A Look at Star Wars Curio Deathstar Interceptor

A Look at Star Wars Curio Deathstar Interceptor

The April 1985 issue was when I decided I needed to buy my own copy of Computer & Video Games magazine, and not rely on reading hand-me-downs from friends when they were feeling generous. What might have sparked the decision was the type-in game Starship Victory for the unexpanded VIC-20; I was big into those at the time (as you can read about here) and there was no way I was missing out on a cool Asteroids clone like this! There were also a few reviews that probably caught my eye – at the time, there was still pretty good coverage for the VIC-20 here, but of course we were in the minority… and you couldn’t help looking over the fence at what you were missing out on for the big new machines! Impossible Mission, Ghostbusters and Cauldron being of particular note that month! It wasn’t so much jealousy – at least for a year or two – but just wanting to lap up the massive amount of exponentially increasingly incredible games that were now coming out on a massive amount of computers; in that month alone, a quick scan just now revealed stuff for BBC, Electron, C64, Spectrum, VIC-20, MSX, Atari, Amstrad, Dragon and Texas, and I’m sure I missed some PET and C16 stuff too!

I’ve never been that big into superhero stuff, but I always consider the May 1985 cover of C&VG as iconic as well as fairly unique in its styling for them. There’s so much going on in both the main illustration itself and also the text blurb around it. Amazingly, if you actually read it, it was mostly all just promoting stuff you could win, including a copy of text-adventure Questprobe 3, featuring the featured Fantastic Four, but not forgetting a map of Alien 8, which was about the first thing shoved in your face after the contents page! What really stuck in my mind that month though was the advert inside the cover for a game called Deathstar Interceptor by System 3 Software.

I might not have been into superheroes, but Star Wars was another matter, and that X-Wing and the three screenshots had me hooked (mostly because the text was pink on black which was near enough to my red-black colour blindness to make it not worth trying to read). Definitely a Star Wars game though, even though it doesn’t mention it! Strange… Actually, it barely even mentions what the game’s called, which is why it might have long-since escaped my memory by the time I eventually got a Spectrum, and would do so for another 35 years until I was sorting through a stack of old computer games magazines in the garage!

“The Fight Continues… On The Spectrum. …Earth is threatened by an Empire Deathstar, can you penetrate its defences, destroy it before it destroys you? …Deathstar Interceptor gives you 12 screens of 3D graphics, super smooth 3D animations, unbelievable sound effects, music, 4 skill levels and hiscore table …this is the ultimate challenge! …This game has to be seen to be believed! You have not seen what the 48K Spectrum is capable of until you have played Deathstar Interceptor.”

I was probably just as well off with the screenshots! The first one is the first part of the game. A real oddity where you’re taking off in your X-Wing, which at some point will veer off to the side of its own accord and you have to guide it back towards the hyperspace thingy (I guess) at the top. It’s not very scientific and seems to be a matter of luck if your single press in the right direction actually gets you into the middle of it or not, allowing you to proceed into space and the second screenshot!

This looks fantastic; it’s a kind of Galaxians with tie-fighters and some other nasties, and you have horizontal and a bit of vertical movement… Expert tip – move to the top left and nothing can shoot you! As this is going on, the Empire Deathstar is getting bigger and bigger it’s close enough, then you’re into the trench. There’s a couple of phases, involving dodging lasers from the sides then shooting some more enemies, then either I got lucky with an unintentional shot to the exhaust port (unintentional because I never even noticed it) or it does it for you.

Either way, you’re rewarded by the ultimate insult to the red-black colour blindness sufferer – the red explosion in the black of space! Like the advert, I don’t think I was missing a lot here; it was hardly the mind-blower when the same thing happened in the Star Wars arcade game. Then you start all over again, looping until you die and you get a really nice rendition of the Star Wars theme.

If you look hard enough, the advert also mentions it’s available for the Commodore 64. Not surprised they didn’t make a big deal of it though – it’s a shocker! The Spectrum game looks like a Star Wars game and has a bit of variety to its “12 screens of 3D graphics” but for as much as I played of it, the second stage en-route to the Empire Deathstar is a really ropey shooter, then when you get to the trench you’re still playing the same ropey shooter as before but against a trench background. And you’re not even fighting tie fighters in the C64 version, but what look like coat hangers and hamburgers!

The best thing here is the Empire Deathstar design in the second stage though – for some reason, the C64 version has the big round shooting part at the top of the Empire Deathstar repeated at the bottom too! Two death bits! Even the Star Wars theme sounds better on the Spectrum, and when did you last hear that?

As you can tell, at the time of writing in the year 2020 I’ve now played both versions (actually both emulated on a PlayStation Classic console!), and I even got to the end of the Spectrum’s loop. And I think I appreciated that version at least a little more than I would of in 1986 or 1987 when I got my Spectrum +2 because there was loads more going on there then than hunting out this old Star Wars curio I couldn’t remember the name of anyway. The Spectrum version is really fun!

But what about Star Wars? Is this a Star Wars game? Or was it really the case the in the wild west of video games in the mid-80’s you could get away with ripping off even Star Wars this blatantly? Well, partially at least it seems. I’ve learnt recently that the Star Wars theme tune was licensed, but as for the rest, probably not! Which might explain certain aspects of the advert, and using words like “Empire Deathstar,” and not even mentioning their limited official Star Wars licensing, let alone barely mentioning what the game is called! A curio indeed.

My Life With… Ganymede – VIC-20

My Life With… Ganymede – VIC-20

There’s a reason “Graphics” was usually the first thing scored in a review by Computer & Video Games, Commodore User, et al, and that’s because despite what anyone said then or still says today, you generally can judge a book by it’s cover! And that’s definitely how we judged games sitting on the shelves of WHSmith or Boots or the local newsagent in the eighties because that was often all you had to go on! Graphics have always been a yardstick, then, now and forever, and for the developer at that time it must have been a nightmare keeping up, given the massive leaps that were being made from release to release – you just have to compare something like Hungry Horace to R-Type or Chase HQ, all on the same piece of Spectrum hardware and all arriving within a few short years of each other!

