Discovering Alien on Atari 2600

Discovering Alien on Atari 2600

For all the hours I spent playing on my best friend’s Atari 2600 in the early eighties, it would take the best part of another four decades to discover my favourite game on there (submarine rescue ‘em up, Seaquest), and then even longer to discover it was also home to what I genuinely think is my favourite Pac-Man game ever (not counting Pac-Land as a Pac-Man game, of course)! And not only that, but it’s also not a Pac-Man game at all, but Alien, which, amazingly, given my love of the films and it’s now 2021, is also the first Alien game I’ve ever played! But that’s not a bad place to start, given it was the very first Alien game, and surely one of the earliest officially licensed movie tie-ins too; there was a Death Race arcade game in 1976, but not a lot else until a flurry on the 2600 in 1982, starting with Raiders of the Lost Ark, then stuff like Alien, Tron, King Kong, Star Wars, E.T…

The game’s plot, all explained onthe back of the box, couldn’t provide a better justification for ripping off Pac-Man; in fact, it does such a good job that I’m wondering if Pac-Man might have ripped off Alien! Ever since you blasted off from the last planet you visited, you’ve been hearing weird sounds around your ship, Nostromo, so you set it onto auto-pilot and have a look around… Turns out every hallway in the maze-like hull has been lined with alien eggs, so you have to run around all these corridors, crushing them underfoot as you go. But what could have produced such terrible eggs? “A hideous being with jaws like a beartrap” of course, and as you run away there’s another just ahead, and don’t forget that no one can hear you scream in space!

The manual goes further, telling us that we have to run through the hallways of the space ship, crushing all of the Alien eggs which have been placed there while also avoiding or destroying the adult aliens, and snatching up as many prizes as possible. And what do prizes make? Points of course, which the manual helpfully has space for you to write down at the back! You just move the controller up, down, left and right to run over the eggs and steer clear of the aliens, where the slightest touch from the albeit slightly forgiving collision detection means instant death. On either side of the screen you have a “Hyperwarp Passage” that is better than Pac-Man’s version because it’s called a Hyperwarp Passage, but similarly takes you to the other side of the screen. However, in an even larger departure from Pac-Man, you’ve also got a flame thrower which you can use up to four times to scare off or immobilise or potentially have no affect at all on the aliens, unless you’re on the extreme right or left of the screen where fire doesn’t work – I’m sure there’s a great reason!

Each maze also has three pulsars (or power pills) that you can destroy to weaken the aliens and, er, gobble them up or similar. You can also use the flame thrower to run over the pulsars so you can save them for later, adding a nice expert tactical touch that Pac-Man simply cannot equal! What Pac-Man also cannot equal is Frogger! Clear mazes and you get a bonus round, which involves you making a Frogger-style dash up the screen between moving groups of aliens against a harsh clock, so you need to make your route choice and stick to it quick.

As was often the case with the Atari 2600, the developers had to make the most of all those levers and switches on the console, so Alien also gives you four difficulty switch settings, where the aliens travel randomly or in fixed patterns, and where a pulsar has an effect or has no effect on the aliens (which actually equates to three settings because one of those makes no difference)! You’ve also got four skill settings, from practice to expert, though for all of these options (same as for pretty much all 2600 games), I’ve not had any more fun in any of these endless variations than by not touching anything!

Alien looks and sounds like an Atari 2600 game – it’s hard to dress it up much more than that, except it looks like a good one! The mazes are well defined, movement is smooth, the alien eggs look like dots and the pulsars look like asterisks, but there is real character in the aliens – especially the sinister yellow one! Barely any flicker either (apart from the sinister yellow one, but let’s say that’s intentional to up the scares), which you definitely can’t say for the strobe-ghost horror show of official 2600 Pac-Man! There’s a really cool effect when you go into the hyperwarp thingy at the side of the screen too, where you dissolve as you enter it before re-emerging on the other side. In the sound department you’ve got various siren noises that either up the tension or just drive you mad, and there’s a constant crunch as you take out the alien eggs underfoot. Again, classic Atari 2600, but I’ve heard an awful lot worse on the Spectrum and they work absolutely fine!

Apart from Pac-Land (more here) – and the Pac-Man cartoon it’s based on – I’m not the world’s biggest Pac-Man fan, though I’ve definitely had my fill of all kinds of revisions on all kinds of systems for over forty years! I even became something of an expert on Pac-Man 256 a few years ago, absolutely playing it to death until free-to-play arrived and sucked out most of its soul. Anyway, I like Pac-Man. But I like this more! It plays a very pure version of Pac-Man, to the point I generally forget about the flame thrower even existing. The character is responsive; the seemingly random nature of the alien AI is challenging and often panic-inducing; the mazes feel good and the Frogger bonus screen is a really nice incentive to keep going, though the concept is arguably just as addictive without it. And it’s got 2600-cool aliens from Alien chasing after you, which is loads better than crazy flickering ghosts! And for me at least, that all combines with a clear love of the film that might not be able to transcend the technical limitations of the time and the system, but is just about enough to transcend all other versions of a similar game!

Discovering Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti on NES

Discovering Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti on NES

As much as I’ve enjoyed dabbling with the series for years, I’d never actually made a serious attempt at any version of Splatterhouse until my PC-Engine Mini came along in June 2020. It was the very first game I fired-up on there, and to date is the only thing I’ve finished on there, though Fantasy Zone has certainly taken more of a beating! Anyway, PC-Engine Splatterhouse is a fantastic version that looks and feels perfectly at home there. Marvellous game!

It took me a few months of chipping away to get to the end, after which I planned an assault on the original arcade game, then the Mega Drive versions of II and III. And all along, I wasn’t even aware of anything of the sort on NES! Actually, it took a podcast I was listening to mentioning a “troubling” hooded figure in the NES game to make me pay attention and look it up. Now, I’m not the person to find anything offensive, but I can only imagine that the source of their offence was the innocent Satanist boss character who was something mistaken for something more racist…

Back to Splatterhouse, it’s an arcade beat ‘em up from Namco in 1988 that’s wonderfully heavy on the gore. It follows a couple (named as Rick and Jennifer in the later home versions) who get split up in a haunted mansion, where she gets possessed by monsters and he gets possessed by a Jason Vorhees mask. Then he goes on a side-scrolling squelchy, bloody rampage to save her. Which doesn’t really sound like your typical NES-fodder, so enter Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti, a very weird, cutely deformed Japan-only take on the arcade game that arrived on NES in 1989. Welcome to Devil Town…

The clues are there that this is probably a prequel, though it’s not hugely clear and not hugely important! Jennifer is mourning the death of Rick at his grave, he gets resurrected Vorhees-style (complete with mask, but not sure why this time) by a bolt of lighting, and all is well until The Great Pumpkin King – who happens to be buried in the grave next to him – gets sparked back into life by a second bolt of lighting and kidnaps her! A scrap across seven stage ensues, and if you manage to take him out at the end you’ll be informed by the game’s director that this would make a great movie. And then Rick takes off the mask and it comes to life through spooky powers, no doubt for future adventures.

