for so much of the horror you’re going to experience throughout the game’s duration. It moves seamlessly from disturbing localised ambience to pulsating primitive rhythms, and from minimal almost industrial pieces to climactic gothic orchestrations. There’s thankfully a couple of tracks that wouldn’t be out of place in an eighties action movie like Cobra or Bloodsport too! Sound effects layer on even more disturbing ambience – love those killer monk chants! – and it really sounds like they’ve gone the extra mile with things like gunshots, where each distinct sound is going to include the chink of spent cartridges and the sounds of a reload as well.

I’ve talked about how impressive it still looks even being pumped out of a GameCube onto a modern TV. I know I have the benefit of being a complete luddite when it comes to things like resolution and frame rate though, where the upscaled PS4 version doesn’t look all that different to me, although that said I’m not certain it actually is! Some of the locations like the swamp, any of the woods, the church and a lot of the castle are pure Hammer Horror though, which might be a good analogy for how it looks – Plague of the Zombies (best film ever created!) looks like it was made when it was, but it still looks great! The polish might have tarnished a little with the years, but the creativity and artistry on the locales and their inhabitants (especially some of the nastier-looking bosses) haven’t one bit, with all the character models looking and moving great through brilliantly lit environments (especially when night comes). Details like the heat haze in that lava room, or just smoke rising or rain falling would also still impress today, bouncing realistically off of different surfaces, and those effects when you pop something’s head off are still second to none!

What else to say? Well, it’s oven got its own zombie dogs through the window moment! Like what I did there? Otherwise, looks great, sounds great and eventually plays great; is full of atmosphere, full of horror and full of variety; and the gameplay is just outstanding. And that’s even in 2021 as I write this, having now played the GameCube version twice and the Wii version once in the first three weeks of the year! I have to say that on one hand I expected a bit more of the Wii version, having heard many lauding its motion controls and it being the ultimate way to play, but I wasn’t that fussed. On the other hand, it cost me £1.10 on eBay so I can’t complain!!!

Now that it’s firmly entrenched in my top three games of all time, shockingly relegating the definitive version of Renegade to number four after all those years sitting pretty there, do I regret not playing it until now? If it wasn’t for those pesky screenshots, I’d have probably bought Resident Evil 4 back in 2005, day one, just like all its predecessors! But just like them, I’d have probably played it for a bit before being distracted by God of War, Call of Duty 2 and Star Wars Battlefront 2… What a meathead! But for me at the end of 2020, it was perfect! And now that remake would be pretty perfect too…

Discovering Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti on NES

Discovering Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti on NES

As much as I’ve enjoyed dabbling with the series for years, I’d never actually made a serious attempt at any version of Splatterhouse until my PC-Engine Mini came along in June 2020. It was the very first game I fired-up on there, and to date is the only thing I’ve finished on there, though Fantasy Zone has certainly taken more of a beating! Anyway, PC-Engine Splatterhouse is a fantastic version that looks and feels perfectly at home there. Marvellous game!

It took me a few months of chipping away to get to the end, after which I planned an assault on the original arcade game, then the Mega Drive versions of II and III. And all along, I wasn’t even aware of anything of the sort on NES! Actually, it took a podcast I was listening to mentioning a “troubling” hooded figure in the NES game to make me pay attention and look it up. Now, I’m not the person to find anything offensive, but I can only imagine that the source of their offence was the innocent Satanist boss character who was something mistaken for something more racist…

Back to Splatterhouse, it’s an arcade beat ‘em up from Namco in 1988 that’s wonderfully heavy on the gore. It follows a couple (named as Rick and Jennifer in the later home versions) who get split up in a haunted mansion, where she gets possessed by monsters and he gets possessed by a Jason Vorhees mask. Then he goes on a side-scrolling squelchy, bloody rampage to save her. Which doesn’t really sound like your typical NES-fodder, so enter Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti, a very weird, cutely deformed Japan-only take on the arcade game that arrived on NES in 1989. Welcome to Devil Town…

The clues are there that this is probably a prequel, though it’s not hugely clear and not hugely important! Jennifer is mourning the death of Rick at his grave, he gets resurrected Vorhees-style (complete with mask, but not sure why this time) by a bolt of lighting, and all is well until The Great Pumpkin King – who happens to be buried in the grave next to him – gets sparked back into life by a second bolt of lighting and kidnaps her! A scrap across seven stage ensues, and if you manage to take him out at the end you’ll be informed by the game’s director that this would make a great movie. And then Rick takes off the mask and it comes to life through spooky powers, no doubt for future adventures.

Where Splatterhouse-proper is just a very simple, violent plod from left to right, there’s a bit more platforming involved in the chopping heads up with your axe here. But there’s not a lot more to the gameplay than that – it’s certainly fun, but it’s no Mario and it’s not really Splatterhouse either. Actually, it reminded me a lot of Kid Dracula, and what that is to Castlevania – a cartoon parody that still manages to cram in a bit of horror behind the laughs.

I must admit I was hoping for a bit more to the laughs as well, but that was entirely down to the game setting some high expectations early on! The first level is in a graveyard (and a very fine one at that, like a more populated version of the C64 Ghosts ‘n Goblins one), and towards the end you’ll come across Dracula emerging from under the ground to what sounds like Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Then four green gooey zombie monsters appear, the disco lights start, and they do an extended Thriller routine. And it’s really good! There are a good few fun bits that follow, with the black mass and the Alien scene standing out for me, but they never really reach those heights.

Something else that never reaches any great heights are the boss fights, which is absolutely fine by me! They are all perfectly pitched, where it’s going to take you a few goes to get to work them out, but once you’ve spotted the pattern you won’t be taking any damage – much like the in some of mainline Splatterhouse games, which aside from the violence and gore is a definite attraction to no-like-boss me. Speaking of damage, it’s handled in a interesting, almost RPG-like way, where every enemy you kill is racking up points for you. Get to fifty points and it’s permanently adding some health to your bar. However, if you die and use the between-stage password to carry on from where you left off, you’ll be starting with your basic health again which makes the game a lot harder, but again, it’s still very beatable, which is great!

