My Life With… Mini Munchman – Handheld

My Life With… Mini Munchman – Handheld

For all of my history with Pac-Man, I don’t actually have a great deal of history with Pac-Man the arcade game. I mean, I’ve played it and its sequels and its spin-offs loads over the years, and I’m not bad at it, but for me Pac-Man has always been about Pac-Man rather than Pac-Man! Make sense? Of course not…

Like everyone else, I was certainly aware of Pac-Man when The Animated Series came along in 1982, but that’s where I became a fan. Thanks Roland Rat Superstar! I went into huge detail on that when I went into huge detail on its video game spin-off, Pac-Land, here, which is not only my favourite Pac-Man game (yes, I know, the heresy, but there’s even more to come…), but also one of my top five favourite arcade games ever, and probably the single game I’ve spent the most time playing across the most systems, from Spectrum to Atari Lynx and Atari ST to PC Engine. I love it!

The “proper” Pac-Man game I’ve played the most would be Pac-Man 256 on iOS. This came out in 2016, and is an endless runner inspired by the level 256 glitch on the original Pac-Man, where you’re moving Pac-Man up a vertically scrolling maze that plays a lot like original Pac-Man, with a lot of strategic depth from the different ghost’s AI, and risk-reward from the lure of chaining together continuous dot pick-ups, power-ups and power pill collection with the glitch on your tail. It was addictive as hell, I ended up way higher on the online leaderboards than is usual for me, and then it came crashing down with a load of free-to-play mechanics. Hell of a lot of fun while it lasted though!

Speaking of free-to-play, it can be done right, as 2021’s battle royale take, Pac-Man 99, demonstrates almost perfectly. We had a bit of a rough start, and I really didn’t appreciate having to buy a skin when it turned out I kept getting into the top ten then dying because of a red enemy Pac-Man on the black background that I couldn’t see because no settings compensated for my very common red-black colourblindness… But the skin was a Xevious one, and it was cheap, and the game was free, and it’s a really, really good competitive multiplayer take on the classic core mechanics (with a bit of Championship Edition thrown in). And it’s really, really addictive, so I’m going to begrudgingly forgive it and say that at the time of writing, it’s about number eight in my top ten games of the year so far.

What about favourite proper, proper Pac-Man ever though? The one with mazes and dots and ghosts… It’s not Pac-Man, or Ms. Pac-Man, Super Pac-Man, Pac & Pal or even Pac-Mania (although the Atari ST version of that comes pretty close). In fact, my favourite doesn’t have ghosts in it, or even Pac-Man! Just aliens, or to be more specific, Alien. On Atari 2600. You’re having a wander around your ship, Nostromo, investigating weird sounds that turn out to be alien eggs being laid around its maze-like hull. And apart from a flamethrower and a Frogger-style bonus stage, it’s a really pure version of Pac-Man, in a very Atari 2600 way, and is far better than the original on there! I wrote a load about that too here, and yeah, I know, but it’s my favourite Pac-Man and you can’t stop me!!!

When Pac-Man: The Animated Series came along, I don’t even remember seeing the original arcade game anywhere, let alone playing it, but I definitely remember the first Pac-Man I did play. Kind of! Apart from Donkey Kong, in the early eighties Wild West of video games, I reckon Pac-Man got cloned more than anything else. As well as the aforementioned Alien on Atari 2600, it had Bank Heist, Lock ‘n Chase and Mouse Trap. The early home computers were at it too! There was Gobbler and Dung Beetles on Apple II, as well as Taxman, which ended up becoming one of the first officially licensed versions after a bit of legal argy-bargy with Atari. The Atari 8-bit had Jawbreaker and Ghost Hunter; there was KC Munchkin, Scarfman, Snake Attack and Munch Man on those weird Texas Instruments computers that no one ever wanted. The ZX81 had pac rabbit, and on the VIC-20 I’d have Jelly Monsters a couple of years later, although Hungry Horace on the Spectrum is probably my favourite old clone! There were loads more as the Spectrum and Commodore 64 began to dominate, but remember that before them we’re still in that period when home computers were still science fiction for most of us, and the best we could get was an electronic handheld or tabletop version, so we’ve got a ton of clones to look at over there too!

Most of the ones I know were gazed at longingly every time a new Argos catalogue came out… The starting point was actually a licensed tabletop Pac-Man (or Puck-Man in America) by Tomy in 1981, but this led to what might be the first clone, when Grandstand licensed the technology from them that very same year, but they didn’t license the Pac-Man name itself, so here in the UK we got Munchman… Complete with Pac-Man art on the box, but as I said, Wild West, and you could still mostly get away with it. And as you might have guessed, we’re going to come back to Munchman (not to be confused with Munch Man) very soon.

Also in 1981, there was PacMan2 from Entex, who were no strangers to the courts after their handheld versions of Space Invaders and Galaxian, although they did briefly end up with a license. Anyway, this one had a cool (if not entirely practical) two-player mode with individual controllers on opposing sides of the game. A year later they released another similar one, Turtles, which had you rescuing six turtles around the maze, and you both had actual little joysticks this time that were just crying out to get snapped off! Likewise, Tandy’s Ogre Eater had a prominent joystick that was almost lost on the huge case it came in! One of the best tabletop versions also arrived in 1982 from Gakken with Puck Monster, and as well as being a great version, it has a great-looking multicoloured LED screen too. There was even a watch and game (as opposed to Game & Watch) that year, with Tomy Watchman: Monster Hero; a simple Pac-Man game that wasn’t branded as Pac-Man when it initially released even though they owned the rights, but that did change when it eventually arrived in America.

And now we conclude our tour by going back to 1981, and Epoch’s Epoch Man (also known as Pak Pak Man) handheld, where you’re guiding your little not-Pac-Man around a little maze with two charming, rustic bridges, collecting fruit and avoiding ghosts. Like lots of Epoch games, it was licensed to German handheld company Schuco where it was given a wider screen and rebadged as Pocket Pac Man – sometimes referred to as Pocket C-Man, because instead of the world “Pac” they used a picture of a Pac-Man that also looks a bit like the letter C, and I guess either avoided or solved any legal complications. And then in the UK it was picked up by Grandstand, who seem to have just taken the design wholesale, made it yellow and rebadged it Mini Munchman. And here we are!

I reckon my brother Phil got his Mini Munchman either for Christmas 1982, when I think I got my Snoopy Tennis Game & Watch, or as a birthday present the following June; it was quite possibly the latter because he also had Bandai’s Missile Invader, and that might have been the Snoopy Tennis equivalent when we were both getting presents… Absolutely awesome Space Invaders clone that I’d completely forgotten about until just now, and seems like you can pick up for a not outrageous price, although with all of its little recesses you’ll be lucky not to be doing some cleaning of decades old sweat and crumbs! And now that thought is in my head I know that we might come back to this at some point soon! Needless to say, all three of those games were a hit with both of us. It really is hard to imagine now that we’d never seen anything like this before, let alone owned anything like it – the nearest you’d come was mechanical stuff like Tomy’s Pocketeers or my beloved Demon Driver. From about 1982 to 1984 though, these were the kings of playground status symbols, and everyone used to love the last day of term at school when you could bring in toys, and we’d all be queueing up for a go on Cavemans and Scrambles, Turtle Bridges and Donkey Kongs! Then after 1984 it was all Walkmans and Kappa tracksuits!

There was always something both exotic and fragile about these LCD games, in no small part down to the warnings that used to come with them, coupled with the mysterious liquid crystal itself and the subsequent tales of friends of friends with burnt skin after touching it! This comes from the yellow warning paper in my Snoopy Tennis box: “The liquid crystal uses glass parts. It should not be dropped, hit or placed under pressure. Any of these can cause damage to the liquid crystal. The liquid crystal is designed as well as possible to prevent shattering of glass and leaking of liquid if the crystal is broken. If, however, liquid does contact the skin, wash immediately with soap and water.” I seem to remember the screen on our original Mini Munchman just died though, like when the battery is low and it starts fading away. And that was the end of that for quite a long time!

Unlike Missile Invader, Mini Munchman isn’t an easy game to come by now. Unless you’re prepared to pay silly money, especially for a boxed version. That box is worth it though! As much as I love the gold and silver Nintendo Game & Watch box designs, this one was proper silver, like a mirror! And like its non-Mini big brother, it’s got proper Pac-Man artwork all over its shiny surface! The other thing that was a big deal back then was that it wasn’t only an “LCD pocket arcade game” but also came with a myriad of other features, all getting almost equal billing on the box with the game itself – watch, stopwatch, lap timer, day / date and alarm. Digital clocks were still a novelty then – if you were lucky your parents might had a radio alarm clock in their bedroom with those numbers that flipped over – and this was a selling point to certain people, like the educational value of a Commodore VIC-20 would be to me a couple of years later!

Once I’d put my mind to getting a working version of this again towards the end of 2020, and after months of not wanting to spend really silly money, I did pick up an unboxed but fully working game from eBay at the top end of what I was prepared to pay. You do get what you pay for with these things though, and there is a small blemish on the liquid crystal, though it’s partially covered by the maze overlay, and once you’re playing and there’s loads of other stuff on the screen it’s pretty unobtrusive. Apart from this, theres a few tiny scuff marks where silver is poking through the matt black surface areas, but the buttons all work fine, the battery unit is in perfect condition, and the display is still very clear all over. And that brilliant, bold yellow plastic case is as brilliant and bold as it was when it was new!

Mini Munchman is a proper handheld! It’s about 7cm wide, 10cm high and a slimline just under 1cm thick. And for someone with girl’s hands like me, it’s a great fit, and was even better when I was 10 or 11 years old! And far more so than that Invader From Space beast, which, as insanely good as it was and still is, I remember laying on the floor, elbows down, with it plugged in to one of those multi-power adaptors on the floor, scared to move because if you did that dodgy power socket was switching it off mid-game for you!

The instructions for these things are always a treat! It tells you to select the game mode, which you’ll recognise because “monsters and foods are displayed in the gameboard.” After a display of your previous high score and simple intro tune, you’re starting off at the bottom-right corner of the maze, with Munchman looking out at you with a mischievous grin on his face. There’s not a great deal to talk about graphically here, but he’s always looking at you, with alternating facial expressions once you get going – open-mouthed then a kind of wiggly Halloween pumpkin smile. That’s about as far as any animation goes, with the two ghosts just moving around, one blink at a time, and the “?” bonus symbol appearing now and again. There’s a nice variety of fruit to collect though, with very recognisable and detailed pineapples, black cherries, seemingly white cherries, a bunch of grapes, bananas, strawberries and what could be apples or could be oranges, but we’ll cut it some slack there because it’s monochrome and about 2mm high!

It’s a simple concept, with four directional buttons controlling your movement around the maze. There’s about twenty fruit to collect before you move on to the next level, two of which are hidden under the bridges. Get caught by one of the ghosts and it will eat you, using up one of your four lives, though getting to 500 and 1500 points will bag you an additional Munchman. As well as the fruit, there’s two pieces of power food on the maze, and once you’ve nabbed one you’ll have five seconds to eat the ghosts, which are now blinking more deliberately than in their regular animation! Get one and it will reappear at one of the warp tunnels; there’s four of those, one in each corner, but only two are ever open at the same time, so you need to keep an eye on those opening and closing, especially when you’re a few levels in and everything’s moving a bit quicker! Anyway, eating monsters quickly is the key to a big score – the first one is 10 points, but keep eating them and they’ll be worth 30 points, 50 points, 70 points and so on. In theory, because you’re never doing that! You get a nice double-beep for catching a ghost too, but otherwise the sound is just a beep for going over fruit. All perfectly simple and perfectly pleasant…

And that’s a perfect summary of the game as a whole! It’s a very pure version of Pac-Man, and that core mechanic works as well on a small-scale maze like this as it does on a bigger one, whether the original game, Pacmania or Championship Edition DX+. It may sound ridiculous, but those two bridge overlays really give this version something unique, resulting in some great up, down, over and under interplay with the ghosts when you’re out of power pellets. And like the best Pac-Men, once you’re in the zone with a fix on how the ghosts are moving, this is as addictive as hell, and when you’re a few levels in and things start moving at crazy speeds, your brain is moving at the same speed, and it’s a real rush! Then it’s all over and it’s going to tease you with that high score as that intro music starts again, and those sweaty fingerprint ridges are starting to appear on those cool protruding silver direction buttons and you’re in the Munchman Pac-Man zone, which, actually, is probably worth every penny of that silly eBay money!

My Life With… Xenon II – Atari ST

My Life With… Xenon II – Atari ST

The word “Xenon” was very probably the first thing I ever wrote on a 3.5″ floppy disk, but before you tell me that if I pirate software I’m a thief, and thieves will be prosecuted, who’s to say the next word wasn’t “saves” or something equally exonerating! Actually, going back to the Atari ST today, having a bunch of floppies to hand so you can save what you’re playing is one of the most jarring things you come across, but back in the late eighties it was pretty liberating being able to save a game at all!

As an aside, as I thumb through the two custom storage boxes I created when we had access to an injection moulding machine as part of A-Level Technology, my mind now boggles at what were obviously my attempts to get the absolute maximum out of the 360kB single-sided or 720kB double-sided available using one type of “disk management” shareware or another! For example, we’ve got a Dragon Ninja demo disk, where I’ve flipped the read/write protection switch off and apparently added Mousetrap and Diablo. With a note to say there’s 34k still available and Disector ST (some utility or other) is now on the disk for Spell It (a spell checker), which also includes Connect 4 game Line-up 4, C-Panel (no idea!) and disk one of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes of the Lance, which is odd in itself because I bought the actual game of that. Anyway, all makes trying to micro-manage your Resident Evil 4 inventory to fit the rocket launcher in seem like a walk in the park!

The very first time I laid eyes on Xenon was, like most things ST before I got mine, at my friend Thomas’ house, one autumn Monday evening in 1988 after our weekly Young Enterprise meeting, which was within walking distance of his house so I’d get picked up there after a quick gaming session. This was a charity / school / local company endeavour that taught not-cool kids like us about business, and we ended up making a load of cash selling pipe cleaner worms! All the same, what was I thinking, you and I may be wondering? No doubt the prospect of cash, plus a couple of friends from other schools also going, and possibly some decent representation from the posher of the two private girls schools in Bedford! Like either of us had a chance…

While I might often give the plaudits for selling me on Atari ST to Dungeon Master and Defender of the Crown, Xenon wasn’t far behind, and would end up being the one that stuck with me the most of the three. First and foremost, the level of polish here was absolutely astounding, and, as we’d all later learn, was to become the hallmark of developers The Bitmap Brothers. As far as I’m concerned, this was the first time we’d ever had arcade quality at home, and everything about it was just stunning! Of course, it wasn’t the first time we’d played a vertical shooter, but this was as refined as one had ever been. Four stages, shoot everything, collect power-ups beat the end of level boss; standard stuff, though in some stages you’ll be shooting stuff from the ground as well as from the air – your choice. It’s nicely tough, and each stage will take some learning – especially the bosses – and you’ll have the absolute best time doing it!