Where Splatterhouse-proper is just a very simple, violent plod from left to right, there’s a bit more platforming involved in the chopping heads up with your axe here. But there’s not a lot more to the gameplay than that – it’s certainly fun, but it’s no Mario and it’s not really Splatterhouse either. Actually, it reminded me a lot of Kid Dracula, and what that is to Castlevania – a cartoon parody that still manages to cram in a bit of horror behind the laughs.

I must admit I was hoping for a bit more to the laughs as well, but that was entirely down to the game setting some high expectations early on! The first level is in a graveyard (and a very fine one at that, like a more populated version of the C64 Ghosts ‘n Goblins one), and towards the end you’ll come across Dracula emerging from under the ground to what sounds like Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Then four green gooey zombie monsters appear, the disco lights start, and they do an extended Thriller routine. And it’s really good! There are a good few fun bits that follow, with the black mass and the Alien scene standing out for me, but they never really reach those heights.

Something else that never reaches any great heights are the boss fights, which is absolutely fine by me! They are all perfectly pitched, where it’s going to take you a few goes to get to work them out, but once you’ve spotted the pattern you won’t be taking any damage – much like the in some of mainline Splatterhouse games, which aside from the violence and gore is a definite attraction to no-like-boss me. Speaking of damage, it’s handled in a interesting, almost RPG-like way, where every enemy you kill is racking up points for you. Get to fifty points and it’s permanently adding some health to your bar. However, if you die and use the between-stage password to carry on from where you left off, you’ll be starting with your basic health again which makes the game a lot harder, but again, it’s still very beatable, which is great!

There’s no doubt that the deformed art style is one of the main pulls here. It might be cute, but it still manages to pull off the monstrous, albeit usually in a very unrealistic Nintendo way. But the various environs are as creepy (and sometimes just plain dark) as you like, and they often look stunning – sometimes as good as it gets on the NES, with some really rich, vibrant colour palettes that are as full of character as the characters! There’s a semi-hidden Egyptian level that has the best large-scale use of gold colours you’ll ever see on a NES too! You’ve got some really cool monster design throughout, paying homage to the arcade game, but also referencing horror film and pop-culture all over the place – The Fly boss was another favourite! And everything animates so smoothly, with some very nice multi-layered scrolling for the time. It’s a looker without any doubt! Sounds alright too – the spot effects aren’t groundbreaking, but the chip tunes are perfectly positioned, and as multi-layered as the scrolling!

After getting a little down on the gameplay, talking about all of that has really brought home why I wanted to talk about the game in the first place! If you want a great platformer, there’s loads to choose from on NES. If you want over-the-top arcade horror, you’ve got the original Splatterhouse and it’s various sequels and remakes. But if you want the cutest upside-down cross you’ll ever see, you’ve got the Wanpaku Graffiti variant on NES!

Discovering Friday the 13th on Commodore 64 & ZX Spectrum

Discovering Friday the 13th on Commodore 64 & ZX Spectrum

You often see the NES Friday the 13th game referenced in rubbish game lists, but the C64 and Spectrum versions never get a look in and I wanted to find out why!

There’s another “why” I want to look at before we answer that though… As a decades-long massive fan of both systems and the films, why am I playing these games for the first time in 2020?

Friday the 13th came to Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC in 1985, courtesy of Domark. I very much remember seeing it advertised because I cut the advert out and put it on my bedroom wall! I also very much remember the Computer & Video Games magazine review; it went along the lines of once you were past the gore of said shock advertising, the game was average, but the black and white screenshot they used was enough to put me right off. It looks like some kind of dreadful prototype of The Sims, not Hollywood’s greatest slasher!

Friday the 13th was long forgotten by the time I had a machine that could play it, and it was even longer before I saw my first Friday the 13th movie. I think I saw The Omen and The Entity in my early-ish teens thanks to the Wild West days of video rental shops, but the slasher movie passed me by until the very late eighties. I’d eventually make up for lost time though, and Jason Vorhees remains this 3000+ horror movie collector and general nerd’s favourite genre icon!

As many times as I’ve now seen every movie, the game remained absolutely forgotten for decades, and it took one of the aforementioned crappy NES game videos to start me digging again! I think it was a simple C64 walkthrough being recommended, but I didn’t even click it – I just made a note to look up the Spectrum version at some point.

As well as the advert, the box did its very best to lure in curious. And I’m not just taking about that immediate red-flag to me of C64 screens being used on a (relatively speaking big-budget) Spectrum inlay! There was a stark warning that before you play the game, close all doors, windows and curtains – yes, curtains have always been Jason’s kryptonite! Then you have to turn out the lights, but can use a candle if necessary – possibly down to some of the garish colours on the Spectrum version burning your eyes through some kind of light overload. Then you have to make sure granny isn’t in the room – I expect she slipped the tenner into your hand that paid for the game and you don’t want her to know you wasted it on this crap! Then turn up the volume to the max! Now, of all these tips, don’t do that. I’d there’s one thing worse than the graphics, it’s the sound, whether the horrendous (not in a good way) scream sound as one of your mates dies somewhere on the Spectrum, or the dreadful context-sensitive nursery rhymes on C64! Speaking of sound, the box also includes a competition to win a monitor if you can identify ten of the noises you heard while on holiday in Crystal Lake. Good luck identifying more than one of them!

To Domark’s credit, they clearly knew they’d spent a load of money on the license but had a stinker on their hands, and they did their best to fix that by chucking a load more money at all kinds of provocative marketing. The game pitch is pretty decent on the surface too… Jason is hiding out in the forest in his “filthy grotto” waiting to avenge his mother’s death when a bunch of teenagers turn up to party at nearby “eerie” (that’s what several massacres will do – if only they’d had Domark’s marketing people) holiday camp. He dons his hockey mask, sharpens his machete and gets ready for a “razor-edged massacre” (nice)!

From there, I’m slightly at odds with how the box then describes the gameplay loop… “You must warn everyone that the mad murderer is on the rampage and lead them all to safety – without, of course, losing your head!” The reality is that you’re going to wander around a few screens that include a farm, some archery targets, a church and lots of gravestones and lots of trees looking for a weapon then hitting everyone in sight with it trying to work out which one is Jason so you can keep hitting him until he’s dead. And while you’re doing that, Jason is wandering around killing everyone. If you die or they all die (indicated by their avatar at the bottom, of the screen turning into a gravestone) then it’s game over.

