Ever since I put together my list of favourite sights in all of gaming, a few weeks ago at the time of writing, I’ve been giving more favourite sights in other games a bit of thought, and we’re definitely in a position now where we can add some more to the list and make up a top ten!
You can read about the original top five here, but just to recap…
1. The road opening out in the first stage of arcade Out Run 2. The sunset background in level two of arcade P-47 3. Olli & Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle’s second screen on ZX Spectrum 4. The sunset background in level two of PC Engine Victory Run 5. Mega Drive Streets of Rage 2 third stage pirate ship
I struggled a bit to get far beyond a top five previously, but did give a single honourable mention to Super Castlevania IV’s ghost and glitter and gold level, also known as Stage IX, also known as The Treasury, so it’s only fair that we start right there at our new number six favourite sight in all of gaming!
I could probably make up another top ten only using sights from Super Castlevania IV on SNES! And actually, before I came up with Stage IX, my initial thought was climbing the famous Castlevania steps up to the final boss with the moon behind the castle. Absolutely stunning, and in every Castlevania this sight is an indicator that your’ve nearly made it! If I had to choose any game world to live in, it’s this one (or maybe Silent Hill… more later)! I absolutely adore the unique gothic art-style, the sumptuous colours and the sheer imagination. The game has already put you through the ringer by the time you get to Stage IX, but seeing this unique environment compared to everything you’ve been through before is like a reset, refreshing you for the last push! The ghosts that float up all around the screen are harmless but remind you that in Castlevania, all that glitters – and there’s a lot here that does – might not always be gold. What is gold, though, is this little tip – jump on any treasure chest in this level 256 times and you’ll be rewarded with a big meat to boost your health. It’s all just glorious, unique in the game, and you’re welcome!
If I ever do a list about gaming music, that level in Castlevania might figure too (though it might have some competition from Symphony of the Night), but what would definitely figure – and probably right at the top of the list – would be Commando on the Commodore 64. And that’s where we heading now in our favourite sights list too! This is a mid-eighties vertically-scrolling run and gun arcade conversion, where your commando (who is more Rambo than Commando) is shooting up the enemy, chucking grenades and freeing hostages. When it first came out, like many kids on many games of the time, I spent most of my time in the first stage. And that didn’t matter, of course! And at the end of that first stage, you’re clearing out a few last soldiers as you reach a huge set of double-gates. As you get close, they spring open and all hell breaks loose as masses of enemy soldiers rush you all at once. You’d start off getting into a good position to spray them down with bullets from the side, then it was a case of just never stop moving, and should one of the enemies come face-to-face with your rifle, take them out! If you’re lucky you won’t get killed by the last guy left – which seemed to be what happened most times – and you’ll run through the gates into stage two. But if you don’t, no worries, because every time you get there you’ll get that same sense of anticipation and exhileration as those gates swing spring apart and all those guys break through!
Before we move on, I’m going to quickly mention the advert for Commando too. Obviously, the advert for Barbarian was the greatest gaming advert of all time ever, closely followed by its sequel. But, for the purpose of this discussion, let’s pretend there’s no adverts featuring Page Three stunner Maria Whittaker wearing a couple of scraps of metal… As dire as that world might be, the Commando advert – complete with what appears to be a hand-painted screenshot – is definitely one my favourite gaming adverts.
I’m not sure I can write many more words about Silent Hill 2 than I did already here! I think it’s the greatest horror game of all time, which I’d also say about its predecessor if this didn’t exist! The original Silent Hill was probably as famous for its fog as its sequel is for Pyramid Head, but this was mostly there to hide graphical limitations of the original PlayStation; it just happened to create an incredible atmosphere while it did it! The second game, on the PlayStation 2, didn’t have those limitations, but it did have fog… the absolute best fog in any game to this day! At the very start of the game, you notice wisps of fog swirling around you, and then you begin your descent, and then the fog starts to envelope you. And when you’re moving down towards the town and slowly become completely surrounded by this brilliant, multi-greyed, almost living and breathing entity, you suddenly realise that you’re really back in Silent Hill. And that’s a wonderful realisation in a wonderful moment!
In 2020, Star Wars: Squadrons came very close to the thrill of flying an X-Wing, but a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, something else came even closer! When you sat down in the sit-down Star Wars arcade cabinet in 1983, you were Luke Skywalker climbing into the cockpit of an X-Wing. And you’d never seen graphics like this before – you were in a 3D colour vector dogfight approaching the Death Star, then you were navigating your way across the surface of the Death Star, and then, in one of the most exhilerating moments you’ll ever come across in the history of gaming, you dropped down into the trench! You’re being shot at from side-mounted cannons and you’re avoiding beams up and down and in the middle, and it all feels wonderfully claustrophobic and so dangerous, until that moment of absolute panic when you need to fire your proton torpedo down the exhaust port. “Great shot kid, that was one in a million” then rings out as the Death Star explodes and you start all over again with the difficulty ramped up. Never before did a few coloured lines spark so much imagination!
We’re closing out our top ten with a game that took the giant leap into filling-in those coloured lines, and not only that, but doing something else you’d never seen the like of in a game before… especially a racing game! I have absolutely no recollection of Hard Drivin’ in any arcade, but it was a huge deal when the conversions hit in 1990, and the undisputed highlight of Christmas that year was the Atari ST version (more on that here)! Even though I’d never played it before, like everyone else that played it, I knew exactly what I was looking out for the very first time I loaded it up. Go up the hill from the start, do a right towards the Stunt course, take the bridge (again and again until you realise the speed limit signs at the side of the road aren’t just there for decoration), one more right, and there it is in all it’s majesty – the legendary loop-the-loop! I still think it’s a technical marvel every time I play it, and I still every time I go around it I still wonder quite how I did it! And there you were thinking I was going to say the cow that moos when you run into it!
As we had an honourable mention in our previous top five, which is now our number six, before I summarise the full top ten I just want to award a replacement honourable mention! I struggled to not include this, but if I had included it, I’d have struggled to decide exactly what I was not going to include, or, indeed, what from this game I would! Before stuff like Halo (RIP) or Uncharted or Tetris or various Marios became system sellers on their respective consoles, a game called Defender of the Crown was exactly that on the Atari ST. I don’t think there was ever a graphical leap between computer or console generations like that one. One minute you’re prodding monochrome ghosts in Scooby Doo on the Spectrum, and the next you’re looking at this jaw-dropping vista with the most realistic medieval castle you’ve ever seen recreated on anything!
I’m also awarding another honourable mention because if the first instalment had one, then surely this one deserves one too? This time we’re talking about the arcade version of Gradius II, known as Vulcan Venture outside of Japan. I’ve dabbled with Gradius and its offshoots (such as Salamsnder, also known as Life Force) for years, and I’m equally terrible at all of them, but fortunately this sight comes midway through the first level, so even I get to have a gander! This is a 1988 side-scrolling power-up shooter, and you’re quickly dodging these stunning suns that fire-breathing fire serpents occasionally slither out of. Then at one point you’re surrounded by three of these fiery planets and it just looks terrifyingly beautiful. If only I could get past the flaming boss at the end of the level, because who knows what incredible sights lie ahead?
Finally, unless I think of anything else that urgently needs to be included in the next five minutes (like stage one of Fantasy Zone II, for example), I’m going to further preview what’s inevitably going to turn into a top fifteen very soon! It would be be here right now – and in all probability be a lot more than something after the honourable mentions too – except I reckon there’s a better version of it waiting in the arcade game, and that’s the wonderful scene from Stage V of Splatterhouse on PC-Engine with the flying scarecrow pumpkin skeleton thing and it’s bony zombie army. I’ve just never got that far in the arcade game, but there’s a challenge for me one fine day…
In the meantime, let’s just run down our all new top then!
1. The road opening out in the first stage of arcade Out Run 2. The sunset background in level two of arcade P-47 3. Olli & Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle’s second screen on ZX Spectrum 4. The sunset background in level two of PC Engine Victory Run 5. Mega Drive Streets of Rage 2 third stage pirate ship 6. Super Castlevania IV ghost and glitter and gold level (Stage IX) 7. Gates opening at the end of C64 Commando first stage 8. When the fog engulfs you at the start of Silent Hill 2 on PS2 9. Dropping into the trench in Star Wars arcade (sit-down) 10. The loop-the-loop in Atari ST Hard Drivin’
As a final aside, when I was playing Star Wars again recently to get some screenshots, I noticed something that I’ve never noticed before in all these years! After you’ve done you’re business in the trench, check out the Death Star just before it explodes… May the Force be with you!
There once was (and still is) an experimental alternative rock band called Butthole Surfers, and their influence can be heard all over the place even if their music isn’t so much, from Nirvana to Marilyn Manson. Back in 1993, I had one of their albums, Independent Worm Saloon, on cassette, until my brother borrowed it to play in his Mini. Unfortunately his Mini got nicked that day and several weeks later was discovered deep in the River Ouse just outside Bedford, and whilst the cassette did eventually find its way back to me after the car was recovered, it had seen better days and would never be played again! Before that, in 1987, Butthole Surfers released the delightfully named Locust Abortion Technician album, and the opening track of that was called Sweat Loaf. It started with a sample of a boy asking his dad what does regret mean? His dad replies, “Well son, a funny thing about regret is that it’s better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven’t done. And by the way, if you see your mum (mom) this weekend, would you be sure and tell her Satan! Satan! Satan!” And yes, I could have got with the far more well-known early nineties Orbital dancefloor-filler Satan, which sampled the Buttholes, but I don’t have any good stories about Orbital!
Anyway, since then, I’ve always thought that’s a pretty good philosophy. I also like the one about never regretting something (or someone) that made you smile. Of course, all of this is easier said than done, and we often have little control over our cognitive or emotional responses. In most cases there’s also no undo button, although in my case, just £14 for a legit copy of Elite on Atari ST would actually go some way towards undoing what was previously my only standout regret in gaming! That said, I’ll never be able to buy back the time spent that the lady who worked where my grandma was a cleaner and very kindly and very illicitly photocopied the mega manual for me over a period of days so I could answer the security question when the game loads. She did get a box of chocolates for her troubles after my mum found out what had gone on though! Anyway, aside from that, from day one I’ve always felt a bit dirty about what turned into thousands of hours on my number nine favourite game of all time all being done off a copied disk, care of my school-friend Thomas! And despite my little slogans, I have regretted never buying a legit copy – even now, as I write this in full knowledge of the low entry cost!
At the time of writing, the rediscovery and subsequent reinstallation of my Atari ST as a permanent feature in my study has made all those years of regret over Elite a bit redundant though… There’s a bigger crime, you see! Those thousands of hours in Elite make it my second most-played game of all time, but on trying to remember how to fire up an Atari ST (and subsequently ordering new TV cables to make it viewable), I pressed the stiff old disk eject button and came to the terrible realisation that the game I’d played more than any other, including Elite – and also my number two favourite game of all time – was also pirated! Kick Off + Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is what the fading pencilled text on the 3.5″ floppy said. I think it spent so long in my machine during the second half of its very long life, and then its even longer hibernation, that I’d completely blanked it being dodgy. And now my foul deeds are more than doubled and we have a total of even more several thousand hours of gaming that I’ve never paid a penny for; it’s like The Gasman episode of Bottom, where Ritchie and Eddie are siphoning off Mr Rottweiler next-door’s gas and eating his sausages and cakes and pickled eggs and stuff! That all said, this newly discovered heist didn’t involve retrospectively bribing anyone to photocopy manuals, so by my reckoning I can make my greatest crime against gaming 100% right for under a tenner on Ebay, meaning all in we have a life without regret for about £25 should I ever feel the need! And yes, I know the developer will never see that money, but I’ll be spending it all the same!
The next little mystery is where this copy of Kick Off (or Kick Off: Extra Time to be precise) came from. Most of my ill-gotten Atari ST gains were from the aforementioned school-friend Thomas, but neither him nor his cronies would have ever bought a copy of a football game – way too distant from Dungeons & Dragons! Ghouls ‘n Ghosts isn’t giving me much of a clue either, apart from dating it from the end of 1989 onwards! The other stuff written on the disk also isn’t helping much – Disktool (ahem!) then “(Hi Res Emulator)” and “Acize (Norm)” appear to be lost to the mists of time. And it’s all in my handwriting, meaning I probably copied it, though it can only have been from another copy because until I was looking up stuff just now, I don’t think I’d ever laid eyes on the boxes for ST Kick Off or Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. By the way, I’m not going into it here, but that version of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is superb! You can’t get turned into an old man, and the incredible rain effects in the arcade version are definitely toned down here, but otherwise it’s a great way to run about in your pants chucking daggers at some great-looking undead, as they mercilessly and brutally team you how to play the old-school way!
I’m reaching the conclusion that Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was probably the reason behind this disk, and that might also be the case for whoever I got it from. I was a huge fan of its predecessor, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, on both Spectrum and C64 (see here), but that’s not to say that I didn’t have some pedigree in football games too! I’m not sure the double-bat version of Pong that called itself Football (and also Hockey!) on the Interstate 1160 console (or similar) is ever really considered in the annals of football games, but the dreadful Artic Computing World Cup Football on the Spectrum – which I think is the first proper football game I played, back in 1984 – certainly would be. It was Match Day on the Spectrum that became my first football love though! That also came out in 1984, but it would be a couple of years later that I became surely one of the best players in the world when I had my own Spectrum, and I think I got it on the They Sold a Million 2 compilation. Playing it today, it runs a bit slow to say the least, but it’s an incredible piece of football game history, with ground-breaking proper football features like throw ins, corners and even dribbling, all on a side-on but kind of isometric proper pitch! The player sprites looked like proper players too, even if they were lifted straight out of BurgerTime-inspired platformer Bear Bovver! My next love was the sequel, Match Day II, but in its 128K guise of International Match Day, which added more players, more directions of control, and – for the first time in a football game – deflections and a shot power gauge… Which was a bit dodgy and often resulted in a back heel!
