Discovering Ghostbusters II on Atari ST

Discovering Ghostbusters II on Atari ST

Was Ghostbusters my first horror movie? As a collector and obsessive of the genre, that’s an important point, but whether it’s horror or comedy or horror-comedy is debatable. It’s filmed like a horror movie and it’s certainly scarier than diet trash like Paranormal Activity, but the Ghostbusters themselves are all played for laughs. Let’s conclude it’s horror and comedy, and as such counts as my first horror movie! And most importantly, when I went to see it at the cinema around Christmas 1984, it became a grand entranceway to a lifelong interest, built on top of the foundations already set by Scooby Doo and my auntie’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies book, that would eventually turn into the hellish six feet one skyscraper I’ve become today! In other words, from the second that the librarian’s ghost went through the most terrifying transformation since An American Werewolf in London (which might have been my second horror movie!), I absolutely adored this film, as I still do on every watch – usually several times per year – to this very day.

And shortly after that there was my friend’s Commodore 64 (and later, for me, slightly inferior ZX Spectrum) Ghostbusters game. As I went into in the second of my Favourite Gaming Anthems series (here), I’m not sure that any game’s title screen made my jaw drop as much as this one did when I first saw it, and it was a double whammy! First what might have been the first sampled speech I’d ever heard shouting “Ghostbusters” (and if you’ve ever heard it too I can guarantee you’re hearing it again now!) and then some actual real life music that you’ve heard in the movie or seen on Top of the Pops is actually being played by your computer! To this day, the game remains pretty much unique, and is absolutely faithful to the movie, with you buying your ghostbusting equipment then patrolling the streets of New York from a map view, and when you spot a ghost infestation you’re top down in Ecto-1, sucking up rogue ghosts on the way (if you bought the right gear) until you arrive at the haunted building. Now your setting your trap, positioning your two guys and teasing the ghost above it without crossing the streams, then when it’s near enough you unleash the trap and get your reward. As the city’s paranormal activity rises (together with your bank balance) you’ll eventually meet the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and head for the big Zuul climax. As you can tell, I could talk about this game all day – it remains one of the best movie licenses ever made, and I still play through it on both C64 and Spectrum regularly. And I still absolutely love it and really should cover it properly here sometime!

Which brings us to Ghostbusters II. By the time it appeared in 1989, it was a bit lost in the noise of a load of other sequels – Lethal Weapon 2, Karate Kid 3, the third Indiana Jones and Star Trek V – and then everything was lost in the noise of Tim Burton’s Batman. Good film though, and it did very well at the box office, and even though it didn’t quite have the spark of the original – which might be down to a painting being the bad guy – it’s a really effective companion to it, with some great ghosts, some great special effects, and several compelling plot lines moving it along. Again, if it’s ever on the telly, I’ll gladly watch it!

The game of the film we’re about to dive into is a confusing mess of different versions by different developers on different platforms being released or not released in different regions. This is then made all the more confusing by a separate game called Ghostbusters II from Activision in 1990 on NES, and HAL Laboratory’s 1990 Japan or 1992 Europe Ghostbusters II game, New Ghostbusters II, which never saw a US release thanks to Activision; also note that this shouldn’t be confused with the Game Boy game of the same name, which is its own thing again!

Right, now we’re properly befuddled, let’s try and unravel the Atari ST version I’ve been playing… This was published by Activision in 1989, having been developed for Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad, Amiga and ST by UK developer Foursfield. It was then ported to MSX by New Frontier, and Dynamix created a new version for MS-DOS. This was a kind of next-gen extended cut of the first game, but obviously based on the plot of the sequel, where you had to raise enough money by busting the film’s ghosts to tempt the Statue of Liberty into action to get you to the final showdown. It had a cool musical puzzle too where you had to calm down slime with an in-game CD player! No one was playing MS-DOS stuff in 1989 though, so we’ll head back to the non-pervert version…

The game is made up of three levels, spanning a whopping four disks (and we’ll be coming back to this!), and these cover three key set pieces from the movie, which we’ll paraphrase the manual to quickly recap… Ghostbusters stopped busting after they were sued for taking out the top three floors of the up-town New York high rise while they were taking out Marshmallow Man. During the intervening years, the locals began to believe the whole thing had been a colossal hoax, and the gang resorted to making a living running occult bookshops, appearing on occult TV shows and entertaining obnoxious kids at parties. Meanwhile, Dana Barrett is back in town with baby son Oscar, whose buggy decides to go on a supernaturally-charged chase around New York’s busy streets, and she quickly realises there’s something strange in the neighbourhood, and knows exactly who she’s gonna call!

The manual then gives you a bizarre hint that you should watch the film to help you with unravelling some of the puzzles; I’m not sure you’d be playing it if you hadn’t, and despite the primitive digitised stills from the film and accompanying synopsis before and after each level, you’d probably struggle to keep up with the three main sequences of the film we’re playing through if you hadn’t, but all the same, I’m not sure I’ve ever read any game instructions before that start with telling you to watch a movie!

Once you’re back from the video rental store (assuming no one else has already nabbed their only copy of Ghostbusters II), what you’re getting is an admirably diverse set of three levels. The first is Van Horne, which sees you guiding your Ghostbuster to the bottom of an air-shaft beneath the street to collect a sample of slime that we’ll now know from the film is charging all the city’s emerging paranormal problems. You’re swinging left and right and up and down (then generally doing it all over again because you’ve overshot the tiny contact window) and you progress lower and lower down the shaft, making your feet touch things to collect them! To keep things exciting, the shaft is full of all kinds of ghosts, and if one of them touches you you’ll lose courage, which is indicated by a status mugshot of his face getting more and more terrified. This can be restored by touching the occasional bottles of elixir conveniently positioned down the shaft with you feet, but if you decide this is way more hassle than its worth and end up scared out of your mind, you’ll fall to your doom and start again.

You’ve got three weapons to help you down though, and a press of the space bar will cycle through them… The proton beam is your regular spook repellant from your backpack, and as long as you’re collecting extra charges that you’ll also find on the way down, you can pretty much do it with just this one. Next is the PKR bomb, which delivers a powerful burst of anti-spook, but is just so awkward to use that you’ll probably avoid it if you’ve got some proton beam left. It involves holding down fire, then pushing either up or down to deliver its devastation above or below you, then releasing fire, but it’s just so ham-fisted to do in practice! Finally, you’ve got the PKR shield, and that will protect you enough to make some quick progress or navigate a particularly tricky swing, and like the proton beam, you can pick up more of these and the bombs at various points as you travel downwards.

In general, progressing downwards is far more challenging than any of the monsters you’ll come across, and you’ll often find yourself trying to rebuild some left and right swinging momentum so you can start to make your way down again having either been grabbed by a ghost, or, more likely, just got stuck on some scary graphics! That said, there’s one monster you want to avoid as much as possible, which is a sawing hand that will hack away at your winch cable until is snaps; and like the terror-meter, you’ve got one for the cable condition too. When these appear, you need to get rid fast, either with a PKR bomb if you can get lucky with the controls, or a regular proton beam will do if not. One final problem here is that you didn’t bring a retractable slime scoop of your own, so you’ll also need to look out for the three parts of that on the way down. And once you’re there at the bottom, being battered by waves of ghosts flying up and down slime river, you’ve got one more awkward piece of positioning to negotiate to get that slime scoop lowered into the goo to trigger the next cut scene and series of disk swaps before the next level.

Now we’re on Broadway, and we need to get to the Museum of Art before the birth of the New Year. The Ghostbusters are all inside the crown of the Statue of Liberty as it makes its way through the city, and your job is to control its fireball to protect the Statue and the population at large as it gets bombarded by wave after wave after wave after wave of evil ghosts intent on your destruction. I’ll say it now, this goes on way too long, and reminded me of the similarly horizontally-scrolling shooter-type level in Agent X II if you’ve played that; and if not, they both outstay their welcome several times over!

Anyway, we’ve now worked out that the Statue of Liberty can also be powered by our slime from the first level, and this is represented by a glass jar of slime at the bottom of the screen, which depletes every time a ghost avoids your fireballs of freedom and bashes into you. You’ve only got a limited number of shots with each fireball, which you can move anywhere around the screen and shoot from there, but as soon as it needs to recharge it will reset back to your torch. And that recharge is also going to cost you slime, so you can’t go buck-wild with it because no slime means no Liberty.