The graphics are equally joyful to behold, beautifully drawn, animated (especially the explosions!) and those metals… This was the most metallic-looking game I’d ever seen! I know all about the Amiga version and its fanciness, but this is probably my favourite bit of Atari ST music too, narrowly beating the Bitmap’s Speedball, which came from the prolific David Whittaker, who you’ll find all over the best of eighties and nineties gaming tunes! To quote my own Top 25 Gaming Anthems – Part 1 (here), “this one is all synth multi-melodies and harsh stabby string things over this Euro-disco rhythm that simply shouldn’t work – especially when the stabs completely intentionally drop slightly out of time – but it’s all just right!” Well said, and if it wasn’t the most original, it was definitely the most amazing shoot ’em up ever!

A bit over a year later, enjoying the last of my last school holiday, the cover of Computer & Video Games magazine asked, “Xenon II – the most amazing shoot ’em up ever?” All sounded familiar, and inside they confirmed it, awarding 94% on ST and 96% on Amiga, for the extra bits of music I guess. And we’ll come back to that music, but so far I’m just about sold on Xenon II: Megablast with or without it – I love the original and my favourite magazine loves the sequel. But there’s no truer test than trying it out yourself, and here I am in WHSmith in Bedford leafing through a copy of the October 1989 issue of ST Format magazine, and it’s only got a Xenon II demo on the cover! Since getting an ST, I’d obviously abandoned Crash, Sinclair User or Your Sinclair as the second magazine I’d get each month, and now it was usually ST Format, ACE, The One or Zero magazine when it launched shortly after (more here), and that choice was generally down to what was on the cover disk. Flicking through my cover disks now, I obviously picked up the very dry Atari ST User and also dry but more games-focussed ST Action a couple of times too. A bit later again, there was also a short-lived disk-based magazine called Stampede, which was a pricey £3.99, but you were getting two disks that included a full free game every issue, demos, public domain stuff, reviews, tutorials and more… And firing up some of them again now, I’ve just discovered that issue 3 includes the full Mr Heli, my new favourite PC-Engine and ZX Spectrum shooter! How on earth did I miss that for three decades??? They also gave away Microprose’s Dark Side, Trivial Pursuit and several other full-pricers… Actually, £3.99 wasn’t bad, but you can see why it was short lived!

ST Format offered a more traditional cover disk, and theirs was very much a reflection of the magazine, which covered games, but would also go in-depth on programming, productivity tools, graphics creation, music creation and full electronic projects like building a disk drive head display, and to an A-level Technology nerd like me, all of that was right up my street! It’s worth taking a look at this month’s cover disk, because it gives a great snapshot of what these were all about, especially because this month also includes 16-bit public domain darling the fractal generator! You’d be rounding-up to 800K of demos, games and utilities, but as we’ve already learned, this was dependent on you having a double-sided disk drive – if not, you only got side A and not side B (meaning no fractal generator in this case!), but all wasn’t lost because if you sent in a cheque or postal order for £1.75 they’d send you the other side too in return! Assuming you’re double-sided though, we’ve got the Xenon II demo (which also got a Format Gold award elsewhere in the mag); there’s Sun Crossword and Times Crossword, depending on your intellect (paraphrasing their words not mine); and rounding out side A, there was a utility to go with that disk drive project, and a backup utility specifically for making a backup of this disk it says. Over on side B, there’s not one but three fractal generators – I probably spent more time with this running on my ST than anything outside of Kick Off and Elite, but mainly because it would take days to create one of its random landscapes! Then you had some programming tutorial files, a slide show utility, a picture compression utility and a colour screen emulator for monochrome displays and vice versa. Absolutely classic cover disk!

As mindblowing as it turned out to be, there was only so far that Xenon II’s demo was going to take you though… And that was to your favourite local game shop, because you were only getting half of the first level before it looped back to the start! But it clearly did its job – like a crack dealer giving out free samples – and very shortly after I was the proud owner of another 18x15x3cm lump of Atari ST cardboard box housing a couple of disks and 25-page English / Italian manual sitting on top of a giant piece of foam! The manual – like all Bitmap Brothers releases – is a real treat, not only telling you how to play, but also going into the ridiculous, bombsatic lore that’s brought you here from the original game, and where it’s taking you next! And that’s a good place to jump in… They tell you that no one likes a bad loser, and no one comes more universally despised than the Xenites. For a thousand years they’ve been plotting revenge for their humiliating defeat in the last Galactic Conflict, and now the very fabric of time is in danger. They’ve planted five time bombs through history and it’s up to you to save the day and the universe. “The last time you met it was a playground scrap. This time it’s war.”

This journey through time follows the process of evolution through five vertically scrolling levels. Which the manual bizzarely refers to as horizontally scrolling. Anyway, each has its own scenery and lifeforms, from prehistoric lowlife to metallic mayhem in the centuries to come. Unfortunately all of these lifeforms have beens screwed up by the time bombs planted at the end of each level, mutating everything into crazed aggressors that you’re going to be blasting away at in your ship, The Megablaster, initially equipped with a thruster that goes back a bit as well as forward, a basic but very upgradeable blaster, and a shield that’s going to run down until you’ve lost all three of your lives. As jagged-edged and uninviting as is often looks, the scenery doesn’t damage your ship, unless you get stuck in a dead end and crushed as everything keeps scrolling! We might move away from the ST and onto other versions later, and we might come back to that! It all gets more maze-like as you progress, and you don’t really want to be going backwards for long, so like the patterns of the lifeforms, you’ll also be learning which way you want to go when the scenery splits.

Every level ends with a big boss thing, and later on they’ll be appearing all over the place on top, but the one at the end is going to be your key to defusing those pesky time bombs. The first boss, the nautilus shellfish with its mine-spitting apendages, is without doubt one of the most iconic bosses of the 16-bit era – up there with that first level guy from actual horizontal shooter R-Type. The level of detail on that shell and its exquisite colouring are just unforgettable, and while the giant spiders, snakey things and more mechanical monstrosities that follow are big and really cool and stuff, they never quite hit that level one peak.

I get why the best bosses in Xenon II and R-Type are both in the first level though, because most people aren’t going to see much of the rest! It’s hard, although as we’ve said, it’s also learnable through repetition, and put your mind to it and you’ll be seeing the end of level two at least! And there’s all those upgrades too – occasionally you’ll see capsules floating about the place, and they’ll have power-up tokens in them, and you’ll also notice that killing stuff leaves cash behind, and twice per level you’ll have the chance to buy stuff or sell anything you’ve already picked up in Crispin’s Swop Shop! Equipment includes weapons such as a side shot, smart bomb or Super Nashwan Power, which provides ten seconds of total destruction. There’s health potions, speed and power boosts, an electric wrecking ball attachment and even an autofire function – and your thumb might thank you for that before long! Or if you’re minted, you could buy a really cool but generally useless dive function that lets you briefly dive into the screen and under all that parallax scrolling; and for the crazy wealthy, there’s the even more useless Bitmap Shades, which seem to make the screen slightly darker! You can also chuck cash at Crispin for mostly reliaible advice about how to play or what weapons to use in different areas, so isn’t a bad idea once per level at least until you know what you’re doing. There’s attachments too – a Megablaster for your Megablaster… I guess they forgot that they’d also called the ship Megablaster, but anyway, you can bolt up to three of these laser beasts to the front of your ship. You can protect your back-end too, with a rear shot that “clamps onto your behind and protects your rear from fear.” Finally, a mine dropper lets you hold down fire and leave a trail of floating and exploding death behind you.

That’s an awful lot of shooting stuff that you’re going to be doing before you see most of that though, but work out the first few bosses and you’ll be rolling in cash. You will pick up a rear-shot on the way, but initially you want to buy a side-shot as soon as possible, and autofire is going to mean you’re killing more and getting more cash, as well as saving you from claw-hands! You don’t really want to be losing much health early on, so top that up if you need it, but otherwise you can’t beat a bit of Super Nashwan Power in reserve too. Then you want lasers, more lasers and more health. And from there, if you’re still alive, just go crazy and get that screen filled with awesome firepower! I know that like its predecessor, Xenon II wasn’t the most original shooter ever when it appeared, even if it was what could be described as definitive, but I can’t remember anything else that offered these kind of immense weapon loadouts at the time!

What was unique was the look. If the original had introduced arcade quality into the home, this was absolutely nailing it, and to this day I really think it’s the best looking game that ever appeared on either the ST or the Amiga. The ambitious imagination behind the time-travelling concept, with its starfield-backed intricate mesh of evolution built on the smoothest of parallax scrolling is still a joy to behold. The swarms of enemies that start by just creeping you out with insect-familiarity and later terrify with mechanical intent are immactulately designed, detailed and animated, as are all the explosions, the weapons and other effects that the first game also excelled at. The colour palette is also a delight and is perfectly placed in each scenario, creating realistic textures from which rich, organic details simply pop. And it’s all so relentless that you’ll feel everything closing in on you even during the odd short moments of respite, which is helped by the constant speed and lack of slowdown even when the screen is filled with the opposite of respite! As an aside, by concidence, Taito’s wonderful arcade platformer New Zealand Story came out on ST at just about the same time as Xenon II, and I reckon that comes a close second as best looker on the platform – now there’s a colour palette and a half!

There’s a pleasing density to the sound effects that blip, blast and explode enough to mostly drown out the bombastic soundtrack, which actually is very, very good and a perfect fit for a vertical shooter, but at the time annoyed me for having Bomb the Bass plastered over the box! I’m not sure that musical snob was the right word (although it would be now!), but back in 1989, as uncool as I was, there were at least some signs of life from the music I was listening to! As thrash was becoming stadium metal, Metallica’s …And Justice For All and Slayer’s South of Heaven from the previous year had inspired a deeper exploration into metal, and the more extreme the better, with stuff like Napalm Death’s From Enslavement to Obliteration, Bolt Thrower’s Realm of Chaos and Death’s Leprosy sowing seeds for a lifelong love of what would emerge for both me and the genre into black metal in particular. And that meant I had no time for Bomb the Bass and rubbish like that, to the point of it actually being offensive to me, and therefore I didn’t appreciate having it shoved down my throat everywhere the game was mentioned!

With the benefit of a lot more age and a bit more hindsight, we’ve got a pretty good theme tune playing from the loading screen onwards though! It turns out that the Megablast subtitle isn’t just where the name of your ship and potentially some of it’s clip-on accessories comes from, but it’s actually lifted from Bomb the Bass’ track Megablast (Hip Hop on Precinct 13). Our musical hero from the first Xenon, David Whittaker, is on arranging duty this time, sampling the original track up to the title screen, then stripping it down a little while the game is playing. I think the Amiga got the whole original track, hence the slight preference when they were reviewed together.

Xenon II would get ported to Sega’s Master System in a stripped down but pretty playable form at the end of 1991, and then to the Mega Drive or Genesis in 1992, and this one’s interesting because it’s the version I played a lot of in the years while my ST was in hibernation, but until I went back to the original, didn’t realise quite how much it suffered in conversion and now struggle to go back to! First and foremost, those gorgeous intertwining parallax meshes look blocky (and brown) enough for the Commodore 64 to have spat them out, but would probably have done a better job of making them scroll! Can you believe the ST is being praised for its smooth scrolling over this stuttering mess?!?! Getting stuck on the scenery is also a regular occurence that I don’t recall ever experiencing elsewhere, and no amount of backwards thrust is going to pull you clear – it’s reset the system or bust! The music sounds a bit off here too.

On one hand, if you were desperate to play Xenon II and only had a Mega Drive, you’d be happy enough, but on the other, that system is stacked with wonderful vertical shooters – Truxton, Mega SWIV, Twin Cobra, Elemental Master, M.U.S.H.A… And they’re just the ones a non-expert like me can think of off the top of my head before we even dive into anything horizontal (and I’m talking about you, Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar)… You hopefully won’t notice this, but writing that sentence just sent me on a Mega Drive shooter odyssey for the last hour! Back to Xenon II, there were also versions on weirdo machines like the CDTV, Archimedes and Atari Jaguar, but the other one I did spend quite a lot of time with when it came out towards the end of 1992 was for the Nintendo Game Boy. All that stuff we discussed before about buying a side-shot first – forget it! You want the speed ups because the ship crawls in comparison to other versions, but once that’s sorted, this isn’t bad at all! It’s understandably more stripped-down than even the Master System, but apart from that it feels like Xenon II and does a great job of sounding like it too!

Let’s head back to September 1989 C&VG’s cover question – the most amazing shoot ’em up ever? As much as I love it, and probably associate this game with the Atari ST more than any other, including my number two favourite game ever Kick Off, and not far behind Elite, it’s not quite my favourite shooter. That would be 1942, for it’s more frantic action and more personally attractive World War II setting. For vertical shooters, it would be next though, and overall for any direction scrolling shooters, it’s a toss up with either arcade P-47 or Thunder Force AC. Without doubt a stunner then, and still very much a stunner now!

My Life With… Test Drive II: The Duel – SNES

My Life With… Test Drive II: The Duel – SNES

With the benefit of hindsight, I’ve recently been putting together a really nicely curated collection of Atari ST racing games, which, during its hey-day back in the late eighties and early nineties, consisted of Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge, Stunt Car Racer, Hard Drivin’ and Super Hang On, with a bit of R.V.F. Honda being mostly forgotten on the side. Actually, that’s not a bad collection given there was allsorts of other stuff to play on there and I was a skint student for most of that time! But the Atari ST had so much more, and over the last couple of years since it re-emerged from my Dad’s old loft, I’ve had a great time seeking out the likes of Formula One Grand Prix, Vroom, Buggy Boy, Chase HQ, Out Run, Turbo Out Run, Powerdrift, Toyota Celica GT Rally, Crazy Cars II and III, and, of course, that Lotus sequel! In fact, I just need Continental Circus at a decent price and my work there is just about done!

That’s not to say the ST didn’t have its fair share of racing stinkers too – the pitifully slow Days of Thunder possibly being the highlight, and I still can’t believe I spent all that money on that and then wasted all that time playing it to try and justify doing so! I had similar feelings about Drivin’ Force, which was visually a bit like Powerdrift, but if I remember right you could choose pretty much any vehicle under the sun to drive – I would load it up and check that last point, but I’m not sure my eyes can take that kind of high-speed mess anymore; I do remember that if you hit anything you’d bounce backwards about a hundred metres though!

Then there was Test Drive and its sequel, Test Drive II: The Duel, and until very recently when I was feeling a bit completionist, neither of them have ever interested me in the slightest! “My Life Without… Test Drive II” might have been a more appropriate title so far! Anyway, with the first one I’m not really sure why, apart from it looked a bit average in screenshots, and while reviews at the time were mostly positive, they were not £25 positive! I definitely had a reason for not splashing the cash on number two though – for whatever reason, in April 1991 Computer & Video Games magazine decided the ST was only getting a single page for five reviews and all of that month’s news (plus five screenshots), but in the little it did say about Test Drive II: The Duel, it said buy Lotus Esprit Challenge instead. And that’s what I did, although by “buy” I possibly mean acquire, but either way, no regrets!