There’s no doubt that the deformed art style is one of the main pulls here. It might be cute, but it still manages to pull off the monstrous, albeit usually in a very unrealistic Nintendo way. But the various environs are as creepy (and sometimes just plain dark) as you like, and they often look stunning – sometimes as good as it gets on the NES, with some really rich, vibrant colour palettes that are as full of character as the characters! There’s a semi-hidden Egyptian level that has the best large-scale use of gold colours you’ll ever see on a NES too! You’ve got some really cool monster design throughout, paying homage to the arcade game, but also referencing horror film and pop-culture all over the place – The Fly boss was another favourite! And everything animates so smoothly, with some very nice multi-layered scrolling for the time. It’s a looker without any doubt! Sounds alright too – the spot effects aren’t groundbreaking, but the chip tunes are perfectly positioned, and as multi-layered as the scrolling!

After getting a little down on the gameplay, talking about all of that has really brought home why I wanted to talk about the game in the first place! If you want a great platformer, there’s loads to choose from on NES. If you want over-the-top arcade horror, you’ve got the original Splatterhouse and it’s various sequels and remakes. But if you want the cutest upside-down cross you’ll ever see, you’ve got the Wanpaku Graffiti variant on NES!

My Life With… Submarine Commander – Commodore VIC-20

My Life With… Submarine Commander – Commodore VIC-20

As I start writing this at the end of 2020, on a third consective day of freezing temperatures and an inpenetrable fog that Silent Hill would be proud of, I’m thinking about my favourite games of the year. Actually, my favourite game of this year is easy; it’s the supporting cast that needs a bit more thought!

Anyway, In Other Waters on Nintendo Switch hasn’t been in any doubt as not only my game of 2020, but one of my top 25 games of all time since I first played it in around June of this year. You play an artifical intelligence guiding a xenobiologist through an underwater alien landscape, discovering its impossible lifeforms, its secrets, its history, and ultimately yours too. Everything centres around its beautifully refined and descriptive user interface, which almost immediately becomes second nature, and drives the wonderful story, as well as your imagination. It’s intuitive, claustrophobic, tense and – despite its visual simplicity – stunningly atmospheric.

And from the minute I started playing In Other Waters, it drew my mind back to a very similar experience I had many, many years ago on the Commodore VIC-20 that could be described using pretty much exactly the same terms… This was everything I loved about Submarine Commander all over again!

By the time Boxing Day 1984 had passed, the mighty 16K RAM expansion I’d been giving for Christmas the day before had passed its first test in The Perils of Willy (more here), and I was seeking out new possibilities that I’d spent the past year disappointedly skipping over on the shelves of Woolworths, Boots and WHSmith when I was unexpanded. Of course, in those days none of them would be open until the following day, so whatever money you might have been given for Christmas was now really burning a hole in your pocket. Actually, even worse was that same 48-hour hold-up when you’d got something that needed exchanging… I still remember the agonising wait the following year when I’d been given a really cool pop-up book on Halley’s Comet (just as it was poised to become a phenomena in 1986), but the working pop-up telescope had a tear in it which obviously ruined everything!

Anyway, back on Friday the 27th December 1984 and I like to think that once David Icke and Frank Bough had finished doing their thing on Breakfast Time, I watched Charlie Brown then by the time Inch High Private Eye had been and gone I was just about ready to leave for the shops before the dreadful Lassie started at 9.50am. And that’s where I made a beeline to Submarine Commander in the VIC-20 section in Boots, because to 12-year old me there was no greater use of 16K of RAM than piloting a World War II submarine, and having spent months staring longingly at this box more than any other on display, there was absolutely no hesitation that this was where my Christmas money was finally going!

Submarine Commander was originally developed right back in the dark ages of 1982 for Atari 8-bit, then appeared on the VIC-20 the following year. Publisher Thorn EMI went heavy on the advertising, with an equally heavy message that like their Jumbo Jet Pilot, this was more real-life simulator than game… “They’re designed for players who expect more of a challenge from a video game than creatures from outer-space can provide.” That’s all fine, but the advert itself still mystifies me, with its very serious and a little bit sterile almost double page spanning submariner artwork and three tiny screenshots on one side, where in reality in 1983 and for the next two years at least, those screenshots sold the game to anyone that was likely to buy it by themselves!

Which is why there being no screenshots on the box was also a mystery, especially when it referred to the nerve tingling action being spread over 3 screens. The front cover and wordy reverse was clearly enough to suck me in though, and seeing “FOR VIC-20 + 16K” at the top was always an indication that there was something special going on here! It also tells us that as the commander of a Mediterranean-based submiarine, your job is to sink as much enemy shipping as possible. Then you’ve got the killer sell, where it brilliantly encapsulates the action from every great black and white submarine film you’d see on TV on weekend afternoons at the time, like Run Silent, Run Deep or We Dive At Dawn… “Using your skills and cunning you must identify the enemy shipping, close in undetected using sonar, take aim through your periscope, fire your torpedoes and get out fast. You will have to evade the shadowing warships which are armed with depth charges. This is a highly addictive game of skill and strategy and your aim is to sink enemy shipping without being sunk yourself.” 

That bit about depth charges sinking you is so powerful, because this was always the most tense part of those war movies, where the crew would all be stood in complete, terrified silence, dripping sweat and probably smoking Marlborough Reds in this suddenly fragile, claustrophobic metal tube as all hell rained down on them from the surface, with these vast underwater explosions waiting to tear them apart if the barrels fell close enough. And what wonderful shots of that you’d get from outside of the submarine too, with all the special effects they could muster in the Forties and Fifties still having precisely the desired effect all those decades later. Of course, this would all end up with a a bit of ominous creaking and a few pipes bursting before the ships passed by and they could carry on about their business, but the tension in those moments was always heart-in-mouth as you watched, and screenshots or not, those words combined with the imagination of a 12-year old that loved his war films worked brilliantly to convey exactly what you were in for… And just in case, it did say it had “amazing sound and graphics” on the box too!