Aside from these (and not counting the wonderful Football Manager – another game in my top few most hours spent in gaming ever titles), I enjoyed player-sim Footballer of the Year, and dabbled with the Emlyn Hughes and MicroProse Soccer games, plus budget stinker Advanced Soccer Simulator, and I think there was a five-a-side budget game too, but nothing ever really topped my affection for Match Day and its sequel on the Spectrum. Around the time I bought my ST, I’m not sure if I wasn’t really in the market for football games, or if there just wasn’t a lot around. I definitely picked up Football Manager 2 early on, with its wonderful realistic 3D match highlights, and I played it to death. And at some point I was given a copy (real, not pirate!) of MicroProse Soccer, but I’ve a feeling that was post- Kick Off, meaning it never got much of a look in. Same with the later Manchester United game – it was really good, and definitely an historic stepping stone between something like Match Day and what we now know as FIFA or PES style, but it wasn’t Kick Off… Even Kick Off 2 wasn’t Kick Off, but we’ll come back to that! Aside from that, and back to the earlier days of having an ST, I remember some Peter Beardsley, Kenny Dalglish and Gazza games making their way to 16-bit, and the Footballer of the Year sequel, but certainly nothing memorable.
Thinking about it, maybe nothing else is memorable when you consider the arrival of Kick Off in the summer of 1989! “Best computer game ever” said Amiga User International. “Probably the best sports game ever” said The Games Machine. And so on. My own beloved Computer & Video Games magazine lauded its realism, if not its graphical thrills, and called it the best ST footie game yet… But as we’ve already discovered, that’s not such high praise, and the 84% it scored also possibly wasn’t the high praise that demanded I rush out and get a copy when there was stuff like Dungeon Master (more here), Defender of the Crown and Ghouls ‘n Ghosts to grab my attention… If not necessarily my cash!
All that said, we’ve now established that I was something of a connoisseur of football games by this point (far more than I could say I am now!), and by whatever means, the second I eventually clicked “2” for Kick Off rather than “1” for Ghouls ‘n Ghosts on the Pompey Pirates’ dodgy disk splash screen, a new chapter in my life in gaming began, and it was one that would span the end of my school years, the whole of my university life, my first job and most of the next-generation PlayStation’s life, right up to buying my first flat and moving in with my then-girlfriend and then wife almost a decade later, when my ST got put in a box for several decades!
Where Match Day and its sequel were ground-breaking in bringing real aspects of football into a video game, as C&VG noted, Kick Off was ground-breaking for bringing realism. And a lot of that realism was down to the ball not sticking to a player’s feet, though Kick Off can’t actually take credit for that. Back in 1985, Nintendo released NES stinker Soccer, which did exactly the same thing, though that would have gone well under the radar of most of my brethren in the UK particularly, where the console never really got much of a look in, and anything that didn’t have a Mario in it certainly didn’t! NES Soccer reminds a bit of Artic’s aforementioned stinker, but is more formless, slower, and moving a defender makes the keeper mirror his movement! Reviewed alright though, with C&VG only scoring it 1% less than Kick Off! It’s also worth mentioning Sensible Soccer here – another dearly beloved 16-bit footballer, and as far as I know is very similar to Kick Off in all but the ball sticking to your foot.
Everything in Kick Off is top down. You’ve got a full size pitch, scrolling in all directions, with everything properly proportioned. There’s a scanner showing player positions, and all the players have their own abilities, based on pace, accuracy, stamina and aggression. I’m not sure if this was a first, but the referees had their own style too, dishing out yellow and red cards, awarding penalties and adding injury time, with all the “accuracy” of a real-life referee! A single button and your joystick were all you needed to dribble, pass, shoot, chip, head and tackle. The goalie did his own thing until he had the ball, which was the cause of all kinds of blaming and shaming when you lost a game! There’s five difficulty levels, from International to Sunday League, and a great feature is being able to test yourself against higher level teams (where you being Sunday League versus International will eventually become the default). Otherwise, it’s a fast-paced, realistic game of football!
Kick Off was always about how it played more than how it looked, and no one was ever blown away by screenshots on adverts! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it in the looks department though. Despite their size and the angle you’re seeing them from, the players have a lot of character, and there’s just enough detail in the model and its animation to make you feel like you’re in complete control of the ball and the part of the player’s body that it’s in contact with. Otherwise, the pitch does its job with a nice sense of scale and everything moves on it at just the right speed – fast! The game comes alive in the sound department though, with dynamic crowd noise especially creating real atmosphere, bringing to life a stadium that you’ll quickly forget isn’t even there!
I should also mention the Extra Time bit of Kick Off: Extra Time. This was a data disk with four new playing surfaces – wet, soggy, hard and artificial – that affected ball physics and player pace and stamina, plus wind effects, more tactics, more types of goal kicks, more player attributes, more league options and 20 unique referees. What might be called a sequel today! I’m not sure of the exact release date for this, but it must have been very quick after the original game launched.
The main source of joy in Kick Off is the controls, and how they allow you to interact with the ball, which in itself is a joy as it responds to ground and air friction. The manual referred to the controls as “instinctive” and picking it up again now, I can’t think of a better word. Yes, there might be some muscle memory at play, but a beginner could still pick this up and enjoy it. Then, over time, the pioneering nature of Kick Off’s ball not sticking to a player’s foot comes to the fore, with endless possibilities for heading, trapping, spinning and turning, switching feet, passing and shooting and volleying; and not to mention running onto the ball too, or – when you know exactly where each teammate is going to be – letting them run onto a perfectly timed, perfectly delivered pass too. With skill you can put together the most intricate, free-flowing and sometimes outrageous passes, dribbles, crosses and shots, and there’s no doubt that this freedom is behind the compulsion to keep playing. You never know what’s next, just like the real thing! This all works when the opposition are in possession too, allowing for controlled tackling and tactical delaying like never seen before, but yeah, there’s no denying that Kick Off’s wild slide tackles are another joy!
As well as single player, multiplayer and various practice modes, there’s a league competition. I don’t think until I was playing it again a couple of weeks ago at the time of writing that I even realised that this mode was there, let alone trying it out! Which I’m now struggling to find a reason for, except that I was too busy with my own competitions! To spice single player things up, I took Arsenal and England and applied my Kick Off team to their matches. We matched Arsenal’s league, European, FA Cup and League Cup campaigns, as well as every competitive or friendly England match, as well as European Cup and World Cup, all in real time, and all noted down in dozens of pocket notebooks! If they went out of a competition we just carried in with the team that knocked them out, then maybe the team that knocked them out too. Some serious attention to detail and serious work needed to stay on top of it! Eventually we won everything, but not all the time. The FA Cup was a particular hoodoo, and between 1991 and 1996 we never even reached the semi-finals. Eventually, in 1997, everything came right. Real-life winners Chelsea (but Arsenal for these purposes) were playing Middlesbrough in the final. My aforementioned then-girlfriend and now-wife and me were on our first holiday together in Luxor, Egypt while the actual FA Cup Final happened, so I had to delay the Kick Off version by a couple of weeks. It was worth the wait, with a 5-0 win!
On top of years’ worth of mirroring actual football competitions, every player in my team had a name, from David Seaman in goal to Roberto Baggio wherever he fancied playing. Same team regardless of domestic or international – my fantasy game, my rules! And every player was rated at the end of each match, and had their goal tally recorded, and imaginary awards were given at the end of every season! Andy Cole and Ian Wright were generally the top goal scorers, but Marco Van Basten was usually voted best player on the planet. My brother Phil’s team all had names too, and we spent hours and hours and hundreds or thousands of matches playing against each other for bragging rights that lasted until the next final whistle, relentlessly abusing each other’s players (by name), and often resorting to local bedroom football hooliganism when the ref made an outrageous decision or there was a particularly vicious slide tackle that could have put an end to your player of the year!
Kick Off wasn’t just a great game, but it also absolutely nailed a love and understanding of football and all the reasons why people are so passionate about it. It got the tension, the unpredictability and all of the excitement just right, and on top of that it absolutely nailed how it feels to play, win and lose. And in providing everything you needed to make you keep coming back for thousands of hours, there was still enough missing in terms of player names and team licensing (that would later win or lose the football game wars) to make you use your imagination and create your own football fantasies, which prolonged its life even more… Filling in the blanks, just like all the great 8-bit games of any genre had done just a very short time – but also what was also a video gaming lifetime – before. And that’s why its no surprise that Kick Off is the game I’ve played more than any other, and is unlikely to ever be replaced as my second favourite game of all time.
Of course, Amiga User’s “best computer game ever” was always going to get a sequel, but before Kick Off 2 arrived, we had Player Manager in 1990, which used the Kick Off match engine to power a football management sim where you played as a single player. And apparently it was very good! The same year, the sequel proper brought a more tactical game and more tactical player movement, as well as slightly enhanced ball physics. There were complex league and cup competitions, loads of distinctive refs and some kit editing and other stuff. There were a load of expansion disks too. But there was also after touch, and this ruined the game for me. Apparently you could turn it off, though I didn’t know at the time (and I did have the instructions this time having actually bought it)! Anyway, it let you change the direction of the ball in flight, and over time you could just use it all the time to become unstoppable, and that just became frustrating, especially against other human players doing the same thing. I know everyone else loves it, but it’s not for me!
Also not for me was Super Kick Off on the Gameboy. You could only see a tiny bit of the pitch, and if you weren’t close to any pitch markings you had no idea where you were, and more importantly where anyone else was. The players were just too small and moved too quickly to have any degree of ball control with too. This was a bigger disappointment for me than not clicking with Kick Off 2. Partially because by the time it came out there was a lot less disposable money available to student me, but also because I was desperate to love it – can you imagine carrying your almost favourite game ever around in your hand?
I don’t know much about Kick Off 3, 96, 97, 98, 2002 or the unreleased 2004, except that they didn’t make much of a splash, but I did pick up the 2016 Kick Off Revival on PS4, from original Kick Off mastermind Dino Dini. It was elected second worst game of 2016 on Metacritic, and accused of being the worst football game ever made by Vice. You can pretty much copy and paste my disappointment from the Game Boy version here, except that after decades apart I tried even harder to love it! I even studied the series of post-launch screenshots of spreadsheets that told you how to kick the ball. And I’m not exaggerating – look them up! But they did me no good…
And you know what, having parted with a load of money on three sequels that disappointed me enormously in one way or another, I’m feeling a whole lot better now about that regret thing. And I’m going to send that regret right back to Elite. And Elite photocopy lady!
Very prominent screenshots from another system were something I became accustomed to when I had a VIC-20, but by the time I’d had a Spectrum +2 for a while I’d get a bit suspicious when what were clearly C64 screenshots were plastered all over the box. In the case of 4×4 Offroad Racing, you can kind of see why they did it though!
That said, back in the November 1988 issue of Computer & Video Games, their 47% review of that version ended with an update, saying that US Gold were unhappy with the C64 release, and the Spectrum and Amstrad versions would contain “vast improvements” when they eventually arrived.
Maybe they spent all their time on vast improvements on the Amstrad version, because let’s be clear, the only reason we’re here is the Spectrum version stinks! Sinclair User gave it 40% and Crash were slightly more impressed, awarding 42%. I think they were both generous to say the least, with their main concerns being loads of loading, and its attempts to mix some racing strategy with arcade racing falling flat and doing neither in any interesting way.
I do have that copy of C&VG, though my own recent history with this was simply coming across a very garish Spectrum screenshot on social media and being intrigued. And here we are! I’m not going to review it, but I would like to give you a commentary of my first (and last) impressions if you’ll allow!
After a decent loading screen, you’re straight into a very uninspiring list of the four “toughest, roughest” course locations and a helpful description of the terrain you can expect in brackets next to it. From what I can tell, that terrain is exactly the same regardless of the description, apart from either one or both colours you get on the screen (you read that right) changing…
1. Baja (Rough Desert). Yellow and red monochrome. 2. Death Valley (Desert). Same as rough desert but yellow and black. 3. Georgia (Mud & Hills). Same as rough desert and desert but green and black. 4. Michigan (Winter). Same as rough desert, desert and mud & hills but white and blue.
And everything in every course is genuinely those same two colours – car, road, background, obstacles, other racers…
After some more loading (and it won’t stop there) it’s time to choose your utility vehicle. There’s several, there’s lots of stats about each, and again, it’s all very uninspiring and won’t make the slightest difference to anything!
You are then a guy that looks like a darts player from the eighties wandering about outside some shops. He’s wearing some strange high-heeled shoes. You can walk into the Custom Shop to buy a bumper and something else I couldn’t work out the identity of. Then you can walk to the Auto Mart to buy extra fuel, springs and stuff like that. All of this is like a bad version of Ghostbusters. Eventually you work out that you then need to walk right to the right edge of the screen (rather than walk to your new car which is parked outside the shops) and press fire to race. This bit looks a bit like a bad Everyone’s a Wally game, and is utterly pointless. Even the next multi-load is more interesting!