Fast forward several decades, and I’m doing a similar collecting exercise with the Sega Mega Drive, albeit in a much less expensive way than my current ST odyssey, with emulation on a modded PlayStation Classic, and there’s a recommendation on one of those “information” sites for retro games enthusiasts that Nintendo doesn’t like – “If you liked Road Rash II, you might also like… Test Drive II: The Duel.” And for the princely sum of half a second of downloading, I thought why not, because for that price, I might also like! I didn’t that much. If you’d bought it you’d have found some fun in it for sure (unlike Days of Thunder!), but even the original Road Rash on the Master System looks way better than this does, and it just feels like a lazy port of what I imagine the ST version to play like! In this case I’m not going to recommend Lotus II instead because I’m not a massive fan of the Mega Drive version of that either, but instead switch machines and go for Kawasaki Superbikes or Road Rash II instead. Or you could, of course, switch machines completely…

One more fast forward, but only a couple of years this time, to the 4th of March 2021 when my friend and YouTube’s premier retro gamer, Nick Jenkin (do visit him here) reviewed a game called Test Drive II: The Duel on SNES. And that’s when the game that’s never interested me on a system mostly known for those small scale Mode 7 racers like the glorious F1 Race of Champions and that thing with go-karts started to get interesting! In fact, it looked like a whole different game to the one I wasn’t very familiar with, with speed and fluidity of movement, all sorts of sound effects and graphical flourishes that didn’t include rocky crags that looked like worms crawling up a lump of brown to create a cliff face! At the very least it was more than enough to encourage me to spend half a second downloading this version too, which I did immediately, and then spent several hours when I should have been in bed unable to tear myself away. Apart from the aforementioned Road Rash II and F1 ROC: Race of Champions, I’m not sure I’ve ever clicked so instantly with a racing game like I did this one. Then it was all I played for days, at the expense, no less, of the almost endless possibilities for fun in Forza Horizon 4 and the gloriously lit but ultimately tedious Dirt 5.0 on the new Xbox Series X that had arrived a week before! And a few months later it’s firmly established itself as one of my top ten racers ever, not that I’ve ever thought about that before, but this is as good a place as any so let’s see where it slots in!

Right, top ten favourite racers of all time! This is difficult, because what’s a racer? Okay, I’m not counting things without motors like SSX 3 or top-down stuff like Super Sprint, which negates what would have been my top two otherwise! I reckon anything else goes though…
1. Out Run (Arcade but I’ll make a case for ZX Spectrum version any day)
2. Destruction Derby 2 (PlayStation)
3. Enduro Racer (ZX Spectrum)
4. Stunt Car Racer (Atari ST)
5. Virtua Racing (Arcade)
6. Super Hang-On (Atari ST)
7. F1 ROC: Race of Champions (SNES)
8. Power Drift (Arcade)
9. V-Rally 3 (Game Boy Advance)
10. Test Drive 2: The Duel (SNES)

Can’t believe I’ve never done that before, and I know what you’re thinking, but what you didn’t see there was that behind the curtains I’d simply extracted racers in order from my big list of favourite games, and not just shoe-horned this game into number ten! That said, I’m a little disappointed that Victory Run on PC-Engine came out at number eleven and isn’t included there; far more so than Mario Kart Super Circuit, Hard Drivin’, Race Driver GRID and Super Cycle that would have rounded out a top fifteen. If we’re not counting SSX 3 and Supersprint and maybe Badlands, though I’m still toying with where that actually fits into my big list! Anyway, lucky it did come out at number ten or I’d have wasted almost as much time writing all of this as you have reading it!

We’ve already established a bit about Test Drive II, but Distinctive Software (later sucked into EA) released it at that moment of crossover when everything had to be on everything, so in 1989 we saw it on Atari ST and Amiga as well as the old guard of MSX, Amstrad CPC, Spectrum and Commodore 64, then we also got it on Apple II and MS-DOS, though I wouldn’t lay eyes on either of those systems until the following year when I went to university. Then in 1992 it appeared on Genesis or Mega Drive, depending on your location, and then either right at the end of 1992 or well into 1993 (also depending on your location) it finally appeared on SNES too, a full four years after we were told to buy something else instead! And it built on the lack of much at all that made the first game a bit average by expanding into a Cannonball Run kind of race between exotic cars whilst avoiding the police across varied American landscapes. Which is way better than seeing how fast you can drive around a single track!

When the console versions did eventually arrive, they’d mixed up those American landscapes a bit, taking the computer versions’ multi-stage course (and penchant for cliffs with worms running up them!) and turning them into four courses which offer different difficulty levels and race lengths, ranging from five to eight stages. Desert Blast is the easy course, traversing a southwestern-style desert with mostly straight roads, not many off-road objects and it’s all in daylight. City Bound (medium) has you tearing around a more winding road somewhere with Mount Rushmore in the background, with more to crash into and a night stage. East Coast is hard and takes in New England and its coastline if you get that far; half of this course is in the dark or in the rain, there’s more objects to hit and the roads are more complex to navigate. Hardest of all is West Coast, referencing some Seattle landmarks in the opening stages and chucking the full works at you – wind, rain, snow, night, crazy curves, loads of traffic and loads to collide with. As well as separate track difficulties, you’ve got four driving difficulties too, with the default Rookie (auto-shift) letting you focus on getting a feel for the road, then Auto-Shift with a tougher opponent. Manual-Shift gives you manual gears, but also introduces the tachometer, and if you’re working the engine too hard for too long you’re going to start seeing smoke in the rearview mirror as all your power gets blown out of the exhaust pipe! Finally, Pro (manual-shift) is going to chuck in far more aggressive cops and far tougher opponents.

You’ve got a choice of cars including Porsche 959, Ferrari F40 and Lamborghini Diablo. The Porsche has one less gear than the others, but being a complete car philistine I usually go for that because it means a click rather than a move and click of the controller! If you plug in a second controller and know what buttons to press, there’s a mass of customisation possible too, from car height to drag coeffient and scrub rate, none of which I understand in the slightest, let alone the effect of any of them on your game – what I do know is you can make your car jump by doing this though! Similarly, you have the same choice when it comes to choosing your opponent, and I’m not sure there’s any difference here, or you can choose to race the clock. As well as the usual car driving guff, your cockpit includes a radar detector, which is occasionally going to start flashing and beeping, meaning there’s a cop hanging about somewhere close and you need to slow to the speed limit or you’ll be pulled over and get a ticket, meaning a 20-second penalty.

The problem with that is you’re not winning any supercar race by sticking to the speed limit, so having a go at outrunning them is probably the only option, and that ain’t easy once you’re on the harder courses! To help you with this balancing act, you’ve also got what the manual proudly refers to as “Dots at the Top of the Screen” which represent you, your opponent and any police about, and your position between the start and the finish, which will be a gas station providing end of stage information. Fuel plays a role as well, and if you overshoot the gas station you’ll suffer in the next stage, losing a life and getting a time penalty if you run dry; this is also the case if you crash or blow your engine, and running out of your five lives is by far more likely to be the cause of game over than winning or losing a race! There is a chance for redemption if you’ve done well in a stage on the higher driving difficulties though, for example, by keeping your average speed above 120mph you’ll get a bonus life.

For a game that was never interesting to me, it turns out there’s some serious depth here, and it’s not over yet! Regardless of winning or losing, there’s good and bad endings too, depending on whether or not you’ve avoided police pursuits by sticking to the speed limit. Which I’m still not convinced is in the spirit of a racing game, but it’s all very early nineties anarchy, with a saucy 16-bit female cop suggestively informing you of the outcome, one way or another, when you reach the end of a stage.

As we’ve already alluded to, being more Volvo than Ferrari, the SNES in general isn’t great at first-person 3D, but somehow what we have here is a real sense of speed as scenery flies by really smoothly, and with no Super Nintendo slowdown anywhere that I’m aware of, even when things get busy. Whilst other traffic, roadside objects and the various backgrounds are also more Volvo than Ferrari, they work fine, and are elevated by some really nice attention to detail, with the lights having form at night, or giving the rearview mirror a real sense of purpose as you try to keep some cars between you and your opponent, but also little touches like them using indicators as they peek out to overtake, or bugs hitting the windscreen, which I don’t think that even the likes of Dirt 5’s jaw-dropping next-gen graphical enhancements attempted! That said, Dirt 5 couldn’t match Atari ST’s Toyota Celica GT Rally for wiper effects either, but I’m sure we’ll come back to that one day… Top ten favourite racing game windscreen wipers? Anyway, each of the cars also has its own cockpit design with loads going on, and I love that my default behind the wheel view isn’t just the game’s default but also the only view you get! I know it’s asking a lot of the SNES to do any more than this, but the only thing I would have appreciated is a little more draw distance, especially for overtaking on a narrow stretch of road, or coming to a halt close to the gas station, but it’s not a big sacrifice for everything else! Not a huge amount to say about sound design – it’s also functional, with some nice engine effects, police car sirens and so on, but it’s a shame that the pan-pipe rock theme tune isn’t available during gameplay, which is something the Mega Drive version does offer! The volume of police car sirens coming and going depending on distance, and the very sultry “Test Drive Two” you get on the title screen now and again does make up for it though!

Now the tricky bit that as I write I’m not quite prepared to write about yet… We’ve got a fairly basic racing concept with added depth that I don’t really care about backed by mostly functional graphics and sound, so how has it jumped into the hallowed ground of my top ten racing games of all time in the space of a couple of months? Incidentally, I’ve also spent the last few weeks trying to rationalise the opposite side of the same coin with my game of 2021 so far at the time of writing, Resident Evil Village (more here), that for all its wonder still comes nowhere near its very much predecessor Resident Evil 4 (even more here) in that big list of favourite games. That said, Resident Evil 4 had a very similar jump into my top three games ever, having also been dismissed for various reasons until late 2019!

Anyway, in the case of Test Drive 2, it’s a bit easier. It’s just the gameplay, and specifically the gameplay of this SNES version! I felt absolutely in tune with controlling those cars from the second I loaded it up for the first time, in much the same way I did with Virtua Racing and V-Rally 3, as opposed to the absolute exhileration of something like Out Run or Super Hang-On. You can feel the point at which the car’s about to transition from smooth movement to skid, and from there, over time, the point of being in control versus out of control, and sitting right on the edge there as you make split second decisions on whether to overtake or not overtake, slow down or make a run for freedom. And I just love the resulting micro race strategy based on how your car feels in motion at any given moment of time, and how you’ll emerge into the next one based on how well you pulled off the last – as well as the frantic correction in-between if you didn’t do so good!

I will get the Atari ST version at some point, when the price is right, but I’m pretty sure that like the Mega Drive version, it’s a different game. And I’ve now got more than enough racing to do on there, if I can ever force myself to eject another recent buy, that marvellous Super Sprint follow-up Badlands I mentioned earlier! I’m still nowhere near done with this either – I’ve not even mentioned the high score table, which, again, much like Virtua Racing, is far more of a draw after extended play than you might expect for a racing game, and adds even more depth that I am actually interested in this time! I’m not sure that thirty years of disinterest in something really qualifies as love at first sight, but let’s just keep telling ourselves it’s a different game and I reckon that electric spark of instant attraction counts just fine!

My Life With… The Trap Door – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… The Trap Door – ZX Spectrum

FRANKIE SAYS that there’s all sorts of reasons why 1984 is the greatest year in the history of history! It was the be-all and end-all for pop music, from the majesty of Purple Rain to the stadium new romanticism of Spandau and Duran; when people talk about eighties music, what they mean is music from 1984! The arcades were evolving from sci-fi distraction to creating fantasies, from wartime aerial dogfighting in 1942 to being Bruce Lee in Kung-Fu Master in the arcades; we weren’t doing too badly at home either, with a non-stop parade of what would become all-time greats, from Jet Set Willy to Knight Lore to Elite. When the games got kicked off of the TV for the evening, Miami Vice introduced the world to the eternal definition of being cool, and Airwolf and Blue Thunder fought for helicopter supremacy. Over in the cinema, the classics just didn’t stop – Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones, Police Academy, Gremlins, The Terminator, Ghostbusters… And, of course, This is Spinal Tap became the last word in movie comedy, forever cemented in my top ten favourite films ever!

We’re only scratching the surface too! What about Wham and Van Halen, Radio Ga-Ga and Big in Japan, Pac-Land and Hyper Sports, Sabre Wulf, Moon Fleet, Fraggle Rock, Karate Kid, Romacing the Stone, Footloose, Footloose, kick off your Sunday Shoes…? And don’t forget, we’re still in prime A-Team, Knightrider, Dukes of Hazzard and ITV World of Sport Wrestling territory, and we’ve got 2000AD and Eagle, and the FA Cup Final is still a big event, and there’s the LA Olympics to look forward to, and Do They Know It’s Christmas… Okay, I get it, that last one’s got you convinced and I don’t need to go on! I was 12 in 1984, and there’s no doubt that this cultural tsunami is why I am what I am today, and, combined with an emerging taste for the weird and horrific, it’s also why I was perfectly positioned to completely fall in love with another new TV show that year, The Trap Door!

“Somewhere in the dark and nasty regions, where nobody goes, stands an ancient castle. Deep within this dank and uninviting place, lives Berk, overworked servant of the thing upstairs – “Berk! Feed Me!” – but that’s nothing compared to the horrors that lurk beneath the trap door, for there is always something down there, in the dark, waiting to come out…”

What I didn’t appreciate at the time, but with the benefit of a horror collector’s hindsight can very much appreciate now, is that this was a parody of the introductions Vincent Price used to do at the start of his horror movies like The Haunted Palace and The House on Hanted Hill. Slightly more child-friendly, we were then treated to the iconic theme tune, which was penned by none other than the guy who wrote then equally iconic Shakin’ Stevens’ Merry Christmas Everyone – “Don’t you open that trapdoor, you’re a fool if you dare! Stay away from that trapdoor, ’cause there’s something down there…”

What follows is a stop-motion plasticine animation set in the gothic psychedelia of the aforementioned ancient castle – we’re stylistically somewhere between the simplicity of Tony Hart’s Morph that we already knew and loved, and those dreadful Wallace and Gromit things, which some of the team here would actually go on to be involved in. Most of the action takes place in the castle pantry and cellar, where Berk, a big blue blob from the West Country lives with Boni, an intellectual talking skull, and his pet spider Drutt. Then there’s his master, The Thing Upstairs, who we never actually see but in most episodes he’s ordering Berk to make him food, fix things or clean him; and in most episodes, these orders spark some kind of misadventure involving Berk opening The Trap Door, which shuts out the monsters and “horrible things” living in the caverns below.

As an aside, even though we never see The Thing Upstairs, the clues are there if you pay attention… There’s sponge-like tentacles in a flash of lightning in one episode; Berk also refers to his three eyes and later asks which of his heads is suffering from toothache; we also see bits of him – that sore tooth comes out and is more than half the size of Berk, and at one point one of his eyes ends up in The Trap Door, and that’s almost as big as him; there’s also references to three humps and having wings, which we hear beating at one point. Anyway, the sort of thing you’d probably jump through monstrous hoops for!