Once you’ve loaded the game up, you’re presented with one of the most unassuming title screens in the history of gaming, but that means there’s no messing about – choose your skill level, press F3 and you’re instantly dumped somewhere in the Mediterranean, signfied by a flashing dot on your wonderfully detailed map, surrounded by all your instruments and readings and everything you need to start hunting down the enemy. The identity of the enemy isn’t really specified, but – just picking one of the instruments at random – battery charge is represented by a C for charge, which it wouldn’t be in German, so therefore we’ll assume you’re not in charge of a U-boat.

The instrument panel is brilliantly dynamic. On the left side of the screen you’ve got your attitude, dictating depth and direction on the compass below through your keyboard or joystick inputs, then there’s a mission clock, torpedo supply, fuel supply and battery charge. Your speed is controlled by the number keys, and you’re getting that here in knots. On the right side, you’ve got the all-important depth guage, and under that the hydrophone chart, which shows ships as peaks that you use together with the sonar screen to line-up your prey when you get close, and once you’ve taken them out you’ve also got a reading of tonnage sunk that contributes to your post-mission assessment. Then there’s the chart showing depth below the keel, which is my favourite bit of the whole game – it’s showing the bottom relative to your ship, which opens up a whole new dimension to exploring and seeing how deep you can go in different parts of the ocean; it’s also the source of utter panic when you’re manouevering a bit too close to shore! Next, you’ve got your damage indicators for the hull, instruments and engines, and there’s a nice risk-reward element here of chancing carrying on or finding somewhere to surface to get repairs done. Of course, a particularly serious screen-shaking battering from depth charges, or grounding yourself is going to end up in the hull cracking and finding yourself in a watery grave!

Being underwater or on the surface is always on your mind – you’ll be faster on the surface, but if you get caught short by the big guns escorting a convoy you’re going to be crash diving as deep and as silent as possible while those depth charges drop all around you. This is a lovely example of the amazing attention to detail you’re getting in this VIC-20 game from 1983 – if you do end up within visual range of a convoy, you’ll get a bell (kind of!) to warn you to take action. Underwater gives you an advantage, but you do need to keep an eye on air and batteries, and as another great piece of attention to detail, if you switch to your sonar (or fire a torpedo) they’re going to clock that distinctive ping regardless!

Once you’ve worked out where you are at the start of the game, you’ll be looking for shipping movements on your map, and once you’ve swung your sub around in the right direction you’ll be scooting off across the surface. As you approach, you’ll want to dive and switch the main screen from map to sonar, which, together with your hydrophone chart, is going to get you close and pointing your torpedoes at the enemy. Get up to around 25 feet and your periscope is going to come into play so you can accurately line up the enemy and fire your torpedoes; this is where the thrill-ride happens, and you’ll be identifying and prioritising tankers, destroyers and patrol boats across the sea, as occasional clouds pass by in the sky, somehow adding to the sense of space and your vulnerability as the ultimately fragile hunter in this vast open expanse of water. Line everything up right and you’ll see your torpedo trail heading ominously across the surface until it impacts with your target, which will sink it with a bit of luck, though it might take a few direct hits at higher skill levels. What a great feeling, together with a sense of relief, when that happens! Or you might just miss and see one of your precious torpedoes float harmlessly by the now fully alerted enemy! 

This game of cat and mouse goes on until you’ve sunk all the enemy convoys at play across the entire map, and is going to take you a good thirty minutes to an hour at higher levels – again, pretty cool for a 1983 VIC-20 game! But that’s if you haven’t used up all your oxygen or fuel or battery in the meantime, and that you havent been taken out by depth charges or run yourself aground because in the heat of the battle you forgot to reduce your speed as you turned into the channel between Italy and Sicily, and out of nowhere the bottom appeared on your chart and you couldn’t blow your ballast tanks in time to do anything about it!

We started by talking about 2020 masterpiece In Other Waters… Intuitive, claustrophobic, tense and – despite its visual simplicity – stunningly atmospheric. And that’s Submarine Commander too. There’s so much going on, so much to think about, and that’s before you’re presented with this 3D sea-scape where a ship appears on the horizon and you don’t know what it is yet, but as you get closer you realise it’s the high-tonnage prize of a tanker, but hang on, there’s a destroyer right behind it, but you only noticed it after that first torpedo slammed into its escort and now you’re in for a scrap, but first you need to kill your speed and dive, dive, dive!

In the great pantheon of VIC-20 games, for me Submarine Commander sits only behind The Perils of Willy, Andes Attack and Jetpac. But that said, if we’re scoring complexity of game, it beats everything else on the system outright. And the same for atmosphere. And – maybe apart from Jetpac (more here) – how it stands up as a gaming experience in 2021 (which somehow happened in the process of writing this!) too. And I reckon I knew all of that when I had to give up my VIC-20 and all of my games to fund my Spectrum, but somehow this – together with Jump Jet (more here) managed to escape the box of booty we sold!

Game Review: Wonderful Dizzy (ZX Spectrum)

Game Review: Wonderful Dizzy (ZX Spectrum)

When Dizzy arrived on the ZX Spectrum and Amstrad in 1987, there was no absolutely no reason not to buy it! The screenshots looked great, it was reviewing well, it was by the incredible BMX (and other) Simulator people Codemasters, and it only cost £1.99! The little egg felt great to control too, with his unique somersault jump a joy as you made your way around his puzzle-platform adventure. Before long though, the novelty wore off for me, and it became the founding member of an exclusive little club that would later also welcome Silent Hill and the first two Resident Evils, that it would take me decades to actually get, then finally really, really appreciate! Of course, on the surface you may wonder what this cartoon egg on the Spectrum has with these heavyweights of original PlayStation survival horror, but the secret to success in all of them is finding stuff and doing something with it; you won’t get far just jumping about or shooting dead things in the face. And for for me at any point up to my mid-forties, the latter is where I found most of my enjoyment in games!

