My Life With… Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa (Nintendo 3DS)

My Life With… Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa (Nintendo 3DS)

There’s loads of game series I’ve had a quick go on at some point, but for whatever reason didn’t grab me until many years later, when they really did grab me and then some as I lapped up everything about them! Castlevania and Mega Man are the two prime suspects, but there’s also big hitters like 2D and 3D Mario and Zelda, and then there’s stuff like Road Rash and Splatterhouse and TwinBee and… I almost forgot my newly beloved Silent Hill! For all of these I’ve dived headfirst into pretty much every entry on every system (one way or another), and pretty much played through every one of them to completion (or at least to death) too, all in a relatively very short space of time.

But there’s only one series I can think of that all of this also applies to, but until relatively recently I’d genuinely never even heard of. And that would psychedelic Defender-ish shooter Fantasy Zone!

That’s not to say it had never been in my line of sight. When the Mean Machines section of Computer & Video games was still only a couple of pages at the back of the magazine, and covering stuff like the Sega Master System which realistically I was never going to own, I just don’t think I would have paid it much attention. In my defence in this case though, it was easy to miss! The May 1988 issue had a very odd mass Sega review section, and it’s odd because just as it’s explaining Fantasy Zone’s shop mechanic (we’ll return there). arcade game. That’s thrown you, but it’s actually exactly what the review does! The words “arcade game” suddenly appear after a full stop, then after another full stop they’re busy explaining team selection in World Soccer! Which is a shame because they’re definitely about to big up Fantasy Zone in their missing conclusion! Instead we’re just left with some scores in series! Nines across the board for graphics, sound, playability and overall is some good going! For comparison, the other four games (yes, four games – no wonder it got cocked-up!) in this single review didn’t fare quite as well… scrolling beat ‘em up Kung Fu Kid did alright with all eights. They loved playing World Soccer, with only graphics and sound trailing Fantasy Zone – and that’s exactly how it should be for pretty much all games ever! Teddy Boy is some kind of platform shoot and collect thing, and was deemed fairly average with sixes and sevens. Then there’s a little game called Double Dragon – which actually had its own separate review but shared the score box – with eights for everything except slightly average sound.

Couple of interesting points on what they’re saying about Fantasy Zone before they’re so rudely cut off… They start by saying that despite it being a “beaut” they’d seen the game “die a death” at The Crystal Rooms in Leicester Square. Now, if this is the place I’m thinking of, it was a very old-school casino in London that just did slot machines and bingo. Possibly why it died a death there? Anyway, what’s fun about it is that unlike most swanky London casinos the only dress code was that your clothes didn’t obscure the security cameras!

The other thing they call out is the “VERY” unusual colourful backdrop and aliens. And I love that because that is precisely what didn’t grab me in the small screenshot that accompanied the review back in May 1988, but very much did grab me in May 2017 when I first fired up the Sega 3D Classics Collection on 3DS that I’d just received for my birthday that month. As I’ve written about here, when the compilation first appeared at the end of 2016, I started getting the urge for the arcade version of Power Drift in the palm of my hand! My old favourite Thunder Blade was a real added bonus too, and I was fond of Puyo Puyo, but not especially fond of Sonic and Altered Beast, and I had no idea what these Galaxy Force and Maze Hunter and all-sorts of Fantasy Zone games were!

You’re getting the remade Fantasy Zone II and the Master System version in the standard game carousel, but there’s also a not very well hidden bonus game to find too! You just need to click the Extras button on the main game select screen, and from there it’s easy to spot the very obvious Fantasy Zone themed icon in the bottom left, where you’ve got the Master System version of the original too.

Before things get too confusing, it’s worth a quick history lesson (which admittedly may well confuse things even more)! The original Japanese arcade version of Fantasy Zone arrived there in 1986. It ran on an arcade board called System-16, which will be important in a sec! It then got the home version on Master System we’ve already looked at, and it would soon also end up on NES, MSX, PC-Engine, and Sharp X68000. The NES one is interesting because it was a Sunsoft Japan-only release originally, then an unlicensed (crappier) version was published by Tengen in the West in 1989. For completeness, Fantasy Zone Gear appeared on Sega Game Gear in 1991 and a Sega Saturn version also appeared in 1997, and then it was completely remade for PlayStation 2 using polygons rather than sprites, and had some Space Harrier styled stages where you were playing from behind. Mobile versions would follow in the early 2000’s, before Virtual Console and similar releases followed a few years later. The latest version I have is the stacked Sega Ages release on Nintendo Switch, though I’m still not convinced about the controls on there – neither method feels perfect.

In a bit of a reversal of the normal way of things, the sequel, Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa, appeared first on the Master System in 1987 and then got an arcade port, as well as versions for NES (strangely sub-titled The Teardrop of Opa-Opa) and MSX. The Master System version is probably the best-looking game on the system (although Road Rash might also have a shout), but conversely, the problem with doing things this way around is the arcade version looked worse than its predecessor; around two decades later this would finally be remedied! Fast-forward to 2008, and Sega released the Sega Ages Vol. 33 Fantasy Zone Complete Collection for PlayStation 2. And I really wish I could still get hold of a copy! It included Fantasy Zone, Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa, Fantasy Zone Gear, enhanced NES version (and secret inclusion) Fantasy Zone Neo Classic, paddle-controller shooter Galactic Protector (starring Opa Opa) and… Fantasy Zone II DX, and now we’re finally getting close to the point!

As we’ve noted, the arcade sequel came arse about face, but what if it had been developed originally on the System-16 arcade hardware rather than the Master System? That’s where wonder-retro developers M2 were coming from with DX. Their CEO, Naoki Horii, played a lot of the Master System game but always yearned for an original arcade version, so they took the System-16 board, added a little bit more memory to it, and came up with what was dubbed the DX version to avoid confusion with the1987 arcade version (which I’m still wondering if I’m doing here)! We’ll eventually come back to what it does differently, but for now we’re finally going to arrive at the game we’re supposed to be talking about here, because it was then re-released with even more extra features on Nintendo 3DS in Japan in 2014, then globally as 3D Fantasy Zone II W the following year. Which by my reckoning is what ended up on my Sega 3D Classics compilation!

My own journey to what turned into an absolute adoration of this version of Fantasy Zone II took quite a lot longer to develop though, and encompassed only marginally lower levels of adoration across various other Fantasy Zones on the way! In fact, after dabbling with everything on this compilation when I got it, I didn’t pay much attention to any of it again for the best part of four years, when once again the lure of Power Drift came calling! But that short time dabbling with it had lit a spark. I don’t think it was even the new and special version of Fantasy Zone II that did it either; it was that very original secret Master System version, and then things started to spiral all over the place…

I was messing around with emulating old games on Raspberry Pi around this time, and for the first time ever I was starting to appreciate the NES (and what a whirlwind journey that would turn into in a very short space of time on all sorts of systems with all those games we started with here)! And in doing so, I came across a dodgy US version of a game I was now finally familiar with on Master System called Fantasy Zone… big mistake – you want to stick with the Japanese version that doesn’t look all jerky and washed out! A short time after that, I picked up the handheld PocketGo after my Game Boy Advance SP backlight died, and that turned out to be very good at Game Gear games, and Fantasy Zone Gear turned out to be a very good Game Gear game! It would be messing around with emulation on a hacked PlayStation Classic (one of the best consoles ever in this dubious form!) in the middle of 2019 where my love for the series really started picking up steam though. I’ve been emulating stuff for decades, but this thing made it easy to emulate everything in one place, and it turns out an original PlayStation controller is a great universal controller too! By now I was looking out for Fantasy Zone as one of the first ports of call on any “new” system, and I was giving the Master System a lot of attention for the first time (where the Road Rash obsession I now have also started), and that’s where the sequel originally started getting under my skin – far more than it had on the 3DS first time around. And the PC-Engine version, and the Mega Drive’s Super Fantasy Zone, but they both deserve their own mention…

On any given day, I could easily justify to myself why any of 3D Fantasy Zone II W, Mega Drive Super Fantasy Zone and PC-Engine Fantasy Zone are not only my favourite games in the series, but one of my favourite games of all time! I really think it’s just the way the 3DS circle-pad feels with this game that generally wins out, but as I’m writing this, I was playing the PC-Engine version ten minutes ago (during half time of a not very exciting Leeds versus Arsenal game) and thinking maybe I’ve got that wrong. And if I’d fired up Super Fantasy Zone instead, probably the same outcome!

My brother-in-law and his wife very kindly got me a Mega Drive Mini for Christmas 2019, and of course I spent a couple of weeks playing everything, but then for a good four or five first months of 2020 it became my Super Fantasy Zone and Road Rash II (best game on the system!) machine. This is the perfect next-gen version of the original, with great graphics, great colours and the most joyful music you’ll ever hear in a video game! As well as some quality of life gameplay enhancements and more upgrades, there’s also new bosses, and I reckon it’s all a bit quicker and a bit harder too.

In June 2020, the new PC-Engine Mini finally hit the COVID-stricken virtual shelves, and this time my own wife had equally kindly preordered one for my birthday in May. And what a moment having my own piece of proper PC-Engine hardware after all those years of lusting after it was – the gaming equivalent of hooking up with Winona Ryder, though my wife is unlikely to have so readily sorted that out for me! First thing I played? Splatterhouse! But since then, that wonderful version of Fantasy Zone has become my gaming comfort food; me playing it earlier is no coincidence – I watch an awful lot of football and I play this in an awful lot of half-times!

Football-related circumstances then bring us full-circle back to the 3DS version. As I said ages ago, it started once again with the lure of Power Drift on the Sega 3D Classics Collection, when my son’s academy season finally restarted after the first COVID-related lockdown. All training is behind closed doors, meaning three lots of two hours worth of hanging around in a car park every week, which the 3DS is obviously the perfect antidote to! I beat every set of tracks on Power Drift in a week and a half (though to this day I haven’t really stopped playing it yet), and then we got serious with 3D Fantasy Zone II W… I think! That history lesson definitely confused me at the very least!

Now might be a good time to talk about the game itself! This is absolutely everything that was great about the original game and the sequel – the freely-scrolling tough but not brutal alien and base and boss shooting action; all of the main mechanics, from the ability to shoot and bomb on separate buttons, to the timed weapon and engine shop where you upgrade your ship using money collected from what you’ve shot. And of course, the absolutely glorious, colourful, whimsical aesthetic; and not forgetting that most joyful soundtrack ever!

We have loads on top of the original game though! Firstly, we’ve got late eighties arcade-quality graphics, and they’re imaginative and detailed and smooth (especially when compared back-to-back with the Master System original on there), and they’re just full of so much character. And although I’m not a fan, you’ve got stereoscopic 3D effects to blow you away here too. The flow of the game itself is a reimagining of the Master System game and subsequent conversions too, with some highlights (enemies, environments, music…) lifted but a lot of it new, and there’s even bits of the first arcade game here too. And you can even dial down the difficulty if you like; it’s your conscience!

One of the biggest changes, though, is the level design – every stage has parallel dimensions, the regular Bright Side and the higher reward but harder Dark Side. You can warp between the two where warp-zones appear behind some of the beaten bases, and if you take out a base in the Bright Side, it’s also gone in the Dark Side and vice versa. If you happen to be in the Dark Side when you take out the final base on a level, you’re going to get the same boss too, but with much harder attack patterns. There is a predictably bonkers story about your sentient craft, Opa-Opa, and the myriad cash-spewing invaders you’ll come across in each diverse stage, and you can start on any of the stages you’ve already beaten to progress the story a bit more easily, though your scores will suffer as a result.

The cash you collect is persistent, so you can also withdraw a bit of that when you start to give you a literal boost. However, I did find myself always sticking to an absolutely essential engine boost, twin bombs and an occasional laser weapon to make later stage bases a bit quicker to take down, and this is all very buyable from what you’ll make in any given run. If you die, or the very short timer on the weapons runs out, you are back to square one, so having a bit of cash, but also being a bit frugal and not buying a crazy engine (that you’ll also struggle to control unless you’re using it all the time – which you won’t be). There’s also secret weapons in secret shops that you just need to make sure you’re paying attention to find, and depending on what you’ve bought and how much of the Dark Side you’ve experienced, there’s apparently three endings, though I’ve only seen one so far! Actually, the end-game is the only place I’d make any real criticism because there’s a boss-rush before you get anywhere near, and I hate boss-rushes! Finally, there’s a completely separate endless survival mode where you’re playing as Upa-Upa, Opa-Opa’s brother, fighting his way through Link Loop Land. And it’s another absolutely amazing Fantasy Zone in its own right!

Long before I ever played Defender, I absolutely loved Andes Attack, a masterful Jeff Minter llama-based take on the game for the VIC-20. It’s fast and colourful, it’s old-school tough, and it’s as addictive as hell. And I still like it more than Defender! Fantasy Zone II on 3DS isn’t Defender, but the mechanics are not that far off, and I reckon how it looks probably isn’t far off how my imagination was filling in the gaps that my eyes weren’t seeing back in 1983 or whenever I first played Andes Attack!