Creators Terry Brain and Charlie Mills, supported by the instantly recognisable voice talents of Willie Rushton, gave us 25 episodes of The Trap Door, which if I remember rightly ran on weekday evenings on ITV to begin with, then on one of their Saturday morning shows, and lasted about 5 minutes each. There was a second series, but not until 1990, and as far as I know those episodes were mostly re-hashes of the first one, but being 18 at the time I was probably more into Sarah Greene on Going Live on Saturday mornings! Actually, I’d have been collecting trolleys for Sainsbury’s in Bedford, but that’s far less exotic than Sarah Greene! Anyway, back in 1984, two years later we’d finally get The Trap Door game of the cartoon, released by Piranha Games on ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC, and written by none other than Don Priestley, who by this time had made a bit of a name for himself – especially on the Spectrum – for really groundbreaking oversized and very colourful graphics. I think a friend’s copy of Popeye was one of the very first games I played on my Spectrum +2, and I was just blown away by these enormous, detailed sprites that really brought one of my favourite comic strips to life, even if they didn’t move so well and the game wasn’t really that much fun to play! But you can see the seeds sown in the not dissimilar but even less fun predecessor Benny Hill’s Madcap Chase starting to grow into something that might end up really good!

And in 1986, The Trap Door evolved his signature format into something really good that didn’t just drag the Spectrum kicking and screaming way beyond its normal limits to perfectly nail the look of the cartoon, but captured the essence of what made it so engaging too, masterfully transporting its plot mechanics into solid puzzle-solving gameplay mechanics. Like the cartoon, you as Berk are grudgingly carrying out the orders of The Thing Upstairs, but there’s an end game – a safe full of loot – if you successfully carry out five increasingly bizarre tasks in the harder but more rewarding Super Berk mode, or four in the easier but lower scoring Learner Berk mode. You need to do them quickly and accurately before his anger boils over, sending your completeed offerings Upstairs on the dumb waiter in the hope that The Thing accepts it. As you might have guessed, each of these tasks is going to involve opening up that Trap Door and letting out one of the ‘orrible monstrosities that lurk down there, which, if you’re lucky, is going to play a role in in completing it. And if you’re not lucky, you’re going to have to get rid of it (somehow!) before you either run out of time or worse. If that wasn’t bad enough, having the trap door open in Super Berk mode risks letting spooks out, and like everything else in Berk’s world, they’re hungry and the only way to get rid of them is to feed them whatever you have at hand (even your mate Boni!) before they do you mischief.

There’s more to Boni than being ghost-bait though, and if you pick him up he’ll sometimes give you a clue on what to do next. Drutt the spider isn’t quite so useful though, generally getting in the way as he hops around trying to catch worms to eat. Apart from that, you’re relying in The Thing Upstairs to tell you what he wants, then finding whatever it is you need to give it to him. These will be scattered around the place, and you’re going to have to work out what’s needed and when, then how to use it and what monster you’re going to need to complete it. The first mission gently introduces you to this multi-dimensional puzzling… You need to send up a can of worms, so you’re going to find a can in the kitchen and take it back to the room with The Trap Door, which you’re going to open to release some worms then try and catch before Drutt eats them. Get a couple in the can and that’s it, you can put them in the dumb waiter and send them up to your master.

Obviously, things soon get more complicated! You’ll be working out how to transport small eyeballs so you can grow them into bigger ones in plant pots before getting them into a vat so one of the monsters can crush them; you’ll be using fire-breathing robots to roast slimes; you’ll be using The Trap Door (sorry, has to be capitals!) to fling bullets or anything else at hand at bizarre birds that, after a load more equally bizarre steps, will end up as fried eggs, and so on. There’s some strategy at play with this puzzle solving as well though; The Thing Upstairs’ anger is measured by an anger meter, and you need to get stuff done before it gets too high, but once you know what you’re doing with the puzzles, you can use any time left over to maximise your score. For example, you might want to start those eyeballs growing or move objects to the locations they’ll need to be used in later before you send your current delicacy up in the dumb waiter. Get your four or five tasks done and it’s time to tidy up, which involves throwing everything down into The Trap Door, then working out how to open the safe and taking your place as a true Super Berk!

Learner Berk mode is definitely where you want to cut your teeth, learning the layout of the castle’s six screens and  just enjoying being there for a while as you work out the puzzles without stuff trying to kill you. The puzzles do require a bit of lateral thinking, but this isn’t Monkey Island, and a lot of the objects can be used in a variety of ways, so if for some reason you’ve lost the thing that might have been best-suited to doing something, you’ll most likely have a back-up if you give it a bit of thought. The game might be 35 years old at the time of writing, but I’m not going to spoil it too much more than this because its complex logic still deserves your attention way more than that! But it does involve a lot of moving a huge sprite up and down and left and right, manipulating objects and shoving them around, and where this game really deserves credit it the way it makes this so easy, almost guiding you in as you approach an item or a door. Super Berk mode is going to ramp up the difficulty, adding far more danger even if you are repeating a lot of what you’ve done before, but it’s also where you’re going to have the most fun, juggling escaping monsters breathing fire at you while avoiding the ghosts and trying to collect worms before your pet spider eats them all with that anger meter counting down in the background! And unlike Benny Hill and even, though it’s always pained me to say it, my beloved Popeye, for all its bells and whistles, The Trap Door really is fun!

But what bells and whistles they are though! There were a couple of times I remember the Spectrum going bigger later, for example that dreadful Merlin game, but apart from maybe its sequel and spiritual follow-up Flunky, I’m not sure the Spectrum ever got bolder. We should also mention that for all of those huge sprites, that would sometimes take up about a third of the screen, and all of that boldness, and all of that colour in them, there’s barely any colour clash. It really is a remarkable achievement, especially when you compare it to the other versions – not sure about the Amstrad, but the C64 actually had worse colour clash; actually, I always found that struggled a bit in comparison on most fronts, closer in performance to Spectrum Popeye than Spectrum Trap Door. The animation was impeccable too, with a smoothness that defied the sheer scale of some of the monsters especially, and you’d often just sit back and watch like it was a cartoon as Drutt and all the little nasties just wandered about doing their own thing; it really brought the characters to life too, providing a level of individuality to everything that moved! There were some great looking games on the Spectrum – Starglider, Exolon, Merlin, Savage, R-Type, Bomb Jack, Lightforce, and not forgetting Popeye of course… but if you’re talking visual aesthetics as a complete package, I’m not sure anything tops The Trap Door.

There’s not a huge amount going on sound-wise once you’re in the game, but before that there’s an occasionally bombastic rendition of the theme tune on the title screen! If only the Spectrum had even a bit of the Mega Drive’s finesse when it comes to drum sounds! Then it’s just a few blips and beeps as you open doors and pull levers, accompanied by a few more that act as audio highlights when Drutt is bouncing around, for example. It’s a little sparse, but less is often more when it comes to 48K Spectrum sound!

I think Don Priestley’s Flunky appeared before the sequel proper in 1987, but being utterly indifferent to anything royal, I gave it a miss then and still give it a miss now! From what I understand it was a similar affair, but in Buckingham Palace rather than a cool horror castle, and from what I’ve seen it still did the business graphically! As did Through The Trap Door, which appeared later the same year, but now the gameplay is getting mixed up a bit, with you able to switch between Berk and Drutt in a single-player co-op effort to rescue Boni from inside The Trap Door. I didn’t play a massive amount of this – you could argue it’s more interesting, but for me it was more Dizzy than the cartoon I loved. Definitely worth playing for Berk’s facial animations alone though!

The Trap Door was an absolute work of art on TV, and the same can be said for the original Spectrum game at least. If you ever wanted to impress your friends with your new Spectrum, this was the game to show them! It was a lot more than immense sprites though – just think of the turgid licenses for Miami Vice, Streethawk and the like; this was a TV license done absolutely right that completely tapped into the soul of the source material! And how many puzzle games have so much longevity after you’ve solved them? Super Berk, indeed!

My Life With… Andes Attack – Commodore VIC-20

My Life With… Andes Attack – Commodore VIC-20

Without actually realising it, my first dalliance with well-known both-ways horizontal scrolling arcade shoot and rescue ‘em-up Defender wasn’t Defender at all, but Drop Zone on Commodore 64, a port of the 1984 Atari 8-bit game. And I didn’t even play that – I was just blown away by a couple of screenshots on an advert in the April 1985 issue of Computer & Video Games magazine – yes, a full four years after Defender!

Anyway, with its jet-packed spaceman and realistic (and classic C64) brown, crater-ridden planet, it looked absolutely stunning, but that was about as far as I got with it for the most part of another four decades. I didn’t even know it was a clone of something else, which was also exactly the case when I got my mitts on another Defender clone by the name of Andes Attack for the VIC-20 at around the exactly the same time.

What I did know was that it was by that llama guy who was everywhere in early 1985 with his camel games, Jeff Minter, and I also liked his Gridrunner on VIC-20 a lot… Gridrunner wasn’t quite a clone, but was very much inspired by what ended up being Minter’s Centipede on the ZX81, where he’d had to take some gameplay liberties to cram it onto there, though he’d also never actually played the original when he did it either! It ended up playing as much like Space Invaders as it did Centipede, but when the VIC-20 was later awash with as many variants of actual Centipede as it was Scramble and Kong clones, and with Atari on the warpath about it, Minter looked back it his old concept, made it more sci-fi than back garden, and added the peril of two sporadic horizontally and vertically coordinated lasers to the Tron-like play grid, where you were shooting at a descending chain of alien pod things. And even though Gridrunner had been around since 1982, since whenever I’d picked it up at some point in 1984, it was still one of the best games you could get for the unexpanded VIC-20!

There was more to Jeff Minter than llamas. There were moose and goats, sheep and centipedes, space giraffes and, of course, mutant camels too. There were also psychedelic lawnmowers, distressed minotaurs and rat-men. And there was his somewhat disturbing but unforgettable appearance as occult superstar Baphomet, the Goat of Mendes, on the cover of Big M magazine in February 1985! But Andes Attack, actually the very first game out of his company Llamasoft in 1982, was definitely about llamas!

Where in Defender you are patrolling a left and right horizontally scrolling planet-scape in your spaceship trying to stop aliens kidnapping your stranded astronauts and turning them into mutants (but not mutant camels), in Andes Attack you’re patrolling the Andes mountains in your Ramjet fighter, where the aliens are after the llamas that are dotted around the surface and demand your protection. You either need to get the aliens before they get to the llamas, or if they manage to grab one, you need to shoot the alien before it gets it to the top of the screen where they will both turn into a nastier alien thing that’s going to hunt you down and ram you out of the sky.

Once you’ve got rid of all of the aliens and mopped up any mutations, you’ll be awarded bonuses for the surviving llamas before moving onto the next stage, which is going to have more aliens and eventually airborne mines all about the place too, which is going to make all those fancy left and right turning shenanigans all the more difficult. If you’re feeling masochistic, you can set your starting skill level from the default zero up to nine on the title screen too, which is going to increase all that alien action from the outset.

Minter himself always seems quite down on Andes Attack in interviews, like he’d prefer the Llamasoft story to start with their big hit (especially in the US) Gridrunner. On his own website, he tells us that “Andes Attack was a relatively crude character-mode Defender-ish game for the Vic-20. It arose out of some ‘virtual screen’ routines I had written, which allowed one to designate a big screen as large as memory allowed, and then pan around it with the joystick. I liked Defender, which was a scrolling game, so it seemed natural to use my scroll routines to make a Defender game. Despite being well buggy (bits of mountain range had an alarming habit of appearing in mid-air for no good reason) Andes Attack sold fairly well, probably just because the other software around in the UK at that time was utterly, utterly crap.”

Apart from the VIC-20’s pretty much arcade-perfect port of Asteroids-inspired shooter Omega Race, and definitely Gorf and Pirate Cove Adventure, if we’re talking 1982 he’s probably not that far wrong in terms of software library. But why so down on the best version of Defender that ever existed? Okay, I have now actually played original Defender and it’s by no means my favourite game ever, but apart from The Perils of Willy, Andes Attack is my favourite VIC-20 game ever!

Graphically, it looks like Defender, and not just in screenshots either – as well as balancing peril, Defender is all about speed, and amazingly those Minter scroll routines manage to capture that even if the ship isn’t quite as zippy and there is a bit of artefacting on the mountains and the star field. His rogue mountain pieces really aren’t a problem though! Everything is colourful, you and the aliens are really well defined, and the llamas are simple but happily obvious as you’re gadding about the mountains. You’ve got some nice explosions and that huge laser trail that you could end up leaving all over the screen is still a treat to mess around with.

Manoeuvring mid-turn as you’re changing direction still looks and feels like the Defender one, and as ridiculous as it may sound today, that manoeuvre was a really impressive big deal on a VIC-20 in 1982 and still in 1985! Unless you’re ramping up the skill level, you’ve got a really well balanced difficultly too, not quite as punishing as its source material, but by the time you’re three or four levels in, almost as frantic, by which point it’s become a real tactical balance of shooting aliens and saving llamas for the best possible score. And it’s immediacy means that score is going to quickly become all encompassing, and the reason why you’ll genuinely struggle to stop playing, and why you’ll then be back the next day – this is properly old-school addictive, and I’m talking today and not mid-eighties!

If I’m picking hairs, now and again you are going to see your laser going straight through an alien without registering a kill, and if it then flies straight into you as you’re turning for another go you won’t be happy! It is also a bit simpler than Defender, but forgivably so as we’re talking VIC-20 versions, in that you can let a llama float back down to the ground of its own accord if you’ve just shot it out of the grasp of an alien, where in the original a large part of managing the peril was in catching the astronaut and bringing them down safely. You don’t miss it when you know it’s not there though. Speaking of which, Defender was quite dense on the sci-fi blips and swooshes, and whilst this is much less dense in the sound department – again, completely understandably – it is none the less doing a fantastic job at getting enough of the sound that unless you’re comparing them alongside each other, it’s doing a pretty convincing version of Defender!

Defender might be one of the great arcade games, but Andes Attack is one of the great VIC-20 games. No matter what Jeff Minter thinks! The timeless, endlessly compelling concept it’s built around might not be his, but the scrolling routines and all those other lines of code certainly are. Just like the llamas!

My Life With… 1942 – Arcade / ZX Spectrum

My Life With… 1942 – Arcade / ZX Spectrum

My Grandma stayed on in England after World War II, and coming from an Irish family of twelve brothers and sisters, by the time we got to me that meant a lot of toing and froing of relatives for as long as I could remember. It also meant the occasional trip to Ireland for us too… And that always meant the Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire ferry at the end of a relatively epic car journey through darkest Wales, or a train to London then another west that I’m sure took far longer in the 80’s than the under four hours it does today! Fortunately, the ferry marked the end of the journey too, as our final destination was also Dun Laoghaire, a port town developed to serve Dublin in the early 1800’s, and where Bob Geldof and most of the rest of The Boomtown Rats come from too.

Bob Geldof was probably busy with planning Live Aid around the time I’m going back to now – I reckon we’re in the late Spring half term of 1985 and I’m just thirteen, sporting some great highlights in my hair and a part-new romantic, part-C&A lemon jacket that Don Johnson would have been proud to wear as he made his way across the Irish Sea! I reckon he’d have been just about cool enough to hang around the couple of arcade machines on the ship as well, once the cold had brought you in from standing on deck and the subsequent monotony of being stuck on there for another three hours had kicked in!

And of course, the highlight of whatever the rest of the arcade machines were on this particular ferry crossing was an all-new vertically scrolling war plane shoot ’em-up marvel called 1942! It originally appeared the previous year, at the hands of Capcom’s Yoshiki Okamoto, who, as well as designing its follow-up, would later go on to design Final Fight and a much under-appreciated series called Street Fighter! But back in 1984, he was very successfully following in the footsteps of another Capcom vertical shooter (and actually, I think it was their very first arcade game), Vulgus, where you alternated between being on a planet surface and in outer space taking out giant insect mutants from the planet Vulgus! Despite that, it’s not terribly memorable, though I do have a soft spot for it as a clear predecessor to 1942, and it’s also where that famous Capcom “Pow” power-up icon first began!