Finally we’re at whatever race we chose ages ago. Winter is blue and white and is the only one you’ll have any recollection of choosing. Your car looks like it was programmed in BASIC.
Once you’re underway, you’ll notice there’s no car physics in evidence. Driving feels like moving a slider left and right. Which is precisely what you’re doing and there’s no attempt to disguise it. I think a lot of racing games move the track rather than the car, and this might be a very good example of why that trick exists!
The sound doesn’t help with any potential suspension of disbelief. You’ll find the garish monochrome graphics are perfectly complemented by completely monotone engine sounds regardless of the high or low gear you’re in. Every race is just never-ending drone!
In every course, the main obstacle is the cactus in the middle of the track every few seconds. If you hit the cactus you explode. That’s why you have three lives in a racing game in case you were wondering. You also get potholes or piles of stones or exploding blades of grass or something to avoid (like a rubbish Buggy Boy), and there’s more obstacles on the track than other racers.
There’s a lot of hills and valleys in this game. These are signified by a line on the road then the screen violently shifting, and most of the car disappearing off the top of bottom of the screen.
You also get a lot of rivers – and sometimes something slightly wider than a river – on your courses. Now, I was always impressed reading about the scale of some of the American rivers that the old pioneers used to struggle to cross on their way west, but some of these here are seemingly more ocean than river. Anyway, often when you drive through a river on any level you get stuck, and unless you’re prepared to slowly waggle the joystick left and right and up at the same time for several minutes (assuming there is a shore in sight which isn’t always the case), you’re better off just shutting down and loading the whole game again. Or just playing something else! And I’ve no idea how I worked that out or persevered in doing it once I did during my very short playtime!
The road sometimes forks like Out Run. I’m not sure if it means anything, but it’s a bit of variety I suppose. Similarly, but of more concern in a racing game, is whether or not your race position means anything. It was, admittedly, the last thing on my mind until I noticed it for the first time on the Ghostbusters-like screen you also get when something goes wrong. I’m also not sure what triggers that – your damage indicators are something else that seem meaningless most of the time. Anyway, whatever that most important problem is, now you’re here you can try and fix it (which seems possible by clicking random icons whether you bought the right gear in the Everyone’s a Wally stage or not).
Back to your race position, I didn’t notice it anywhere else, but as I said, like many things in this game I’m not sure it means anything anyway! The courses are so long and monotonous that you’re unlikely to ever get to the end of one, let alone worry about where you came. And all of the opponents are as non-descript and seemingly as uninterested as you are, so what does it matter which one comes first! It’s like those scenes in The Matrix with all the same people fighting each other. Everyone wins or no one wins or no one cares. Actually the only winner here is the cactus. Cacti. Steer clear!
On paper this isn’t a million miles away from Victory Run on PC-Engine. For a system not known for its great racers, this is a great racer. In fact, it’s a toss up between Victory Run and Pac-Land for my favourite game on the system. Anyway, if you like the sound of this and fancy a bit of spare part management in your racing, you’re far better off admiring a garish screenshot of Spectrum 4×4 on social media then going there instead!
Back in October 1984, as was usual, I was avidly flicking through a friend’s new issue of Computer & Video Games magazine. A couple of months later I’d be starting an almost decade-long collection of my own, but for now reading it second-hand was just fine because devouring almost every word together was part of the fun!
And I very much remember this issue for one reason – there was a kind of review feature on the Amstrad CPC, which had come out in April that year, and there was screenshot of a ghost in front of a castle that I thought I could program on my Commodore VIC-20, so I duly borrowed the magazine and if I remember right I actually did it, though any evidence is long since gone!
Flicking through it again more recently, exactly 36 years later in fact, just past the CPC ghost castle and the feature review of Avalon on the Spectrum (a game I still can’t get excited about), a couple of reviews jumped right out at me from the very same page. I’m sure that 12-year old me took them in at the very least, and one of them might have even influenced a purchase I’d be making a few months down the line, but I’d certainly have had no concept of the significance of these games to me as a 48-year old with his utterly nerdy but highly curated (and very extensive) list of his favourite games of all time!
The first of those games was Perils of Willy for the VIC-20 (+16K Expanded). You’re Willy of Miner Willy from Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy fame over on the Spectrum, and you’re in for a brutal platformer as you travel home from a boozy night out, collecting musical notes that are hanging in the air and avoiding manic geese and stuff on the way. There’s no doubt it’s still my favourite game on the VIC-20, and overall it sits at seventeen in my all time favourite games list! I’ve written a load on this here, and also on the 2020 Spectrum port here.
What I’ve not written about elsewhere (yet) is the other game that jumped out at me. This one is also a bit special to me and – possibly more-so than Perils of Willy – is a bit special to lots of other people too… Elite for the BBC B computer! I think it was my friend Thomas that had a BBC, and assuming it was I remember watching him play Elite a couple of years later, fascinated by the enormous scale and scope of it all. And it was definitely him that years later copied it for me on the Atari ST, and lent me the 64 page manual that was then illicitly photocopied so I could answer the “first word on page x” security question every time you loaded it up! It is also definitely that wonderful version of the original limitless space-trading adventure that sits at number nine in my favourite games of all time list!
My lovingly curated favourite games list now numbers 200, and as I look at it now I can see the final game on there is Southern Belle on the Spectrum (which I covered here), and now I’m thinking that can’t be right so will no doubt be spending hours poring over it again later! There’s no way I like Tai-Pan at 199 more than Southern Belle. Outrageous! And to give it some context, that’s two hundred out of thousands of games played since the seventies. Super Mario Bros. didn’t make the cut. Ocarina of time is there but doesn’t crack the first hundred. My list isn’t a normal list and it’s certainly not easy to get into!
Which makes those two games, reviewed on a single page in the November 1984 issue of Computer & Video Games magazine, very special to me indeed, but how did they fare with them?
Perils of Willy is alright by C&VG! They’re impressed by faithful transition of the Willy character from the Spectrum, and seem to like the gameplay set-up because it let’s them make willy jokes. They talk about the enemy dogs and balloons, though I think they do underplay quite how nasty these things are. This really is a tough-as-nails old-school platformer, even by 1984 standards; though having just been playing Hunchback on the Spectrum as I write this, it certainly wasn’t the only one! They conclude by saying it’s not as good as Manic Miner or Jet Set Willy (but I don’t see either of them on my list!), but it is one of the best “climbing” games they have seen on the VIC-20. I like how descriptive reviewers used to get before “platforming” became a generic term, which can’t of been much after this?
Anyway, here’s the scores they awarded Perils of Willy: Graphics 7 Sound 8 Value 7 Playability 7
Elite next, and let’s keep in mind, this might be number nine in my list, but has regularly topped proper best game ever lists for decades! I absolutely love how this review starts… “Put simply, Elite is a flight simulation game for people who can’t normally get to grips with flight simulations.” I also love that almost 50% of what in retrospect might be deemed one of the most important games they ever reviewed is dedicated to the manual, the reference card with commands on it and the 48-page novel you also get in the box. They gush over the graphics, and rightly so, as this was some pioneering 3D going on here, right on the BBC B! One of the BBC computer designers, Sophie Wilson, once called Elite “the game that couldn’t have been written” and C&VG also point out its complexity – possibly the most complex game ever produced on any system. Quaintly, they also mention the ability to save the game because “it’s going to take some time to complete the mission.” I’m assuming they hadn’t “completed” it when they wrote the review! Then in a final bizarre twist, they invite readers to submit their high scores to them…
Here’s the scores they awarded Elite: Graphics 10 Sound 5 Value 7 Playability 7
As a quick scores on the doors, Elite wins outright on graphics, Perils of Willy sounds better, they both offer exactly the same amount of value for your pocket money, and they are both equally good to play. Where to begin…
No discussion needed about graphics. Perils of Willy is a 2D climbing game on the VIC-20. Its dogs and geese are among the best looking on the system, and there’s some nice animation going on in the balloons. I’ve also always loved the way certain sections of floor fall away from under you as you walk over them. But they’re not the best graphics on the machine – Jetpac and Skramble spring to mind at definite 8 out of 10’s – but I reckon for the end of 1984 and a bit too much sprite flickering, that 7 is about right. Equally, 10 is about right for Elite! The wireframe 3D models flicker a little, but apart from that just look at it now and everything still moves so smoothly, and that hyperspace jump is still a treat! There’s also loads going on in your cockpit, with the dual radar and no less than fourteen different indicators surrounding it. And 3D like this back in 1984 was just jaw-dropping. Incredible stuff!
Sound is a little more interesting! Elite’s sound is functional and nothing more. There’s not a great deal going on when you’re not shooting stuff and 5 out of 10 might be a point or so on the low side in my view, but is in the right ballpark. Over on Perils of Willy, we’ve got 8 out of 10… And I can only assume that’s for sheer amount of sound rather than quality!!! If I remember correctly, there’s a quite jarring death sound that is perfectly apt, and a beep when you collect a musical note. That’s your sound effects. But on top of those is a non-stop loop of the first 8-9 seconds of a VIC-20 – with its three pulse wave and one white noise generators – rendition of the opening of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. And it will drive you completely nuts! Actually, play it enough and you desensitise, but it really is a piece of work on your ears!
With the benefit of 2020 vision, if I was reviewing these games I’d be giving them both 10 out of 10 for value! As I write I’ve just gone over 500 hours in Animal Crossing, but Elite – together possibly exclusively with Kick Off – would be in the several thousands. Granted that’s the Atari ST version, but I don’t think it would have been much different if I’d owned a BBC back in 1984. No one is playing thousands of hours of any Willy game, but there’s no doubt I got my £5.95’s worth out of it! It was the first and possibly only game I ever left a computer secretly running for days for because, unlike Elite, you couldn’t save it and I wanted to get the most out of my infinite lives poke! But also unlike Elite, I still play Perils of Willy regularly today! Back to C&VG’s scores though, in the eyes of a normal person I reckon Elite is being a little harshly scored here. But I’m also not sure they got what Elite actually was when they were reviewing it – that review really doesn’t stink of greatest game of all time material!
Finally, we have nice subjective playability. I’ve always read that as how good something is to play. And I don’t think you can really compare how good a platformer is to play versus a space-trading sim, but again, I’ve got to veer on the opinion that Elite is being hard done by here – as said just now, 7 out of 10 for anything does not scream best (or even ninth best) game ever! I’m wondering now if the fact that Elite was so ground-breaking had a negative effect on some of these early reviews; that people just didn’t get it, or alternatively couldn’t quite comprehend the vastness and complexity of what they had in their hands because they’d simply never seen anything like it before. It didn’t just define the space-trading with a bit of combat sim genre, but also defined a lot about video game design full stop. As the only reference point for gameplay in any context in this review, the playability score surely has to be as much higher as it can be! Subjectively speaking of course… Oh yeah, while we’re being subjective, 7 out of 10 also stinks for Perils of Willy!
In summary, I actually love that my old VIC-20 favourite Perils of Willy is scoring on par with Elite in my favourite old computer games magazine! But before we say goodnight, let’s quickly see how other games reviewed in the same issue stack up against one (two!) of the greatest games of all time!
As mentioned before, wizardy adventure Avalon on the Spectrum is this month’s marquee game, and apart from graphics it’s beating Elite significantly on every front. As an aside, I remember being really impressed by how this looked on the Commodore 64 when it was reviewed, but the Spectrum version just never did it for me. Maybe I need to pull myself together and give it a proper go now I have a proper yardstick for how good it is! American election sim Election Trail on C64 is next, and whilst they conclude by saying it’s not a game you’d buy for its entertainment value, it’s still out-scoring Elite on playability! As is the Spectrum port of one of my Atari 2600 favourites, Enduro. Falcon Patrol 2 on C64 wins out on everything except graphics, as does Pi in ‘Ere on the Spectrum, which looks a bit like Boulderdash but I can’t say I’ve ever really paid much attention to! The reviews are getting more brief now as we move down the pecking order of C&VG excitement, but Spectrum Piromania, Terrahawks and decent Manic Miner-a-like Frank n Stein, as well as BBC Crawler, are also outperforming Elite on all but graphics. Now a bit more colour on the page again, and Bird Mother and Gumshoe on C64 are trouncing all over Elite and even coming close on graphics with 9 out of 10 each. Same for the full-page (and fully deserved) spread on Pyjamarama, which is in all honesty the first recognisable game for most that we’ve covered here in a while! The Wally (not Willy) games on the Spectrum were always lookers, and that deserves its 9 out of 10 for everything except sound, which only got 8. Next we’ve got Activision classic Zenji on the C64! It’s a maze game that looks like something on an old Atari machine, and despite being “all in all a fairly dull game” is still more playable than Elite. And Perils of Willy!
Moving into the special section they’ve got this month for MSX games, which strangely has its own scoring system, we can still easily conclude that Comic Bakery is better than Elite on all fronts except a narrow miss on graphics. And finally, also on MSX, we have classic Konami penguin ice-skater Antarctic! Again, not too hard to draw a conclusion… Additive quality 10 Lasting appeal 8 Graphics 10 Overall 10
Keep in mind that even though lasting appeal is all that’s stopping it being the perfect game, it’s still out-lasting the thousands of hours worth of gameplay available in Elite and the decades of challenge in Perils of Willy! In the words of the reviewer, “I recommend this family game to anyone who has an MSX computer. It’ll be remembered as a classic.” And I want you to remember that the next time anyone tells you Elite is the greatest game of all time!
