Here’s some more pure self-indulgence just because I can’t resist a list, so feel free to go and do something less boring instead! My recent examination of Elite versus Perils of Willy (here) – as well as passing the 500 hour mark in Animal Crossing on Switch – got me thinking about what games I’ve put the most time into over the decades. There’s no question about the first two, both running into thousands and thousands of hours: 1. Kick Off on Atari ST 2. Elite on Atari ST
Kick Off is my second favourite game of all time. I can’t imagine the hours I spent either playing against my brothers or in the complex single player leagues and cups I invented where every player had a name long before that kind of thing was a thing. We turned it into far more than a top-down football game, and it extended the life of my Atari ST into the late nineties, way beyond when the first PlayStation should have consigned it into the loft.
Elite is also well within my top ten games ever, and unusually for me, that opinion is not exclusive to me either! Early experiences of the space-trading sim on the BBC astounded then fascinated me, but this version absolutely captivated me. A game that never knew there were limits from the outset, and equally there were no limits to playing it, pretty much forever.
Building out my top ten, I’ve got some other contenders that immediately spring to mind in no particular order yet: – Pro Evolution Soccer 4 on PS2 – Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 on PSP – Destiny on PS4 – No Man’s Sky on PS4 – New Star Soccer on iOS – Animal Crossing New Horizons on Switch – Football Manager on C64 on Pocket PC – Tetris on Game Boy
Thinking out loud, I reckon Pro Evo on PSP then Tetris then Pro Evo on PS2 make up the top five. The only actual point of reference (at 500 hours) is Animal Crossing, and I’m going with that next, followed by Destiny and No Man’s Sky. To round out the top ten we’re going pre-smartphone, emulated Football Manager, and its spiritual descendant (and on actual smartphone) New Star Soccer.
My wife used to go nuts about my PSP always being in my hand every evening, but actually I think it was the fact I only ever played Pro Evo that annoyed her! It was full season after full season on there, even though it was about as predictable as old-school Scottish Premier League, with only a couple of teams ever in the reckoning! Actually, in a strange twist of fate about seven years later, my top goal scorer’s son and my son would become best friends in real life!
I am very familiar with the Tetris Effect. Not the game (for motion sickness reasons), but the phenomenon. I was playing Tetris every waking and non-waking hour like it or not! I loved my Game Boy, and Tetris never stopped being an integral part of its joy, through my sixth form years, university and buying at least three houses!
PS2 Pro Evo was the first to rekindle that Kick Off experience, and now everything looked just like on Match of the Day, and like on PSP later, I didn’t need to keep score for my league and cup fixes. And that Master League was just awesome – no matter how good you got, it always seemed to come down to the wire between you and one or two rivals!
I very rarely buy a game day one, but I knew that with Animal Crossing New Horizons I’d be getting incredible enjoyment and incredible value from whatever the asking price. In under two weeks I’d played more than 50 hours, and we’re now over ten times that. It’s the ultimate in gaming escapism, making the mundane as addictive as crack!
Destiny might have delivered less than it promised in the eyes of many, but not me! The shooting is as good as it’s ever got in any game, but the continuous search for upgrade materials through a continuous search for whatever was going on in that time and place you were in provided exactly the same addictive quality as Animal Crossing; it’s a different type of mundane, but you still can’t stop! Until you move to the country and have terrible internet…
Given what I’ve said about Elite, it’s no surprise that infinite space-trading discovery adventure No Man’s Sky rounds out my top ten, and it’s a game where tinkering eventually killed it for me. I was so happy with this game when it came out – unlike the rest of the world – and the first few major updates added loads to the experience that maybe should have been there previously. But the updates kept coming, and still keep coming to this day. And the one that made my sprawling moon base end up floating in the air and completely inaccessible was the beginning of a sadly quick ending.
Football Manager was one of the first games I played on my friend Paul’s Spectrum, then played it endlessly when I got my own, but it was on that forgotten pre-smartphone gadget the Pocket PC is where I spent the most time on this. It was great for emulating the C64, and this game was great for emulation. And it’s another that used to drive my wife crazy for all the aforementioned reasons!
Moving from football manager to player, New Star Soccer on iOS is one of the most addictive games I’ve ever played, to the point that in the end I knew I had a problem and had to go cold turkey! Unfortunately (or fortunately, for my sanity) it’s now a great example of a premium game destroyed by free-to-play mechanics. As well as excessive tinkering. Again.
I’m mostly happy with my top ten, but there’s also a few wildcards that I’m struggling to quantify versus the others; I just have a hunch that they might also be up there too! – Snoopy Tennis Game & Watch – Alto’s Adventure on iOS – V-Rally 3 on Game Boy Advance – Game Dev Story on iOS
Snoopy Tennis was ubiquitous in my hands in the first half of the eighties until I got my VIC-20. Likewise in the early 2000’s, I was travelling loads and always had V-Rally on the go on my GBA, and have barely taken a break from playing it since. And by 2015 I was travelling insane miles all over the world, and Alto was my plane and hotel time-killer… Until it was almost usurped by its successor in 2018 then along came Sega Ages Out Run on Switch a year later! Game Dev Story on iPhone figures here somewhere too, but in a much more concentrated time period – I went completely nuts on that for a couple of months when it came out; also one of the most addictive games I’ve ever played!
As an aside, I can probably pick out my longest narrative-driven play-throughs without too much thought, and because they weren’t long ago I even know the timings: 1. The Witcher 3 + some DLC on PS4 – 95 hours 2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on Switch – 90 hours 3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – 80 hours
None of my long games list or my wildcards are much of a surprise to me. Unsurprisingly! But what I’d never thought about before was how many of these are football-related! I know your typical FIFA player is probably out-playing anything on my feeble list here every single year, but I don’t play stuff like that. Apart from the 50% of these games seemingly being stuff like that of sorts!
Wow. This wasn’t supposed to turn into an identity crisis! And let’s not even go to why a 48-year old man is spending 500 hours playing Animal Crossing in under six months… But ignoring all of that, I’m okay with representing on Atari ST with my two big hitters, and Kick Off is still my second favourite game of all time and Elite is still in my top ten, and that’s pretty cool, so let’s just stop there where everything is good with the world!
There once was (and still is) an experimental alternative rock band called Butthole Surfers, and their influence can be heard all over the place even if their music isn’t so much, from Nirvana to Marilyn Manson. Back in 1993, I had one of their albums, Independent Worm Saloon, on cassette, until my brother borrowed it to play in his Mini. Unfortunately his Mini got nicked that day and several weeks later was discovered deep in the River Ouse just outside Bedford, and whilst the cassette did eventually find its way back to me after the car was recovered, it had seen better days and would never be played again! Before that, in 1987, Butthole Surfers released the delightfully named Locust Abortion Technician album, and the opening track of that was called Sweat Loaf. It started with a sample of a boy asking his dad what does regret mean? His dad replies, “Well son, a funny thing about regret is that it’s better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven’t done. And by the way, if you see your mum (mom) this weekend, would you be sure and tell her Satan! Satan! Satan!” And yes, I could have got with the far more well-known early nineties Orbital dancefloor-filler Satan, which sampled the Buttholes, but I don’t have any good stories about Orbital!
Anyway, since then, I’ve always thought that’s a pretty good philosophy. I also like the one about never regretting something (or someone) that made you smile. Of course, all of this is easier said than done, and we often have little control over our cognitive or emotional responses. In most cases there’s also no undo button, although in my case, just £14 for a legit copy of Elite on Atari ST would actually go some way towards undoing what was previously my only standout regret in gaming! That said, I’ll never be able to buy back the time spent that the lady who worked where my grandma was a cleaner and very kindly and very illicitly photocopied the mega manual for me over a period of days so I could answer the security question when the game loads. She did get a box of chocolates for her troubles after my mum found out what had gone on though! Anyway, aside from that, from day one I’ve always felt a bit dirty about what turned into thousands of hours on my number nine favourite game of all time all being done off a copied disk, care of my school-friend Thomas! And despite my little slogans, I have regretted never buying a legit copy – even now, as I write this in full knowledge of the low entry cost!