You can replenish your slime as you go though, with ghosts dropping droplets onto the ground when you shoot them, and they’ll stay there until the next wave of ghosts appears. To help you with this, you’ve got the population of New York following you (though in reality it’s about ten people at any given time), and a press of the space bar will send them forwards or backwards. As soon as one of them touches a droplet, it will be automatically transferred back to your slime jar to keep you going, but it’s all a balancing act, between both your attention on this versus the waves of ghosts in the air, and also those ready to take out your population on the ground if you let them stray too far forwards.

As well as the slime-o-meter, you’ve got a depressing progress bar that indicates the distance travelled by the Statue, and at certain points along that progression you’ll be hit by three types of mini-boss enemy, though in reality you just need to react quickly rather than batter them incessantly or with any degree of skill. The last one will see you trigger the final level, but I really wonder how many people that haven’t decided to write about it ever got that far? It’s just so long, so repetitive and so hard, and whilst on the one hand the game is to be praised for its multiple risk-reward (and quite unique) mechanics on the go at once here, on the other you could just say it’s all just there to add longevity to a game with only three levels that could probably be done in under twenty minutes as the crow flies! After the awkwardness of the first level too, this feels like such a slog, which is a shame because its so ambitious in so many ways!

The final level is The Museum, and we’re now using the space bar to alternate control between all four Ghostbusters (hopefully…) as we try to rescue Oscar the baby – who we now know will be a vessel for the reborn big evil, Vigo the Carpathian, who we then need to destroy as he emerges from his 16th century painting to rule New York and probably other well-known places too.

The level starts with all four Ghostbusters at the top of abseil ropes in roof, and your first job is to control each of their hands, with a push up on the joystick to close them, or down to open them, thus controlling their speed. And it’s all a bit sensitive, so it might be okay to go all-out at the start to get down in time, but these guys demand a very, very soft landing otherwise they’re getting stunned out of action for a while if you’re lucky, or dead if not, and in reality, if you’re not getting them all down in one piece you might as well start the disk swapping and Statue walking all over again before this level even properly starts!

This stage is a kind of isometric action-adventure affair, and as the most baffling of all three levels, the instructions (and even the movie!) are a bit sparse on detail apart from rescue the baby and destroy Vigo, where they go nuts on the two simpler preceding levels. Again, I assume, this is all to extend the life of the game, but I really don’t want to do that Statue level over and over again to try and work this one out! What you are getting, though, is a diagram to explain the mass of character status meters at play here! You’ve got the weapon energy and strength level of your selected character; you’ve got Vigo’s strength and also that of Janosz, his human minion; and then you’ve got another meter for the “percentage of transfer to baby” which is effectively the timer you’re up against.

After a bit of trial and error, you’re going to work out that the baby is hidden away in an upper corner of the museum, and pressing fire is going to pick it up. Now you’re going to find some boxes and literally dump it down on the floor so its safe during the big fight… Now we switch to Peter then Egon (or vice versa) who have some proton beam things that will draw Vigo out of the painting if you get them both shooting at it. Meanwhile, we also need to switch to Winston or Ray to take out Janosz with a slime gun, and once he’s done that, Vigo will appear out of the painting and you’ll have to turn your attention to shooting him. And while all of this is happening, the baby is going to start levitating towards the altar in front of the vacated painting, and you’ll want to keep removing it back to safety, but after a bit of shooting Ray will get possessed, so you’re now shooting him too until you trigger a final happy cutscene. It’s relatively fun working all of this out, but it’s just such a shame you have to go through everything else to do that!

And all that disk swapping! Now, it’s not unusual to have ST games on multiple disks, and it’s not unusual to have to change disks now and again, but this one is insane! To just start the game, you’re loading up Disk A to get to your sampled Ghostbusters theme screen, then Disk B to get to level one. Finish that, and it’s Disk A followed by Disk C to get to level two. Then it’s Disk A followed by Disk D for level three. And every combination in between every time you lose all your lives and have to start again – thanks goodness it is only three levels!

As down on pretty much everything as I’ve been so far, I have developed a bit of a soft spot for this game! For all its faults, it does a wonderful job of drawing you into Ghostbusters II. The three levels are well curated, and the simple, mostly text-based cut scenes pull everything together into a decent replication of the movie’s plot. And it looks great! For what it lacks in playability, the production values are sky high, and the almost oversized sprites that inhabit all three levels (but especially the Statue one) are bold, full of detail and move beautifully. The backgrounds are rich and equally full of detail – again, the second level in particular pays some lovely fan service to the movies.

As does the soundtrack, with various sampled renditions of the Ray Parker Jr. theme popping up and sounding even better than it did on the Commodore 64! Sound effects do veer towards variations of white noise at times, though there’s some great exceptions, for example the deep throb of the proton beam in the first level. Generally they fill the space where there’s no background music though, and that in turn gives that theme tune some real impact when it kicks in for the between-level scenes! My only gripe in the sound department is the continuous, looping, grating simple chip-tune rendition of Auld Lang Syne throughout the final level that puts me in mind of old Spectrum platformers!

It’s not the best game ever, and it’s not the best Ghostbusters game ever, but behind the relentless disk swapping, slight clunkiness and too much level two, this is the opposite of so many lazy film tie-ins of the time, with creativity and variety, backed by great attention to detail and what appears to be a real passion for Ghostbusters. And this just tips the balance into it being not only fun, but addictive while you’re playing and thought-provoking while you’re not, and enough to make you go back through all that pain just to try one more thing on that last level you’d previously decided you’d never see the end of! As a final bonus, the big, classically oversized Atari ST game box is also doing a great job of covering a crack in the wall behind my desk, as well as hiding some leads and generally looking good while I’m working, so as a total package I can’t really complain!

Discovering Hydra on ZX Spectrum

Discovering Hydra on ZX Spectrum

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!

Discovering Ninja JaJaMaru-kun on NES

Discovering Ninja JaJaMaru-kun on NES

According to my Nintendo Switch profile page, I’ve spent 80 hours or more on the NES online colleciton service thing, and a whopping 85 hours or more on the SNES version! And that’s because I think they’re great, and the fact that most of the internet seems to think the opposite because they don’t include Earthbound and other such apparent classics makes it all the more great to me! If I could have any game on there though, it would be F1 ROC: Race of Champions on SNES, closely following by its definitive version of Test Drive II (more here). And not to leave the NES out, I’d take its version of Silent Service. The rest I’m happy to leave to Nintendo, with their often slightly bizarre curation creating a perfect platform for discovery once you’re past all their classics.

I can immediately attribute a lot of the time spent on SNES to Super Mario World, which I fired up out of general interest having never played it before when the service launched a year after the NES one in September 2019, then spent the next two weeks obsessing over finding all 96 exits. I did enjoy a new way to play a lot of old favourites like Mario Kart, F-Zero, Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and Pilotwings too, but what I’ve enjoyed the most is spending time with some new classics for me, most notably Mario’s Super Picross, Demon’s Crest, Stunt Race and Pop ‘n Twinbee. And I’ve still got The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on my to-do list!

Speaking of Zelda, the original probably stands out for most time spent in the NES collection, though beating my head against its sequel wouldn’t be far behind! By coincidence, I’d just finished The Legend of Zelda on the NES Classic Mini when it appeared on Switch, and immediately restarted it again… Best Zelda ever! As well as going on a bit of a bender with all the NES Marios, the other game I got properly  got hooked on here was Punch-Out, spending hours and hours learning all of its complex rhythms! There were some more great discoveries here too though – Dr Mario would quickly become a close second to only the majesty of Tetris in my favourite puzzlers list, if such a list existed yet. Don’t tempt me! There was Donkey Kong Jr. and Donkey Kong 3, Tecmo Bowl, Mighty Bomb Jack and Kid Icarus, and I know I’m in a minority with this, but I need to mention Eliminator Boat Duel here and its redneck take on Micro Machines too!

All great stuff, and I for one couldn’t ask for more of this service. But I will take that rumoured (at the time of writing in July 2021) Game Boy Advance service on top, and if Nintendo is taking requests, V-Rally 3 (no chance), Mario Kart Super Circuit (the opposite of no chance) and Game & Watch Gallery Advance as a wild card, on the assumption we’re getting the rumoured GBA Castlevania collection on there too! Just imagine Mario’s Cement Factory or Octopus in all of the Game & Watch glory on that new OLED Switch screen… Would also compensate for what seems to be a drying up on the existing services too, particularly for NES games, though if it is on its last legs, the latest drop still definitely came up trumps with Ninja JaJaMaru-kun!