Being blown away by how games looked was a regular occurrence – something that hasn’t been regular for the best part of two decades now at least! Nothing was ever going to look better than this, until the next issue of C&VG at least! But as anyone that was there at the time will remember, our Commodore and Sinclair and BBC (and, for some weirdoes, Amstrad) computers weren’t just about games. They were about productivity, creativity and doing your homework too! Or at least making your own games by typing in magazine or book listings.

Being blown away by type-in games wasn’t, on the other hand, a regular occurrence. It was very rare you knew what you were getting (or not getting as they very rarely worked) – you just blindly typed in the BASIC commands (or machine code if you were a real pretentious masochist). If you were lucky you’d get a description of the greatest game you were ever likely to play, then some info about how it worked and maybe some diagrams of some sprites on a grid, then pages and pages of 30 C=23: R=33: DD=32321, 40= POKEFNA(0),+A, CS : SX=X and so on… and was that really a space between the letters and the colon, and how come zero has brackets around it on this line but not in the next POKEFNA on the next line, and so on. But after hours of typing it in, you’d finally get to the really fun part – trying to work out where you’d made mistakes because it wouldn’t load! Anyway, in addition to all of that, if you were really, really lucky, you might get a screenshot. Like this one!

If you’re interested – and I’m assuming you are – that one is Spacewar for the VIC-20, from VIC PROGRAMMES Volume 1 by the wonderful Nick Hampshire, who wrote this and another book I owned called VIC GRAPHICS that were genuinely a big part of my early computing and gaming life. All of his programmes worked too, though his graphics are another story… as wonderful as everything should have looked, what I’d failed to notice when I bought that book was the sticker on the back saying I needed a Commodore Super Expander Cartridge to run anything in it. Wasn’t a cheap book either. Oops! But I did enjoy reading what I could have got up to all the same, and when I finally got a Spectrum +2, did actually recreate a lot of the listings on there too, so thanks Nick!

However, Nick Hampshire wasn’t behind my favourite book for the VIC-20. And as great as Spacewar still looks today, I don’t remember being blown away by it or anything else in that book, or in More Games for Your VIC, or Creepy Computer Games, or any of the dozen or so other type-in code books I owned. As I said, being blown away by type-in games wasn’t a regular occurrence… But it did happen! Once! Let me introduce you to my favourite computer book ever, VIC Innovative Computing by Clifford Ramshaw.

Classic piece of 80’s design, but don’t judge the book by the cover – check out the luxurious, all glossy screenshots you got peppered throughout the book. And check out how cool those games look!

The one that really got me was Assassin. If you bought a game that looked like that in 1982, when the book was published, you’d be overjoyed! It turned out to be a really cool game too, and of course, it wasn’t the only one… But before we get there, I’d encourage you to judge this book by its back cover. Just check out the space shuttle and the alien mothership. Unreal!

We’ve now established you could be blown away by how multiple type-in games, all in the same book, looked, but even I’m not so shallow that a game will be covered here – amongst my favourites ever – just for how it looks. In fact, when we talk about Ganymede for the VIC-20, we’re talking about the most basic-looking of even the most BASIC games listings! Definitely not worth of a glossy page in VIC Innovative Computing. Just text covering your in-games variables and a list of commands…

You’re managing a moon base on Ganymede, moon of Jupiter, and you need to set up mines on the planet’s surface to get the ore you need to import oxygen to keep your people alive to build ships to set up more mines and so on. Keep it going long enough to make enough money and the government of Earth will be very grateful for your service. Screw it up by not making enough to buy enough oxygen to go around and keep building space ships and mining, and either the people will revolt or you’ll just run out of them, meaning game over.

(At this point I’d normally share one of my own screenshots, but I can only emulate VIC-20 at the moment, and the only copy of the original .prg file I can find on the internet just generates a syntax error when you try and load it… and no, I’m not typing the whole thing in again for a screenshot! Therefore I’ve taken the liberty of taking the only known screenshot on the internet, from the same place as the program file, the wonderful VIC-20 LISTINGS page here. Which has every single game listing in the book and many others for download – just can’t guarantee they work)!

Seeing the code is interesting because after it sets up your user interface, and sets you up to import oxygen, build and load up ships, send them off, mine, come back then sell their booty, the majority seems to be ways of scuppering your plans! This means you’ll be trading-off between fuel loads, oxygen imports and ore sales, as well as reacting to variables like storms taking out your mines, or running out of fuel before a ship gets back because you didn’t have enough money to fill it up before it left.

There’s also ships stranded to worry about, babies being born to maintain your population, fluctuations in the price of ore and transportation and various other balancing acts that all make for a very addictive game that at the very least you’d have happily paid £1.99 for!

I did a lot of type-in games on the VIC-20, and the Spectrum when I got one, and some of them (when they worked) might have looked and occasionally sounded better, but I don’t remember anything coming close to the longevity and comparability to proper games than Ganymede! It might be all but forgotten in the annals of gaming history, but there’s a niche within a niche right here that still salutes what an achievement it was!

As great as glossy screenshots are, I’m going to conclude by going one better here with another game from the same book, which you can see peaking out next to the open drawer bottom right. Grand Prix was a kind poor-man’s Supersprint, and this is my brother playing it in my bedroom on the black and white portable that ended up there. One car, one track that you went around and around, but we had a great time with it! You can also see the start of my games collection there, with Crazy Kong by Interceptor Software at the front – more on that another time!

Before we go, I can’t resist sharing this machine code type-in treat from Your Spectrum magazine from 1985. The Grid. For all you pretentious masochists! Enjoy…

Sacrilege!!! The Perils of Willy On ZX Spectrum!

Sacrilege!!! The Perils of Willy On ZX Spectrum!

Yes, you read that right. What was once hallowed ground for the VIC-20 owner is here and now on the Spectrum…

And once I was over not having our own exclusive Manic Miner / Jet Set Willy game anymore, I was totally thrilled with Perils of Willy finally being ported to the ZX Spectrum! It’s perfect and it’s available now!