Back in 1942, it wasn’t giant mutant insects, but certain enemy planes (the red ones) that would give you this Pow power-up if you shot down the whole group, and that would give you a double-shot, wide-shot, a smart bomb that clears the screen or, a bit later, a pair of escort planes that lasted until they were shot or collided with something – easily done because suddenly your plane isn’t just your plane anymore! Speaking of power-ups, you also had what was a shooter super power at the time, the roll button, and that took you out of the 2D action and into a loop-the-loop, meaning you temporarily avoided any enemy planes or fire. You could do this three times in every stage, but got a decent score bonus at the end for not using it… No chance of that though – it was the coolest thing in the game and exactly what totally gripped me the first time I saw it in the middle of the Irish Sea because it was also one of the coolest things I’d ever seen in any game to that point!

The other thing that got me was the subject matter, which I realise I’ve virtually skipped so far, though there’s really not a lot to it and if you didn’t already know it you’ll have mostly worked out by now! In 1942 you’re the pilot of a “Super Ace” – the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a single-seat fighter plane used by the US Army Air Corps in World War II that was a real jack-of-all-trades including fighter-bomber, bomber-pathfinder and long-range escort fighter; it performed uncommonly well at very high altitudes too, and was responsible for 90% of all the aerial film captured over Europe. Questionable whether or not it could have taken off from an aircraft carrier though… And yes, at this exact moment in 1985 I was also a bit of a World War II plane nerd! Anyway, you’re in the Pacific Theatre, where the P-38 did most of its real-life fighting, shooting down the entire Japanese air fleet and its various fighters, light bombers and heavy bombers, plus four slighly less realistic big boss planes across 32 stages on your way to Tokyo, over the sea and over tropical landscapes. At the end of each stage you’re briefly landing on an aircraft carrier, getting a stage summary, then you’re on your way again. Simple stuff, but, having worked for a Japanese company for one month short of twenty years at the time of writing, and learnt quite a lot about Japanese culture from many visits, it’s curious subject matter all the same having the Japanese as the bad guys!

The first few levels are very sea-based, meaning lots of fighting over a mildly textured blue background! For all of the nicely detailed, mostly recognisable little planes flying all over the screen, it’s not that much of a looker yet, but then that aircraft carrier you strictly speaking cannot land on appears, and you land on it, and it’s a really wonderful sight! Get a little better, and things pick up as you cross very Pacific island-looking Pacific islands, with lush jungle foliage, volcanoes, outcrops, ruins lakes and beaches scrolling smoothly below the aerial warfare, then transitioning back into the contrastingly bleak but very blue expanses of sea.

The sound is very unique, in the same way a dog whistle probably sounds “unique” to a dog; in fact, I think I know exactly what that sounds like after playing 1942 so much recently! There’s some vaguely war movie type music playing now and again, and some very functional gun and plane engine revving sounds as it loops, but there’s also a non-stop whistle! And it’s like the whistle you’d get at the start of Match Day or something on the Spectrum! A shrill, beeping impersonation of a whistle… Beep, Beep-Beep, Beep, Beep, Beep-Beep-Beep, [silence], Beep! I don’t know what it’s meant to be, or what the rhyme or reason is for the sequences it’s sounding in, but it’s terrible! I guess it made people look as they went by though, and while you’re playing it does add an air of chaos to that wonderful gameplay, especially when you’re fully powered up and mowing down everything before it’s even realised your on its screen!

Speaking of the Spectrum, I’m not sure I was ever more excited about an arcade conversion on there than I was for 1942! Okay, maybe Shao-Lin’s Road (more here), but sacred ground like that aside, I couldn’t wait for this to land! The main difference here was that I’d played loads of arcade Shao-Lin’s Road over a long period of time, whereas in reality I’d played minutes of 1942 on a single ferry journey, but somehow those minutes had had an enormous impact on me, and just to be able to play it again in any form – let alone one in my own home – just had me at absolute fever pitch!

Elite handled the 1986 conversion, which was promising after they’d recently scored big with fantastic conversions of Bombjack, Paperboy, Commando and Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and I think that 1942 is programmed with a similar philosophy to Commando especially – a simple conversion that focusses on the simple gameplay mechanics that work so well in the original. By which I mean yes, there’s not a huge amount to look at, especially in the first couple of levels, apart from reasonably detailed planes with some occasionally suspect colour choices! What is there has plenty of attention to detail though – the planes moving in partial 3D as they tilt their wings to turn; there are unique explosions depending on the plane type, with multiple explosions when you take down a big one; and all the planes have working propellors, even the ones that indicate how many lives you’ve got left! They nailed that special roll too!

It does all pick up once you start flying over islands though, as does the inevitable result of some of those colour choices, with some especially fine examples of colour clash when you make landfall! Sound is equally – and mercifully – bare bones too; can you imagine all that whistling coming out of the Spectrum??? They cracked the gameplay though! It’s a little less frantic than the arcade version, though no less challenging, and some very minor suspicions about collision detection now and then aside, it’s always held its own as both a Spectrum shooter and a great conversion. And most importantly for something as addictive as 1942, it was now in your bedroom, so no more bugging your mum for another 10p, and not a disembarkment in sight!

I have played other versions, though not to any great extent… The C64 version is a reasonable conversion, let down some very blocky larger enemy sprites, and what I’ve always considered a very geographically misplaced rendition of Ron Goodwin’s 633 Squadron theme – was there ever a more completely British tune that that, so why’s it playing over the Midway skies? The NES got a great version apart from the sound effects, which are a mix of a dumbed-down take on the arcade’s iconic beepy whistles and some white noise for guns! And I spent a fair bit of time with the Game Boy Colour’s version, which I think is a port of the NES version, but to me seems a lot easier, although the sound is definitely less offensive out of those tiny speakers! It would take the Capcom Classic Reloaded collection on PSP for me to finally get that holy grail of the arcade version not only at home, but in my hands too, back in 2006, and then another fifteen years to be able to play it on a telly as well with Capcom Arcade Stadium on Switch.

That PSP collection was also where I first got my hands on the sequel, 1943: The Battle of Midway, though it was some time later that I really took any version of that seriously with the Japan-only 1991 PC-Engine reimagining, 1943 Kai, which is actually based on the also Japan-only alternate arcade version of the sequel, 1943 Kai: Midway Kaisen, with reworked graphics, sounds and even lasers! But either version was effectively more of the same, with you now taking out Japan’s naval fleet as well as its air force, so you’ve got bombs for them, and a health bar rather than lives too. I must confess I’ve barely touched the original original on Capcom Arcade Stadium so far – after all, it’s got original original 1942 on it! But I have played the Spectrum version, which is graphically very impressive, going into complete overdrive compared to its 1942, but I find the gameplay a bit soul-less, and I’ll generally switch it off before my life bar is depleted! The NES version is also worth noting because it features a persisent upgrade system for your plane.

At this point, just don’t think too hard about the Battle of Midway actually taking place in 1942 or it will throw the whole space-time mess of the entire rest of the series into total destructive disarray! Not that I have much experience of the rest though – 1941: Counter Attack seemed like a 1990 update of the original; 19XX: The War Against Destiny in 1996 had multiple planes to choose from; 1944: The Loop Master in 2000 offered tactical invicibility; and then we had 194X: 3D Dogfight in 2005, 1942: Joint Strike in 2008 and 1942: First Strike in 2010, none of which I’d even heard of until two minutes ago!

Despite having multiple versions of the original 1942 now, I think it’s a testament to the deceptive quality of the Spectrum conversion behind that simple facade that I still play on there more than anywhere else. That fleeting glimpse at the arcade machine on a ferry with its loop-the-loops and exotic warplanes might have sparked my imagination, but the Spectrum is where the game really came to life for me, and it’s never really stopped living there, despite the bells and those shrill, beeping whistles of the original!

My Life With… Shao-Lin’s Road – Arcade / ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Shao-Lin’s Road – Arcade / ZX Spectrum

The mid-eighties video rental experience offered endless possibilities for the martial arts-obsessed teenager; you might have rented them a dozen times, but there was still a whole world beyond Enter the Dragon and Way of the Dragon that didn’t stop with other Bruce Lee films, or even those of the Bruceploitation greats like Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Lie, Bruce Lai, Bruce Thai, Brute Lee and, of course, Lee Bruce! The works of Jackie Chan were the natural progression, with stuff like Drunken Master, Police Story, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow or Brazil-based food-truck vigilante classic Wheels on Meals easy selections from the bulging martial arts video shelves. We’re just pre-Seagal and Van Damme here, so Chuck Norris was the big western alternative with the likes of The Octagon, Code of Silence and An Eye For An Eye, featuring loads of signature roundhouse kicks and Christopher Lee as his drug-baron nemesis.

Outside of these heavyweights we had more niche stuff like New York- based The Last Dragon, with its classic Shogun of Harlem bad guy, or Five Deadly Venoms, where different fighting styles are represented by five different animal masks, each with its own deadly venom – you had Lizard, Centipede, Scorpion, Snake and, er, Toad! Crippled Avengers offers a similar concept, but with the fighters having a unique disability rather than a fancy mask! There was also a ton of more generic warring faction (or more likely warring kung-fu school) stuff like Martial Club, Opium and the Kung-Fu Master, Shaolin Temple or The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter – you really could start watching these now and never run out!

And I’m almost forgetting all that ninja goodness we loved so much in the eighties too! American Ninja is maybe the pinnacle of the genre (closely followed by its four sequels!), but there was an endless supply of these as well – Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, Ninja in the Dragon’s Den, Pray for Death, Nine Deaths of the Ninja, Ninja Terminator and The Ninja Strikes Back, which brings us full circle to Bruce Lee… No, hang on, it was Bruce Le, which has also taken me right back to that very easy early-teenage beginner mistake of picking up something you thought was a Bruce Lee film you hadn’t seen yet!

We’d always be watching these things, whether at home – from Video Age (VHS downstairs, Betamax upstairs) – or in our slightly older next-door neighbours’ house, who were members of the other video rental shop in Bedford, which was a bit further away but had an even bigger selection of martial arts movies! Being a bit older also meant that when we were all at the local leisure centre after kung-fu or a Saturday morning roller disco or whatever was on, they’d also get first go (or most goes because they had more money) on whatever the current selection of two arcade machines was in the refreshments area where the drink and snack machines were; at least my brother and me could enjoy a Dr Pepper in the only place you could get it at the time while we watched!

In this very limited experience of arcade games, I often wonder if my favourites are favourites because they’re actually any good, or if they were just there and made a lasting impression because they were better than anything I’d ever have at home! Looking at my big list of all-time favourite games, and the top 25 specifically, there’s not a lot on offer from the arcades, but from what is there, I doubt that many would argue with Star Wars, 1942 and Out Run being subjective top likes, but then as we approach my top ten we have Elevator Action, and finally, right inside my top five, we have Shao-Lin’s Road… and I’m sure that many haven’t even heard of them, let alone ever put them in any kind of best-of arcade list!

But back in our local leisure centre in our 1985 and 1986 heyday, those two sat side by side after Shao-Lin’s Road replaced Kung-Fu Master in the very slow, very infrequent machine rotation that – apart from fun fairs twice a year – dictated my exposure to that golden age of arcade games. And coming back to my previous point, I still play and absolutely love both the arcade and ZX Spectrum versions of both as much as other all-time favourites like arcade Out Run or Spectrum Renegade or Atari ST Supersprint, for example, so it’s not all rose-tinted. And yes, these non-arcade versions of Renegade and Supersprint are stories for another time, but as a point of interest, exclusively ports and not originals of Gauntlet, Enduro Racer and Commando also feature in my top 25!

Whilst we’ve established that I might not have been that well informed on arcade games in the mid-eighties, there certainly wasn’t much I didn’t know about Bruce Lee, Brute Lee, nunchuks and ninjas! And after our first taste of the union between the two media with Kung-Fu Master’s hero-versus-many rhythmic scrapping that we knew so well from our beloved movie rentals, when Shao-Lin’s Road came along there at some time in 1986, it added a whole new vertical dimension to that against the odds brawling, and I can still picture watching over my neighbour’s shoulder as he played it for the first time and just being blown away!

Something I did know around this time was Yie Ar Kung Fu, mainly from the very distinctive advert for the home computer versions with its own take on Bruceploitation, as well as those really distinctive characters in Commodore 64 promo screenshots, with all those chains and poles and absolutely groundbreaking variety in what was still the very early days of one-on-one fighting games. And when the home conversions of Shao-Lin’s Road appeared on the horizon, it got even more cool points with me because it turned out that all this time it was actually a follow-up to Yie Ar Kung Fu. Or at least that’s what the adverts said, because in the very same issue of Computer & Video Games magazine at the end of 1986, there was another advert for something called Yie Ar Kung Fu II, which was surely a more likely follow up, right? It was definitely adamant it was, highlighting it was officially endorsed by Konami and it was a sequel not a follow-up!

Actually, I was so excited about home ports of Shao-Lin’s Road that I didn’t pay much attention at the time, but it turns our that while Ocean had been sorting out the licence to the official sequel, competing publisher The Edge had done the same for Shao-Lin’s Road, and decided to advertise it as “The smash hit follow-up to Yie Ar Kung-Fu.” Taken literally, you might argue that was not incorrect because it’s also by Konami and it did come out a year or so after Yie Ar Kung-Fu in the arcades, in April 1985, so technically it was following it up, but it’s a pretty outrageous thing to do all the same! Even more outrageous was when reviews for both started appearing in early 1987 and Road was outscoring Fu II, albeit generally as signficantly less average rather than anything outstanding in its own right! It had a couple of 8/10 reviews though, and I remember Your Sinclair liking it a lot, as well as being quite sure it was the sequel to Yie Ar Kung-Fu! All that said, I’m not 100% sure how much Ocean’s official sequel is a real official sequel either, or where the planned Konami sequel that ended up being Martial Champion fits in, but we’ve spent far longer on a possibly unrelated game than I planned to here already, so we’re moving on!

Anyway, we were going to talk about this home version advert because this is our first hint at what’s going on in the arcade game we’ve been playing all this time! And it starts with another allusion to it’s follow-up status… “Our hero has finally mastered the secret martial art “CHIN’S SHAO-LIN” but is trapped by triad gangs. With kicks and other secret powers, escape from and travel SHAO-LIN’S road to freedom!” Not sure about Yie Ar Kung-Fu, but that’s definitely along the lines of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow or something!

When we finally get our mitts on the home versions, the cassette inlay goes even further… “As our Hero Lee you have finally mastered the secret martial art, “Chin’s Shao-Lin”. You find yourself trapped in the temple by hoards of Triads. Using your kicking skills and magic powers you must fight off the Triads and get out of the temple and head for the road to freedom. At each step on your way on your road to freedom you will encounter more and more of the Triads, and at each stage you will discover one that is particularly skilful! Look out for flying kicks, breathing flame, and punches that come clear out of nowhere!”