Here we need to talk specifics about each version because they go about things – by design or not – in slightly different ways. On C64, Jason is disguised as one of your fellow campers. As you walk around the various locations, you might notice someone acting a bit suspicious, whether they’re following someone else or simply just in the act of murdering them or you. Assuming you’ve found a weapon, this is your cue to hit him, and assuming you’ve found Jason, he’ll turns from a camper into a guy in a black outfit.

And that’s about all there is to it. If you’re lucky, you’ll work it out in a few minutes, but in the game I eventually beat Jason, I was walking around forever, exploring the same places over and over again but never finding him. And once you’re down to a couple of your friends left alive, the frequency of death has all but dried up and there’s really not very much happening. You just walk about, with only minor tension that all this walking about for ages is potentially about to end in time running out because everyone else is dead.

Kill the man Vorhees and you get a game over screen telling you he’s dead, but for how long? Well, having then played the Spectrum version to completion too, there’s an easy answer to that…

There’s not a lot to the C64 version, but it has a degree of 1985 charm to it. The Spectrum version doesn’t only have no charm (which even the bizarre use of magenta on the brick walls can’t fix), but it’s a buggy stinker! Eventually you’ll work out that rather than potentially being disguised as one of your friends in this version, Jason is the guy that looks the same as you. If you get confused which is which, don’t worry, he’s the one who can walk through stuff like trees and haystacks. Get close and he’ll batter you, no escape – he’s got some very sticky pixels and that’s all your hard work wandering about these ultra-uninteresting landscapes wasted! Naturally, as you might think, he can also attack you from any direction. You, on the other hand, can only attack if you’re on his left because no matter which way you’re heading, your weapon only comes out to play on the right!

When you do get on his left, there’s absolutely no feedback that you’re actually connecting with him. Your score (which is irrelevant anyway) doesn’t even change like the C64 version. You just keep maybe hitting him and nothing happens – which, thinking about it, is how a fight with Jason Vorhees probably should turn out, but it doesn’t make for a great game! Anyway, after far more experimenting than the game deserves, I worked out that the axe will damage him even if you don’t know its working until he’s dead. The chainsaw might offer the glamour, but leave it; spear things, pitchforks, knives and other things you can chuck at him seem to do nothing. That’s all assuming you can actually pick the weapon up because it’s quite often somewhere like a top corner and the screen has flipped before you can get close enough to trigger picking it up.

And while your either on the hunt for Jason, or more likely running away, you’re also going to get stuck on scenery all the time, which is the exact opposite to Jason who can walk into fences and simply vanish into thin air. And quite often you’ll be trying to traverse what appears to be thin air between screens but you’ll get stuck on something that isn’t there regardless.

Spectrum Friday the 13th is just about without merit, but I’d definitely recommend a go on the Commodore version if you’re a fan of the films. It’s a very C64-looking game circa 1985, which I always find somehow comfortable, but like so many other licenses of the time, is just bland once you get past the fancy box art. And that kind of answers my original question about why these versions never get a mention nowadays too, but in the case of these systems there were so many greater crimes against licenses – Highlander is always a good place to start there – and there were so many worse games spanning well over a decade of their lifetimes… Sadly, Friday the 13th is just very forgettable.

Discovering Secret of Mana on SNES

Discovering Secret of Mana on SNES

I can’t put my finger on the lure of Secret of Mana in 2020 to someone who’s really not into old JRPG’s (and definitely not into new ones), and has absolutely zero nostalgia for it from 1993, but since I got my SNES Classic Mini a few years ago I’ve always fancied trying it out!

Secret of Mana was originally intended for the Nintendo PlayStation before that all went south, then ended up being crammed into a SNES cartridge with a quick and dirty English localisation. The bits that didn’t fit (or weren’t just left out) would evolve into Chrono Trigger – a game I have played, but only enough to know its not for me, and therefore have zero nostalgia for that either!

It might be the art style that got me with Secret of Mana. It’s an absolutely stunning example of 16-bit pixel art, and I’m a big fan of that, whether original or contemporary. There’s many times where you’ll enter a new kind of forest or desert or village, see some nice glistening snow effects as you walk through seasons, or just find a room in a castle full of stained-glass windows, and you’ll have this sense of wonder, like you’re being transported right back to the early nineties when it was as new and astounding as grunge music or that scene in Basic Instinct also was! And the variety of environments is so huge that this will happen over and over again! There’s this big sense of the characters actually being an active ingredient in those environments too – the animation is simple in modern parlance, but combined with the distinctive pixel-art character (playable or otherwise) designs, you feel like they’re there!

The first few hours ease you in gently, teasing you with things like magic that you’re not quite sure how it works yet, but you’re also not worrying about it too much yet either. Otherwise, it’s a straightforward story of an unknowingly messianic boy finding a sword in a pond and triggering the apocalypse. More or less! The plot never becomes anything special, but it will keep you on your toes and interested enough to see where it goes next. From the moment you’re kicked out of your village into the really big wide world, you’re happily wandering to where you’re being told to wander, fighting monsters and exploring a bit on the way. You’re soon joined by a girl and a sprite who’s stories gradually intertwine with your own. And of course, this being an action-RPG, everywhere you all go and everything you all do is chipping away at reaching the next level, getting new equipment and skills, and other action-RPG busywork .

Actually, for the first few hours it all reminded me more of SNES Legend of Zelda than any other RPG I’ve played. Then I think I was 5-6 hours in when the first hint of proper RPG grind arrived with a giant tiger boss. Up until then the regular monsters and bosses had been a cinch, and progression had been fairly linear and just happened, but now this thing was leaping around and generally battering my fledgling party. I eventually got through it, but despite not being a huge fan, I’ve played enough RPG’s over the years to know the signs… I really wasn’t high enough level for that scrap! And that put me right off playing any more – for over a week, I was done with Secret of Mana! And not with any sense of disappointment or ill-feeling towards it; I just felt I’d satisfied my original curiosity and I’d had good value out of its inclusion on my SNES Classic Mini, but I didn’t want to spend hours fighting the same monsters over and over just so I could progress an ultimately forgettable story. As I said though, I’m a sucker for this art style, and there I was looking at my SNES Classic Mini over a week later, thinking I was just past a boss so I could just have a look and see how much further I can get without going nuts on grinding…

Things then went pretty smoothly for the next 15 hours or so, but then that familiar nagging feeling that the boss I’d just struggled past was too high level for me appeared again. I was too far in this time though! But also by this point, that wasn’t a turn off – as I switched off for the night, I could think of no better way to spend the following evening than finding somewhere that conveniently spawned decent level monsters and just grinding out experience. Weird. Turning into some kind of fantasy RPG nerd before my very own eyes! Keep in mind that I’m still not quite there yet though, so to anyone that is, everything I’m saying from now onwards probably sounds like normal gameplay, but we’re talking about someone that generally likes ploughing through a game, not stopping to take in the scenery over an over before moving on! And also goes for the weapon that’s immediate and in-hand rather than something called Earth Slide that’s buried somewhere in a menu called Gnome…

Over the course of the next 5 hours or so, the importance of the magic that – with the exception of some healing spells – you kind of ignored before now comes to the fore, and following closely behind, the importance of being able to regenerate it! You’ll have been carrying stuff like faerie walnuts around this whole time without giving them much thought, but now this magic you’ve learnt that you need for another boss takes far more magic points than you can really afford to use. And when you’ve got past that boss, you need another kind of magic for the next one, and there’s no visiting an inn for a nice kip between these ones! Faerie walnut time, lots of times!