Several decades later, this left me with all kinds of catching up to do (now mostly done!), and there we were at the end of 2020 when no fewer than two new official Dizzy games appeared! A very quick note on the first, a new version of 1989’s Pac-a-like, Fast Food Dizzy, which at that time was the third Dizzy game, but was actually called Fast Food rather than Fast Food Dizzy! Anyway, the new one is definitely called Fast Food Dizzy, and was released on the Nintendo Switch to showcase the FUZE games coding tool, where it’s not only free but the code is also fully editable. And if that’s not your bag, you can also buy it as part of the FUZE Player, which comes at a crazy price that makes the original Dizzy look expensive, together with no less than nineteen other FUZE-developed games and more to download for free! It plays like a very good Pac-Man clone with a few ideas of its own across its ten levels, it’s very polished, and is a lot of fun too!

A month later, a few days before Christmas, the second new Dizzy game arrived – Wonderful Dizzy. Now, this one’s been hanging around for a while and I think was originally supposed to be released as a Kickstarter stretch goal for the Spectrum Next in 2018, but that ended up being the collaborative effort and also wonderful Crystal Kingdom Dizzy. Wonderful Dizzy never went away though, and finishing it became a labour of love for original Dizzy developers (and gaming legends) The Oliver Twins, who not only eventually went on to fully design it themselves then get it made by their Crystal Kingdom friends, but also decided to  give it away free on their website, where you can either download the 128K Spectrum file and play it one way or another, or just take option two and play it right there in your browser!

Wonderful Dizzy is based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the children’s book by L Frank Baum that was interpreted as a reasonable movie if you’re under ten years old called The Wizard of Oz in 1939, then various other dreadful things since. And having said that, I look forward to the wrath of Johnny Depp’s Twitter defence league – I kid you not, go on there and post something derogatory about his even more dreadful Sweeney Todd and see what happens!!! Anyway, in Wonderful Dizzy, you’re the kind of Dorothy but in egg form, and as a fierce wind approaches, you and your pet Fluffle, Pogie, take cover in your house, but that gets torn out of the ground, chucked around in the wind then lands on the Wicked Witch of the East, one of four witches that rule the magical land of Oz where you’ve ended up. The West one isn’t happy and runs off with Pogie, so you need to rescue it and find a way home. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz can probably help with that, and you’re going to be platforming and puzzling your way around Oz and his Emerald City, coming across familiar scarecrows, lions and tin men on the way – all in egg-form, of course!

This translates to classic Dizzy – discovering the map, finding clues, finding the items that relate to those clues, and gradually unravelling the story through all the other characters you meet. Even for someone like me that used to shun the merest hint of a puzzle, none of these are especially taxing – think Resident Evil 3 more than Monkey Island! The biggest puzzle is probably remembering where you might have seen something that you’ve just been told about, or then working out how to juggle your three-item inventory, meaning leaving stuff you’ve found already all over the place and remembering that too! As well as finding and using the items that progress the story, you’re going to be collecting coins too, and these are going to become important… So important that later on, you might spend nearly as long finding the one you’ve missed as playing through the rest of the game!!!

Unlike some (or maybe all?) of the earlier Dizzy games, the map is three-dimensional, so you’re not only going left and right, but into and out of the screen too. From your starting point in Munchkin Village, you’ve got the Red Brick Road to the left that’s going to lead to five – about half – of the areas in the game, then its better known Yellow sibling leads to the rest in the other direction. Actually, your very first puzzles are going to be finding stuff around Munchkin Village and using them to open the gates to the two roads. As well as Emerald City, you’re going to be exploring various castles and palaces, woods and fields, caves and harbours and various other buildings and structures. These are all multi-screen affairs, with a surprising amount of verticality in a lot of them too that is going to test your platforming skills. Dizzy himself controls better than ever, and for all that extended somersaulting animation every time you jump, you’re going to feel a surprising amount of precision to everything. Screw up a jump and fall too far and you’ll eventually end up a bit Humpty Dumpty though! There’s also a few enemies out to do you damage too, but you’ve got three lives, and fruit to replenish your health is relatively abundant (until you’re near the end and you’ve used it all up); it’s all just about the right level of challenge.

Speaking of better than ever, I can’t not talk about how Wonderful Dizzy looks for any longer! Off the top of my head, if we’re talking best-looking games on the Spectrum, you’ve got Trap Door, Exolon, R-Type, maybe Head Over Heels, definitely either of the first two screens in Olli & Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle… And now we have to add Wonderful Dizzy to that list – it really is that good, to the point that when I first saw it, I assumed it was actually a Spectrum Next game, but no, it’s proper unsullied 128K Spectrum. It even embraces the colour clash, which is one of many knowing nods to old-school gaming you’ll come across! The amount of detail in every aspect of every screen is incredible, as is the way Dizzy moves around the world – not only in his animation, but also the way he physically belongs in it, and I really don’t want to be specific here because these deserve to be noticed fresh!

Sound effects are typically functional for the Spectrum, but I like the way they’re sparsely used, usually alerting you to something. There’s also a nice subtle sound when you jump, which I like a lot more than the continuous classic Spectrum footsteps you got in the original game! The looping music sounds great without being anything groundbreaking – it’s not massively memorable, but equally isn’t going to annoy you for the duration.

That duration for me was about four hours, including about thirty minutes looking for the final coin, as well as thirty minutes or so having a go and working it out when I downloaded it. I reckon if you went back and did it again (or aren’t as rubbish at games as me), you could at least half that once you know the lay of the land. And I enjoyed every minute of that, done in two sessions during a single day. It really is a joy to play, and even if you’re like my former-self and not massively into Dizzy or this style of game or survival horror, if you’ve ever played on a Spectrum you just need to have a go and see it in action! And at free of charge, there’s even less reason to not see it in action than its ancestor all those years ago!

You can play or download Wonderful Dizzy right here.

Book Review: The Games That Weren’t by Frank Gasking

Book Review: The Games That Weren’t by Frank Gasking

Towards the end of of 1985, adverts started appearing in my Computer & Video Games magazines for “the first ever computer cartoon” – Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery! And to a massive Scooby Doo fan like me, it was incredible! They were clearly Spectrum screenshots on there, but they definitely looked like nothing else, except maybe what a Spectrum port of something like Dragon’s Lair might look like… which, the following year, we’d find out was more or less the case!