And there we were thinking we just had a great arcade game on our hands! Unlike its predecessor – one way or another – Yie Ar Kung-Fu, which is a pure fighter, Shaolin’s Road is more arcade platformer, where you’re working your way through five multi-tiered environments packed with goons to kick and magic away, and once you’ve done that the level restarts with more goons and the aforementioned particularly skilful boss characters; get rid of them all and you move on to the next level. Beat the last one and you’ll start all over again, but with even more particularly skilful characters on top of even more goons – some of which now throw knives or throwing stars or themselves – from the outset, as well as birds dropping eggs of death onto you! Some of the goons (you’ll know them by their trousers) release power ups after a good kicking which you have to quickly catch to get one of your magic powers. The first is a spikey ball that you can kick to knock over any enemies on your level of the level, and you can even catch and do this jumping super move with if you time things right. Next is a fireball that shoots out of both sides, but only seems to work on enemies a fair distance away. Last is a ball of energy or the like that spins around you, taking out enemies as it passes by on its rotation. The boss characters are nicely varied, with demonic looking things that breathe fire, some Yie Ar Kung-Fu style weapon wielders, an angelic looking lady with a lethal flying kick and just some big, bad dudes, but here’s an expert tip – just anticipate them going up and down, kick them, then go up or down! Patience is king in Shao-Lin’s Road!

Apart from one or two expert moves with power-ups that are completely superfluous to beating all the levels, the gameplay is simplicity itself, with you jumping up and down levels and kicking your way through loads of enemies. Jump. Attack. Nothing fancy! There is a bit of strategy needed in the boss characters, and in timing your up and down movements to avoid taking unecessary damage if you want to go far, but you’re going to be on the second level and feeling like Bruce Thai in one or two goes! Most of this happens on a single screen, but at each end you’ll get a very short side-scroll that extends the play area a bit, and within each stage’s three platform levels you’ll also get some gaps in the floor or roofs to jump between to add a bit more danger, with a fantastic slapstick animation if you get too close to an edge! Clearing a level of enemies gives a slightly more rewarding animation though, with a strongman pose and the word “GUTS” captioned about your little guy Lee, who’s got three lives, and three hits are allowed per life per level.

The action starts in a temple with an impressive looking big golden Buddha statue dominating an otherwise sparsely decorated opening scene. It does highlight all the onscreen characters though – big, detailed and full of personality, and their dress-sense really pops against the dominant blacks on this level; they really move at pace too. It’s also a good place to appreciate the bouncy, if slightly stereotypical oriental theme tune, which gets more frantic as the action hots up, with an ominous bass-line warning of impending doom! Sound effects are really meaty as well – you feel like those kicks are connecting! Stage two is where the graphics really come into their own, with you outside the temple (I guess) and everything is bold and bright and really nicely detailed against a rich blue sky; it would all look great in a big SNES JRPG! Stage three sees you at what is probably the grand entrance to the temple grounds, similar in style to stage two. Stage four has you outside a long, lower building with some huge bonsai-like trees behind it providing the third layer of verticality this time, and a bit of variety to the impressive but similarly styled array of traditional Japanese architecture elsewhere. Even more variety in the final stage as you make your way through some kind of desert canyon, with the temple far behind you in the background. Really nice looking stage – especially on the Spectrum…

Apart from being the most hit or miss game to load I ever (legitimately) owned on the Spectrum, it was a superb conversion, and whilst the arcade version might have been the one that always stuck with me, the Spectrum is certainly where I spent the most time. They absolutely nailed the easy to play, hard to master, utterly addictive feel of the original, though I think it gets harder quicker before it evens out a bit in the later levels. There’s also a bit less of the enemies moving up and down to get some vertical advantage, but there is an awful lot more bonus items (vases, possibly pizzas…) flying about here to kick for extra points, which does add a risk-reward element and some high-score longevity once you’re finding yourself good enough to be going around all the levels.

The characters are a bit less varied and a bit less cartoon-like than the original, and, of course, the colours have been toned down a bit, with a lot of use of different types of monochrome with just the odd (really welcome!) colourful flourish in the background, but in the main it looks just like the arcade version. The third level does go a bit more wild, with the resulting black characters feeling a bit like you’re playing in negative, but otherwise they’re nicely detailed, full of personality and everything moves smoothly enough, apart from a little jerkiness when it scrolls, but nothing especially jarring. Just don’t spend too much time analysing the flying kick – I think his leg is shrinking a bit when he does it, and who knows why doing one forces you down a floor! It sounds alright too, with a great rendition of the arcade theme playing on the title screen and a good scattering of pleasingly inoffensive sound effects!

It took me a very long time after the fact to find out that the arcade version had been available on the original PlayStation for several decades, as part of the Konami Arcade Classics compilation, together with Yie Ar Kung Fu – which is fine too, but not a patch on its sequel! And that’s where I generally play it now, before jumping over to the Spectrum version just to see if I can finally decide which one is really the one that makes it number five in my all-time favourite games list. But it’s always both! Simple, addictive and just like being in an eighties martial arts movie!

My Life With… Scooby Doo – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Scooby Doo – ZX Spectrum

Scooby Doo, Where Are You! probably has a lot to answer for! It was one of two gateway drugs to my lifelong passion for horror, along with Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, which I first came into contact with on my auntie’s bookshelf in the late seventies, and gradually became more and more obsessed with as the eighties progressed after she eventually relented and let me have it! After all these years I can pretty much read it without looking at it anymore, and I’d rank it in my top ten favourite books ever – I’m not big into fiction (though M.R. James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is forever number one!) so there’s a lot of serial killer, World War II and rock biography stuff in there too; and this wonderful big hardback encyclopedia from 1973 that’s packed to the gills with every horror movie you ever need to see when you’re old enough!

Speaking of top tens, I’d rank Scooby Doo, Where Are You! at number three in my top ten TV shows ever, after Bottom and Miami Vice. Also note I’m being specific about “Where Are You!” just to avoid any association with later abominations involving Scrappy Doo! Anyway, between them, these two things are entirely responsible for the 3,000+ movies and untold amounts of horror memorabilia I’m now sitting on! This also explains my absolute excitement when a very jaw-dropping advert started appearing in computer games magazines during the autumn of 1985, and this is where our very own mystery begins…

The advert promised the world! The “first ever computer cartoon” with over a hundred scenes of animated action, and it was going to kick off a new craze in computer gaming. The main image has Scooby and Shaggy doing a runner from an old guy that looks like he’s from the Miner 49er episode, with the Mystery Machine parked outside a creepy castle behind them. As well as being chased around the castle and the dungeon, the accompanying text tells us we’ll also be hurtling through abandoned mines in a runaway coal truck and being chased by a shark in a rowing boat. Sounding like the best game ever so far…

It was all backed up by ten very Spectrum-like screenshots; now, I could be wrong, but on closer inspection today I actually think they’re hand-painted to look like Spectrum screens, with some very authentic yellows and clear avoidance of colour clash in the sprites to throw you off the scent! You’ve got half a hanged, oversized skeleton in some kind of dungeon. There’s Shaggy and Scooby in bed with a creepy looking painting – no doubt with false eyes – on the bedroom wall. There’s a really cool view out of a coastal cave with some kind of old galleon going out to sea in the distance, then the next screen seems to a distant view of the same thing, but it’s nearly all sea and it’s very hard to make out. The next two are also a bit hard to make out, with what might be a vase and some other unidentifiable junk in some kind of dungeon in one, and a partial large modern ship in a harbour with some more unidentifiable shapes in a dominant mass of yellow behind it. Then we have a beautiful haunted castle in some windswept green expanse before going a bit unidentifiable again, but it seems to be a wooden frame with some lamps on it in another dungeon-type setting. The last two are far more identifiable and exciting, with Scooby heading towards us down a corridor in one and possibly a sewage pipe in the other.

A lot more detail appeared in the October 1985 issue of Crash magazine, where they have an exclusive preview of the cartoon-adventure “which should be released this month!” And it’s here that we find just about the most detail we’d ever get. The concept was to create a groundbreaking game where you direct the action rather than control a character. Artists started developing animations from original cartoons, while programmers worked out how to compress it all to fit on a Spectrum. We then learn that the the game is set in a Scottish castle belonging to Shaggy’s aunt, who’s being driven out by spooky goings-on. She gives the gang 48 hours to solve the mystery and unmask the inevitable villain before she decides to sell up. This was all to translate to seven or eight action sequences interspersed by the Scooby gang interacting with each other, all against the clock.

In one example of actual gameplay, Scooby is walking down a corridor in what sounds like an animation, then as he approaches a trapdoor the viewpoint changes and it’s up to you to direct the action, interfering with the outcome of the cartoon rather than just playing a game; we’re clearly talking about something like Dragon’s Lair I guess, but the intention was the action and the outcome would be different each time you played. They wrap up saying that when they visited Elite, the raw material was all there and it was being edited together, with all the animations committed to memory and just a few final details to work out…

The following month a Computer & Video Games magazine preview heralded the best graphics they’d seen on a Spectrum and comparisons with laser-disc cartoon games, all ready for review the following month…

1985 was quickly becoming 1986 and still no sign of the game, apart from what seemed to be the box art in an Elite advert for “free-lance” programmers in the January issue of C&VG.

In the February issue there’s a double-page Thorn EMI advert with possibly Frank Bruno holding up the box, where’s it pitted in a fight against Gremlin Graphics’ Super Sleuth. Lots of words about the game but even less information than before, and ominously there’s no longer a screenshot of the best graphics on the Spectrum…

The following month C&VG has an exclusive on all sorts of stuff from Elite, dominated by the iconic first level of Bombjack on C64, but opening with something intriguing… “Despite what you’ve read in other magazines, Elite still plans to release its cartoon computer adventure, Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery, for the 48K Spectrum. On the next page we’ve also got the Scooby screenshot from the advert, where we’re told the game is now coming in April, but Elite boss Steve Wilcox also tells us “it will be different from the version which has been heavily advertised.” Seems they’d run out of memory in the 48K Spectrum after all, so the plot thickens – all in the space of the same preview!

To mark the launch of the game, the April C&VG is giving away fifty copies. It seems like I filled out the entry form but was stopped in my tracks when I had to choose which machine I wanted it for when I realised I didn’t own any of them yet!

If I’d known how long I’d be waiting, I could have picked one and would probably have had it by the time the game turned up with the winners ! For now the trail goes quiet again for another six months, then we’ve one final little twist to the mystery in the November issue of C&VG – a new full page advert is on the inside cover; it still talks about a computer cartoon, but that screenshot is new… Fortunately the contents page says Scooby Doo on page 8 with a tantalising shot of a high score screen no less, but get to page 8 and not a trace. Not a trace anywhere. We need to move on one more time!

Another version of the advert with two better screenshots of the new game welcomes us to the December 1986 issue of C&VG, telling us that “after months of development he’s finally here!” And there’s even a review in the same magazine this time that confirms it!

When I reviewed The Games That Weren’t by Frank Gasking (here), I said that as much as I love what we finally got, I still look at the original advert and wonder what could have been. Those screenshots are just so good, even if I am now questioning exactly what “machine” they’re from!

In the course of our investigation, we’ve spanned a high profile cartoon license marketed for over a year with huge cost, double-page, full-colour adverts in the top gaming press, plus all the other associated pre-launch marketing costs – not to mention what sounds like serious development costs – but no game to show for it, no resulting sales, and no doubt a fair bit of corporate egg on the face too! In retrospect, all those cartoon-accurate scenes were never going to fit into 48K of memory, but Elite still needed a Scooby Doo game, and whilst it wasn’t going to be an 8-bit laser disc showstopper, Gargoyle Games had something more than decent they could quickly realise for them. And also in retrospect, a brutal take on Kung-Fu Master probably had far more mileage for the player too even if it wasn’t really a computer cartoon.

I’ve always known the final product as just Scooby Doo – it’s what the box says, the title screen, and it’s even in big words along the bottom of the screen in case you forget when you’re playing, but there appears to be one possible hangover from what was originally planned… The loading screen says Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery; it’s a great loading screen too! In its defence, the game is still a mystery set in a castle, where as you arrive Shaggy, Velma, Daphne and Fred are spirited away, and it’s up to you to fight your way through the ghosts and demons that lurk around the mad scientist’s lair to rescue them. From flasks!

After the wonderful Spectrum rendition of the Scooby gang on the title screen, we’re in that classic Spectrum rendition of a castle… it’s yellow, like all the best ones on there are! We’re in control of Scooby, next to a suit of armour, and we can see a grand staircase on the floor above us and a couple of doors. And doors are about to become your worst enemy because that’s where the ghosts and the witches and the demons and the spectral fish are coming from to attack you. Relentlessly!

You’re not quite defenceless, with a Scooby punch dispatching them instantly, and you can do a really scaredy-cat duck (by a dog) to avoid bats and the like in later levels, and jump, which will take you over the lethal skulls on the floor, gaps and the bowling ball things that also appear on later levels. A touch from every enemy type means instant death, and a few levels in when they’re coming down stairs as well as out of doors, those six lives you started with and any bonus ones from Scooby Snacks you’ve come across aren’t going to feel quite as generous as you first thought!

Once you’ve found your friends in four increasingly difficult, increasingly complex maze-like levels, each with their own unique colour scheme and bizarre enemies, you’re then hunting the mad scientists. Yes, turns out there’s more than one; in fact, as far as I can tell, once you’ve got one you’ll just keep moving to the next repeated level layout to find the next, and rather than finish it will then just keep looping the levels ad infinitum!

It might be about a cartoon character, but this game pulls no punches. It’s bruta, and even once you’ve learnt the levels, it’s going to take some serious luck with enemy spawns to fight your way to where you need to be! A nice touch is a practice mode where you can get the lie of the land in each level before mounting an attack on the full game – seems a bit more casual in this mode too, though not easy by any means!

I’m not sure if this is the right way to play, but rather than spend long in practice modes, what worked for me is applying the patience of a saint to space management-based scrapping (not to be confused with Scrappy, the original Jar Jar Binks)! As said before, if you’re familiar with Kung-Fu Master and the like, you’ve got enemies coming from left and right, sometimes at different speeds, and you’re working out which way to punch first, then quickly doing it the other way. With other games, the enemies are generally coming from one of the edges of the screen, but here they’re coming out of doors as well as edges. And there’s doors everywhere! That translates to inching your way forwards, waiting got something to come out of a door, going past the door, waiting for something else to come out, then inching forwards a bit more, then repeat! Later on you need to watch out for what’s coming from above as well, and you need to apply a similar process to stairs, gaps and skull jumps until you’ve found your friend’s head in a scientific experiment somewhere on the top floor!

This winning strategy takes forever, and I definitely struggle to maintain my patience when I’m tempted by a nice-looking staircase, but it’s still fun and it’s the only way I ever got to “finish” the game… one day I might do a walkthrough video and it will become the most boring walkthrough ever; the anti-speedrun! But most times when I play I just forget all of that and enjoy larking around in the first two levels beating up ghosts! One other winning strategy, if you’re interested in high scores, is to get a couple of levels in, back up against a wall, and just hold down fire as the spooks run into your deadly paw. You can stay there forever and just watch those numbers rise!

