I’m struggling to remember how this went exactly, but there were a couple of bars at the University of Hertfordshire when I was there from 1990 – the big raucous Student Union bar, The Font, with the barmaid that looked like Summer from Baywatch, and a more civilised affair in a separate building called the EleHouse. This was so named because that building was based on the designs of the Elephant House at London Zoo. By day it was somewhere that anyone who could afford it could get some fast food while watching MTV – hopefully the saucy Maria McKee’s Show Me Heaven theme from Days of Thunder was on – and there was a shop, possibly a bank (although that might have be somewhere else), and a couple of times a month you’d get a record fair for all your bootleg cassette needs, and, of course, a poster sale for student essentials like a replica of Munch’s The Scream or an oversized image of Bob Marley doing drugs! And by night, you had the imaginatively named Mandela Bar, which if you were lucky you wouldn’t have to share with the role playing nerds’ weekly club night or similar.
Now, all of that is a bit hazy – I can’t even remember it being called EleHouse, but by process of recent elimination, I reckon I must be in the right place! Maybe Elephant House is ringing a bell though… No matter because things get hazier; now that we’ve solved one of gaming’s great mysteries – whatever happened to Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery on ZX Spectrum (see here) – it’s time to move on to two more that I don’t think are going to be quite so straightforward to research. And I think these two are closely related… Mystery number one: where was the Pit-Fighter machine I used to play that always had a crowd of people around it? By another process of elimination based on time and a vague recollection of a couple of arcade machines there, I also reckon it was somewhere in the vicinity of that Mandela Bar. Mystery number two: what was the name of the other arcade machine we played to death that either stood next to it, or might have been there before or after it?
Wondering where I played Pit-Fighter has never really kept me up at night, but not being able to remember what that other game I remember playing with my student friends, probably in that same bar, drove me mad for years, because, being an enthusiast, I just wanted to know what it was so I could play it again! Some kind of boat racing game was all I could remember, and over the years, every time I went back and saw something like The Living Daylights on Spectrum with speed boats in it, I’d be racking my brains all over again trying to remember what this thing was! I did think I’d nailed it when I picked up old arcade racer collection Midway Arcade Treasures 3 on PlayStation 2, albeit way after the fact. Hydro Thunder, an inshore powerboat racing game, was what caught my eye, and as much fun as it is, I’m afraid we’re several years too early for that. But now it was ringing bells, and how close it turned out that we were! Shortly after that, around the middle of 2019, and my Game Boy Advance screen backlight died, and I decided to try out a PocketGo handheld to host a curated list of my Game Boy and Game Boy Advance collection in ROM form. Very nice it was too – so nice, in fact, that I decided it should also host my brother’s old Sega Game Gear collection, and then his Atari Lynx collection, but those weren’t very big, so I may have supplemented them with a few others! I have genuinely tried to keep that wonderful little machine well curated though, rather than just dumping romsets onto its SD card, in an effort to actually play everything. And during that curation process, I started looking into the best of the Atari Lynx because outside of After Burner rip-off Blue Lighting and the absolute system stealer California Games, I didn’t really know much about what it had to offer. And there it was – not quite Hydro Force, but Hydra!
Even by my standards, we took some time getting there, especially when you consider that within minutes I’d decided I was massively underwhelmed with that Lynx game and was playing Klax again as usual! I don’t give up so easily though, and as I recently discovered with the coincidentally similar Bimini Run on Sega Genesis (not Mega Drive because it was a US-only release), there’s sometimes far more fun to be had when you read the instructions! Doing so then transformed it into the game I was trying to remember, though I’m still not very keen on the controls on there, and that tiny screen… Apart from having no money, I’m not entirely sure how the Atari ST version passed me by – I wasn’t exactly an arcade game connoiseur at this point, so I’d have thought that I’d have jumped at what appears to have been a decent conversion. We’ll put it down to money, but I’ve also spent the last six months or so waiting for it to appear on eBay and it just doesn’t, so it’s also quite possible it just didn’t really appear in the wild much here. As an aside, it’s worth stating that like MAME, I’m completely baffled by emulating Atari ST and Amiga, so we’re leaving those versions there and turning to 8-bit!
The Commodore 64 version of Hydra is a bit of an oddity. I’ve never been able to get it to work, and there’s very little trace of it outside of the full C64 romset that I will admit to keeping! Almost like it was never actually released though. There’s a bit more around on the Amiga version, but again, bit of a hidden gem like the ST version. And that leaves us with the ZX Spectrum, which isn’t so bad because that’s where I’ve been playing Hydra the most!
Now that we’ve established the name of the game and the platforms it’s vaguely playable on, let’s have a quick look at what it actually is! It’s Atari, it’s 1990, and we’re in the future where terrorists rule ths skies and the seas. You work for the only courier company that the world’s governments can trust to transport things like doomsday devices, mutant viruses and crown jewels about the place, and that courier company isn’t Hermes or even Hydro Force, but Hydra! You’re faced with nine delivery missions to complete by driving your Hydracraft (hovercraft) with its supercharged speed and firepower, taking out enemy forces such as boats, jet skis, mines, helicopters, zeppelins and more who all want a bit of your package. This translates to mostly driving, but sometimes hovering, dodging and shooting your way through some very pretty digitised landscapes as you travel the world protecting your parcels and making sure you stay fuelled. At the end of each level there’s a bonus stage where you can stock up on more fuel, power-ups and other goodies, then there’s a shop to spend any money earned on better weapons. In reality, Roadblasters on water isn’t a million miles away!
I think there was a sit-down version of the arcade game, but we had a cool mini-upright cabinet with a flight controller and speakers that made the top section look like a boombox, and that would make an appearance, together with some nice arcade screenshots, on the back of the Spectrum cassette box when it was released by Domark in 1991! I’m still convinced there’s more to this than the laziness that might meet the eye… The lazy eye? Anyway, the full-page advert that appeared in Computer & Video Games magazine around June 1991 did the same, but unusually there wasn’t a mention of any of the formats it was being released on, but a preview in that mag did confirm all the usual 8- and 16-bit suspects. The following month it got less than average reviews in there on Atari ST and Amiga, and a news flash somewhere else confirmed a Spectrum version was coming soon, although the Spectrum magazines like Crash and Your Sinclair seem to have got their hands on it around the same time. Apart from Sinclair User’s 79%, the rest of the reviews came in pretty average on Spectrum too, but we all know that your own opinion is the only one that counts, so let’s dive in!
If you don’t look too closely, the Spectrum’s loading screen is a pretty good approximation of the arcade game’s title screen, with your wet-look tough guy and his black sunglasses in his hover thing, burning up a tropical river and burning up an unseen enemy with a preview of my favourite weapon upgrade, the flamethrower, shooting out of the front. I really like the trees in the background here – they just demand a Predator lurking about in them somewhere! Things stay very colourful as you get to the first mission briefing too, informing you you’re off to Baja, Calfornia with a fairly pointless map, what might be you or someone else in sunglasses, and your package getting ready for despatch. There’s a simple but quite jaunty piece of almost new romantic electronica playing in the background too, which is going to accompany you through the game – not at the expense of a few sound effects at least either, even if they are all a little on the lightweight side and I’d have really liked the feedback of some engine noise.
Things do revert to more familiar ground as you start the mission proper, with a behind the boat view as your parcel is loaded onto it from the side of a shed (albeit a very nice looking shed)! It’s a similar look to the likes of Enduro Racer or Out Run on the Spectrum, with a changing dominant colour for most of the background marking each stage; for example the opening one, Colorado, is yellow, then Baja will be a pale green-blue, and so on. The background scenery itself is generally black on the sky’s colour, but some of these are really well detailed and quite imaginitive, ranging from mountains to cityscapes to ocean sunsets, although the latter is a little disappointing, with the big sun just being a circle the same colour as the sky! They repeat across stages a fair bit too, regardless of the location name changing and some of the obstacles being location specific, like the famous floating trees in Germany, but you’ve got to get pretty good for repetition to be a big problem! You also get repeating tunnels of varying lengths, usually at the end of a stage, though some are stages in themselves, and these are a bit jarring, switching everything to white on black until you come out of the other side! The end of level bonus stages do mix things up a bit, with some wild background colours in what looks like a giant circus tent full of water, ramps and power-ups! The sprites are reasonably detailed when you’re up close, but from a distance everything does all look a bit messy and indistinct, especially as you get further into the game and there’s more stuff demanding the attention of your guns or needing dodging. There’s not that many different enemies either – occasionally you’ll get a speedboat or something exciting dropping mines in your way, but more often than not you’re just blasting loads of Dalek-looking things. Given this came out in 1991, it should probably have tried harder (especially at the very expensive £10.99 they were charging for it)!
Apart from the fairly intrusive, but admittedly necessary multi-load, repetition is probably the biggest criticism I’d level at the game. I think the arcade game got away with it a bit, with big, bold sounds and fast, explosive graphics driving things along, but once you’ve seen all the colours and all the backgrounds, you are wondering do I keep trying to get better in the hope that things might change up, or will I get bored before that’s possible, or even have I seen it all now already? In terms of gameplay, you have experienced most of it by the time you get to the first bonus stage, The Hydradome, and Ziggy’s Weapon Shoppe whenever you come a cropper in there (or get to the end, though I don’t think I ever have), and then it’s a case of shooting more enemies and dodging more floating mischief. But maybe I’m being harsh, because doing all of that is quite a lot of fun!
Similar to the Atari Lynx version once you’ve read the instructions, there’s some depth to the controls here that you’re going to have to get your head around to make it fun though. Regular water driving (is driving what you do on water?) involves pushing up to accelerate, fire to fire your normal weapon, enter to select your special weapon, then down to fire it. Hitting space is going to give you a boost, and when you boost you can fly, which switches to a regular inverted down for flying up and up to go back down again, and once you’re back on the water it switches back. It’s reasonably intuitive after a few goes, but I’ve never been a fan of switching between joystick and keyboard, especially on an arcade racer!
As well as the flamethrower from the loading screen, Ziggy’s psychedelic weaponry emporium offers you homing missiles, anti-gravity flight without using up your boost, shields, uzis, bombs and a nuke to obliterate everything on the screen; possibly overkill, especially at the crazy prices of even the most basic of these upgrades, which mean you won’t be experiencing many of them until you’ve been around enough times for second and third visits! It seemed like you were getting the bonus stage and the shop every third level, each representing a different geographic location, of which there are 31 across the nine missions.
Smash the controls, get a couple of upgrades and work out some of the enemy patterns (and occasionally dodgy collision detection) and it all feels pretty good to play. It’s certainly not an all-time classic, and it really is a bit of a Roadblasters knock-off when all of its original arcade finery is replaced by different shades of monochrome – you can look at a screenshot and if you didn’t know you’d think it was a Spectrum homebrew of F-Zero… Now there’s something to look into! All the same, another gaming mystery solved, an enjoyable time solving it, and now I can go back to pondering the delights of Pit Fighter, which hopefully isn’t going to involve playing that Spectrum stinker!
As iconic and popular as Sega’s Astro City arcade cabinet was when it launched in 1993, I’d honestly never heard of it until this Mini was announced for Japanese release a few months ago at the time of writing! That said, it turned out that while it’s name wasn’t familiar to me, its very functional design was, having been travelling backwards and forwards to Japan for the last twenty years – it’s what Japanese arcades still look like! Its purpose was very functional too – it was designed to take whatever game boards the arcade wanted to throw into it. The Astro City was a refinement of the Aero City multi-purpose cabinet, which was no frills, customisable and very white, which some have suggested was to negate the perception of dark and dingy Japanese arcades back in 1988 when it arrived. This time the original’s 26-inch screen was bumped up to 29-inches, the power consumption was reduced and the whole thing weighed less, but otherwise it was more of the same. The Astro City 2 would refine things again in 1993, launching as a dedicated Virtua Fighter cabinet, but also offering better compatibility with Sega’s 3D polygon-shifting Model 1 board, and also more power supply, audio, visual and controller improvements. A year later, in 1994, they launched the New Astro City for the Sega Model 2 board, which supported texture-mapped polygons and would be known for years to come for the likes of Daytona USA, Sega Rally Championship, Dead or Alive and The House of the Dead.
Fast forward to the summer of 2021, and Sega have given the Astro City Mini a Western release, maintaining that familiar aesthetic in 1/6 scale form, and played arcade operator themselves with the inclusion of 37 games, from the even more familiar to a few that have never seen the light of day outside of the arcades before. The Astro City was the first arcade cabinet to be made from resin, and likewise, the first thing that strikes you with the Mini is the high-gloss, high-quality heavyweight resin build, just like its full-size predecessor. Before you even think of switching it on though, that joystick is demanding you cop a feel, and provides you with instant microswitch-clicking gratification (especially on the diagonals with their double-click), and the six buttons are feeling very nice too, each with their own meaty click and deep downwards motion. Rounding out what’s in the box, you’ve got a USB cable for power, a HDMI cable for output to a TV rather than the built-in screen and an instruction manual that probably says stop talking and start playing… Just one quick note to say you can also buy a bundle with two controllers, and I guess you can buy them separately, and these are smaller D-pad versions that I guess would make playing on a TV more comfortable, though in my set-up, when I’m not using the screen, the TV is right behind my desk and I’m quite happy using the arcade stick and buttons while the console sits in front of me. And, of course, no two-player shenanigans here, with only a 14-year old that wouldn’t be seen dead touching this around the house! There is a Japan-only “Style Kit” available too, which adds an authentic base to the console (with the coin slot acting as money bank), what looks like a customisable marquee panel and a mini stool. Not sure I’d want it raised any more though – the stick is really comfortable where it is!
Right, the plan here was to focus on first experiences of playing all of the games rather than reviewing hardware, so we’ll just do a whistlestop tour of the spec… It weighs in at 13 x 17.5 x 17cm, with a 3.9-inch 480×800 LCD screen, offering 16.7M colour depth, or 720 / 480P via HDMI. The screen is a little curious, running at widescreen 16:9 where most of the games are 4:3, so you’ve got borders (albeit customisable ones) down the sides, except in the widescreen menus! I’m really happy playing on the screen though, or on the TV, which does give a clearer image that some games benefit from more than others; Cotton, for example, looks a bit pixellated on the TV compared to the very crisp-looking screen version. One real positive is that I don’t need my glasses when its hooked up to a TV though! I’ll also quickly confirm that with the unit switched on, the arcade stick and buttons still feel great! Actually, they feel really great, with wonderful fidelity and a real arcade feel. Last port of call is the one that headphones plug in to for some improved sound, though again, I’m perfectly happy with the built-in speaker. Audio and visual philistine!
Once you’re connected to USB Power, switching on presents you with a lit green band across the top of the machine, while on the display there’s a Sega logo and Astro City boot screen, and then the games menu appears, totalling about 11-12 seconds. The games are presented as a vertical, numbered carousel that curiously lands on number 33, Virtua Fighter when you turn on, rather than number 1, the far superior Flicky! I get Virtua Fighter first rather than Flicky, but why not make that number 1 instead? We’re in danger of going all Spinal Tap here! On the right hand side of the screen you’re getting some basic information about the game – release year, PCB and genre, as well as some screenshots that you can scroll through with left and right on the stick, which is a nice touch. Pressing start on each title brings up a bit more about the game, as well as instructions and any save states that you want to start from; these are created in-game by pressing the credit and start buttons simultaneously, which will also allow you to load them up, reset the game, go back to the main menu and get a really clear button map for the controls. Back on the main menu, pressing the credit button will bring you the options menu for setting volume, brightness, things like scanlines, wallpapers and so on. And it’s all very intuitive! Right, now the games. All 37 of them, but unlike the menu, I’ll start with number 1 and see what happens from there, if that’s okay!