Anyway, as 1985 became 1986, previews started appearing that hinted at an interactive story involving a spooky Scottish castle belonging to Shaggy’s aunt, presented as cartoon action sequences that you directed to solve the mystery. And yes, it really was like a laser-disc game crammed into a 48K Spectrum! As the months passed, the big double-page, full colour adverts kept coming, but no sign of any game, then in March 1986, in an Elite preview exclusive, C&VG said “despite what you’ve read in other magazines, Elite still plans to release its computer cartoon adventure, Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery for the 48K Spectrum,” but towards the end of the article also says that it won’t be in the “heavily advertised” form because there wasn’t enough memory left to make it playable! And, of course, what we eventually got at the end of 1986 was the fantastic, but utterly brutal Scooby Doo, an arcade-platformer take on Kung-Fu Master, with some of my favourite graphics ever on the Spectrum!

As much as I love what we finally got, I still look at the original advert and wonder what could have been… And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling 48K of memory! If only Sir Clive had come up with 128K a bit sooner it might all be different, but that’s the tale of my very first encounter with a game that weren’t. Wasn’t!

Fast forward to Christmas 2021, and I received a wonderful new book called The Games That Weren’t, written by Frank Gasking and published by my favourite retro-gaming book peddlars Bitmap Books, who are responsible for all kinds of equally wonderful stuff on my bulging bookshelves, but nothing that bulges quite as much as this 644-page hardback behemoth!

As someone that writes about games from time to time, I think I’m qualified to say that everything about this puts me to shame! The first thing you notice, the very first time you flick through it, is that it’s clearly an absolute labour of love, much like Frank’s website of the same name that he started way back in the nineties to document and find lost and unreleased games across many platforms. The next thing you notice is that it’s visually stunning – even more so than Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery! And then you realise that it’s so much more than that…

As games industry legend David Crane tells us in the foreword, this is all about games that never quite reached the game-playing public. Going all the way back to 1975 and up to 2015, the book covers 80 games that weren’t, and they weren’t for myriad reasons that all get unravelled here – flawed game design, internal politics, over-ambition, poor hardware sales, high cartridge costs or cabinet costs, failed field tests, expired licenses, not being able to fit a computer cartoon into 48K… Actually, I should say that Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery didn’t make the cut here (which gives me hope that it still might arrive one day!), but some of the tales around these unreleased games are definitely mysteries worthy of Scooby and the gang!

Having spent some time in my stack of old game magazines just get my head around enough of the Scooby Doo story to mention it here, I can really empathise with Frank’s decades-long obsession with investigating these mysteries – that 30 minutes putting together a timeline from first advert to previews, doubts, cancellations then something else emerging in its place was really fascinating! But where I’ve just included a picture of an old copy of C&VG, every game covered in The Games That Weren’t includes a load of development assets, screenshots, photos and artistic impressions – all reproduced in the very highest quality and sometimes for the first time – to illustrate the wonderfully in-depth analysis on each game.

Before we analyse that analysis, let’s quickly mention a few of those games to give us a bit of context, as well as what is probably my favourite thing about the book, which is not only discovering stuff you didn’t know existed, but discovering stuff you would have actually bought, and even seeing screenshots of it! And that’s why we’ll start with Elite on the Nintendo Game Boy, which got to prototype stage then the deal with Ocean fell through and consigned it to history; another nice feature is that for each game it tells you if it’s available to play or not… And apparently this one is, so definitely expect more from me on that in the future! We all know about Elite, but there’s an awful lot more that you probably won’t know anything about, such as Death Pit, Dick Special, Eye of the Moon, Virtua Hamster(!), Spitfire Fury and Starring Charlie Chaplin to name but a few. There’s unreleased sequels like Heart of Yesod, Star Fox 2 and, er, Gazza 2. There’s all kinds of film licenses that (possibly thankfully) never saw the light of day like The Terminator, Lethal Weapon and Waterworld, as well as other licenses like Daffy Duck and Tony Hawk’s Shred Session. And then there’s the versions of games you probably do know but never made it, like Rescue on Fractalus! or Bubble Bobble, Ridge Racer or The Last Ninja…

As I write this, the last game I played before I went to bed last night was Arcade Archives Frogger on Nintendo Switch, so I reckon that Frogger 2: Swampy’s Revenge on Nintendo 64 is the perfect place to talk about the actual meat of the game analysis you’re getting here! It starts with a title screen summarising the reason it weren’t – cartridge costs in this case – then the year it weren’t (2000), the developer, the platform and whether or not it’s available to play. Then we get some background history – why Frogger epitomises 1980s arcades, the aim of the game, its reception and its ports. Then we get into what happened next; in the case of Frogger, it obviously never stopped being released on different platforms, but there was a Hasbro remake developed by Millenium Interactive in 1997 that leads us directly into the non-sequel. When Hasbro wanted a sequel, Millenium weren’t available to do it, so they approached Interactive Studios. We then hear from Philip Oliver, and then the project’s technical manager, Matt Cloy, who talks about the team and how they set about developing the game for the Nintendo 64. We get right into the development kits and all the juicy technical details here, right from the horse’s mouth, as well as some great detail on the process of developing then moving on from the earliest designs.

This turned into very much a 3D game, in stark contrast to the overhead 2D original, with complex geometries and some wild-sounding environments that weren’t too far removed from Super Mario Galaxy, years ahead of its time. But Hasbro didn’t like it! Need something more traditional, more 2D, more like Frogger. So then we hear about how it was all stripped back, the action became more immediate to the player, and a story was introduced involving Swampy the Crocodile being jealous of Frogger’s fame and fortune! At this point we start getting some really nice detail about how the game actually played as levels took shape and started to be tested and tweaked, and then there’s some substitutions made in the team to bring on some experience and make sure the game was brought home as planned.