The Fantasy Zone games I’ve talked about here are all unique and beautiful in their own way, but I think – at the time of writing at least – that Fantasy Zone II for 3DS is the most unique and beautiful of them all! The only thing that would improve it is if you could play it on a big screen, but still using that perfectly suited 3DS circle-pad. And that’s admittedly a bit of an ask! As would be being able to play that version for hours at a time in my car, so I’ll just count myself fortunate that the best version of the game is also perfectly suited to handheld. So far I reckon I’ve played it that way for around twenty hours, then at least the same again at home… I can’t get enough of it! And now I say that, I’m also slightly concerned that such a concentrated amount of time played might be swaying my opinions on this version over the Mega Drive and PC-Engine games that I’ve also come to love so dearly in only a slightly less concentrated period of time! On the other hand, all this love is probably all a bit cumulative from lapping up the series very late, but with all the enthusiasm and joy I’d have no doubt felt if I’d paid a bit more attention to that section in the back of a magazine in May of 1988… Just enjoy them all!

As a closing treat, you might have spotted that the issue of C&VG in question had a free badge on the cover. I think I’ve still got it, pinned to the old notice board it was stuck on the day I bought it!

My Life With… Kick Off – Atari ST

My Life With… Kick Off – Atari ST

There once was (and still is) an experimental alternative rock band called Butthole Surfers, and their influence can be heard all over the place even if their music isn’t so much, from Nirvana to Marilyn Manson. Back in 1993, I had one of their albums, Independent Worm Saloon, on cassette, until my brother borrowed it to play in his Mini. Unfortunately his Mini got nicked that day and several weeks later was discovered deep in the River Ouse just outside Bedford, and whilst the cassette did eventually find its way back to me after the car was recovered, it had seen better days and would never be played again! Before that, in 1987, Butthole Surfers released the delightfully named Locust Abortion Technician album, and the opening track of that was called Sweat Loaf. It started with a sample of a boy asking his dad what does regret mean? His dad replies, “Well son, a funny thing about regret is that it’s better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven’t done. And by the way, if you see your mum (mom) this weekend, would you be sure and tell her Satan! Satan! Satan!” And yes, I could have got with the far more well-known early nineties Orbital dancefloor-filler Satan, which sampled the Buttholes, but I don’t have any good stories about Orbital!

Anyway, since then, I’ve always thought that’s a pretty good philosophy. I also like the one about never regretting something (or someone) that made you smile. Of course, all of this is easier said than done, and we often have little control over our cognitive or emotional responses. In most cases there’s also no undo button, although in my case, just £14 for a legit copy of Elite on Atari ST would actually go some way towards undoing what was previously my only standout regret in gaming! That said, I’ll never be able to buy back the time spent that the lady who worked where my grandma was a cleaner and very kindly and very illicitly photocopied the mega manual for me over a period of days so I could answer the security question when the game loads. She did get a box of chocolates for her troubles after my mum found out what had gone on though! Anyway, aside from that, from day one I’ve always felt a bit dirty about what turned into thousands of hours on my number nine favourite game of all time all being done off a copied disk, care of my school-friend Thomas! And despite my little slogans, I have regretted never buying a legit copy – even now, as I write this in full knowledge of the low entry cost!

At the time of writing, the rediscovery and subsequent reinstallation of my Atari ST as a permanent feature in my study has made all those years of regret over Elite a bit redundant though… There’s a bigger crime, you see! Those thousands of hours in Elite make it my second most-played game of all time, but on trying to remember how to fire up an Atari ST (and subsequently ordering new TV cables to make it viewable), I pressed the stiff old disk eject button and came to the terrible realisation that the game I’d played more than any other, including Elite – and also my number two favourite game of all time – was also pirated! Kick Off + Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is what the fading pencilled text on the 3.5″ floppy said. I think it spent so long in my machine during the second half of its very long life, and then its even longer hibernation, that I’d completely blanked it being dodgy. And now my foul deeds are more than doubled and we have a total of even more several thousand hours of gaming that I’ve never paid a penny for; it’s like The Gasman episode of Bottom, where Ritchie and Eddie are siphoning off Mr Rottweiler next-door’s gas and eating his sausages and cakes and pickled eggs and stuff! That all said, this newly discovered heist didn’t involve retrospectively bribing anyone to photocopy manuals, so by my reckoning I can make my greatest crime against gaming 100% right for under a tenner on Ebay, meaning all in we have a life without regret for about £25 should I ever feel the need! And yes, I know the developer will never see that money, but I’ll be spending it all the same!

The next little mystery is where this copy of Kick Off (or Kick Off: Extra Time to be precise) came from. Most of my ill-gotten Atari ST gains were from the aforementioned school-friend Thomas, but neither him nor his cronies would have ever bought a copy of a football game – way too distant from Dungeons & Dragons! Ghouls ‘n Ghosts isn’t giving me much of a clue either, apart from dating it from the end of 1989 onwards! The other stuff written on the disk also isn’t helping much – Disktool (ahem!) then “(Hi Res Emulator)” and “Acize (Norm)” appear to be lost to the mists of time. And it’s all in my handwriting, meaning I probably copied it, though it can only have been from another copy because until I was looking up stuff just now, I don’t think I’d ever laid eyes on the boxes for ST Kick Off or Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. By the way, I’m not going into it here, but that version of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is superb! You can’t get turned into an old man, and the incredible rain effects in the arcade version are definitely toned down here, but otherwise it’s a great way to run about in your pants chucking daggers at some great-looking undead, as they mercilessly and brutally team you how to play the old-school way!

I’m reaching the conclusion that Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was probably the reason behind this disk, and that might also be the case for whoever I got it from. I was a huge fan of its predecessor, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, on both Spectrum and C64 (see here), but that’s not to say that I didn’t have some pedigree in football games too! I’m not sure the double-bat version of Pong that called itself Football (and also Hockey!) on the Interstate 1160 console (or similar) is ever really considered in the annals of football games, but the dreadful Artic Computing World Cup Football on the Spectrum – which I think is the first proper football game I played, back in 1984 – certainly would be. It was Match Day on the Spectrum that became my first football love though! That also came out in 1984, but it would be a couple of years later that I became surely one of the best players in the world when I had my own Spectrum, and I think I got it on the They Sold a Million 2 compilation. Playing it today, it runs a bit slow to say the least, but it’s an incredible piece of football game history, with ground-breaking proper football features like throw ins, corners and even dribbling, all on a side-on but kind of isometric proper pitch! The player sprites looked like proper players too, even if they were lifted straight out of BurgerTime-inspired platformer Bear Bovver! My next love was the sequel, Match Day II, but in its 128K guise of International Match Day, which added more players, more directions of control, and – for the first time in a football game – deflections and a shot power gauge… Which was a bit dodgy and often resulted in a back heel!

Aside from these (and not counting the wonderful Football Manager – another game in my top few most hours spent in gaming ever titles), I enjoyed player-sim Footballer of the Year, and dabbled with the Emlyn Hughes and MicroProse Soccer games, plus budget stinker Advanced Soccer Simulator, and I think there was a five-a-side budget game too, but nothing ever really topped my affection for Match Day and its sequel on the Spectrum. Around the time I bought my ST, I’m not sure if I wasn’t really in the market for football games, or if there just wasn’t a lot around. I definitely picked up Football Manager 2 early on, with its wonderful realistic 3D match highlights, and I played it to death. And at some point I was given a copy (real, not pirate!) of MicroProse Soccer, but I’ve a feeling that was post- Kick Off, meaning it never got much of a look in. Same with the later Manchester United game – it was really good, and definitely an historic stepping stone between something like Match Day and what we now know as FIFA or PES style, but it wasn’t Kick Off… Even Kick Off 2 wasn’t Kick Off, but we’ll come back to that! Aside from that, and back to the earlier days of having an ST, I remember some Peter Beardsley, Kenny Dalglish and Gazza games making their way to 16-bit, and the Footballer of the Year sequel, but certainly nothing memorable.

Thinking about it, maybe nothing else is memorable when you consider the arrival of Kick Off in the summer of 1989! “Best computer game ever” said Amiga User International. “Probably the best sports game ever” said The Games Machine. And so on. My own beloved Computer & Video Games magazine lauded its realism, if not its graphical thrills, and called it the best ST footie game yet… But as we’ve already discovered, that’s not such high praise, and the 84% it scored also possibly wasn’t the high praise that demanded I rush out and get a copy when there was stuff like Dungeon Master (more here), Defender of the Crown and Ghouls ‘n Ghosts to grab my attention… If not necessarily my cash!

All that said, we’ve now established that I was something of a connoisseur of football games by this point (far more than I could say I am now!), and by whatever means, the second I eventually clicked “2” for Kick Off rather than “1” for Ghouls ‘n Ghosts on the Pompey Pirates’ dodgy disk splash screen, a new chapter in my life in gaming began, and it was one that would span the end of my school years, the whole of my university life, my first job and most of the next-generation PlayStation’s life, right up to buying my first flat and moving in with my then-girlfriend and then wife almost a decade later, when my ST got put in a box for several decades!

Where Match Day and its sequel were ground-breaking in bringing real aspects of football into a video game, as C&VG noted, Kick Off was ground-breaking for bringing realism. And a lot of that realism was down to the ball not sticking to a player’s feet, though Kick Off can’t actually take credit for that. Back in 1985, Nintendo released NES stinker Soccer, which did exactly the same thing, though that would have gone well under the radar of most of my brethren in the UK particularly, where the console never really got much of a look in, and anything that didn’t have a Mario in it certainly didn’t! NES Soccer reminds a bit of Artic’s aforementioned stinker, but is more formless, slower, and moving a defender makes the keeper mirror his movement! Reviewed alright though, with C&VG only scoring it 1% less than Kick Off! It’s also worth mentioning Sensible Soccer here – another dearly beloved 16-bit footballer, and as far as I know is very similar to Kick Off in all but the ball sticking to your foot.

Everything in Kick Off is top down. You’ve got a full size pitch, scrolling in all directions, with everything properly proportioned. There’s a scanner showing player positions, and all the players have their own abilities, based on pace, accuracy, stamina and aggression. I’m not sure if this was a first, but the referees had their own style too, dishing out yellow and red cards, awarding penalties and adding injury time, with all the “accuracy” of a real-life referee! A single button and your joystick were all you needed to dribble, pass, shoot, chip, head and tackle. The goalie did his own thing until he had the ball, which was the cause of all kinds of blaming and shaming when you lost a game! There’s five difficulty levels, from International to Sunday League, and a great feature is being able to test yourself against higher level teams (where you being Sunday League versus International will eventually become the default). Otherwise, it’s a fast-paced, realistic game of football!

Kick Off was always about how it played more than how it looked, and no one was ever blown away by screenshots on adverts! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it in the looks department though. Despite their size and the angle you’re seeing them from, the players have a lot of character, and there’s just enough detail in the model and its animation to make you feel like you’re in complete control of the ball and the part of the player’s body that it’s in contact with. Otherwise, the pitch does its job with a nice sense of scale and everything moves on it at just the right speed – fast! The game comes alive in the sound department though, with dynamic crowd noise especially creating real atmosphere, bringing to life a stadium that you’ll quickly forget isn’t even there!

I should also mention the Extra Time bit of Kick Off: Extra Time. This was a data disk with four new playing surfaces – wet, soggy, hard and artificial – that affected ball physics and player pace and stamina, plus wind effects, more tactics, more types of goal kicks, more player attributes, more league options and 20 unique referees. What might be called a sequel today! I’m not sure of the exact release date for this, but it must have been very quick after the original game launched.

The main source of joy in Kick Off is the controls, and how they allow you to interact with the ball, which in itself is a joy as it responds to ground and air friction. The manual referred to the controls as “instinctive” and picking it up again now, I can’t think of a better word. Yes, there might be some muscle memory at play, but a beginner could still pick this up and enjoy it. Then, over time, the pioneering nature of Kick Off’s ball not sticking to a player’s foot comes to the fore, with endless possibilities for heading, trapping, spinning and turning, switching feet, passing and shooting and volleying; and not to mention running onto the ball too, or – when you know exactly where each teammate is going to be – letting them run onto a perfectly timed, perfectly delivered pass too. With skill you can put together the most intricate, free-flowing and sometimes outrageous passes, dribbles, crosses and shots, and there’s no doubt that this freedom is behind the compulsion to keep playing. You never know what’s next, just like the real thing! This all works when the opposition are in possession too, allowing for controlled tackling and tactical delaying like never seen before, but yeah, there’s no denying that Kick Off’s wild slide tackles are another joy! 

As well as single player, multiplayer and various practice modes, there’s a league competition. I don’t think until I was playing it again a couple of weeks ago at the time of writing that I even realised that this mode was there, let alone trying it out! Which I’m now struggling to find a reason for, except that I was too busy with my own competitions! To spice single player things up, I took Arsenal and England and applied my Kick Off team to their matches. We matched Arsenal’s league, European, FA Cup and League Cup campaigns, as well as every competitive or friendly England match, as well as European Cup and World Cup, all in real time, and all noted down in dozens of pocket notebooks! If they went out of a competition we just carried in with the team that knocked them out, then maybe the team that knocked them out too. Some serious attention to detail and serious work needed to stay on top of it! Eventually we won everything, but not all the time. The FA Cup was a particular hoodoo, and between 1991 and 1996 we never even reached the semi-finals. Eventually, in 1997, everything came right. Real-life winners Chelsea (but Arsenal for these purposes) were playing Middlesbrough in the final. My aforementioned then-girlfriend and now-wife and me were on our first holiday together in Luxor, Egypt while the actual FA Cup Final happened, so I had to delay the Kick Off version by a couple of weeks. It was worth the wait, with a 5-0 win! 