The greatest thrill for me in Out Run is when the road opens out into a majestic six lane coastal highway, just a few seconds into the very first stage. In fact, that moment is my favourite sight in all of gaming (which you can read about here).
The Game Gear version doesn’t do that. In fact, it takes a while before you even realise it’s a coastal highway at all, let alone anything more than a two lane one! For better or worse, this version is its own thing. No lazy Master System port for Out Run (although no one would have complained), and for all the compromises made as a result to get it inside this old Sega handheld, it’s exactly the port you need if you have one!
I love Out Run (even more to read on that here), and for someone who’s generally rubbish at games, I’m still pretty good at it; I think I’ve seen every inch of every track that the arcade version and several others have to offer. What I’d never done is play the Game Gear version, and despite my brother owning one in the early nineties, I don’t think Out Run on there even registered with me. In fact, it took Sega’s 30th anniversary of the Game Gear Japan-only Game Gear Micro – released mere days ago at the time of writing in October 2020 – for me to notice it at all.
Now, there’s absolutely no doubt that I’m going to own one – if not all four – of these bonkers tiny machines (and magnifying glass if you buy the lot) at some point in the near future. At the Japanese Yen equivalent of $50 plus exorbitant shipping costs, these things come in four colours with four games on each colour. The black one (my inevitable starting point!) includes Sonic the Hedgehog, Puyo Puyo 2, Out Run and Royal Stone. The red one comes with Revelations: The Demon Slayer, Shin Megami Tensei Gaiden: Last Bible Special, The GG Shinobi and Columns (which I did play a lot of on my brother’s original Game Gear). Blue has got Sonic Chaos, Gunstar Heroes, Sylvan Tale and Baku Baku Animal. And finally yellow is a bit more specialist for the non-Japanese speaker, coming with the text-heavy Shining Force Gaiden: Ensei – Jashin no Kuni he, Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya, Shining Force Gaiden: Final Conflict and (I hope I’m pronouncing this right) Nazopuyo Aruru no Ru. And they all come with a literally postage stamp-sized 1.15 inch, 240 x 180 screen!
About an hour ago as I write this, I was just touching up my epic on Silent Hill 2 (which you can read here, assuming that like me, you are also in the future by now). That was a game where I showed similar levels of self-restraint to those I’m increasingly struggling to contain right now! From the moment the credits rolled on the first game, just a few months ago (long story that I won’t repeat here), I spent six weeks waiting for it to go for sub-£20 on eBay, which is the price I’d justified to myself I needed to pay. Likewise, I thought that sooner or later either I’ll turn up in Japan again or they’ll turn up here, and all I really want to do is play a new version of Out Run anyway, so why not just get the Game Gear version of Out Run for the time being? Most sensible!
Despite the compromises, which we’ll jump into shortly, the premise of Game Gear Out Run is a familiar and authentic one. You’re choosing your music then cruising down branching routes from behind your Ferrari with your girlfriend in tow (in the seat next to you, not literally). The start line in the palm trees is classic Out Run, and although what then follows is cut-down a bit, and the tracks have their own identity in the main, it all stays completely recognisable throughout!
That music is also completely recognisable – no compromises here! In fact, what you get are some of the best versions of Out Run’s iconic soundtrack tunes that you’re ever going to hear, and I’m not just talking about on conversions either! And it’s all here, with your choice of Magical Sound Shower, Passing Breeze and Splash Wave waiting for you before every race. These versions are just so complete and so joyful, and I really can’t imagine that anything else coming out of a Game Gear speaker has ever bettered them!
In terms of difficulty, there’s various things at play to balance it out when you’re comparing with the original. Firstly, you’re completing four stages of your choice rather than five, so it’s shorter. There’s also less traffic, which makes getting around a bit easier than the arcade version, but with track space limited to two lanes throughout, and a shorter draw-distance – especially over hills – you’re going to be slowing down a lot more, or just hitting things, with similar frequency. And time to complete each stage is not generous! In the arcade version, if you’ve got your foot down in the main, you can get away with a crash or a couple of spin-outs and still rack up enough extra seconds from the first couple of stages to reach the end. Not so here, where reaching the end of each stage seems to be down to the wire from the outset, and even without any mishaps in the first few stages, you’re going to be lucky to reach the end.
But Out Run isn’t about reaching the end (which I’m now qualified to say having reached all the ends)! It’s about a glamorous thrill-ride in a fast car through exotic locales and then doing it all over again. And whilst it might take a while to see the end of any of these routes, you’re going to get your money’s worth out of every game and most likely see a couple of stages at least right out of the box. The tracks are missing all the beach huts and stone arches and cliffs of the original, but what’s there is flying by at a very smooth, very fast pace. And the developers really went out of their way to give the Game Gear its own experience, with every track offering something unique. You might start in familiar territory – even if it does take the sea a while to make an appearance – but you’ll soon be bombing around glorious desert sunsets (which you’ll see I do have a bit of a fetish about in my gaming sights thing here), Egyptian pyramids and something like Las Vegas to name just a few favourites. Incidentally, you can also race single stages against single computer opponents on a choice of tracks from the home screen, though it’s not much of a challenge. If you’re up for the challenge of connecting a friend’s Game Gear in the 2020’s, that mode might offer more of a gaming challenge too!
Throughout approximately eight hours of play time with this over the past couple of weeks, there was one thing I’d never had any expectations to find in this version of Out Run, and that was exhilaration. For decades, the main draw of the arcade machine was the exhilaration of the first stage. I never forgot it. And then in 2019, with the release of the Sega Ages version on Nintendo Switch, I discovered another moment that may have even surpassed that, in the final stage of route D, where you went up then down and into a bend at full speed, surrounded by traffic and lines of trees leaning over the road that simply took my breath away. There are occasions in Stunt Car Racer on Atari ST (more here) that maybe come close, but I can’t think of any other more exhilarating moment in all of gaming than that. And yes, that does, of course, include the Game Gear version, but it did still manage to surprise me. I was playing through to the end of every route, and I think it was the second last (right, right, left at the forks), on the final stage of the route, where we got into some serious undulations around corners with a bunch of traffic, and I’m in the dark and completely absorbed, and I got that thrill, completely unexpected and wonderfully out of nowhere!
I can take the arcade version with me wherever I go on the Switch, so I’m not sure I’ll be all over the Game Gear version like I’ll always be all over that one, but it truly surprised me. It’s not the same, and that’s fine, because it still manages to feel like Out Run (and most definitely sounds like Out Run), and that alone makes it an awful lot of fun and just a marvellous achievement! Worth another £45 plus shipping from Amazon Japan??? Watch this space…
I gave the original Silent Hill a raw deal. Bought on launch day whenever that was in 1999, and – judging by my fairly meagre collection of games for the system – may have the honour of being the last game I ever bought for the original PlayStation. But not only did it take me over 21 years to finally complete, thanks to my recent play-through at the time of writing, I probably got 15 minutes into it first time around! And after that first 15 minutes (which, in my defence, I probably saw several times!), it went into a box with an old Babycham ashtray, some pin-badges from the mid-90’s (including a really nice Alice in Chains one), the first two Resident Evils and some old magazines. And over time, that box moved from my parent’s loft then three different garages until I thought “I wonder what’s in there” and fancied another go in the strange days of summer 2020!
And I feel worse about that than for the first two Resident Evil games, which also got similar treatment until recently, because I can take or leave them and their pre-rendered spooky stylings, but I absolutely adore Silent Hill! Something clicked big-time when I actually gave it a chance, and I properly rinsed it, getting one of the better endings just because I didn’t want to leave that wonderful fog-drenched, blood-drenched horror town.
Actually, as another side note, I’m playing Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 on Switch at the moment and I’m having exactly the same feelings there – I’ve now seen the credits three times but there’s one ending I’ve not seen yet, so I’m back in again. And whilst twice in two months might signify some new phase in my middle-aged gaming life, I can’t think of any other games I’ve ever done that with before now!
Back to Silent Hill, and unlike many of the PS1’s 3D vistas, I reckon age works in the original game’s favour too, and all that fog and darkness that was there by design to disguise hardware limitations now combines with the pixellation of decades of screen evolution, and general graphical clunkiness by today’s standards, to create a new contemporary atmosphere all of its own. And for all the fantastic story in the first game, where you’re looking for your missing adopted daughter through exploration and puzzle solving, and for all the literal otherworldliness and gore and monstrosity, and the cults and rituals and symbolism and never-ending nerve-wracking tension, the real star of the show is that atmosphere in that town. Its tourist days might be behind it but I’d still visit!
“The name of that town is Silent Hill. Although it is known as a scenic resort area, it is a cursed place where the town’s former inhabitants were once driven away, brutal executions were once carried out, and a mysterious plague was once prevalent. The town is centered around Toluca Lake, from which a thick fog perpetually enshrouds the area and makes vague the reality and dreams of those who visit the town. And according to those who have seen them, there are also times when “things” that should not naturally exist appear.” Not my words, but a near-enough translation from the Japanese-only Lost Memories: Silent Hill Chronicle that was on the back of their Silent Hill 3 official game guide in 2003.
I still can’t believe quite how affected I was in 2020 by this old thing I’d mostly ignored since 1999. I’ve been back several times since first finishing it, sometimes only to hang around that first 15 minutes or so because there’s something I just find strangely comfortable in Silent Hill, and whenever my mind wanders, it often wanders there! Something definitely came out of Silent Hill with me the first time I left, but of course, we don’t need to leave it there because as you might have worked out by now, it got a sequel (and then some, but maybe let’s not go there…)! And from the minute I saw the credits for the first time, I then spent six weeks being incredibly restrained and incredibly patient on eBay until it appeared at a reasonable price for PlayStation 2!
And when Silent Hill 2 finally arrived I was also left not believing how affected I was in 2020 by this old thing I’d never given the time of day to whatsoever since it first came out at the end of 2001 because it’s the first game cranked up to eleven! But it’s so much more than one louder too, to the point that I’m actually feeling quite intimidated talking about it. Weird, maybe or maybe not… It’s an intimidating and disturbing game way beneath the fog and the sirens and the surface-level horrors, which is something subsequent sequels (and let’s not forget the movies!) seemed to forget from what I can tell. You come out feeling dirty, like you’ve witnessed something you shouldn’t have but didn’t want to stop witnessing, and still don’t even after you’re done. Unless you get the dog ending, and then all bets are off! At this point I’ll state I’m not going to avoid spoilers, and will give my view on what I think I’ve seen, but I’ll also not go out of my way to spoil too many individual plot points here, so you can look that little piece of insanity (and possibly the greatest video game ending of all time) up for yourself. And regardless of the ending you get – and there are several, including some that demand multiple completions on one save – you’re going to come away wondering what it was you’ve just witnessed, and long after the fact maybe looking at things that happened in a different lights. But even right after the fact, as soon as you get back to the title screen after the credits, you’ll probably even look at what’s on there again and start wondering…
I’ll get into the story a bit, but I’d also like to start with some commentary of the opening scenes, because I’d like to give some indication of how quickly the game also affected me too. And that will also give me an excuse to restart the game for the fourth time in one less month than that! And that will also give me an excuse to talk about toilets, because that’s where we’re starting our story, with the most beautifully-shot row of urinals I’ve ever seen in a game as your character reminisces about his dead wife, Mary, asking her if she can really be in this town? You’re playing James Sunderland, and he’s stopped off for a slash on arrival at the outskirts of Silent Hill to look for her after she sent him a letter saying she’s waiting for him in their “special place.” Which is complicated by her having died from an terrible long-term illness three years beforehand. Anyway, despite the interesting Hebrew graffiti on the wall, it turns out their special place isn’t this toilet, she’s not here, and he’s got a bit of exploring to do! After trying to clear his head for a bit outside the toilets, you’re in control and within a couple of minutes a huge grin is going to descend onto your mush as you realise you are really back in Silent Hill, but with the shackles of the original hardware a thing of the past, this is now Silent Hill to the max!
Leaving the toilets and that huge draw-distance panoramic view of the lake with not a hint of technical fog behind, you’re quickly descending into… fog! Actually, beneath your viewpoint up on the observation deck you’ve already noticed the fog swirling around the treetops, but it’s proper fog, and as you start your journey you notice wisps of it all around you, accompanied by an ominous single-chord synth drone. And I don’t think wisps of fog in a game have ever been bettered, nor the descent into ever thickening fog, hiding whatever creature is making those occasional dog-like sounds, and what might have been something falling or breaking or maybe it was footsteps? You can’t see it, but it’s close… And you keep going down and down further into the fog and that ominous synth sound starts to vary a bit and a well emerges. There’s something inside, and you touch it and the screen turns red… And it turns out to be a save point! And you keep going, down into the fog, through the gates that sound like a metal bin-lid being dropped on the floor when they open, and into the graveyard. And even though it won’t be the first time you hear it, it’s in here that you’re probably going to really notice the legendary Silent Hill 2 voice-acting for the first time!