Flicky. What an absolute surprise this was! And despite being number 1 on the menus, because I’d never heard of it, was actually the last of the 37 games I tried, though once I’d fallen in love with it, a bit more digging revealed I actually owned the Mega Drive versions on both the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Switch Mega Drive Classics compilations, and to my shame had never even loaded it up on either of those! Anyway, this is the debut of Flicky, apparently also in the Sonic series, from 1984, and your job is to “avoid Nyannyan bring the Piyopiyo’s home!” This equates to the happiest, brightest and breeziest game since New Zealand Story or Bubble Bobble, and I choose those comparisons because it’s not a million miles away from either, with your little bird leaping around platforms to gather up chicks and lead them to the exit – the more at once the better – while avoiding and possibly throwing objects at the bad guys trying to stop you. Simple art style, joyful tune, and it controls like an absolute dream, providing the most addictive almost single-screen arcade platforming experience you can imagine! Not quite my number one game on the console, but it’s top three without question.
Sega Ninja. This is like Commando in fairyland, and actually came out the same year as that, in 1985, with you playing Princess Kurumi, using your shuriken and ninja skills to take out the Puma ninjas blocking your path to the castle. A really nice touch with this is that it offers an 8-way shuriken on one button, or a forward (up) only shuriken on another, making the cat and mouse combat with some of the tougher characters far more approachable than being able to throw them any way you want. It has the look of an early JRPG, with loads of pretty pixel trees and rocks and flowers, but make no mistake, it’s a run and gun shooter and a very good one behind that cutesy-looking (and sounding) facade! One thing to note here is the something that’s going to become a bit more problematic later – you’ll notice Japanese text appearing, and while it doesn’t make much difference in Sega Ninja (except I think it says Ninja Princess, its original name), the lack of English ROMs for the Western release does greatly limit enjoyment elsewhere! Interestingly, this was ported to Master System as The Ninja, and can you imagine the uproar if you replaced the original female protagonist with a male ninja out to rescue her today?!?!
My Hero. “Oh no! Takeshi’s girlfriend Mari has been kidnapped. Save her!” I’m starting to love these instructions on the menu screen! This is a like a 2D Double Dragon from 1985, or, indeed, Kung Fu Master dumped into its predecessor Renegade’s world, with urban side-scrolling beat ’em up stylings, complete with almost familiar street gangs. There’s three levels to punch and kick your way through, and then they keep looping until you’re dead. This was a bit of a slow-burn for me, but give it a chance and you’ve got a very fun brawler, with enemies that take some puzzling out and an absolutely gorgeous sunset to behold… I love my gaming sunsets! There’s a couple of nice touches too, like being able to punch projectiles being thrown down on you from above and redirect them at other enemies, or being able to rescue another captive who will then help you fight. Until he’s killed anyway! Possibly not my go-to game on the system, but remember load it up once in a while and you’ll be guaranteed a fun time!
Space Harrier. Now we’re talking! I’ll never forget that mind-blowing sight of the stage one fire-breathing dragon boss the first time I saw it back around 1985. And what a spectacle this game still is! Like everything you’re getting here, it’s worth mentioning that this is the arcade version and not some Mega Drive or something port, but most importantly here, you’ve got the option to change from the inverted default control method! Also worth mentioning another common system feature, the alternate rapid fire version of regular fire mapped to another button, which is a welcome addition to games like this where you’re banging fire non-stop, though for some reason I like banging fire non-stop instead of taking advantage of that! True to form, I can get to the end of stage four here then I die, but I have to say that this is my new favourite place to do so! One more thing, this is the first time I’ve preferred headphones over speakers, just because that iconic soundtrack can get lost to the sound effects otherwise.
Fantasy Zone. Another absolute favourite of mine from 1986, with you side-scrolling in both directions and shooting stuff to collect coins to get power-ups to get further. If Sega Ninja was happy-Commando, this is happy-Defender, with its whimsical colours and enemies and soundtrack disguising tough-as-nails gameplay. Again, the control stick is probably making this my favourite way to play, and there’s a very good chance it might consign Mega Drive Super Fantasy Zone to not being one of my go-to half-time in football on TV games! I could talk about this all day (and pretty much did so here) so as we’ve still got 32 games to go, I’ll move on by saying if you get one of these, just make this one of your first stops!
Wonder Boy. Apart from dabbling with a magazine cover copy of the jerky (to the point of being unplayable) Spectrum version, I’d never properly played 1986 side-scrolling platformer Wonder Boy, which in retrospect is a little curious, given my absolute love for Pac-Land since before then and right up to this day. But give it a proper go I eventually did here, and then I got pretty good, and then I worked out how to ignore all of that being good so I could get the highest scores, and outside of Flicky this is probably the biggest surprise the Astro City Mini has thrown at me so far. I really wasn’t expecting to fall in love with it as much as I did, even after I’d got to that “pretty good” stage! It’s not quite up there with Pac-Land for me yet, but its equally simple and addictive, and it looks and moves great, with loads of colour and loads of character in everything. The control stick here really lends itself to score-chasing too, putting you in-tune with every piece of momentum, especially when you’re powered-up with a skateboard and having to negotiate tricky platforms without slowing down. It might have taken me a while to get to, but I’m in this for the long-haul now!
Quartet 2. This is a 1986 two-person version of Quartet, a side-scrolling run and gun platformer featuring four space warriors called Lee, Joe, Mary and Edgar. “Destroy the boss. Only a key opens the door.” That’s what you’re told at the start of the game, and actually, apart from picking up a jet-pack and various other boosts and bonuses on the way, that’s exactly what you need to do, and doing it is a lot of fun, even when you’ve only got one player! Really wasn’t a game I was familiar with, and it’s doesn’t have a lot going for it in the looks department to draw you in (though the soundtrack is purest eighties!), but you quickly realise that this is Metal Slug meets Rodland, and that’s a wonderfully addictive brew!
Alex Kidd: The Lost Stars. As a 1986 platformer, I can see the attraction here. It plays great, and like Wonder Boy and Flicky, the Astro City Mini arcade stick is just perfect for getting the best out of it. But I just hate the art style – level one’s horrible nursery school pastel aesthetic in particular – and I just can’t get past that. I’ve got to level two, so I know it changes up a bit, but there’s nothing here that I can’t get out of Pac-Land and my new friend, Wonder Boy, so controversial opinion but I’m not really likely to come back to this one. Those miracle balls are just going to go uncollected, I’m afraid!
Alien Syndrome. Bit more like it! It’s now 1987, and you have an emergency order! “Rescue your team mate trapped by aliens within the time limit! A scary message from another world!” I reckon if Alex Kidd had more scary messages from another world I’d have liked it a bit more. Anyway, this is a classic top-down run and gunner, a bit like a thinking-man’s Gauntlet on a spaceship, where you’ve got to rescue all your comrades, blow up loads of aliens, then get the hell out. Definitely one that’s better with two players, but much like Gauntlet, don’t let that put you off it you’re flying solo! It’s tough, tense, frantic, looks like an Alien movie and has some really special sound effects! Look out for guest appearances from our new friend Flicky and Opa-Opa from Fantasy Zone too, hidden away in the level 3 boss fight! At this point, I can’t stop playing this, so while you might not notice it, I’ll be back later!
Wonder Boy in Monster Land. Here’s where that Japanese ROM problem properly rears its head, because that wonderful action platforming has now become role-playing action-platforming in this 1987 Wonder Boy sequel, and that means opening loads of doors you’ll come across to read text so you can spend the gold you’ve collected by stabbing snakes to upgrade your stuff. Okay, it’s not rocket science, and the levels seem pretty linear (though the difficulty definitely ramps up after a few), and it’s all good enough to put the effort in, but I get the feeling a European Master System ROM might be a better way to go if you want an easy option for the full experience. Annoying, but not the most annoying here, I think we’ll find…
Shinobi. The big hitters keep coming out now, or big slasher in this case… “Those who stand on your way up will be slashed!” You become Joe Musashi in this side-scrolling shooter and beater, rescuing hostages and fighting the most evil name you could ever think up, ZEED – always all capital letters – in this ninja favourite! Stage one is a cinch, but things get rough fast in stage two, and only get worse with all those one-hit kills and back to the start with you! Tough game but a lot of fun, albeit a little basic-looking even by very late 1987 standards, but you’re a ninja, and ninja was all that mattered back then!
Sonic Boom. No, not that Sonic (thankfully!), in this 1987 vertically-scrolling shooter, that’s the vertically-scrolling shooter equivalent of one of those straight-to-rental eighties action videos called something like Cobra Assassin! It’s another that doesn’t offer a huge amount to look at, and is a bit average to play, but I like this as part of the Astro City Mini line-up, in no small part thanks to the sinister synth in-game music that would sound great in Cobra Assassin, as well as the sampled speech from your wingman who probably also moonlights as a Virtua Racing commentator! Another case of fantastic instructions too… “Scramble! Regain world freedom! Enemy plane attack! Make that super shot!” Suck on that Cobra Assassin!
Altered Beast. Rise from your grave and get back in the fantasy zone again with this 1988 classic. Apart from on a full-size cabinet, I don’t think punching cows has ever been so much fun as with this version! This Ancient Greek beat ’em up might not have the greatest gameplay or graphics (though it does have the greatest sampled speech!), but grabbing those power-ups and transforming into werewolves, not to mention were-tigers, were-bears and were-dragons never gets old, much like that Ancient Greek setting, but let’s not go into that spoilerific can of worms here!
Scramble Spirits. I’ve never been massively keen on 1988’s Scramble Spirits. It’s another vertically-scrolling shooter, and I like the idea of being transported to a future fight in your World War II plane, but I’d rather be playing 1942 for World War II planes, or Xenon 2 for time travel, or probably a dozen others (including the aforementioned Sonic Boom) than this one. There’s some nice touches, like the comrade fighters you can pick up then direct to go kamikaze, or the close-up violence that signals an approaching level boss, but all the same, it’s a bit simplistic and a bit average as these things go. Good for the odd game when you haven’t for a while, but not one I’ll be firing up regularly.
Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair. Not to be confused with Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap (and that’s another can of worms I’m not opening!), this is the third Wonder Boy in the series, arriving in 1988 minus all that RPG stuff from its predecessor. This plays like a beefed-up Wonder Boy, and I don’t just mean all the weapon power-ups, but everything you’re seeing and hearing too. The arcade-platforming feels great, and I’m glad not to be wondering what I’m supposed to do with all these golden coins because all the text is in Japanese! Fantastic fun, and when I’ve properly rinsed the first game at least, I can definitely see myself spending a lot more time here.
Gain Ground. “An epic war that straddles time” isn’t the first thing I’d call it, but the idea is that you are one of twenty commandos dumped in the Dark Ages, and you’re fighting your way to an exit in each stage to move further ahead in time, totalling 40 stages in different time periods to fight your way through to get back to the future. All the commandos are playable individually, with different abilities and weapons, and you’ll mostly encounter the next one when you die, though you can pick them up as captives in some levels and switch around, and the same with any previously killed dudes. But who cares what that really means! This plays like a rubbish version of Commando, minus the scrolling, any discernable character because everything is so tiny, the great soundtrack or any fun whatsoever… The worst of it is the speed you’re getting spears chucked at you in the early levels though; a snail would come at you faster! This one stinks I’m afraid!
Crack Down. Top-down too, like a run and gun Gauntlet, released in 1989 though I do remember it on Mega Drive a bit later too. Anyway, you’re an agent shooting cyborgs and planting bombs at various points around each level as a timer counts down, on the hunt for a mad scientist up to no good as usual. Very clean-looking game with some nice animation giving everything plenty of character despite it all being on the small side. Loads of fun too, with some cool tactical possibilities and fun weapon pickups. Top-down done right and we’re back on form again!
Golden Axe. The legendary side-scrolling fantasy brawler from 1989 that might have been released on a hundred systems since, but I reckon it’s never felt better to play it at home than it feels here. It’s just great, and I’d even go as far as saying it’s a system seller for Astro City Mini. And yes, the dwarf does actually have a golden axe in this version, though, as always, the titular Golden Axe that belongs to the evil Death Adder is actually brown!
Cyber Police ESWAT. It all starts out as a fairly bland and relatively straightforward 1989 side-scrolling shooter and sometimes brawler and sometimes platformer, like a cop show version of Shinobi, Things really pick up around level three though, when you become Robocop and the enemies start to pick up steam too, with stuff like flamethrowers, grenades, tigers(!) and TNT that causes buildings to collapse as you’re scrambling up each floor. The environments pick up a bit here too, moving from generic urban decay to, well, more interesting urban decay! Has never blown me away, but it’s fun in short bursts.
Shadow Dancer. More Shinobi in this 1989 arcade sequel that I think was as far as Shinobi ever got in the arcades. This time he’s out to take down a terrorist organisation and save the day again, but now he’s got a ninja dog to help him out. It feels like the original, and you’ll still be being sent back to the start of the stage over and over again with its frequent, harsh one-hit kills. Sending out your dog to wrestle an upcoming baddie will buy you some throwing star time to counter this a bit, but leave it wrestling too long and it will get overpowered and go back to being a useless puppy! Otherwise, there’s a bit more to the backgrounds, but mostly a lot more Shinobi.
Alien Storm. Blimey, where to begin with this? We’re now entering the nineties, with a mostly Double Dragon kind of brawler, but you’re clearing the streets of aliens with a too short range ray-gun. It looks better than it plays at this point, and it’s certainly not a high point of the genre. Get far enough though, and you’ll either jump into an auto-running shooter that’s great fun but all too brief, or you’ll get an Operation Wolf-style hostage rescue in various shops, which is even more fun! And it’s all voiced by a wannabe Duke Nukem. I like it’s ambition a lot more than playing it unfortunately.
Columns. First game in the series (which we’ll be back to later), also from 1990, where you’re in jewel-based combat to place three or more horizontally, vertically or diagonally. I’ve not mentioned the Japanese text problem for a while because where it has appeared, it hasn’t mattered, but this one is a curious case of English and Japanese, even within the same screen! Anyway, it’s the classic falling block match-three, with a neat mechanic that allows you to change the order of the three jewels in your block as it falls. And as always, it’s really good, feels great to play here, and that chip tune church organ soundtrack never gets old!
Bonanza Bros. Another mix of English and Japanese, with the latter causing problems now because were missing out on everything important, from instructions to character conversations. Fortunately, it’s not rocket science, and a bit of trial error will have you getting almost the most out of this 1990 side-scrolling 2D cartoon arcade stealth shooter. You’re a burglar working your way through some light platforming to reach the treasure, avoiding or taking out guards. I’m not a fan of stealth, but I like how they use it here to make gameplay more about planning the next few seconds than fast reflexes. Definitely worth your time getting to know despite the language-based laziness.