And then it was all brought down with a bang! Hasbro got cold feet on increasing cartridge production costs and lead times, and the prospect of any profit was becoming risky, so at 70% complete, the Nintendo 64 version was canned. Now we jump to the PlayStation, PC, Dreamcast and Game Boy Colour versions that did eventually make it into the wild, reviewed okay, but never really had a chance to sell properly because after a year Konami said they wanted it removed from sale because the licence had expired! Now we get into the fun part of years then passing, glitchy prototypes sneaking out into the hands of collectors, and later builds appearing that featured things like placeholder sounds from other games and Pac-Man styled frogspawn collecting that would never have made the final cut. Finally, we get to what happened next, where we are now with availability of the various unfinished states online, and how the developers feel about the project in retrospect. And as we’ve already discussed, all those written words are supported by some beautiful visuals, in this case a full-page unpublished advert for the game including the Nintendo 64 logo at the top, and a selection of half-page, well-curated (and well-defined) screenshots that serve perfectly well to bring the game to life. It really is an incredibly polished package, and that’s all for just one of the eighty games!

Now, not every game gets the thousands of words of research and interviews that Frogger 2 gets – though an awful lot of them do – but regardless, you can see the care, attention and passion that’s gone into every single feature on every single game. And all of this this is complemented by five purpose-built “Hardware That Wasn’t” blueprint features and a load of interviews with the likes of the aforementioned David Crane, Jeff Minter, the Oliver Twins, Matthew Smith, Geoff Crammond and many other industry big-hitters, plus an honourable mentions section on loads of other games, all in chronological order, that you can find out more about digitally.

As I flick through the book to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything, I’m so tempted just to keep going here! I happened to stop on Solar Jetman, where a wonderful Commodore 64 loading screen capture caught my eye; then Spitfire Fury, which would have been amazing to play on our school’s A-level Technology class’ exclusive Archimides; or maybe my brother would have bought Rolling Thunder for his Atari Lynx; and don’t get me started on Gauntlet for Ninendo DS!!! I just love this book! And it’s not only the quality of the written content that’s to love, but the hardcore hardback binding, the weight of the glossy paper, the definition on the mass of pictures, the bookmark ribbon, the generous font size for our ageing eyes… And of course, the real stars of the show are all these games that we never got to love, finally getting some of the recognition they deserve.

I hope in some way this also gives Frank Gasking and Bitmap Books some of the recognition they deserve too! Congratulations to all involved – you’ve come up with a masterpiece!

You’ll find The Games That Weren’t right here at Bitmap Books.

Discovering Friday the 13th on Commodore 64 & ZX Spectrum

Discovering Friday the 13th on Commodore 64 & ZX Spectrum

You often see the NES Friday the 13th game referenced in rubbish game lists, but the C64 and Spectrum versions never get a look in and I wanted to find out why!

There’s another “why” I want to look at before we answer that though… As a decades-long massive fan of both systems and the films, why am I playing these games for the first time in 2020?

Friday the 13th came to Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC in 1985, courtesy of Domark. I very much remember seeing it advertised because I cut the advert out and put it on my bedroom wall! I also very much remember the Computer & Video Games magazine review; it went along the lines of once you were past the gore of said shock advertising, the game was average, but the black and white screenshot they used was enough to put me right off. It looks like some kind of dreadful prototype of The Sims, not Hollywood’s greatest slasher!

Friday the 13th was long forgotten by the time I had a machine that could play it, and it was even longer before I saw my first Friday the 13th movie. I think I saw The Omen and The Entity in my early-ish teens thanks to the Wild West days of video rental shops, but the slasher movie passed me by until the very late eighties. I’d eventually make up for lost time though, and Jason Vorhees remains this 3000+ horror movie collector and general nerd’s favourite genre icon!

As many times as I’ve now seen every movie, the game remained absolutely forgotten for decades, and it took one of the aforementioned crappy NES game videos to start me digging again! I think it was a simple C64 walkthrough being recommended, but I didn’t even click it – I just made a note to look up the Spectrum version at some point.

As well as the advert, the box did its very best to lure in curious. And I’m not just taking about that immediate red-flag to me of C64 screens being used on a (relatively speaking big-budget) Spectrum inlay! There was a stark warning that before you play the game, close all doors, windows and curtains – yes, curtains have always been Jason’s kryptonite! Then you have to turn out the lights, but can use a candle if necessary – possibly down to some of the garish colours on the Spectrum version burning your eyes through some kind of light overload. Then you have to make sure granny isn’t in the room – I expect she slipped the tenner into your hand that paid for the game and you don’t want her to know you wasted it on this crap! Then turn up the volume to the max! Now, of all these tips, don’t do that. I’d there’s one thing worse than the graphics, it’s the sound, whether the horrendous (not in a good way) scream sound as one of your mates dies somewhere on the Spectrum, or the dreadful context-sensitive nursery rhymes on C64! Speaking of sound, the box also includes a competition to win a monitor if you can identify ten of the noises you heard while on holiday in Crystal Lake. Good luck identifying more than one of them!

To Domark’s credit, they clearly knew they’d spent a load of money on the license but had a stinker on their hands, and they did their best to fix that by chucking a load more money at all kinds of provocative marketing. The game pitch is pretty decent on the surface too… Jason is hiding out in the forest in his “filthy grotto” waiting to avenge his mother’s death when a bunch of teenagers turn up to party at nearby “eerie” (that’s what several massacres will do – if only they’d had Domark’s marketing people) holiday camp. He dons his hockey mask, sharpens his machete and gets ready for a “razor-edged massacre” (nice)!

From there, I’m slightly at odds with how the box then describes the gameplay loop… “You must warn everyone that the mad murderer is on the rampage and lead them all to safety – without, of course, losing your head!” The reality is that you’re going to wander around a few screens that include a farm, some archery targets, a church and lots of gravestones and lots of trees looking for a weapon then hitting everyone in sight with it trying to work out which one is Jason so you can keep hitting him until he’s dead. And while you’re doing that, Jason is wandering around killing everyone. If you die or they all die (indicated by their avatar at the bottom, of the screen turning into a gravestone) then it’s game over.

Here we need to talk specifics about each version because they go about things – by design or not – in slightly different ways. On C64, Jason is disguised as one of your fellow campers. As you walk around the various locations, you might notice someone acting a bit suspicious, whether they’re following someone else or simply just in the act of murdering them or you. Assuming you’ve found a weapon, this is your cue to hit him, and assuming you’ve found Jason, he’ll turns from a camper into a guy in a black outfit.