And then you’re continuing your descent through the fog as everything you remember about Silent Hill gradually emerges in front of you. But this time – just like the fog – it’s “proper” Silent Hill like you’ve never seen it before, and it’s beautiful! The textures on the pavement and the wooden telephone poles and the chain-link metal fences, and the attention to detail in things like signs or posters or stickers on dirty shop windows, and the kerbs and drain covers and bloodstains on the ground… And that fog is still so cool and so real this time with its own dynamic textures and shades of grey! And by now those ominous sound effects are really doing a job on you too! You’re touching everything (except, perhaps, dirty urinals) because everything looks like it’s there to be touched, and you realise all the roads aren’t half a mile wide like in the first game anymore, and you’re trying to get your bearings, and then in the midst of all this tension that’s been building up in you for the last twenty minutes, is that finally something unnatural shuffling around in the fog ahead of you? And so it really begins!
Many years after Silent Hill 2, we got P.T. (Playable Teaser) from Kojima Productions, and of course it turned out to be teasing something called Silent Hills. “Tease” is one way of putting it, I suppose! It was creepy-looking and very realistic, and years after it was pulled from the PlayStation Store (along with any hope for Silent Hills), people still fawn over it. But for me, it was horror by numbers, like a Paranormal Activity movie; horror for people that don’t like horror; the horror Nickelback! Or in gaming terms, Resident Evil trying to be Silent Hill! Both Silent Hill and its sequel are different because they’re not about what you’ve seen shuffling around in the fog, but what you might have seen, or what you think you saw, and where that might be leading you next. A really good recent (relatively) movie example of this is The Conjuring II, with scares you might not even notice first or second time around! The Blair Witch Project is completely built on that premise too, or going back further when inspiring your imagination was a bit like the use of fog in the first Silent Hill, there’s The Haunting (the 1963 version which is not to be confused with the later Liam Neeson dull-fest!) or, going back even further, Dead of Night. That all said, to its credit P.T. did have a ghost right behind you the whole time that no one knew was there for years which is pretty cool!
Before long that thing you followed into the fog turns into a familiar progression through exploring unsettling environments all over the Silent Hill map, which is going to become your best friend, just like in the first game. And when you can’t read it for whatever reason you’re going to panic just like in the first game too! It’s not only essential because the town is so big, but it’s also going to mark out places you’ve been or haven’t been able to get into yet, give you clues and generally tell you where you should go next. When you’re outside, the glorious, realistic, scare-inducing-not-technical-reasons fog is ever-present, but inside the apartments, hotels and restaurants, prisons, strip-clubs and bowling alleys everywhere is often dark, and your waist-height flashlight is going to build its own atmosphere of uncertainty and claustrophobia, complemented by all those incidental details peeking into the torchlight that spell decay and murder and sickness on every floor, wall or piece of furniture in every building you visit. Lovingly crafted bloodstains on the walls, trampled wheelchairs, rotten bed-frames and stinking blankets, the general detritus of abandonment, and holes in the wall that you’re just willing the game not to ask you to put your hand into!
And of course there’s a hospital, and of course there’s the Otherworld, the very personal nightmare parallel or non-parallel reality or non-reality! This alternate dimension takes the previous oppressiveness of wherever it springs up and multiplies it by a hundred, where those bloodstains are not details any more, but entire walls, with floors piled with rotten meat and corpses, and rusty chains and cages and general nastiness. On subsequent visits there’ll be fire and burnt-up horrors too; and a freezing, bloody slaughterhouse; and something draped in scarred, decaying flesh in a room draped in scarred decaying flesh that’s moving and pulsating and as soon as you work it out will probably be more disturbing than anything else you’ll see in rest of the game. And these reflect that personal nature of the Otherworld depending on who you’re with when it appears, and what’s made them so messed up that they can create this version of hell. Then there’s the water. Always some water around… And the darkness is now pitch blackness.
A very long time ago, back in the graveyard, I mentioned the legendary voice acting in Silent Hill 2! That’s when you met Angela, who’s looking for her missing mother and warns you that there’s something very wrong with the town. Taken out of context, and, admittedly, the first couple of times you come across any of the conversational cut-scenes, you’re going to find the voice-acting jarring. On one hand I can forgive it a bit – these were the pioneer days of this kind of thing! But on the other, by today’s standards, it’s comical, to the point it was all re-recorded in 2012 for the PlayStation 3 HD Collection. But you do also get used to it, and you stop noticing it as it becomes normal to you, and you’ll soon forget it as a possible detraction – in fact, the strange pacing and sometimes primary school nativity play delivery could even be argued to add something other-worldly to these personal… No, we’ll come back to that! But the HD Collection voice-acting stinks even worse – nothing other-worldy here, just weird and a bit disrespectful!
One thing you’ll never get used to is the amount of vomiting that’s going on the first time you meet Eddie Dombrowski, hunched over a disgusting toilet after he’s found a corpse in a disgusting fridge in a disgusting apartment. And the vomiting goes on and on and on! The gluttonous, paranoid Eddie has been bullied to hell all his life to the point that he’s killed a dog and shot a footballer in the knee for revenge reasons, and as defensive as he is about the corpses piling up around him, he’s come to Silent Hill to reach breaking point. “From now on, if anyone makes fun of me I’ll kill them. At least a corpse is more useless than I am.”
As there’s only a couple more characters, and because they’re, well, you’ll see, we’ll quickly cover the other people you meet on your travels through Silent Hill 2. Back to Angela, after the initial warning shot in the graveyard, our next meetings start to expose one of the most tragic characters you will ever come across in any form of media, let alone in video games. Lifelong abuse by her alcoholic father and her brother, which is justified as being deserved by her mother, culminated in her slitting her father’s throat, then spiralled into all kinds of guilt, zero self-worth and suidicidal depression, which promises both the escape and the punishment she also now feels she deserves. She’s left disgusted at herself by both her actions and those of her abusers. And eventually, after sharing her Otherworld for the last time, we’re left to assume that she finally found peace. And let’s remind ourselves, all of this in a 2001 video game. Good on you for being so bold so long ago, Konami!
Just when you think you’re making some progress in the game’s first building, along comes a little girl and puts a stop to it! This is Laura, an eight-year old orphan who’s also somehow found her way to Silent Hill to look for her friend from a time she spent in hospital, Mary – yes, your dead wife Mary – though she doesn’t know she’s dead yet. You’ll meet up with her all over Silent Hill, alone and with some of the other characters, and all the time you’re wondering how? And how? And how…
Finally, still relatively early in the game when you’ve made it through the apartments where you’ve met the others, you make it to Rosewater Park and there you meet Maria. Maria is a slutted-up version of Mary. She looks and sounds just like her, but the hair and clothes are like a fantasy Mary to James, and he doesn’t know whether to be scared or attracted, and is generally confused from hereon in! Maria end ups being both guardian angel and antagonist, and also ends up very dead several times!
At which point it’s probably an idea to talk about the other inhabitants of Silent Hill – the monsters! There’s clearly sexual overtones pretty much everywhere you look here, with possibly the least messed up being the bubble head nurses, with legs and cleavage everywhere, mangled oversized heads and epileptic movements. The Flesh Lips are masses of meat attached to a cage-like bed, complete with what appear to be vaginal lips mouthing animal abuse above the hanging legs that are going to strangle you. The mannequins are headless and armless dummies with two sets of legs (one for walking, one for killing) in some kind of putrid skin ensemble that covers the joins! Then there’s insects and a various humanoids that are all skin and sinew but with too many or too few of any given appendage. But then we get to the really nasty stuff. Abstract Daddy comes in both boss then lesser form at various points, and seems to be a combination of two figures on a bed frame wrapped in a covering of skin, intertwined to represent both rape and suffocation, highlighting that this is potentially James’ perception of Angela’s Otherworld rather than being a part of it. Maybe?
And then there’s Red Pyramid Thing. Also known as Pyramid Head, who’s undoubtably become the Silent Hill poster boy thorughout the series’ lifetime since! He’s a human-like giant in a bloodstained butcher’s apron with a huge triangular helmet, echoing an ancient executioner with his knife that seems to be a mega version of the knife Angela is waving about just before you meet him for the first time! But unlike her knife, we’re in one hit kill territory with this thing. You can actually find this knife later on and use it yourself, but it’s way too cumbersome to bring out in anything other than special boss occasions! You’ll meet him (and his friend) (and his spear) a few times, several of which are going to start with you wondering if Konami would really go as far as making him do what you think you just saw him doing when you turned up. I think the answer is yes… Maria’s also not coming out of these encounters well, again, several times.
If it’s alright with you I’m going to leave out the final boss and move onto gameplay. Everything is kind of fixed camera plus, where you’ve got the advantages of the set piece coming from the best possible angle, but you can also manually move the camera around in most situations, and where you can’t, you’re not going to pay a price for something cheap coming out of the fog at you! A lot of what you’re doing is classic survival horror – go here, fetch that, find the key for this, look into this dark hole and hope it doesn’t look back at you, etc. Combined with the aforementioned map, which is the first thing you need to seek – usually on a wall or a reception desk or similar – every time you enter a new area, you’re going to be following what are in the main logical clues to what are in the main logical puzzles.
Now, I’m not a big one for puzzles in games that aren’t puzzle games, but I actually found myself really enjoying a lot of these, to the point that in the one I’m going to describe in a minute, I didn’t want to backtrack between rooms one final time because I knew I was going to solve it! A lot of it is simple stuff, just relying on your sense of exploration to find the answers – need a safe combination? Then check the blocked toilet upstairs in the place that you thought you couldn’t get into because the door was locked because the wallet in there might have it written on a note! What’s really cool here is that there’s four puzzle difficulty levels when you start the game, though having only ever done them on normal I’m not entirely sure how that works – I think the hard version of the toilet wallet puzzle, for example, used Roman numerals for the combination, and for stuff like riddles are more complex the higher the difficulty.
The puzzle I wanted to mention is called Hanged Man. You come across a room with six bodies with a note on each face telling you of each persons’ crime – kidnapping, arson, murder, etc. You’re then going to a second room with six nooses hanging from the ceiling where the bodies were in the first room. Near the door is a poem on the wall, and you need to work out from that poem which man is innocent, then go and tug on his noose; get it right and there’s a key waiting for you in the first room. My poem documented a bunch of crimes (as well as graphic detail about the hangings that followed), including one where three houses were burnt down and the sheriff just arrested a stranger in the town for it because he was a stranger. So there’s your innocent man. And yes, in this puzzle there are four different poems depending on your puzzle difficulty, and I really can’t fault that commitment to the cause because they’re actually pretty good poems too!
You can also set the combat difficulty at the start of the game. Combat is rarely the strong point of any survival horror game, and here it’s just functional! As well as Pyramid Head’s big chopper, you’ve got the standard handgun, shotgun, plank of wood, lump of metal, etc. You can strafe and spin 180 degrees, and apart from bosses generally avoid combat altogether by just running in most cases. The boss battles are relatively straightforward, and just need plenty of decent ammo in reserve and a bit of patience. As said, functional but certainly not offensive in any way!
We’ve talked about the PS2-stunning graphics a few times, and how everything combines to create this incredible atmosphere, but that atmosphere only works because of the sound design that we’ve only briefly touch upon so far. And yes, we are currently pretending the voice-acting is not part of that sound design! The ambient sound is everywhere and it’s incredible. There are times when some kind of animal noise or possibly human scream or moan seems to be being carried across the fog from miles away, where you can’t see it. Attention to detail isn’t spared here either, like with different footsteps on grass and concrete and broken glass; the things you barely notice but contribute immeasurably when you are creating atmosphere. I’m fairly sure a lot of the sound effects are random too, and combined with periods of silence, create an incredibly unsettling audio experence to go with the unsettling Cronenburg-esque visuals and unsettling everything else!
Before we get somewhere near the end, quick mention of the Theme of Laura. I know this won’t be a popular opinion, but I’m not really fussed by it – melancholy melody with a strong beat, meaning it sounds like a Cure b-side idea that didn’t make the cut. It’s fine and does the job, but Silent Hill 2’s soundtrack isn’t something I listen to in my spare time.
Now let’s move on to my very amateur conclusion about what’s going on. Whatever happened to the town of Silent Hill for it to end up like it is, it’s now a pull for messed up people with messed-up pasts, and is populated by their own very personal monsters. The question is, are the other people you come across in Silent Hill there because they’re messed up like you, or because you are? Like the monsters, I reckon the town made them just for you… Eddie eventually represents James’ disgust at killing a human, charatecterised by his remorse after the meat-locker encounter. Maria is the dying wife manifested as the perfect wife she couldn’t be, back to mentally punish James forever through witnessing recurrent violent deaths at the hands of Pyramid Head, who, like most of the game’s other monsters, is a manifestation of James’ repressed but increasingly violent sexuality coming from years of sexual frustration at the hands of disease. Angela is James’ acceptance that he deserves what he’s going through, of his guilt and not being worthy to live anymore, albeit in reverse as the abused and not the abuser – her father, your wife, just different sides of the same coin; the guilt is the same. And then there’s Laura. She’s not so messed-up and so the town isn’t dangerous to her; she’s not seeing what “everyone else” is seeing. She’s James’ guide towards the truth – if she hadn’t kicked that key away from him in the early game, where would he have gone next? So I think that unlike the other characters you meet, she is real and is in Silent Hill to find her friend – your dead wife – just like you are, but without the horrors of the past to cloud (fog) the way to the end-game… The guilt of being a sexually deviant murderer that demands punishment at your own hands is a horror that is yours alone.