Columns II. More of the same, also from 1990, but a bit more polished and we’ve now got two game modes to choose from. Flash Columns sets you challenges on a pre-populated set of jewels where you have to match-three your way to flashing objects and eliminate them to progress. Then there’s Vs Columns, where you’re building combos to make an opponent’s life more difficult by raising their playing field. No complaints about more Columns here from me when it’s this good. Yet…
Thunder Force AC. Not just one of my favourite horizontal shooters ever (maybe tied with P-47), but one of my favourite games full stop. I play it all the time when I’ve got a few minutes to spare, and now I’ve not only got somewhere else to play it, but I’ve got possibly the ultimate way to control it too! I love most of the Mega Drive Thunder Forces, and this one is a 1990 arcade rebuild of III on there, with elements of II and some ideas of it’s own, and the only thing that could possibly make it better is IV’s soundtrack! Absolutely thrilled to have this on here!
Rad Mobile. This is a really cool inclusion in the Astro City lineup! It’s a fairly obscure arcade racer from 1991 that only ever got a dodgy Saturn port. It plays like Out Run meets Power Drift (both of which would have been jaw-dropping inclusions here!), with a touch of Test Drive II’s hassle from the law thrown in. As much as it innovates on Out Run and Power Drift with things like weather effects, night and day, and the resulting windscreen wiper and headlight buttons, it’s not as much fun as either. The collision detection is even more dodgy than its Saturn port, which often works in your favour, but unless you’re pumping in credits the stage time limits demand a bit too much perfection given the tools at your disposal. All that said, I’m always thrilled to get my hands on a new nineties arcade racer and there’s a lot more playtime left in this one yet. You’ll also see the debut of a certain hedgehog too, dangling from your rear view mirror!
Cotton. Of all the games included here, this 1991 witchy cute ‘em up was probably the biggest draw of the lot when I placed my Astro City Mini preorder! It was the very first game I fired up and is certainly the one I’ve played more than any other since it arrived, mostly because I’ve wanted to get my hands on this since I first saw a screenshot back in 1991, and now, thirty years on, here we are! By coincidence, as I write this, I’ve also just beaten (but only scratched the high-scoring surface) the brand new Cotton Reboot (big review here), but I love all versions equally! Anyway, you’re a witch on the hunt for candy, and by taking down the supernatural anime masses standing between you and it, you’ll also be returning light to the Halloween world. Great aesthetic, and challenging but very addictive (and mostly accessible for an arcade shooter). And my system highlight!
Arabian Fight. I was a little dismissive of this the first time I played it – felt more style than substance. It’s a scrolling brawler from 1991 that seems to be based on the old Sinbad movies, but uses this really impressive sprite scaling technique to give perspective in and out of the screen. Also unique is the action seamlessly zooming in up close at the front of the screen for big enemy entrances or some special moves. The brawling itself doesn’t feel as good as something like Streets of Rage, but give it a few goes to click and you’ll be treated to some lovely “Arabian” settings (explained by more Japanese text) and really cool supernatural enemies. A real highlight for me, being an Ancient Egypt nerd, was moving from outside some pyramids into a tomb, and seeing the flat 2D warriors in the wall paintings coming to life to fight, but still as flat 2D sprites against this clever sprite-scaled 3D environment. Not the best brawler ever, but definitely worth a play to experience the journey.
Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder. This 1992 sequel has no problems delivering both style and substance, with familiar hack and slash gameplay getting a bit more depth, and the fantasy settings getting a whole lot more colourful and detailed. Not only that, but there’s so much life everywhere you look too, with subtle animation carrying on regardless of the brutal chaos happening everywhere. It’s all been given extra clout, there’s new depth to enemies, new mounts and weapons, multiple pathways, and the magic effects never get old. I’d never played this before, but I’ll be all over it now. Brilliant sequel to a legendary game.
Puyo Puyo. If it wasn’t for my colourblindness, Puyo Puyo would probably be competing with Game Boy Tetris as my all time favourite falling tile (or Puyo in this case) matching puzzler. This one has two Puyos at a time falling from the top, and you’re spinning them around to build groups of four at the bottom, which will then disappear and eventually cause blockers to fall on your computer or human opponent’s side of the screen, effectively making them start again a way up the screen until they can clear them. If they reach the top you lose. Wonderful game even if I don’t like the colour choices which can make it hard to distinguish Puyos when it gets frantic, and everything is now in Japanese, but all the same, a great inclusion here.
Dark Edge. By 1993, 3D had become really, really 3D, as showcased by the super-deep 3D environments in this post-apocalyptic fighter. This means your super-scaled fighter sprites don’t just get bigger and smaller and you move in and out, but the fighting is coming from eight directions too. I’m guessing this was a fairly early, not to mention pioneering example of the genre, though the gameplay was familiar by now – work your way up the martial arts tournament ladder to its bosses in a series of best-of-three matches. As far as I know, this is the first time it’s made a home appearance here, so it’s very welcome and it’s not bad either.
Tant-R. This is a Bonanza Bros. spin-off from 1993, offering a load of timed mini-games featuring Detective Bumpy and other characters from the original game. You’ve got puzzle games like sliding tiles to reveal pictures; there’s counting games, concentration games, hidden objects and more. And while it’s well presented and seems to offer lots of variety, the whole thing is in Japanese, making its appearance here mostly pointless! You can work out most of the games yourself, but why you’re playing them will still be a mystery, so I’ve played this once and given it one more chance, but I doubt I’ll be back a third time.
Virtua Fighter. It’s another groundbreaker from 1993, with its big 3D environments and even bigger 3D polygon fighters. My brother had this (or the sequel – I forget) on his Mega Drive, so I got to know the ins and outs of the admittedly relatively simple control scheme pretty well. Not that it’s doing me any good here as I’ve not been particularly great at any fighter since IK+ on Atari ST! Anyway, this is still a great fighter and loads of fun to play even if it’s been a bit superseded since. That world’s first 3D will still bring a smile to your face too! Love that this was included on the console!
Stack Columns. I’m not a huge fan of this for several reasons… more Japanese text and more Columns being two of the main ones. There’s a bit of a Las Vegas gambling theme too, and that does nothing at all for me either. Now, I know this never got a home port and it’s never been easy to access, but I’m not sure we needed another Columns arcade game in 1994, and we certainly don’t need another one here! I know we’ve mentioned a couple of Sega racers not present, but how about a Thunder Blade or an Afterburner instead of a third Columns game, for example? Anyway, the game itself plays fine, there’s some new mechanics and its very slick if more Columns is your bag!
Ichidant-R. Oh no, it’s more Tant-R from 1994! We should have stuck at Virtua Fighter. This time the Bonanza Bros. seem to be medieval knights, working their way through a load more puzzles and mini-games. It’s all bigger in scope and scale this time, which I’m sure is great if you speak Japanese, but that means working out what the hell is being asked of you if you don’t is even harder this time around, which I have no patience for, so I’m out!
Puyo Puyo 2. Another case of absolutely no need for this 1994 sequel to be here. There’s some graphical enhancements, though some of them involve lots of ornate black on red backgrounds, compounding the colourblindness problems I have with the original even further, but mainly there’s some tweaks to chucking garbage over the wall to block your opponent’s progress, and a new offset counter move. Unfortunately that doesn’t offset the missed opportunity for another game instead, but on the plus side, at least it’s more of a good thing.
Dottori Kun. In case you’re afraid we’re going out on a damp squib, don’t be! Our final game, number 37, Dottori Kun (or Dot Race) is a proper curio from 1990, but as a fan of the very early pre-Pac-Man dot collecting maze game Head On (and more so its VIC-20 offshoot Bullet by Mastertronic and many years later Dodge ‘Em on Atari 2600), I’m all in on this! Its original purpose is a little unclear , but it seems to have been provided as either an Astro City system test board or a way of getting around a Japanese law requiring arcade boards to be supplied with games. Either way, it’s very primitive, with your arrow moving around the maze collecting dots and avoiding X which will kill you. No sound, no colour, no scores and almost no gameplay, but it will make you want to party like it’s 1979!
You still here? I started this because there’s always a risk with these machines that you play a few favourites, dabble with a few others and then consign it to gather dust. That said, I hadn’t quite thought through the epic undertaking of reviewing all 37 games, but I’m glad I did, though being the retro nerd I am, there was no risk of letting this gather dust! It’s small, perfectly formed and just feels fantastic. Yes, there’s a few superfluous sequels, and I am annoyed about the laziness of not providing English ROMs, especially where needing to read text is a bit of a given, but there’s a hell of a lot to discover and enjoy besides!
This lives on the desk in my study, and whenever I need a break from work I’ll switch it on for ten minutes. I’ve spent a good few whole evenings on stuff like Cotton, Thunder Force and Golden Axe too! Fantastic machine, fantastic journey of discovery so far, and I can’t recommend it enough!
Where to begin when unearthing such hallowed ground? Well, like many others, I imagine, my story with Space Invaders begins not with the original 1978 arcade game, but with one of the many pretenders to its throne as the Space Invaders mania machine moved from the arcades and into the home in the early eighties. There were, of course, official home console and computer versions, but as far as I know, until the NES arrived a few years later, these were restricted to the Atari machines, with a 2600 version appearing in 1980 – the first ever officially licensed video game – accompanied shortly after by versions for the Atari 400 and 800. A couple of years later there was a 5200 port, as well as what I think was a licensed handheld version by Tiger Electronics, sold under the CGL banner in the UK, though it’s not easy to confirm this! What I do know, though, is that this one had a manufacturing flaw that led to nearly all of the screens breaking sooner or later, so unless you had an Atari, the best way of getting your hands on Space Invaders was probably one of the many, many handheld clones…
I never actually saw the Tiger version in the wild, and certainly didn’t see the fabled tabletop version that was just about released in 1983, but like for those non-Atari early home computers, from 1980 onwards there was plenty of choice that wasn’t officially licensed. My own journey begins with Grandstand’s Invader From Space, with its big blue fluorescent display and multicoloured “Cosmic Zones” that made no secret it was “the popular arcade game, now sized to fit in your hands!” My auntie had it first, but I’d soon get my own (while my brother had another variant, Bandai’s Missile Invader), though I’d later inherit hers when the joystick snapped on mine, and the power adapter socket was beyond being sellotaped into place to make it work anymore. That one still works, and is still really good fun too! We’ve now gone on a massive tangent, so let me just mention some of the other unofficial early eighties handheld gateways into Space Invaders that I can recall from memory… Space Invader by Entex; Cosmic Invader, also known as Galactic Invaders; Galaxy Invader, though its follow-up, Galaxy Invader 1000 and its iconic yellow case was probably better known; Tandy had its own version of Galaxy Invader’s next follow-up, the 10000, called Fire Away; and Ramtex had Alien Invaders, then went even more blatant with plain old Space Invaders! There were more, but now we have some period flavour, let me cross the decades and dive into the Space Invaders Invincible Collection, launched in Europe on 17th August 2021, and just for the purposes of transparency, a review code was kindly provided to me.
The collection first appeared, however, in early 2020 as a slightly different Japan-only release, with more or less games depending on the deluxe-ness of the version you bought. Then, just in time for my Christmas stocking last year, we in the West got a cut-down collection of the three most modern releases, including the 40th anniversary four player Space Invaders Gigamax 4 SE, the 30th anniversary remix Space Invaders Extreme, and Arkanoid vs Space Invaders, which we’ll come back to, but annoyed me a bit got making me play exclusively on the Switch’s touchscreen. Anyway, we’re now getting the full works, celebrating this icon of gaming and what must be the very first proper shoot ‘em up, with no less than eleven Taito games spanning all the way from 1978 to 2018:
Space Invaders (1978, Arcade) – black & white
Space Invaders (1978, Arcade) – colour
Space Invaders Part II (1979, Arcade)
Lunar Rescue (1979, Arcade)
Space Cyclone (1980, Arcade)
Majestic Twelve: The Space Invaders Part IV (1990, Arcade)
Super Space Invaders ’91 (1990, Arcade)
Space Invaders DX (1994, Arcade)
Arkanoid vs Space Invaders (2016) – included as an additional download
Space Invaders Extreme (2018)
Space Invaders Gigamax 4 SE (2018)
Yes, it’s not totally exhaustive if you look at the series and its offshoots in their entirety, with stuff like Space Invaders Extreme 2, Space Invaders ‘95 and my old mobile favourite Space Invaders Infinity Gene missing, but what you’re getting is a fantastic representation of the series from its beginnings to its modern respins, with a few bonus curios in between. And yes, it’s a $60 or £54.99 title, so looking at that list you’ve already got an inkling if that’s good value to you or not, but we’ll dig into that a bit more later!
Before we dive into each game, where I plan to give only a brief overview and summary of how it is to play today, I’ll quickly take you through the package as a whole on the Nintendo Switch… Firing up the game is going to lead you to an up-down list of all the games in chronological order, so it’s easy to jump into a bit of what you fancy, but it’s also worth noting that it’s mostly easy to jump out again too – as much as I loved Taito’s PlayStation 2 collections, it took forever moving from one game back to the menu! Each game here has a nice animated preview, some historical notes and your leaderboard rankings and best scores. For most of the games, you’re also getting a very comprehensive gameplay manual – for a game so famed for being instantly playable by anyone, I’ve never seen so many instructions for the original Space Invaders! That said, there’s nothing at all for Space Invaders Extreme or Gigamax, which is a bit odd when everything else has something to guide you, needed or not. And there’s online leaderboard support, except again for Gigamax, which is focussed on local four-player. Most games also offer an additional challenge mode, which usually involves scoring high against the clock, and we’ll cover a couple of the more interesting ones of these later.
Regardless of whether you’re playing docked on a TV or in handheld, by default the game screen is presented in its original format, meaning that for the older games, the gameplay area is a box sitting in the middle of the Switch’s widescreen expanse, although it is surrounded by some really cool borders. You can adjust it to fit the screen, which maximises the vertical height without stretching the rest, or going a bit wider with dot-by-dot mode. On a TV it’s not a big deal, but handheld it’s all a bit small and lonely-looking whichever way you choose, but you do have the option to rotate the screen here, and it looks fantastic that way, albeit at the cost of having to either dock the Joy-Cons and balance it sideways, or get one of those Flip-Grip things. I’m not a big one for CRT filters and scan lines, but as well as screen orientation options, you’re also getting what I’d consider to be pretty good options for those too.
There’s not really a great deal in terms of extras, like developer histories, museum pieces, artwork or all that other stuff that’s often included in such collections, but I’ve a feeling that if you’re desperate for more, you’re expected to stump up for one of the three premium editions, care of Strictly Limited Games… The Limited Edition comes individually numbered and includes a pin; the Collector’s Edition gives you an Arcade PCB Box, two soundtrack CDs, an official book, acrylic artcards and more; then the Ultra Collector’s Edition additionally contains a commemorative coin, an invader standee and a Space Invaders Invincible board game. And I’d be more than happy to review the latter too if anyone wants to send me one, but otherwise, let’s take a quick look at the games!
Space Invaders Original Version. The Beatles of video games! I’ve always thought that The Beatles are overrated, but I still love this granddaddy of shooters! This is the original black and white, 4-digit score version of the arcade game from 1978 that would become a cultural and social phenomenon with its simple premise of moving left and right to shoot lasers at invading aliens moving backwards and forwards and down the screen while avoiding their fire, aided by four quickly diminishing shields. Just in case you didn’t know! I have to say that hearing this version in action is far more nostalgic to me than actually playing it, but playing it is still a real treat – it’s purity and simplicity will always translate to timeless addictiveness! I enjoyed the challenge mode here too, where you need to wipe out a full wave of invaders within 90 seconds, without getting hit, and both of those really up the tension!