On top of years’ worth of mirroring actual football competitions, every player in my team had a name, from David Seaman in goal to Roberto Baggio wherever he fancied playing. Same team regardless of domestic or international – my fantasy game, my rules! And every player was rated at the end of each match, and had their goal tally recorded, and imaginary awards were given at the end of every season! Andy Cole and Ian Wright were generally the top goal scorers, but Marco Van Basten was usually voted best player on the planet. My brother Phil’s team all had names too, and we spent hours and hours and hundreds or thousands of matches playing against each other for bragging rights that lasted until the next final whistle, relentlessly abusing each other’s players (by name), and often resorting to local bedroom football hooliganism when the ref made an outrageous decision or there was a particularly vicious slide tackle that could have put an end to your player of the year!

Kick Off wasn’t just a great game, but it also absolutely nailed a love and understanding of football and all the reasons why people are so passionate about it. It got the tension, the unpredictability and all of the excitement just right, and on top of that it absolutely nailed how it feels to play, win and lose. And in providing everything you needed to make you keep coming back for thousands of hours, there was still enough missing in terms of player names and team licensing (that would later win or lose the football game wars) to make you use your imagination and create your own football fantasies, which prolonged its life even more… Filling in the blanks, just like all the great 8-bit games of any genre had done just a very short time – but also what was also a video gaming lifetime – before. And that’s why its no surprise that Kick Off is the game I’ve played more than any other, and is unlikely to ever be replaced as my second favourite game of all time.

Of course, Amiga User’s “best computer game ever” was always going to get a sequel, but before Kick Off 2 arrived, we had Player Manager in 1990, which used the Kick Off match engine to power a football management sim where you played as a single player in the team. And apparently it was very good! The same year, the sequel proper brought a more tactical game and more tactical player movement, as well as slightly enhanced ball physics. There were complex league and cup competitions, loads of distinctive refs and some kit editing and other stuff. There were a load of expansion disks too. But there was also after-touch, and this ruined the game for me. Apparently you could turn it off, though I didn’t know at the time (and I don’t even have the excuse of no instructions this time having actually bought it)! Anyway, it let you change the direction of the ball in flight, and over time you could just use it all the time to become unstoppable, and that just became frustrating, especially against other human players doing the same thing. I know everyone else loves it, but I was just still so in love with the first game that the after-touch thing is possibly just glossing over that I wasn’t ready for it to be for me!

Also not for me was Super Kick Off on the Gameboy. You could only see a tiny bit of the pitch, and if you weren’t close to any pitch markings you had no idea where you were, and more importantly where anyone else was. The players were just too small and moved too quickly to have any degree of ball control with too. This was a bigger disappointment for me than not clicking with Kick Off 2. Partially because by the time it came out there was a lot less disposable money available to student me, but also because I was desperate to love it – can you imagine carrying your almost favourite game ever around in your hand?

I don’t know much about Kick Off 3, 96, 97, 98, 2002 or the unreleased 2004, except that they didn’t make much of a splash, but I did pick up the 2016 Kick Off Revival on PS4, from original Kick Off mastermind Dino Dini. It was elected second worst game of 2016 on Metacritic, and accused of being the worst football game ever made by Vice. You can pretty much copy and paste my disappointment from the Game Boy version here, except that after decades apart I tried even harder to love it! I even studied the series of post-launch screenshots of spreadsheets that told you how to kick the ball. And I’m not exaggerating – look them up! But they did me no good…

And you know what, having parted with a load of money on three sequels that disappointed me enormously in one way or another, I’m feeling a whole lot better now about that regret thing. And I’m going to send that regret right back to Elite. And Elite photocopy lady!

My Life With… Silent Hill 2 – PlayStation 2

My Life With… Silent Hill 2 – PlayStation 2

I gave the original Silent Hill a raw deal. Bought on launch day whenever that was in 1999, and – judging by my fairly meagre collection of games for the system – may have the honour of being the last game I ever bought for the original PlayStation. But not only did it take me over 21 years to finally complete, thanks to my recent play-through at the time of writing, I probably got 15 minutes into it first time around! And after that first 15 minutes (which, in my defence, I probably saw several times!), it went into a box with an old Babycham ashtray, some pin-badges from the mid-90’s (including a really nice Alice in Chains one), the first two Resident Evils and some old magazines. And over time, that box moved from my parent’s loft then three different garages until I thought “I wonder what’s in there” and fancied another go in the strange days of summer 2020!

And I feel worse about that than for the first two Resident Evil games, which also got similar treatment until recently, because I can take or leave them and their pre-rendered spooky stylings, but I absolutely adore Silent Hill! Something clicked big-time when I actually gave it a chance, and I properly rinsed it, getting one of the better endings just because I didn’t want to leave that wonderful fog-drenched, blood-drenched horror town.

Actually, as another side note, I’m playing Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 on Switch at the moment and I’m having exactly the same feelings there – I’ve now seen the credits three times but there’s one ending I’ve not seen yet, so I’m back in again. And whilst twice in two months might signify some new phase in my middle-aged gaming life, I can’t think of any other games I’ve ever done that with before now! 

Back to Silent Hill, and unlike many of the PS1’s 3D vistas, I reckon age works in the original game’s favour too, and all that fog and darkness that was there by design to disguise hardware limitations now combines with the pixellation of decades of screen evolution, and general graphical clunkiness by today’s standards, to create a new contemporary atmosphere all of its own. And for all the fantastic story in the first game, where you’re looking for your missing adopted daughter through exploration and puzzle solving, and for all the literal otherworldliness and gore and monstrosity, and the cults and rituals and symbolism and never-ending nerve-wracking tension, the real star of the show is that atmosphere in that town. Its tourist days might be behind it but I’d still visit!

“The name of that town is Silent Hill. Although it is known as a scenic resort area, it is a cursed place where the town’s former inhabitants were once driven away, brutal executions were once carried out, and a mysterious plague was once prevalent. The town is centered around Toluca Lake, from which a thick fog perpetually enshrouds the area and makes vague the reality and dreams of those who visit the town. And according to those who have seen them, there are also times when “things” that should not naturally exist appear.” Not my words, but a near-enough translation from the Japanese-only Lost Memories: Silent Hill Chronicle that was on the back of their Silent Hill 3 official game guide in 2003.

I still can’t believe quite how affected I was in 2020 by this old thing I’d mostly ignored since 1999. I’ve been back several times since first finishing it, sometimes only to hang around that first 15 minutes or so because there’s something I just find strangely comfortable in Silent Hill, and whenever my mind wanders, it often wanders there! Something definitely came out of Silent Hill with me the first time I left, but of course, we don’t need to leave it there because as you might have worked out by now, it got a sequel (and then some, but maybe let’s not go there…)! And from the minute I saw the credits for the first time, I then spent six weeks being incredibly restrained and incredibly patient on eBay until it appeared at a reasonable price for PlayStation 2!

And when Silent Hill 2 finally arrived I was also left not believing how affected I was in 2020 by this old thing I’d never given the time of day to whatsoever since it first came out at the end of 2001 because it’s the first game cranked up to eleven! But it’s so much more than one louder too, to the point that I’m actually feeling quite intimidated talking about it. Weird, maybe or maybe not… It’s an intimidating and disturbing game way beneath the fog and the sirens and the surface-level horrors, which is something subsequent sequels (and let’s not forget the movies!) seemed to forget from what I can tell. You come out feeling dirty, like you’ve witnessed something you shouldn’t have but didn’t want to stop witnessing, and still don’t even after you’re done. Unless you get the dog ending, and then all bets are off! At this point I’ll state I’m not going to avoid spoilers, and will give my view on what I think I’ve seen, but I’ll also not go out of my way to spoil too many individual plot points here, so you can look that little piece of insanity (and possibly the greatest video game ending of all time) up for yourself. And regardless of the ending you get – and there are several, including some that demand multiple completions on one save – you’re going to come away wondering what it was you’ve just witnessed, and long after the fact maybe looking at things that happened in a different lights. But even right after the fact, as soon as you get back to the title screen after the credits, you’ll probably even look at what’s on there again and start wondering…

I’ll get into the story a bit, but I’d also like to start with some commentary of the opening scenes, because I’d like to give some indication of how quickly the game also affected me too. And that will also give me an excuse to restart the game for the fourth time in one less month than that! And that will also give me an excuse to talk about toilets, because that’s where we’re starting our story, with the most beautifully-shot row of urinals I’ve ever seen in a game as your character reminisces about his dead wife, Mary, asking her if she can really be in this town? You’re playing James Sunderland, and he’s stopped off for a slash on arrival at the outskirts of Silent Hill to look for her after she sent him a letter saying she’s waiting for him in their “special place.” Which is complicated by her having died from an terrible long-term illness three years beforehand. Anyway, despite the interesting Hebrew graffiti on the wall, it turns out their special place isn’t this toilet, she’s not here, and he’s got a bit of exploring to do! After trying to clear his head for a bit outside the toilets, you’re in control and within a couple of minutes a huge grin is going to descend onto your mush as you realise you are really back in Silent Hill, but with the shackles of the original hardware a thing of the past, this is now Silent Hill to the max!

Leaving the toilets and that huge draw-distance panoramic view of the lake with not a hint of technical fog behind, you’re quickly descending into… fog! Actually, beneath your viewpoint up on the observation deck you’ve already noticed the fog swirling around the treetops, but it’s proper fog, and as you start your journey you notice wisps of it all around you, accompanied by an ominous single-chord synth drone. And I don’t think wisps of fog in a game have ever been bettered, nor the descent into ever thickening fog, hiding whatever creature is making those occasional dog-like sounds, and what might have been something falling or breaking or maybe it was footsteps? You can’t see it, but it’s close… And you keep going down and down further into the fog and that ominous synth sound starts to vary a bit and a well emerges. There’s something inside, and you touch it and the screen turns red… And it turns out to be a save point! And you keep going, down into the fog, through the gates that sound like a metal bin-lid being dropped on the floor when they open, and into the graveyard. And even though it won’t be the first time you hear it, it’s in here that you’re probably going to really notice the legendary Silent Hill 2 voice-acting for the first time!

And then you’re continuing your descent through the fog as everything you remember about Silent Hill gradually emerges in front of you. But this time – just like the fog – it’s “proper” Silent Hill like you’ve never seen it before, and it’s beautiful! The textures on the pavement and the wooden telephone poles and the chain-link metal fences, and the attention to detail in things like signs or posters or stickers on dirty shop windows, and the kerbs and drain covers and bloodstains on the ground… And that fog is still so cool and so real this time with its own dynamic textures and shades of grey! And by now those ominous sound effects are really doing a job on you too! You’re touching everything (except, perhaps, dirty urinals) because everything looks like it’s there to be touched, and you realise all the roads aren’t half a mile wide like in the first game anymore, and you’re trying to get your bearings, and then in the midst of all this tension that’s been building up in you for the last twenty minutes, is that finally something unnatural shuffling around in the fog ahead of you? And so it really begins!

Many years after Silent Hill 2, we got P.T. (Playable Teaser) from Kojima Productions, and of course it turned out to be teasing something called Silent Hills. “Tease” is one way of putting it, I suppose! It was creepy-looking and very realistic, and years after it was pulled from the PlayStation Store (along with any hope for Silent Hills), people still fawn over it. But for me, it was horror by numbers, like a Paranormal Activity movie; horror for people that don’t like horror; the horror Nickelback! Or in gaming terms, Resident Evil trying to be Silent Hill! Both Silent Hill and its sequel are different because they’re not about what you’ve seen shuffling around in the fog, but what you might have seen, or what you think you saw, and where that might be leading you next. A really good recent (relatively) movie example of this is The Conjuring II, with scares you might not even notice first or second time around! The Blair Witch Project is completely built on that premise too, or going back further when inspiring your imagination was a bit like the use of fog in the first Silent Hill, there’s The Haunting (the 1963 version which is not to be confused with the later Liam Neeson dull-fest!) or, going back even further, Dead of Night. That all said, to its credit P.T. did have a ghost right behind you the whole time that no one knew was there for years which is pretty cool!

Before long that thing you followed into the fog turns into a familiar progression through exploring unsettling environments all over the Silent Hill map, which is going to become your best friend, just like in the first game. And when you can’t read it for whatever reason you’re going to panic just like in the first game too! It’s not only essential because the town is so big, but it’s also going to mark out places you’ve been or haven’t been able to get into yet, give you clues and generally tell you where you should go next. When you’re outside, the glorious, realistic, scare-inducing-not-technical-reasons fog is ever-present, but inside the apartments, hotels and restaurants, prisons, strip-clubs and bowling alleys everywhere is often dark, and your waist-height flashlight is going to build its own atmosphere of uncertainty and claustrophobia, complemented by all those incidental details peeking into the torchlight that spell decay and murder and sickness on every floor, wall or piece of furniture in every building you visit. Lovingly crafted bloodstains on the walls, trampled wheelchairs, rotten bed-frames and stinking blankets, the general detritus of abandonment, and holes in the wall that you’re just willing the game not to ask you to put your hand into!

And of course there’s a hospital, and of course there’s the Otherworld, the very personal nightmare parallel or non-parallel reality or non-reality! This alternate dimension takes the previous oppressiveness of wherever it springs up and multiplies it by a hundred, where those bloodstains are not details any more, but entire walls, with floors piled with rotten meat and corpses, and rusty chains and cages and general nastiness. On subsequent visits there’ll be fire and burnt-up horrors too; and a freezing, bloody slaughterhouse; and something draped in scarred, decaying flesh in a room draped in scarred decaying flesh that’s moving and pulsating and as soon as you work it out will probably be more disturbing than anything else you’ll see in rest of the game. And these reflect that personal nature of the Otherworld depending on who you’re with when it appears, and what’s made them so messed up that they can create this version of hell. Then there’s the water. Always some water around… And the darkness is now pitch blackness.