At the time of writing, the rediscovery and subsequent reinstallation of my Atari ST as a permanent feature in my study has made all those years of regret over Elite a bit redundant though… There’s a bigger crime, you see! Those thousands of hours in Elite make it my second most-played game of all time, but on trying to remember how to fire up an Atari ST (and subsequently ordering new TV cables to make it viewable), I pressed the stiff old disk eject button and came to the terrible realisation that the game I’d played more than any other, including Elite – and also my number two favourite game of all time – was also pirated! Kick Off + Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is what the fading pencilled text on the 3.5″ floppy said. I think it spent so long in my machine during the second half of its very long life, and then its even longer hibernation, that I’d completely blanked it being dodgy. And now my foul deeds are more than doubled and we have a total of even more several thousand hours of gaming that I’ve never paid a penny for; it’s like The Gasman episode of Bottom, where Ritchie and Eddie are siphoning off Mr Rottweiler next-door’s gas and eating his sausages and cakes and pickled eggs and stuff! That all said, this newly discovered heist didn’t involve retrospectively bribing anyone to photocopy manuals, so by my reckoning I can make my greatest crime against gaming 100% right for under a tenner on Ebay, meaning all in we have a life without regret for about £25 should I ever feel the need! And yes, I know the developer will never see that money, but I’ll be spending it all the same!
The next little mystery is where this copy of Kick Off (or Kick Off: Extra Time to be precise) came from. Most of my ill-gotten Atari ST gains were from the aforementioned school-friend Thomas, but neither him nor his cronies would have ever bought a copy of a football game – way too distant from Dungeons & Dragons! Ghouls ‘n Ghosts isn’t giving me much of a clue either, apart from dating it from the end of 1989 onwards! The other stuff written on the disk also isn’t helping much – Disktool (ahem!) then “(Hi Res Emulator)” and “Acize (Norm)” appear to be lost to the mists of time. And it’s all in my handwriting, meaning I probably copied it, though it can only have been from another copy because until I was looking up stuff just now, I don’t think I’d ever laid eyes on the boxes for ST Kick Off or Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. By the way, I’m not going into it here, but that version of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is superb! You can’t get turned into an old man, and the incredible rain effects in the arcade version are definitely toned down here, but otherwise it’s a great way to run about in your pants chucking daggers at some great-looking undead, as they mercilessly and brutally team you how to play the old-school way!
I’m reaching the conclusion that Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was probably the reason behind this disk, and that might also be the case for whoever I got it from. I was a huge fan of its predecessor, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, on both Spectrum and C64 (see here), but that’s not to say that I didn’t have some pedigree in football games too! I’m not sure the double-bat version of Pong that called itself Football (and also Hockey!) on the Interstate 1160 console (or similar) is ever really considered in the annals of football games, but the dreadful Artic Computing World Cup Football on the Spectrum – which I think is the first proper football game I played, back in 1984 – certainly would be. It was Match Day on the Spectrum that became my first football love though! That also came out in 1984, but it would be a couple of years later that I became surely one of the best players in the world when I had my own Spectrum, and I think I got it on the They Sold a Million 2 compilation. Playing it today, it runs a bit slow to say the least, but it’s an incredible piece of football game history, with ground-breaking proper football features like throw ins, corners and even dribbling, all on a side-on but kind of isometric proper pitch! The player sprites looked like proper players too, even if they were lifted straight out of BurgerTime-inspired platformer Bear Bovver! My next love was the sequel, Match Day II, but in its 128K guise of International Match Day, which added more players, more directions of control, and – for the first time in a football game – deflections and a shot power gauge… Which was a bit dodgy and often resulted in a back heel!
Aside from these (and not counting the wonderful Football Manager – another game in my top few most hours spent in gaming ever titles), I enjoyed player-sim Footballer of the Year, and dabbled with the Emlyn Hughes and MicroProse Soccer games, plus budget stinker Advanced Soccer Simulator, and I think there was a five-a-side budget game too, but nothing ever really topped my affection for Match Day and its sequel on the Spectrum. Around the time I bought my ST, I’m not sure if I wasn’t really in the market for football games, or if there just wasn’t a lot around. I definitely picked up Football Manager 2 early on, with its wonderful realistic 3D match highlights, and I played it to death. And at some point I was given a copy (real, not pirate!) of MicroProse Soccer, but I’ve a feeling that was post- Kick Off, meaning it never got much of a look in. Same with the later Manchester United game – it was really good, and definitely an historic stepping stone between something like Match Day and what we now know as FIFA or PES style, but it wasn’t Kick Off… Even Kick Off 2 wasn’t Kick Off, but we’ll come back to that! Aside from that, and back to the earlier days of having an ST, I remember some Peter Beardsley, Kenny Dalglish and Gazza games making their way to 16-bit, and the Footballer of the Year sequel, but certainly nothing memorable.
Thinking about it, maybe nothing else is memorable when you consider the arrival of Kick Off in the summer of 1989! “Best computer game ever” said Amiga User International. “Probably the best sports game ever” said The Games Machine. And so on. My own beloved Computer & Video Games magazine lauded its realism, if not its graphical thrills, and called it the best ST footie game yet… But as we’ve already discovered, that’s not such high praise, and the 84% it scored also possibly wasn’t the high praise that demanded I rush out and get a copy when there was stuff like Dungeon Master (more here), Defender of the Crown and Ghouls ‘n Ghosts to grab my attention… If not necessarily my cash!
All that said, we’ve now established that I was something of a connoisseur of football games by this point (far more than I could say I am now!), and by whatever means, the second I eventually clicked “2” for Kick Off rather than “1” for Ghouls ‘n Ghosts on the Pompey Pirates’ dodgy disk splash screen, a new chapter in my life in gaming began, and it was one that would span the end of my school years, the whole of my university life, my first job and most of the next-generation PlayStation’s life, right up to buying my first flat and moving in with my then-girlfriend and then wife almost a decade later, when my ST got put in a box for several decades!
Where Match Day and its sequel were ground-breaking in bringing real aspects of football into a video game, as C&VG noted, Kick Off was ground-breaking for bringing realism. And a lot of that realism was down to the ball not sticking to a player’s feet, though Kick Off can’t actually take credit for that. Back in 1985, Nintendo released NES stinker Soccer, which did exactly the same thing, though that would have gone well under the radar of most of my brethren in the UK particularly, where the console never really got much of a look in, and anything that didn’t have a Mario in it certainly didn’t! NES Soccer reminds a bit of Artic’s aforementioned stinker, but is more formless, slower, and moving a defender makes the keeper mirror his movement! Reviewed alright though, with C&VG only scoring it 1% less than Kick Off! It’s also worth mentioning Sensible Soccer here – another dearly beloved 16-bit footballer, and as far as I know is very similar to Kick Off in all but the ball sticking to your foot.
Everything in Kick Off is top down. You’ve got a full size pitch, scrolling in all directions, with everything properly proportioned. There’s a scanner showing player positions, and all the players have their own abilities, based on pace, accuracy, stamina and aggression. I’m not sure if this was a first, but the referees had their own style too, dishing out yellow and red cards, awarding penalties and adding injury time, with all the “accuracy” of a real-life referee! A single button and your joystick were all you needed to dribble, pass, shoot, chip, head and tackle. The goalie did his own thing until he had the ball, which was the cause of all kinds of blaming and shaming when you lost a game! There’s five difficulty levels, from International to Sunday League, and a great feature is being able to test yourself against higher level teams (where you being Sunday League versus International will eventually become the default). Otherwise, it’s a fast-paced, realistic game of football!
Kick Off was always about how it played more than how it looked, and no one was ever blown away by screenshots on adverts! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it in the looks department though. Despite their size and the angle you’re seeing them from, the players have a lot of character, and there’s just enough detail in the model and its animation to make you feel like you’re in complete control of the ball and the part of the player’s body that it’s in contact with. Otherwise, the pitch does its job with a nice sense of scale and everything moves on it at just the right speed – fast! The game comes alive in the sound department though, with dynamic crowd noise especially creating real atmosphere, bringing to life a stadium that you’ll quickly forget isn’t even there!
I should also mention the Extra Time bit of Kick Off: Extra Time. This was a data disk with four new playing surfaces – wet, soggy, hard and artificial – that affected ball physics and player pace and stamina, plus wind effects, more tactics, more types of goal kicks, more player attributes, more league options and 20 unique referees. What might be called a sequel today! I’m not sure of the exact release date for this, but it must have been very quick after the original game launched.
The main source of joy in Kick Off is the controls, and how they allow you to interact with the ball, which in itself is a joy as it responds to ground and air friction. The manual referred to the controls as “instinctive” and picking it up again now, I can’t think of a better word. Yes, there might be some muscle memory at play, but a beginner could still pick this up and enjoy it. Then, over time, the pioneering nature of Kick Off’s ball not sticking to a player’s foot comes to the fore, with endless possibilities for heading, trapping, spinning and turning, switching feet, passing and shooting and volleying; and not to mention running onto the ball too, or – when you know exactly where each teammate is going to be – letting them run onto a perfectly timed, perfectly delivered pass too. With skill you can put together the most intricate, free-flowing and sometimes outrageous passes, dribbles, crosses and shots, and there’s no doubt that this freedom is behind the compulsion to keep playing. You never know what’s next, just like the real thing! This all works when the opposition are in possession too, allowing for controlled tackling and tactical delaying like never seen before, but yeah, there’s no denying that Kick Off’s wild slide tackles are another joy!