Space Invaders Colour Version. This was the definitive version of the original arcade version, released later in 1978 and adding some colour to proceedings, as well as a 5-digit score panel. Otherwise, it’s the same classic gameplay as far as I can tell, though it’s a shame it’s exactly the same challenge mode here too. This is the way to play Space Invaders though, and the colour choices make it look like the first ever ZX Spectrum game on top of all its other plaudits
Space Invaders Part II. It turned out that the first game did alright for Taito, so in 1979 we got the sequel, which introduced new gameplay mechanics like enemy reinforcements, aliens that split in two and rainbow showers. It also had an attract mode, and as another gaming first, an end of level cut scene of sorts, with the final invader flying off in a space ship and sending out an SOS message! Otherwise, the look and feel (and ominous sound effects) are more or less what you know from the colour original, and as such, that probably makes this my favourite game of proper Space Invaders. Cool challenge mode here too, where you have to finish a round while triggering the rainbow effect, which involves destroying all enemies except a single 10-point invader, that will then leave a visible rainbow trail as it starts moving faster.
Lunar Rescue. That’s not Space Invaders! Right, but it’s another arcade shooter from 1979 developed on the same circuit board as Space Invaders. And I love this game! You’re steering your rescue ship down to increasingly small (but higher scoring) landing platforms on the moon, avoiding comets by dodging left and right while using a jet to control speed, but as sparingly as possible to conserve fuel. Once you’re down, you’ll pick up a survivor and have to get them back to your mothership, but now the comets have turned into aliens and you’re in for a more traditional Space Invaders kind of gunfight as you move upwards to carefully dock. This really is a joy to play, offering a quick succession of different risk-reward gameplay mechanics on a bright and detailed game screen, with slightly less ominous sound effects too!
Space Cyclone. We might have entered a new decade, but this 1980 arcade shooter is another re-use of the Space Invaders circuit board. Unfortunately, two years was a lifetime as the golden age of the arcade game got into its stride, meaning uptake for Space Cyclone cabinets was low; in fact, its legendary status now amongst arcade gamers is mostly down to its subsequent rarity! You’re moving your rocket ship left and right to shoot down attacking Bems, the insect cyborgs riding on meteors that act as the main enemy. Eventually they’ll drop down off the meteors, and if you let them land they’ll start building their own rocket with a cyclone cannon, which will launch into space and do you no good if you let them complete it! This all gives it a bit more of a Galaxian or Phoenix kind of feel than Space Invaders, but I reckon this is a real hidden gem, with its primitive synthesised speech shouting stuff like “we’re coming” and “gotcha” throughout the battle, and the shimmering star-field and multicoloured cartoon explosions when you get hit by the lighting-bolt laser from one of the big UFOs! I believe this is also the first ever home port of the game too, so definitely spend some time checking this one out!
Majestic Twelve. Or, to give it its full name, Majestic Twelve: The Space Invaders Part IV, which was the USA and Japan version of Super Space Invaders ‘91 in Europe, and that’s our next game on the list so we’ll mostly kill two birds with one stone here! We’re now in 1990, and have finally moved on from that original Space Invaders arcade board with the fourth instalment in the series. It plays like a more frenetic take on traditional Space Invaders, as you fight your way through eleven zones, interspersed with a cattle abduction bonus game where you have to protect your cows from formations of classic fifties-style silver flying saucers; that also makes up the challenge mode for this game. Some really cool visuals at play now, with different ships and different backgrounds from around the solar system in each zone – some of which vertically scroll – and a huge variety of robotic and more insect-like enemies in all kinds of formations. The mystery ship at the top of the screen drops power-ups too that look like they’re straight out of Arkanoid. Excellent update!
Super Space Invaders ‘91. Not really much to add here – it’s Majestic Twelve in all respects except there’s no zone selection; you just play through the eleven stages in order. One or the other doesn’t need to be here really.
Space Invaders DX. This one from 1994 is an old favourite from those PS2 collections I mentioned earlier! Loads going on here, with three modes to choose from – Original, Versus and Parody. Choosing Original then offers various screen types, including upright cabinet, black and white, black and white with cellophane and colour. From there it’s all very familiar, with a slightly punchier feel to the game but on different backgrounds. Versus gives you competitive multiplayer, with new dastardly mechanics such as increasing the number of aliens for your opponent. Parody mode it where this comes alive though, featuring improved graphics based on the SNES port and a cast of characters from Taito’s other games replacing the alien and character sprites, including Bubble Bobble, Darius, Arkanoid and The New Zealand Story, which absolutely pops when you first fire up this mode – almost as gorgeous as the original! In reality, as a single player that’s why you’ll be here because the original mode is probably done better elsewhere.
Space Invaders Extreme. This was released in 2008 to mark the 30th anniversary of Space Invaders, and gave the series a proper new lick of paint, with classic gameplay mechanics remixed on an ultra-modern looking and sounding sensory attack. In addition, the version here is actually based on the further enhanced 40th anniversary Steam release, which I don’t recall being available on consoles before, but I’m not sure about that. There’s eleven standard zones to get through, branching in increasingly difficulty, and five extras that really ramp up the challenge. Each zone contains multiple rounds that might involve traditional play or challenge modes, for example hit a certain number of red aliens before the clock runs out. There’s huge depth to scoring too, with all kinds of possibilities for multiplying your score, but there’s nothing like just wiping out an entire wave in a second with a giant laser power-up even if it’s not going to benefit you very much! This might be getting a bit retro in its own right by now, but it’s still a very fine take on the original experience that will appeal to the more modern eye. There’s a regular arcade mode and a free play mode where you can select zones, and my only complaint here is that the user interface here has suddenly changed into its own thing after a common one on all the preceding games, which also makes it harder to quit mid-game if you’re not feeling it. Top stuff otherwise though.
Space Invaders Gigamax 4 SE. We end our journey here (bear with me!) in 2018, and the first simultaneous multiplayer version of Space Invaders. This absolute beast includes both classic and new stages, boss battles and deformed enemies, and the biggest wave of Space Invaders you’ve ever seen! Work as a team and you’ll be speed-clearing the screen in no time though, backed by a new soundtrack from the legendary Taito house band, Zuntata, which more than makes up for what might be lacking in new visuals. If you’re a solo player it’s definitely worth a go, even if it will be the most daunting thing you’ve ever seen when you first load it up! You do kind of level up as you go though, which balances things out a bit, but ideally you want at least one more player.
Arkanoid vs Space Invaders. Unfortunately this wasn’t available for download with my review copy as I write this just before release, but I understand that when players officially buy the game in the Nintendo eShop, they can then download it. I do have the benefit of owning it on the Space Invaders Forever collection though, and as I mentioned earlier, I didn’t like it forcing me to play handheld, in portrait, on the touchscreen, but I do know it’s an unsurprisingly enjoyable mash-up of two classic franchises, if you’re not put off by it being a straight-from-mobile port, which I assume is what it still is.
Laying them out one by one seems to be spelling out quite the collection, but now we’ve done it, we need to come back to that point on the price… On one hand, you could argue that you’re getting $60 or £54.99 or your local currency’s worth of Space Invaders, despite a couple of omissions, but on the other, if you can convince yourself it’s good value, do you need that much worth of Space Invaders? If you do, maybe those Strictly Limited Games deluxe options are more up your street than the digital version I’m playing. I don’t know though, even in a 50% off sale I’d still probably be on the fence about this one; it’s a lot of cash for a lot of Space Invaders. Well, hopefully I’ve helped equip you to decide for yourself if you hadn’t dismissed it already, and just for some non-period flavour, that’s also about what you’d spend on a decent Grandstand Invaders From Mars handheld on eBay today!
When Darius+ arrived on the ZX Spectrum in 1990, it didn’t have any great impact on me, and certainly no signficance! It was just another horizontal shooter with big sprites that were a bit too big for the cramped undersea environments, and until you got to one of the very impressive big robot fish bosses it was all a bit of a slog… Especially when you’d been playing R-Type on the system for a couple of years by now! To its credit though, apart from the colours there wasn’t a lot in it when you compared it with the Atari ST version, which unfortunately was also enough for me to never buy it when I moved over there!
The impact would eventually come though, and that was with the arrival of G-Darius for PlayStation towards the end of 1998, and I think from HMV in Milton Keynes if I remember right! I still didn’t know anything about its arcade lineage stretching back to 1987, or even that this was a conversion of the fourth entry in that series, but I did know that those huge 3D polygons it was chucking around were absolutely outstanding! Certainly wasn’t a slog anymore either, and being taken in and out of the water while waves of enemies came in and out of your 2D plane was simply exhilerating. And who can forget their first encounter with Eclipse Eye, the giant yellow mechanical broadmouth gibberfish stage one boss!
I think the significance of the series started to dawn on me when I picked up Taito Legends 2, very late in the life of the PlayStation 2, which included the arcade versions of Darius Gaiden and G-Darius. Even with my limited exposure to the arcade games up to then, by now the war between us humans and the sealife-inspired Belsar Empire that’s out to destroy us above and below the surface was becoming a familiar one! That I was aware of, we’d had the Spectrum and 16-bit computer games, then I’d looked longingly at various exotic PC-Engine ports like Super Darius; more accessible was Darius II on the Mega Drive, and Sagaia on the Game Boy, which was a take on Darius+ which I think I prefer over my old Spectrum favourite Nemesis on there. The SNES had its own takes on Darius too (which were mostly Darius II) with Darius Twin and Darius Force. Then there was more for PC Engine, Sega Saturn, PlayStation and that new Windows PC thing before we arrived at the G-Darius release we just looked at. My own final stop with Darius before we get to my PS2 compilation though was not being able to get my hands on Darius R on Game Boy Advance when it came out in 2002 because the stupid thing was Japan-only! Turned out to be a really cool remix of various games in the series when I did finally get there a couple of years ago though…
And now we’ve got a bigger gap that brings us all the way back to today and the end of July 2021, completely up to date with my time with Darius and ready for the release of the latest installment in the series, DariusBurst Another Chronicle EX+! Let’s start by saying catchy title, and as you can maybe tell from that catchy title, by now the history of Darius is way too complex for me to go any further into than we have already, which is exactly why we stuck to my own brief encounters with it so far! In short though, this is a new revision of DariusBurst Another Chronicle, a 2010 arcade game that in turn was a remix of DariusBurst, a PlayStation Portable game from just before then that I think was only released in Japan (and the crazy prices it’s going for on eBay seem to confirm that)! Anyway, we’re here with the new one on Switch, it’s also available on PS4, and for transparency I was kindly given a download code for the purposes of my ramblings here.
We’ll come back to story (such as it is) and game modes and user interfaces and all that stuff later because I want to get one thing out of the way from the offset… the new, ultra-broad aspect ratio panorama view, modelled on the dual display of the arcade version, with the ability to seamlessly switch to a closer-up view, is absolutely stunning! Now, obviously the first time I fired it up I paid absolutely no regard to anything I was being told on the screen – I just impatiently hammered the A (and X…) buttons until it put me in a game like every normal person does with something new! Then I wondered what the hell I was looking at, with the game spread across this massive narrow band across the screen while the score was popping out of the screen in big text at the top. Then I started pushing other buttons that weren’t immediately shooting lasers at stuff to see if I could change this weird default view setting, and eventually got to the back-left trigger, and suddenly we were transitioning to a much more in-your-face, full screen view, like one of those big round magnifying glasses built into the side of a seahorse tank at an aquarium. Literally! Another press, and we’re back in this over-stretched widescreen thing again, so back again – this time to notice the splendour and detail of the stuff I was shooting lasers at as it got up close and personal – and then back again. And now the realisation that these absolutely gorgeous 3D fish monsters were part of this huge, dynamic marine vista, and I was just blown away!
This is all happening on the big TV in my living room, so after I’d composed myself again, the next thing I wanted to check out was how this was going to translate to the Switch’s handheld mode. First, once we’re past admiring visual modes and actually playing the game, we’re going to be avoiding masses of shimmering plankton-like bullet hell (almost, at times). Second, while I was hammering away at the A (and X…) button to rush into my first game, I couldn’t help but notice loads of text all over the place, and at some point I’d probably have to read some of it to get the most out of things like the new Burst Beam weapon, not to mention work out what the different game modes on offer might be!
It turned out that the text was the main issue, and actually playing felt physically good in handheld mode. Except for the rumble, which was already starting to grate when I was just holding the joy-con dock, but with the added heft of the switch vibrating around, no thanks! Easy to switch off in the options menu though. The text is a different matter. Some of it – let’s say the medium sized body text that explains things like what Original Mode entails – is actually easier to read holding the device that straining to see it on the TV from an armchair a couple of metres away. It’s a couple of screens later, where you’re looking at the stage maps for each difficulty before you start a game, that the eye strain really starts in both modes, but then from the next screen onwards you’re going from about 50% of the text getting virtually impossible to read in handheld, to almost all of it on the next! Fortunately we’re only one screen from the game finally loading here, but all the same, you’re losing all of the ship select information and then all of the how to play and upcoming boss data, which is all essential when you’re starting out. Especially as this is about the only instruction a newcomer to the series is going to get anywhere!
Just to close on our first point on handheld, apart from that, we’re definitely missing the visual wow of seeing this on a big screen, and there’s also a a definite loss of clarity, which seems to affect the backgrounds – such as distant star-fields – in the panorama view, and in the closer view, character detail seems less distinct. The power-up icons aren’t easy to read either, but not a showstopper. I don’t really play my Switch handheld at the best of times, but while the feel is good and the gameplay is intact, I reckon the loss of fidelity and generally lower impact versus a big screen isn’t really a compromise I want to make for something as grandiose as this.
While we’re on the topic of text and stuff, I’ve got a few bones to pick with the user interface! When you first load up, once you’ve pressed A to bypass several company logos, you’ve got the game logo and a flashing “Press Start” message. I guess the + button on Switch isn’t technically a start button, but it’s the start button! Press that, though, and you bring up the options menu because if you look closely in the bottom left corner, it says “X:Start” which is even less “Press Start” than the unofficial start button! Okay, we’ve now pressed X to start (although my muscle / brain tissue memory is still making me press + before I realise it means X every time I load it up) and we’re onto the game mode select screen. Now in the bottom left, we’ve got some new instructions, with “A:Decide” rather than “X:Start” or even Start start! All now goes swimmingly until we get to the ship select screen – the one where you can’t read the ship’s description because it’s too small. Now, as well as “A:Decide” we also now have “X:Entry” and I have no idea what this means – it certainly doesn’t do anything. All I can think is that if additional players are playing then they need to press X wherever they are. Doesn’t say that anywhere though! On a related subject, when I was digging around in the options menu, I noticed there’s a load of different cabinets you can change to, but I never did work out what this means either as changing it didn’t seem to do anything at all.
Last little moan, which admittedly could be down to me missing something really obvious, but anyway, the words “FREE PLAY” are in the middle of the screen in tiny letters all the time, from that initial game logo screen when it first loads through to everything you see until you turn it off thereafter, including right across the play area! You get a lot of “X:Entry” at the bottom left of the screen while you’re playing too, which I guess is inviting other players in, but who knows when you’re flying solo like me and there’s no instructions whatsoever anyway! Actually, I do know that there’s 4-player local co-op, though I think online is limited to ghost-ships and leaderboards.