And would you believe I got there without ever once actually spelling out that naughty thing you did, though I’m sure I might as well have by now! I’m mostly happy with my conclusion so far, but I’m still not sure about the sexual deviance thing – it’s clearly there, from the relatively innocent (keep telling yourself that!) manifestation of your sexy nurse fantasies shuffling about the place, to the women as sex-object mannequins, to the more disturbing symbolism of the Abstract Daddy and the more blatant actions of Pyramid Head; as well, of course, as in the characterisation of the dreadfully abused Angela and overly-sexualised Maria. Is that whole messed-up psycho-sexual mess really all borne of not getting your leg over for a few months? Not for me to say, and like what we think we might have witnessed with Pyramid Head and what he was actually doing to the mannequins, I can’t really be sure. Maybe James has always been a sexual deviant and when his wife couldn’t be party to that anymore he went over the edge on that front. But without getting too stereotypical, as a frequent visitor to Japan, I am now probably in the realms of over-thinking this point!
There’s one more small conflict I’ve got over one of the endings I’ve seen. I’m not going into each of the endings here, but I’ve got a theory about James and dead Mary ending up at the bottom of the lake in a car; the lake you were looking at while you were next to your car at the start of the game. I can buy into that he simply came to Silent Hill to kill himself in their “special place” but here’s the conflict. I initially considered this as happening at the end of the game, but what if it happened before you started?
That aside, I think we can conclude that you are the monster and you are the horror in Silent Hill 2! And with that concluded, I can also conclude that in my view, Silent Hill 2 is without doubt the greatest horror game of all time. It’s also potentially one of the greatest pieces of horror art of any kind of all time – now there’s a list I need to create, with this and M.R. James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies all right near the top! And whether you’re talking about the story, the metaphors and symbolism, the dark places it creates or the dark places it goes to, the soundtrack or the atmosphere… it’s also probably one of the most important video games of all time too. And the voice-acting really isn’t as bad as people say!
A year or so ago I was playing P-47 on Amstrad CPC (and that’s P-47 Thunderbolt or Freedom Fighter depending on where you’re looking in that package at any given time), and thinking what a great job they’d done on capturing the atmosphere of the sumptuous, sun-setting second level of the 1988 arcade version… Far more so than the Spectrum version I was far more familiar with, where atmosphere by complex colour gradients was a bit more of a challenge! And then I thought about the arcade version and how that level was still just one of the best-looking things I’d ever seen as I approached my sixth calendar decade of gaming.
Being a bit useless with MAME and arcade emulation, I went straight to the next best thing with the PC-Engine version, quickly remembering that this was a bit more of its own interpretation of the original. My old band rarely did cover versions, but when we did, we’d make a point of not listening to the original and just going from memory and what we thought it sounded like (which is how our Brown Sugar ended up being an 8-minute goth-punk odyssey)! And that’s just how this feels! You know what it is, but, for example, the train “boss” at the end of the first stage is now the big plane that briefly drops into the arcade version mid-stage. Fortunately, they remembered the sunset background on the next level and got it pretty spot-on; actually, the second level is a pretty good conversion, though overall, for a machine so well-known for its shooters, it does feel a bit floaty to control, and the CPC and Spectrum versions are more fun to play, if not quite as fun to look at.
Since then, earlier in 2020 we got the Arcade Archives release of the orignal P-47 on Switch and elsewhere I expect too, giving us that ancient holy grail of the arcade-perfect version to play at home. And also the holy grail of that wonderful, sumptuous, sun-setting second level in all of its glory on the TV in our living rooms! Now, as regular viewers will know, I like a list. And all of this has had me thinking for months about my favourite sights in all of gaming, and here we are!
I wanted to keep this focussed on quality over quantity, so I’ve been thinking about top five rather than top more. But interestingly, that five was pretty straightforward for me to come up with, where a top ten, for example, would be more of a challenge because I’m still struggling to really come up with anything else that has had the same visual impact on me. Actually, the only thing I have come up with in those months as a potential number six is that glittery ghosty gold level in Super Castlevania IV on SNES (also known at Stage IX)!
I’m also not sure about the right order yet, so I’m going to start with the undisputed winner then just see what happens! And the undisputed winner is, of course, a very specific moment near the very start of the very first stage of Out Run, where you’ve just hit the first hill and then the initial dual three-lane bits of road you’ve been driving on come together into this vast, exotic six-lane coastal highway, giving you the first of many exhilerating moments of speed and gravity as you take in that glorious view. And whilst I’m talking about the arcade version here, the Spectrum version – which I’ll defend forever (see here) – had a similar visual impact at that exact moment! The more I play Out Run, the more I think it’s perfect, which is an accolade I’d maybe only also apply to Tetris and Super Mario World aside from that. And whilst that’s very subjective, I think I can be less subjective when I say that this 1986 vintage arcade machine is still an absolute stunner!
Next up I’m going with the aforementioned P-47’s second level. I’ve just always thought that use of colour here is absolutely jaw-dropping, and couple that with loads going on on-screen and at least 7-8 layers of parallax-scrolling clouds going by under the setting sun, and you’ve got a sight that will keep you coming back to the game for that alone. Good luck getting past it, but if you do get a bit further along there’s some more really nice cloud effects to swoon over, but they’re grey not orange, which means they’re not quite as good!
We’ve been from 1986 to 1988 so far, and now we’re landing right back in the middle with 1987’s Olli & Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmore Castle on the ZX Spectrum. Apart from Feud on the same machine, more than anything else this is my go-to gaming comfort food, and whilst the first screen is my chicken wings and garlic bread, here we’re talking about the second screen and a giant ham, mushroom and pineapple (yes, pineapple!) pizza all to myself! The game itself (more here) is old-school brutal and unforgiving pixel-perfect platforming. And it’s also absolute vintage ZX Spectrum colour scheming, and I can’t think of any better background colour than yellow for the final atmospheric flourish in this beautifully detailed haunted castle! If I could live in any computer game, it would be a toss up between here and the aforementioned Super Castlevania IV. And as for this screen, I could just sit staring at it all day!
Even now, I still think of the PC-Engine as being a graphical tour-de-force, and can still remember every untouchable screenshot that Computer & Video Games had a habit of shoving down my throat every month in the late eighties! For the next entry we’re still hanging around 1987, albeit in the last couple of days of the year, with the release of Victory Run. And yes, it’s another racing game, and yes, it’s another sunset, and yes, I might be some kind of orange pervert! The PC-Engine (or Turbografx-16 if you prefer) isn’t exactly stacked with racers, but this one is unique. It’s based on the Paris-Dakar Rally, it has a deep vehicle maintenance system (but not in a car-nerdy way) and it’s tough, but my favourite thing about it is that it’s also totally unpredictable, which gives it real longevity too, even after you think you’ve cracked it. The sight we’re looking at now is in the second stage, generated by the day-night cycle that accompanies your progress. The look isn’t a million miles from Out Run or a load of other contemporary racers, and actually you’ve had a preview of the sunset effect in the previous stage, but here in the mountains as you head south through France the effect really comes to life as this brilliant solid orange sky appearing over the top of perfectly tinted clouds. I can only imagine how it looks if you actually make it to Dakar, but until then I’m happy for my game to end around here just about every time I play!
We’re going to conclude this tour of my favourite sights in all of gaming with something that I was going to say is a bit less orange until I looked at it again just now, and that is the pirate ship in Stage 3 of Streets of Rage 2 on the Sega MegaDrive. At the time of writing in October 2020, Streets of Rage 4 is sitting in my top three games of the year so far (spoiler, the other two are In Other Waters and Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2). And that is a looker! Best looking toilet graffiti I’ve ever seen in real-life or a game, and such is the attention to detail that you’ll be noticing something new (or old!) play-through after play-through. Speaking of looker, Blaze has only strengthened her case as the hottest video game character of all time too! Anyway, in Stage 3 back in the second game, you’re in an amusement park and eventually you’re going through a door with a “Pirates” sign over it, through the inside of a ship and ending up on the deck full of ninjas. Not pirates. Ninjas. Don’t worry, the only thing that could have made this pirate ship deck look any better was ninjas coming down the rigging at you! This ship is such a contrast and such a surprise after the gritty journey so far, with so much detail in the wood and the ropes and the general ship’s decoration. There’s also a lovely touch with the dark blues of the night-time sky and coastal town in shadow in the background, swaying around like it’s been painted onto a canvas sheet on poles behind an amateur theatre production. And yeah, pick Blaze and she’s also there, all muscle and violence with her eye-catching minimal martial arts-wear, and if you’re lucky maybe a sword pick-up in her hand as well! Thank goodness for pause, because that ship moment is all too brief (and yes, who’s the pervert now?) and you really need to slow down the fighting and take it all in every time you get there.
And there we are, but you didn’t think I was going to let you escape without that Spectrum Out Run moment did you??? Hope you enjoyed the tour, and I would be truly fascinated to find out about your favourite sights in all of gaming!
Power Drift passed me by for a very long time. I remember the arcade game in the late eighties, and thinking it looked like Out Run on a rollercoaster, but don’t think I ever played it, and never got a home version, which at the time would have been the Atari ST one for me. Much like Stunt Car Racer (see here), it’s a bit of a mystery why I didn’t get it because it was right up my alley and I seem to remember it reviewing pretty well. That said, looking at it on the ST more recently, the cars look too big for the tracks and it seems to struggle a bit with some of the more exotic track furniture, so maybe steering clear was a good move. I also remember the PC Engine version being reviewed, and like most things on there, wished I had one of them!
That’s about it until 2016 and the Sega 3D Classic Collection on 3DS, and suddenly realising how much I’d wanted to be able to play Power Drift for all those years without ever knowing it! And it’s the arcade game in your hand, which will never cease to amaze me whether it’s this or R-Type or Elevator Action! That said, in this case I’m still pining for the arcade version of Power Drift at home on a big screen, and hope that one day Sega will do the right thing on the Nintendo Switch so I’ve got the best of both worlds! Just like its predecessors Out Run and Super Hang On, the sprite scaled 3D with loads of parallax scrolling is still a wonder to look at, with all those huge ramps and bombastic environments. And the game still feels great to play, where your car is always just about under control as you fling it around some really fun track designs. But that’s not why we’re here today…
We’re also not here to talk about Fantasy Zone II on that compilation, but I need to give it a mention because I’d never even heard of this gorgeous side-scrolling shooter franchise until then, and it would not only become the game I played more than even Thunder Blade on there, but it would also become a beloved series for me as a result! Since then I’ve obsessed over seeking out every Fantasy Zone game on every system I can get my mitts on, and whilst I may never admit it again, any number of Fantasy Zone variants might top Andes Attack on the VIC-20 as my genre favourite when I get around to thinking about it properly!
Back to Power Drift, after the arcade game was released in 1988 it was ported all over the place the following year to the 8- and 16-bit computers, then the PC Engine and I think the Saturn too. But as was often the case for stuff like this at this time, versions for my old flames the Spectrum and Commodore 64 would be way off my radar for decades to come. Until now!
At this point I need to thank my kindred spirit and favourite YouTube streamer Nick Jenkin for taking me on this particular journey of discovery, as well as several others – on top of the C64 version of Power Drift, which led to the Spectrum version, there’s also Pacmania and Super Monaco GP on the C64, and Komando 2 and Enduro on the Spectrum to name just a couple. I’ve been watching his retro gaming reviews for a few years, but have recently really enjoyed his company several evenings per week in his live streams. Very nice man and very nice community having a very nice time with retro games on a variety of systems, and you should check out his channel here!
Racing games were never really a big part of my original C64 experience (not being a big part of my C64-owning friend Stephen’s C64 experience), but I’ve always loved that version of Buggy Boy. I’ve latterly spent a lot of time playing Super Cycle too. And I’ve played some stinkers, with WEC Le Mans probably being the greatest culprit of all… Play it on the Spectrum instead! And we’ll come back to that later.
My first impression of the C64 version wasn’t that great. And keep in mind that at this point, this is my only experience of an 8-bit version of the game, not Spectrum bias! The road edges looked rough, and when you hit the hills you’ve got a jarring journey up the screen on a straight, flat floating road with no ground on either side, versus the exhilerating gravity rushes of the arcade version. I’m not a fan of the sound either – if I have to make a choice, I want engine sounds in a racing game and not a chiptune. But for all of that, it’s so much fun to play! I had no expectations that this was going to run at any kind of pace at all, but apart from the lacklustre hills, everything flies by in beautifully varied 3D across the different courses. Cornering feels really tight but loose enough at the same time to make you feel like you’re hanging on for dear life in the later tracks. This is a really, really good conversion!
Over on the Spectrum, it starts off looking and feeling very much like its superlative version of WEC Le Mans. With rollercoasters! And no, I know what you’re thinking, but I won’t have a word said about the Spectrum version of Out Run (see more here)! Anyway, it’s by the same guys that did the Le Mans game, and carries over all of its detail and all of its speed (as well as its colour schemes, for better or worse), delivering not only a great-looking version of Power Drift, but a very faithful rendition to play too.
This just feels like a much more ambitious conversion that the Commodore 64 one. The graphics have loads more going on, with all sorts of bumps in the road that you really feel, as well as the arcade-like hills going off in all directions. The 128K version (which is the one you want to avoid multi-load) kind of fixes the lack of sound effects too… Until someone in front of you finishes before you, in which case everything seems to go silent in sympathy! And sometimes it seems to just decide you’re getting music instead of the preferred engine sounds on some tracks too.