And that’s about all there is to it. If you’re lucky, you’ll work it out in a few minutes, but in the game I eventually beat Jason, I was walking around forever, exploring the same places over and over again but never finding him. And once you’re down to a couple of your friends left alive, the frequency of death has all but dried up and there’s really not very much happening. You just walk about, with only minor tension that all this walking about for ages is potentially about to end in time running out because everyone else is dead.

Kill the man Vorhees and you get a game over screen telling you he’s dead, but for how long? Well, having then played the Spectrum version to completion too, there’s an easy answer to that…

There’s not a lot to the C64 version, but it has a degree of 1985 charm to it. The Spectrum version doesn’t only have no charm (which even the bizarre use of magenta on the brick walls can’t fix), but it’s a buggy stinker! Eventually you’ll work out that rather than potentially being disguised as one of your friends in this version, Jason is the guy that looks the same as you. If you get confused which is which, don’t worry, he’s the one who can walk through stuff like trees and haystacks. Get close and he’ll batter you, no escape – he’s got some very sticky pixels and that’s all your hard work wandering about these ultra-uninteresting landscapes wasted! Naturally, as you might think, he can also attack you from any direction. You, on the other hand, can only attack if you’re on his left because no matter which way you’re heading, your weapon only comes out to play on the right!

When you do get on his left, there’s absolutely no feedback that you’re actually connecting with him. Your score (which is irrelevant anyway) doesn’t even change like the C64 version. You just keep maybe hitting him and nothing happens – which, thinking about it, is how a fight with Jason Vorhees probably should turn out, but it doesn’t make for a great game! Anyway, after far more experimenting than the game deserves, I worked out that the axe will damage him even if you don’t know its working until he’s dead. The chainsaw might offer the glamour, but leave it; spear things, pitchforks, knives and other things you can chuck at him seem to do nothing. That’s all assuming you can actually pick the weapon up because it’s quite often somewhere like a top corner and the screen has flipped before you can get close enough to trigger picking it up.

And while your either on the hunt for Jason, or more likely running away, you’re also going to get stuck on scenery all the time, which is the exact opposite to Jason who can walk into fences and simply vanish into thin air. And quite often you’ll be trying to traverse what appears to be thin air between screens but you’ll get stuck on something that isn’t there regardless.

Spectrum Friday the 13th is just about without merit, but I’d definitely recommend a go on the Commodore version if you’re a fan of the films. It’s a very C64-looking game circa 1985, which I always find somehow comfortable, but like so many other licenses of the time, is just bland once you get past the fancy box art. And that kind of answers my original question about why these versions never get a mention nowadays too, but in the case of these systems there were so many greater crimes against licenses – Highlander is always a good place to start there – and there were so many worse games spanning well over a decade of their lifetimes… Sadly, Friday the 13th is just very forgettable.

Games Completed in 2020

Games Completed in 2020

How about a self-indulgent review of games I’ve played and completed in 2020? I know no-one else cares, but it’s kind of like a diary, and I’ve already written it, and I’ve got nowhere else to stick it!

January
3 January: Untitled Goose Game (Xbox)
13 January: Punch-Out! (NES on Switch)
16 January: Spyro the Dragon (PS4)
19 January: Mega Man X (SNES Classic Mini)
26 January: The Ninja Saviors (Switch)
31 January: Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (SNES on Switch)

Ninja Saviors the undoubted highlight for January. Goose Game didn’t blow me away like it seems to have done everyone else, but that’s the first game I ever finished on an Xbox! Also nice to finish Spyro on the collection I got for Christmas after starting it all those years ago, as well as some other old classics I hadn’t played before (but am now seeing in my sleep, Punch-Out!). And now I’m torn between what’s my favourite Mega Man. I reckon it’s still 2 but X was a corker!

February
3 February: Bulletstorm (PS4)
5 February: Koral (Switch)
7 February: Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES on Switch)
9 February: Super Mario Bros. (NES on Switch)
10 February: Super Cycle (C64 Mini)
16 February: Bioshock (PS4)
18 February: Castlevania – Circle of the Moon (Game Boy Advance)
19 February: Bloodstained – Ritual of the Night (Xbox One)
25 February: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Game Boy Advance)
27 February: Ninja Gaiden Shadow (Game Boy)
29 February: Ghostbusters (C64 Mini)

Always glad to get value out of PS+, and very much did this month with Bulletstorm and Bioshock. Same for Game Pass and Bloodstained (though my excessive play of Demon’s Tilt on there makes that a given). For medical reasons, my handhelds got plenty of love this month with Castlevania: Circle of the Moon being a particular highlight, though finally finishing the original Mario Bros was pretty cool too. And as I like to every now and again, I reminded myself why Ghostbusters on C64 is in my top 30 favourite games ever – a practice game to remind myself how it goes (which I actually did on the Spectrum this time), then straight through as usual. Timeless!

March
4 March: Destruction Derby 2 (PlayStation Classic)
14 March: Doom 3 (Switch)
18 March: Anodyne (Switch)
30 March: Agent X (ZX Spectrum)
31 March: Agent X II (ZX Spectrum)

50 hours on Animal Crossing over two weeks after release is quite apparent in this month’s list! Loved the chance to win everything in Destruction Derby 2 again, and Doom 3 became probably my favourite shooter ever! For the purposes of Retro Arcadia postings, I finished the wonderful Agent X for the hundredth time, and its less wonderful sequel on the Spectrum for the first time.

April
4 April: Death Star Interceptor (ZX Spectrum)
11 April: Doom 64 (Switch)
13 April: Doom (Switch)
26 April: Doom II (Switch)
27 April: Kid Dracula (Game Boy)
30 April: Saboteur 2 – Avenging Angel (Switch)

Caught up on a load more classic Dooms on Switch last month. As much as I enjoyed them, I’m a bit done with Doom for now! Also caught up with Death Star Interceptor, an even older game I first came across in 1985! I’d also forgotten I was right near the end of Game Boy Kid Dracula a few months ago when I abandoned it for some reason, so got that done too. Same for Saboteur 2 on Switch. Started at Christmas, got sidetracked (by Ninja Saviors) and forgot I had it, but will never forget that map from playing it on the Spectrum years ago!