A very long time ago, back in the graveyard, I mentioned the legendary voice acting in Silent Hill 2! That’s when you met Angela, who’s looking for her missing mother and warns you that there’s something very wrong with the town. Taken out of context, and, admittedly, the first couple of times you come across any of the conversational cut-scenes, you’re going to find the voice-acting jarring. On one hand I can forgive it a bit – these were the pioneer days of this kind of thing! But on the other, by today’s standards, it’s comical, to the point it was all re-recorded in 2012 for the PlayStation 3 HD Collection. But you do also get used to it, and you stop noticing it as it becomes normal to you, and you’ll soon forget it as a possible detraction – in fact, the strange pacing and sometimes primary school nativity play delivery could even be argued to add something other-worldly to these personal… No, we’ll come back to that! But the HD Collection voice-acting stinks even worse – nothing other-worldy here, just weird and a bit disrespectful!

One thing you’ll never get used to is the amount of vomiting that’s going on the first time you meet Eddie Dombrowski, hunched over a disgusting toilet after he’s found a corpse in a disgusting fridge in a disgusting apartment. And the vomiting goes on and on and on! The gluttonous, paranoid Eddie has been bullied to hell all his life to the point that he’s killed a dog and shot a footballer in the knee for revenge reasons, and as defensive as he is about the corpses piling up around him, he’s come to Silent Hill to reach breaking point. “From now on, if anyone makes fun of me I’ll kill them. At least a corpse is more useless than I am.”

As there’s only a couple more characters, and because they’re, well, you’ll see, we’ll quickly cover the other people you meet on your travels through Silent Hill 2. Back to Angela, after the initial warning shot in the graveyard, our next meetings start to expose one of the most tragic characters you will ever come across in any form of media, let alone in video games. Lifelong abuse by her alcoholic father and her brother, which is justified as being deserved by her mother, culminated in her slitting her father’s throat, then spiralled into all kinds of guilt, zero self-worth and suidicidal depression, which promises both the escape and the punishment she also now feels she deserves. She’s left disgusted at herself by both her actions and those of her abusers. And eventually, after sharing her Otherworld for the last time, we’re left to assume that she finally found peace. And let’s remind ourselves, all of this in a 2001 video game. Good on you for being so bold so long ago, Konami!

Just when you think you’re making some progress in the game’s first building, along comes a little girl and puts a stop to it! This is Laura, an eight-year old orphan who’s also somehow found her way to Silent Hill to look for her friend from a time she spent in hospital, Mary – yes, your dead wife Mary – though she doesn’t know she’s dead yet. You’ll meet up with her all over Silent Hill, alone and with some of the other characters, and all the time you’re wondering how? And how? And how…

Finally, still relatively early in the game when you’ve made it through the apartments where you’ve met the others, you make it to Rosewater Park and there you meet Maria. Maria is a slutted-up version of Mary. She looks and sounds just like her, but the hair and clothes are like a fantasy Mary to James, and he doesn’t know whether to be scared or attracted, and is generally confused from hereon in! Maria end ups being both guardian angel and antagonist, and also ends up very dead several times!

At which point it’s probably an idea to talk about the other inhabitants of Silent Hill – the monsters! There’s clearly sexual overtones pretty much everywhere you look here, with possibly the least messed up being the bubble head nurses, with legs and cleavage everywhere, mangled oversized heads and epileptic movements. The Flesh Lips are masses of meat attached to a cage-like bed, complete with what appear to be vaginal lips mouthing animal abuse above the hanging legs that are going to strangle you. The mannequins are headless and armless dummies with two sets of legs (one for walking, one for killing) in some kind of putrid skin ensemble that covers the joins! Then there’s insects and a various humanoids that are all skin and sinew but with too many or too few of any given appendage. But then we get to the really nasty stuff. Abstract Daddy comes in both boss then lesser form at various points, and seems to be a combination of two figures on a bed frame wrapped in a covering of skin, intertwined to represent both rape and suffocation, highlighting that this is potentially James’ perception of Angela’s Otherworld rather than being a part of it. Maybe?

And then there’s Red Pyramid Thing. Also known as Pyramid Head, who’s undoubtably become the Silent Hill poster boy thorughout the series’ lifetime since! He’s a human-like giant in a bloodstained butcher’s apron with a huge triangular helmet, echoing an ancient executioner with his knife that seems to be a mega version of the knife Angela is waving about just before you meet him for the first time! But unlike her knife, we’re in one hit kill territory with this thing. You can actually find this knife later on and use it yourself, but it’s way too cumbersome to bring out in anything other than special boss occasions! You’ll meet him (and his friend) (and his spear) a few times, several of which are going to start with you wondering if Konami would really go as far as making him do what you think you just saw him doing when you turned up. I think the answer is yes… Maria’s also not coming out of these encounters well, again, several times.

If it’s alright with you I’m going to leave out the final boss and move onto gameplay. Everything is kind of fixed camera plus, where you’ve got the advantages of the set piece coming from the best possible angle, but you can also manually move the camera around in most situations, and where you can’t, you’re not going to pay a price for something cheap coming out of the fog at you! A lot of what you’re doing is classic survival horror – go here, fetch that, find the key for this, look into this dark hole and hope it doesn’t look back at you, etc. Combined with the aforementioned map, which is the first thing you need to seek – usually on a wall or a reception desk or similar – every time you enter a new area, you’re going to be following what are in the main logical clues to what are in the main logical puzzles.

Now, I’m not a big one for puzzles in games that aren’t puzzle games, but I actually found myself really enjoying a lot of these, to the point that in the one I’m going to describe in a minute, I didn’t want to backtrack between rooms one final time because I knew I was going to solve it! A lot of it is simple stuff, just relying on your sense of exploration to find the answers – need a safe combination? Then check the blocked toilet upstairs in the place that you thought you couldn’t get into because the door was locked because the wallet in there might have it written on a note! What’s really cool here is that there’s four puzzle difficulty levels when you start the game, though having only ever done them on normal I’m not entirely sure how that works – I think the hard version of the toilet wallet puzzle, for example, used Roman numerals for the combination, and for stuff like riddles are more complex the higher the difficulty.

The puzzle I wanted to mention is called Hanged Man. You come across a room with six bodies with a note on each face telling you of each persons’ crime – kidnapping, arson, murder, etc. You’re then going to a second room with six nooses hanging from the ceiling where the bodies were in the first room. Near the door is a poem on the wall, and you need to work out from that poem which man is innocent, then go and tug on his noose; get it right and there’s a key waiting for you in the first room. My poem documented a bunch of crimes (as well as graphic detail about the hangings that followed), including one where three houses were burnt down and the sheriff just arrested a stranger in the town for it because he was a stranger. So there’s your innocent man. And yes, in this puzzle there are four different poems depending on your puzzle difficulty, and I really can’t fault that commitment to the cause because they’re actually pretty good poems too!

You can also set the combat difficulty at the start of the game. Combat is rarely the strong point of any survival horror game, and here it’s just functional! As well as Pyramid Head’s big chopper, you’ve got the standard handgun, shotgun, plank of wood, lump of metal, etc. You can strafe and spin 180 degrees, and apart from bosses generally avoid combat altogether by just running in most cases. The boss battles are relatively straightforward, and just need plenty of decent ammo in reserve and a bit of patience. As said, functional but certainly not offensive in any way!

We’ve talked about the PS2-stunning graphics a few times, and how everything combines to create this incredible atmosphere, but that atmosphere only works because of the sound design that we’ve only briefly touch upon so far. And yes, we are currently pretending the voice-acting is not part of that sound design! The ambient sound is everywhere and it’s incredible. There are times when some kind of animal noise or possibly human scream or moan seems to be being carried across the fog from miles away, where you can’t see it. Attention to detail isn’t spared here either, like with different footsteps on grass and concrete and broken glass; the things you barely notice but contribute immeasurably when you are creating atmosphere. I’m fairly sure a lot of the sound effects are random too, and combined with periods of silence, create an incredibly unsettling audio experence to go with the unsettling Cronenburg-esque visuals and unsettling everything else!

Before we get somewhere near the end, quick mention of the Theme of Laura. I know this won’t be a popular opinion, but I’m not really fussed by it – melancholy melody with a strong beat, meaning it sounds like a Cure b-side idea that didn’t make the cut. It’s fine and does the job, but Silent Hill 2’s soundtrack isn’t something I listen to in my spare time.

Now let’s move on to my very amateur conclusion about what’s going on. Whatever happened to the town of Silent Hill for it to end up like it is, it’s now a pull for messed up people with messed-up pasts, and is populated by their own very personal monsters. The question is, are the other people you come across in Silent Hill there because they’re messed up like you, or because you are? Like the monsters, I reckon the town made them just for you… Eddie eventually represents James’ disgust at killing a human, charatecterised by his remorse after the meat-locker encounter. Maria is the dying wife manifested as the perfect wife she couldn’t be, back to mentally punish James forever through witnessing recurrent violent deaths at the hands of Pyramid Head, who, like most of the game’s other monsters, is a manifestation of James’ repressed but increasingly violent sexuality coming from years of sexual frustration at the hands of disease. Angela is James’ acceptance that he deserves what he’s going through, of his guilt and not being worthy to live anymore, albeit in reverse as the abused and not the abuser – her father, your wife, just different sides of the same coin; the guilt is the same. And then there’s Laura. She’s not so messed-up and so the town isn’t dangerous to her; she’s not seeing what “everyone else” is seeing. She’s James’ guide towards the truth – if she hadn’t kicked that key away from him in the early game, where would he have gone next? So I think that unlike the other characters you meet, she is real and is in Silent Hill to find her friend – your dead wife – just like you are, but without the horrors of the past to cloud (fog) the way to the end-game… The guilt of being a sexually deviant murderer that demands punishment at your own hands is a horror that is yours alone.

And would you believe I got there without ever once actually spelling out that naughty thing you did, though I’m sure I might as well have by now! I’m mostly happy with my conclusion so far, but I’m still not sure about the sexual deviance thing – it’s clearly there, from the relatively innocent (keep telling yourself that!) manifestation of your sexy nurse fantasies shuffling about the place, to the women as sex-object mannequins, to the more disturbing symbolism of the Abstract Daddy and the more blatant actions of Pyramid Head; as well, of course, as in the characterisation of the dreadfully abused Angela and overly-sexualised Maria. Is that whole messed-up psycho-sexual mess really all borne of not getting your leg over for a few months? Not for me to say, and like what we think we might have witnessed with Pyramid Head and what he was actually doing to the mannequins, I can’t really be sure. Maybe James has always been a sexual deviant and when his wife couldn’t be party to that anymore he went over the edge on that front. But without getting too stereotypical, as a frequent visitor to Japan, I am now probably in the realms of over-thinking this point!

There’s one more small conflict I’ve got over one of the endings I’ve seen. I’m not going into each of the endings here, but I’ve got a theory about James and dead Mary ending up at the bottom of the lake in a car; the lake you were looking at while you were next to your car at the start of the game. I can buy into that he simply came to Silent Hill to kill himself in their “special place” but here’s the conflict. I initially considered this as happening at the end of the game, but what if it happened before you started?

That aside, I think we can conclude that you are the monster and you are the horror in Silent Hill 2! And with that concluded, I can also conclude that in my view, Silent Hill 2 is without doubt the greatest horror game of all time. It’s also potentially one of the greatest pieces of horror art of any kind of all time – now there’s a list I need to create, with this and M.R. James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies all right near the top! And whether you’re talking about the story, the metaphors and symbolism, the dark places it creates or the dark places it goes to, the soundtrack or the atmosphere… it’s also probably one of the most important video games of all time too. And the voice-acting really isn’t as bad as people say!

My Life With… Stunt Car Racer – Atari ST

My Life With… Stunt Car Racer – Atari ST

Not for the first time in its lifetime, as I write this my Spectrum +2 has just had to make way for my Atari ST! I’ve got Spectrum emulators coming out of my ears, but the ST isn’t as straightforward, and a recent obsession over an old ST favourite on other platforms meant it had to come out to play again!

And there’s a sore point we’ll come back to shortly, but for now, my ST has sat in a plastic Selfridges carrier bag in my loft for the last two years, that was also its home in my Dad’s loft for the best part of thirty. (And that’s the same plastic bag it came home from London in when I bought it in Selfridges all those years ago). Apart from looking a bit dishevelled and grubby (which is probably how it looked when it went in the bag), everything just about worked fine. My Quickshot Python 1 joystick has seen better days, with left sticking a bit, and that stupid joystick port under the front next to the mouse port is still a right pain to get at, but otherwise it powered on and the possibly pirated disc containing Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and Kick Off which was still in the drive worked great! It was a little jarring going back to that ST homescreen and remembering how to boot up a game from the floppy disc though – too much Windows in the interim when all I needed to do was press the reset button!