Right, I lied, one more moan then the good stuff! There’s no back button on the menu-type screens. Pressing B in any of these selection or preamble screens takes you right back to the title. But be thankful for small mercies here, because every single Game Over won’t take you back to the title screen, but to the parade of company logos before it that most games only throw at you when you’re loading up for the first time, so you have to click through these with the A button to actually get back to the title screen (where you then have to click X and not Start) every time!
I like my user interfaces simple, uncluttered and consistent, which might not be rocket science, but it’s amazing how often it doesn’t happen! And I know we’re here for the shooting, but this is Taito and this is a full price release, and honestly I expect a little more attention to detail.
As far as why you’re here for the shooting goes, it would be really easy to say that the Belsar Empire is back and up to no good again so you have to stop them, but why take easy when we can easily take the description on the Nintendo UK website wholesale! And I quote:
Take part in the galaxy’s most awesome adventure yet, with this brand new update to the arcade classic Dariusburst: Another Chronicle! CHAOS has devastated the universe as the biomechanical hordes take on humanity once again. Without the support of the human network, the Silver Hawks plunge into the depths of EVIL fitted with Burst technology and set out liberate Planet Darius!
In this brand-new edition of Dariusburst, enjoy the enhanced visuals and authentic arcade action like never before! Conquer the evil Belsar forces in the complete EVENT Mode with all new scenarios exclusive to EX+! And for the first time, take flight in the Silver-Hawk Murakumo in all modes!
Rush into Dariusburst: Another Chronicle EX+! Be on your guard!
Now that’s clear, let’s take a look at the four game modes. I’m taking a bit of a flyer on this because it doesn’t really spell things out – surprise – but we start with Original mode, which I reckon is the original arcade version, where you choose from one of three difficulties and work your way through twelve branching zones, so Zone A (Easy) will lead to a choice of Zones D and E when you’ve beaten it, Zone B (Normal) leads to E and F, Zone C (Hard)… You’ve got the idea! While there might not be much in the way of instruction, there is a nice accessibility option throughout for infininite lives, so everyone might get there eventually, but whatever score you get ain’t getting recorded. I like this in a shooter though, because as I’ve said many times before, there’s a reason why the most iconic boss usually appears at the end of level one!
Right, next mode. Original EX is taking what you’ve learnt in Original mode and ramping up the difficulty, with new letters representing those branching zones all the way up to Z to prove it! This is rough, but there’s real longevity to be had here too, and we’re starting to see some value in that full price asking price! Speaking of which, next up is Chronicle mode, and this is the big one. A vast number of missions and objectives where you’re presented with a load of star systems like one of those hologram maps the Jedi have in Star Wars, then you choose the planet you want to liberate. From there, you’ll be given a stack of missions to complete, each taking in a stack of different zones, and that all adds up to a stack of time needed to see your way through all of them!
Last up is Event mode, which is another 21 new (or at least remixed) named stages with definitely all-new music that either only ever appeared on the arcade machine for a limited time, or have been created exclusively for EX+. I mentioned them being named for a reason too – the names are great! “Fierce Battle of the Cosmic Fissure Belt” or “New Assault on the Cosmic Graveyard” are a couple of highlights, but what you’re getting here is a bunch of either score attack or time attack stages (that even invite you to press any button you like to progress towards a game at one point)! Again, another stack of content to get through here, and while I think some of the stages are more new or more remixed than others, you’ve now got way more DariusBurst than you could ever wish for! That said, keep in mind that from what I understand, Event mode is the only thing that hasn’t been available in various other console releases previously, and if you already own those it would be worth checking first.
And what about all that new music! Once it fled the aural wasteland of the ZX Spectrum, half the battle for the Darius series was already won by its epic, atmospheric soundtracks, and this one, by Taito’s in-house sound team, Zuntata, is just about the best of the lot! There’s a heady mix of surreal ambience and melancholic trance, Silent Hill-style industrial and dark techno that all seems to know exactly where its place is depending on your mission and environment. There’s disco beats and J-pop, massive space operatics, haunting choirs and ethereal individual vocal performances. There’s jazz. Yuck! There’s the audio drama of the sea itself backed by militaristic drums. It’s the soundtrack that keeps on giving, and it’s stunning throughout – even the jazzy bits!
The impact of the soundtrack on your gameplay experience cannot be overstated, which is why it’s such a shame that playing handheld – where headphones are an easy option – isn’t really an option, but Nintendo makes it so impractical to use headphones when playing on a TV screen that it isn’t there either. And that’s a compromise that shouldn’t be acceptable to the gameplay here, because the complete experience is a wonderful thing! Dancing your way around the myriad sub-aquatic settings, filled with sci-fi reimaginings of marine life as a deep-sea mechanical bullet-hell menace is exhilarating enough, but when that deep klaxon sounds its warning over the soundtrack that’s already driven your adrenaline to fever pitch, the appearance of one of the giant robot monster fish bosses is nothing short of mesmerising! And it’s such a voyage of discovery too, and you just wonder what massive marine insanity is coming next – I mean, you’ve beaten Lightning Claw, Brightly Stare, Mud Wheel and Hermit Red-Purple, so where do you possibly go from there? Well, why not try Great Thing, Thousand Bullets, Brute Gluttons and Massive Whip for size! And they’re all based on the worst of what’s really lurking in the real deep, from whiplash squid to hermit crabs to, er, piranhas. Sea piranhas! And they’re all massive and epic and beautifully designed, and there’s very few that aren’t just an absolute thrill ride once you’ve got a bit of a grip on their moves!
There’s help at hand with your new multifunctional Burst Beam cannon though, opening up all kinds of tactical combat and massive score multiplier possibilities once you’ve got your head around it. This thing’s giving you the capability to turn the tide of a boss battle in a couple of button taps, whether you decide to use it as an enormous screen-slicing laser blast that you can also detach from your ship then rotate to bring down some hell of your own, or whether you decide to angle it so you’re effectively giving yourself a burning shield to obliterate enemy fire (which will also recharge it) as you blast away from behind cover. It’s got a trick up its sleeve to parry massive enemy fire bursts too, which will net you up to 96x scores if you’ve got your counter-game on. There’s enormous depth to this thing, and I’m not sure I’ve totally seen the best of it yet, but at the very least it won’t be long at all before you’re getting up close to a boss that’s about to unleash a giant lightning strike or something at you, detatching, spinning and locking your Burst Beam in its face then letting that take the brunt of its mouth juice while you do your thing in complete safety. For a few seconds at least! Quick mention for the tap of the right shoulder button to send fire backwards rather than forwards too. Why don’t all shooters do that?
I reckon that this is a rare case of the visuals playing second fiddle to the soundtrack, and I’m struggling to think of many games where that happens… Bits of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood on PC-Engine spring to mind, but not a lot else. Anyway, second fiddle or not, this is a feast for the eyes. And yes, I am still playing the Switch version and not PS4! Actually, I can imagine the loading times are a bit quicker on PS4, but to a frame-rate philistine like me I doubt there’s a lot more in it. Clearly, the boss fish are the high points; they remind me of seeing these exquisitely painted Warhammer or other nerd fantasy miniature figures being showcased in White Dwarf magazine or some unfathomable Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rule book back when Darius was flounder(!)ing on the Spectrum! Anyway, that’s good! Every metallic scale or tentacle has an air of being hand-painted then expertly dry-brushed for extra shadow or highlight, or a kind of subtle vein effect or scarring. And there’s a real mix of geometries to create life from straight edges, not to mention the mix of colours and the sinister grimace they seem to have captured on every one. And there’s more than forty of them!
A similar design philosophy is applied to even the smallest enemy that makes up the biggest of swarms, and seeing these things come at you is such a joy. I didn’t think some of the larger, more traditional regular enemy ship designs were massively creative, and they did remind me of those modern graphical overhauls of the first two R-Type games, with slightly less attention to detail than their more fishy-looking friends. The same is true of some of the asteroids (that break up old-school when you shoot them!) and big rock formations you come across, but in the heat of battle, as the actions scrolls along at some serious pace, you’re not going to complain! There’s huge variety in those backgrounds going by too, ranging from states of smoky aurora to planet-fields to complex natural and mechanical structures, but you rarely get the chance to admire their individual movement and organic transitions! There’s just so much else to take in, with the screen usually a mass of swarming enemies, laser fire, bullets, missiles, explosions (which, honestly, are mostly a bit underwhelming) and just general chaos. I think I might have seen a little judder on occasion when things got really mental, but on the whole this thing is a credit to getting the best out of the Switch.
Burst Beams, giant fish robots shooting multicoloured lasers out of one end and some kind of electric hurricane out of the other, tooled-up rock-falls, glistening razor shoals and a screen full of bullets of and explosions of every kind – all at once – with some kind of industrial-jazz booming and pumping up your heartbeat to bursting while the sounds of dozens and dozens of things shooting, exploding and dying (not to mention those terrifying boss warnings!) and this thing is just the best sensory overload you can imagine! Just play it on the biggest screen you can lay your hands on, play it loud, don’t have a heart attack and don’t forget it’s X not Start to start!
It must have been around the summer of 1985 that an advert for Palace Software’s Cauldron first caught my eye, dominated by its classical old witch stirring her giant cauldron full of bubbling bug life, though it was one of the Commodore 64 screenshots that really did it – the witch on her broomstick flying in front of a big full moon above a magical forest (they had such great trees on there!) and what is still one of the best-looking old hovels you’ll ever see in a game! This was part Defender-style shooter and part arcade platformer, with your hag searching out keys that would give her access to caverns where she’d find the ingredient for a spell to get rid of the evil Pumpking. It would be a while before I finally got a Spectrum +2, and a bit longer again before I found my way to Cauldron, but I’d never forgotten that single screenshot… So imagine my disappointment when I quickly conceded that the game stank! It was all so awkward and frustrating, and I just didn’t get it. I was a lot quicker off the bat getting the sequel the following year, but got its bouncing pumpkin vibe even less, so despite the Commodore 64 version of the original giving me what is still one of my favourite sights in any game ever, what held so much promise to 13-year old me has been a letdown ever since.
Half a decade later again and a very similar tale is emerging out of 1991, staring longingly at screenshots of this Sega arcade game that has all the witchy shooting and none of the witchy platforming of Cauldron, but with this mind-blowing cutesy-gothic anime art style! Could this be the one? Sadly, this time all that witchiness seemed even more out of reach, then and for no less than the two decades, including the subsequent ports to all kinds of systems that were always impossible or difficult to access! To put it in context, by this time my already limited exposure to arcades when the fair came to town through the eighties had now plummeted to a Hydra machine next to a Pit Fighter machine in a University of Hertfordshire Student Union bar! There was no chance I was getting my hands on this piece of Japanese exotica, whether in its original form or on some fancy and equally out of reach console like the PC-Engine (which turned out to be something like the case a couple of years later). But like Cauldron, I never forgot about it, and when my Sega Astro City Mini console arrived on its European release in the summer of 2021, there was one game I was finally jumping straight into the first time I fired it up, and that was, of course, Cotton, where it’s been a mainstay ever since!
Now, I might have taking my time getting to that original arcade game (Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams to give it its full name), but in all those intervening years I have skirted around other versions, such as Cotton Original on PlayStation, and other installments in the series, such as Cotton 100% on SNES and mad rail-shooter Panorama Cotton on Mega Drive, and in doing so have become a bit of the fan of the series, albeit one a bit like an Arsenal fan that’s never been to the Emirates. Or Highbury. Not only that, but I’ve also become a proper fan of some of the best of the cute ’em up genre it would go on to help define, with some of my all-time favourite shooter series such as TwinBee and Fantasy Zone. And that’s the world into which Fantastic Night Dreams: Cotton Reboot! arrives, and, just for transparency, with a code kindly provided for review.
What we have here is an updated and remastered version of the original Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams, built around three game modes… There’s the X68000 original mode, which emulates the 1993 Sharp personal computer port that’s also possibly the definitive version of the game (including arcade); then there’s Arrange mode, and this is where you’ll find the main rebooting, with spectacularly redesigned graphics and characters in an all-new 16:9 format; and finally there’s score attack mode, where you’re competing online for the best possible score in either 2 or 5 minutes.
We’ll come back to all of that in a minute though because now’s a good time to look at what Cotton is actually all about! You’re a young witch called Nata de Cotton, and, accompanied by your saucy, bikini-clad fairy friend Silk, you’re on the hunt for your favourite candy, Willow, and are so crazy about it that you’ll take down anything that gets in your way, which is convenient because everything in your way is behind the demonic infestation that’s also brought darkness upon the world. In terms of plot, that’s pretty much all there is to Cotton, which is very welcome in these parts – justify your existence and move on to the action, like John Rambo! You’re travelling left to right and sometimes up and down through increasingly difficult gothic fantasy lands, powering up to overcome fiendish boss monsters and mass waves of their minions, all in the name of Willow.
We’ll have a delve into each game mode, though there’s a lot in common between the two main modes, with the new all-singing, all-dancing, completely bonkers Arrange mode, where most of the reboot in Cotton Reboot takes place, being more grounded in the X68000 version more than the original arcade version. Either way, fans of the original are going to be in very familiar territory throughout, and if you’ve not played it for the last twenty years, this graphical showcase might even be what those rose-tinted spectacles are telling your brain that this is exactly what you remember playing!
What you’re not going to be remembering is the number of enemies coming at you all at the same time though, and this is probably the key difference, because while the technical limitations on pushing sprites around might have been lifted now, once you’re a couple of levels in you’ll notice that you’re entering bullet-hell territory. It’s not full bullet-hell, but a kind of diet bullet-hell – like Nickelback to rock music, or Paranormal Activity to horror movies! All the same, it definitely reboots the gameplay style, and regardless of semantics about bullet-hell, all those enemies and all those “bullets” definitely make life harder despite your equally rebooted firepower.
On top of this, we’ve also got a few quality of life enhancements brought about by being developed for consoles (or ageing PCs) first, plus accessibility and a few mechanical upgrades. Actually, having played an awful lot of arcade Cotton on the Astro City Mini now, the most welcome change in both modes is simply having the bomb button mapped to the fire button by default so you’re getting both at once, because standalone bomb just gets ignored in the heat of battle for flying down low and using regular fire on whatever’s on the ground instead.
Outside of your regular arsenal, you’ll be supported by additional firepower from Silk and up to five more of her fairy friends if you spot them and save them from inprisonment along the way. As you mow down wave after wave of enemies, the screen will start to fill (literally!) with power-up items – there’s a bomb item that looks like a wristwatch, and makes your bomb more and more powerful, and there’s various types of crystal, which is where things start getting complicated in the Arrange mode! Shooting at a crystal effectively diffuses your fire, making it more powerful and more efficient in finding its way to enemies. In addition, these diffused shots are transformed into collectibles when they hit something, and these contribute to an item counter at the bottom-left of the screen, up to 100%. Now, I’m not 100% sure I’ve got this yet, but it’s a kind of multiplier effect, increasing your enemy score for as long as you don’t get hit, which will decrease the item level – whatever it is exactly, don’t get hit and you’ll get more points! And once you’ve got a bit of item level behind you, you can also press X which is going to launch a fever mode, turning fallen enemies into massive multiplier icons for a massive score bonus until doing so has depleted that level indicator.