As well as single player, multiplayer and various practice modes, there’s a league competition. I don’t think until I was playing it again a couple of weeks ago at the time of writing that I even realised that this mode was there, let alone trying it out! Which I’m now struggling to find a reason for, except that I was too busy with my own competitions! To spice single player things up, I took Arsenal and England and applied my Kick Off team to their matches. We matched Arsenal’s league, European, FA Cup and League Cup campaigns, as well as every competitive or friendly England match, as well as European Cup and World Cup, all in real time, and all noted down in dozens of pocket notebooks! If they went out of a competition we just carried in with the team that knocked them out, then maybe the team that knocked them out too. Some serious attention to detail and serious work needed to stay on top of it! Eventually we won everything, but not all the time. The FA Cup was a particular hoodoo, and between 1991 and 1996 we never even reached the semi-finals. Eventually, in 1997, everything came right. Real-life winners Chelsea (but Arsenal for these purposes) were playing Middlesbrough in the final. My aforementioned then-girlfriend and now-wife and me were on our first holiday together in Luxor, Egypt while the actual FA Cup Final happened, so I had to delay the Kick Off version by a couple of weeks. It was worth the wait, with a 5-0 win!
On top of years’ worth of mirroring actual football competitions, every player in my team had a name, from David Seaman in goal to Roberto Baggio wherever he fancied playing. Same team regardless of domestic or international – my fantasy game, my rules! And every player was rated at the end of each match, and had their goal tally recorded, and imaginary awards were given at the end of every season! Andy Cole and Ian Wright were generally the top goal scorers, but Marco Van Basten was usually voted best player on the planet. My brother Phil’s team all had names too, and we spent hours and hours and hundreds or thousands of matches playing against each other for bragging rights that lasted until the next final whistle, relentlessly abusing each other’s players (by name), and often resorting to local bedroom football hooliganism when the ref made an outrageous decision or there was a particularly vicious slide tackle that could have put an end to your player of the year!
Kick Off wasn’t just a great game, but it also absolutely nailed a love and understanding of football and all the reasons why people are so passionate about it. It got the tension, the unpredictability and all of the excitement just right, and on top of that it absolutely nailed how it feels to play, win and lose. And in providing everything you needed to make you keep coming back for thousands of hours, there was still enough missing in terms of player names and team licensing (that would later win or lose the football game wars) to make you use your imagination and create your own football fantasies, which prolonged its life even more… Filling in the blanks, just like all the great 8-bit games of any genre had done just a very short time – but also what was also a video gaming lifetime – before. And that’s why its no surprise that Kick Off is the game I’ve played more than any other, and is unlikely to ever be replaced as my second favourite game of all time.
Of course, Amiga User’s “best computer game ever” was always going to get a sequel, but before Kick Off 2 arrived, we had Player Manager in 1990, which used the Kick Off match engine to power a football management sim where you played as a single player in the team. And apparently it was very good! The same year, the sequel proper brought a more tactical game and more tactical player movement, as well as slightly enhanced ball physics. There were complex league and cup competitions, loads of distinctive refs and some kit editing and other stuff. There were a load of expansion disks too. But there was also after-touch, and this ruined the game for me. Apparently you could turn it off, though I didn’t know at the time (and I don’t even have the excuse of no instructions this time having actually bought it)! Anyway, it let you change the direction of the ball in flight, and over time you could just use it all the time to become unstoppable, and that just became frustrating, especially against other human players doing the same thing. I know everyone else loves it, but I was just still so in love with the first game that the after-touch thing is possibly just glossing over that I wasn’t ready for it to be for me!
Also not for me was Super Kick Off on the Gameboy. You could only see a tiny bit of the pitch, and if you weren’t close to any pitch markings you had no idea where you were, and more importantly where anyone else was. The players were just too small and moved too quickly to have any degree of ball control with too. This was a bigger disappointment for me than not clicking with Kick Off 2. Partially because by the time it came out there was a lot less disposable money available to student me, but also because I was desperate to love it – can you imagine carrying your almost favourite game ever around in your hand?
I don’t know much about Kick Off 3, 96, 97, 98, 2002 or the unreleased 2004, except that they didn’t make much of a splash, but I did pick up the 2016 Kick Off Revival on PS4, from original Kick Off mastermind Dino Dini. It was elected second worst game of 2016 on Metacritic, and accused of being the worst football game ever made by Vice. You can pretty much copy and paste my disappointment from the Game Boy version here, except that after decades apart I tried even harder to love it! I even studied the series of post-launch screenshots of spreadsheets that told you how to kick the ball. And I’m not exaggerating – look them up! But they did me no good…
And you know what, having parted with a load of money on three sequels that disappointed me enormously in one way or another, I’m feeling a whole lot better now about that regret thing. And I’m going to send that regret right back to Elite. And Elite photocopy lady!
Not for the first time in its lifetime, as I write this my Spectrum +2 has just had to make way for my Atari ST! I’ve got Spectrum emulators coming out of my ears, but the ST isn’t as straightforward, and a recent obsession over an old ST favourite on other platforms meant it had to come out to play again!
And there’s a sore point we’ll come back to shortly, but for now, my ST has sat in a plastic Selfridges carrier bag in my loft for the last two years, that was also its home in my Dad’s loft for the best part of thirty. (And that’s the same plastic bag it came home from London in when I bought it in Selfridges all those years ago). Apart from looking a bit dishevelled and grubby (which is probably how it looked when it went in the bag), everything just about worked fine. My Quickshot Python 1 joystick has seen better days, with left sticking a bit, and that stupid joystick port under the front next to the mouse port is still a right pain to get at, but otherwise it powered on and the possibly pirated disc containing Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and Kick Off which was still in the drive worked great! It was a little jarring going back to that ST homescreen and remembering how to boot up a game from the floppy disc though – too much Windows in the interim when all I needed to do was press the reset button!
Neighbouring the ST in its bag in the loft was a far more appropriate Lion bar cardboard board full of games, organized to completely fill every space in the box to perfection, with all the skill of the Tetris master that once packed it. Unfortunately he’s not been a Tetris master for a while now, and there’s no way they’re all going back in that box ever again! Not that we’ve got any more plans for the box any time soon – we have everything we need right here! Well, almost everything…
Apart from having a good idea what was in there, opening that box must have been like when Howard Carter opened Tutankhamun’s tomb! There was Pac-Land (more on that here) sitting on the top with another incredible arcade conversion, Star Wars. Poking out underneath was Starglider, glorious flight-sim Falcon and game creation language suite STOS, with two Spy vs Spy games and the Gunship manual padding out a gap on one of the sides. Then there were the boxes of “loose” floppy discs, not all of which were of dubious origin I might add! Actually, I think most of them are issues of short-lived disc-based magazine Stampede. There was probably a hundred games in there in all, and as much as I enjoyed browsing through every single one in turn for the first time, then carefully deciphering the faded pencil labels just to make sure the second time, I was less enthralled with the denial then realisation the third time around that Stunt Car Racer simply wasn’t there!
Yes, for a couple of months now I’ve been playing tons of this on the Spectrum, because I had no idea it was on the Spectrum until recently, then on the C64 because I had no idea that existed either for even longer! And as wonderful an achievement as the Spectrum version is, the C64 version isn’t far off Amiga quality, which isn’t far off my beloved old Atari ST game, and it was only a matter of time until I had to get everything out and get playing that version again!
I still can’t believe that as far as I can tell, absolutely everything except Stunt Car Racer – the one game I was prepared to sacrifice my Spectrum for the second time for – is in that box! I’ve no idea why it wouldn’t be in there. I mean, it was in one of the big style Atari ST boxes where you’d get the manual and a special insert to stop the precious disc bouncing around that vast cavern, and they do take up a lot of box space, but there’s some right old crap in there (what even is Kayden Garth and why do I own it???) that could have gone in another box! And I’ve got any boxes with old copies of 2000A.D. or Murder Casebook in that it might have been shoved into instead to fill a space, and that wouldn’t have been easy to miss when I sorted those out on re-arrival with me a couple of years ago too.
I won’t bore you with the rest of the stages of grief I tore through yesterday at the time of writing, but on reaching acceptance I was immediately on eBay looking at precisely two listings for Stunt Car Racer on the Atari ST. Oh dear, thinking I was going to be spoilt with choice and pick this up for a fiver plus about the same in postage for that huge box was turning out to be wishful thinking. I added them both, at £30 each, to my watch list. Within a couple of hours, there was an offer from the seller for one of them for £26. I ignored it for 18 hours then went back with what I’d decided was my maximum price whenever I was eventually going to buy it of £20; especially knowing perfectly well that my original copy is going to turn up as soon as I click pay on anything! And within minutes they went for it, and we are now back in business!