This is my absolute favourite kind of game discovery – I had absolutely no idea what this was when I loaded it up for the first time, which in this case is also slightly more forgivable than some of the higher profile omissions from my gaming experience I mentioned a little earlier! Ninja JaJaMaru-kun was a Japanese-only release by Jaleco on the Famicom in 1985, then it got an MSX release in 1986, which then appeared in Europe as Ninja II, the follow up to Ninja, which was the European release of Ninja-kun: Majou no Bouken if you’re still with me! It would be insane to try and unravel this and the rest of the Ninja-kun series here in any detail, but the latter was the first in the series, translates to the very cool Ninja-kun: Adventure of Devil Castle, is also known as Ninja-Kun’s Demon Castle Adventure and Ninja Kid, and was a 1984 arcade, NES and MSX vertically scrolling platformer.

Seemingly named after a character called Fukurokouji JaJaMaru from the Japanese kids TV show Okaasan to Issho, Ninja JaJaMaru-kun sees Ninja Kid return from his hellish castle adventure only to have to rescue the captured Princess Sakura from the evil pirate lord Namazu Dayuu, which translates to something like Catfish Pirate. By the way, I think Ninja JaJaMaru-kun itself means something like stubborn round little ninja. To paraphrase the Switch game blurb, JaJaMaru (Ninja Kid’s name, I think, although I’m now losing the will to live!) must use his throwing stars to defeat the monsters plucked from Japanese folklore that are lurking in each of Dayuu’s many hideouts, each with unique weapons and attacks. The only way to advance is to break the brick floors above him (with his head), then moving up, down and around the level’s platforms the take out these fiends. These broken bricks will sometimes give you power-ups such as invincibility, speed boosts, points bonuses and extra lives, but you need to keep an eye on them because they’ll occasionally reveal a bomb too, and that’s going to obliterate you if you hang around, just like the ones that catfish boy is going to be chucking at you every so often from his perch at the top of the level. Get three different power-ups (or four extra lives) though, and you’re in the big league because this is going to buy you a ride on Gamapa-kun, the giant frog, who’s going to gobble up everything in sight! Princess Sakura will also sometimes drop flower petals from the top of the level, and three of these will take you to a bonus stage where you’re chucking your throwing stars up at Namazu for bonus points, or at a bomb which will move you to the next level.

This all manifests as something like Bubble Bobble meets New Zealand Story with a dash of Rodland (more here), and that, dear viewers, is quite the heady brew as far as I’m concerned! Now, obviously, the first time I played it I didn’t know any of this – absolutely no idea what it was! I’d prioritised that month’s three SNES games, with a quick go on what I think were Joe & Mac, Magical Drop II and Spanky’s Quest. None of them made any impression whatsover so I jumped to the NES app, pressed the “new” or whatever it is icon, a picture with a load of Japanese text on it appeared and I pressed start! My very first impression was Hammer’s 1974 horror martial arts classic The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires; another heady brew, in principle at least… “Hammer Horror! Dragon Thrills! The First Kung-Fu Horror Spectacular!” is what the poster said, and it was some of those things I suppose. Great tagline though! Anyway, the reason for this was the first level’s enemies, and I then spent literally weeks trying to remember what they reminded me of because it wasn’t Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, but it was close. And as I was writing this very paragraph, it finally came to me – the Pionpi from Super Mario Land on Game Boy, the jumping Chinese vampires that keep coming back to life, but here’s a free expert tip: Superball!

Back with Ninja JaJaMaru-kun, so far so painfully NES, but in the best possible way. Apart from the jerky scrolling maybe. But this just looks so vintage NES, with its four concrete floors interspersed with bricks that become holes that you can mostly just about jump over once they’re headbutted, and suitably Japanese decoration, from sliding paper doors to gravestones to willowy trees on a mostly solid coloured background. These will change as you progress through levels, as will the enemies; they start as our vampire ghost lady things wandering about the place fairly predictably, and you’ll kill them with a single throwing star, but as you progress you’re going to have to start upping your combat. There’ll be skeletons, what might be a penguin in a suit that I mistook for something more racist until I connected the Switch to the TV, there’s umbrella things, cyclopses and various boss-type characters, which then become regular characters on subsequent levels. They’re all colourful and distinguishable enough without being anything more than more standard NES fare, and the same goes for your little ninja kid too.

There’s not a that much that’s going to set your ears on fire, but there’s plenty of sound going on all the same. There’s a very pleasant, albeit primitive theme tune going on in the background that doesn’t last long before it starts looping, but it’s very evocative of the setting and the main melody is actually quite catchy! I expect its simplicity is in part to make some space for all the sound effects going on though; there’s a sound for everything, and when things are getting frantic as you’re chasing the level’s last monster around the platforms and Dayuu is hurling loads of bombs at you because the timer’s getting low, there’s quite the cacophony going on! At the start of each level, there’s also what I think is supposed to be Dayuu laughing at you as the enemies are positioned on the level, but it’s a bit unidentifiable!

You start out at the bottom of platforms, with eight enemies positioned around the four floors, and they’ll stay on those floors until you start breaking bricks and making holes. Kill them all and it’s next level, but from level three onwards, there’s going to be one boss enemy that takes a bit more beating. You can jump on them to stun them, but get hit by one of their weapons and you lose a life. Same if you touch any of the bombs, or take too long and the flame that appears when the timer runs out catches up with you. The first couple of levels ease you in, but then it’s going to get rough, and I’m nowhere near getting to level 21, where the game loops back to the start again.

Ninja JaJaMaru-kun is a real joy to play. The controls are responsive and put you exactly where you want to be without demanding too much precision, which is great for some of the smaller brick sections and a boss on your tail! The bosses are a great move too, being close enough to the other enemy designs in shape and size that in the height of battle, they deliver a real sense of panic when you come face-to-face with one, much like Shao-Lin’s Road (more here).

Actually, the gameplay isn’t a million miles away from that either, which might also explain why I like it so much! It quickly becomes hugely challenging and hugely addictive, and you can see exactly why it made the leap from console to arcade in 1986! It got a really cool WonderSwan remake in 1999 too, Ganso JaJaMaru-kun, which added new levels and new bosses, and I desperately need to play it! In the meantime, I’m good with the NES version on Switch because there’s no way I’m getting bored of this any time soon. And when I do, there’s still a ton of other games I’ve only scratched the surface of on the Switch Online service, so watch this space for more of them!

Discovering Silent Hill 3 on PlayStation 2

Discovering Silent Hill 3 on PlayStation 2

I’ve had a strange relationship with Silent Hill. Or Silent Hills. I played what turned out to be the first fifteen minutes of the original PlayStation game several times after buying it on launch day in 1999, and it took me finding it in an old cardboard box to actually play it properly in 2020. And this time I instantly adored it! After that, I had to have the sequel on PS2 as soon as a reasonable price on eBay would allow! And wow, I wasn’t expecting what happened there, and it became one of my top five favourite games of all time. I went way over the top writing about it here, so won’t go nuts again now, but what I wouldn’t have said then (because I didn’t know at the time) was that for the past year or so since the time of writing, I’d play it over and over… I’ve always got a game of Silent Hill 2 on the go!

I eventually picked up a copy of Silent Hill 3 – also on eBay and also for a reasonable price – at the end of November 2020. It was more out of duty than really wanting to play it though; I knew it was very unlikely to top either of its predecessors in my eyes, but I also knew it wasn’t as bad as anything else that followed it, and it was the story sequel to the first game that I loved after all, so was worth a shot!

Silent Hill 3 originally appeared on PlayStation 2 in 2003 from Konami’s Team Silent. Interestingly, and unusually, it launched in Europe first, in May, then Japan in July and America in August. It’s more of the same (although apparently it was originally planned as a rail-shooter) and picks up the third-person survival horror exploration, puzzling, clunky combat and Oscar-worthy voice work from its predecessors. There’s fog too, so actually not sounding too bad so far!

Having just finished the game for the first time, I’m still processing the plot because it’s as bonkers as you’d imagine, so for this paragraph and the next I am going to spoil it a bit to see if I’ve got it! We are seventeen years after the first game, and the baby that gets handed over at the end of that one is at the shops for her dad, stops off for a burger, falls asleep and starts dreaming about Silent Hill. With you now in control, you’re wandering about in its nightmare amusement park until you get hit by the rollercoaster. She wakes up, gets confronted about her birth by a stereotypical private eye who Silent Hill-based cult “The Order” have hired to find her, then does a runner around the shopping mall, comes across The Order’s leader, ends up in a classic bloody, hellish, decaying Silent Hill Otherworld (a bit like Bedford’s town centre), and soon we’re doing all of Silent Hill’s familiar other stuff too!