Neighbouring the ST in its bag in the loft was a far more appropriate Lion bar cardboard board full of games, organized to completely fill every space in the box to perfection, with all the skill of the Tetris master that once packed it. Unfortunately he’s not been a Tetris master for a while now, and there’s no way they’re all going back in that box ever again! Not that we’ve got any more plans for the box any time soon – we have everything we need right here! Well, almost everything…

Apart from having a good idea what was in there, opening that box must have been like when Howard Carter opened Tutankhamun’s tomb! There was Pac-Land (more on that here) sitting on the top with another incredible arcade conversion, Star Wars. Poking out underneath was Starglider, glorious flight-sim Falcon and game creation language suite STOS, with two Spy vs Spy games and the Gunship manual padding out a gap on one of the sides. Then there were the boxes of “loose” floppy discs, not all of which were of dubious origin I might add! Actually, I think most of them are issues of short-lived disc-based magazine Stampede. There was probably a hundred games in there in all, and as much as I enjoyed browsing through every single one in turn for the first time, then carefully deciphering the faded pencil labels just to make sure the second time, I was less enthralled with the denial then realisation the third time around that Stunt Car Racer simply wasn’t there!

Yes, for a couple of months now I’ve been playing tons of this on the Spectrum, because I had no idea it was on the Spectrum until recently, then on the C64 because I had no idea that existed either for even longer! And as wonderful an achievement as the Spectrum version is, the C64 version isn’t far off Amiga quality, which isn’t far off my beloved old Atari ST game, and it was only a matter of time until I had to get everything out and get playing that version again!

I still can’t believe that as far as I can tell, absolutely everything except Stunt Car Racer – the one game I was prepared to sacrifice my Spectrum for the second time for – is in that box! I’ve no idea why it wouldn’t be in there. I mean, it was in one of the big style Atari ST boxes where you’d get the manual and a special insert to stop the precious disc bouncing around that vast cavern, and they do take up a lot of box space, but there’s some right old crap in there (what even is Kayden Garth and why do I own it???) that could have gone in another box! And I’ve got any boxes with old copies of 2000A.D. or Murder Casebook in that it might have been shoved into instead to fill a space, and that wouldn’t have been easy to miss when I sorted those out on re-arrival with me a couple of years ago too.

I won’t bore you with the rest of the stages of grief I tore through yesterday at the time of writing, but on reaching acceptance I was immediately on eBay looking at precisely two listings for Stunt Car Racer on the Atari ST. Oh dear, thinking I was going to be spoilt with choice and pick this up for a fiver plus about the same in postage for that huge box was turning out to be wishful thinking. I added them both, at £30 each, to my watch list. Within a couple of hours, there was an offer from the seller for one of them for £26. I ignored it for 18 hours then went back with what I’d decided was my maximum price whenever I was eventually going to buy it of £20; especially knowing perfectly well that my original copy is going to turn up as soon as I click pay on anything! And within minutes they went for it, and we are now back in business!

Buying Stunt Car Racer first time around came late in my Atari ST relationship – probably in 1991 – and excluding multiplayer games of Super Sprint and Rampage with my brothers, was definitely the only single-player game that ever got a look in once Kick Off – the game I’ve still played more than any other on any platform – got its hooks into the three of us! In fact, Kick Off would extend the lifetime of my ST beyond even that of the original PlayStation! But, as much as I loved Stunt Car Racer, it’s very much associated with a specific timeframe during my second year of university.

During my first year, we were offered a kind of year-long exchange with l’ecole d’ingenieurs de Tours in France, and being an unnaturally fluent French speaker – the background for which will forever be a mystery – I decided I’d give it a go. When September came, me and another guy on my course, Stuart, who I’d become as thick as thieves with when we eventually reunited in our final year, went off with the guys (it was an engineering degree in the early 90’s!) from the year above who were doing their sandwich year for an induction week… And what a holiday that week was with the guys from our own year when it was our turn proper the following year! Anyway, we were abandoned at the end of the week (but not as badly as happened the following year!) and eventually found our way to the campus and our halls and our new life in what is the perfect university city. We made some great friends and had a great time, including some of the craziest fresher’s week antics I’ve ever heard of, but over time the course wasn’t quite what I’d signed up to and when I was offered a get-out before the end of the year I decided to take it and get back to normal. Unfortunately everyone else was already back to normal, and I ended up renting a room with a family where I certainly wasn’t hanging around for the weekends, and for the rest of that term I remember two very specific things about those weekends. First, my insistence on having U2’s Achtung Baby album playing on the car journey back there with my parents every Sunday night, and second playing Stunt Car Racer until I couldn’t put that journey off any longer!

We’re now a few days removed from all of the above, and it’s turned up in the post, so we can finally talk about Stunt Car Racer! It had been out for a couple of years before I got it first time around, and given some of the rubbish my big Lion bar box suggests I bought (let alone copied!) in the intervening time, that gap from release to purchase is a complete mystery! I was certainly aware of it, from the very first time it graced the cover of Computer & Video Games magazine in August 1989, with the headline “The best race game ever?” And that’s a very good question!

Ignoring cars, because the question also does that, I’ve got to go with SSX 3 on PlayStation 2 as the best, but that was decades away in August 1989, so we’re then looking at Supersprint on formats such as arcade, Spectrum and Atari ST as the best race game ever, with the caveat that its top-down nature is maybe not in the spirit of the question. Does Out Run qualify as a race game? That’s next if it does; arcade and – always controversially – Spectrum (more here)! Then Destruction Derby 2 on Playstation, also a big while away, so doesn’t count yet either. Then Enduro Racer on Spectrum (see here this time). I reckon Stunt Car Racer can come next in my list, just before the arcade version of Virtua Racer (also three years away), making the answer to the question “No, but it’s maybe top three” when it was asked!

Back to C&VG, and in their gushing 93% August 1989 review they start by bemoaning that aside from Super Hang On – which would be next in my list – there’s not much going on in 16-bit racing. They’d clearly forgotten about the similar-scoring Test Drive II from a couple of months earlier. Anyway, they decided it was the best race game ever. Outside of the arcades. On a home computer. Just looking through my Lion bar box, apart from Super Hang On, there’s Hard Drivin (more on that here, but also recently positively reviewed by C&VG), RVF Honda (which C&VG has also just very postiviely reviewed), Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge (I won’t labour the point) and Vroom (predictable now). Some serious quality there, so no complaints if that lot still all counts as not a lot to choose from, but I’m not disagreeing with much they say about Stunt Car Racer itself!

For all the race games we’ve just run through, Stunt Car Racer can undoubtely call itself the most unique. It’s a one-on-one car race in a first-person cockpit perspective, but on a raised 3D track that you not only have to stay on, but, as you might imagine, there’s stunts too, in the form of ramps, bumps, hurdles, gaps, massive ski jumps and all kinds of rollercoaster shennanigans. At the start of each race, you’re winched onto the track, held up by chains that let you loose when the man says go. Fall off the track, and after what seems like an agonising wait – especially for some of the more flamboyant crash scenarious you might find yourself in – and you’re going to be winched back onto the track again. The winch is genius, building up big anticipation with your car swinging all over the place before it finally settles in position for you to drop.

The races themselves are hugely strategic affairs of cat-and-mouse with your opponent, and it’s going to take some experience – especially on later tracks – for you to know when you should stay and when you should go. That said, there’s nothing like the thrill of firing boost and just going hell for leather out of the blocks (or being unchained), getting your nose in front and then just trying to defend your lead for the whole race! Even when your opponent is out of sight, a very simple mechanic of telling you how far away they are adds an amazing amount of tension when you can see how fast they’re catching, or how you’re running out of laps to catch them, or even worse, that big lead you had disappearing as you’re being winched back on after a crash! And aside from deciding when to sit back, when to overtake and when to fly with your limited supply of nitrous boost, depending on your specific track situation, you’re also constantly balancing speed for the different obstacles and even for the normal turns, just to make sure you stay on the track.

And the strategy goes on. Winning a race gets you two points, which contributes towards your league position against two computer opponents. But getting the fastest lap nets you a bonus point, so what you’re going to have to consider on top of everything else is making sure that second lap is an absolute corker, because if the computer is in the lead on the last lap then you might not be scoring a time before the race ends, and if you’re in the lead you’re likely to be concentrating on staying in front and not getting a record lap time! With two tracks in each of four increasingly tough divisions, each with two different computer opponents (which the computer works out the results for), and two races each per track per season, those fastest lap points become all important towards deciding whether you’re promoted, relagated or stay where you are.

We need to come back to crashing, and one final tension-building strategic mechanic, which is the big crack that gradually spreads across your roll cage as you sustain damage! Take a corner too fast, small crack; come off the track, bigger (and bigger) crack; hit the opponent or they hit you, devastating crack if you hang around too long! If your crack gets too big, you’re wrecked and it’s race over (so make sure you got a decent lap time in before that happens)! To compound this, once you get past Division 4, there’s going to be permanent serious impact damage in the form of holes in the roll cage that the crack just jumps across, accelerating your doom!

Winning Division 1 is going to take you ages, not just from learning the nuances of each track and each opponent, but also puzzling out how the hell you’re going over some of those obstacles in the first place! And there’s some really fiendishly designed tracks on offer here! But do it, and it’s not game over yet – you’re going into the Super League with a hugely overpowered new car! Don’t worry about that for now though. First you’ve got to get over the thrill of the race on a crazy track, then you’ve got to get to know the tracks in every division, then you’ve got to get your racing strategy down. And that’s going to take some time and you’re going to love every second of it!

By chance when I was looking through my ST floppies, I found my brother Phil’s old Division 2 save on one, under the name of Bern Rubba. I sent him a pic and he replied saying how much fun it was, but he bets it looks like a dog now. I’d say it’s a little primitive by today’s standards, but the 16-bit versions at least run like a dream, even if the backgrounds are sparse, and the opponent’s car is only marginally less sparse, being made up a less 3D polygons than you could count on one hand! The lovely detailing of your cockpit and front of the car – especially the flames coming out of the exposed engine when you boost – take a lot of the graphical pressure off what’s going on outside though. But all the same, the raised 3D tracks do exactly what they need to, and all of this combined was more than enough to blow anyone away at the time! There’s some lovely between race, very 16-bit cartoon-like scenes too, celebrating your victory or having you dejectly looking on at someone else doing it. Sound isn’t spectacular, but is more than functional, and I reckon any more than that would be a distraction in a game like this.

I’ll quickly mention the 8-bit versions, as, like I said, that’s actually where this recent story begins. I was well beyond the Spectrum when I was playing this on the Atari ST, and although C&VG really bigged that version up, saying it was identical to the ST apart from being monochrome, it was only very recently that I came across it again and actually paid attention. I would say that it runs like my brother imagined the ST version to run like now, but the gameplay is all still there! And I very quickly got very addicted to it all over again! C&VG said it promised to be one of the most amazing games yet seen on the Spectrum, and I can’t disagree on that point!

Even more amazing is the Commodore 64 version. Yes, it’s got more colour (even if a lot of it is C64 brown), and the cockpit really isn’t far off looking like the 16-bit versions, but it also runs at a slightly more comparable pace. And so my addiction jumped to that platform, until I finally thought why not go to the effort of opening the loft hatch right above where I was playing and getting the ST out, because I had a nagging feeling that despite being technically close to the experience I remembered now, there was something still missing…

Playing them all in tandem now, there’s one subtle but massive difference for me between these 8-bit versions and both the Atari ST and Amiga (which I’ve also played a bit, emulated on a MacBook Pro) counterparts, which is what makes the game stand out over everything else, and that’s exhileration. Yes, if you’d never played on 16-bit, you’d never miss it and you’d have a wonderful time, but there’s something about the extra fidelity, the longer draw distances, the speed and something about the car physics that makes driving feel more tactile. You’re going to feel every bump, and that’s going to make you also brace yourself for every bump, whether just going into a curve a bit too sharply, or landing a huge jump and bouncing around from the impact. And as a result, your stomach will often be in your mouth and you’re going to be leaning all over the place as you try not to wrestle your joystick too hard because you remember just how easily they can snap by pushing a bit too far in one direction!

This game on the Atari ST is just so immersive, and has so much going for it that you’ll be coming back forever. Eventually, when you’ve admitted to yourself you aren’t going to find it again and need to splash some cash! I still question C&VG’s complaint about the lack of racing games on the platform, but if there is a lack, then no problem because this is the only racing game you need on there. It might not be the best race game ever anymore, but it’s still not far off, and there’s no question in my mind that it is still one of the most exhilerating too!

Finally, next month in C&VG… Xenon II – the most amazing shoot ‘em up ever? Yeah, maybe!

My Life With… Pac-Land – Arcade / ZX Spectrum / Everything Else!

My Life With… Pac-Land – Arcade / ZX Spectrum / Everything Else!

There are very scientific reasons about why I can remember not only every second of Live Aid, but also where I was sitting when Status Quo came on, for example. Same for what I was eating for breakfast (toast) when the Mary Rose was pulled up, or what music was playing (1999 by Prince – see here for more on that) the first time I played Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. It’s a bit like those ghost theories about high-impact things being imprinted on places, but more real and that place is your brain, not the creepy underground boiler room in your middle school that I had forgotten all about until just now… But while that works for high-impact, I am wondering why I also remember what I was wearing (blue La Coste tracksuit) when I bought Queen’s Greatest Hits from the record section downstairs in Boots in Bedford in about 1984. And also why I don’t remember almost anything about what was an hotly anticipated, but in retrospect horrendous sounding, annual church trip to Great Yarmouth that was in full annual swing around the same time. Incidentally, I also have very few memories of why I bought Queen’s Greatest Hits as I’ve never been a fan!