By this point though, you’re going to be thinking you’re on the home stretch. The story is starting to wind itself up towards a climax, and you’re running out of slots on your little inventory rings for more types of magic, and you’ve got some crazy expensive armour, and all your weapons have been upgraded to death. And in theory that is absolutely the case! But what you now need to realise is that your character levels might be getting towards a decent level, but your magic levels as a whole and for each individual magic type aren’t, and we’ve got a whole new level of grinding to do!

Around 30 hours in and you realise that the story was indeed stating to wind itself up a while ago, but the last few levels are just sprawling boss rushes. A good measure of how ready you are for these is how easily you can beat the monsters between them; when you realise you can’t, you’re back to grinding again – same monsters over and over! For some context, your characters after all that time are going to be around level 50. They need to be closer to 60, and there’s no story to distract you from the numbers this time. Then for the final level they’ll need to be closer to 70. Then there’s this magic stuff – all of these bosses are susceptible to a certain kind of magic, but it needs to be high level. And in the case of some of them on the penultimate couple of levels, it’s going to be magic you’ve had no real use for yet, so you’re starting this particular grind from scratch. Also note we’re talking about loads of bosses on each level! As said, you’re done with the story now, and are literally spending hours fighting the highest level monsters you can access, levelling up characters and a certain type of magic, then heading off to replenish your supplies, have a rest at an inn, then doing it over and over again!

And by this point, it’s all just to crawl towards a stamina-draining (in more ways than one) final boss battle and the game over credits that you’ve now spent so long getting to that there’s no going back! But also by this point, none of this is really a chore; in fact, you now know its just delaying the hole in your life that this is going to leave when its over, and that makes it fine! Which I’m still finding to be a very disturbing new behaviour in me!

I’ve mentioned the graphics, but the game design is also equally worthy of praise. While you’re wondering what those magic rings and other RPG trimmings in you character menus are all about for a good portion of the game, eventually everything becomes completely second nature and intuitive. The combat feels great, and before too long you’re effortlessly chucking magic about with your more traditional violence. Same for just finding your way around – when this vast world first opens up to you, you’ll be clueless for hours about where stuff is – even with the map – but by the end it’s like the back of your hand. Interestingly though, even after all this time finishing the game there’s still stuff in the menus I’ve not had any cause to open and find out what it does, magic I have tried, and places on the map I’ve had no inkling to try and land on! The soundtrack deserves a mention too – it is very 16-bit, and while I didn’t experience it at the time, you can tell exactly what a sonic treat this would have seemed back in 1993. It’s grand and complex and perfectly fitting; this would have been as good as video game music (as well as impactful sound in general) got back then.

Technically it’s definitely not perfect! There’s loads of bugs to be found, with characters getting stuck on things that aren’t there, walking through things that are there, crashes and game freezes and things like that which are definitely mitigated by being able to save more regularly than was originally intended with the SNES Classic Minis save-state functions. What that doesn’t mitigate, though, is your party’s dodgy AI! You’re only ever in control of one character, and can switch between the three of them easily with a press of Select. But the ones you’re not in control of will often drive you crazy! You can set them to act to be all guns blazing or stay away or many variants in-between, but in reality the other characters in your party are following you about. Or at least trying to! You’ll be forever backtracking so they can follow you down some stairs or around a tree or whatever, and even then they’ll still end up getting stuck again on the way until they’ve precisely retraced your steps. But even worse than this is that it still happens when they’re dead and haven’t been revived yet – they’re supposed to be a ghost at this point but still get stuck on every bit of scenery! They’ll also regularly ruin any combat strategy you have in mind… Three sleeping goblins? Now, I’m even less of a stealth fan than I am an RPG fan, but I do know that you take them out one at a time while they’re still asleep. But not these guys – if you’re in sword swinging distance, then you’re game for a scrap! Same if you’re just trying to get through somewhere without a fight – if they get close to a monster, they won’t be able to resist. And unless they’re right on your tail, there’s no way the game’s allowing you into the next area!

But for a game of its ambition in its time, all of this is forgivable. In the end I had a great time with Secret of Mana, though it didn’t have quite the impact on me I thought it might once I got properly hooked. As I write, just after finally finishing it, there is definitely a void where it was, but I think that’s as much from the amount I played in a short space of time than any compulsion to keep playing. That said, I definitely developed a disturbing compulsion for its grind; just less of one than I’d find in Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing, for example, mainly because they’ve had decades to work on perfecting it! And for that reason I doubt I’ll be back now I’ve seen everything it has to offer, or even give it that much thought again in future, but I’m glad I can finally tick it off the list!

Discovering 4×4 Offroad Racing on ZX Spectrum

Discovering 4×4 Offroad Racing on ZX Spectrum

Very prominent screenshots from another system were something I became accustomed to when I had a VIC-20, but by the time I’d had a Spectrum +2 for a while I’d get a bit suspicious when what were clearly C64 screenshots were plastered all over the box. In the case of 4×4 Offroad Racing, you can kind of see why they did it though!

That said, back in the November 1988 issue of Computer & Video Games, their 47% review of that version ended with an update, saying that US Gold were unhappy with the C64 release, and the Spectrum and Amstrad versions would contain “vast improvements” when they eventually arrived.

Maybe they spent all their time on vast improvements on the Amstrad version, because let’s be clear, the only reason we’re here is the Spectrum version stinks! Sinclair User gave it 40% and Crash were slightly more impressed, awarding 42%. I think they were both generous to say the least, with their main concerns being loads of loading, and its attempts to mix some racing strategy with arcade racing falling flat and doing neither in any interesting way.

I do have that copy of C&VG, though my own recent history with this was simply coming across a very garish Spectrum screenshot on social media and being intrigued. And here we are! I’m not going to review it, but I would like to give you a commentary of my first (and last) impressions if you’ll allow!

After a decent loading screen, you’re straight into a very uninspiring list of the four “toughest, roughest” course locations and a helpful description of the terrain you can expect in brackets next to it. From what I can tell, that terrain is exactly the same regardless of the description, apart from either one or both colours you get on the screen (you read that right) changing…

1. Baja (Rough Desert). Yellow and red monochrome.
2. Death Valley (Desert). Same as rough desert but yellow and black.
3. Georgia (Mud & Hills). Same as rough desert and desert but green and black.
4. Michigan (Winter). Same as rough desert, desert and mud & hills but white and blue.