Things quickly escalate into revenge for murder, as well as the resulting trip to real Silent Hill with the detective in tow to take down The Order. And this is where things get complicated… As well as learning all about the first game, Heather learns that she’s the reincarnation of Alessa, the original vessel for the cult’s god, and that they now want her to give birth to it. Gameplay-wise, we’re back in really familiar territory, in the wonderful fog of Silent Hill’s streets, it’s hospital and other Otherworlds, working your way to the cult and its plot, before a wide awake second visit to the nightmare amusement park to find your way into The Order’s church (providing you avoid the rollercoaster this time). It’s here that she confronts the big witch, works out what she’s up to and how she fits in with the original vessel, vomits out a supernatural fetus that the witch ends up swallowing then dying while she gives birth to it, and onto a boss fight with the new god and the end. I think. It all got a little bit hectic in that church!

Now for my story with the game, and after all that hanging around, I actually sat on Silent Hill 3 for exactly another six months after I bought it! That was partially down to me getting a bit carried away with filling in other gaps in my PS2 collection around the same time and being distracted by all of them, but mainly because the two times I got to it on my official list of games to play next, I decided I needed to play Silent Hill 2 again first… Mainly because I just like being there! Anyway, before I talk myself into ending up there again now, at first I wasn’t really clicking with the third instalment. I didn’t know what was going on (which didn’t really change, but I got accustomed to it), it was all a bit dark, the sun was shining through my window on a very hot day, and I was instantly frustrated by the ridiculous new 3D controls. I couldn’t make Heather go anywhere I wanted, which isn’t helpful when you’re in a pitch black fairground surrounded by holes in the floor and you don’t know what you’re doing or where you’re going! Fortunately, it’s easy to change to 2D controls, where Heather moves left and right and in and out of the screen regardless of the way she’s facing rather than trying to work out which direction is which in relation to where she is.

By the time I was back in the shopping mall, things were picking up a little, even if I wasn’t massively keen on the setting so far, but it was starting to feel like a Silent Hill game. As we progressed into the subway station, through the sewers and up around the construction site and other not Silent Hill yet town buildings on the way to our apartment, it went even further, and I found myself quite enjoying it simply because it was Silent Hill by numbers. And then we got to Silent Hill itself, and I welcomed the sight of my beloved fog and felt the warmth of cold familiarity as I wandered its streets, but then, again, I started to feel a little down on the game – Silent Hill was just a bit lifeless compared to how it had been in the previous two games, where every texture seemed to be alive and with the promise of secrets, demanding to be touched and explored. The town here just felt like a pathway to the next set-piece. But when that set piece is everyone’s favourite Silent Hill hospital, the mood immediately improves, and this was the start of the best of Silent Hill 3!

You know you’ve spent too long playing Silent Hill 2 when you enter Brookhaven Hospital for the first time and don’t only not need a map, but it feels like home – especially when it goes Otherworld too! I was so happy wandering around here, but there does come a point where things get new and unfamiliar, and this was probably the highlight of the game so far for me; an unmapped maze that appears through a new door, that siphons you through its concrete corridors and self-opening and -closing metal-grilled gates, building up incredible tension even though there’s no obvious threat apart from the prospect of running through these bleak passages forever! It wasn’t long, and with hindsight it wasn’t massively clever, but I got a real thrill out of this bit!

It was also around here that I started stopping the action to take screenshots, awkwardly old-school with a camera badly lined-up in front of the screen! As you exit the maze and climb a horror-drenched ladder into the hospital’s Otherworld, there’s a wonderful moment where you see a hand suspended outside the window of what’s now more like a torture chamber than a treatment room; the first of a concentrated series of horrific postcard imagery! There’s a mirror puzzle that is probably the creepiest moment of the game as the Otherworld literally closes in on you while your reflection becomes disembodied as you watch, apparently completely helpless and with no escape. I also got a real kick out of the twisted altar that triggers the boss here – just classic Silent Hill decoration!

It’s worth mentioning how it all looks while we’re talking decoration. It’s quite occult in feel versus the more personal hellscapes of its PS2 predecessor, and all of this religious imagery, set against more traditional themes of rust, decay and bucketloads of blood – and in such a wide variety of environments – gives it its own disturbing aesthetic. It’s very Jacob’s Ladder, the 1990 horror movie that delves into the bizarre mind of a messed-up Vietnam veteran, and is quite the influence on the Silent Hill aesthetic as a whole, though here there’s a more blatant reference to spot in the subway in Silent Hill 3! There’s a slight graininess to it all that adds an air of the video nasty, much like Silent Hill 2, but this time I think they’ve gone a bit further with the use of light and dark and shadows to ramp up the fear of the unknown. It’s certainly a looker, especially when you’re in the disturbed imagination of the Otherworld, which also felt a bit more gooey this time around.

That’s certainly true of the sound effects too – a lot of the mechanical, almost industrial audio terror from Silent Hill 2 is replaced by a more squelchy and organic ambient horror that you really don’t want to know the source of! And again, that’s still backed by the more traditional themes of children crying, monsters feasting, things opening and closing somewhere… But overall I think I found the sound less dense than in Silent Hill 2, and the atmosphere did suffer in comparison as a result. I’ll quickly mention the music here too – it’s nice enough, but Akira Yamaoka’s soundtrack was pretty forgettable to me while I was playing. Yeah, I know, maybe not a popular opinion! It’s very varied, the vocal tracks are strong, and there’s some more ambient tracks that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Miami Vice, which is the kind of praise that should make up for some of my ambivalence! That reminds me, despite what I said earlier, the voice acting isn’t actually that terrible this time out either!

Back to the game, and we were heading towards the home-stretch before I veered off into review land. Now we’re back in the Lakeside Amusement Park, the place we had burger-fuelled nightmares about in that fast-food joint at the start of the game! I know I said I liked that maze bit before, but it was really getting to know this place this time around that I suddenly realised I couldn’t put Silent Hill 3 down because after all those ups and downs, it was suddenly brilliant! As an aside, I also found my new favourite place to hang out in any video game ever here, and it’s in Silent Hill so my long-running plan to retire there based on my Silent Hill 2 obsession is still valid, but now I’m getting a part-time job as a rollercoaster operator! Let me set the scene… At the start of the game, you get woken up after being hit by the rollercoaster, so when you come across it again for real this time, you need to make sure the rollercoaster isn’t rollercoasting, and after a bit of detective work you end up climbing up the rickety stairs to the top of the rickety ride and into a locked cabin to sort that out. And I just loved that little, decrepit wooden hut, with its handful of dials and levers, and plenty of space to put your lunch down and make yourself comfortable looking out at the hell on earth through its dirty old cobwebbed windows. My idea of heaven on earth!

We did end up in Silent Hill by numbers territory again in the last section, the church, but it’s so well realised, and there’s so many twists and turns (around completely ridiculous plot points!) that you won’t really notice. There was one really fascinating (but very brief) side-story going on here though, which as I write is something I want to delve into a bit more later (after I’ve gone into the mystery figure in the far distance I just found for the first time at the end of Resident Evil 4)… As you leave the altar area and go backstage in the church, there’s a confession booth. Investigating the door closest to you informs you that there’s someone in there, so obviously you go around the back and play the priest! It’s clear that all’s not quite right as soon as you go in, with pictures on the wall that you won’t recognise but are clearly out of place. And then a woman’s voice, confessing murderous revenge for the death of her daughter, at the end of which you’re asked to forgive or not forgive, and whichever you choose will influence your ending, despite it being completely missable. But who is the woman is what’s currently fascinating me! Is it the baddie from the first game, or from this game, or the original vessel Alessa, or your character Heather herself having a premonition, or some other lost soul, or no one of importance at all except to question Heather’s morality before she goes all out? I don’t know, but just like my other current fascination, the Tombstone Thunderbird (one for your cryptozoology fans!), I plan to find out more!