This was my favourite VIC-20 game, and currently sits at number 17 in my top games of all time list. It’s all about getting Miner Willy home after a night out by collecting musical notes through a variety of platforming locales, but as is hopefully increasingly the case, you can read my full thoughts on that here!

The Perils of Willy Spectrum recreation was lovingly crafted by Allan Turvey, and as far as I can tell so far (because after several hours of play I can still only get through about a quarter of the 32 brutal screens) it’s a direct port apart from the screen dimensions being necessarily shifted a bit. Some might say the background music is slightly more bearable too!

It genuinely feels as good now as it did in 1984, meaning a tough as nails lesson in hardcore platforming that I can’t stop playing all over again!

You can download it either free or for a donation of your choice here.

Just never forget the VIC-20 had it first!

My Life With… Agent X – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Agent X – ZX Spectrum

I have two very distinct memories of buying stuff from Boots (when they were still much more than a chemist) in May 1987 – that month being significant for my birthday, meaning I had more money then than at any other time of the year and could afford to buy two things! The first was U2’s The Joshua Tree; my £4.99 contributing to it becoming the fastest selling album in British music history. I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favourite albums (maybe top 50), but side one is without doubt one of the strongest ever, and to this day I still listen to it regularly whenever I notice it in my record rack. That said, there’s a moment in their 1988 Rattle & Hum movie (about 55 minutes in) where you hear the keyboard intro from Where The Streets Have No Name kick in, and the words “Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Arizona” appear on the screen, and to me those words and the next 5 minutes of live performance were the most rock star things I’d ever seen to that point! If I was here naming the top ten things that inspired me to form a band, that would definitely be one of them, but that’s something for another day…

Back to the slightly less glamorous lower floor of Boots, at the bottom of the spiral walkway in the even less glamorous Harpur Centre in Bedford, and from the very same entertainment section we come to my second purchase. This time we’re slightly later in May, during school half term and I’m with my Mum and two brothers, which I know because my other very distinct memory is walking with them to my Grandma’s house on the way back from town, reading the Agent X cassette inlay!

The reason I’m writing about Agent X – or Agent X in the Brain Drain Caper to give it its full name – right now rather than something else is because I was just flicking through the June 1987 Your Sinclair magazine and noticed it climbing up the top ten. Actually, it was the whole top ten that caught my eye first, which, including Agent X, features no less than four of my top ten favourite games ever – Feud, at number one where it deserves to be in whatever games chart you care to mention, plus Olli and Lissa (not Lisa, Your Sinclair, but see my post on that here for the full rundown!) and Gauntlet. Pretty good month for games in my opinion!

Also of note in that copy of Your Sinclair, just before the chart rundown, was the legendary advert for Barbarian featuring Wolf from Gladiators and Page 3 stunner Maria Whittaker, which I may have mentioned before, but as it’s of so much cultural significance to the 15-year old boy in 1987, bears repeating again here!

Back to Agent X, it’s interesting it was climbing the charts now because I think it had been released at some point in late 1986, and seems to have been reviewed pretty well in early 1987, but as a £1.99 release from Mastertronic, wonder why it took a while to get going? If I’d noticed it in the shops earlier, I’d have certainly bought it on the strength of the screenshots on the back of the box alone. Maybe everyone else was strapped for cash until their birthday too!

It wasn’t just how good it looked on the box that caught your eye, but the variety you were getting too. This was pretty much unheard of until now in a budget title – it looked and read like you were going to be part of an entire James Bond movie! “A multi-load mega action adventure, in which you set out to stop some lunatic scientist turning the President into a warmongering maniac. You are the only one who can help. If you’re superb at espionage, karate, driving, flying helicopters and bomb aiming you MIGHT have a chance. Just.” Not entirely sure that multi-load was the key selling point they thought it was at the start of that pitch, but what’s not to love about the rest?

After your first multi-load, the game starts out with you in your sports car on the way to the abandoned mine / underground lair. This is a really nicely presented section, playing a bit like a simplified isometric Spy Hunter but instead of guns your car can jump. Speaking of nicely presented, your current health is displayed by your agent, cigarette in mouth, moving ever closer to his gravestone in a beautiful moonlit graveyard. What you want to do is get to the end of this section with that intact! It’s not that hard to reach the end but to have a chance later on you need to get there without the tanks coming towards you, and dozens of lorries and police cars in front and behind, knocking you into the kerbs or various holes in the road and causing damage.

Another fantastic multi-load and you need to stop the tape, press any key but do not rewind! The next section is switching to a Kung-Fu Master (see my views on that here) style side-scrolling beat ‘em up. Now this is where the challenge ramps up… As well as the colour clash, with your man changing from white to whatever garish colour the current background feature happens to be – green doors, yellow control panels, pink No Smoking signs and so on; make a feature of the colour clash and it’s not a problem anymore… They should have put that on the box with multi-load too! If you get to the end of this section halfway to your grave you’re doing pretty well. As well as regular goons, you’ve got what looks like guys in capes and fencing masks, unicyclists and runaway minecarts to deal with coming at different speeds from all sides. Real damage limitation stuff as you kick and jump and flying kick your way gradually to the left until the relief (and joy) of your next multi-load appears from nowhere!

Next we’re in an Operation Wolf (yes, you guessed it, more here!) style setting, and you’re face-to-face with the lunatic scientist in his lab! Visually this is really striking, even if you don’t really want to think too hard about what’s going on here. He’s in the middle of the screen in a kind of lab control room, surrounded by eight mechanical doors that shoot out 3D shapes (missiles, according to the depressingly slow progress bar at the side) at you. You need to move your crosshair to shoot them, which is greeted by a speech bubble full of comic-style obscenities from him, otherwise you get a “Ha” if you miss, and a big step towards your grave. This is another tough section that’s really going to put a strain on your joystick as you wrench it all over the place, especially when things get a bit frantic towards the end. Hang on for long enough, and your man lines up his crosshairs on the lunatic scientist with a “This one’s for you pal!” and he blows a whole through the glass and takes his head clean off leaving a smoking neck hole. Cool!