Compared to the C64, the Spectrum version is a harder game which feels more tactical and more like you’re in a race. Actually, I’m even tempted to make that comparison with the original arcade version too! It reminds me a lot of Enduro Racer on the Spectrum. And that is high praise indeed!
But now that Spectrum bias is back, right? Just look at all those Spectrum words! Well, maybe they’re compensating for how I’m going to close this. For everything the super-slick Spectrum version does right, and for the really, really crappy hills in the C64 version, the latter is just more fun to play! It absolutely nails the spirit of the arcade version, and doesn’t try to go one better like the Spectrum one.
Which, in conclusion, means that you need to be playing both versions of this for two different, but probably equally engaging versions of the wonderful Power Drift.
Not for the first time in its lifetime, as I write this my Spectrum +2 has just had to make way for my Atari ST! I’ve got Spectrum emulators coming out of my ears, but the ST isn’t as straightforward, and a recent obsession over an old ST favourite on other platforms meant it had to come out to play again!
And there’s a sore point we’ll come back to shortly, but for now, my ST has sat in a plastic Selfridges carrier bag in my loft for the last two years, that was also its home in my Dad’s loft for the best part of thirty. (And that’s the same plastic bag it came home from London in when I bought it in Selfridges all those years ago). Apart from looking a bit dishevelled and grubby (which is probably how it looked when it went in the bag), everything just about worked fine. My Quickshot Python 1 joystick has seen better days, with left sticking a bit, and that stupid joystick port under the front next to the mouse port is still a right pain to get at, but otherwise it powered on and the possibly pirated disc containing Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and Kick Off which was still in the drive worked great! It was a little jarring going back to that ST homescreen and remembering how to boot up a game from the floppy disc though – too much Windows in the interim when all I needed to do was press the reset button!
Neighbouring the ST in its bag in the loft was a far more appropriate Lion bar cardboard board full of games, organized to completely fill every space in the box to perfection, with all the skill of the Tetris master that once packed it. Unfortunately he’s not been a Tetris master for a while now, and there’s no way they’re all going back in that box ever again! Not that we’ve got any more plans for the box any time soon – we have everything we need right here! Well, almost everything…
Apart from having a good idea what was in there, opening that box must have been like when Howard Carter opened Tutankhamun’s tomb! There was Pac-Land (more on that here) sitting on the top with another incredible arcade conversion, Star Wars. Poking out underneath was Starglider, glorious flight-sim Falcon and game creation language suite STOS, with two Spy vs Spy games and the Gunship manual padding out a gap on one of the sides. Then there were the boxes of “loose” floppy discs, not all of which were of dubious origin I might add! Actually, I think most of them are issues of short-lived disc-based magazine Stampede. There was probably a hundred games in there in all, and as much as I enjoyed browsing through every single one in turn for the first time, then carefully deciphering the faded pencil labels just to make sure the second time, I was less enthralled with the denial then realisation the third time around that Stunt Car Racer simply wasn’t there!
Yes, for a couple of months now I’ve been playing tons of this on the Spectrum, because I had no idea it was on the Spectrum until recently, then on the C64 because I had no idea that existed either for even longer! And as wonderful an achievement as the Spectrum version is, the C64 version isn’t far off Amiga quality, which isn’t far off my beloved old Atari ST game, and it was only a matter of time until I had to get everything out and get playing that version again!
I still can’t believe that as far as I can tell, absolutely everything except Stunt Car Racer – the one game I was prepared to sacrifice my Spectrum for the second time for – is in that box! I’ve no idea why it wouldn’t be in there. I mean, it was in one of the big style Atari ST boxes where you’d get the manual and a special insert to stop the precious disc bouncing around that vast cavern, and they do take up a lot of box space, but there’s some right old crap in there (what even is Kayden Garth and why do I own it???) that could have gone in another box! And I’ve got any boxes with old copies of 2000A.D. or Murder Casebook in that it might have been shoved into instead to fill a space, and that wouldn’t have been easy to miss when I sorted those out on re-arrival with me a couple of years ago too.
I won’t bore you with the rest of the stages of grief I tore through yesterday at the time of writing, but on reaching acceptance I was immediately on eBay looking at precisely two listings for Stunt Car Racer on the Atari ST. Oh dear, thinking I was going to be spoilt with choice and pick this up for a fiver plus about the same in postage for that huge box was turning out to be wishful thinking. I added them both, at £30 each, to my watch list. Within a couple of hours, there was an offer from the seller for one of them for £26. I ignored it for 18 hours then went back with what I’d decided was my maximum price whenever I was eventually going to buy it of £20; especially knowing perfectly well that my original copy is going to turn up as soon as I click pay on anything! And within minutes they went for it, and we are now back in business!
Buying Stunt Car Racer first time around came late in my Atari ST relationship – probably in 1991 – and excluding multiplayer games of Super Sprint and Rampage with my brothers, was definitely the only single-player game that ever got a look in once Kick Off – the game I’ve still played more than any other on any platform – got its hooks into the three of us! In fact, Kick Off would extend the lifetime of my ST beyond even that of the original PlayStation! But, as much as I loved Stunt Car Racer, it’s very much associated with a specific timeframe during my second year of university.
During my first year, we were offered a kind of year-long exchange with l’ecole d’ingenieurs de Tours in France, and being an unnaturally fluent French speaker – the background for which will forever be a mystery – I decided I’d give it a go. When September came, me and another guy on my course, Stuart, who I’d become as thick as thieves with when we eventually reunited in our final year, went off with the guys (it was an engineering degree in the early 90’s!) from the year above who were doing their sandwich year for an induction week… And what a holiday that week was with the guys from our own year when it was our turn proper the following year! Anyway, we were abandoned at the end of the week (but not as badly as happened the following year!) and eventually found our way to the campus and our halls and our new life in what is the perfect university city. We made some great friends and had a great time, including some of the craziest fresher’s week antics I’ve ever heard of, but over time the course wasn’t quite what I’d signed up to and when I was offered a get-out before the end of the year I decided to take it and get back to normal. Unfortunately everyone else was already back to normal, and I ended up renting a room with a family where I certainly wasn’t hanging around for the weekends, and for the rest of that term I remember two very specific things about those weekends. First, my insistence on having U2’s Achtung Baby album playing on the car journey back there with my parents every Sunday night, and second playing Stunt Car Racer until I couldn’t put that journey off any longer!
We’re now a few days removed from all of the above, and it’s turned up in the post, so we can finally talk about Stunt Car Racer! It had been out for a couple of years before I got it first time around, and given some of the rubbish my big Lion bar box suggests I bought (let alone copied!) in the intervening time, that gap from release to purchase is a complete mystery! I was certainly aware of it, from the very first time it graced the cover of Computer & Video Games magazine in August 1989, with the headline “The best race game ever?” And that’s a very good question!
Ignoring cars, because the question also does that, I’ve got to go with SSX 3 on PlayStation 2 as the best, but that was decades away in August 1989, so we’re then looking at Supersprint on formats such as arcade, Spectrum and Atari ST as the best race game ever, with the caveat that its top-down nature is maybe not in the spirit of the question. Does Out Run qualify as a race game? That’s next if it does; arcade and – always controversially – Spectrum (more here)! Then Destruction Derby 2 on Playstation, also a big while away, so doesn’t count yet either. Then Enduro Racer on Spectrum (see here this time). I reckon Stunt Car Racer can come next in my list, just before the arcade version of Virtua Racer (also three years away), making the answer to the question “No, but it’s maybe top three” when it was asked!
Back to C&VG, and in their gushing 93% August 1989 review they start by bemoaning that aside from Super Hang On – which would be next in my list – there’s not much going on in 16-bit racing. They’d clearly forgotten about the similar-scoring Test Drive II from a couple of months earlier. Anyway, they decided it was the best race game ever. Outside of the arcades. On a home computer. Just looking through my Lion bar box, apart from Super Hang On, there’s Hard Drivin (more on that here, but also recently positively reviewed by C&VG), RVF Honda (which C&VG has also just very postiviely reviewed), Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge (I won’t labour the point) and Vroom (predictable now). Some serious quality there, so no complaints if that lot still all counts as not a lot to choose from, but I’m not disagreeing with much they say about Stunt Car Racer itself!
For all the race games we’ve just run through, Stunt Car Racer can undoubtely call itself the most unique. It’s a one-on-one car race in a first-person cockpit perspective, but on a raised 3D track that you not only have to stay on, but, as you might imagine, there’s stunts too, in the form of ramps, bumps, hurdles, gaps, massive ski jumps and all kinds of rollercoaster shennanigans. At the start of each race, you’re winched onto the track, held up by chains that let you loose when the man says go. Fall off the track, and after what seems like an agonising wait – especially for some of the more flamboyant crash scenarious you might find yourself in – and you’re going to be winched back onto the track again. The winch is genius, building up big anticipation with your car swinging all over the place before it finally settles in position for you to drop.
The races themselves are hugely strategic affairs of cat-and-mouse with your opponent, and it’s going to take some experience – especially on later tracks – for you to know when you should stay and when you should go. That said, there’s nothing like the thrill of firing boost and just going hell for leather out of the blocks (or being unchained), getting your nose in front and then just trying to defend your lead for the whole race! Even when your opponent is out of sight, a very simple mechanic of telling you how far away they are adds an amazing amount of tension when you can see how fast they’re catching, or how you’re running out of laps to catch them, or even worse, that big lead you had disappearing as you’re being winched back on after a crash! And aside from deciding when to sit back, when to overtake and when to fly with your limited supply of nitrous boost, depending on your specific track situation, you’re also constantly balancing speed for the different obstacles and even for the normal turns, just to make sure you stay on the track.
And the strategy goes on. Winning a race gets you two points, which contributes towards your league position against two computer opponents. But getting the fastest lap nets you a bonus point, so what you’re going to have to consider on top of everything else is making sure that second lap is an absolute corker, because if the computer is in the lead on the last lap then you might not be scoring a time before the race ends, and if you’re in the lead you’re likely to be concentrating on staying in front and not getting a record lap time! With two tracks in each of four increasingly tough divisions, each with two different computer opponents (which the computer works out the results for), and two races each per track per season, those fastest lap points become all important towards deciding whether you’re promoted, relagated or stay where you are.
We need to come back to crashing, and one final tension-building strategic mechanic, which is the big crack that gradually spreads across your roll cage as you sustain damage! Take a corner too fast, small crack; come off the track, bigger (and bigger) crack; hit the opponent or they hit you, devastating crack if you hang around too long! If your crack gets too big, you’re wrecked and it’s race over (so make sure you got a decent lap time in before that happens)! To compound this, once you get past Division 4, there’s going to be permanent serious impact damage in the form of holes in the roll cage that the crack just jumps across, accelerating your doom!
Winning Division 1 is going to take you ages, not just from learning the nuances of each track and each opponent, but also puzzling out how the hell you’re going over some of those obstacles in the first place! And there’s some really fiendishly designed tracks on offer here! But do it, and it’s not game over yet – you’re going into the Super League with a hugely overpowered new car! Don’t worry about that for now though. First you’ve got to get over the thrill of the race on a crazy track, then you’ve got to get to know the tracks in every division, then you’ve got to get your racing strategy down. And that’s going to take some time and you’re going to love every second of it!
By chance when I was looking through my ST floppies, I found my brother Phil’s old Division 2 save on one, under the name of Bern Rubba. I sent him a pic and he replied saying how much fun it was, but he bets it looks like a dog now. I’d say it’s a little primitive by today’s standards, but the 16-bit versions at least run like a dream, even if the backgrounds are sparse, and the opponent’s car is only marginally less sparse, being made up a less 3D polygons than you could count on one hand! The lovely detailing of your cockpit and front of the car – especially the flames coming out of the exposed engine when you boost – take a lot of the graphical pressure off what’s going on outside though. But all the same, the raised 3D tracks do exactly what they need to, and all of this combined was more than enough to blow anyone away at the time! There’s some lovely between race, very 16-bit cartoon-like scenes too, celebrating your victory or having you dejectly looking on at someone else doing it. Sound isn’t spectacular, but is more than functional, and I reckon any more than that would be a distraction in a game like this.
I’ll quickly mention the 8-bit versions, as, like I said, that’s actually where this recent story begins. I was well beyond the Spectrum when I was playing this on the Atari ST, and although C&VG really bigged that version up, saying it was identical to the ST apart from being monochrome, it was only very recently that I came across it again and actually paid attention. I would say that it runs like my brother imagined the ST version to run like now, but the gameplay is all still there! And I very quickly got very addicted to it all over again! C&VG said it promised to be one of the most amazing games yet seen on the Spectrum, and I can’t disagree on that point!
Even more amazing is the Commodore 64 version. Yes, it’s got more colour (even if a lot of it is C64 brown), and the cockpit really isn’t far off looking like the 16-bit versions, but it also runs at a slightly more comparable pace. And so my addiction jumped to that platform, until I finally thought why not go to the effort of opening the loft hatch right above where I was playing and getting the ST out, because I had a nagging feeling that despite being technically close to the experience I remembered now, there was something still missing…
Playing them all in tandem now, there’s one subtle but massive difference for me between these 8-bit versions and both the Atari ST and Amiga (which I’ve also played a bit, emulated on a MacBook Pro) counterparts, which is what makes the game stand out over everything else, and that’s exhileration. Yes, if you’d never played on 16-bit, you’d never miss it and you’d have a wonderful time, but there’s something about the extra fidelity, the longer draw distances, the speed and something about the car physics that makes driving feel more tactile. You’re going to feel every bump, and that’s going to make you also brace yourself for every bump, whether just going into a curve a bit too sharply, or landing a huge jump and bouncing around from the impact. And as a result, your stomach will often be in your mouth and you’re going to be leaning all over the place as you try not to wrestle your joystick too hard because you remember just how easily they can snap by pushing a bit too far in one direction!