Anyway, I’ve mentioned the church trip before, and playing Mini Munchman on the bus on the way there one year, and the arcade by the big funfair with the giant outside where we were dropped off and picked up that had a Track & Field machine. And on top of that, I vaguely remember thinking that one of the rollercoasters there seemed really rickety as we were going around it one time, but generally, I was thinking my only memories of what we actually did there revolved around that arcade. Now, a apart from a section in Computer & Video Games mag, an arcade was a once-per-year novelty in itself – so kind of makes sense according to our theory – and we’d be in it as soon as we arrived, then be hanging around in it with no money left to play anything anymore for a bit before we left. But coming back to memory, apart from “arcade” and exactly where the Track & Field machine was, in the far back-right corner, I really don’t remember anything else about what else was inside it either… At least until one year something new appeared, around the corner and about five machines to the right of Track & Field, that immediately demanded your full attention and pocket full of 10p’s!

Look it at it today, and it’s probably hard to imagine why Pac-Land might have that impact on a passer-by, but try passing-by this on the way to Track & Field in 1984 or 85, when you’re getting a double-whammy of not only seeing the Pac-Man in a new perspective, but a whole new side-scrolling perspective on gaming too!

Let’s get into the first new perspective, and its cartoon inspiration. As much as I’m a huge fan of Hanna-Barbera’s 1960’s and 70’s output, when it comes to the 1980’s it’s all about Pac-Man: The Animated series, which first aired in 1982 and ran for 21 episodes and a couple of specials until then end of 1984. And that makes it the first cartoon ever based on a video game! It was always going to be a hit with me because it was shown as part of my absolute school summer holiday favourite, Rat on the Road, the Roland Rat [Superstar] show that came on at the end of TV:AM! Which gives us a probable first airing date here of summer 1983. Interesting fact about this is that Roland Rat’s appearance then boosted the ailing breakfast show’s viewer numbers from around 100,000 to 1.8 million. Yeeeeaaaaaaahhhhhhh, Rat-fans!

Back to Pac, you’ve got Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man (known as Pepper for some reason) and Baby Pac (in his only speaking role!), and they live in Pac-Village in a place called Pac-Land, of course! Actually, as we’re going far deeper into Pac-lore than I ever intended, what about the older Pac-kid, Jr. Pac-Man? I get that his love antics with Blinky’s daughter might have been problematic to the storyline, but it’s like he never existed! As some compensation, you do get Super-Pac in the second season! The plotline in most episodes is Pac-Man protecting the village and its power pellets from his familiar ghost foes (and Sue from Ms. Pac-Man) and their evil uncle, The Ghost Wizard of Mezmeron… And let me tell you something, if I ever decided to change my name, I would change it to The Ghost Wizard of Mezmeron!

The hugely vibrant look of the show was ported wholesale to the arcade game, as was the iconic music that looped throughout, which you could sniff out in an arcade like a pig sniffing out truffles; in an audio kind of way! The detailed character designs, complete with hats and hair – not to mention their super-smooth animation style – were also a big feature of the game. Pac-Man alone had 24 different frame patterns, where one or two was the norm at the time. As a[nother] side note, something that didn’t come from the cartoon, but by coincidence is relevant here, are the controls – they came from Track & Field, using buttons instead of a joystick, which allowed for those lovely springboard long jumping bits that will always be my favourite part of the game!

And this brings us to that second new perspective. Super Mario Bros. might spring to mind when you think of side-scrolling platformers, and rightly so because it pretty much set the template for anything else that followed it, but Pac-Land was doing the power-upped walking and running and jumping bidirectional horizontal scrolling thing a good year beforehand. It was far more influential than it gets credit for, but seeing it moving in an arcade was seeing that cartoon brought to life, from left to right and sometimes back again, and at the time that was very probably something you’d never seen the like of before!

Back to playing the game, each of the levels is a multi-stage journey to Fairy Land to get a lost fairy home, rewarding you with some super boots that will make your journey back through the level to your family a bit easier. You’ll be going through towns, forests, deserts then castles, and each stage ends with Break Time at the church on the hill where you’ll be awarded bonus points for your jumping performance as you come to a stop (preceding Mario and his flagpole), and I can’t emphasise how welcome that Break Time sign is on some of the more frantic stages! That said, it’s worth saying that things never really gets that frantic, which I think is why I appreciated the arcade game so much – good value for money for the casual player was as important as anything!

Obviously, there’s the ghosts that are constantly on your tail, driving buses at you, chucking stuff at you out of planes and allsorts more to hinder your progress. Then there’s enviromental obstacles like the aforementioned springboard, quicksand, ropey wooden bridges with spinning logs, fire hydrants and other water-based hazards ready to spray you down and take you down. But as well as the boots and sporadic power pills that do exactly what you expect them to do, there’s also a bunch of hidden stuff that will help you out. For example, turn around and push the right fire hydrant in certain stages and you’ll get a hat that will stop you being harmed by dangers from above. There’s also hidden fruit behind certain jumps (something else it preceded Mario with) and even a Galaxian flagship worth loads of points!

And the whole thing comes together to be such a joy to play! On the arcade machine, you’re going to get your 10p’s worth out of the first couple of stages for the visuals alone – the transitions from one distinct stage to another are just wonderful, and no matter how far you go, everything will soon become reassuringly familiar, and after each Break Time you’ll be fondly entering the next bit… before you realise that at some point things got a bit hard and you’re starting again!

In the grand scheme of things, whilst it had the biggest impact on me, the arcade machine is the version I played the least. That’s not unusual for me, having had infrequent access to arcade machines back then, but what is unusual is that I might have played a lot on more different versions of Pac-Land than any other game I can think of. It came out on nearly everything, and somehow I’ve spent a lot of time with it on nearly everything!

As was often the case, the Spectrum was the first version I really spent a lot of time on. Strangely though, the Spectrum version did come out about four years after the fact in 1988, along with CPC, MSX and Atari ST versions, and then the C64 version arrived even later. The Spectrum conversion gets a bad rap – it’s got weird colours and Pac-Man has a funny nose and it doesn’t scroll (meaning you need to remember that falling log is right after the next screen-flip!), but its genuinely only latterly that I’ve had those thoughts! It was and still is a very competent port with nearly everything else present and correct, and as was also often the case, it was Pac-Land in your house, on your Spectrum, and that’s all you needed for it to be fun! In terms of reviews at the time, I do remember it getting a bit of a hammering though. If it had come out in 1985 it might have fared better, but we’re not only years after the original (which was decades in eighties home computing terms!), we’re also years after the new Super Mario yardstick.

The version I’ve played most seriously on – not quite finishing it but not being far off – is the PC-Engine conversion from 1990, though actually playing it was much more recent. As much as I’d love it to be a part of the mostly beautifully curated library on my PC-Engine Mini, it’s not, but another machine in my collection does a very good impression of a PC-Engine and plays whatever game you care to throw at it right with no fuss, right through an HDMI cable! Much like the Spectrum conversion of Pac-Land, the PlayStation Classic is very unfairly maligned; at least when it has a USB stick with a certain emulator suite stuck on it! For me this is the ultimate conversion of Pac-Land. I know I’m going from almost 40-year memories, but this is exactly how the arcade version looked, sounded and played. In the last couple of years I’ve played dozens of hours, having a couple of games at least once a week. And that’s a beautiful thing to be able to do!

Trying its best to be as beautiful is the Commodore 64 version, and as a contemporary conversion for an 8-bit machine, you couldn’t expect any more. I’ve been playing this on the C64 Mini for a few years at the time of writing. The colours are a little muted, there’s only 16 levels (I think in common with most if not all other 8-bit conversions) and you can’t jump on top of some of the enemies so a touch from below is death here, but the soundtrack is classic C64! And it scrolls! It’s also a bit easier than the other versions so getting to the end of this one is very achievable.

I’ve not played a huge amount of the Amstrad CPC version – actually, when I finally got around to emulating a CPC for the very first time in 2019 (also on the PlayStation Classic, albeit a bit more fiddly to do than the PC Engine), it was the first thing I fired up and has been about the only thing I’ve regularly gone back to! It’s a real mish-mash of the other two 8-bit versions here, and would be on a par with the C64 version if it hadn’t inherited the Spectrum’s lack of scrolling!

Jumping back to around 1990, and the Atari ST version was a whole fantastic different matter. When I made the jump from Spectrum +2 to Atari ST, I very distinctly remember this being one of the games – together with Star Wars and Operation Wolf – that announced that arcade conversions were finally that mythical arcade-perfect we’d been hearing about for years! In retrospect it stuttered a bit in places, and was lacking parallax scrolling, but do you think that mattered coming from the Spectrum version? This was the holy grail of Pac-Land conversions to that point!

My brother was also a big fan of Pac-Land in the Great Yarmouth arcade, and he also owned a Lynx! And a couple of years later again, Pac-Land on there was also a fantastic conversion. I’d say in some stages it’s even more vibrant than the arcade version, with very faithful graphics, sound and gameplay. And let’s not forget, that’s a contemporary conversion in your hand, which the Atari Lynx was very good at! It moves at pace but the scrolling is a little off when it’s got big stuff like buildings to move along the screen (though I’ll take this over flip-screening and even the ST suffered from this). It’s checkpointing seemed a bit broken too – die in the forest and restart in halfway through the town, for example! It’s main crime though – and I’ll say “apparently” because I’m not the target audience for stuff like this – is that it has no ending! Just keeps going, I assume replaying the same levels over and over. No complaints from me about this version at all though. Still massively impressive!

Moving forwards half a decade again, and the original PlayStation was being peppered with loads of original arcade game version compilations covering loads of ancient stuff, and Namco was front and centre with no less than six of them! Pac-Land finally appeared in 1997 on Volume 4, drawing a short straw I think, being packaged with lesser known games in the West like Ordyne, Assault, The Return of Ishtar and Genpei Toma Den… Where’s Metrocross, Pac-Mania and Dragon Spirit??? (For information, coming a year later in Volume 5). But now we finally have the real holy grail of the actual arcade version in your home. And now I’m sitting here wondering why I spend so much time playing the PC-Engine version when the actual original is also sitting on exactly the same machine… Having just fired it up again, one thing is for sure – all that PC-Engine practice has made me really, really good at the arcade version now!

Most recently, we come to Namco Museum Archives Volume 2 on Nintendo Switch, which along with a favourite version of classic vertical shooter Xevious (Super Xevious) and loads of other NES goodies, we also have the NES conversion of Pac-Land. Firstly, it takes some getting used to, because as far as I can work out, unlike the PC-Engine version that allows you to press Select to switch from default “button” controls to regular “lever” controls, this one only seems to have button controls. And they take a bit of getting used to because you’re walking and running and changing direction on your right hand, and jumping with a directional button on the left. It’s also very minimal looking, Pac-Man is tiny on the screen, and it suffers from a bit of slowdown despite there being very little detail in the characters or backgrounds. There’s a few bits missing too, including the fairy screen – you get a Fairy Land sign like for Break Time instead – and also no super boots for your return trip. And like the Lynx version, I think it loops after 16 levels. I’m not doing a great job of selling it, but despite all of that, give it a chance and it plays absolutely fine, sounds lovely, and is a great version to have if you’re out and about with your Switch!

And that’s a whole lot of Pac-Land, one of my top five favourite arcade games (we’ll cover that another time), same on PC-Engine, and probably true on a lot of other systems too! Now do yourself a favour and dig up that cartoon!

My Life With… Winter Games – Commodore 64

My Life With… Winter Games – Commodore 64

When my friend Stephen got his Commodore 128 for Christmas, I couldn’t spend enough time at his house. And his house was so close to ours that I couldn’t even use the racing bike I got the same year to get there! The best Christmas present I never got… Except maybe my brother’s Mini Munchman and BMX Flyer handhelds! Anyway, that Christmas, and any other time I could get away with until I got my Spectrum +2 a year (or possibly two) later, I was at his house playing almost exclusively C64 games on his C128!

I think my very first experience of his better Commodore than my VIC-20, possibly the day after Boxing Day, probably in 1985 though I’m not 100% sure, was Impossible Mission. To this day I still have no clue what was going on, but somersaulting over electric robots, searching computers and stuff, and going up and down those awesome huge lifts where you could see “under the ground” either side of the shaft was more than enough to say this was the best game I’d ever played!

It was certainly better than the next game we played, Special Delivery, where you flew about in Santa’s sleigh avoiding lightning while you caught presents from angels in the clouds, then landed on a roof, climbed down one of three ladders in an unfeasibly oversized chimney dodging unspecified baddies, then crept around a crude 3D house to deliver it under a tree while avoiding its inhabitants. I recall landing was pretty cool, and actually the variety did give it a bit of life, but there’s a reason why it’s not mentioned alongside stuff like Impossible Mission or The Last Ninja and the like!

What can be mentioned in the same breath as those classics, though, is what came next. And that was, of course, Winter Games! And Impossible Mission instantly became the shortest-lived best game I’d ever played of all time!

As a graphical showpiece for what any home computer could do in 1985, I can’t think of anything more mind-blowing than Winter Games on the C64. The trees were undoubtably the standout, with multiple shades of green that made them look more like trees than anything I’d seen on a computer screen before. Even in Horace Goes Skiing! Then there were the clouds and the snow-capped mountains, and incredible details like the shadows under the fences in the biathlon… The whole thing just transported you to an alpine environment with almost no imagination needed, which is saying something for even the greatest games of that golden age! More than anything, it felt suitably cold!