Make the most of this multi-load as it’s your last one – you’re now on the home stretch, flying Airwolf style in a helicopter to get a bomb from a platform out in the sea. By the way, you won’t find a link to any post on Airwolf here any time soon. You’d soon get bored of me going on about the first three screens – I might be able to beat Mega Man but I’m not that good! The first part of this is pretty simple, flying through gates and avoiding missiles, then things get a bit harder with guys on jetpacks (wait for it…) shooting at your approach to the bomb, which you’re going to bring all the way back to Omega Base as the underground lair seems to be called! This is a great looking side-scrolling section that doesn’t have that much to it but it’s really nice to control the helicopter when you’re at speed on the return leg. Or the return return leg after you re-plant the bomb and get the twist…

As you can tell, I still love this game! The variety works brilliantly, nothing is too challenging that you won’t get through it sooner rather than later, then it’s just about getting good enough at each section to set you up for finishing the next. Apart from VIC-20 text adventure Pirate Cove, I think this was one of the first games I ever finished, and as I write this almost 33 years later, it’s the last game I finished too. The best £1.99 I ever spent? Well, it’s one of the top three at least!

Based on the commercial success of the first game, Agent X did come back for more with different genres tackled in Agent X II, but it never really clicked with me. The first section was a very frustrating side-scrolling shooter that looked like Zynaps meets Jetpac (here you go!) that just went on and on for way too long. Then you had a platforming section where you had to jump about collecting codes, followed by a bonkers version of Breakout where everything moved too quick and out of control for its own good, and was more luck than judgement, though you would get lucky most of the time. It did feature one of the Spectrum 128’s most acclaimed pieces of music, so worth seeking out for that, but otherwise was a bit anticlimactic in every other respect (especially the abrupt ending). Better to stick with the original if you want a proper good time

The Retro Arcadia Top Ten Games of 2019

The Retro Arcadia Top Ten Games of 2019

The best games released in 2019 were obviously the Switch versions of Elevator Action, Bomb Jack, Track & Field, Hyper Sports, Yie Ar Kung Fu, Virtua Racing and Out Run (which I finally finished after decades of trying, then obsessed over finishing every possible route). I also played and finished the seminal Final Fantasy 7 for the first time, also on Switch – still tells a great story and plays fine even if it’s not the looker it once was. Just like me! The Konami Contra, Castlevania and Arcade Anniversary Collections were also fantastic, giving me all sorts of fun, especially with my old flames Scramble and Nemesis, as well as TwinBee, which I can’t believe I’ve been missing out on since about 1985. And with SNES arriving on Switch, after 35 hours in just 10 days following its launch, found all 96 exits in Super Mario World.

Everything else is just filler, but as it’s new(ish) filler…

1. Baba is You (Nintendo Switch)

Fiendishly clever logic puzzler that gives you the ability to manipulate the rules of the level to reach a goal. Baba is You, Water is Defeat, Wall is Stop, Flag is Win, etc. All written in the single screen environments as individual words for you to push about and change, so if Flag is Win and Wall is Stop and the flag is surrounded by a wall, how about pushing “Win” around so Wall becomes Win and you can just move your little guy to the wall instead! I’ve never played anything so creative, so brain-busting and so satisfying when you eventually work out a puzzle – and quite how they came up with so many is beyond me. Absolute genius! And the hugely simplistic art style, which works great because it keeps you focussed on the puzzle, reminded me of the rubbish Eastern European cartoons you’d get on kid’s holiday TV in the 70’s, which I’d completely forgotten even existed!

2. Bleak Sword (Apple Arcade on iPad)

This is an absolute dark fantasy joy! One of the first games I picked up during my Apple Arcade trial, thanks to being grabbed by a screenshot of its super-minimalist monochrome art style that, combined with some great sound, somehow manages to invoke real atmosphere on a big iPad screen. It plays simply and beautifully on a PS4 controller, now supported on iPad with the release of iOS13. Very addictive, and the equally minimalist RPG style has a wonderful flow to it, whether played in bitesize chunks or extended sessions. Unlike its influence Dark Souls, it had me completely hooked within ten minutes, and it very quickly became clear this was coming from out of nowhere to become one of my favourite games of the year!

3. Resident Evil 2 Remake (PS4)

I played this almost immediately after finishing the original Resident Evil Remaster on PS4 – a game I bought day one decades ago on the original Playstation but barely ever scratched the surface of. Its old stylings had definitely outstayed their welcome by the end, but only heightened my appreciation for this full on remake of its sequel. I’d loved the 30-minute one-shot demo before release, and the full game didn’t disappoint – looks great, sounds great, and together with the game’s brain-testing narrative quickly builds up this incredible horror atmosphere and tension that just gets worse (in a good way). Especially when that big dude starts following you about. It doesn’t control like a 90’s nightmare anymore either!

4. Lonely Mountains: Downhill (Xbox One)

I took up an incredible £1 for almost five months of Game Pass offer on my son’s Xbox One, which included this equally incredible game that I’d previously been fully prepared to go full price on for PlayStation or Switch. You’re riding down a series of increasingly tough but beautifully stylised descents on your mountain bike, completing various levels of challenge on each. It is a bit like Trials from a different, low-polygon perspective as you explore every inch of each mountain to optimise your ride, with similar levels of infuriating difficulty and addictiveness. The controls are so tight, and the exploration, experimentation and general obsession needed to achieve the expert times is just brilliantly realised.

5. Graveyard Keeper (PS4)

If you asked me what ingredients would make my perfect game, Stardew Valley in a graveyard would be high up on the list. And this is pretty much that, once you get past the sometimes overwhelming busy work that’s teaching you (over many hours) about the tools you need to tart up your graveyard, morgue, house, crematorium, church and pretty much everything else in your surroundings whilst running an endless supply of often intertwining quests; all in a bid to get back to your real world. Nowhere near done with this yet but this beautiful world is inhabited by a definite graveyard keeper.