This game on the Atari ST is just so immersive, and has so much going for it that you’ll be coming back forever. Eventually, when you’ve admitted to yourself you aren’t going to find it again and need to splash some cash! I still question C&VG’s complaint about the lack of racing games on the platform, but if there is a lack, then no problem because this is the only racing game you need on there. It might not be the best race game ever anymore, but it’s still not far off, and there’s no question in my mind that it is still one of the most exhilerating too!
Finally, next month in C&VG… Xenon II – the most amazing shoot ‘em up ever? Yeah, maybe!
There are very scientific reasons about why I can remember not only every second of Live Aid, but also where I was sitting when Status Quo came on, for example. Same for what I was eating for breakfast (toast) when the Mary Rose was pulled up, or what music was playing (1999 by Prince – see here for more on that) the first time I played Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. It’s a bit like those ghost theories about high-impact things being imprinted on places, but more real and that place is your brain, not the creepy underground boiler room in your middle school that I had forgotten all about until just now… But while that works for high-impact, I am wondering why I also remember what I was wearing (blue La Coste tracksuit) when I bought Queen’s Greatest Hits from the record section downstairs in Boots in Bedford in about 1984. And also why I don’t remember almost anything about what was an hotly anticipated, but in retrospect horrendous sounding, annual church trip to Great Yarmouth that was in full annual swing around the same time. Incidentally, I also have very few memories of why I bought Queen’s Greatest Hits as I’ve never been a fan!
Anyway, I’ve mentioned the church trip before, and playing Mini Munchman on the bus on the way there one year, and the arcade by the big funfair with the giant outside where we were dropped off and picked up that had a Track & Field machine. And on top of that, I vaguely remember thinking that one of the rollercoasters there seemed really rickety as we were going around it one time, but generally, I was thinking my only memories of what we actually did there revolved around that arcade. Now, a apart from a section in Computer & Video Games mag, an arcade was a once-per-year novelty in itself – so kind of makes sense according to our theory – and we’d be in it as soon as we arrived, then be hanging around in it with no money left to play anything anymore for a bit before we left. But coming back to memory, apart from “arcade” and exactly where the Track & Field machine was, in the far back-right corner, I really don’t remember anything else about what else was inside it either… At least until one year something new appeared, around the corner and about five machines to the right of Track & Field, that immediately demanded your full attention and pocket full of 10p’s!
Look it at it today, and it’s probably hard to imagine why Pac-Land might have that impact on a passer-by, but try passing-by this on the way to Track & Field in 1984 or 85, when you’re getting a double-whammy of not only seeing the Pac-Man in a new perspective, but a whole new side-scrolling perspective on gaming too!
Let’s get into the first new perspective, and its cartoon inspiration. As much as I’m a huge fan of Hanna-Barbera’s 1960’s and 70’s output, when it comes to the 1980’s it’s all about Pac-Man: The Animated series, which first aired in 1982 and ran for 21 episodes and a couple of specials until then end of 1984. And that makes it the first cartoon ever based on a video game! It was always going to be a hit with me because it was shown as part of my absolute school summer holiday favourite, Rat on the Road, the Roland Rat [Superstar] show that came on at the end of TV:AM! Which gives us a probable first airing date here of summer 1983. Interesting fact about this is that Roland Rat’s appearance then boosted the ailing breakfast show’s viewer numbers from around 100,000 to 1.8 million. Yeeeeaaaaaaahhhhhhh, Rat-fans!
Back to Pac, you’ve got Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man (known as Pepper for some reason) and Baby Pac (in his only speaking role!), and they live in Pac-Village in a place called Pac-Land, of course! Actually, as we’re going far deeper into Pac-lore than I ever intended, what about the older Pac-kid, Jr. Pac-Man? I get that his love antics with Blinky’s daughter might have been problematic to the storyline, but it’s like he never existed! As some compensation, you do get Super-Pac in the second season! The plotline in most episodes is Pac-Man protecting the village and its power pellets from his familiar ghost foes (and Sue from Ms. Pac-Man) and their evil uncle, The Ghost Wizard of Mezmeron… And let me tell you something, if I ever decided to change my name, I would change it to The Ghost Wizard of Mezmeron!
The hugely vibrant look of the show was ported wholesale to the arcade game, as was the iconic music that looped throughout, which you could sniff out in an arcade like a pig sniffing out truffles; in an audio kind of way! The detailed character designs, complete with hats and hair – not to mention their super-smooth animation style – were also a big feature of the game. Pac-Man alone had 24 different frame patterns, where one or two was the norm at the time. As a[nother] side note, something that didn’t come from the cartoon, but by coincidence is relevant here, are the controls – they came from Track & Field, using buttons instead of a joystick, which allowed for those lovely springboard long jumping bits that will always be my favourite part of the game!
And this brings us to that second new perspective. Super Mario Bros. might spring to mind when you think of side-scrolling platformers, and rightly so because it pretty much set the template for anything else that followed it, but Pac-Land was doing the power-upped walking and running and jumping bidirectional horizontal scrolling thing a good year beforehand. It was far more influential than it gets credit for, but seeing it moving in an arcade was seeing that cartoon brought to life, from left to right and sometimes back again, and at the time that was very probably something you’d never seen the like of before!
Back to playing the game, each of the levels is a multi-stage journey to Fairy Land to get a lost fairy home, rewarding you with some super boots that will make your journey back through the level to your family a bit easier. You’ll be going through towns, forests, deserts then castles, and each stage ends with Break Time at the church on the hill where you’ll be awarded bonus points for your jumping performance as you come to a stop (preceding Mario and his flagpole), and I can’t emphasise how welcome that Break Time sign is on some of the more frantic stages! That said, it’s worth saying that things never really gets that frantic, which I think is why I appreciated the arcade game so much – good value for money for the casual player was as important as anything!
Obviously, there’s the ghosts that are constantly on your tail, driving buses at you, chucking stuff at you out of planes and allsorts more to hinder your progress. Then there’s enviromental obstacles like the aforementioned springboard, quicksand, ropey wooden bridges with spinning logs, fire hydrants and other water-based hazards ready to spray you down and take you down. But as well as the boots and sporadic power pills that do exactly what you expect them to do, there’s also a bunch of hidden stuff that will help you out. For example, turn around and push the right fire hydrant in certain stages and you’ll get a hat that will stop you being harmed by dangers from above. There’s also hidden fruit behind certain jumps (something else it preceded Mario with) and even a Galaxian flagship worth loads of points!
And the whole thing comes together to be such a joy to play! On the arcade machine, you’re going to get your 10p’s worth out of the first couple of stages for the visuals alone – the transitions from one distinct stage to another are just wonderful, and no matter how far you go, everything will soon become reassuringly familiar, and after each Break Time you’ll be fondly entering the next bit… before you realise that at some point things got a bit hard and you’re starting again!
In the grand scheme of things, whilst it had the biggest impact on me, the arcade machine is the version I played the least. That’s not unusual for me, having had infrequent access to arcade machines back then, but what is unusual is that I might have played a lot on more different versions of Pac-Land than any other game I can think of. It came out on nearly everything, and somehow I’ve spent a lot of time with it on nearly everything!
As was often the case, the Spectrum was the first version I really spent a lot of time on. Strangely though, the Spectrum version did come out about four years after the fact in 1988, along with CPC, MSX and Atari ST versions, and then the C64 version arrived even later. The Spectrum conversion gets a bad rap – it’s got weird colours and Pac-Man has a funny nose and it doesn’t scroll (meaning you need to remember that falling log is right after the next screen-flip!), but its genuinely only latterly that I’ve had those thoughts! It was and still is a very competent port with nearly everything else present and correct, and as was also often the case, it was Pac-Land in your house, on your Spectrum, and that’s all you needed for it to be fun! In terms of reviews at the time, I do remember it getting a bit of a hammering though. If it had come out in 1985 it might have fared better, but we’re not only years after the original (which was decades in eighties home computing terms!), we’re also years after the new Super Mario yardstick.
The version I’ve played most seriously on – not quite finishing it but not being far off – is the PC-Engine conversion from 1990, though actually playing it was much more recent. As much as I’d love it to be a part of the mostly beautifully curated library on my PC-Engine Mini, it’s not, but another machine in my collection does a very good impression of a PC-Engine and plays whatever game you care to throw at it right with no fuss, right through an HDMI cable! Much like the Spectrum conversion of Pac-Land, the PlayStation Classic is very unfairly maligned; at least when it has a USB stick with a certain emulator suite stuck on it! For me this is the ultimate conversion of Pac-Land. I know I’m going from almost 40-year memories, but this is exactly how the arcade version looked, sounded and played. In the last couple of years I’ve played dozens of hours, having a couple of games at least once a week. And that’s a beautiful thing to be able to do!
Trying its best to be as beautiful is the Commodore 64 version, and as a contemporary conversion for an 8-bit machine, you couldn’t expect any more. I’ve been playing this on the C64 Mini for a few years at the time of writing. The colours are a little muted, there’s only 16 levels (I think in common with most if not all other 8-bit conversions) and you can’t jump on top of some of the enemies so a touch from below is death here, but the soundtrack is classic C64! And it scrolls! It’s also a bit easier than the other versions so getting to the end of this one is very achievable.
I’ve not played a huge amount of the Amstrad CPC version – actually, when I finally got around to emulating a CPC for the very first time in 2019 (also on the PlayStation Classic, albeit a bit more fiddly to do than the PC Engine), it was the first thing I fired up and has been about the only thing I’ve regularly gone back to! It’s a real mish-mash of the other two 8-bit versions here, and would be on a par with the C64 version if it hadn’t inherited the Spectrum’s lack of scrolling!
Jumping back to around 1990, and the Atari ST version was a whole fantastic different matter. When I made the jump from Spectrum +2 to Atari ST, I very distinctly remember this being one of the games – together with Star Wars and Operation Wolf – that announced that arcade conversions were finally that mythical arcade-perfect we’d been hearing about for years! In retrospect it stuttered a bit in places, and was lacking parallax scrolling, but do you think that mattered coming from the Spectrum version? This was the holy grail of Pac-Land conversions to that point!
My brother was also a big fan of Pac-Land in the Great Yarmouth arcade, and he also owned a Lynx! And a couple of years later again, Pac-Land on there was also a fantastic conversion. I’d say in some stages it’s even more vibrant than the arcade version, with very faithful graphics, sound and gameplay. And let’s not forget, that’s a contemporary conversion in your hand, which the Atari Lynx was very good at! It moves at pace but the scrolling is a little off when it’s got big stuff like buildings to move along the screen (though I’ll take this over flip-screening and even the ST suffered from this). It’s checkpointing seemed a bit broken too – die in the forest and restart in halfway through the town, for example! It’s main crime though – and I’ll say “apparently” because I’m not the target audience for stuff like this – is that it has no ending! Just keeps going, I assume replaying the same levels over and over. No complaints from me about this version at all though. Still massively impressive!
Moving forwards half a decade again, and the original PlayStation was being peppered with loads of original arcade game version compilations covering loads of ancient stuff, and Namco was front and centre with no less than six of them! Pac-Land finally appeared in 1997 on Volume 4, drawing a short straw I think, being packaged with lesser known games in the West like Ordyne, Assault, The Return of Ishtar and Genpei Toma Den… Where’s Metrocross, Pac-Mania and Dragon Spirit??? (For information, coming a year later in Volume 5). But now we finally have the real holy grail of the actual arcade version in your home. And now I’m sitting here wondering why I spend so much time playing the PC-Engine version when the actual original is also sitting on exactly the same machine… Having just fired it up again, one thing is for sure – all that PC-Engine practice has made me really, really good at the arcade version now!
Most recently, we come to Namco Museum Archives Volume 2 on Nintendo Switch, which along with a favourite version of classic vertical shooter Xevious (Super Xevious) and loads of other NES goodies, we also have the NES conversion of Pac-Land. Firstly, it takes some getting used to, because as far as I can work out, unlike the PC-Engine version that allows you to press Select to switch from default “button” controls to regular “lever” controls, this one only seems to have button controls. And they take a bit of getting used to because you’re walking and running and changing direction on your right hand, and jumping with a directional button on the left. It’s also very minimal looking, Pac-Man is tiny on the screen, and it suffers from a bit of slowdown despite there being very little detail in the characters or backgrounds. There’s a few bits missing too, including the fairy screen – you get a Fairy Land sign like for Break Time instead – and also no super boots for your return trip. And like the Lynx version, I think it loops after 16 levels. I’m not doing a great job of selling it, but despite all of that, give it a chance and it plays absolutely fine and is a great version to have if you’re out and about with your Switch!
And that’s a whole lot of Pac-Land, one of my top five favourite arcade games (we’ll cover that another time) and probably in my top five on a lot of other systems too! Now do yourself a favour and dig up that cartoon!