And everything in every course is genuinely those same two colours – car, road, background, obstacles, other racers…

After some more loading (and it won’t stop there) it’s time to choose your utility vehicle. There’s several, there’s lots of stats about each, and again, it’s all very uninspiring and won’t make the slightest difference to anything!

You are then a guy that looks like a darts player from the eighties wandering about outside some shops. He’s wearing some strange high-heeled shoes. You can walk into the Custom Shop to buy a bumper and something else I couldn’t work out the identity of. Then you can walk to the Auto Mart to buy extra fuel, springs and stuff like that. All of this is like a bad version of Ghostbusters. Eventually you work out that you then need to walk right to the right edge of the screen (rather than walk to your new car which is parked outside the shops) and press fire to race. This bit looks a bit like a bad Everyone’s a Wally game, and is utterly pointless. Even the next multi-load is more interesting!

Finally we’re at whatever race we chose ages ago. Winter is blue and white and is the only one you’ll have any recollection of choosing. Your car looks like it was programmed in BASIC.

Once you’re underway, you’ll notice there’s no car physics in evidence. Driving feels like moving a slider left and right. Which is precisely what you’re doing and there’s no attempt to disguise it. I think a lot of racing games move the track rather than the car, and this might be a very good example of why that trick exists!

The sound doesn’t help with any potential suspension of disbelief. You’ll find the garish monochrome graphics are perfectly complemented by completely monotone engine sounds regardless of the high or low gear you’re in. Every race is just never-ending drone!

In every course, the main obstacle is the cactus in the middle of the track every few seconds. If you hit the cactus you explode. That’s why you have three lives in a racing game in case you were wondering. You also get potholes or piles of stones or exploding blades of grass or something to avoid (like a rubbish Buggy Boy), and there’s more obstacles on the track than other racers.

There’s a lot of hills and valleys in this game. These are signified by a line on the road then the screen violently shifting, and most of the car disappearing off the top of bottom of the screen.

You also get a lot of rivers – and sometimes something slightly wider than a river – on your courses. Now, I was always impressed reading about the scale of some of the American rivers that the old pioneers used to struggle to cross on their way west, but some of these here are seemingly more ocean than river. Anyway, often when you drive through a river on any level you get stuck, and unless you’re prepared to slowly waggle the joystick left and right and up at the same time for several minutes (assuming there is a shore in sight which isn’t always the case), you’re better off just shutting down and loading the whole game again. Or just playing something else! And I’ve no idea how I worked that out or persevered in doing it once I did during my very short playtime!

The road sometimes forks like Out Run. I’m not sure if it means anything, but it’s a bit of variety I suppose. Similarly, but of more concern in a racing game, is whether or not your race position means anything. It was, admittedly, the last thing on my mind until I noticed it for the first time on the Ghostbusters-like screen you also get when something goes wrong. I’m also not sure what triggers that – your damage indicators are something else that seem meaningless most of the time. Anyway, whatever that most important problem is, now you’re here you can try and fix it (which seems possible by clicking random icons whether you bought the right gear in the Everyone’s a Wally stage or not).

Back to your race position, I didn’t notice it anywhere else, but as I said, like many things in this game I’m not sure it means anything anyway! The courses are so long and monotonous that you’re unlikely to ever get to the end of one, let alone worry about where you came. And all of the opponents are as non-descript and seemingly as uninterested as you are, so what does it matter which one comes first! It’s like those scenes in The Matrix with all the same people fighting each other. Everyone wins or no one wins or no one cares. Actually the only winner here is the cactus. Cacti. Steer clear!

On paper this isn’t a million miles away from Victory Run on PC-Engine. For a system not known for its great racers, this is a great racer. In fact, it’s a toss up between Victory Run and Pac-Land for my favourite game on the system. Anyway, if you like the sound of this and fancy a bit of spare part management in your racing, you’re far better off admiring a garish screenshot of Spectrum 4×4 on social media then going there instead!

Discovering Out Run on Sega Game Gear

Discovering Out Run on Sega Game Gear

The greatest thrill for me in Out Run is when the road opens out into a majestic six lane coastal highway, just a few seconds into the very first stage. In fact, that moment is my favourite sight in all of gaming (which you can read about here).

The Game Gear version doesn’t do that. In fact, it takes a while before you even realise it’s a coastal highway at all, let alone anything more than a two lane one! For better or worse, this version is its own thing. No lazy Master System port for Out Run (although no one would have complained), and for all the compromises made as a result to get it inside this old Sega handheld, it’s exactly the port you need if you have one!

I love Out Run (even more to read on that here), and for someone who’s generally rubbish at games, I’m still pretty good at it; I think I’ve seen every inch of every track that the arcade version and several others have to offer. What I’d never done is play the Game Gear version, and despite my brother owning one in the early nineties, I don’t think Out Run on there even registered with me. In fact, it took Sega’s 30th anniversary of the Game Gear Japan-only Game Gear Micro – released mere days ago at the time of writing in October 2020 – for me to notice it at all.

Now, there’s absolutely no doubt that I’m going to own one – if not all four – of these bonkers tiny machines (and magnifying glass if you buy the lot) at some point in the near future. At the Japanese Yen equivalent of $50 plus exorbitant shipping costs, these things come in four colours with four games on each colour. The black one (my inevitable starting point!) includes Sonic the Hedgehog, Puyo Puyo 2, Out Run and Royal Stone. The red one comes with Revelations: The Demon Slayer, Shin Megami Tensei Gaiden: Last Bible Special, The GG Shinobi and Columns (which I did play a lot of on my brother’s original Game Gear). Blue has got Sonic Chaos, Gunstar Heroes, Sylvan Tale and Baku Baku Animal. And finally yellow is a bit more specialist for the non-Japanese speaker, coming with the text-heavy Shining Force Gaiden: Ensei – Jashin no Kuni he, Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya, Shining Force Gaiden: Final Conflict and (I hope I’m pronouncing this right) Nazopuyo Aruru no Ru. And they all come with a literally postage stamp-sized 1.15 inch, 240 x 180 screen!

About an hour ago as I write this, I was just touching up my epic on Silent Hill 2 (which you can read here, assuming that like me, you are also in the future by now). That was a game where I showed similar levels of self-restraint to those I’m increasingly struggling to contain right now! From the moment the credits rolled on the first game, just a few months ago (long story that I won’t repeat here), I spent six weeks waiting for it to go for sub-£20 on eBay, which is the price I’d justified to myself I needed to pay. Likewise, I thought that sooner or later either I’ll turn up in Japan again or they’ll turn up here, and all I really want to do is play a new version of Out Run anyway, so why not just get the Game Gear version of Out Run for the time being? Most sensible!