I ended up really enjoying Silent Hill 3, far more than I’d expected going in, and came out of the other side with my own little bonus confessional mystery to investigate later too! I also came out with an unlimited ammo machine gun for my next play-through, simply because I ran out of ammo on the final boss and had to finish it off with a sword! And let me tell you, that was a shocker – I’ve never not ended up with a ton of ammo, grenades and rocket launchers when I’ve finished any Silent Hill or Resident Evil or similar game before! But would I be playing again without that helpful little incentive? Well, someone has to operate the rollercoaster, but apart from that, I’m not sure. Until I got to the fairground, I’d filled the Silent Hill 3 space on my PS2 and Atari ST games overflow shelf with my newly acquired Advanced Ski Simulator, which I had on the Spectrum but never on ST, and probably should have left it that way; and Silent Hill 3 was going back to eBay. Now it’s back, and I’ve got nowhere to put Ski Simulator! That said, this just isn’t Silent Hill 2 for me, and I can put that down to three things – the intensity of storytelling; the realisation of Silent Hill as a place; and its inhabitants, which I’ve just realised I’ve not really covered…

Let’s start with the obvious – no Pyramid Head! In fact, none of the bosses are memorable in the slightest, either on their own terms or most definitely in comparison with the horrific unrealities of Silent Hill 2. And in turn, the big hitting scenes they should be delivering here have very little impact. Moving to the regular enemies is a similar story, with the iconic sexualised insanity of the monster designs in the predecessor replaced with what’s mostly a charmless laziness akin to watching a Paranormal Activity movie (or that dreadful Silent Hill: Revelation 3D thing)! They’re all far scarier when you can hear them but can’t see them, and don’t even compete with some of the (admittedly brilliant) environmental horror they’re crawling around in. And as I think about them again, I am wondering if I’m better off just speed-running with my infinite machine gun to my rollercoaster hut and making a permanent save there!

How did I end up getting so down on this when we were so close to a second play-through? I reckon I’d get down on most things that aren’t Resident Evil 4 when I start comparing them to Silent Hill 2, so just ignore me! It’s a crazy, polished, atmospheric and sometimes overwhelmingly horrific tale that still looks and sounds great throughout its 7-8 hour duration. The puzzles aren’t too mental, but there’s an easy setting for both puzzles and gameplay if that’s not your bag, and you can always slide it in the other direction too if it is!  Actually, I just thought of a fantastic upper to close on, and that’s the extra costumes when you finish. There’s tons of them, and I think they’re unlocked for going out of your way on things in subsequent play-throughs (I’ll get back to you on that), but the one you get for finishing first time is this really cool red vest for Heather, that has a picture of her in action with Silent Hill written underneath. Wonder if there’s a Pyramid Head one somewhere?

Discovering BurgerTime on My Arcade, NES, Arcade and More!

Discovering BurgerTime on My Arcade, NES, Arcade and More!

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!

Discovering Rodland on NES

Discovering Rodland on NES

I recently came upon a wonderful game called Mr Heli, or Battle Chopper in the US, or Mr. HELI no Daiboken on PC-Engine where I played it first, to be precise, or, minutes later, plain old Mr Heli again on ZX Spectrum! It’s a bit like Fantasy Zone meets multi-directional cavern shooter, and was originally a 1987 arcade game from Irem. When the ports arrived in 1989, I definitely remember the name, but that’s as far as it went – no interest in playing something like I could see in the tiny screenshots on the advert that did the rounds in the gaming magazines, when there were the wonders of Defender of the Crown, Xenon, Stunt Car Racer and Dungeon Master to experience on my fancy new Atari ST. And Mr Heli to a 17-year old… Now Battle Chopper might have been a different story!

Anyway, it’s a nice example of a game I’ve heard of but never had any intention of playing until I knew better. And then I loved it! There’s lots of others too, like Mega Man 2 then many other Mega Mans, or Balloon Fight and Dr Mario, also on NES, or the aforementioned Fantasy Zone and its variants. More recently (slightly) there’s Daytona USA and Sega Rally, or Super Mario Sunshine and Viewtiful Joe, and while we’re on the GameCube, I almost forgot my relatively new top three favourite game ever, Resident Evil 4! What’s a rarer breed, though, is games I haven’t played because I’ve just never heard of them. Now, obviously, there’s probably even more of these than the previous set of games, but because I haven’t heard of them they’re much harder to quantify! I can provide three examples though… The first is Victory Run, which I had no idea existed until I got my PC-Engine Mini for my birthday in 2020. And I just fell in love with its powered-up Out Run styled shenanigans immediately! Similarly, another racing game completely got me when a retro collecting friend mentioned getting an import cart of F1 ROC: Race of Champions on SNES. Sounded weird, turned out to be one of my favourite racers ever that I’ve now been playing solidly for over two years! And then we have Rodland…

I really can’t remember where I came across Rodland, but somehow it had completely escaped me between its release in the arcades in April of 1990, care of Jaleco, and some time in early 2021. Actually, it may well have been the appearance of its Arcade Archives release on Nintendo Switch – every Thursday at 2pm, I go to the switch eShop to see what this week’s Arcade Archives game is! What I can remember is that from the couple of screenshots you get with those, it reminded me of Rainbow Islands, and that alone made it worth investigating a bit more. Then within a few short steps across to some dodgy sites, there we were trying out a shiny new ROM of the NES conversion!

Given that the original is available on Switch, for mere Pounds no less, you may be wondering why I’m fannying about with the NES port. Well, it was partly being a skinflint, partly being scared of MAME, but mostly just another case of love at first sight, and I wanted some time to savour the NES version before the original stole my gaze forever, and several months later that’s where we still are! That said, I spent a good six weeks scouring eBay for the Atari ST version, which comes up occasionally, but I’d set myself a limit of £12 and we hadn’t got there when I realised the fallacy of getting into another conversion when I could get the real deal for half the price! I may have dabbled with the Commodore 64, Spectrum and Game Boy versions in the meantime though, and we’ll come back to them later.

Let’s have a quick look at the premise – cutesy single-screen platformer for one or two players about two fairies trying to rescue their mother from 40 screens of Maboot’s Tower after she got kidnapped. Our fairies, Tam and Rit, are armed with magic rods – presumably something to do with being in Rodland – which first stop the baddies (ranging from gargoyles to squirrels to orange men with killer hats!) in their tracks, then once they’re trapped by its magical forces, you can smash them dead into the platform! If you’re lucky, they’ll leave behind a variety of power-ups like a kind of shotgun ball or dynamite, or some bonus fruit, and kill them all then you’re onto the next level. Sounds more Bubble Bobble than Rainbow Islands so far, especially when you use bubbles to get about on some levels, but they do have one more trick up their sleeves – a temporary magic ladder that you can pull out to get somewhere you couldn’t before, ideal for doing a runner or some surprise entrapment. Each level also has a load of flowers on it, and if you get to all of them before you kill all the baddies you’ll enter a bonus mode where the enemies are powered up, but if you kill them quick enough you’ll be on the way to an extra life. Every ninth level is a boss stage, and that will net you big bonus points… A lot going on, and I think a lot of the appeal is its nods to the very best of Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Islands, but also BurgerTime and Chuckie Egg and the like, all with a modern early nineties sheen!

The ports started appearing in 1990, with the NES version eventually turning up here in Europe in 1993, though I don’t think it ever got released in the US. Having still not actually played the original version, it’s a bit difficult for me to make too many comparisons, but I do know that for everything that got lost in translation, there’s a few liberties taken too! There are benefits to having not played it though, because apart from seeing a few screenshots that tell me there should be some glorious backgrounds that are just crying out for an equally glorious PC-Engine port, I don’t really know what else I’m missing out on yet!

What you are getting is just an absolute joy to play, with so many ways to play, especially if you’re after big scores. Killing monsters is one thing, but grabbing all those flowers beforehand is another, and if you want to get the most out of getting all those flowers, you need enough monsters left on the screen to spell out EXTRA with the letters they leave when they die, but that’s high risk because you’ll be against the clock. It controls like a dream, with magic rods and magic ladders all behind a single button press, and no mucking about trying to line up a ladder climb – you just go where you want to go, using direction and momentum in descent from platforms to not only escape from sticky situations, but also puzzle out getting at some of the flowers. There’s a bit of puzzling (but not much) to the bosses too, but mostly it’s about planning your moves while reacting to immediate peril, and it works perfectly. And smashing those monsters from side to side is so much fun, but there’s strategy there too, using them as a weapon or positioning yourself so you smash them on one side then throw them off the edge on the other. Very simple, and a lot to get your teeth into!

I’ve still not got all the way through, but I am very much into the score chasing mechanics, meaning a real sense of frustration when I accidentally blow up the last monster before I’ve got all the flowers! That’s as much of a challenge as avoiding getting killed by the patrolling enemies up to the first boss, and whilst deaths are usually going to be down to your impatience attacking a shark and getting caught out by a ghost thing sneaking up on you rather than bad luck, there are a few difficulty spikes. For example, not long after the first boss (a load of crocodiles moving up and down platforms spitting smaller enemies at you) it’s very easy to get caught out by these flying mosquitos that suddenly spray high velocity venom spikes or whatever it is they spray at you! For an arcade conversion from its era, it’s not massively brutal though.