Back to the crystals, they don’t only diffuse the shot, but they’ll also change colour the more you shoot them, TwinBee-style. Yellow means experience, which you need to power-up your shots. Orange is also experience, but more of it. And there’s a big bar at the bottom of the screen to show how that’s going. There’s also red, blue, purple and green, which are sources of magic, and each gets its own little icon at the bottom of the screen too, and you can store up to six of these, and each can level up three times to give you more magic power. Red gives you Fire Dragon; blue is Lightning; purple is Bomber; and green is Summon. Whichever one is flashing on the left of your group of magic icons is ready to go, and a press of the Switch’s B button will activate that spell. And that’s a good time to mention that if you head into the options menu, you can assign this wherever you like, as well as split the bomb and shot functions if you prefer.
In case you’re still following this crystal stuff, each magic also has a sub-magic function, and a quick press and hold of B will launch that instead for a different effect. A slightly longer hold is going to set your fairy loose with some special moves of her own, and longer again will put a temporary defensive bubble around you… Sounds a bit mad, but there’s enough on-screen indication to see you through with some practice, and I reckon if you reassign the bomb and shot buttons independently you’ll also separate these a bit more. And finally, back on crystals, if you keep shooting a crystal, it will eventually turn black, and this is just a big score item, starting at 10,000 points and getting bigger every time you pick another up. Just don’t forget to stop firing at black crystals, otherwise it will break and all that shooting will have been for nothing. And good luck managing all of that when the screen is full of the things and enemies coming from all directions too! Once you’ve got the hang of it, there’s even more to discover, for example, there are ways of using sub-magics to turn everything to black crystals for mega-scores that you can suck back to Cotton without manually collecting them. For really mega-scores though, here’s a tip that even beginners can get onboard with… At the end of each level there’s what I think are different scoring teabags falling from the sky to collect as bonuses, but if you avoid all of them rather than collect them like it wants you to, there’s secret multi-million point bonuses on offer!
Blimey, now we’ve been through that, there might be more to this reboot thing that I initially hinted at! It’s definitely worth pointing out that you can ignore all of that and just enjoy a fantastic shooter, and this is exactly what I’d recommend to begin with – take in the sights, get a feel for the enemy attacks, which are going to be the same attacks in the same place every game so you’ll be learning their patterns as you go, and this will allow you to start focussing on all that additional depth when you’re ready. You’ve also got infinite continues (plus three difficulties) in both Arrange mode and X68000, so you can even brute force your way to the end of the game if you wish. Whichever way you get to the end, you’re looking at under 45 minutes (and probably nearer 30) to go from point to point, but with all that depth to get to grips with to get those big scores once you’ve learnt your way through every level’s enemies (and minimised your continues if that’s your thing), there’s a lot of value for money here. A clear is also going to unlock Silk and Pril, another witch from the Trouble Witches series that I don’t have any idea about, but being able to play as both is a nice addition!
Arrange mode is just an every day is Halloween thrill ride! You could look at moments where the screen is completely stacked with enemies, bullets, magic and multiplier icons as a bit bewildering, but you’re better off just taking it as completely insane fun through six distinct eighties horror anime-inspired levels, each bookended by similarly-styled cut-scenes, and not forgetting the bonus final boss fight! This visual style is absolutely gorgeous, with beautifully crafted gothic backgrounds, taking in the best-looking haunted forest since Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, gothic mansions, impossible floating castles, mountain ranges, volcanoes, caves and all sorts more. My favourite is the graveyard though, which its dramatic deep sunset skylines reminding me of old Vincent Price movies like Masque of the Red Death. Beautiful! It did seem to lose a little contrast moving from a TV to Switch handheld mode, and that’s where I experienced a few unexpected deaths as I was caught by indistinct enemy fire against dark backgrounds that had lost their clarity on the small screen.
That said, the main character sprite really shines in handheld mode, with Cotton’s hair and clothes and broomstick twigs bouncing around as you move, and its really brought to life by subtle highlights and lowlights. If you have time to cast your eyes towards Silk the fairy, you’ll notice she’s doing her own thing too, with all sorts of animation going on despite her small size; you can even make out just how small and impractical her bikini is for this kind of scrap as well, though no need to look too closely because you’ll get a nice gratuitous shot of that on each end of level summary screen! The mid-level and end of level bosses look great too, even if not massively original or challenging after a few runs at them, and all of the above applies but on a larger scale. I did notice a little jaggedness to these bigger sprites against the much less pixellated (by design) backgrounds, and even more so against the very sharp crystals, bullets and so forth when hooked up to the TV though. You’ve probably seen the regular enemies before too – mostly standard cartoon horror tropes – but they’re enjoyable in the main, though I did find a couple, such as the Frankenstein-type monsters that throw their heads at you, and the grim reapers, a bit too cartoony, and a little jarring in the context of the level design they’re found in. Overall though, it’s the best-looking Cotton you could hope for!
All that cacophony of graphics is perfectly mirrored by the cacophony of noise going on everywhere too! It’s like being in a Japanese arcade (or, in fact, the assault on the senses you get almost anywhere you go in Tokyo), but where everything is concentrated into a single game! To try and break down some of this aural density, there’s the almost continuous sound of your weapon firing and bombs dropping, plus the explosions as they make contact, and the sound of the enemies and the mass of crystals dropping or being collected, interspersed with the sounds of magic when its used, and occasional shouts of “Barrier” and the like from Cotton or Silk or one of the more coherent enemies. Like those highlights that brought the graphics to life, the voice work, when it appears, really does the same with the sound. And the whole time there’s this insane J-pop type soundtrack over the top of everything. None more Japanese!
I know from experience that to the outsider, there are times you need a break from all that Japanese though – as wonderful as it is, there’s only so much of all that visual and audio stimulation that you can take in one go! And that’s where you might want to look at the slightly more considered X68000 mode, where we’re back in the realms of the traditional cute ’em up rather than veering towards bullet-hell. As we’ve already discussed, this is the 1993 Sharp X68000 Japan-only PC port of the original arcade game, where it got some mechanical updates we already discussed, new design features and a graphical overhaul that treated us to some of the best-looking pixel art from that era you’ll ever come across.
Bearing in mind my red-black colourblindness and the fact I’ve just got my Switch running next to my Astro City Mini, I’m seeing much more going on in the X68000 mode, for example in the first level, the addition of reflections of lights in the water, or a layer of wispy, semi-transparent dark clouds providing a parallax effect to the scrolling. There’s also a little more detail in character designs, but a lot more in textures, whether distant water or more immediate buildings, ruins, rocks, trees and the like. The sound seems a bit more meaty too, but I’m not sure how much of that is down to each machine’s speakers and how much is the games themselves. Apart from that, you’ll also notice differences in some of the enemy designs, their attack patterns and its also got its own boss designs. One thing I did notice when playing the two side-by-side was the slightly better-suited controls with the Astro City Mini’s chunky resin arcade stick versus the Switch’s joy-cons, which I think I still prefer over its directional buttons. There’s nothing wrong with it, and actually I was a little concerned it might feel clumsy, which turned out to not be the case at all, but I’m guessing the Switch (or, indeed, the PS4 version) possibly isn’t the most pure way to play Cotton.
The last game mode is Time Attack, which is a kind of online caravan mode that you can set at either 2 or 5 minutes to compete in onboard leaderboards. Here you’ll find yourself in a huge Roman Colosseum-type arena, packed with spectators, that scrolls endlessly (or for 5 minutes, at least) and throws masses of enemies at you so you can put all that stuff you learnt earlier about shooting crystals and fever modes into practice against other players from around the world! The setting doesn’t quite fit with Cotton (except, maybe, when the sun starts setting as the timer runs low), but this is a hell of a lot of fun, apart from being a stark reminder that you’re really not that good at this yet!
For a game that can be finished in half an hour or so, you’re getting an amazing amount of game with Fantastic Night Dreams: Cotton Reboot! There’s the crazy looks, crazy sounds, crazy gameplay and just general craziness of Arrange mode, offering an accessible, modern, polished and did I mention crazy bullet-hell kind of horizontal shooter with a ton of depth if you want it. Then there’s the purity and best-in-class old-school aesthetic of the best version of a pioneering old arcade game that still stands tall with the best of the genre, and also has never been properly available here before! And there’s also the Time Attack mode that will decide if you’re good or not for you, however far you think you’ve come, and if you’re not, then back to Arrange mode with you because there’s sure to be more score you can tease out of that to help you on your way!
I have two go-to horizontal shooters on the Switch – Thunder Force AC and P-47. Whenever I get a quiet minute, or it’s half time in the football on the telly, I’ll fire up one of those and remember that you don’t get good at these things in 15 minute bursts once a week, but I’ll have a great time doing so! Now I’ve got a third and a fourth option with Fantastic Night Dreams: Cotton Reboot! Stunning game in 1991, in 1993 and now in 2021. Take your pick!
As much as I always liked the look of BurgerTime when it arrived in town with the traveliing funfair a couple of times a year, it was always competing with Pole Position for those fleeting few minutes of my attention when we were allowed in its classically smoke-filled, seedy arcade. Before long, it would be competing with a sit-down Star Wars cabinet too, and by then even a spectacular 3D racer with a steering wheel and a gearstick that once blew a 10-year old’s mind was going to struggle to get another look-in!
BurgerTime was originally known as Hamburger when it was produced by Data East in Japan in 1982, but fearful of potential trademark issues, Bally Midway decided to rename it when they licensed it for Western release. Everything takes place on a single screen, where you control a little chef called Peter Pepper as he runs around six increasingly challenging mazes of ladders and platforms, creating dirty hamburgers from the ingredients lying around while avoiding various enemies, the dastardly Mr Hot Dog, Mr Egg and Mr Pickle! You create the burger by getting to the platform where one of the ingredients is placed and walking over its full length, which will cause it to drop to the level below. These include buns, patties, lettuce and sometimes tomatoes or cheese, and I’m sure they taste all the better for being trampled! If there’s another burger bit under it, then that will drop down a level too, until you’ve got them all stacked up on the bun at the bottom.
As well as avoiding the Mr men, you’re armed with a limited supply of pepper sprays, which will briefly hold them in their tracks, and extra bonuses will also appear from time to time in the form of french fries, coffee and ice creams. Dropping an ingredient on the bad guys is to be encouraged too! And once you’ve dropped all of the ingredients onto all of the burger plates (rather than the bad guys) on the screen, you can move on to the next. Complete all six screens before getting Mr Pickled with all of your lives and it will start all over again.
As stuff like Track & Field, Pac-Land, Out Run and Operation Wolf gradually evolved, running around some platforms making hamburgers and avoiding Mr Hot Dog wasn’t just not happening anymore, but was also just consigned to history! But only for a while… As well as a strangely limited number of home ports (which I’ll touch on shortly) and a much wider range of clones, such as Mr Wimpy, there were also some arcade sequels, with Peter Pepper’s Ice Cream Factory in 1984 and two-player Super BurgerTime in 1990, though I’ve never seen either in the wild; I think the latter is available on Nintendo Switch though. There was an Intellivision-only sequel called Diner too, an odd, blocky, pseudo 3D thing about kicking food down platforms! We pick up my story with BurgerTime again in 1991, but now we’re on that handheld miracle the Game Boy, under the guise of BurgerTime Deluxe.
The core gameplay loop might be the same, but the loop around six screens definitely isn’t in this version! You’ve got 24 all-new levels on Game Boy, though you’re probably going to see them all way before you see all of the arcade ones. They’re mostly quick to complete, and most are not massively difficult in comparison; you also get a password every four screens which makes your lives feel fairly expendable. There’s even more sprinkles on top though! You can get extra power ups, from chocolate, which makes you invincible (just like in real life!), to chicken nuggets that turn your enemies in hot dogs, but not Mr Hot Dogs I presume because that would be the opposite of a power-up! And we didn’t even talk about the cut scenes that tie together all of those loose ends you’ve been wondering about since 1982, or the giant donut that turns up later! It’s great to look at, with a huge amount of personality in those tiny, monochrome graphics that really make me pine for single-screen versions of Rodland and Bubble Bobble on there, and you’re also getting a jaunty take on the BurgerTime tune to keep you company and a nice variety of sound effects too. Most importantly, it feels fantastic to play, and despite the slightly easier difficulty, all the strategy is intact and moving Peter Pepper around the platform mazes is a joy.
In the intervening years since 1991, I’ve always gone back to BurgerTime Deluxe from time-to-time, but I’ve spent quite a lot of time on the NES version too. It’s a lovely port – not quite as polished as the arcade version, but it’s all present and correct, and in the absence of owning the arcade version, you can’t go wrong. My only criticism would be that it’s missing a little finesse in the controls (especially compared to Deluxe), and there’s a stickiness, especially on ladders, that you get used to, but demands a level of precision that feels like it shouldn’t be there.
The other version I know and love is the Atari 2600 port. Now, I get that there’s no need to ever play this when you have any of the other versions (though who has a Coleco Adam or an Aquarius nowadays?), but everyone should have a soft-spot for any attempt at an arcade port on there, and this is one of the better ones! As soon as you let your eyes adjust, you’ve got all the fun and all the strategy of a game of BurgerTime, and it’s as a good as it could possibly be! What’s missing, though, is any sniff of conversions for ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 or that other one. But, of course, we had some nice clones! Barmy Burgers is one I remember, but going back now it controls like a dog and it sounds weird, even for a Spectrum! There were loads more to choose from if that didn’t take your fancy though; in fact, it’s a bit like all those Bruce Lee clones you had around the same time – Bruce Le, Bruce Li, Bruce Thai, Lee Bruce… We had Burger Time, Burger Chase, BurgerSpace, Burger Boy, Chip Factory, Lunchtime, Burger Builder and Basic Burger. And probably better known than even BurgerTime in many parts, we had the mighty Ocean Software’s Mr Wimpy, of burger chain Wimpy fame! It wasn’t BurgerTime though…
I’m skipping past mobile games like 2007’s BurgerTime Delight, 2011’s 3D update BurgerTime World Tour on the consoles of the day, and the more recent BurgerTime Party on Switch from 2019 because I’ve never played any of them! Instead, we’re going to land on 9th May 2021, which was my birthday and I received a rather lovely table-top BurgerTime arcade cabinet replica from my Mum… And here finally begins a journey almost forty years in the making (and I’m not just talking about reading this post so far), the arcade version of BurgerTime! Almost, because this is actually that NES version again, but it’s worth stopping off here before we get to the “proper” arcade version!
The My Arcade BurgerTime Micro Player is fully licensed, stands at 17cm or nearly 7 inches tall, and features a quality 2.75 inch colour, backlit screen with plenty of brightness and the right amount of contrast. The design of the cabinet is very realistic – it could have just been a vague representation and no one would have complained, but this is nicely shaped, angled and proportioned, and well-built too. It’s powered by micro USB or four AA batteries, and it sounds awesome if you plug in some headphones, but for some casual play its built-in speaker sounds absolutely fine too. The glossy cabinet artwork closely resembles the original, with what appears to my eyes to be accurate imagery, but on a slightly modified layout to suit the mini cabinet dimensions and lack of coin slots and instruction panels.