May
3 May: TimeSplitters (PS2)
5 May: TimeSplitters 2 (PS2)
6 May: Streets of Rage 4 (Switch)
7 May: Moley Christmas (ZX Spectrum)
14 May: Streets of Rage 2 (Mega Drive Mini)
18 May: Daley Thompson’s Decathlon (ZX Spectrum)
26 May: Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare (Game Boy Colour)
31 May: Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (PS4)

May began with the delivery of a replacement PS2, and meant I could finally finish the two TimeSplitters games I’d had a hankering to play for a while. And I’m still playing regularly to improve times on the original too! Streets of Rage 4 made a claim for the top of my game of the year list so far, but otherwise it was going back to some old favourites. Oh yeah, nearly forgot the latest Star Wars game too, which is indicative of how memorable I found it!

June
12 June: TMNT (GBA)
13 June: Call of Duty WWII (PS4)
14 June: American Election (Mac)
14 June: Wampus (NES)
16 June: I’m Bored, Let’s Explore (Ruins) (Mac)
16 June: Masks (Mac)
18 June: Intrepid (Mac)
23 June: In Other Waters (Switch)
26 June: Rik the Roadie (ZX Spectrum)
28 June: Milk Race (ZX Spectrum)
30 June: Akumajo Dracula (Super Castlevania IV) (Switch)

Thought the Japanese version of Super Castlevania IV might make a nice change for my annual play-through, but turned out wonderfully similar to what I know and love! Otherwise my MacBook got some unusual love with the fantastic Itch.io’s Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality, which also included a fantastic all-new NES game Wampus. And an underwater sci-if exploration game called In Other Waters made a hell of a shout for game of the year!

July
12 July: Manic Miner 2020 – Special Edition (ZX Spectrum)
13 July: Super Mario Bros. COVID-19 Edition (ZX Spectrum)
13 July: Monument Valley 2 (iPad)
18 July: Erica (PS4)
19 July: The Room 2 (iPad)
20 July: Silent Hill (PlayStation Classic)
28 July: Ghostbusters The Video Game Remastered (PS4)

New Spectrum games always welcome, especially those involving Miner Willy! Always nice to see a Mario invasion on there too! I’ve had Monument Valley 2 taking up space on my iPad for years and it turns out that work of art didn’t deserve to be kept waiting, but that’s a far lesser crime than how long I left Silent Hill hanging around… Just amazing, and how on earth did I ignore that series for so long?

August
8 August: Call of Duty – Modern Warfare 2 (PS4)
14 August: Carrion (Xbox)
24 August: Winter Games (ZX Spectrum)
25 August: Winter Games (C64 Mini)
27 August: Star Wars Episode 1 Racer (Switch)

Animal Crossing still in evidence while I was on holiday (from work at least) this month, though it marked the end of being about done with anything major on there I think. Lots of arcade stuff like P-47 and Sunset Riders this month that might have an ending but I’ll never see them, but Carrion was a definite, very unique highlight that I did finish. And always an absolute pleasure to spend time with Winter Games… Even in the height of summer!

September
3 September: Silent Hill 2 (PS2)
5 September: Super Mario All Stars – Super Mario Bros. (SNES on Switch)
8 September: Donkey Kong Country (SNES on Switch)
13 September: Bayonetta (PS4)
20 September: Duke Nukem 3D – 20th Anniversary World Tour (Switch)
26 September: Vanquish (PS4)

Some serious catching up done in September. Highlight was Silent Hill 2. First time playing (but already not the last), and I can safely say it’s one of my favourite games ever! Elsewhere some real big hitters I’ve somehow never managed to play before – horizons becoming truly broadened in my old (middle) age!

October
3 October: Super Mario 3D Land (3DS)
9 October: Bloodstained – Curse of the Moon 2 (Switch)
17 October: Powerdrift (Arcade on 3DS)
20 October: Out Run (Game Gear)
25 October: Road Rash Jailbreak (Game Boy Advance)
27 October: The Ninja Kids (Arcade on PS2)
28 October: Star Wars Squadrons (PS4)
31 October: Out Run (3DS)

I seem to have had a thing for handheld racers this month! With that and Mario 3D Land, my 3DS had more play in the last month than ever before. Highlight of the month was Bloodstained 2 though. Very nearly as good as any proper old-school Castlevania, and definite game of the year contender, closely followed by Star Wars Squadrons, which is just so much nerd fun, win or (mostly) lose.

November
8 November: Super Mario Sunshine (GameCube)
8 November: The Chaos Engine (SNES)
19 November: Secret of Mana (SNES Classic Mini)
23 November: Friday the 13th (C64 Mini)
24 November: Splatterhouse (PC-Engine Mini)
25 November: Friday the 13th (ZX Spectrum)
26 November: Rupert and the Ice Castle (ZX Spectrum)

Mario Sunshine tops the list this month. Now I can allow myself to play the new 3D All Stars version that’s not only still sealed, but in the envelope it came in on launch day months ago! Enjoyed Secret of Mana far more than expected and Splatterhouse as much as I hoped. Chaos Engine was fun if a bit repetitive, but it’s always nice to finish a game within 30 years of buying it! Otherwise, some crap and not so crap 8-bit stuff for Retro Arcadia!

December
1 December: Splatterhouse – Wanpaku Graffiti (NES)
1 December: Jungle Hunt (Atari 2600)
2 December: Fantasy Zone II W (3DS)
4 December: Splatterhouse (Arcade on Switch)
13 December: Animal Crossing New Horizons (Switch)

A flurry of Splatterhouse and other retro activity at the start of the month! Having finally completed Fantasy Zone II W, I did also finally settle a long-standing internal debate about which game in that wonderful series is my favourite (and it’s this one)! At 510 hours and getting my final fish – which completes everything you can complete in the game – I’m calling Animal Crossing, but I’m still playing! Not sure where the rest of the month went – I was at least supposed to finish Residemt Evil 4 on GameCube, but it will be a nice start to 2021!