But we’re jumping way ahead of ourselves! What about that opening ceremony when the game first loads, with its bombastic anthem playing in the background as the torch-carrying athlete runs towards the huge Olympic cauldron and lights a fire that looks and acts like real fire, as doves fly by the fluttering flags in the background! And such was the depth of attention to detail throughout the game, this was just the first of many incredible first impressions you’d be getting for hours to come!

Epyx had released Winter Games earlier in 1985, and it followed the previous year’s Summer Games and then its 1985 sequel, neither of which I’d ever played, but distinctly remember being very impressed by in one of my earlier copies of Computer & Video Games magazine – actually, I think it was the great-looking fire from the opening ceremony that got me in that advert screenshot too!

Now, I recently responded to a Facebook post about albums where you never skipped a track… I was aghast that people actually did that! I mean, I was never a big fan of Round and Round on Spandau Ballet’s Parade album, but I’d have never dreamt of skipping it! I could say the same about Kiss on Prince’s album of the same name. If you’re playing an album you’re playing an album! Especially when it’s on vinyl and skipping involves a steadier hand than you’d need removing the funny bone in Operation if you don’t want to scratch your disc up! And anyone that’s played Winter Games knows exactly where I’m going with this diatribe!

Once you’d torn yourself away from the opening ceremony, there were a very generous seven events included in Winter Games. You had Hot Dog, where you did ski tricks off a ramp. Then there was Biathlon, which was all about skiing speed versus breath control to make sure your shooting bits were up to scratch. The big glamour event was Ski Jump, with its massive ramp and massive tension as you fly past some of the game’s most beatiful scenery. After that you’ve got the rhythmic joystick waggling of the Speed Skating event. Another glamour event was the unique Bob Sled with its big turns and big crashes. And then there was Figure Skating (Spandau’s Round and Round)… And then there was Free Skating (Prince’s Kiss)! In one you had to do a set number of tricks and in the other you could do what you wanted but it went on longer. Which wasn’t ideal, but regardless of the ability to play individual events or some events and completely avoid these two stinkers for the rest of your life, it was not an option. You shall not skip the skating events!

Actually, they weren’t that bad, but when you could have had slalom or downhill or moguls or something else instead of at least one of them, and when everything else was just so cool, your heart did sink a little bit when they appeared as the next event! And as a 13-year old at the time, I didn’t play computer games to pirouette! At the time of writing my son is the same age, and if I went and suggested to him now he should turn off Fortnite and try something where he has to pirouette instead, I know what the answer would be! 

There was also a practical reason to not only play them, but to be really good at them, and that was multiplayer, and even in spite of its graphics and sounds and music, this is where Winter Games really shone! You could do an incredible 8-players turn-based, or two players simultaneous (at least in events like Speed Skating where that was practical), and with occasional help from Stephen’s sister and my brother, we caned the hell out of both to the point that Free Skating at least became critical to overall success or failure. And it’s definitely worth looking at the events from the viewpoint of the expert player (which is a viewpoint I’m rarely familiar with so need to take advantage of whenever the opportunity presents itself)!

Going in order of choosing “compete in all the events” you’re starting off with Hot Dog. This is marked out of ten, so getting ten is essential to start competitive! And to do that, you’re pressing fire to start, then doing one trick (for example a mule kick which is joystick left down) then returning the joystick to neutral and doing one somersault (for example joystick right), or doing two different somersaults, then returning back to neutral in time to land. Those tricks are all about timing though, and you’re holding the joystick in position for the duration of the trick, no more and no less!

After a little awards ceremony, national anthem and maybe one of your multi-loads that cue up the next set of events (yes, I know, but it’s a small and very bearable sacrifice), it’s Biathlon. You’re cross-country skiing across a perfectly animated little alpine stream at a nice steady rhythm onto a downhill screen which is also fairly laid-back, but you want to get three downward thrusts in to give you some speed on the uphill screen that you need to frantically waggle your joystick up and is going to completely ruin your breathing, highlighted by an increasingly fast-beating heart indicator. This is important because every few screens you’re going to be shooting five targets (down, up, shoot, down, up shoot…), and the higher your pulse, the less accurate you’ll be. This event is all about overall time, with each missed target giving you a five second penalty, but you shouldn’t be missing anything so whether or not you’ve taken the lead after the second event is going to be about tenths of seconds.

That’s your fun over for a while because now it’s Figure Skating! As I said, it’s not that bad, but it’s just so very bland compared to other events. Most of the screen is ice white, with some crowds behind some flags scrolling by at the very top, though I have to say that the music – which wouldn’t be out of place in a Robocop game – is fantastic! Your execution of the mandated tricks is going to be down to how well you judge foot positions and the little shadow that signifies where your skater is jumping or spinning or whatever. I am being really harsh here again though, because the absolutely stunning character animation is far more useful for getting your timing right than the also well animated shadow alone! Anyway, do your sixty second routine with enough double-axels and triple-lutzes without falling over and the honours for this event should be even with maximum points all around as you get back onto the mountain!

Ski Jump is going to be most people’s favourite event. It looks great and it’s skilful, but it’s also unpredictable and is somewhere else where you’re going to need to score points! You start in a tower at the top of this enormous ramp, then a second fire button press as close to the end of the ramp as you dare is going to launch you onto the jump proper screen, with its wonderfully vibrantly coloured ski resort welcoming you at the bottom. Once you’re in the air, it’s all about the keeping your posture as perfect as possible to get the maximum distance, with continous joystick adjustments of your little man shown in close up in a second screen in the top right as you see him flying through the air in the background. If the skis are crossed, joystick down, leaning back too far, joystick right and so on. The longer your posture is good, the further you’ll go, and the more likely the next anthem played will be yours. Which would probably be the same as your opponent’s too if you’re sat in their bedroom unless you’re trying to be cool and choose USA instead of UK…

Now we’re Speed Skating. I always found this a bit disconcerting because youv’e got four lanes for four racers but I’m sure you only ever saw two of them at the end, and regardless of whether or not you won I’m also sure one of them was always in front on you. I might be overthinking my memories though, and regardless this was a lot of fun, especially because in simultaneous two-player play you’ve got a very clear and instant winner (if you ignore the other two)! You’re waggling your joystick rhythmically rather than especially frantically to try and get your speed guage to the max and keep it there, but actually this one is all about getting the best possible start. Of all the events, this one just feels really good once you’re in the zone.

Just Free Skating between you and the home stretch now! Precisely two minutes of Free Skating… This is like the other skating event, where you’re looking at big air and perfect landings care of a well-timed press of fire when the shadows are right for decent points, though you’re going to want to perfectly transition from pirouette to sitting piroutte with perfect timing for the best possible points! This is free style so you’re needing to do a decent mix of tricks and transitions, and because it’s less prescribed than the other skating event, it’s not all about both of you making sure of maximum points so don’t fall over now!

Of all the events on offer here, Bob Sled is probably the most memorable to me. By which I mean I can still hear in my mind the swish as you hit the corners, and feel exactly how hard do push that joystick from middle to left or right! Half the screen is taken up by an overhead view of your progress on the course, but you’re going to be staring intently at the other half, anticipating the glorious 3D turns with a bang of the joystick to the left, then a bang to the right, and don’t forget that double right at the end. And even more glorious is you and your fellow players watching that all-important big stopwatch underneath you! This one is over in less than 22 seconds, but play this game enough and it’s going to boil down everything that’s happened in the half an hour or so before it into that short period of time, and as the final standings appear, someone it going to be jumping up and down on the bed like a loon, and someone is going to be trying desperately to be sensible with the Atari joystick still in their hands!!!

Winter Games was baked into the wonderful C64 Mini, so around 2018 I did eventually own my own copy (complete with that clunky old-school joystick we used to use), but naturally, when I got a Spectrum long before that I had Winter Games there too, and became just about perfect at everything all over again! And while it doesn’t look or sound quite as good (and that all important skating shadow is completely missing in action), it still looks and sounds very good, and most importantly plays just as perfectly.

As an aside, around the same time I also got a very similar game called Winter Sports, which did have downhill and slalom skiing, and ice hockey too, and it was a lot of fun, but in a world where Games existed with all of its polish, just wasn’t enough fun to be in the mix for what I’d later consider to be in my top five favourite sports games ever. Or, indeed, one of my top two winter sports games ever… Sorry Winter Games, you might beat Horace in the tree department, but with its lack of ice skates, SSX 3 on my PlayStation 2 and my GameCube just edges it!

My Life With… Milk Race – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Milk Race – ZX Spectrum

Nothing says 1987 like the Milk Race. Except maybe Lethal Weapon. And Robocop. And U2. And big storms in the south of England that meant we spent an afternoon in the school sports hall watching Clash of the Titans instead of lessons. But anyway, apart from those, round-Britain pro-am cycling extravaganza the Milk Race was a big deal! To put it into context, Tour de France was a song by Kraftwerk, but everyone knew the Milk Race – in no small part, simply due to it being televised, and at the time there wasn’t a huge amount of early evening viewing choice. Just like snooker in its BBC Two 18.5 million viewer heyday a couple of years earlier.

However, unlike snooker, the Milk Race can be traced all the way back to 1945, and the Victory Cycling Marathon from Brighton to Glasgow. It would soon attract the News of the World newspaper as a sponsor, then the Sporting Record, then the Daily Express until they decided to put their money into a new sport called Formula 1 motor-racing instead. In 1954, Quaker Oats got in on the act until their breakfast bowl bedfellows the Milk Marketing Board took over in 1958, and that partnership would go on for another 35 years until 1993, when they got wound up because of pesky European monopoly laws. And as that takes us well beyond our start date of 1987, I think this completely unplanned history of the Milk Race, its politics and its sponsors can come to a close! Except to say that nowadays you’d be right to think its now called the Tour of Britain.

Despite all of its relative popularity, and despite the £1.99 budget price tag, I still wonder how confident Mastertronic were when they signed off on a niche game about a niche sport. But I suppose that once it was on the shelves the inlay looked pretty cool, the screenshots suitably conveyed its likeness to what you could see on telly, and the blurb did its best! “In May cycling nations from all over the world send their best competitors to England for the 1000 mile trek…” And there wasn’t much more you could ask for when you were staring at cassette boxes in your local games emporium, desperate to spend your pocket money.

The most fun you’ll have is in the first stage (which is lucky because unless you get serious it’s where you’ll spend all your time) where you’ve got forty or so riders in front of you and you get a real sense of being in the pack. It’s also much harder to position yourself to pick up milk from either side of the road, which is how you’re going to keep your energy bar topped up enough to manage all those hills and keep up a decent enough speed to make your way fowards.

Stay near one edge or the other and you should be able to pick up milk regularly enough, so just  keep an eye on your gears and speed when you’re going uphill and energy won’t be too much of a problem for most of the race. 

After a couple of stages you should be somewhere near the lead and you just need to stay there or thereabouts, which shouldn’t be too much of a problem for a while. Actually the only problem you’ll now have is the cars that don’t just drive by you, but might decide to swerve up and down the whole width of the road – this is the only way you’re not going to stay in the lead for now…

That’s until you get to stage 12 of 13 because for some reason the Milk Race has apparently run out of milk! And where the other riders couldn’t steal it away from you fast enough in the early stages, they couldn’t care less about the lack of it now and will sail past you as you panic about conserving energy, and you watch that top three position you’ve now held through most of the race dwindle away. And that’s not the only thing to be in a panic about, because there’s no way you’re completing a time trial with enough energy left to finish the next stage though the mountainous region that is apparently Chelmsford to Milton Keynes! What a treat to have Milton Keynes featured so prominently in a game in 1987 though…

This penultimate stage is all about luck. The gradients you’re going up and (sometimes) down throughout the game seem to be randomly generated. If you’re lucky here you’ll avoid any really nasty slopes, avoid the ridiculous swerving cars, and have enough after the time trial to trundle to the finish in the top few.

The milk’s still off the menu in the final stage around the streets of the capital, but this is short and you’re unlikely to be in first place at the start, so you’re just going flat out to get back in front before you get to the finish. Again, assuming the gradient gods allow!

Then you have one of the most anticlimactic endings to a game ever. Mainly because it’s not the end – after your 1000 mile trek, win, lose or draw, if you get there it’s just a Race Over message and you’re starting stage one again!

I always thought the game captured England (if not central London specifically in the last stage) in 1987 perfectly, with its monochrome hills, housing estates, shops and churches scrolling pretty smoothly by in the background at a decent lick, and brightly coloured spectators right in the foreground flying by slightly less smoothly. The completely monochrome cyclists, while all looking the same, move along equally well, with a nice sense of speed coming from the simple animations in the detailed wheel and pedal movements. Just don’t think too hard about the size of the bottles of milk at the side of the road!

The user interface at the top gives you a clear view of your all-important energy and the current gradient so you don’t need to take your eyes off the road, then look a bit harder and you’ve got speed, gears and position, and bizzarely a score, though given the ending I guess that explains why! Whilst there’s not much sound going on during the race stages themselves, there is one of the better examples of Spectrum chip-tunes on the between-stage map!

I remember Crash magazine being down on this game. Too simple, too tedious, and didn’t justify the price tag. (Yes, that’s the £1.99 price tag)! But I’ve always been a cycling fan, Milk Race or not, and there’d never been anything like it before so I’m glad I ignored them a took a punt. Or pint maybe.