Graphically, on top of Rainbow Islands, there’s another similar game that comes to mind here, New Zealand Story. Very bold and in your face colours, even though there’s not massive variety in the somewhat bland backgrounds or the platforms themselves, for all the clever ways they’re positioned on each level. The monsters are full of their own personality though, as are your one or two fairies, and everything is brought to life by clever animations, from stars appearing as you swing a monster about to the various swaying flowers throwing out increasing numbers of points as you pass by. There’s a cheery title tune on top of some very cheery sound effects, but it’s mostly upbeat beeps of various kinds that are mostly forgettable, as pleasant and breezy as it all is.

The Rodland arcade game had a very special and unique feature – the sequel came with it! Just finish the game and there it is, a whole new story about an alien pyramid making off with your father, new characters and new level designs, although I don’t think there’s much different happening gameplay-wise. You could also get to it with a secret code, then go back again with another – pay your money, press up or down three times, off you go! This all led to three different endings too, one for the original game, one for the sequel and one for switching to one or the other with the code and beating an extra level that throws up. Sadly this wasn’t included in the NES version, but there were some nice hidden touches here too! On the options screen, you get to name your two fairies, but enter something rude like BUM, TIT, POO, NOB, SEX, etc. and you’ll make them blush! And ICH and EAT will let you jump between levels in the game. One of the options allows your fairies to jump, which also isn’t in the original, meaning stomping on enemies adds a new dimension of adorable violence!

I’ve only dabbled with some of the other ports, and mostly the Game Boy version, which only suffers from not being able to get a full level onto a single screen, making strategising about monsters versus flowers a little harder to keep track of. Otherwise, it feels just as good to play as the NES version. It’s a great looking game too, with some subtly shaded backgrounds hosting the most vibrant graphics you could hope for on a monochrome screen! Sounds lovely too, and I think I prefer its rendition of the theme tune over that of the Commodore 64, which definitely starts to grate a bit if you leave it on in the background; not SID’s finest hour! It’s not exactly vibrant either, with some classic C64 browns on a black background, and your character kind of floating around the place rather than moving around with any solidity and purpose. And despite that, it still manages to feel more sluggish than the other versions, including the Spectrum, which plays very nicely, sounds awesome in 128K, but despite some detailed sprites is completely black and white – no colour clash though!

One of the reasons I’m still messing around with video games over four decades on is that there’s still so much to discover, even if the surprises are gradually diminishing. But now and again they keep coming all the same, and Rodland is the perfect example of a wonderful surprise that might have been hidden for most of that time, but is definitely out in the wild now! All the qualities of the single-screen platformers that preceeded it are there – especially that one more go addictiveness – but there’s so much to offer of its own that keeps stacking on the fun. And as well as the Spectrum version, which I think deserves a bit more of my time, I’ve still got the original arcade version to get to, but that isn’t far away now – I promised myself that as a reward for getting to this point, so you never know, we might be back here again sometime!

Discovering WEC Le Mans on ZX Spectrum

Discovering WEC Le Mans on ZX Spectrum

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!

Discovering Frankenstein’s Monster on Atari 2600

Discovering Frankenstein’s Monster on Atari 2600

For all of my various obsessions with 19th century gothic horror, Universal monster movies and Hammer Horror, I’ve never really been a massive Frankenstein fan. Apart from that Escape From Frankenstein board game, with the big rubber Frankenstein’s monster that carted off your little player! Definitely up there with Talisman, Chainsaw Warrior, Rogue Trooper and Chaos Marauders in my top five board games ever – there’s a new list for me to dwell on further that I wasn’t expecting to come out of this!

Anyway, that possibly explains why an old-school horror afficianado and first time around Atari 2600 enthusiast like me took so long getting to Frankenstein’s Monster on there! Not sure what it was about 1983, but as well as the wonderful board game we just talked about, that’s when Data Age released this. As I’m a little prone to do, I’m going off on a tangent about Data Age here, but this is a good one! By this point they’d only released five other games, but through no fault of its own, Frankenstein’s Monster turned out to be their very last release; you see, while Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial might get all the headlines from this period, Data Age had their very own E.T. moment the year before with a game called Journey Escape!

Journey Escape features Journey, the popular musical act, and is based on their 1981 album Escape, home to their mega-hit single, Don’t Stop Believing, and which you get a little Atari 2600 version of when you load up the game! It’s a very odd game, involving you sneaking each band member past “hordes of Love-Crazed Groupies, Sneaky Photographers, and Shifty-Eyed Promoters” to the “Journey Escape Vehicle” (which you’ll also find on the cover of the album). That translates to you dodging some weird graphics that push you back down the screen if you hit them. Which we’ll come back to later, but in the meantime, it’s crap!

Journey Escape didn’t just not sell, but they’d also spent $4.5 million on marketing it, and that after spending what must have been a fortune on licensing on of the early eighties’ hottest American rock bands. And that’s why, as we slowly head back to Frankenstein’s Monster, it ended up spelling their demise. However, the greatest shame of this was that we never got to see the Mr T game they had in development when they disappeared! It wasn’t the end for Journey though – 1983 also saw the release of Journey, the arcade game, where you had to reunite band members – represented by digitised photo heads on cartoon bodies – with their instruments. And let’s just say there’s probably a good reason why you had no idea that existed either!

Right, Frankenstein’s Monster! Firstly, unlike some other games, it’s not crap. The back of the box tells us that in the cold dark night we make our way through the ghoulish castle of Dr Frankenstein. There we must prevent him from completing his creation. Our only chance is to gather stones from the dungeon and bring them to the tower where we must build a barricade around Frankenstein’s Monster before he’s accumulated enough energy from the Power Probe gathering it from a storm to come alive. And to succeed, we’re going to have to move fast, avoiding poisonous spiders, vampire bats and terrifying ghosts. Complete the job and the village will be safe forever. It’s no Mary Shelley, but it’s as good a reason to be here as any!

This then manifests as a kind of a single screen Pitfall. You’ve got the monster and his Power Probe in the middle of the battlements gathering up energy, and you’re starting on his right, immediately avoiding a ghost and starting your climb down to the dungeons. On the way you’ll have to jump over pits, avoid spiders, jump on logs over acid pools and then collect your stone. Once you’ve got it, you need to get all the way back, and then on approaching the monster the screen is going to change view to you making the final part of the journey (not Journey!) through a mass of bats, and any contact with them is going to push you back down the screen – just like Journey Escape, but much more frantic, much more challenging, and much less rubbish! Once you’ve found a route up to the top of the screen, which might take some doing given the sheer number of bats at any one time, you’re going to drop the stone near the monster then head off looking for the next bit.

You have to go through this process a total of six times, gradually building the wall around the monster with each new bit of stone from the dungeons. And each time, things are going to get trickier, with more obstacles and enemies, bigger spiders and smaller logs to jump across. Hitting spiders (or bats on the bat screen) is going to reduce your score and slow your progress one way or another; interestingly, you start at 500 points, and depending on how effectively and how quickly you play, you’ll get more or less score. A more serious incident like falling into acid is going to cost you one of your three lives, and when you’ve either lost all three or the timer runs out (either 8 or 5 minutes depending on your difficulty switch settings) it’s game over, but don’t worry because that might just be the best bit!

In fact, apart from Shadow of the Beast II on the Commodore Amiga, with its mesmerising, Miami Vice-styled (and possibly actually taken from Miami Vice) soaring guitar solo, this might be my favourite game over screen of all time! When you’re done for, the monster breaks free and starts marching out of the screen towards you, its big bold pixels getting bigger and bigger until it fills the whole thing and you’re engulfed in a green and yellow strobe. Quite terrifying! That’s not the only way your game’s going to finish though, because once your six pieces of stone have successfully entombed the monster, you’ve won! Honestly, the winning screen isn’t as impressive as the dying one, but all the same, I do love an Atari 2600 game with an ending! A few hours of play should get you there, but despite the ending, this is really a high score game – you need to get to the end well, and then you need to get to the end well and get there quickly. And that’s a very addictive brew!