Buying Stunt Car Racer first time around came late in my Atari ST relationship – probably in 1991 – and excluding multiplayer games of Super Sprint and Rampage with my brothers, was definitely the only single-player game that ever got a look in once Kick Off – the game I’ve still played more than any other on any platform – got its hooks into the three of us! In fact, Kick Off would extend the lifetime of my ST beyond even that of the original PlayStation! But, as much as I loved Stunt Car Racer, it’s very much associated with a specific timeframe during my second year of university.
During my first year, we were offered a kind of year-long exchange with l’ecole d’ingenieurs de Tours in France, and being an unnaturally fluent French speaker – the background for which will forever be a mystery – I decided I’d give it a go. When September came, me and another guy on my course, Stuart, who I’d become as thick as thieves with when we eventually reunited in our final year, went off with the guys (it was an engineering degree in the early 90’s!) from the year above who were doing their sandwich year for an induction week… And what a holiday that week was with the guys from our own year when it was our turn proper the following year! Anyway, we were abandoned at the end of the week (but not as badly as happened the following year!) and eventually found our way to the campus and our halls and our new life in what is the perfect university city. We made some great friends and had a great time, including some of the craziest fresher’s week antics I’ve ever heard of, but over time the course wasn’t quite what I’d signed up to and when I was offered a get-out before the end of the year I decided to take it and get back to normal. Unfortunately everyone else was already back to normal, and I ended up renting a room with a family where I certainly wasn’t hanging around for the weekends, and for the rest of that term I remember two very specific things about those weekends. First, my insistence on having U2’s Achtung Baby album playing on the car journey back there with my parents every Sunday night, and second playing Stunt Car Racer until I couldn’t put that journey off any longer!
We’re now a few days removed from all of the above, and it’s turned up in the post, so we can finally talk about Stunt Car Racer! It had been out for a couple of years before I got it first time around, and given some of the rubbish my big Lion bar box suggests I bought (let alone copied!) in the intervening time, that gap from release to purchase is a complete mystery! I was certainly aware of it, from the very first time it graced the cover of Computer & Video Games magazine in August 1989, with the headline “The best race game ever?” And that’s a very good question!
Ignoring cars, because the question also does that, I’ve got to go with SSX 3 on PlayStation 2 as the best, but that was decades away in August 1989, so we’re then looking at Supersprint on formats such as arcade, Spectrum and Atari ST as the best race game ever, with the caveat that its top-down nature is maybe not in the spirit of the question. Does Out Run qualify as a race game? That’s next if it does; arcade and – always controversially – Spectrum (more here)! Then Destruction Derby 2 on Playstation, also a big while away, so doesn’t count yet either. Then Enduro Racer on Spectrum (see here this time). I reckon Stunt Car Racer can come next in my list, just before the arcade version of Virtua Racer (also three years away), making the answer to the question “No, but it’s maybe top three” when it was asked!
Back to C&VG, and in their gushing 93% August 1989 review they start by bemoaning that aside from Super Hang On – which would be next in my list – there’s not much going on in 16-bit racing. They’d clearly forgotten about the similar-scoring Test Drive II from a couple of months earlier. Anyway, they decided it was the best race game ever. Outside of the arcades. On a home computer. Just looking through my Lion bar box, apart from Super Hang On, there’s Hard Drivin (more on that here, but also recently positively reviewed by C&VG), RVF Honda (which C&VG has also just very postiviely reviewed), Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge (I won’t labour the point) and Vroom (predictable now). Some serious quality there, so no complaints if that lot still all counts as not a lot to choose from, but I’m not disagreeing with much they say about Stunt Car Racer itself!
For all the race games we’ve just run through, Stunt Car Racer can undoubtely call itself the most unique. It’s a one-on-one car race in a first-person cockpit perspective, but on a raised 3D track that you not only have to stay on, but, as you might imagine, there’s stunts too, in the form of ramps, bumps, hurdles, gaps, massive ski jumps and all kinds of rollercoaster shennanigans. At the start of each race, you’re winched onto the track, held up by chains that let you loose when the man says go. Fall off the track, and after what seems like an agonising wait – especially for some of the more flamboyant crash scenarious you might find yourself in – and you’re going to be winched back onto the track again. The winch is genius, building up big anticipation with your car swinging all over the place before it finally settles in position for you to drop.
The races themselves are hugely strategic affairs of cat-and-mouse with your opponent, and it’s going to take some experience – especially on later tracks – for you to know when you should stay and when you should go. That said, there’s nothing like the thrill of firing boost and just going hell for leather out of the blocks (or being unchained), getting your nose in front and then just trying to defend your lead for the whole race! Even when your opponent is out of sight, a very simple mechanic of telling you how far away they are adds an amazing amount of tension when you can see how fast they’re catching, or how you’re running out of laps to catch them, or even worse, that big lead you had disappearing as you’re being winched back on after a crash! And aside from deciding when to sit back, when to overtake and when to fly with your limited supply of nitrous boost, depending on your specific track situation, you’re also constantly balancing speed for the different obstacles and even for the normal turns, just to make sure you stay on the track.
And the strategy goes on. Winning a race gets you two points, which contributes towards your league position against two computer opponents. But getting the fastest lap nets you a bonus point, so what you’re going to have to consider on top of everything else is making sure that second lap is an absolute corker, because if the computer is in the lead on the last lap then you might not be scoring a time before the race ends, and if you’re in the lead you’re likely to be concentrating on staying in front and not getting a record lap time! With two tracks in each of four increasingly tough divisions, each with two different computer opponents (which the computer works out the results for), and two races each per track per season, those fastest lap points become all important towards deciding whether you’re promoted, relagated or stay where you are.
We need to come back to crashing, and one final tension-building strategic mechanic, which is the big crack that gradually spreads across your roll cage as you sustain damage! Take a corner too fast, small crack; come off the track, bigger (and bigger) crack; hit the opponent or they hit you, devastating crack if you hang around too long! If your crack gets too big, you’re wrecked and it’s race over (so make sure you got a decent lap time in before that happens)! To compound this, once you get past Division 4, there’s going to be permanent serious impact damage in the form of holes in the roll cage that the crack just jumps across, accelerating your doom!
Winning Division 1 is going to take you ages, not just from learning the nuances of each track and each opponent, but also puzzling out how the hell you’re going over some of those obstacles in the first place! And there’s some really fiendishly designed tracks on offer here! But do it, and it’s not game over yet – you’re going into the Super League with a hugely overpowered new car! Don’t worry about that for now though. First you’ve got to get over the thrill of the race on a crazy track, then you’ve got to get to know the tracks in every division, then you’ve got to get your racing strategy down. And that’s going to take some time and you’re going to love every second of it!
By chance when I was looking through my ST floppies, I found my brother Phil’s old Division 2 save on one, under the name of Bern Rubba. I sent him a pic and he replied saying how much fun it was, but he bets it looks like a dog now. I’d say it’s a little primitive by today’s standards, but the 16-bit versions at least run like a dream, even if the backgrounds are sparse, and the opponent’s car is only marginally less sparse, being made up a less 3D polygons than you could count on one hand! The lovely detailing of your cockpit and front of the car – especially the flames coming out of the exposed engine when you boost – take a lot of the graphical pressure off what’s going on outside though. But all the same, the raised 3D tracks do exactly what they need to, and all of this combined was more than enough to blow anyone away at the time! There’s some lovely between race, very 16-bit cartoon-like scenes too, celebrating your victory or having you dejectly looking on at someone else doing it. Sound isn’t spectacular, but is more than functional, and I reckon any more than that would be a distraction in a game like this.
I’ll quickly mention the 8-bit versions, as, like I said, that’s actually where this recent story begins. I was well beyond the Spectrum when I was playing this on the Atari ST, and although C&VG really bigged that version up, saying it was identical to the ST apart from being monochrome, it was only very recently that I came across it again and actually paid attention. I would say that it runs like my brother imagined the ST version to run like now, but the gameplay is all still there! And I very quickly got very addicted to it all over again! C&VG said it promised to be one of the most amazing games yet seen on the Spectrum, and I can’t disagree on that point!