There’s a big, surprisingly tactile on/off switch where the coin slots would have been at the bottom of the cabinet, and the “slots” light up red when it’s on. The control panel has a start and reset button, two buttons which both trigger the pepper spray, and a removable joystick so you can use the d-pad underneath if you prefer. Either method feels fine to me, though if I’ve got it on a table it feels slightly more natural to use the joystick than angle your fingers to the d-pad. What I really love here is that you’re in a game within two seconds of turning it on – hit start when the screen lights up and you’re away! Playing on a small scale like this does take a bit of getting used to, and it’s probably not ideal for long play sessions unless you want your hand cramping into a claw, but until it does there’s no problem zipping around the platforms and ladders. Speaking of zipping around, I have experienced a bit of slowdown a few screens in, but it’s brief when it happens and it seems to happen rarely. Just one other complaint – it doesn’t save your high scores when you turn it off!
Right, we’ve covered the arcade cabinet of sorts, now let’s cover the arcade game itself, and our final port of call, which is most definitely the original arcade version, but now we’re on the original PlayStation, and Arcade’s Greatest Hits: The Midway Collection 2. This is a really cool collection from 1997, and as well as BurgerTime, features the relatively obscure Blaster (a kind of 3D Robotron 2084 follow-up), Joust 2 (a proper follow-up), the unreleased (and very odd) competitive food-fighter Splat, and stone-cold classics Spy Hunter, Root Beer Tapper and Moon Patrol. Everything emulates really well here, and apart from a bit of time needed to get used to Spy Hunter, the PlayStation controller feels good too. The collection also includes a trivia game, which no one’s ever going to know most of the answers to, but the real fun here is in the video clips of the original game developers explaining those answers. Overall a very nice collection, as are the other volumes which include Atari and Williams classics too.
Anyway, we’re here for BurgerTime! It’s certainly a definitive version, and its interesting to play it back-to-back with the mini cabinet and the proper NES version, because there’s really not a lot in it apart from the aforementioned “finesse” to the controls, and a bit of graphical and audio clarity on top. The animation is very 1982, but I still don’t think a sesame seed burger bun has ever looked better in a game since! There’s also a surprising amount of detail in that tiny chef’s outfit, right down to the buttons, and the same for the shine on Mr Hot Dog or the highlights on Mr Pickle, though I will say that Mr Egg is a little less impressive! The audio is pure early eighties arcade too, with its shrill (in the nicest possible way) theme tune coming and going around the various sound effects and jingles.
Where this still absolutely holds up – in much the same way as its better known brethren like Pac-Man – is in its depth of gameplay. It doesn’t take long before your mind is a few seconds ahead of the action on screen, plotting out an optimum pattern that will lead enemies away from where you need a safe route to an ingredient, and even grouping them together so dropping something on them all at once gives you maximum breathing space! Like Pac-Man, you also need to avoid getting trapped between two incoming enemies, or getting stuck in a dead-end, because the only way out of these is to use your pepper spray, and ideally you don’t want to be using that until you really need to. There’s a couple of other tricks of the trade you soon get used to using – you start at the top and let gravity take the ingredients below with it; the only time you want to distract yourself with other layers is if it’s going to take a load of enemies with it. You can drop enemies down with the ingredients too, though this will involve them being on it as you stand on the last part of its length, so is a risky strategy.
The first stage is pretty straightforward, with a limited number of enemies and a limited number of platforms that you need so drop the ingredients down from, but from stage two onwards you’re being introduced to dead ends and enemy funnelling, and their numbers are going to start ramping up too! By the time you’re at stage four, your going to see eight layers of platforms to drop the hamburgers down from, and you’re going to spend most of your time trying to lead the enemies on a merry dance around the complex set of platforms just to pick off a single ingredient, so patience becomes key. The next two stages are less dense, but there’s also more dead ends and less connections between platforms, and whilst patience still applies, you can’t hang around on either of these! Apparently (because I’ve never got past stage six), this now loops until you get to 28, when the enemies go super-fast for periods and it all becomes about ducking in and out of safe zones. Which I will never need to worry about!
Absolutely wonderful game with timeless appeal, which does make me wonder why it’s not quite as consigned to history now like it seemed to have been for a while in the mid-eighties, but all the same is never mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Pac-Man and other arcade classics of the time, or even stuff like Chuckie Egg that soon followed in the same vein on the home computers… Maybe it just needed Pac-Man on some platforms instead. Or Peter Pepper should have learnt to jump!
WEC Le Mans was an arcade game by Konami in 1986 that I never saw in the wild – I guess there was just too much Out Run everywhere when we went on holiday that year! In fact, I think the first time I ever really paid attention to it was when glowing reviews started appearing everywhere in early 1989 for the home versions. Which is a shame because this thing would have been a real showstopper in the arcades, especially if you came across the bonkers Big Spin version that jumped, turned and span 180 degrees! For an arcade game it was very simulation focussed though, with both day and night driving in a condensed but accurate version of the Le Man 24 race and some very challenging track designs. And with some impressive sprite-scaling it looks the part too – probably more so than Out Run – but while the soundtrack is no Magical Sound Shower, it’s pretty outstanding all the same!
Those home conversions came at exactly the wrong time for me, and to my shame I think I was pretty much ignoring Spectrum reviews by then no matter how big the score, especially when multi-format magazines like Computer & Video Games told you that Atari ST and Amiga versions were imminent! Actually, not just that, but the back page of that particular issue also confirmed this, with price information and some screenshots that definitely weren’t 8-bit, but in retrospect were probably from the arcade version. Regardless, that’s just about the last we heard of those versions and as a result it would be a very long time before I came back to WEC Le Mans!
The years have been good to WEC Le Mans, and if it missed out on challenging Out Run in the arcades, it certainly didn’t in the memories of Spectrum enthusiasts… I still love you though, Spectrum Out Run! Actually, the only reason I’m here now is because I was playing Out Run on there the other day, and that reminded me that I really should have a serious go at WEC Le Mans, so here we are with some first and several hours’ worth of subsequent impressions!
When you fire up the game for the first time, long before you think of reading the instructions or work out what’s being asked of you, there’s immediately two things going for WEC Le Mans on the Spectrum – it moves at pace and the car feels good to control. I didn’t really get much more than that out of the instructions when I did return to them – mostly marketing blurb telling you it’s the most realistic and addictive racing game yet, featuring four dramatic laps of the most gruelling and challenging car race in the world, with three checkpoints to pass on each one. Also some useful tips, like change the gear to go around bends, don’t oversteer, keep off the grass, don’t change gear too soon and always start in low gear. Everything you need to know to be successful in any racing game!
It might not last 24 hours, but hitting those checkpoints with enough time left to carry over a bit for the next one is rough! You’ve got 66 seconds to hit the first one, and if you make any mistakes here you might as well start again, but don’t because this game is way too much fun for that kind of seriousness, and anyway, you clearly need the practice! If you crash off the road, the timer does stop for you, but you’ll take so long getting back up to race pace that it’s not massively helpful. Everything is against the clock, but there’s loads of competitor cars to not crash into as well, and even though they all look the same, it feels like you’re racing them because they aren’t going to let you pass easily, and if you whack one of them you’ll be catching up with them again for another go – which is great until you get five or six of them at it at once to keep catching up with! They’re devious too, and you’re going to be trying to out-think them with every overtake; and there’s some extra realism with your opponents the further you get, with them sometimes losing concentration and spinning out just like you! Patience is definitely key, despite the very demanding checkpoint times. That said, get a few stages under your belt without any problems and bonus time starts stacking up, and you could always take a gamble on some dodgy collision detection, which will benefit you as much as hinder you once you’ve worked it out.
The graphics aren’t quite up there with Enduro Racer, but it’s as good as Spectrum racing gets apart from that (including Chase HQ, in this humble opinion). The track curves and undulates beautifully, and with the signs, adverts and trees along its sides, it’s all moving at a very smooth and a very fast pace. The backgrounds aren’t anything you’ve not seen before, and the car sprites are a little boxy, but they’re big and detailed, though I’m still not convinced about the choice of blue for your car, which is most apparent when you go off-piste and the colours start fighting with each other. But given the sense of speed, and the sheer amount of stuff being thrown around at that speed, I’ll forgive it a bit of clash, especially when the car’s in full spin. Sound is non-existent on the 48K version and barely functional on 128K, though it does have a nice bouncy title tune.
The final impression isn’t going to be so different from the first – this is up there with the very best of the Spectrum racers (even if it should have been up there with the very best of the Atari ST racers), but a lack of nostalgia means it has some catching up to do before it’s one of my very favourites. The speed and the handling make it an absolute joy to play, and whilst it doesn’t have the variety of Enduro Racer or Out Run’s changing environments, it certainly has the longevity – for all the hours I’ve now put in, I still haven’t quite finished it, and usually count myself lucky if I see the third lap! But this is the guy who spent 40 hours not giving up on Bay Bridge on arcade Virtua Racing, so watch this space!
My Grandma stayed on in England after World War II, and coming from an Irish family of twelve brothers and sisters, by the time we got to me that meant a lot of toing and froing of relatives for as long as I could remember. It also meant the occasional trip to Ireland for us too… And that always meant the Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire ferry at the end of a relatively epic car journey through darkest Wales, or a train to London then another west that I’m sure took far longer in the 80’s than the under four hours it does today! Fortunately, the ferry marked the end of the journey too, as our final destination was also Dun Laoghaire, a port town developed to serve Dublin in the early 1800’s, and where Bob Geldof and most of the rest of The Boomtown Rats come from too.
Bob Geldof was probably busy with planning Live Aid around the time I’m going back to now – I reckon we’re in the late Spring half term of 1985 and I’m just thirteen, sporting some great highlights in my hair and a part-new romantic, part-C&A lemon jacket that Don Johnson would have been proud to wear as he made his way across the Irish Sea! I reckon he’d have been just about cool enough to hang around the couple of arcade machines on the ship as well, once the cold had brought you in from standing on deck and the subsequent monotony of being stuck on there for another three hours had kicked in!
And of course, the highlight of whatever the rest of the arcade machines were on this particular ferry crossing was an all-new vertically scrolling war plane shoot ’em-up marvel called 1942! It originally appeared the previous year, at the hands of Capcom’s Yoshiki Okamoto, who, as well as designing its follow-up, would later go on to design Final Fight and a much under-appreciated series called Street Fighter! But back in 1984, he was very successfully following in the footsteps of another Capcom vertical shooter (and actually, I think it was their very first arcade game), Vulgus, where you alternated between being on a planet surface and in outer space taking out giant insect mutants from the planet Vulgus! Despite that, it’s not terribly memorable, though I do have a soft spot for it as a clear predecessor to 1942, and it’s also where that famous Capcom “Pow” power-up icon first began!
Back in 1942, it wasn’t giant mutant insects, but certain enemy planes (the red ones) that would give you this Pow power-up if you shot down the whole group, and that would give you a double-shot, wide-shot, a smart bomb that clears the screen or, a bit later, a pair of escort planes that lasted until they were shot or collided with something – easily done because suddenly your plane isn’t just your plane anymore! Speaking of power-ups, you also had what was a shooter super power at the time, the roll button, and that took you out of the 2D action and into a loop-the-loop, meaning you temporarily avoided any enemy planes or fire. You could do this three times in every stage, but got a decent score bonus at the end for not using it… No chance of that though – it was the coolest thing in the game and exactly what totally gripped me the first time I saw it in the middle of the Irish Sea because it was also one of the coolest things I’d ever seen in any game to that point!
The other thing that got me was the subject matter, which I realise I’ve virtually skipped so far, though there’s really not a lot to it and if you didn’t already know it you’ll have mostly worked out by now! In 1942 you’re the pilot of a “Super Ace” – the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a single-seat fighter plane used by the US Army Air Corps in World War II that was a real jack-of-all-trades including fighter-bomber, bomber-pathfinder and long-range escort fighter; it performed uncommonly well at very high altitudes too, and was responsible for 90% of all the aerial film captured over Europe. Questionable whether or not it could have taken off from an aircraft carrier though… And yes, at this exact moment in 1985 I was also a bit of a World War II plane nerd! Anyway, you’re in the Pacific Theatre, where the P-38 did most of its real-life fighting, shooting down the entire Japanese air fleet and its various fighters, light bombers and heavy bombers, plus four slighly less realistic big boss planes across 32 stages on your way to Tokyo, over the sea and over tropical landscapes. At the end of each stage you’re briefly landing on an aircraft carrier, getting a stage summary, then you’re on your way again. Simple stuff, but, having worked for a Japanese company for one month short of twenty years at the time of writing, and learnt quite a lot about Japanese culture from many visits, it’s curious subject matter all the same having the Japanese as the bad guys!
The first few levels are very sea-based, meaning lots of fighting over a mildly textured blue background! For all of the nicely detailed, mostly recognisable little planes flying all over the screen, it’s not that much of a looker yet, but then that aircraft carrier you strictly speaking cannot land on appears, and you land on it, and it’s a really wonderful sight! Get a little better, and things pick up as you cross very Pacific island-looking Pacific islands, with lush jungle foliage, volcanoes, outcrops, ruins lakes and beaches scrolling smoothly below the aerial warfare, then transitioning back into the contrastingly bleak but very blue expanses of sea.
The sound is very unique, in the same way a dog whistle probably sounds “unique” to a dog; in fact, I think I know exactly what that sounds like after playing 1942 so much recently! There’s some vaguely war movie type music playing now and again, and some very functional gun and plane engine revving sounds as it loops, but there’s also a non-stop whistle! And it’s like the whistle you’d get at the start of Match Day or something on the Spectrum! A shrill, beeping impersonation of a whistle… Beep, Beep-Beep, Beep, Beep, Beep-Beep-Beep, [silence], Beep! I don’t know what it’s meant to be, or what the rhyme or reason is for the sequences it’s sounding in, but it’s terrible! I guess it made people look as they went by though, and while you’re playing it does add an air of chaos to that wonderful gameplay, especially when you’re fully powered up and mowing down everything before it’s even realised your on its screen!
Speaking of the Spectrum, I’m not sure I was ever more excited about an arcade conversion on there than I was for 1942! Okay, maybe Shao-Lin’s Road (more here), but sacred ground like that aside, I couldn’t wait for this to land! The main difference here was that I’d played loads of arcade Shao-Lin’s Road over a long period of time, whereas in reality I’d played minutes of 1942 on a single ferry journey, but somehow those minutes had had an enormous impact on me, and just to be able to play it again in any form – let alone one in my own home – just had me at absolute fever pitch!
Elite handled the 1986 conversion, which was promising after they’d recently scored big with fantastic conversions of Bombjack, Paperboy, Commando and Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and I think that 1942 is programmed with a similar philosophy to Commando especially – a simple conversion that focusses on the simple gameplay mechanics that work so well in the original. By which I mean yes, there’s not a huge amount to look at, especially in the first couple of levels, apart from reasonably detailed planes with some occasionally suspect colour choices! What is there has plenty of attention to detail though – the planes moving in partial 3D as they tilt their wings to turn; there are unique explosions depending on the plane type, with multiple explosions when you take down a big one; and all the planes have working propellors, even the ones that indicate how many lives you’ve got left! They nailed that special roll too!