6. Trials Rising (PS4)

Speaking of Trials, here’s a great new entry into the Trials series with big production values and wonderful attention to detail; the most high fidelity controls you could hope for as you delicately juggle weight, brakes and gas across a massive variety of courses and challenges; and some great slapstick moments resulting from the hard as nails gameplay. I just wish I was playing it on Switch rather than PS4, but unfortunately there was simply no comparison, at launch at least.

7. Konami Pixel Puzzle Collection (iPad)

I came across this in Retro Gamer mag when I was on holiday in July. I’d never worked out what Picross / nonogram / etc. games were all about, but the fact that this went back through Konami’s 50 year history made it worth finding out. It’s completely free with some very unobtrusive static ads for recent anniversary collections, PES, etc. when you compete a puzzle, of which there are about five hundred, from simple to serious time-sinks, that all reference every Konami game you can think of and more. Great tutorial too if you’ve never tried one before – after which I got obsessed and spent about 50 hours on this, then Picross on Switch, Mario Picross on Game Boy… a whole new genre to love!

8. Cuphead (Nintendo Switch)

The hand-drawn and hand-animated 1930’s cartoon style graphics are probably the most stunning (and often most surreal and sinister) I’ve ever seen in a game. The 3-hour live big-band soundtrack is expertly played and fits that theme perfectly. But normal people will have torn their hair out long before they see most of any of that because it’s also one of the most brutal games you’ll ever play. You spend hours learning every nuance of the boss’ movements and attacks, and you’re still not good enough to beat it; then, of course, you get close enough to think it’s possible, and more hours later you do it, just to start again at the next one! And it’s perfectly suited to the Switch rather than the pervert platforms it first came out a couple of years ago.

9. Wargroove (Nintendo Switch)

I’ve tried these turn-based strategy games many times over the years and have always been crap at them, but always looked at Advance Wars and thought it might have been the one that hooked me had I not completely missed out on it. Then along came Wargroove, effectively giving me the same opportunity to find out. It’s clearly a great example of the genre and worthy successor to Advance Wars, but as much as I enjoyed it, I still don’t really get it!

10. Speed Demons (Apple Arcade on iPad)

Another great advert for Apple Arcade, this is a gorgeous top down racer with huge nods to both Spy Hunter and Super Sprint that feels absolutely fantastic to play on the touchscreen, less so on a PS4 controller. Split into loads of chapters, each with Burnout-style challenges from simple races against Speed Demons to takedowns and escapes, all taking place on a packed, neon-infused motorway. Not much to it but who cares when it’s this much fun.

Apple Arcade on Trial – Part 3 (The Verdict)

Apple Arcade on Trial – Part 3 (The Verdict)

Closing out my trial month with Apple Arcade, a bunch more games to talk about in the order I’ve played them. Be sure to read about more in part one (here) and part two (here).

Apple Arcade has already become a perfect fit for compact, narrative puzzlers, but unfortunately Where Cards Fall missed on a couple of these points for me. The block puzzle mechanics work well in the isometric environments, but after several hours without much variety they wear thin before the end. This isn’t helped by the story presented between puzzles… it’s effectively visual, but I had no idea what was going on, so that didn’t even take several hours to get old! Worth a download until you’ve had your fill, but be warned, it’s a serious battery killer!

I think Mind Symphony is supposed to be a zen-like rhythm-action game, and it’s got all of the tools except for the small matter of the rhythm-timed screen taps not bearing any relation to either audio or visual prompts. This leads to a less than zen-like experience. Hope it gets fixed because it currently stinks.

Haven’t played many auto-runners since the glory days of mobile gaming, but that’s what EarthNight is. Running on the back of space dragons, collecting loot and power-ups, and avoiding / killing / bouncing on monsters until you get to the dragon’s head, which you then have to repeatedly stab until it’s dead. It’s fun for a while but I felt I’d experienced enough of what it had to offer after my first 45 minute session.

Mutazione sucked me in a lot more than I thought it would. Fairly linear point-and-click that’s heavy on conversation and a bit of music-based gardening! The art style is great, as is the sound design and the aforementioned music, and like most games of this ilk, it’s ideally suited to a touchscreen. The main character might be a bit irritating to any non-millennials, but stick with it and there’s a very dark, compelling, mature story to be found here over a good few hours of gameplay.

There’s a simple and brilliant mechanic behind the wonderfully presented PAC-MAN Party Royale. Unfortunately the opposite is true of the terrible matchmaking that Nintendo would be proud of in this four-player battle royale, which is further compounded by how barebones and (literally) pointless the experience is. You either create a party, which involves sending three friends a Game Center code in a way of your choosing outside of the game, or join a party by inputting a code that you’ve been sent by some means that isn’t the game. Should you have three such friends that you’ve pre-arranged a play time with and they manage to connect, there doesn’t seem to be any reward for winning – not even a score record – but you just start again. You can play bots for the same experience if you haven’t pre-arranged to have three Game Center friends playing, and as the only way you’ll realistically play it for the time being, only serves to heighten the disappointment at how good this could have been. Interestingly, at the time of writing, a couple of days after it was released in a further wave of Apple Arcade releases, it’s no longer on the App Store. Just like it’s no longer on my iPad!

Get past the first couple of checkpoints, and Stela becomes a thoughtful and deeply atmospheric puzzle / stealth platform-runner. The environments are among the best looking you’ll see this year on any platform, in no small part thanks to the incredible lighting effects, and the sound is very successful in adding tension to them. It’s not especially well explained why you’re running from what you’re running from, and it can be a bit trial-and-error, especially at the start, but overall a very worthwhile experience.