You don’t want to be watching numbers when you’re playing Scooby Doo though; even if it wasn’t a computer cartoon, this game was helping to usher in the absolute golden age of ZX Spectrum graphics, where bold and vibrant colours backed up big, detailed monochrome sprites. The character design is superb too, with Scooby and the gang instantly recognisable (even when they’re just heads in flasks!), and the animation perfectly captures the feel of the cartoon. Just turn the sound down a bit because there’s not a lot going on, but when you notice that grating punching noise combined with the sound of ghosts coming out of doors is as relentless as they are, you’ll never unhear it!

The story of the game that wasn’t might be more interesting than the one that was, and that might not be the game I thought I wanted, but in the end it turned out to be the one I loved. It’s equally fun jumping back into for short bursts as it is knuckling down and rescuing all of your friends; or their heads at least , but with no ending (outrageously also meaning no unmasking!) as far as I can tell, we’ll never know about the rest of those pesky kids!

My Life With… Resident Evil 4 – Nintendo GameCube

My Life With… Resident Evil 4 – Nintendo GameCube

On the 1st August 1996, I was a couple of months into a five year career working for an electronic components distributor in the glamourous town of Leighton Buzzard. As well as being notable for rampant inbreeding (so a bigger boy told me!), it’s also known for the Great Train Robbery, Kajagoogoo and actor Rusty Goffe, who was a Jawa and several other similarly-sized things in a film called Star Wars, though many of us will be more familiar with his work as The Canary Dwarf, Britain’s bounciest weather man, on the sadly defunct Live TV’s Topless Darts. None of that is relevant whatsoever here, except there wasn’t anywhere to buy games in Leighton Buzzard, so I had to call in to Toys R Us in Bedford on the way home to buy Resident Evil, because that was the day it came out here and I needed it immediately!

And there begins my rather disfunctional history with Resident Evil. There was never any question of me getting it the instant it came out – the violence, the realism, the zombies… It was going to be the best game ever! And for quite a long time, I absolutely loved it. Wandering around the best spooky mansion since Scooby Doo, shooting stuff in the face to that epic soundtrack, the first (and still one of the greatest) jump scares in a video game was all fantastic. But there was this ridiculous inventory system, and I kept finding all these items that I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in working out what to do with. Then Wipeout 2097 came out and Destruction Derby 2 and Twisted Metal 2 and WWF in Your House and Legacy of Kain, and then it had no chance of being the best game ever!

That didn’t stop me going through exactly the same process with its sequel a couple of years later though! Or Resident Evil 3: Nemesis in 1999, though in my defence having just played Remake on PS4, I reckon I was most of the way through that one when I ditched it! When I got a GameCube at the end of 2001, more than enough time had passed to justify getting its shiny new remake of the original, as well as Code: Veronica and Zero as a bit more time went by!

I think I just liked the idea of Resident Evil more than actually playing it! And that’s partially behind my decision not to buy Resident Evil 4 the day it came out, or, indeed, for about thirteen years afterwards (when I’d then sit on it for a couple more). For all the hype the game was getting ages before it came out in 2005, to me it just wasn’t Resident Evil – I was interested in zombies, not crazed Spaniards in mud huts. Even if one of them had a chainsaw and a bag on his head! I really was the worst hardcore Resident Evil fan ever! Anyway, I didn’t like how it looked in screenshots either – all that brown was like playing on a Commodore 64 all over again! I just wasn’t interested, no matter what the reviews said, ironically echoing all that best game ever stuff I’d had in my head when I handed over my money for the first game.

Before deciding I was finally going to play through Resident Evil 4 on the GameCube over Christmas 2020, there’s a bit more history to add. I finally played through the remaster (such as it is) of the original on PS4 a couple of years before that, prompted by being lent a copy of Resident Evil 7 and thinking I can’t play the new one without at least a refresh after all those years, particularly after it had been free one month with PlayStation Plus. And lo and behold, this time something was clicking here, no doubt down to the patience that comes with age; or more likely getting less good at just shooting stuff! I finished it then immediately dived into Resident Evil 7, and being decades beyond all about my aforementioned misplaced loyalty to the original games, loved the tense Texas Chainsaw vibe of the first two-thirds before it get a bit more mundane and unnecessarily dragged-out towards the end. Then I went back to my original PS1 disc, this time on the PS3, then the same with the original sequel before playing the absolutely brilliant Resident Evil 2 Remake on PS4 in 2019, followed by the less brilliant but – in my opinion at least – fun all the same Resident Evils 5 and 6 on Nintendo Switch. And through all of this, my impulse (i.e. cheap) eBay pick-up from some time over the last few years, Resident Evil 4, still sat there unloved next to my GameCube; and also next to a to-this-day equally unloved copy of Zelda: Wind Waker, but that will be another story!

In summary, aside from two GameCube games, we’re now caught up in the series to a respectable level at least, having at the time of writing in January 2021 literally just finished the also absolutely brilliant Resident Evil 3 Remake on PS4, so that makes it time to talk about its sequel! And would you believe that for all the years of first having an aversion to it, then having complete indifference to it, Resident Evil 4 has now had a remarkable impact on me and my long history in gaming.

We could go all the way back to way before the start of our tale here when the first one came out, and if you’d asked me what my favourite games were, without any hesitation whatsoever I’d have said Feud on the Spectrum, Kick Off on Atari ST and Renegade, also on the Spectrum and not that arcade version with its weird controls. And whilst my favourite games list has got much bigger, after all these years the bit at the top has never changed… And then we get to about halfway through Resident Evil 4, and this voice in my mind-brain starts telling me that this 15-year old imposter might actually be my favourite game ever, however outrageous that was sounding and however much I genuinely didn’t want to hear it! I mean, Silent Hill 2 (more here) entering the top ten not that long ago was bad enough – poor old Elevator Action – but now we’re talking about complete disruption to a load more things that have been not only been even more deeply pondered over, but have also been even more utterly sacred for so long…

It ended up at number three; nothing will ever top Feud and Kick Off! What’s even more shocking, though, is that it ended up there after such strained beginnings! By the time we got here, right at the end of 2020, having been through all those Resident Evils and developed a proper affection for what the series actually is – even if affection was all it was – I really wanted to get stuck into this. I duly inserted tiny little GameCube Disc 1 (which thankfully has you covered until the final chapter), pressed start and got into the opening Umbrella and its misdemeanours in 1998 recap; jump to six years later and returning hero Leon Kennedy is in “rural Europe” looking for the American President’s missing daughter, who was kidnapped by a strange cult just before he started an assignment to protect her. Someone’s spotted someone that looks like her, so here we are in the back of a police car with two distinctly Mexican-sounding local police escorts, on your way to your start point at a distinctly medieval-looking village, in the middle of nowhere in what is obviously meant to be Spain!

A couple more cutscenes later and we’re on our way, in what was a revolutionary over-the-shoulder viewpoint that would completely re-write action-adventure gaming… Except now, after all those re-writes you’ve been playing for the last fifteen years, the controls absolutely stink! And that’s before you’ve drawn your gun or pulled out your knife. Oh dear! Okay, we’ve come this far down this very atospheric dirt track in the woods and that looks like a house in the distance, so we’ll have a look. Now, this being a Resident Evil game, you’re obviously not going to use any gun ever given the choice because you have to save up all of your ammo for the final credits, so this first guy you’ve got to kill because you’re now in his house is going to have to get stabbed up. Shoulder button, knife out, slash, try and slash in the right direction, and what the hell is going on with this direction button??? Now we’re dead. Restart the game!

A couple more deaths later and you’ll have resorted to your gun; it’s twitchy as hell, the sight is moving wildly all over the screen in the opposite direction to where you want it, and you’ll be lucky to shoot this guy anywhere, let alone in the head where you know he wants it! He’s dead, so time to search the house then jump out of an upstairs window to go through the same process with two more guys (at once if you’re not quick enough). A couple more restarts later and you know where the items near them are, so decide to grab them then do a runner instead of fighting, right down to a save point in a shed! At this point I decided not to save but keep practicing my knife skills instead, but they didn’t get any better, so we save and move on down towards the village that had turned me off in all those screenshots, occasionally stopping to shoot one of the loads more enemies hanging around the trail if you have time to line up a shot because their back is turned, but otherwise just running, stopping only to try and smash open item boxes in more sheds with that stupid knife, then get out before one of them comes in and corners you!

Big gate ahead signifies a checkpoint and we’re in the village and there’s tons of angry villagers with a dead look in their eyes, and you know perfectly well that for all the creeping around you do at the start, you’re in for the most hellish fight you’ve ever been in – just because of these awful controls! Eventually you’re trapped in a house, and it goes all Night of the Living Dead with you trying to block up windows while you try and shoot and stab (good luck!) your way to some kind of safety upstairs, where they’re also now coming in through the windows on ladders! Somehow you get by and get out of one of them, and just start running frantically – at least you’re getting used to how that works now, even if you can’t shoot anything! And then the guy with the chainsaw and the bag on his head appears with a load more psycho-villages, and you can keep running but you can’t hide and eventually – more checkpoint restarts later – you concede that you’re going to have to get some tactics down for a scrap, but at least by now you’re starting to get used to shooting stuff, and eventually you’re starting to appreciate the incredible tension of being stuck in that house with loads of stuff coming through windows, or coming up against Dr Salvadore, the chainsaw guy, because now you’ve got a chance.

A couple of hours later, with the village sections behind you, the archaic controls are going to feel the most natural and pretty much perfect you could ever wish for, even by today’s standards! You’re going to be combining quick leg shots with knives and kicks, jumping between pistols, shotguns, sniper rifles and grenades, dodging and spinning and knowing what’s going to work for cover or just slowing things down, and then you can relax a bit and start marvelling at how everything looks because it turns out it’s not all about brown!

So far I’ve liked the initial creepy but too short woodland stroll, and the wooden-hutted village and farm bits actually turned out to be pretty cool as you run around them, with tons of detail giving a real sense of oppression and a surprising amount of claustrophobia, like that you might experience being stuck in a big city rather than rural Spain. You’ll eventually emerge into a valley, absolutely riddled with wooden platforms, rope bridges and all kinds of huts and a swarm of different enemies, and this is where you really first notice both the scale of the game and also its incredible visual quality. It’s also worth noting that we’re talking visual quality on a GameCube on a modern TV, so when it came out I can only imagine how impressive what they were getting out of that little purple box must have been! What really got me though, not long after this, was going up an even creepier wooded path then emerging into a big graveyard with a church towering over it on the hill in the distance. At this point I actually stopped playing the game, turned off the lights, and started taking photos of the TV, adjusting Leon until I got the shot of the scene over his shoulder that I wanted, and with the benefit of hindsight and far more thought than you should give something so trivial, can say it’s one of my favourite sights in any game ever!

After a bit more killing (zombie wolves not dogs for a change!) and a bit of classic Resident Evil item collection and puzzle-solving, it’s around here that we’re going to find Ashley, the President’s daughter, and oh no, next disappointment, she’s coming with us and it’s not only going to be dreadful escort missions, but she’s a 20-year old American girl that acts like a 15-year old American girl! Actually, neither turns out to be so bad, and for a mostly non-playable character from 2005, she even displays a modicum of intelligence and tactical nouse in combat! Anyway, I was going to say, this is probably a good point to expand on the plot, because it’s now clear that there’s more to all of this than just finding your newly un-kidnapped sidekick!

This mysterious cult that kidnapped her is called Los Illuminados, and it turns out that all these villagers that keep attacking you have not only renounced farming to pledge their lives to it, but have also become infected by a parasite called Las Plagas that’s taken over their minds! On your travels so far, you’ll have been captured and infected by it too, and while captive you meet Luis Sera, an investigator who was researching the cult; once you both escape he’ll become useful for filling you in on the plot throughout the game! And then we find Ashley, who it turns out was also injected with the parasite, and the cult leader’s plan is for her to take it home to inject her father with it, which will in turn allow him to take over the world. Once you’ve found her, you’ll end up in freaky man-child Ramon Salazar’s castle, get separated then have to start searching for her all over again. In the lead-up to fighting mutated Salazar, you’ll meet saucy blast from the Resident Evil 2 past Ada Wong who’ll both help and hinder you as you go on.

Next you’ll go to an island research facility to find Ashley, and someone else from Leon’s spec-ops past, Jack Krauser, appears as the mercenary that kidnapped Ashley. Now we learn that both he and Ada Wong are working for star (also STAR) of original Resident Evil Albert Wesker, now a born-again nutcase who also wants a piece of the Las Plagas action. After dispatching him you’ll find Ashley again, discover a big machine that can cure the pair of you, then have a showdown with the also-mutated big bad cult leader, assisted by Ada Wong and her inevitable Resident Evil final boss rocket launcher! As a final twist in the tail, Ada’s going to do a runner with Leon’s parasite sample, and all that’s left to do it escape the island on a jet-ski before it explodes!

The parasite enemies versus zombie enemies of previous Resident Evils do change things up quite a lot, where they’re quicker and have some intelligence about them, though shooting them in the head still works fine – especially when it’s from miles away with a fully-upgraded scope on your rifle! It’s not just zombie cult farmers, tooled-up chanting monks, very well-armed (and sometimes shielded) soldiers, walking suits of armour, chainsaw bag-head guys and the like you’ll be shooting up though. There’s different, much tougher (and far more sinister) versions of them that wouldn’t look out of place in Silent Hill; there’s various parasites, flying bugs and those undead wolves; there’s lumbering giants that act as regular mini-bosses and Iron Maidens with extending spikes on the outside; and there’s the regenerator – no doubt one of the most feared monsters in gaming history, relentlessly moving towards you, with multiple parasites regenerating body parts, each requiring individual attention from your rifle (or just shutting a door on them)!

That’s regular enemies, but you’ll come across a wonderful menagerie of bosses too. I’m not that keen on boss fights, but I think I only really struggled with Salazar when he turns into a humungous zombie flower and you need a bit more precision at speed than I’m capable of any more! It only took a few goes though. The rest are wildly varied, from a set-piece filled epic with superman Krauser to more regular shooting all the pulsating sacs filled with ooze Lovecraft-style monsters. The final boss – cult leader Osmund Saddler now mutated into a huge four-legged oozing thing – is a lot of fun, and when that rocket launcher is thrown into the mix there’s a great feeling as you realise you’ve just about done him in, but my favourite boss I think was the very first one. This was a lake monster, brought back to life by Saddler to stop anyone crossing it, and you’re hunting it down in a tiny fishing boat that is being dragged around by this giant whale thing after it got caught up in the anchor. And it’s from this vantage point that you’re trying to harpoon it, while steering and trying to avoid being capsized, which results in a frantic swim! Once its done for, it’s not over though because you’re still attached and now being dragged to the bottom. Thank goodness for quick-time events – one of many you’ll experience throughout the game, but I don’t remember this one being quite as punishing as others that may assume far more familiarity with a GameCube controller than you may have so long after the fact!

The aftermath of this fight sees you end up in a cabin on the other side of the lake, and another visually stunning moment as you look out of the window into the rain. This was another favourite moment for me, and that went straight into another! As you go outside and peer across the murk of the lake, you can just make out some blue flames, which you’ll now be starting to recognise as the welcoming signal of the Merchant having set up shop there. As fantastic as this guy is, you don’t want to be thinking too much about him and his various impossibilities though, like why he’s not dead, how he travels in the blink of an eye, who else he’s selling to and various other stock management issues – just enjoy this constantly out-of-place walking weapons shop with his wares hidden inside his long black coat or in his backpack, or in some of the more permanent establishments he frequents around the game, like this one! You’ll be buying new weapons and upgrades using coins you’ve found or by selling him treasures or stuff you don’t want. At certain locations he’ll also have an optional shooting gallery on the go, and he’s usually near a save point too!