Despite the compromises, which we’ll jump into shortly, the premise of Game Gear Out Run is a familiar and authentic one. You’re choosing your music then cruising down branching routes from behind your Ferrari with your girlfriend in tow (in the seat next to you, not literally). The start line in the palm trees is classic Out Run, and although what then follows is cut-down a bit, and the tracks have their own identity in the main, it all stays completely recognisable throughout!

That music is also completely recognisable – no compromises here! In fact, what you get are some of the best versions of Out Run’s iconic soundtrack tunes that you’re ever going to hear, and I’m not just talking about on conversions either! And it’s all here, with your choice of Magical Sound Shower, Passing Breeze and Splash Wave waiting for you before every race. These versions are just so complete and so joyful, and I really can’t imagine that anything else coming out of a Game Gear speaker has ever bettered them!

In terms of difficulty, there’s various things at play to balance it out when you’re comparing with the original. Firstly, you’re completing four stages of your choice rather than five, so it’s shorter. There’s also less traffic, which makes getting around a bit easier than the arcade version, but with track space limited to two lanes throughout, and a shorter draw-distance – especially over hills – you’re going to be slowing down a lot more, or just hitting things, with similar frequency. And time to complete each stage is not generous! In the arcade version, if you’ve got your foot down in the main, you can get away with a crash or a couple of spin-outs and still rack up enough extra seconds from the first couple of stages to reach the end. Not so here, where reaching the end of each stage seems to be down to the wire from the outset, and even without any mishaps in the first few stages, you’re going to be lucky to reach the end.

But Out Run isn’t about reaching the end (which I’m now qualified to say having reached all the ends)! It’s about a glamorous thrill-ride in a fast car through exotic locales and then doing it all over again. And whilst it might take a while to see the end of any of these routes, you’re going to get your money’s worth out of every game and most likely see a couple of stages at least right out of the box. The tracks are missing all the beach huts and stone arches and cliffs of the original, but what’s there is flying by at a very smooth, very fast pace. And the developers really went out of their way to give the Game Gear its own experience, with every track offering something unique. You might start in familiar territory – even if it does take the sea a while to make an appearance – but you’ll soon be bombing around glorious desert sunsets (which you’ll see I do have a bit of a fetish about in my gaming sights thing here), Egyptian pyramids and something like Las Vegas to name just a few favourites. Incidentally, you can also race single stages against single computer opponents on a choice of tracks from the home screen, though it’s not much of a challenge. If you’re up for the challenge of connecting a friend’s Game Gear in the 2020’s, that mode might offer more of a gaming challenge too!

Throughout approximately eight hours of play time with this over the past couple of weeks, there was one thing I’d never had any expectations to find in this version of Out Run, and that was exhilaration. For decades, the main draw of the arcade machine was the exhilaration of the first stage. I never forgot it. And then in 2019, with the release of the Sega Ages version on Nintendo Switch, I discovered another moment that may have even surpassed that, in the final stage of route D, where you went up then down and into a bend at full speed, surrounded by traffic and lines of trees leaning over the road that simply took my breath away. There are occasions in Stunt Car Racer on Atari ST (more here) that maybe come close, but I can’t think of any other more exhilarating moment in all of gaming than that. And yes, that does, of course, include the Game Gear version, but it did still manage to surprise me. I was playing through to the end of every route, and I think it was the second last (right, right, left at the forks), on the final stage of the route, where we got into some serious undulations around corners with a bunch of traffic, and I’m in the dark and completely absorbed, and I got that thrill, completely unexpected and wonderfully out of nowhere!

I can take the arcade version with me wherever I go on the Switch, so I’m not sure I’ll be all over the Game Gear version like I’ll always be all over that one, but it truly surprised me. It’s not the same, and that’s fine, because it still manages to feel like Out Run (and most definitely sounds like Out Run), and that alone makes it an awful lot of fun and just a marvellous achievement! Worth another £45 plus shipping from Amazon Japan??? Watch this space…

Discovering Power Drift on Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum

Discovering Power Drift on Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum

Power Drift passed me by for a very long time. I remember the arcade game in the late eighties, and thinking it looked like Out Run on a rollercoaster, but don’t think I ever played it, and never got a home version, which at the time would have been the Atari ST one for me. Much like Stunt Car Racer (see here), it’s a bit of a mystery why I didn’t get it because it was right up my alley and I seem to remember it reviewing pretty well. That said, looking at it on the ST more recently, the cars look too big for the tracks and it seems to struggle a bit with some of the more exotic track furniture, so maybe steering clear was a good move. I also remember the PC Engine version being reviewed, and like most things on there, wished I had one of them!

That’s about it until 2016 and the Sega 3D Classic Collection on 3DS, and suddenly realising how much I’d wanted to be able to play Power Drift for all those years without ever knowing it! And it’s the arcade game in your hand, which will never cease to amaze me whether it’s this or R-Type or Elevator Action! That said, in this case I’m still pining for the arcade version of Power Drift at home on a big screen, and hope that one day Sega will do the right thing on the Nintendo Switch so I’ve got the best of both worlds! Just like its predecessors Out Run and Super Hang On, the sprite scaled 3D with loads of parallax scrolling is still a wonder to look at, with all those huge ramps and bombastic environments. And the game still feels great to play, where your car is always just about under control as you fling it around some really fun track designs. But that’s not why we’re here today…

We’re also not here to talk about Fantasy Zone II on that compilation, but I need to give it a mention because I’d never even heard of this gorgeous side-scrolling shooter franchise until then, and it would not only become the game I played more than even Thunder Blade on there, but it would also become a beloved series for me as a result! Since then I’ve obsessed over seeking out every Fantasy Zone game on every system I can get my mitts on, and whilst I may never admit it again, any number of Fantasy Zone variants might top Andes Attack on the VIC-20 as my genre favourite when I get around to thinking about it properly!

Back to Power Drift, after the arcade game was released in 1988 it was ported all over the place the following year to the 8- and 16-bit computers, then the PC Engine and I think the Saturn too. But as was often the case for stuff like this at this time, versions for my old flames the Spectrum and Commodore 64 would be way off my radar for decades to come. Until now!

At this point I need to thank my kindred spirit and favourite YouTube streamer Nick Jenkin for taking me on this particular journey of discovery, as well as several others – on top of the C64 version of Power Drift, which led to the Spectrum version, there’s also Pacmania and Super Monaco GP on the C64, and Komando 2 and Enduro on the Spectrum to name just a couple. I’ve been watching his retro gaming reviews for a few years, but have recently really enjoyed his company several evenings per week in his live streams. Very nice man and very nice community having a very nice time with retro games on a variety of systems, and you should check out his channel here!