Agent Intercept casts you as a spy in a transforming car auto-chasing after baddies on roads, off-road and in water, picking up homing missiles and other boosts to do them in with. It’s a great looking game with suitably spy-type music, but gameplay is pretty shallow and rarely feels like you’ve got a lot of control over most of the action on the screen. And when I say gameplay, don’t expect too much… there seems to be a total of three missions available, lasting maybe fifteen minutes total, but each has what seems to be ten hour wait timer before you can start the next one. Given the Apple Arcade business model, all of this seems bizarre. The most half-baked game I’ve come across here so far.

I initially dismissed Neo Cab as too heavy on the narrative and not enough on the gameplay for me, but heard good things about it and gave it a whirl (which I would never have done for its mid-price Nintendo Switch incarnation). It’s a real looker, set in a neon cyberpunk future where you play the last human taxi driver whilst simultaneously trying to make a connection with your customers through dialogue choices. If you’re into talking simulators, it works great!

And that rounds off my month of free trial. I’ve still got a bunch of stuff installed that I wanted to play as priorities but just haven’t got to yet, including Inmost, Sneaky Sasquatch, Dead End Job, The Enchanted World and Spaceland. I’m still playing Super Impossible Road and two of my top ten games of the year so far (which I didn’t see coming) in Bleak Sword and Speed Demons. Then I’ve picked out this list of stuff that I want to get to next: Dear Reader, Fledgling Heroes, Rayman Mini, Atone, Dodo Peak, Things That Go Bump, Explottens and Patterned. And whatever else drops in the meantime.

Which all means Apple Arcade is way too cheap not to carry on with!

Apple Arcade on Trial: Part 2

Apple Arcade on Trial: Part 2

This is part two of my journey (part one here) through Apple Arcade’s month-long free trial, with the games I played in the order I played them…

For most people there’s probably not a lot to not like about the stylised undersea exploration of Shinsekai Into the Depths. Unfortunately I’m rarely most people, and there wasn’t much I did like – the art style, the gameplay, the premise (or lack of), the progression… All completely unjustifiably so, but sometimes some people don’t like some stuff. There’s clearly a decent game there if that’s your bag though, so try it and you’ll probably like it!

Lifeslide starts as a beautiful, zen-like game involving flying a paper aeroplane through the different stages of life, and it really feels great on a proper controller. But a couple of levels in you get to infancy, and I can’t get past it. I’ve tried over and over because I really loved the start and thought I’d love the rest… definitely not zen-like anymore, but I think it still should be. A quick Google search says I’m not the only one too. Something not right in a game that could easily be so right!

Speed Demons is a gorgeous top down racer with huge nods to both Spy Hunter and Super Sprint that feels absolutely fantastic to play on the touchscreen, less so on a PS4 controller. Split into loads of chapters, each with Burnout-style challenges from simple races against Speed Demons to takedowns and escapes, all taking place on a packed, neon-infused motorway. Not much to it but who cares when it’s this much fun!

I’d not come across Possessions until I read an Apple Arcade hidden gems article, where none of the others were exactly hidden. It’s a single-sitting, very easy-going perspective puzzler, superfluously chronicling the life of a family and the life of their house. Despite almost no challenge, the core mechanic is very relaxing and the art style and music work well. Completing the short story unlocks an augmented reality mode that seems even more superfluous than the story that held my attention for seconds. I don’t think I’d pay for it standalone but worth a download and play-through on here.

At this point I went back to The Pinball Wizard, which I’d previously enjoyed then binned off for its frustrating checkpointing. More on that here! There was something very compelling about it though, and I had to go back and finish it! It never gets less frustrating, and you’re still doing the same levels over and over until you’ve levelled it enough to push through, but it’s a lot of fun. If you’re after a rogue-lite / pinball crossover, you could do a lot worse!

What the Golf? kind of plays like a golf game, but sometimes it’s also Super Mario or a football match or a BMX ride or a planetary gravity simulation or ten-pin bowling with a Persian rug instead of a ball, or just about anything else that might involve moving an object from one place to another, meaning it’s not really a golf game at all. As well as huge variety across a huge number of levels, it’s also genuinely funny, and constantly surprises with its inventiveness and cultural awareness over hours of gameplay. Another must-download from Apple Arcade, and another real justification for the asking price.

Four games dropped a couple of weeks after Apple Arcade launched, three of which I didn’t really fancy, but Redout: Space Assault looked cool if nothing else. It’s a partially on-rails space shooter in the Starfox mould that definitely benefits from using a controller. Great feeling of speed and control of your ship as you tear around incredibly bold and highly populated space environments shooting stuff through probably more missions than you’ll need before repetition kicks in. Fun while it lasts though!

I wouldn’t say I’m a massive fan of Impossible Road, but I’ve been playing it occasionally for years and in that time it survived many memory-saving app clear outs on various iPads. Super Impossible Road might be a reason to get rid though. It’s more of the same frustrating but addictive high speed ball-down-ramp gameplay, but seems more structured and is definitely less minimalist. Nice to play on a controller too.

Single-button two-player is probably the way to get the most out of Cricket Through the Ages, but there’s still a lot of fun to be had in single player that goes from the bizarre to the dark and back again in the hour or so you’ll get out of all the different game modes presented by its strange, not quite cricket through the ages campaign.

Pilgrim was another of the four second wave of Apple Arcade games, and despite the lovingly hand-drawn art style, I was initially put off by its apparent point-and-click, deck building gameplay – two genres I’m not a fan of. A podcast review convinced me there was more than meets the eye though (and no deck building), and what I found was about 90 minutes of intriguing, wordless narrative strung together partly by logic and partly by experimentation. And if more point-and-clicks delivered like this I might be more of a fan.

One more part to follow in this series, where we’ll find out whether I go all in with Apple Arcade at the end of my free trial month.

Apple Arcade on Trial: Part 1

Apple Arcade on Trial: Part 1

A week or so into my free month-long trial with Apple Arcade, and I’ve tried a bunch of games, all on iPad. Aside from my current Mario Kart obsession, I don’t really play much on the phone anymore, and as much as I’d like to be playing some of these on Mac, it ain’t there yet. But the performance and screen on my 2018 Pro isn’t exactly a compromise, so here’s the the games I fancied trying first in the order I played them…

I was going to buy Sayonara Wild Hearts on Switch, but it’s here, and free because I’ll be long since done with it (for all the right reasons) before my Apple Arcade trial is up. It feels great on a PS4 controller (thanks iOS 13), is absolutely gorgeous and is as slick as hell for its short lifetime. Brilliant advert for the service.