Even more amazing is the Commodore 64 version. Yes, it’s got more colour (even if a lot of it is C64 brown), and the cockpit really isn’t far off looking like the 16-bit versions, but it also runs at a slightly more comparable pace. And so my addiction jumped to that platform, until I finally thought why not go to the effort of opening the loft hatch right above where I was playing and getting the ST out, because I had a nagging feeling that despite being technically close to the experience I remembered now, there was something still missing…
Playing them all in tandem now, there’s one subtle but massive difference for me between these 8-bit versions and both the Atari ST and Amiga (which I’ve also played a bit, emulated on a MacBook Pro) counterparts, which is what makes the game stand out over everything else, and that’s exhileration. Yes, if you’d never played on 16-bit, you’d never miss it and you’d have a wonderful time, but there’s something about the extra fidelity, the longer draw distances, the speed and something about the car physics that makes driving feel more tactile. You’re going to feel every bump, and that’s going to make you also brace yourself for every bump, whether just going into a curve a bit too sharply, or landing a huge jump and bouncing around from the impact. And as a result, your stomach will often be in your mouth and you’re going to be leaning all over the place as you try not to wrestle your joystick too hard because you remember just how easily they can snap by pushing a bit too far in one direction!
This game on the Atari ST is just so immersive, and has so much going for it that you’ll be coming back forever. Eventually, when you’ve admitted to yourself you aren’t going to find it again and need to splash some cash! I still question C&VG’s complaint about the lack of racing games on the platform, but if there is a lack, then no problem because this is the only racing game you need on there. It might not be the best race game ever anymore, but it’s still not far off, and there’s no question in my mind that it is still one of the most exhilerating too!
Finally, next month in C&VG… Xenon II – the most amazing shoot ‘em up ever? Yeah, maybe!
There are very scientific reasons about why I can remember not only every second of Live Aid, but also where I was sitting when Status Quo came on, for example. Same for what I was eating for breakfast (toast) when the Mary Rose was pulled up, or what music was playing (1999 by Prince – see here for more on that) the first time I played Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. It’s a bit like those ghost theories about high-impact things being imprinted on places, but more real and that place is your brain, not the creepy underground boiler room in your middle school that I had forgotten all about until just now… But while that works for high-impact, I am wondering why I also remember what I was wearing (blue La Coste tracksuit) when I bought Queen’s Greatest Hits from the record section downstairs in Boots in Bedford in about 1984. And also why I don’t remember almost anything about what was an hotly anticipated, but in retrospect horrendous sounding, annual church trip to Great Yarmouth that was in full annual swing around the same time. Incidentally, I also have very few memories of why I bought Queen’s Greatest Hits as I’ve never been a fan!
Anyway, I’ve mentioned the church trip before, and playing Mini Munchman on the bus on the way there one year, and the arcade by the big funfair with the giant outside where we were dropped off and picked up that had a Track & Field machine. And on top of that, I vaguely remember thinking that one of the rollercoasters there seemed really rickety as we were going around it one time, but generally, I was thinking my only memories of what we actually did there revolved around that arcade. Now, a apart from a section in Computer & Video Games mag, an arcade was a once-per-year novelty in itself – so kind of makes sense according to our theory – and we’d be in it as soon as we arrived, then be hanging around in it with no money left to play anything anymore for a bit before we left. But coming back to memory, apart from “arcade” and exactly where the Track & Field machine was, in the far back-right corner, I really don’t remember anything else about what else was inside it either… At least until one year something new appeared, around the corner and about five machines to the right of Track & Field, that immediately demanded your full attention and pocket full of 10p’s!
Look it at it today, and it’s probably hard to imagine why Pac-Land might have that impact on a passer-by, but try passing-by this on the way to Track & Field in 1984 or 85, when you’re getting a double-whammy of not only seeing the Pac-Man in a new perspective, but a whole new side-scrolling perspective on gaming too!
Let’s get into the first new perspective, and its cartoon inspiration. As much as I’m a huge fan of Hanna-Barbera’s 1960’s and 70’s output, when it comes to the 1980’s it’s all about Pac-Man: The Animated series, which first aired in 1982 and ran for 21 episodes and a couple of specials until then end of 1984. And that makes it the first cartoon ever based on a video game! It was always going to be a hit with me because it was shown as part of my absolute school summer holiday favourite, Rat on the Road, the Roland Rat [Superstar] show that came on at the end of TV:AM! Which gives us a probable first airing date here of summer 1983. Interesting fact about this is that Roland Rat’s appearance then boosted the ailing breakfast show’s viewer numbers from around 100,000 to 1.8 million. Yeeeeaaaaaaahhhhhhh, Rat-fans!
Back to Pac, you’ve got Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man (known as Pepper for some reason) and Baby Pac (in his only speaking role!), and they live in Pac-Village in a place called Pac-Land, of course! Actually, as we’re going far deeper into Pac-lore than I ever intended, what about the older Pac-kid, Jr. Pac-Man? I get that his love antics with Blinky’s daughter might have been problematic to the storyline, but it’s like he never existed! As some compensation, you do get Super-Pac in the second season! The plotline in most episodes is Pac-Man protecting the village and its power pellets from his familiar ghost foes (and Sue from Ms. Pac-Man) and their evil uncle, The Ghost Wizard of Mezmeron… And let me tell you something, if I ever decided to change my name, I would change it to The Ghost Wizard of Mezmeron!
The hugely vibrant look of the show was ported wholesale to the arcade game, as was the iconic music that looped throughout, which you could sniff out in an arcade like a pig sniffing out truffles; in an audio kind of way! The detailed character designs, complete with hats and hair – not to mention their super-smooth animation style – were also a big feature of the game. Pac-Man alone had 24 different frame patterns, where one or two was the norm at the time. As a[nother] side note, something that didn’t come from the cartoon, but by coincidence is relevant here, are the controls – they came from Track & Field, using buttons instead of a joystick, which allowed for those lovely springboard long jumping bits that will always be my favourite part of the game!
And this brings us to that second new perspective. Super Mario Bros. might spring to mind when you think of side-scrolling platformers, and rightly so because it pretty much set the template for anything else that followed it, but Pac-Land was doing the power-upped walking and running and jumping bidirectional horizontal scrolling thing a good year beforehand. It was far more influential than it gets credit for, but seeing it moving in an arcade was seeing that cartoon brought to life, from left to right and sometimes back again, and at the time that was very probably something you’d never seen the like of before!
Back to playing the game, each of the levels is a multi-stage journey to Fairy Land to get a lost fairy home, rewarding you with some super boots that will make your journey back through the level to your family a bit easier. You’ll be going through towns, forests, deserts then castles, and each stage ends with Break Time at the church on the hill where you’ll be awarded bonus points for your jumping performance as you come to a stop (preceding Mario and his flagpole), and I can’t emphasise how welcome that Break Time sign is on some of the more frantic stages! That said, it’s worth saying that things never really gets that frantic, which I think is why I appreciated the arcade game so much – good value for money for the casual player was as important as anything!
Obviously, there’s the ghosts that are constantly on your tail, driving buses at you, chucking stuff at you out of planes and allsorts more to hinder your progress. Then there’s enviromental obstacles like the aforementioned springboard, quicksand, ropey wooden bridges with spinning logs, fire hydrants and other water-based hazards ready to spray you down and take you down. But as well as the boots and sporadic power pills that do exactly what you expect them to do, there’s also a bunch of hidden stuff that will help you out. For example, turn around and push the right fire hydrant in certain stages and you’ll get a hat that will stop you being harmed by dangers from above. There’s also hidden fruit behind certain jumps (something else it preceded Mario with) and even a Galaxian flagship worth loads of points!
And the whole thing comes together to be such a joy to play! On the arcade machine, you’re going to get your 10p’s worth out of the first couple of stages for the visuals alone – the transitions from one distinct stage to another are just wonderful, and no matter how far you go, everything will soon become reassuringly familiar, and after each Break Time you’ll be fondly entering the next bit… before you realise that at some point things got a bit hard and you’re starting again!
In the grand scheme of things, whilst it had the biggest impact on me, the arcade machine is the version I played the least. That’s not unusual for me, having had infrequent access to arcade machines back then, but what is unusual is that I might have played a lot on more different versions of Pac-Land than any other game I can think of. It came out on nearly everything, and somehow I’ve spent a lot of time with it on nearly everything!
As was often the case, the Spectrum was the first version I really spent a lot of time on. Strangely though, the Spectrum version did come out about four years after the fact in 1988, along with CPC, MSX and Atari ST versions, and then the C64 version arrived even later. The Spectrum conversion gets a bad rap – it’s got weird colours and Pac-Man has a funny nose and it doesn’t scroll (meaning you need to remember that falling log is right after the next screen-flip!), but its genuinely only latterly that I’ve had those thoughts! It was and still is a very competent port with nearly everything else present and correct, and as was also often the case, it was Pac-Land in your house, on your Spectrum, and that’s all you needed for it to be fun! In terms of reviews at the time, I do remember it getting a bit of a hammering though. If it had come out in 1985 it might have fared better, but we’re not only years after the original (which was decades in eighties home computing terms!), we’re also years after the new Super Mario yardstick.