Recalling all these things I enjoyed one after the other is testament to the game’s pacing throughout the 25 or so hours it took me to complete it. From the very start, it’s relentlessly pushing you forwards, whether to progress the story or to progress your ability to progress the story. You’re rarely going to be wondering where to go next or trying to fathom obscure puzzles involving myriad items and all the related back and forth Resident Evils before this loved to throw at you so much. There’s a bit of backtracking and a bit of puzzle-solving, but I’m struggling to remember anything that bothered me whatsoever, and on the whole you’re on your way from one set of set-pieces in one area to another set in the next, interspersed by different levels of adrenaline rush. This might be from something as simple and frequent as taking down a regular enemy with some style, getting through an onslaught of firey catapults, completing one of the frantic on-rails sections, or finding yourself face to face with Dr Salvadore and his chainsaw in a minecart, but the biggest rush for me came from just turning around and looking back at one particular room…

In Chapter 4 (of 5, each split into 3-4 areas plus one final chapter), you’re after a lion ornament to go into something else and open up a new part of the castle – all classic Resident Evil! You go through a door in from a very steampunk area to be faced by a cavernous room full of maze-like stone stairways and walkways across a sea of volcanic lava spraying all over the place. There’s also a load of dragon statues ready to spit flaming death all over you too, manned by monks in skeleton masks that you’ll need to snipe while taking on a load of their mates out to get you as you make your way across various platforms and obstacles. This took me a few goes, but once you’ve got the lie of the land you do fine, and the pay-off when you pick up the ornament and head back is incredible! You’re faced with this incredible, impossible set of structures across this vast flaming pit, smoke and fire everywhere, and you just think did I really just do that? Absolutely stunning. Again! When you combine so much fun from so much variety with that pacing we talked about, you’re getting close to perfect gameplay, but surely there’s a catch?

It wouldn’t be a Resident Evil game without some inventory management, so you’re going to spend a fair amount of time playing Tetris in your attaché case and making painful decisions about what to store or just abandon. As usual, it’s expandable as you make your way through the game, and key items and treasure are kept separately so they’re not taking up slots. And as usual, you can combine some health items, ammo and bits of weapons. I think there was one instance where there was a rocket launcher that just wasn’t going to fit, but otherwise there was usually space for all that handgun ammo I didn’t actually need!

We’ve not talked about how things sound yet, and as you’d expect from a game in this series (and genre in general) there’s some very ham-fisted dialogue delivered in typically unique ways! Actually, the voice acting isn’t bad – it’s certainly no Silent Hill 2 – and the script is mostly fine, even offering up a couple of genuinely funny lines, but it definitely gets cringeworthy at times, and I’m sure that in any remake that might come along in the future, Luis won’t be talking about her dad equipping Ashley’s with ballistics! And probably no close ups of his crotch when he says he’s got something for you guys either… You are going to get a lot of abuse coming your way in Spanish too, which is probably more effective if you don’t know Spanish (which I assume Leon doesn’t which is why it’s never translated), but it is proper good abuse!

The soundtrack is responsible for so much of the horror you’re going to experience throughout the game’s duration. It moves seamlessly from disturbing localised ambience to pulsating primitive rhythms, and from minimal almost industrial pieces to climactic gothic orchestrations. There’s thankfully a couple of tracks that wouldn’t be out of place in an eighties action movie like Cobra or Bloodsport too! Sound effects layer on even more disturbing ambience – love those killer monk chants! – and it really sounds like they’ve gone the extra mile with things like gunshots, where each distinct sound is going to include the chink of spent cartridges and the sounds of a reload as well.

I’ve talked about how impressive it still looks even being pumped out of a GameCube onto a modern TV. I know I have the benefit of being a complete luddite when it comes to things like resolution and frame rate though, where the upscaled PS4 version doesn’t look all that different to me, although that said I’m not certain it actually is! Some of the locations like the swamp, any of the woods, the church and a lot of the castle are pure Hammer Horror though, which might be a good analogy for how it looks – Plague of the Zombies (best film ever created!) looks like it was made when it was, but it still looks great! The polish might have tarnished a little with the years, but the creativity and artistry on the locales and their inhabitants (especially some of the nastier-looking bosses) haven’t one bit, with all the character models looking and moving great through brilliantly lit environments (especially when night comes). Details like the heat haze in that lava room, or just smoke rising or rain falling would also still impress today, bouncing realistically off of different surfaces, and those effects when you pop something’s head off are still second to none!

What else to say? Well, it’s oven got its own zombie dogs through the window moment! Like what I did there? Otherwise, looks great, sounds great and eventually plays great; is full of atmosphere, full of horror and full of variety; and the gameplay is just outstanding. And that’s even in 2021 as I write this, having now played the GameCube version twice and the Wii version once in the first three weeks of the year! I have to say that on one hand I expected a bit more of the Wii version, having heard many lauding its motion controls and it being the ultimate way to play, but I wasn’t that fussed. On the other hand, it cost me £1.10 on eBay so I can’t complain!!!

Now that it’s firmly entrenched in my top three games of all time, shockingly relegating the definitive version of Renegade to number four after all those years sitting pretty there, do I regret not playing it until now? If it wasn’t for those pesky screenshots, I’d have probably bought Resident Evil 4 back in 2005, day one, just like all its predecessors! But just like them, I’d have probably played it for a bit before being distracted by God of War, Call of Duty 2 and Star Wars Battlefront 2… What a meathead! But for me at the end of 2020, it was perfect! And now that remake would be pretty perfect too…

My Life With… Submarine Commander – Commodore VIC-20

My Life With… Submarine Commander – Commodore VIC-20

As I start writing this at the end of 2020, on a third consective day of freezing temperatures and an inpenetrable fog that Silent Hill would be proud of, I’m thinking about my favourite games of the year. Actually, my favourite game of this year is easy; it’s the supporting cast that needs a bit more thought!

Anyway, In Other Waters on Nintendo Switch hasn’t been in any doubt as not only my game of 2020, but one of my top 25 games of all time since I first played it in around June of this year. You play an artifical intelligence guiding a xenobiologist through an underwater alien landscape, discovering its impossible lifeforms, its secrets, its history, and ultimately yours too. Everything centres around its beautifully refined and descriptive user interface, which almost immediately becomes second nature, and drives the wonderful story, as well as your imagination. It’s intuitive, claustrophobic, tense and – despite its visual simplicity – stunningly atmospheric.

And from the minute I started playing In Other Waters, it drew my mind back to a very similar experience I had many, many years ago on the Commodore VIC-20 that could be described using pretty much exactly the same terms… This was everything I loved about Submarine Commander all over again!

By the time Boxing Day 1984 had passed, the mighty 16K RAM expansion I’d been giving for Christmas the day before had passed its first test in The Perils of Willy (more here), and I was seeking out new possibilities that I’d spent the past year disappointedly skipping over on the shelves of Woolworths, Boots and WHSmith when I was unexpanded. Of course, in those days none of them would be open until the following day, so whatever money you might have been given for Christmas was now really burning a hole in your pocket. Actually, even worse was that same 48-hour hold-up when you’d got something that needed exchanging… I still remember the agonising wait the following year when I’d been given a really cool pop-up book on Halley’s Comet (just as it was poised to become a phenomena in 1986), but the working pop-up telescope had a tear in it which obviously ruined everything!

Anyway, back on Friday the 27th December 1984 and I like to think that once David Icke and Frank Bough had finished doing their thing on Breakfast Time, I watched Charlie Brown then by the time Inch High Private Eye had been and gone I was just about ready to leave for the shops before the dreadful Lassie started at 9.50am. And that’s where I made a beeline to Submarine Commander in the VIC-20 section in Boots, because to 12-year old me there was no greater use of 16K of RAM than piloting a World War II submarine, and having spent months staring longingly at this box more than any other on display, there was absolutely no hesitation that this was where my Christmas money was finally going!

Submarine Commander was originally developed right back in the dark ages of 1982 for Atari 8-bit, then appeared on the VIC-20 the following year. Publisher Thorn EMI went heavy on the advertising, with an equally heavy message that like their Jumbo Jet Pilot, this was more real-life simulator than game… “They’re designed for players who expect more of a challenge from a video game than creatures from outer-space can provide.” That’s all fine, but the advert itself still mystifies me, with its very serious and a little bit sterile almost double page spanning submariner artwork and three tiny screenshots on one side, where in reality in 1983 and for the next two years at least, those screenshots sold the game to anyone that was likely to buy it by themselves!

Which is why there being no screenshots on the box was also a mystery, especially when it referred to the nerve tingling action being spread over 3 screens. The front cover and wordy reverse was clearly enough to suck me in though, and seeing “FOR VIC-20 + 16K” at the top was always an indication that there was something special going on here! It also tells us that as the commander of a Mediterranean-based submiarine, your job is to sink as much enemy shipping as possible. Then you’ve got the killer sell, where it brilliantly encapsulates the action from every great black and white submarine film you’d see on TV on weekend afternoons at the time, like Run Silent, Run Deep or We Dive At Dawn… “Using your skills and cunning you must identify the enemy shipping, close in undetected using sonar, take aim through your periscope, fire your torpedoes and get out fast. You will have to evade the shadowing warships which are armed with depth charges. This is a highly addictive game of skill and strategy and your aim is to sink enemy shipping without being sunk yourself.” 

That bit about depth charges sinking you is so powerful, because this was always the most tense part of those war movies, where the crew would all be stood in complete, terrified silence, dripping sweat and probably smoking Marlborough Reds in this suddenly fragile, claustrophobic metal tube as all hell rained down on them from the surface, with these vast underwater explosions waiting to tear them apart if the barrels fell close enough. And what wonderful shots of that you’d get from outside of the submarine too, with all the special effects they could muster in the Forties and Fifties still having precisely the desired effect all those decades later. Of course, this would all end up with a a bit of ominous creaking and a few pipes bursting before the ships passed by and they could carry on about their business, but the tension in those moments was always heart-in-mouth as you watched, and screenshots or not, those words combined with the imagination of a 12-year old that loved his war films worked brilliantly to convey exactly what you were in for… And just in case, it did say it had “amazing sound and graphics” on the box too!

Once you’ve loaded the game up, you’re presented with one of the most unassuming title screens in the history of gaming, but that means there’s no messing about – choose your skill level, press F3 and you’re instantly dumped somewhere in the Mediterranean, signfied by a flashing dot on your wonderfully detailed map, surrounded by all your instruments and readings and everything you need to start hunting down the enemy. The identity of the enemy isn’t really specified, but – just picking one of the instruments at random – battery charge is represented by a C for charge, which it wouldn’t be in German, so therefore we’ll assume you’re not in charge of a U-boat.

The instrument panel is brilliantly dynamic. On the left side of the screen you’ve got your attitude, dictating depth and direction on the compass below through your keyboard or joystick inputs, then there’s a mission clock, torpedo supply, fuel supply and battery charge. Your speed is controlled by the number keys, and you’re getting that here in knots. On the right side, you’ve got the all-important depth guage, and under that the hydrophone chart, which shows ships as peaks that you use together with the sonar screen to line-up your prey when you get close, and once you’ve taken them out you’ve also got a reading of tonnage sunk that contributes to your post-mission assessment. Then there’s the chart showing depth below the keel, which is my favourite bit of the whole game – it’s showing the bottom relative to your ship, which opens up a whole new dimension to exploring and seeing how deep you can go in different parts of the ocean; it’s also the source of utter panic when you’re manouevering a bit too close to shore! Next, you’ve got your damage indicators for the hull, instruments and engines, and there’s a nice risk-reward element here of chancing carrying on or finding somewhere to surface to get repairs done. Of course, a particularly serious screen-shaking battering from depth charges, or grounding yourself is going to end up in the hull cracking and finding yourself in a watery grave!

Being underwater or on the surface is always on your mind – you’ll be faster on the surface, but if you get caught short by the big guns escorting a convoy you’re going to be crash diving as deep and as silent as possible while those depth charges drop all around you. This is a lovely example of the amazing attention to detail you’re getting in this VIC-20 game from 1983 – if you do end up within visual range of a convoy, you’ll get a bell (kind of!) to warn you to take action. Underwater gives you an advantage, but you do need to keep an eye on air and batteries, and as another great piece of attention to detail, if you switch to your sonar (or fire a torpedo) they’re going to clock that distinctive ping regardless!

Once you’ve worked out where you are at the start of the game, you’ll be looking for shipping movements on your map, and once you’ve swung your sub around in the right direction you’ll be scooting off across the surface. As you approach, you’ll want to dive and switch the main screen from map to sonar, which, together with your hydrophone chart, is going to get you close and pointing your torpedoes at the enemy. Get up to around 25 feet and your periscope is going to come into play so you can accurately line up the enemy and fire your torpedoes; this is where the thrill-ride happens, and you’ll be identifying and prioritising tankers, destroyers and patrol boats across the sea, as occasional clouds pass by in the sky, somehow adding to the sense of space and your vulnerability as the ultimately fragile hunter in this vast open expanse of water. Line everything up right and you’ll see your torpedo trail heading ominously across the surface until it impacts with your target, which will sink it with a bit of luck, though it might take a few direct hits at higher skill levels. What a great feeling, together with a sense of relief, when that happens! Or you might just miss and see one of your precious torpedoes float harmlessly by the now fully alerted enemy! 

This game of cat and mouse goes on until you’ve sunk all the enemy convoys at play across the entire map, and is going to take you a good thirty minutes to an hour at higher levels – again, pretty cool for a 1983 VIC-20 game! But that’s if you haven’t used up all your oxygen or fuel or battery in the meantime, and that you havent been taken out by depth charges or run yourself aground because in the heat of the battle you forgot to reduce your speed as you turned into the channel between Italy and Sicily, and out of nowhere the bottom appeared on your chart and you couldn’t blow your ballast tanks in time to do anything about it!

We started by talking about 2020 masterpiece In Other Waters… Intuitive, claustrophobic, tense and – despite its visual simplicity – stunningly atmospheric. And that’s Submarine Commander too. There’s so much going on, so much to think about, and that’s before you’re presented with this 3D sea-scape where a ship appears on the horizon and you don’t know what it is yet, but as you get closer you realise it’s the high-tonnage prize of a tanker, but hang on, there’s a destroyer right behind it, but you only noticed it after that first torpedo slammed into its escort and now you’re in for a scrap, but first you need to kill your speed and dive, dive, dive!

In the great pantheon of VIC-20 games, for me Submarine Commander sits only behind The Perils of Willy, Andes Attack and Jetpac. But that said, if we’re scoring complexity of game, it beats everything else on the system outright. And the same for atmosphere. And – maybe apart from Jetpac (more here) – how it stands up as a gaming experience in 2021 (which somehow happened in the process of writing this!) too. And I reckon I knew all of that when I had to give up my VIC-20 and all of my games to fund my Spectrum, but somehow this – together with Jump Jet (more here) managed to escape the box of booty we sold!