Frogger in Toy Town and Chu Chu Rocket Universe were clearly meant to be free-to-play originally. And like most games of that type, the novelty wears off very quickly. Interesting that this still happens even without gems, adverts,cool-down timers, etc. though. Stick to the original source material and you’ll have a lot more fun!

Bleak Sword is a dark fantasy joy! Great super-minimalist (bleak) art style that still manages to invoke real atmosphere, and it controls simply and beautifully on a PS4 controller. Very addictive, and the equally minimalist RPG style has a wonderful flow to it. Unlike its influence Dark Souls, I was hooked within ten minutes and it then very quickly turned into one of my favourite games of the year so far!

Get beyond the cringeworthy narration (none more so than the English-voiced lady who uses the word “gotten” which there is no need for!), and Assemble With Care is an easy-going puzzle game that’s like a less sinister The Room. Ideal to play through in a single sitting (which I did), it makes perfect use of a touchscreen and you might even learn something about how your favourite retro tech works!

Grindstone is a colour matching fantasy puzzler that is fine but I played stuff like this to death in the early days of mobile gaming and it turns out I’m not ready for more yet! Seems like a solid title though, and great to see one of these that isn’t free-to-play.

I can’t get to grips with Exit the Gungeon, in almost exactly the same way I couldn’t with Celeste. The controls are just wired different to my brain, regardless of what buttons they’re mapped to. Shame, because like Celeste, I really want to like this because I know it’s probably really good!

I do like a pinball game, but The Pinball Wizard also feels like it has free-to-play roots. Despite an interesting RPG / rogue-lite concept, I’d had my fill after 20 minutes – given how cheap some deaths can be, playing the same few levels over and over because the checkpointing is unnecessarily harsh (as it’s now not free-to-play and doesn’t need you to just keep feeding it money, jewels, etc.) makes it get old even quicker than it might. Shame, but I since I deleted it I can’t help but feel I’m doing it a disservice, so it’s now been reinstalled and I’ll be back (in part two).

Skate City is another very slick game. Highly stylised side-scrolling skateboarder that is part Olli Olli, part Shaun White (Wii game) and part Alto’s Adventure. Easy to control with a touchscreen (not tried with controller yet), and loads of challenge to each of the various areas. Definite keeper.

And that’s part one. I’m so impressed with this so far and I’m only scratching the surface. Will it be worth a fiver a month when my free trial is over though? Find out in part two!

My Life With… Jetpac (VIC-20)

My Life With… Jetpac (VIC-20)

When I started thinking about Jetpac on the VIC-20 recently, a couple of questions immediately came to mind: Where does it fit in my top VIC-20 games? And because I kind of already knew it wasn’t going to figure quite as highly as it maybe should… Where does it fit in the top VIC-20 games?

Coming back to the first question, this one is easy thanks to my big nerd list of my favourite games of all time ever.

  1. The Perils of Willy
  2. Andes Attack
  3. Jetpac
  4. Omega Race
  5. Submarine Commander

The Perils of Willy (read more here) will always be my favourite VIC-20 game, but this was the first time I’d thought about a top five, and genuinely didn’t know most of what was going to follow when I went through my big list looking for VIC-20 games from top to bottom. Andes Attack, Jeff Minter’s llama-focussed Defender clone, was a surprise in second place – without thinking much I actually thought I was going to see Submarine Commander there! But thinking much about it, it’s probably right in my mind. As is Omega Race in fifth place, and our subject here, Jetpac, in third. I don’t like that Pinball Wizard (read more here) isn’t there though! But taking away the all important nostalgia factor, we come to the second question – where does it fit in the top VIC-20 games?

Even through my rose-tinted spectacles, I can look at my list and say that The Perils of Willy [maybe!] isn’t the best game on the VIC-20, though I won’t hear any argument that it isn’t up there somewhere!!! But seriously, looking at my list here for the first time, extracted like this as my VIC-20 top five, the first thing that came to mind was hang on, why isn’t Jetpac in first place? Instinctively, surely there’s no better game on the platform from a technical viewpoint, or aesthetically, or in terms of gameplay or longevity? From my top five, maybe Submarine Commander is an equivalent technical marvel, but I reluctantly concede that its gameplay has a more niche appeal. Omega Race also needs to be in there as an almost flawless conversion of the incredible playable – and re-playable – twist on Asteroids arcade game. Add a few other titles I’m familiar with, and after far more personal deliberation that was probably necessary, we have this:

  1. Jetpac
  2. Omega Race
  3. Gorf
  4. Jump Jet
  5. Pirate Cove

We’ll get into Jetpac (finally) in a minute. In second and third place, I could easily switch positions between Omega Race and another incredible arcade conversion feat in Gorf, a multi-level spin on Space Invaders that included screen effects like I’d never seen before, not to mention the biggest enemy I’d ever seen with the Flag Ship appearing every four levels! Then we have Jump Jet (read more here), which is a Harrier flight-sim that at the time I got it was surely as good as flight sims would ever get! I could argue that A.C.E. (Air Combat Emulator) – coincidentally another flight-sim – should be in this spot too, but that was even harder than this was, and its plane couldn’t take off vertically from an aircraft carrier! It never made me air-sick like its box said it might either… Then we have Pirate Cove, part of that incredibly immersive VIC-20 text-based adventure series (almost any of which could really be here instead if you prefer) by Scott Adams where you “Go North” or “Use Mongoose” (to kill a snake if I remember right)! And if I also remember right, the first game I ever finished, not long after the mongoose incident!

List complete, and there we have it. Jetpac is officially the best game ever on the VIC-20! We should find out why.