The version I’ve played most seriously on – not quite finishing it but not being far off – is the PC-Engine conversion from 1990, though actually playing it was much more recent. As much as I’d love it to be a part of the mostly beautifully curated library on my PC-Engine Mini, it’s not, but another machine in my collection does a very good impression of a PC-Engine and plays whatever game you care to throw at it right with no fuss, right through an HDMI cable! Much like the Spectrum conversion of Pac-Land, the PlayStation Classic is very unfairly maligned; at least when it has a USB stick with a certain emulator suite stuck on it! For me this is the ultimate conversion of Pac-Land. I know I’m going from almost 40-year memories, but this is exactly how the arcade version looked, sounded and played. In the last couple of years I’ve played dozens of hours, having a couple of games at least once a week. And that’s a beautiful thing to be able to do!
Trying its best to be as beautiful is the Commodore 64 version, and as a contemporary conversion for an 8-bit machine, you couldn’t expect any more. I’ve been playing this on the C64 Mini for a few years at the time of writing. The colours are a little muted, there’s only 16 levels (I think in common with most if not all other 8-bit conversions) and you can’t jump on top of some of the enemies so a touch from below is death here, but the soundtrack is classic C64! And it scrolls! It’s also a bit easier than the other versions so getting to the end of this one is very achievable.
I’ve not played a huge amount of the Amstrad CPC version – actually, when I finally got around to emulating a CPC for the very first time in 2019 (also on the PlayStation Classic, albeit a bit more fiddly to do than the PC Engine), it was the first thing I fired up and has been about the only thing I’ve regularly gone back to! It’s a real mish-mash of the other two 8-bit versions here, and would be on a par with the C64 version if it hadn’t inherited the Spectrum’s lack of scrolling!
Jumping back to around 1990, and the Atari ST version was a whole fantastic different matter. When I made the jump from Spectrum +2 to Atari ST, I very distinctly remember this being one of the games – together with Star Wars and Operation Wolf – that announced that arcade conversions were finally that mythical arcade-perfect we’d been hearing about for years! In retrospect it stuttered a bit in places, and was lacking parallax scrolling, but do you think that mattered coming from the Spectrum version? This was the holy grail of Pac-Land conversions to that point!
My brother was also a big fan of Pac-Land in the Great Yarmouth arcade, and he also owned a Lynx! And a couple of years later again, Pac-Land on there was also a fantastic conversion. I’d say in some stages it’s even more vibrant than the arcade version, with very faithful graphics, sound and gameplay. And let’s not forget, that’s a contemporary conversion in your hand, which the Atari Lynx was very good at! It moves at pace but the scrolling is a little off when it’s got big stuff like buildings to move along the screen (though I’ll take this over flip-screening and even the ST suffered from this). It’s checkpointing seemed a bit broken too – die in the forest and restart in halfway through the town, for example! It’s main crime though – and I’ll say “apparently” because I’m not the target audience for stuff like this – is that it has no ending! Just keeps going, I assume replaying the same levels over and over. No complaints from me about this version at all though. Still massively impressive!
Moving forwards half a decade again, and the original PlayStation was being peppered with loads of original arcade game version compilations covering loads of ancient stuff, and Namco was front and centre with no less than six of them! Pac-Land finally appeared in 1997 on Volume 4, drawing a short straw I think, being packaged with lesser known games in the West like Ordyne, Assault, The Return of Ishtar and Genpei Toma Den… Where’s Metrocross, Pac-Mania and Dragon Spirit??? (For information, coming a year later in Volume 5). But now we finally have the real holy grail of the actual arcade version in your home. And now I’m sitting here wondering why I spend so much time playing the PC-Engine version when the actual original is also sitting on exactly the same machine… Having just fired it up again, one thing is for sure – all that PC-Engine practice has made me really, really good at the arcade version now!
Most recently, we come to Namco Museum Archives Volume 2 on Nintendo Switch, which along with a favourite version of classic vertical shooter Xevious (Super Xevious) and loads of other NES goodies, we also have the NES conversion of Pac-Land. Firstly, it takes some getting used to, because as far as I can work out, unlike the PC-Engine version that allows you to press Select to switch from default “button” controls to regular “lever” controls, this one only seems to have button controls. And they take a bit of getting used to because you’re walking and running and changing direction on your right hand, and jumping with a directional button on the left. It’s also very minimal looking, Pac-Man is tiny on the screen, and it suffers from a bit of slowdown despite there being very little detail in the characters or backgrounds. There’s a few bits missing too, including the fairy screen – you get a Fairy Land sign like for Break Time instead – and also no super boots for your return trip. And like the Lynx version, I think it loops after 16 levels. I’m not doing a great job of selling it, but despite all of that, give it a chance and it plays absolutely fine, sounds lovely, and is a great version to have if you’re out and about with your Switch!
And that’s a whole lot of Pac-Land, one of my top five favourite arcade games (we’ll cover that another time), same on PC-Engine, and probably true on a lot of other systems too! Now do yourself a favour and dig up that cartoon!
I vaguely remember seeing Operation Wolf, with its mounted Uzi, in an arcade, but where it really made an impression was long before that in Computer & Video Games magazine’s Arcade Action section. Whilst I’d generally skip over that section with just a few glances at the screenshots, I remember three games on those pages that absolutely blew me away, and there was no chance in hell there’d ever be home computer conversions! They were R-Type, Out Run, and, of course, Operation Wolf, where all your Rambo fantasies could finally come true with graphics like you’d never seen before!
As a side note, at the time of writing in February 2019, I recently picked up arcade perfect conversions of R-Type and Out Run on the Nintendo Switch; they did come, and with Out Run in particular, I still can’t quite believe what I’m seeing on my TV screen even three decades later- when you consider how amazed I was by the ZX Spectrum version when it came, and how bad everyone else seems to think that version is, maybe not a surprise!
I don’t think I’d ever wanted a game as much as I did this; with arcade conversions, especially such high profile ones, expectations of quality were always secondary to the fact that it was just coming to the Spectrum! It arrived in all its monochrome glory for Christmas 1988, and if I remember right was a present from my grandma and auntie. What I definitely remember right is my first time playing it on Christmas Day evening, in my auntie’s bedroom, on her Spectrum+2 and a 14-inch black and white portable TV. As was often the case playing Spectrum games at the time, the fact it lacked colour didn’t, in reality, matter that much! That said, let’s not forgot it more than made up for the lack of colour in the main game by filling the little “suiting up” montage you got when you first loaded the game up with the most garish colours it could manage!
On the home versions, the Uzi was replaced by a crosshair, which controlled fine with a joystick, as the screen scrolled from left to right and enemy soldiers, tanks, gunships and gunboats filled the screen from all directions to bring you death. As well as your Uzi, you could also bring them death with your limited supply of grenades; letting the screen fill up with vehicles and soldiers then dispatching them all at once this way was a great feeling! As was shooting one of the daggers out of sky as it flew at the screen before it hit you and briefly stayed in place, full stab.
The story, such as it was, was true to the arcade original – go through six military themed levels in jungles, prison camps, airports and various bases to rescue the hostages. Each one was a bit more than just shooting everything in sight; you’d have a task like cutting off the enemy communications or getting information out of the enemies, although all of that did involve shooting everything that moved unless it was one of the fleeing civilians or nurses carrying some unfortunate in a stretcher who shouted “NO!” if you shot them. The first few levels were all do-able but I’m not sure I ever got to the end of the final level in the airport.
The Spectrum version was one of the best arcade conversions the machine got, with absolutely stunning looking graphics that perfectly captured the feel of the original. And there were so many types enemies on screen at once in the distance and in the foreground (including the one that looked like something out of The Village People) and all over the place without any kind of slowdown or mess. The +2 version sounded good too, with a suitably testosterone-juiced theme tune. Overall, out of the two versions I owned, it’s the one I really remember most fondly…
As time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to dip into recollections from decades long past, but in the case of my Atari ST Operation Wolf experience, I have a major helping hand! Christmas always brought with it a diary for the coming year, and in the days after Christmas you would start re-writing your friends’ phone numbers, family birthdays and school holidays into your latest pocket-sized planner. They always had a theme too, like fishing or cycling or football, with half the pages full of related encyclopaedic content. And for the first few days of the year, you might even use it to record what you’d been up to… “I rushed home to play Op Wolf and it lived up to my high expectations. It is brilliant, the only problem being that it is on three disks. I got to stage 5 on my first go.” The diary then goes on to describing watching Lethal Weapon that evening!