It does all pick up once you start flying over islands though, as does the inevitable result of some of those colour choices, with some especially fine examples of colour clash when you make landfall! Sound is equally – and mercifully – bare bones too; can you imagine all that whistling coming out of the Spectrum??? They cracked the gameplay though! It’s a little less frantic than the arcade version, though no less challenging, and some very minor suspicions about collision detection now and then aside, it’s always held its own as both a Spectrum shooter and a great conversion. And most importantly for something as addictive as 1942, it was now in your bedroom, so no more bugging your mum for another 10p, and not a disembarkment in sight!
I have played other versions, though not to any great extent… The C64 version is a reasonable conversion, let down some very blocky larger enemy sprites, and what I’ve always considered a very geographically misplaced rendition of Ron Goodwin’s 633 Squadron theme – was there ever a more completely British tune that that, so why’s it playing over the Midway skies? The NES got a great version apart from the sound effects, which are a mix of a dumbed-down take on the arcade’s iconic beepy whistles and some white noise for guns! And I spent a fair bit of time with the Game Boy Colour’s version, which I think is a port of the NES version, but to me seems a lot easier, although the sound is definitely less offensive out of those tiny speakers! It would take the Capcom Classic Reloaded collection on PSP for me to finally get that holy grail of the arcade version not only at home, but in my hands too, back in 2006, and then another fifteen years to be able to play it on a telly as well with Capcom Arcade Stadium on Switch.
That PSP collection was also where I first got my hands on the sequel, 1943: The Battle of Midway, though it was some time later that I really took any version of that seriously with the Japan-only 1991 PC-Engine reimagining, 1943 Kai, which is actually based on the also Japan-only alternate arcade version of the sequel, 1943 Kai: Midway Kaisen, with reworked graphics, sounds and even lasers! But either version was effectively more of the same, with you now taking out Japan’s naval fleet as well as its air force, so you’ve got bombs for them, and a health bar rather than lives too. I must confess I’ve barely touched the original original on Capcom Arcade Stadium so far – after all, it’s got original original 1942 on it! But I have played the Spectrum version, which is graphically very impressive, going into complete overdrive compared to its 1942, but I find the gameplay a bit soul-less, and I’ll generally switch it off before my life bar is depleted! The NES version is also worth noting because it features a persisent upgrade system for your plane.
At this point, just don’t think too hard about the Battle of Midway actually taking place in 1942 or it will throw the whole space-time mess of the entire rest of the series into total destructive disarray! Not that I have much experience of the rest though – 1941: Counter Attack seemed like a 1990 update of the original; 19XX: The War Against Destiny in 1996 had multiple planes to choose from; 1944: The Loop Master in 2000 offered tactical invicibility; and then we had 194X: 3D Dogfight in 2005, 1942: Joint Strike in 2008 and 1942: First Strike in 2010, none of which I’d even heard of until two minutes ago!
Despite having multiple versions of the original 1942 now, I think it’s a testament to the deceptive quality of the Spectrum conversion behind that simple facade that I still play on there more than anywhere else. That fleeting glimpse at the arcade machine on a ferry with its loop-the-loops and exotic warplanes might have sparked my imagination, but the Spectrum is where the game really came to life for me, and it’s never really stopped living there, despite the bells and those shrill, beeping whistles of the original!
The mid-eighties video rental experience offered endless possibilities for the martial arts-obsessed teenager; you might have rented them a dozen times, but there was still a whole world beyond Enter the Dragon and Way of the Dragon that didn’t stop with other Bruce Lee films, or even those of the Bruceploitation greats like Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Lie, Bruce Lai, Bruce Thai, Brute Lee and, of course, Lee Bruce! The works of Jackie Chan were the natural progression, with stuff like Drunken Master, Police Story, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow or Brazil-based food-truck vigilante classic Wheels on Meals easy selections from the bulging martial arts video shelves. We’re just pre-Seagal and Van Damme here, so Chuck Norris was the big western alternative with the likes of The Octagon, Code of Silence and An Eye For An Eye, featuring loads of signature roundhouse kicks and Christopher Lee as his drug-baron nemesis.
Outside of these heavyweights we had more niche stuff like New York- based The Last Dragon, with its classic Shogun of Harlem bad guy, or Five Deadly Venoms, where different fighting styles are represented by five different animal masks, each with its own deadly venom – you had Lizard, Centipede, Scorpion, Snake and, er, Toad! Crippled Avengers offers a similar concept, but with the fighters having a unique disability rather than a fancy mask! There was also a ton of more generic warring faction (or more likely warring kung-fu school) stuff like Martial Club, Opium and the Kung-Fu Master, Shaolin Temple or The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter – you really could start watching these now and never run out!
And I’m almost forgetting all that ninja goodness we loved so much in the eighties too! American Ninja is maybe the pinnacle of the genre (closely followed by its four sequels!), but there was an endless supply of these as well – Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, Ninja in the Dragon’s Den, Pray for Death, Nine Deaths of the Ninja, Ninja Terminator and The Ninja Strikes Back, which brings us full circle to Bruce Lee… No, hang on, it was Bruce Le, which has also taken me right back to that very easy early-teenage beginner mistake of picking up something you thought was a Bruce Lee film you hadn’t seen yet!
We’d always be watching these things, whether at home – from Video Age (VHS downstairs, Betamax upstairs) – or in our slightly older next-door neighbours’ house, who were members of the other video rental shop in Bedford, which was a bit further away but had an even bigger selection of martial arts movies! Being a bit older also meant that when we were all at the local leisure centre after kung-fu or a Saturday morning roller disco or whatever was on, they’d also get first go (or most goes because they had more money) on whatever the current selection of two arcade machines was in the refreshments area where the drink and snack machines were; at least my brother and me could enjoy a Dr Pepper in the only place you could get it at the time while we watched!
In this very limited experience of arcade games, I often wonder if my favourites are favourites because they’re actually any good, or if they were just there and made a lasting impression because they were better than anything I’d ever have at home! Looking at my big list of all-time favourite games, and the top 25 specifically, there’s not a lot on offer from the arcades, but from what is there, I doubt that many would argue with Star Wars, 1942 and Out Run being subjective top likes, but then as we approach my top ten we have Elevator Action, and finally, right inside my top five, we have Shao-Lin’s Road… and I’m sure that many haven’t even heard of them, let alone ever put them in any kind of best-of arcade list!
But back in our local leisure centre in our 1985 and 1986 heyday, those two sat side by side after Shao-Lin’s Road replaced Kung-Fu Master in the very slow, very infrequent machine rotation that – apart from fun fairs twice a year – dictated my exposure to that golden age of arcade games. And coming back to my previous point, I still play and absolutely love both the arcade and ZX Spectrum versions of both as much as other all-time favourites like arcade Out Run or Spectrum Renegade or Atari ST Supersprint, for example, so it’s not all rose-tinted. And yes, these non-arcade versions of Renegade and Supersprint are stories for another time, but as a point of interest, exclusively ports and not originals of Gauntlet, Enduro Racer and Commando also feature in my top 25!
Whilst we’ve established that I might not have been that well informed on arcade games in the mid-eighties, there certainly wasn’t much I didn’t know about Bruce Lee, Brute Lee, nunchuks and ninjas! And after our first taste of the union between the two media with Kung-Fu Master’s hero-versus-many rhythmic scrapping that we knew so well from our beloved movie rentals, when Shao-Lin’s Road came along there at some time in 1986, it added a whole new vertical dimension to that against the odds brawling, and I can still picture watching over my neighbour’s shoulder as he played it for the first time and just being blown away!
Something I did know around this time was Yie Ar Kung Fu, mainly from the very distinctive advert for the home computer versions with its own take on Bruceploitation, as well as those really distinctive characters in Commodore 64 promo screenshots, with all those chains and poles and absolutely groundbreaking variety in what was still the very early days of one-on-one fighting games. And when the home conversions of Shao-Lin’s Road appeared on the horizon, it got even more cool points with me because it turned out that all this time it was actually a follow-up to Yie Ar Kung Fu. Or at least that’s what the adverts said, because in the very same issue of Computer & Video Games magazine at the end of 1986, there was another advert for something called Yie Ar Kung Fu II, which was surely a more likely follow up, right? It was definitely adamant it was, highlighting it was officially endorsed by Konami and it was a sequel not a follow-up!
Actually, I was so excited about home ports of Shao-Lin’s Road that I didn’t pay much attention at the time, but it turns our that while Ocean had been sorting out the licence to the official sequel, competing publisher The Edge had done the same for Shao-Lin’s Road, and decided to advertise it as “The smash hit follow-up to Yie Ar Kung-Fu.” Taken literally, you might argue that was not incorrect because it’s also by Konami and it did come out a year or so after Yie Ar Kung-Fu in the arcades, in April 1985, so technically it was following it up, but it’s a pretty outrageous thing to do all the same! Even more outrageous was when reviews for both started appearing in early 1987 and Road was outscoring Fu II, albeit generally as signficantly less average rather than anything outstanding in its own right! It had a couple of 8/10 reviews though, and I remember Your Sinclair liking it a lot, as well as being quite sure it was the sequel to Yie Ar Kung-Fu! All that said, I’m not 100% sure how much Ocean’s official sequel is a real official sequel either, or where the planned Konami sequel that ended up being Martial Champion fits in, but we’ve spent far longer on a possibly unrelated game than I planned to here already, so we’re moving on!
Anyway, we were going to talk about this home version advert because this is our first hint at what’s going on in the arcade game we’ve been playing all this time! And it starts with another allusion to it’s follow-up status… “Our hero has finally mastered the secret martial art “CHIN’S SHAO-LIN” but is trapped by triad gangs. With kicks and other secret powers, escape from and travel SHAO-LIN’S road to freedom!” Not sure about Yie Ar Kung-Fu, but that’s definitely along the lines of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow or something!
When we finally get our mitts on the home versions, the cassette inlay goes even further… “As our Hero Lee you have finally mastered the secret martial art, “Chin’s Shao-Lin”. You find yourself trapped in the temple by hoards of Triads. Using your kicking skills and magic powers you must fight off the Triads and get out of the temple and head for the road to freedom. At each step on your way on your road to freedom you will encounter more and more of the Triads, and at each stage you will discover one that is particularly skilful! Look out for flying kicks, breathing flame, and punches that come clear out of nowhere!”
And there we were thinking we just had a great arcade game on our hands! Unlike its predecessor – one way or another – Yie Ar Kung-Fu, which is a pure fighter, Shaolin’s Road is more arcade platformer, where you’re working your way through five multi-tiered environments packed with goons to kick and magic away, and once you’ve done that the level restarts with more goons and the aforementioned particularly skilful boss characters; get rid of them all and you move on to the next level. Beat the last one and you’ll start all over again, but with even more particularly skilful characters on top of even more goons – some of which now throw knives or throwing stars or themselves – from the outset, as well as birds dropping eggs of death onto you! Some of the goons (you’ll know them by their trousers) release power ups after a good kicking which you have to quickly catch to get one of your magic powers. The first is a spikey ball that you can kick to knock over any enemies on your level of the level, and you can even catch and do this jumping super move with if you time things right. Next is a fireball that shoots out of both sides, but only seems to work on enemies a fair distance away. Last is a ball of energy or the like that spins around you, taking out enemies as it passes by on its rotation. The boss characters are nicely varied, with demonic looking things that breathe fire, some Yie Ar Kung-Fu style weapon wielders, an angelic looking lady with a lethal flying kick and just some big, bad dudes, but here’s an expert tip – just anticipate them going up and down, kick them, then go up or down! Patience is king in Shao-Lin’s Road!
Apart from one or two expert moves with power-ups that are completely superfluous to beating all the levels, the gameplay is simplicity itself, with you jumping up and down levels and kicking your way through loads of enemies. Jump. Attack. Nothing fancy! There is a bit of strategy needed in the boss characters, and in timing your up and down movements to avoid taking unecessary damage if you want to go far, but you’re going to be on the second level and feeling like Bruce Thai in one or two goes! Most of this happens on a single screen, but at each end you’ll get a very short side-scroll that extends the play area a bit, and within each stage’s three platform levels you’ll also get some gaps in the floor or roofs to jump between to add a bit more danger, with a fantastic slapstick animation if you get too close to an edge! Clearing a level of enemies gives a slightly more rewarding animation though, with a strongman pose and the word “GUTS” captioned about your little guy Lee, who’s got three lives, and three hits are allowed per life per level.
The action starts in a temple with an impressive looking big golden Buddha statue dominating an otherwise sparsely decorated opening scene. It does highlight all the onscreen characters though – big, detailed and full of personality, and their dress-sense really pops against the dominant blacks on this level; they really move at pace too. It’s also a good place to appreciate the bouncy, if slightly stereotypical oriental theme tune, which gets more frantic as the action hots up, with an ominous bass-line warning of impending doom! Sound effects are really meaty as well – you feel like those kicks are connecting! Stage two is where the graphics really come into their own, with you outside the temple (I guess) and everything is bold and bright and really nicely detailed against a rich blue sky; it would all look great in a big SNES JRPG! Stage three sees you at what is probably the grand entrance to the temple grounds, similar in style to stage two. Stage four has you outside a long, lower building with some huge bonsai-like trees behind it providing the third layer of verticality this time, and a bit of variety to the impressive but similarly styled array of traditional Japanese architecture elsewhere. Even more variety in the final stage as you make your way through some kind of desert canyon, with the temple far behind you in the background. Really nice looking stage – especially on the Spectrum…
Apart from being the most hit or miss game to load I ever (legitimately) owned on the Spectrum, it was a superb conversion, and whilst the arcade version might have been the one that always stuck with me, the Spectrum is certainly where I spent the most time. They absolutely nailed the easy to play, hard to master, utterly addictive feel of the original, though I think it gets harder quicker before it evens out a bit in the later levels. There’s also a bit less of the enemies moving up and down to get some vertical advantage, but there is an awful lot more bonus items (vases, possibly pizzas…) flying about here to kick for extra points, which does add a risk-reward element and some high-score longevity once you’re finding yourself good enough to be going around all the levels.
The characters are a bit less varied and a bit less cartoon-like than the original, and, of course, the colours have been toned down a bit, with a lot of use of different types of monochrome with just the odd (really welcome!) colourful flourish in the background, but in the main it looks just like the arcade version. The third level does go a bit more wild, with the resulting black characters feeling a bit like you’re playing in negative, but otherwise they’re nicely detailed, full of personality and everything moves smoothly enough, apart from a little jerkiness when it scrolls, but nothing especially jarring. Just don’t spend too much time analysing the flying kick – I think his leg is shrinking a bit when he does it, and who knows why doing one forces you down a floor! It sounds alright too, with a great rendition of the arcade theme playing on the title screen and a good scattering of pleasingly inoffensive sound effects!
It took me a very long time after the fact to find out that the arcade version had been available on the original PlayStation for several decades, as part of the Konami Arcade Classics compilation, together with Yie Ar Kung Fu – which is fine too, but not a patch on its sequel! And that’s where I generally play it now, before jumping over to the Spectrum version just to see if I can finally decide which one is really the one that makes it number five in my all-time favourite games list. But it’s always both! Simple, addictive and just like being in an eighties martial arts movie!
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 Salamander, 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 3D Fantasy Zone II W, or a mass of ghosts in Gauntlet, or the cemetery in Resident Evil 4, for example), I’m going to further preview what’s potentially already turned into the inevitable top fifteen! 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!