As well as the cool game over screen, the rest is a really fine looking Atari 2600 game too. There’s great use of solid and gradiented earthy colours – the Commodore 64 could take some lessons on making these pop from this! Your character and the enemies are simple but perfectly identifiable, and there’s some great attention to detail in the animation, which adds a bit of interest, but also things like having a separate animated viewpoint for climbing down a ladder, for example, is quite unusual for a platformer of this vintage – normally it’s the same side-on view but moving up and down instead of left and right! There’s a nice moment when you drop down a hole and kind of hesitate for a second before falling. There’s also a nice effect where the Power Probe, which flashes at the top of the screen, is interruped by lighting flashes behind the castle and connects to the electricity. This is accompanied by the sound of white noisy thunder, which, together with an occasional ominous two-note melody, adds some variety to the regular sounds of footsteps and jumping and dying!

What really elevates Frankenstein’s Monster for me – even above Pitfall and its sequel – is the way it plays. There might not be as much to it, but your character feels fast and solid, and every jump quickly becomes predictable. That, combined with the horror theming (even if it is only Frankenstein!), the best game over screen ever, and just the vibrancy of the whole thing, makes this the top platformer on Atari 2600 for me, and certainly up there with stuff like Seaquest, Alien, Solar Fox and Chopper Command as one of my favourite games on the system! Unlike Journey Escape!!!

Discovering Kawasaki Superbikes on Sega Mega Drive

Discovering Kawasaki Superbikes on Sega Mega Drive

Back in 1991, I came upon a rather wonderful racing game called Vroom for the Atari ST; I know it’s called that because it says so in my very own handwriting on the disk! Ahem, a couple of years later, Domark created a Sega Mega Drive or Genesis (or actually various other systems) take on Vroom called F1, or Formula One in America. Not that they really care. Anyway, it had the same fantastic sense of speed as its ST predecessor, lots of tracks and customisation, but was a little stiff and jerky to control. A sequel came in 1994, which went a bit too far the other way on the controls, with you almost drifting around every corner, but it was a lot of fun and was very fast (albeit at the cost of much going on at the side of the road). I’m quite fond of the Game Gear version of that one too! That said, if I remember right it unfortunately came out at the same time as the much higher profile Virtua Racer on Mega Drive, and that’s certainly the one my brother went for on his, with no regrets I’m sure.

And then in 1995 (in Europe at least), along came Kawasaki Superbikes, built on the same F1 engine, but this time switching out the racing car with a more motorbikey-feeling racing bike, as well as adding a bit more detail back onto the track-side, though a turbo mode does allow you to zoom out and reduce all of that for a bit more speed, which I’ve always found a bit unnecessary. Incidentally, the US version, Kawasaki Superbike Challenge, had come out on the Genesis a bit earlier, in 1994.

Apart from the Kawasaki bit, everything is unlicensed, so you’re up against racers called things like Skid Mark, though I think all fourteen standard length tracks and the Suzuka eight-hour endurance race are all based on the real things. This also has a really nice Game Gear port (rumoured to be the remnants of an abandoned Road Rash II port), with all the speed missing (though unfortunately not the annoying crash animations) from its Super Nintendo counterpart… stick with the masterful F1 Race of Champions on there instead!

And that’s what I did all the way until the summer of 2020, when I was flicking through a May 1995 copy of Mean Machines magazine and came across an invitation to “feel the throbbing power between your legs…” Now, I’ve always loved a good motorbike racer, from Super Cycle on Commodore 64 to arcade Super Hang-On and everything in-between, but as well as that irresistible tag-line, I’d simply never heard of this and needed to find out more! And as happens from time to time as I’m exploring dozens of other gaps in my racer history (usually in the vain hope of finding a decent one on PC-Engine), it clicked. A lot. (Incidentally, the same happened a couple of weeks ago at the time of writing with The Duel: Test Drive II on SNES – just to show I really do love that system too – and we’ll probably come back to that on this bat-channel very soon…).

I think one of the things that clicked for me – also the case for most things – is the lack of faff here! With Kawasaki, everything is urgent and instant, getting you right into the action as fast as possible with minimal fuss. And this is evident the second you fire it up, as you’re hit by that classic upbeat “realistic” Mega Drive drum sound that goes on to dominate a sparse but bright sounding melody before trying out one of its repertoire of drum fills and changing things up it bit. It’s not magical like some Mega Drive soundtracks, but there’s something strangely addictive to it – you just want a bit more! Unfortunately, sooner or later the demo mode kicks in and it just starts again once that’s done. Aside from jumping right into the racing, there are options if you don’t want the default racing season though – you can mix up the difficulty, track order, set up the weather or that turbo mode or go split-screen two player.

Assuming you’re just here for regular single player throbbing between your legs, after entering your initials on a team contract, like a reverse high score table, you’re given some weather info on the first track and a choice of high or low gearing, which I think makes you go faster but with less acceleration or vice versa, so you can make your choice based on the individual track. Then you’re into a generous four lap qualifying, which is going to help with learning the track and where to avoid those pesky very-metal overhead sign poles that are positioned exactly where you’re likely to slightly overcook the same corner over and over…

You really feel the impact when you hit something at the side of the road, with a no-nonsense thud and the back wheel bouncing up as you go from 170mph to zero in a fraction of a second. That said, you’re getting away with this lightly as you’ve instantly back on the track with only a brief wheelie as you accelerate away again the only reminder of your embarrassing but death-defying detour. Beat yourself up enough though, and you will get bike damaged or pit-in messages, though they take some doing, and even then as long as you take those as a warning you should be okay to ignore them.

Qualifying done and all that’s between you and the race is another weather report and another choice of gearing. For a game so obsessed with the weather, it mostly amounts to sunny or has been raining, which affects the sky colour, general screen brightness and possibly the feel of the track but not to any great extent! Racing itself feels really competitive, and whilst there’s no Road Rash styled shenanigans if you get too close to another rider, you will be losing time, so piling into a corner and using the pack as brakes isn’t going to work! Instead, you’re being patient and picking your moment when the right gap is there, which results in a real sense of accomplishment when you’ve gone into that turn just right to go up the inside, or even more so when you’re right on the edge of your grip around the outside. You get a similar sensation simply by staying out in front if you get there too – there’s a constant risk of increasing familiarity with the track turning into complacency, and one mistake is five laps worth of good work down the pan, because more often than not you’re on the last lap when it comes!

The race is a constant wrestle with the bike, with continuous tiny adjustments to your steering and accelerator (which, incidentally, did remind me of Road Rash II), or sometimes it’s a heave up from a big turn, or even panicked back and forth as you get inches away from losing control from an oversteer. But conversely, you’re also getting the occasional Power Drift-style helping hand to throw you around some of the corners too!

At the end of the race there’s a rundown of racer and team point tallies, preceded by a boozy podium scene with a load of swimsuited lovelies draped around the place if you’ve come top three. Then there’s the longest password save system I’ve ever come across, and the choice to abandon or do the next race, which takes you to the next track’s weather report and gearing screen, no messing again!

Graphically you’re getting a unique mix of sprite bikes (both in your “cockpit” view and other racers, but everything else is 3D polygons (unless you’re still persevering on SNES for some reason), which honestly works better for some things like overhead signs or lights than for bigger things like entire pit lanes, which end up looking a bit devoid of detail. If I was making a tunnel I’m not sure I’d go for a checkerboard design either! Lots of nice undulation and general bumping around though, and there’s a variety of landscapes in the distance reflecting the location of the track you’re at. Look closely and there is some nice detail too – for example, seeing road markings or other bikes through the smoked glass of your bike’s windscreen.

This attention to detail extends to sound effects too, where on top of the up and down of the engine noise and those nasty metallic clangs when you crash, you can hear roadside stuff swish by if you’re close enough, and there’s some kind of air in motion sound in tunnels or along the edge of walls too.

With 15-20 minutes per race after all that weather forecasting, qualifying and the race itself, on all of those tracks, you’re getting a hell of a lot of game here. And once you’re in the zone and getting competitive, you’re going to keep wanting just one more race. It’s unique visuals might leave things looking a little barren, but the speed and variety of tracks more than make up for that, and the racing feels great – like you’re in a real race. And that’s where it grabbed me and that’s why I keep going back, just like that aforementioned all-time favourite of mine, F1 Race of Champions on SNES, just to give it a bit more love back before we leave! If you’re looking for a bit more meat than a classic arcade bike racing game like Super Hang-On, but not after some kind of bike nerd sim, you could do a lot worse than Kawasaki Superbikes… on Mega Drive!