This was all around the beginning of 1990 for me, but the ST version came out around the same time as the Spectrum one, and was probably the only dampener on that version – as great as the Spectrum version looked, in magazines like C&VG you were seeing it side by side with this incredible, virtually arcade perfect looking version on the ST. As well as the glorious graphics, you also had all the little details like the pigs running around you could shoot for extra ammo, and some great enemy death animations especially when you shot one of the guys up close to you. And more than anything, it had a mouse that made shooting stuff a lot easier than with a joystick! This was a really great conversion, but what’s interesting to note is that I don’t remember ever being blown away by it, like I had been the Spectrum version just over a year earlier – it didn’t take long at all to become spoilt by the incredible games that just came as standard in the next-gen machine. Or maybe it was just all the disk swapping.
And despite getting to stage 5 on my first go, I never did get to the end of the game here either!
Old gaming magazines like Computer & Video Games, Crash and Zzap! 64 quite deservedly still get a lot of attention, but whilst looking for a specific copy of C&VG from a pile that covers most of the eighties for my last post, I found a rogue magazine in my carefully ordered, er, pile! That magazine was issue one, November 1989, of something I’d completely forgotten existed, ZERO, “the brand new magazine for you, the 16-bit and consoles games player.” As I’d forgotten about it, I thought others might have too, so here we are!
What I expect drew me to it, and the subsequent issues I bought during its three-year lifespan, was the cover disk, which featured not only demos, but actual full games for the Atari ST and the Amiga. Actually, this mag did cause a bit of controversy when it stuck a strip poker game, Cover Girl Poker, on the cover. In the interests of a well-researched post, I did seek out this game and play a few rounds… It appears to have been linked to the UK’s finest newspaper, The Daily Sport, and features some of its finest regular glamour babes, including gaming favourite, Maria Whittaker. By complete coincidence, this is the second post in a row that mentions her – the previous referencing her most well-known work, the Barbarian cover! Anyway, it’s not a great game but I’m sure served it’s purpose for ZERO mag.
Issue one featured a couple of games, worth £40 according to the first issue’s cover! On the ST you had Recoil by Jonathan Smith, who’s previous works included classic Spectrum conversions Green Beret, Hypersports, Batman, Mikie, Cobra and more. This was a Defender clone that was pretty fun. On the Amiga you had Merv the Merciless, which I’ve never played but you seem to be a troll collecting stuff and avoiding other stuff whilst trying to keep up with a top-down scrolling screen. Also looks very nice.
Back to the mag itself, reading it again it’s pretty cool. Usual stuff – previews, reviews, competitions, developer features, tips, comic strips, and best of all, The Price I$ Right, a feature on budget games that is actually presented by Leslie Crowther! Or at least there’s a picture of him on the page, which I really wasn’t expecting when I flicked through it today!
This month one of the opening features was a kind of lighthearted mass review of some of the big flight sims making waves on ST, Amiga and PC at the time, including Falcon, F-16 Combat Pilot, Interceptor and F-15 Strike Eagle II. Quite rightly, Falcon came out on top with a score of 92% – Top Gun had finally arrived on your home computer with this corker – MIG21’s, burning it up over desert mountain ranges, outside views for a cool fly-past and some brilliant cockpit action (my words not theirs)!
I’m a little disappointed by the main event review this month – Tintin on the Moon. No interest in Tintin ever, and I imagine that 17-year old me was equally unimpressed. Continental Circus, the pioneering “True 3D” arcade racer was next, justifiably getting a better score than Tintin; interesting fact here – it was supposed to be called Continental Circuit but without Google Translate in 1989, they had a few Japanese to English translation problems! Also reviewed were Steel, Dynamite Dux, Gunhed, Vigilante, Bloodwych, APB, Oil Imperium, and the mighty Strider, which received a disgraceful 84% on the ST, and 81% on the Amiga, which makes me a bit happier! In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best month ever to launch a new games mag! To be fair, things did hot up a bit in the Review Shorts section, which mostly featured conversions of older gems like Paperboy and California Games, but also the 3D alien Pong favourite of mine, Shufflepuck Cafe (83% on the ST and 82% on the Amiga – justice done again!), which was actually a longer review than the non-Shorts reviews earlier in the mag!
After the reviews, one of the features made me smirk… Chip Shop Boys, a feature on getting the most out of your MIDI music features with some bloke from Bomb the Bass, which begins with “Fancy yourself as Jason Donovan? Garry Glitter? Richard Clayderman?” I can’t believe they spelt Gary Glitter’s name wrong…
The tips section featured a complete solution to Spherical, which I don’t have any recollection of, and a map for Mr Heli. Again, hardly magazine sellers, but with £40 of games on the cover, who cares? There’s even a section for hex, POKEs and hacks to type in!
Near the end now, and it’s time for the Price I$ Right, featuring £9.99 budget titles such as Populous Promised Lands, which scored 80%, and Postman Pat at 77%; funny how nowadays you don’t hear about the Postman Pat game only 3% less than you hear about Populous…
Even in 1989, computer games mags still insisted on an adventure game section, quite rightly at the back of the mag where no one cared about it, but ZERO really knew how to close a magazine, and in issue one it did so with an interview with none other than Jeremy Beadle. Genius!
I had a great time flicking through this, even if most of the games in October 1989 were a bit crap. What’s really cool is seeing the adverts you used to see every month everywhere again after a near 30-year gap! Remember this one with the MIDI keytar?
This is something I wrote in 2017 that started for someone else then fell between the cracks, but having just found it again I didn’t want it to go to waste…
My history with the original Ghosts ‘n Goblins is indelibly etched on my mind, from the second in the summer of 1987 that I bought it for £1.99 at a service station on the M4, on the way back from a holiday camp in Dorset, possibly Pontins; although the only real memory I have of the camp itself was its shop, which had a fantastic array of pop badges, where I got a fantastic reflective Adam Ant badge that I still wear to this day! Back at the service station, two games jumped out at me from a bargain games rack (which must have been an eighties service station thing) that I’d heard about in C&VG magazine, but like most games, didn’t have the money to buy on release. For completeness, the second game was Southern Belle, which, apart from the London to Brighton speed run mode, never really got a look in for quite some time once we got back home to my Spectrum! That conversion of Ghosts ’n Goblins was all I was interested in that hot and sticky afternoon, and in time would become one of my favourite games ever, despite never getting very far!
Ghouls ‘n Ghosts admittedly made less of an impression – maybe because by the time I’d picked it up on the Atari ST, I’d been playing platformers for the best part of ten years, and the ST offered so many newer things in gaming to me – Hard Drivin’s 3D replays and mooing cows, Defender of the Crown’s cinematography, Carrier Command’s vehicular variety, Speedball’s sporting violence, etc. But for all the familiarity of the genre by now, it was still lots more of Ghosts ’n Goblins in every way, especially when you consider that I was coming from the dumbed-down Spectrum version! The graphics were beautifully detailed and drawn (and without a hint of colour clash!), the soundtrack was one of the best on the ST to date, and the simplistic, hard as nails gameplay was on another level. Which meant not getting very far all over again!
There was one thing missing though, which it took me the best part of another twenty years to realise… There were no dirty great virtual buttons all over the TV screen! Fast forward to 2017, and Capcom have finally solved that huge (literally) omission with the release of Ghouls ’n Ghosts for iOS!
Ghouls ’n Ghosts arrived onto iOS a few months after its predecessor, which was released earlier in 2017 together with mobile versions of 1942 and Commando; two more games that are among my favourites of all time! They’re all pretty much arcade-perfect versions, which blows me away every time I load any of them up – we’ve come a long way since Snake on phones, and even further since the Spectrum!
Unfortunately, the few months between releases weren’t spent on the dirty great elephant in the room that all of these versions occupy – the controls. Now, I play a lot of games on iOS and I’ve got absolutely no problem with touch controls, virtual buttons, swipe controls, etc. but these are something else! And rather than trying to optimise them for Ghouls ’n Ghosts after all the “constructive criticism” they can’t have missed for the other releases, Capcom have simply offered the same wealth of bizarre alternatives…
Type A gives you left and right arrows, two slightly misaligned (but massive so it doesn’t really matter) up and do wn buttons, and on the other side massive attack and jump buttons, all with convenient icons in case you can’t read the massive words on them. Type B offers two massive up and down arrows with invisible left and right between them, and massive attack and jump as before. Type C gives you invisible up, down, left and right and the standard massive jump and attack. Then there’s virtual controls, which give you a more normal looking directional control that should be the best of the lot but I’m still strangely drawn to Type A as my preferred method.
The good news is that if still can’t decide on the method that suits you best, rather than connect a bluetooth controller, Capcom wants to save you all that messing around with pairing and connecting, and gives you the choice of Normal or Compact control modes! If you’re taking advantage of the arcade experience on an iPad’s big, lovely screen, the Compact method might be the more user-friendly option unless you have giant hands, as the Normal mode spreads the action to all four corners of the screen for you. In their unplayable defence, they are a bit smaller in this mode. This really is a new level in touchscreen design!