Racing games were never really a big part of my original C64 experience (not being a big part of my C64-owning friend Stephen’s C64 experience), but I’ve always loved that version of Buggy Boy. I’ve latterly spent a lot of time playing Super Cycle too. And I’ve played some stinkers, with WEC Le Mans probably being the greatest culprit of all… Play it on the Spectrum instead! And we’ll come back to that later.

My first impression of the C64 version wasn’t that great. And keep in mind that at this point, this is my only experience of an 8-bit version of the game, not Spectrum bias! The road edges looked rough, and when you hit the hills you’ve got a jarring journey up the screen on a straight, flat floating road with no ground on either side, versus the exhilerating gravity rushes of the arcade version. I’m not a fan of the sound either – if I have to make a choice, I want engine sounds in a racing game and not a chiptune. But for all of that, it’s so much fun to play! I had no expectations that this was going to run at any kind of pace at all, but apart from the lacklustre hills, everything flies by in beautifully varied 3D across the different courses. Cornering feels really tight but loose enough at the same time to make you feel like you’re hanging on for dear life in the later tracks. This is a really, really good conversion!

Over on the Spectrum, it starts off looking and feeling very much like its superlative version of WEC Le Mans. With rollercoasters! And no, I know what you’re thinking, but I won’t have a word said about the Spectrum version of Out Run (see more here)! Anyway, it’s by the same guys that did the Le Mans game, and carries over all of its detail and all of its speed (as well as its colour schemes, for better or worse), delivering not only a great-looking version of Power Drift, but a very faithful rendition to play too.

This just feels like a much more ambitious conversion that the Commodore 64 one. The graphics have loads more going on, with all sorts of bumps in the road that you really feel, as well as the arcade-like hills going off in all directions. The 128K version (which is the one you want to avoid multi-load) kind of fixes the lack of sound effects too… Until someone in front of you finishes before you, in which case everything seems to go silent in sympathy! And sometimes it seems to just decide you’re getting music instead of the preferred engine sounds on some tracks too.

Compared to the C64, the Spectrum version is a harder game which feels more tactical and more like you’re in a race. Actually, I’m even tempted to make that comparison with the original arcade version too! It reminds me a lot of Enduro Racer on the Spectrum. And that is high praise indeed!

But now that Spectrum bias is back, right? Just look at all those Spectrum words! Well, maybe they’re compensating for how I’m going to close this. For everything the super-slick Spectrum version does right, and for the really, really crappy hills in the C64 version, the latter is just more fun to play! It absolutely nails the spirit of the arcade version, and doesn’t try to go one better like the Spectrum one.

Which, in conclusion, means that you need to be playing both versions of this for two different, but probably equally engaging versions of the wonderful Power Drift.

Discovering Monument Valley 2 on iOS

Discovering Monument Valley 2 on iOS

Monument Valley 2 has sat on my iPad home screen since it was given away free on the Apple App Store for some reason at least a year ago. I liked the first one well enough, but never felt I needed more until I was just fed up of seeing it there! Which is a shame because it turned out to be incredible!

It was released on iOS in 2017, which is about when I eventually played its very slick and quite groundbreaking predecessor from 2014. And it takes much the same format too, where you are manipulating Escher-inspired surreal isometric environments to move your character on their merry way.

This time it’s mostly two characters you’re moving along though, with the original protagonist joined by her daughter in a 14 chapter parable of growth and independence and the like.

Not sure why it caught hold of me more than the original – the aesthetic is evolved to be a bit more narrative and even more polished, as is the gameplay to an extent. But it strangely felt like Journey this time, partly in theme but also in its sense of drama, with the sensory controls pulling you in even further. And that manages to make it one of the most accomplished, and frankly stunning examples of iOS or any other kind of gaming you’d care to mention!

It also has a nice photo mode, which is the main reason for the post – I thought some of these just deserved to be put out there!

If this is still sitting on your phone or tablet because it was free or cheap or even full price, do yourself a favour! And if not, do yourself a favour!

Discovering Rik the Roadie – ZX Spectrum

Discovering Rik the Roadie – ZX Spectrum

I’ve been reading a wonderful book called Attack of the Flickering Skeletons by Stuart Ashen. So wonderful I bought it twice… “More terrible old games you’ve probably never heard of” and the sequel to Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of, which I haven’t read yet. I bought this for my cousin for Christmas because he has read it (because I bought it for him), then I bought it again because I forgot I’d bought it!

I didn’t get very far before I got to a game called Rik the Roadie for the Amstrad CPC, all the way from 1988. And I’m not going to say what he thought about it because you can read it for yourself, or use your imagination, but at the end of his rant he mentions that there was a Spectrum port… And, despite everything he said, I still wasn’t convinced it sounded that bad…

You’re the roadie for alternative rock band Alternative Rock. You’ve got to drive them 200 miles to their gig in your van. Then you’ve got to carry their stuff from the van into the music venue. Then the last stage has you sorting out their gear so they can play. As I said, doesn’t sound that bad, right?

You hit the road in what seems like the driving bits from the brilliant Ghostbusters, minus the road markings, seeing your van top down in four lanes of traffic. Get moving and you’ll soon be hitting 100mph, though until you get there you won’t notice any physical change in speed. At this point, Stuart Ashen mentions an actual acceleration until you get to your top speed of 128mph, though that might be a CPC thing because I didn’t notice this. And while all this excitement is going on, you’re weaving in and out of traffic. Occasionally. And all the traffic is moving at the same speed as each other, and relative to you, so it doesn’t matter how much you slow down or speed up to avoid them, it’s just left and right, assuming you have that option… Actually, once you’re moving at all, there’s no need to worry about what speed you’re going whatsoever! There’s even less driving skill needed here than in the Ghostbusters driving filler. It’s just luck if you don’t come across enough unpassable rows of cars to crash into – which knocks your timer down – before you’ve driven 200 miles. Did it first time, took many more attempts before I did it again. And this all takes so long that it genuinely feels like you’ve driven 200 miles by the end!

Now you’re at the venue, and this level is a bit like the biathlon in Winter Games – you’re waggling or pressing left and right to move nondescript gear from the van to the stage door at a specific rhythm against an endurance bar, which in reality is a timer that depletes in about 3 seconds regardless of your rhythm. What you need to do is like Han Solo’s flying casual technique; you know, keep your distance but don’t look like you’re trying to keep your distance… In this case, there’s a specific fast but not fast cadence that is pretty much impossible to judge! Should you get your equipment to the stage door – which has a cat in it – you’re going to have to do the same again several more times before all the gear is in!