Discovering Devil Crash MD on Sega Mega Drive

Discovering Devil Crash MD on Sega Mega Drive

Despite my being there day one, I was a little slow on the uptake when Demon’s Tilt appeared on Xbox Game Pass at the end of 2019. I’m going to blame it on my kidneys briefly giving up the ghost during the first half of an MK Dons football match at around the same time! Anyway, once I was out of hospital a week later, and in the brief (usually very late night) moments that my son wasn’t plugged into FIFA or Madden or Fortnite on his Xbox, I was very quickly being reeled in by what started as the obviously best occult pinball action game I’d ever played, then maybe the best pinball game I’d ever played, and then just one of my favourite games of all time! It left Game Pass long before I’d got my own Xbox Series X, but its appearance on Switch had already given me unlimited access, and 14 months later as I write, it’s still often the last thing I do before I go to bed at night!

Demon’s Tilt is turbo-charged pinball and then some, with its demonic ritual-driven story spanning three intense screens, multiple hidden bonus rooms and special modes. It looks and sounds insane, often veering into bullet-hell territory, and the depth of gameplay is just incredible. My love of pinball games might have started with Pinball Wizard on the VIC-20 (more here), but it ends with Demon’s Tilt!

All that said, connoisseurs of nineties pinball games might have just felt the pang of familiarity that took me slightly longer to notice as I was dealing with my lower-right abdomen’s pangs of exploding! I got there eventually though, with a little help from some kind reviewers, who were starting me on an often obsessive journey, first making various stops on the PC-Engine, then ending by way of a couple more on the Sega Megadrive / Genesis. Our tale proper begins with Alien Crush, a game I’d actually played quite a lot of on PC-Engine at this point, but had no idea of its lineage or influence, and as obvious as it may seem now, didn’t immediately make the link…

Alien Crush is a 1988 PC-Engine three-screen, Alien-inspired sci-fi pinball game by Japanese developer Compile, possibly better known now for their Puyo Puyo series. And despite being a little dated today by its flip-screening, it still plays wonderfully, offering what must have been unprecented depth at the time! It was followed on PC-Engine in 1990 by Devil’s Crush, which replaced the sci-fi with the occult, and we’ll come back here later! After that little masterpiece, there was a Japan-only Super Famicon sequel, Jaki Crush, in 1992, inspired by Japanese depictions of hell, where I guess the demon jaki from the title lives! It still plays great too, with more complex pinball mechanics, some really cool graphical effects and a classic soundtrack to drive you onwards. Then for the official conclusion to the “Crush Pinball” series, we skip all the way forwards to 2008 with Alien Crush Returns, part sequel and part remake of the original for the Nintendo Wii via its WiiWare service. This one’s a little soul-less, with a lot of the incredible attention to detail of the original games sacrificed for more sparse big 3D graphics. Move forwards again to just over a decade later, and we’re finally up to date with very spiritual successor Demon’s Tilt, soul once again intact… At least until it tears it right out of you!

The PC-Engine Mini, which was a belated birthday present when it launched here in mid-2020, took me on its own ongoing journey of discovery, but I think so far Alien Crush is still what I’ve played the most on there – it was made to be seen on a great big flat-screen! However, as my Demon’s Tilt-inspired journey of occult pinball discovery continued in parallel, we come to another “Mini” console, the PlayStation Classic and its very easy, non-intrusive modding to play almost anything, including the PC-Engine and its Devil’s Crush!

Devil’s Crush, direct sequel to Alien Crush as we’ve already discussed, is three screens high, but it’s now scrolling smoothly into a single continuous playfield containing three sets of flippers. They’ve also done wonders with the ball physics, and in the main the ball feels just like it’s supposed to feel. I was instantly sold on the occult theming, which is a joy to behold, full of sinister monks, oozing skulls and other exposed-bone monstrosities, the big vampire snake lady, dragons and hints of flame and all kinds of diabolical detail. Having worked for a Japanese company for just about 20 years, I’ve seen a lot of Japanese Powerpoint slides, and one way of identifying Japan as the source is that they like to fill every space on the slide with information – white space is wasted space! This game is the same, with not a single wasted pixel of space anywhere in the living, medieval dungeon-styled Devil’s castle backdrop.

There’s movement everywhere, with so much just waiting to respond or explode or squelch or fight back at the slightest touch from your balls, and completing the right challenges will open up one of eight special single-screen bonus tables. Get a perfect on all of these and you’re in for a big 4x score multiplier, but there’s also mega points available for all kinds of perfect shots, like dropping a ball into the snake woman’s crown without touching any slime. Actually, landing your balls in her crown regardless is going to give you the game’s trademark visual pay-off, with each one (followed by hitting the right bonus symbol) gradually changing her from some kind of vampiric sleeping beauty to alien snake monster as you play, then once she’s there you shoot her again and you’ve got another bonus table! Tilt is going to play a big part in scoring big too, with a single tilt “direction” making it a little hit or miss, but it is going to be far more forgiving than in many other pinball games, encouraging its use as part of your arsenal. Another mechanic of the Crush games is the last chance, where once you’ve lost your three balls you’ve got a spinning something-hundred number to stop; if that matches the last three numbers of your score, you get one more chance with an extra ball, so stop at 900 and your score is 427900, for example, and there you go!

There’s suitably eerie sound effects everywhere, mixed with more traditional pinball bells and whistles. Ball impacts sound suitably meaty, the plunger sounds suitably mystical, and there’s a suitably evil laugh from one of the bigger feature skulls when you lose a ball! We’ve also got a load of distinct theme tunes, with the title screen playing the pick of the bunch – a very Castlevania kind of haunted house music. Things hot up for the main in-game theme, which does a great job of eventually looping without ever getting annoying, and its high-tempo eighties keyboard-rock just hinting at something sinister. Then you’re brought back from the dead with the high score table theme taunting you with a vaguely oriental sound, somewhere in the middle of the other two! Bonus tables also have their own themes, all adding up to a lot of music, which isn’t the absolute best of the best on the PC-Engine, but it’s never very far off.

It should be noted that there’s a bit of censorship going on with Devil’s Crush, so make sure you’re on the Japanese version to get the original vision and the full occult beauty of this stunning game! Otherwise, you’ll be getting vases instead of coffins (which had those deeply offensive crucifix things on), and pentagrams and other such symbols of evil replaced by pretty pointed stars! Getting the right version is slightly easier as we move to the Sega Mega Drive (or Genesis) – and the title at the top of this page is also going to start looking less like a typo – though we’re going to have to muddy the waters of the Crush series even more to get there, which for me is just a couple of original PlayStation controller clicks away…

Devil Crash MD, to give it its full name, is the uncensored Japanese Mega Drive port of Devil’s Crush. However, it wasn’t just coffins that were deemed too much for western audiences, but the name itself, and America and Europe got the more fantasy-themed Dragon’s Fury, which was to all intents and purposes the western release of the PC-Engine game. There’s really not much between these two games whatever they’re called though, and on any given day I might veer between the larger playing area and more realistic physics of the PC-Engine version or the vibrancy and slightly more realistic flow to the game of the Mega Drive version. Overall the latter might just pip it at the post though, with its bit more gothic title music, set on top of a more flamboyant title screen featuring the snake lady. “More flamboyant” is a good way to desribe the main game theme on this version too, as well as some of the graphical flourishes like the steam going on around the base of the plunger, more flames and bigger explosions; it’s just generally all a bit more bold and in your face. It’s also got its own user interface down the right side of the screen, which does result in a comparatively smaller table size, but on the other hand is giving the serious player valuable progress information.

What the Mega Drive version does have is some really cool cheat codes. Both versions have a password save system, but enter the right password here and you’ll not only have 99 balls, but also your choice of changing the table music to the themes from Thunder Force II or III, Herzog Zwei, Elemental Master and more! I believe it’s also got an end game too, where if you score a billion points you’ll start a final boss battle, but I’ve definitely never seen that! And finally, it’s got its own sequel… Don’t get too excited, the 1993 Dragon’s Revenge is almost none of the things we’ve been so positive about with any of the games we’ve discussed up to now! Maybe that’s a little harsh, but it’s definitely a bit mediocre in comparison, with few of its own ideas except over-complicating the table design, going full on fantasy and making some dubious attempts at sexing everything up with some very 16-bit bikini-clad warrior women hosting the bonus tables! Demon’s Tilt might not be 100% canon, but it’s far more canon than this Mega Drive canon sequel!

Back to Devil Crash or Devil’s Crush – it doesn’t really matter – you’re going to have the absolute best time with either version depending on your system of choice! It’s a stunning looking, stunning sounding, imaginative pinball game that still holds its own as one of the greats despite making up the rules as it goes along. Demon’s Tilt might have had several decades to perfect the formula, but in my collection at least, Devil Crash, Devil’s Crush (and let’s not forget Alien Crush!) have just about equal billing.