But what about the game hiding beneath the massive controls? I’m pleased to report it’s definitely Ghouls ’n Ghosts in all its gorgeous, brutal glory! Every element of the original side-scrolling, medieval-shooting arcade platformer is intact – the stunning, crisp, atmospheric graphics; the Phantom of the Opera on a chip-tune organ soundtrack; the oddly high-pitched sound effects; and, of course, the mystifying amount of fun to be had from a game so horrendously difficult!
That difficulty isn’t helped by the controls, and it takes quite a lot of playing before you stop mashing the wrong buttons in panic when you’re surrounded by grim reapers and a swooping vulture! But when I faced similar problems with Commando (or Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando in case you’re struggling to find it by its Western name), having this on my phone and tablet meant too much to me to let the controls beat me – the game did a good enough job of that by itself! Just find the least offensive control method and persevere, and there’s the same endless enjoyment you had taking Arthur through hordes of undead, demonic stuff that you experienced in the eighties!
A new casual mode is offered if things get too tough. You get more lives, a double jump, and I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but it is a bit easier – possibly less enemies – though it all still seems pretty frantic to me! Regardless of the mode you choose, you’ve still got all those lovely touches that made this game stand out all those years ago – losing your suit of armour on the first hit and playing in your pants; the magician popping out of a chest and turning you into a defenceless duck; the grim reapers peeking out from behind trees; and I want to give a special mention to the wind effects, should you ever get out of the graveyard, which hinder your progress but reward you with the most stunning trees getting blown about that you’ve ever seen in a game, and they really pop on an iPhone 7 or iPad Pro screen!
Many will find the control issues a game breaker, but every time I get frustrated with them I just think of myself thirty years ago and wonder what that fifteen year old would have thought about not only carrying a version of this around in his pocket, but carrying around the arcade version in his pocket… That had cost him less than half the price of a Mastertronic game… Then I hit that virtual start button again!
Before I leave you, one closing word on the controls. If you think these are bad, just check out Sega’s new port to mobile of Phantasy Star II, released just a week ago at the time of [original] writing. At least Capcom had the forethought to show you most of the action, but if you have any interest at all in the story behind this text heavy, creaking RPG, you might want to find a different way to play it!
Yes, it’s a loop. And in 1989, that was a complete groundbreaker. It’s why you had to own this game – the ultimate show off to your mates title; they’d simply never seen anything like it. It was seeing Virtua Racing on my brother’s MegaDrive all over again. But there was more! The more-or-less filled 3D vector graphics, cars and trucks [slightly inexplicably] on the track in both directions, the Dukes of Hazzard style bridge jump, the instant replay, and the cow! Take out the cow by the farmhouse [located at the side of the race track] and you got a beautifully sampled, realistic MOO! And the realism didn’t stop with the cow – the car drove like a real car, and I should know because I’d just turned 17 and started driving lessons! Which was great, but temporarily spelt an end to the riches from my Saturday job at Sainsbury’s that had funded my ST and its burgeoning games collection up to that point.
A year into my role there, and I was specialising in collecting trolleys. I was the master! I knew all the hiding places around Bedford town centre – the car parks, the alley ways, where the bins were at the back of Iceland… I could get ten of them into a car park lift at once. I could push fifty of them in a massive train like a supermarket Rubber Duck out of Convoy. Nothing annoyed the shopper more than no trolleys, so once the supervisors picked up on my brilliance, there was no more stacking shelves or till duty. especially as the old mechanical tills I knew had transitioned to electronic ones that were clearly beyond me once I’d missed the training. This afforded such freedom too, being paid to hang out on the top of a car park surveying the impressive Bedford skyline with a can of Dr Pepper and a Boost bar, putting a bet on the Grand National, buying tickets for a Simple Minds concert, or – wait for it! – taking part in a police identity parade and earning an extra precious tenner for the driving lesson fund! And in retrospect, fortunately not getting collared in the process!
I’d pass my test, first time, after 15 lessons, which I’m sure owed no small debt to Hard Drivin’. As I said, this game felt realistic, which I think had a lot to do with the mouse controls (a first for me) – they felt great once you got used to them, offering far more control than my days with a keyboard on Chequered Flag or Out Run with a QuickShot II on the Spectrum. It was also easier to pull off a deliberate skid (also maybe a first?) which meant faster lap times and meant slightly more forgiving cornering, especially on the speed track when a decent time rewarded you with the challenge of the Phantom Photon ghost racer (another first?) on the stunt track .
Like collecting trolleys, the stunt track was where the glamour was at. And specifically, being upside down on the loop. In 1989, there was no thrill ride outside of the corkscrew roller coaster at Alton Towers that was like it. If you could stay on the loop, take the banked corners, pull off the jumps, avoid the trucks (that wouldn’t look out of place in Crossy Road with all those straight lines) and resist the urge to hear the MOO, beating the exotically named Phantom Photon would result in the Phantom Photon taking on the ghost of your ride in the next race, which you could even save to disk, providing endless challenge despite there only being two tracks.
This game looked and sounded like a stunner, moving at pace with great attention to detail – the cracked windscreen when you crashed, the engine sound, the skidding noise, the manual gear shifting from a separate joystick, but mostly the cow! And the replay was worth every crash, switching to a fully 3D rendering of your final moments.
A gorgeous, groundbreaking 3D masterpiece at the time, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find something to match that precarious feeling half way around the loop wondering if you’ll make it around or just drop off!
In 1987, aged fifteen, I was skirting perilously close to being 100% nerd. All the elements were there – the shy boy that was still considerably shorter and younger looking than a lot of his classmates; a love of thrash and death metal, the unexplained, horror, The Hobbit, Fighting Fantasy books and 2000AD. I’d discovered White Dwarf magazine and was beguiled by the painted figures, something called Warhammer and big tabletop war games, and of course Dungeons & Dragons.
As an aside, that was probably around the same time I came across my first porno mag in a clump of bushes we used as a 45-and-in (a more pro-active version of hide & seek) hiding place in Bedford’s Jubilee Park. It was a copy of Escort, until then a distant and exotic vision on the top shelf of WHSmith next to stuff like Club International, Mayfair, Playboy, Men Only and the classic Razzle. No real relevance here, but the mystery of how porno mags became a regular sight in bushes, hedgerows and ditches continues to fascinate me!
Back to Dungeons & Dragons, and that was equally mysterious to me. Why were there no pictures of it anywhere? Just rule books, paper with a grid on and dice with loads of sides! My best friend, Thomas, talked about it all the time. His older brother, William, who I’d known for years from my previous incarnation as a scout, became instantly more cool when I found out he was a Dungeon Master! He had a hundred-sided dice too. Wild man! And they had such adventures with goblins and poison and battle axes and stuff. It would be another year, during the long post-GCSE summer holidays that the mystery was solved. Such an anti-climax…
Sometime that winter, Thomas introduced me to something close though. To my extreme jealousy, he’d got an Atari ST and that’s when I first laid eyes my future love, and on Dungeon Master. Suddenly my Spectrum looked like a relic (though not as much as when I first laid eyes on Defender of the Crown soon after)!
This was a whole new world – a disk, a huge manual (including what was virtually a novel on how you had to find the Firestaff to rid the dungeon of Chaos or some such nonsense), and how on earth were you supposed to play with the sliding block that moved an arrow around the screen? What do you mean no joystick??? And those lifelike 3D stone walls…
Once you’d picked your four heroes, it was out with your torch and into the labyrinth ye go. Fighting the scariest, most beautifully animated monsters you’d seen in a game to date with the icons that surrounded the main window was actually straightforward. As was using them to create spells with weird symbols, sort out your gear, solve puzzles, avoid traps and carry the bones of fallen allies to reincarnation altars. Providing your torch didn’t go out first! One of the truly “next-gen” features of this game was the ever diminishing light from your torch, and unless you had a spare or a spell that did the job, this was the cause of far more tension than big groups of mummies shambling about!
Some things weren’t so different to my old last-gen relic though; the corridors might have looked great, but they all looked the same, so making your own map was essential. And the dungeon was so big that it made mapping something like Firelord on the Spectrum seem a breeze!
I was in nerd heaven for every second I spent playing this at Thomas’ house. It was the embodiment of what he’d told me about the mysteries of D&D; it was Deathtrap Dungeon brought to life; it made up for all the missing fantasy credentials that made me feel a bit inadequate when I read White Dwarf – oh, the irony!
My very own ST came about a year later, and my own copy (literally) of Dungeon Master, but there’s a tale for another day.
See you soon, when I’ll make up for the delay in posting this because I was in California with something very Californian!