Jetpac was released by Ultimate in 1983, but I’m fairly certain I got this after Christmas in 1984; it definitely needed an 8K expansion so it wouldn’t have been much earlier than that. Without doubt it was the screenshots on an advert or review I’d seen in C&VG or Commodore User, or on the back of the box, that attracted me to it, and amazingly they were probably even VIC-20 screenshots and not, as was usually the case, nefariously hijacked from a C64 version (which in this case never actually appeared). They could have come from the Spectrum version, but any VIC owner could proudly say that even if they did, you’d struggle to tell the difference. In fact, this was especially true because the VIC-20 version had colour clash that any Spectrum owner would have been proud of!

You play as Jetman, though bit like Mario’s first appearance in Donkey Kong, I don’t remember ever knowing him as Jetman – he was just an astronaut with a jet-pack and a blaster who had crashed on a planet far, far away and had to rebuild his rocket from the bits strewn about the place then fuel it up and start making his way home. All of this happens on a single wraparound screen, with three rocket parts that had to be dropped on top of each other in order, which you’d find lying on the ground or on mid-air ledges, whilst fending off the planet’s fauna that randomly flies around the place impeding your quest. Once you’ve put the rocket back together, fuel starts dropping out of the sky, also randomly landing around the screen, together with bonus jewels and stuff, which you collect and drop onto your rocket until it’s full up. Then you walk back into the rocket, it takes off and you start collecting fuel on the next planet, which is a similar screen but with a whole new set of meanies to attend to.

The game loops around a set of four levels, after which you’ve obviously crashed again and need to rebuild the rocket from scratch, which makes for the perfect setting for the game’s score-chasing intentions. This simplicity is what makes the game great – this gameplay loop is without fault, and it sits in the company of Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, etc. as timeless games that play just as well today, still offering endless challenge and replayability.

The sound is very functional and of its time, but the aforementioned graphics are absolutely outstanding, and unlike most VIC games stand up just as well today, with big bold sprites for the main character and the various enemies, and this incredible sense of scale as the rocket is put back together. And when you eventually fill it up with enough fuel, that sense of exhilaration as it takes of and exits the screen is still there today too! The planet design, in contrast, couldn’t be more basic, with three platforms suspended over blackness – there’s not even any ground at the bottom of the screen! But you won’t even notice that when you’re frantically trying to create a path through a kind of large-scale bullet-hell array of fast-paced aliens, either by shooting or dodging or sheer fluke as you panic your way around to get to a rocket part or fuel drop or tasty morsel. And I say you won’t even notice it because for all the hours I’ve spent playing this over decades, I didn’t either until just now! There’s a lovely subtle flame effect from your jet-pack, which moves as you change direction, and from the rocket too as it flies up the screen; the aliens have their own explosion animation too, and I really like that this happens when they crash into a platform as well as when you shoot them. Aside from a bit of flicker, you really have to pinch yourself and say yes, this really is happening on a VIC-20!

And all of this is why Jetpac sits at the top of the pile for the VIC-20, even if it’s not actually as good as The Perils of Willy in my opinion!

I’ve never played any of the Jetman sequels, and have steered clear of the overly restyled XBOX title Jetpac Refuelled, but did eventually play the Spectrum version of Jetpac in 2018, when the Rare Replay collection went backwards compatible on XBOX One. You’ve got more screen space to play in and it’s the same fantastic, timeless game that the VIC-20 offered, but it doesn’t seem quite as fast and frantic, so I’m sticking with the VIC as having the superior version despite only having half the levels of the Spectrum version. And saying that is even more incredible when you come back to what a technical achievement it is that it’s on there at all, when it’s not such a technical marvel on the Spectrum; and when you consider the pedigree of Ultimate’s other games on the Spectrum. Really incredible!

A Note on the Game Boy in the Konami Anniversary Collections

A Note on the Game Boy in the Konami Anniversary Collections

They might not have the profile of some of the other games in these wonderful compilations, but the Game Boy is well represented in Konami’s Castlevania Anniversary Collection with both The Castlevania Adventure and Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge included. And then we have Operation C, where C, of course, stands for Contra in the Contra Anniversary Collection.

I’m going to skip over The Castlevania Adventure because I recently covered it in a bit more detail here. Instead, we’ll take a very quick look at the other two, which I’ve also played all the way through on Nintendo Switch.

Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is both a technical spectacle and an excellent game, and a perfect companion to Adventure. By this point the developers properly knew how to get the most out of the handheld hardware, so it looks even more wonderfully atmospheric, runs smoothly and sounds even more like a Castlevania game than its predecessor, despite the same limitations.

It’s pretty quick to get through the linear levels, which you can play most of the way through in any order, though the final boss fight is a bugger! You genuinely have to memorise every single move it’s going to make and every pixel on each of the on-screen platforms that you need to be positioned on for each move to counter it. Not to mention the untold experimentation to work out some of them. This is a real shock after the relative simplicity of getting that far, but it is a great feeling when you finally beat it.

Operation C was the first Contra game I jumped into from that collection – having dabbled with them all as a complete newcomer to the series, it seemed a bit easier than the rest, and as you can tell, I’m easily impressed when it comes to the Game Boy!

The classic run and gun design is all present in a compact form, but it did leave me struggling a bit until I tweaked the controls to be like Mega Man, then I sailed through the first area. I was then amazed that the second switched to top-down shooting like Ikari Warriors – not having any history with Contra beyond remembering a few screenshots and trying several first levels, I didn’t see that coming!

I think there were five gradually more bonkers stages in the end, including another top-down level with organic backgrounds and giant insects running about like something from Xenon 2! Some really cool jungle stages too in the classic Contra mould – just like Castlevania(s) on the Game Boy, the developers worked wonders with the monochrome visuals to generate just the right atmosphere.

Whether side-scrolling or top-down, none of the levels took more than a few goes to get through (apart from the first until I changed the buttons around), and the bosses were fairly easy until the (almost) last one, and that was also fairly straightforward once you worked out its couple of attack patterns. Which is how I like my bosses, and overall how I like my games!