I’ve no idea what happened in the third level, and I’m not going back to find out! I think you’re now at the sound desk because there are four volume level indicators and four volume controls on the screen, and you have to do something with them to stop the audience getting deafened, which apparently I’d successfully done before I even worked out what was going on. At less than ten seconds though, whatever happened at least happened quickly! Actually, that reminds me of a Lauren Harris gig I was DJ’ing at a few years ago, at a 250-capacity venue in Bedford. The resident sound engineer had been slowly going deaf, so the volume had been slowly going up month by month, and her dad, Steve Harris from Iron Maiden, claimed it was the loudest gig he’d ever been to!

Back to equally rock and roll circumstances, your job is now done, and the screen switches to the sight of Alternative Rock on the stage under flashing lights (meaning the whole screen just changes colour over a static picture every few seconds), and having got your band all the way here, you’re treated to their gig as your end game sequence! Which reminds me, all the way through this game is some of the worst music you’ll ever be subjected to in a game. And it just continues its mercilessly short loop through this end-game treat! Which you can’t skip…

Speaking of can’t skip, before we hit the closing credits, in the form of the most painfully slow scrolling, lengthiest and incredibly harsh high score table you’ll ever see (but don’t go anywhere because it still has merit!), I need to mention spelling (not to mention punctuation) throughout the game. Now, we know mistakes happen even today, just like they did in pre-spellcheck, bedroom-coded games in the eighties, but we’re at a whole new level here! Before you even turn the ignition key, I quote, “Guide Riks van allong the road to the next gig, dont hit any other cars, or you loose time……….”

Things do briefly pick up when you start the second level, when loose becomes lose, but just a couple of seconds later you’re inevitably going to be told that “you have droped the equipment!”

But all of this pales into insignificance once you get to the high score table, which is effectively a chart rundown of the big hit makers of the day, like U2, Simple Minds, Bruce Willis (Bruno, surely?), Erasure and Sam Fox. And Banarnarama, Des O’Conner, Madona, Kim Wild, Jean Michel Jarr… And it doesn’t end there, but typing things that incorrectly is a real struggle in this day and age, and you also need something to discover when you play it for yourself!

One last thing… spare a thought for the BBC owner. Not only did they own a BBC, but if they also owned Rik the Roadie and they also got this far, they were rewarded with this. And it moves…!!!

Discovering Moley Christmas on ZX Spectrum

Discovering Moley Christmas on ZX Spectrum

I don’t think I ever spent as long making so little progress as I did with Auf Wiedersehen Monty on the ZX Spectrum +2! But I adored it all the same, and was never happier than jumping around what can only have been a quarter of the 80 screens that brilliantly and ingeniously characterised the whole of Europe, collecting items and cash so Monty Mole could buy his own island. Which he never did that I’m aware of! It was hard as nails but it was enormous fun, and you never tired of trying to get just one more flick-screen further into your travels!

That was the fourth Monty Mole game, released in 1987 by Gremlin Graphics. I think I’d played the first one, Wanted: Monty Mole somewhere; I was aware of the second, Monty is Innocent, but wouldn’t play that for several decades after its release; and I definitely played Monty on the Run on a friend’s Commodore 64. I’ve never played its cannon successor, Impossamole – by the time that came out in 1990, I was all about the Atari ST and the Game Boy.

There was actually another game between the fourth and fifth entries though, but blink and you missed it! Moley Christmas was only available on the cover of Your Sinclair magazine, in the Christmas 1987 issue, in what for me ranks as one of the highlights of what would become the Spectrum cover tape wars! I know I was long gone by the time they were all abandoning actual magazine content and just sticking about ten AAA games to a few bits of glossy paper, but before that, this and Ocean’s Road Race (which we’ll come back to one day) and, of course, the seminal better-than-Arkanoid Arkanoid rip-off, Batty, were way better than most of what you’d pay full price for!

Moley Christmas might have been short, with only six screens, but the Monty Mole stamp of quality was everywhere to be seen on each of them. And as you’d expect, it was hard as nails first time around, though spend enough time on it and you weren’t just trying to do it without losing any lives, but you were doing what would one day be called speed-running too! Not sure why that never worked out for me in Auf Wiedersehen Monty though…

In Moley Christmas, you – Monty – are running about the place as usual, picking up objects, jumping over bizarre meanies, generally dodging death through perfectly timed, pixel-perfect leaps, and just working out how to get from one screen to the next, which isn’t always immediately apparent. And all of this in a bid to get the Your Sinclair cover game to the printers in time for Christmas!

In the first screen you’re at Gremlin Graphics HQ, trying to get to the program listing for the cover tape game. Then on the second screen you’re taking it to the mastering plant – successfully reach the other end of the screen and it becomes the master tape! Screen three is where it’s getting duplicated and turned into cassettes. The instructions said that although they were putting over 100,000 copies of the game on the magazine out, the Gremlin programmers made their own estimate of the Your Sinclair circulation, so you only had to pick up eight cassettes to bring to London. And that was a major clue because if you didn’t have eight in mind there was no way you were ever progressing past that screen, which gave you absolutely no indication of what you were doing before you even got to the point where you were counting tapes!

Anyway, the fourth screen was another head-scratcher, this time making your way into an M1 service station (I think), with the puzzle being how you got past the final parked car that kept eating you with no apparent rhyme nor reason! Work out that you just needed a bit of single pixel prodding and retreating there, and on the fifth screen you’re in the Your Sinclair offices for a very tricky timed jumping section that must have taken me a hundred attempts to get past the first time even though I knew exactly what I should be doing! And then you’re finally on screen six, a kind of loosely Frogger-style experience where you’re dropping off piles of magazines from one side of a lunatic road to the other, several times. Do that and it’s a lovely message of Christmas cheer / advertising and a nice Christmas tree. Then you’re strangely compelled to start again…

Despite the usual gaming perfection that a Monty Mole game demanded of you, this one seemed to be about getting lucky sometimes too. And I think that’s why even after the head-scratching is done, I like going back to it, then trying to get through it again and again a bit quicker. Combining that slight unpredictability (possibly caused by some odd timing that I can’t really put my finger on) with its shortness actually makes it more akin to playing something like Super Sprint than the traditional platformer it makes out to be. You definitely can go a bit faster, because you definitely can do it without running into something, but will you? And all this going faster is actively encouraged throughout the game because your energy meter is going down regardless of what you run into, and in the penultimate screen you’re also racing magazines getting finished (where I still don’t really know what means death and what means success)!

There’s some great use of clash-free colour, everything moves smoothly, and the level of detail you expected of a Monty Mole game by 1987 was all present and correct. Sound was alright for the Spectrum too, with a nice background tune (on my +2 at least) and some inoffensive white-noisy effects when called for elsewhere.

It’s hard to say where this would fit if you were to rank all of the Monty Mole games, but there’s more to it than meets the eye in comparison to the others, even if there’s significantly less to it, which as we’ve seen, brings its own rewards. But remember, it was free on a magazine! And if you’re anything like me, the only one of these you’re going to finish too!