And yes, I know. Snooker, India, 19th Century…

My Life With… Paperboy – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Paperboy – ZX Spectrum

It’s easy to forget there was TV outside of Miami Vice in 1986, such was its influence on the style of a 14-year old at the time, but it did exist! The Chart Show started a 12-year run, and would become almost equally influential later for its indie or rock chart every other week… Winona by The Drop Nineteens, in my top three favourite songs ever (behind The Cure’s Pictures of You and Ride’s Vapour Trail, if you’re interested) was found there. I seem to remember Today by The Smashing Pumpkins too, and bands like Faith No More and Suede. Shame you had to sit through so much crap to get to those five minute slots, though we were, of course, entertained by Samantha Fox’s Touch Me on there in its first year, so you got something else worthwhile out of it sometimes! I was also a big fan of courier-cum-detective Boon, which would be around for another six years from then, though I always feel that over time it got a bit eclipsed by the adventures of sexy antiques rogue Lovejoy, who first appeared in 1986 too. We also got Neighbours for the first time, most hours of the day from what I remember!

Over on kids TV, which I was becoming a bit more choosy about by this point, the biggest thing happening was probably Zammo’s ongoing slide into heroin oblivion on Grange Hill; if only he hadn’t made such a big deal of winning the moustache-weighing competition, he might have got away with it, and we’d have never had to suffer Just Say No… We also suffered the end of Bananaman, Robin of Sherwood and the wonderful Terrahawks, but we did see the launch of Gaz Top’s Get Fresh on Saturday mornings (though he was still no Sarah Greene), The Trap Door (which also spawned the best looking Spectrum game ever), and a quiz show that no one remembers called First Class…

No one remembers First Class because the majority of the programme was completely forgettable – a BBC1 kids quiz show with general knowledge and popular culture rounds for teams representing their schools. But make it through those, and things got interesting because the last round was an arcade game round, where members of the team were nominated to compete against each other on Hyper Sports or Paperboy, and I think 720 too. And for me at least, there was no better advert than seeing any of them for the first time than on the living room TV! If only they had home computer versions… If only I didn’t have a VIC-20… As an aside, when I said the majority of First Class was “completely forgettable” I was doing a disservice to its presenter, Miss Great Britain 1984, Debbie Greenwood, who could definitely give Sarah Greene a run for her money!

Of course, in the grand scheme of things it wouldn’t take long for the home versions of all three to arrive – and fine ports they all were – and my Spectrum +2 wasn’t far behind either. But for another 20 years, my only experience of arcade Paperboy was that tantalising segment on First Class! I eventually got my hands on the arcade version on the PlayStation Portable no less, as part of the Midway Arcade Treasures: Extended Play compilation, which also included 720 and around 20 other arcade wonders. The whole thing was a modern wonder, but it was on a tiny screen, and it would be another 10 years (2016, in case you’re keeping track) before it turned up in Lego Dimensions Midway Arcade level pack and I got to play it on a much bigger screen than originally intended via my PlayStation 4!

But now we’re way ahead of ourselves, and we need to get back to the origin story. Paperboy hit the arcades in 1985, complete with its bicycle handlebar controls that were actually a modified version of the yoke found in the greatest arcade machine of them all, Star Wars! This meant you were pushing forwards to speed up, back to brake, then steering your bike left and right as normal… If you’re bike had an X-Wing yoke instead of handlebars, which is now the greatest bike of them all! Anyway, there was also a button on either side that allowed you to chuck your newspapers…

The game had you, the paperboy, delivering newspapers to your subscribers down Easy Street, Middle Road or Hard Way (also the three difficulty levels), every day from Monday to Sunday. You start with a minimap of the street showing where your friendly neighbourhood subscribers are, and also where the villainous non-subscribers are, though you will pretty much ignore this as one lot live in bright houses and the others dark houses. You need to deliver the newspapers by throwing them at the mailbox outside the house, ideally, which gets you the most points, and if you get them all you’ll double your score. This will also win back any non-subscribers you’ve lost previously because you missed their house. You also get points by vandalising non-subscriber houses, and smashing one of your newspapers through a window is still one of my favourite things in all of gaming! (Closely followed by breaking what I think are gravestones you can bust in half)! But don’t go too nuts because you’ve got a limited supply of newspapers so keeping your subscribers happy needs to be your priority, though you will come across refills on the way.

All the way down the street you’re avoiding hazards like bins and rampant tyres and lawnmowers, cars, go-karts, pets, skateboarders, breakdancers and all kinds of crazies that will spell instant death, losing you a life but thankfully allowing you to carry on your journey until you run out of them. Get to the end of the street and you’re rewarded with a go on the training course, with ramps to jump over, moving obstacles and targets to throw your remaining papers at for more points. Including this was a genius move, because whilst they already had a unique game in an isometric racer that involved delivering newspapers, they also hit on the massive BMX craze in the mid-eighties with the training course that pretty much sold the game by itself! Anyway, get to the end (or not) and you’ll get your daily totals and any cancelled subscriptions, and you’re onto more of the same but harder and with different things to kill you on the next day.

The home versions started appearing in 1986, and would eventually be available on pretty much everything you could imagine, but I guess I picked up my Spectrum version around Christmas 1987. And it’s a fantastic conversion! The main gameplay area – about two-thirds of the screen – is presented in a blue and black monochrome with some lovely colour-clash provided by the odd garish obstacle! Apart from the lack of colour and things being a little on the small side, the impressive attention to detail of the original is all present and correct, and that transfers to the gameplay itself, which feels exactly how it should at it scrolls along at a fair old whack. It’s just as tough too, but like the original is never overly punishing once you get used to what’s happening and where you need to be to avoid it – for the first couple of days at least!

I did get the Atari ST version a few years later, in one of those awkward oversized cassette-style cases it used to favour, though I don’t really remember playing it much. From what I do remember, it was pretty much the arcade version, with big colourful graphics and a lot more sound than the incidental beeps the Spectrum version managed! I played a fair bit of the Game Boy version too, which was like a mash up of my previous two versions – big graphics, great sound, all monochrome! Very impressive though, but not as impressive as the final version I’m going to mention, which I’ve only played on emulation but is a real technical marvel – the Commodore 16 / Plus 4 version! Considering this would have been squeezed into about 12K of code, it still manages to at least resemble and, more importantly, feel like the arcade game (if it was slowed down a bit).

I’ve only ever played the SNES version of the 1991 sequel, Paperboy 2. This time you could be a papergirl if you wanted, and you were delivering to both sides of a more elaborate road as even more bizarre obstacles got in your way. It’s fun but it’s all a bit soulless though, and there’s no way I’d ever load this up when there’s so many ways to play the original… Which I probably still wouldn’t load up while my Spectrum +2 is sitting right here in front of me!

My Life With… Chuckie Egg – Amstrad CPC

My Life With… Chuckie Egg – Amstrad CPC

I always thought the Amstrad CPC 464 was an exotic-looking machine, with its splashes of green and red and blue around the keyboard, and its separate cursor keys and keypad, and, of course, its built-in cassette deck (or datacorder, as I think it was officially termed)! The fact that none of my school friends owned one also added to its exotic nature – my world involved arguing about Spectrums over Commodore 64’s, and whilst I knew all about it from poring over every issue of Computer & Video Games magazine through its whole lifespan, I think seeing one on the shelf in Boots and Dixons was my only experience of it in the wild during that time. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1990 – also the year that Amstrad stopped producing it – that I properly got my hands on one.

1990 was also the year I went to university. The University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, which had proximity to London going for it and not a lot else… Apart from a big Asda supermarket in the centre of town, it had pioneered the death of the high street years before even Bedford caught up! I think that year saw my sole contribution to Hatfield’s town centre economy in my whole time there – a Gun cassette single from a tiny independent record shop that I can’t remember the name of; I can remember it was on a wet and miserable Wednesday afternoon, and the Gun cassette single was Shame on You, with a live version of Better Days on the B-Side.

There really wasn’t a lot to do outside of the university – which was hardly a cultural mecca in its own right – until a big A1 motorway-spanning shopping centre and leisure complex, The Galleria, opened there in my last year, after four years of being teased by building work. And I think that had an HMV where I did contribute far more to the local economy than I should have given my financial situation then!

In stark contrast to the person in the last sentence who, within just a few months, would be singing with his still-to-be-formed band at the legendary Marquee club in London, back in the autumn of 1990 I was hardly the social butterfly, and most of my “socialising” at the start of my university life was a bit forced as a result of various fresher’s week attractions. A short-lived participation in the role-playing club involved coming up with a Nazi dominatrix in a slingshot bikini as a character for some sci-fi fantasy game I’d decided to join in with, though I don’t remember ever actually playing it; and some kind of horror film club that gathered in a lecture room every Tuesday night to watch Young Frankenstein and other such classics on VHS. There were also single visits to a shooting club in some cool old World War 2 era military huts and a paintball club too. Rock and roll!

Anyway, all of those were history within a couple of months, during which time I’d learnt that someone I knew was living in a hall of residence just around the corner from me… I’d been to school with Scott since the age of nine, but apart from sharing the same birthday, we’d had little in common until we’d both started going out with two best friends from the year below us in sixth form, just before starting university. Through them, we eventually discovered we were not only at the same university, though he was studying at a different campus, but we were living literally 200 metres apart. After that we started sharing lifts to and from home which wasn’t that far away and hanging out in the evenings; and then I fairly quickly ended up becoming lifelong friends with the little group attached to him and his roommate, who owned an Amstrad CPC!

From around November 1990, the five of us spent every night together, either sat eating chips (having run the gauntlet into a nearby estate not known for their tolerance of students to the fish and chip shop) and watching videos in their room; or heading down the hill and through the main campus to the big student union bar; or gadding around the bounteous number of pubs in St Albans or Hertford in Scott’s Ford Escort. And by “gadding around” I mean being involved in the scariest and most insane driving I’ve ever experienced that didn’t involve one of the three life-threatening crashes I’ve been involved in since! Overtaking a car which was already overtaking another car around a series of blind bends on a national speed limit single carriageway is a particular highlight that immediately springs to mind! Anyway, whatever we were up to, there was always time to take turns sat at the big laminated wooden desk that separated their two beds for a game on the Amstrad beforehand. And there was literally one game! And that, of course, was Chuckie Egg…

I think I first came across Chuckie Egg on one of two BBC B computers at my middle school around 1984. One of them was kept in a repurposed store cupboard in a completely unrelated classroom, and I remember being in a crowd at the door one lunchtime watching someone play something that reminded me of one of the few arcade games I knew at the time, Bagman, that I would later learn was Chuckie Egg. That said, I’d also learn that it was first and foremost a Spectrum game, and is a great example of the eighties bedroom coding industry in the UK, where a 16-year old Nigel Alderton took his half-finished Spectrum game to A&F Software who snapped it up and started developing a BBC version in parallel. Those versions got released in 1983, at the unusual price on the Spectrum at least of £6.90, although in retrospect I think Decathlon was advertised at that too (more on that here) so maybe not so unusual. Anyway, it then got ported everywhere else, including the Amstrad CPC, a couple of years later, and would go on to sell over a million copies. The Amstrad version is most likely a port of the BBC rather than Spectrum version though because they both share more “realistic” physics where you can leap about a bit more freely and dangerously – I think the arc of the jump is a bit different and maybe slightly quicker on the BBC / CPC which makes it a little harder, though the grating running sound of the Spectrum version probably equalises things!

Chuckie Egg is the classic arcade platforme premise. Your little guy, Hen-House Harry, sets out on a screen with a load of eggs to collect against the clock, a load of corn he can also collect to slow the clock and get a few extra points before it gets eaten, and some ducklings that look more like ostriches chasing you around platforms, ladders and lifts. This all goes under the gaze of mother duck, trapped in a golden cage at the top of eight increasingly fiendish screens, but if you conquer those then she’s out, and unlike her little fixed-path duck-ostriches who’ve now disappeared, she can chase you anywhere on the screen. Go round all the screens again and she’s back, the duck-ostriches are back, and you’ve got no chance!

Apparently there are forty levels all together, and if you get through those I believe you go back to effective level thirty-three and loop again. But that’s not something I’ll ever need to worry about! The countdown timer is reasonably generous, and I don’t really recall ever running out of time before I’d lost all of my lives in other ways! Whilst the corn can be used for some bonus time and score, it’s maybe more useful as a distraction for the baddies who will stop and eat it like Road Runner would if they come across any! As well as the duck-ostriches and the mother duck(er), if you fall through one of the gaps at the bottom of the screen you’re losing one of your five lives. Same if you don’t get off a lift before it gets to the top, or get a bit too close to the duck in the cage while its in there. Falling from a height isn’t so much of a concern as bouncing off of one of the platforms in an unpredictable direction, or missing (or overshooting) one of the lifts, which is where you seem to die the most, but there’s some cool tricks you can pull off through seeming leaps of faith in the general direction of a ladder that you can seamlessly catch the bottom of and start climbing if you’ve timed it just right! Actually, getting on a ladder is pretty easy wherever you hit it, but getting off requires you to either jump or be perfectly positioned (Donkey Kong style) and can also be the cause of some frustrating deaths.

I don’t like to use the word frustrating here though. This game is massively playable and hugely addictive once you get into the zone of how it wants you to play. Despite it being harder for me to replicate my original and most fondly remembered experience of playing now – not having the hardware – the Amstrad version I used to play in two, three or four player mode (taking turns for scores, of course!) is still the version I’d rather play over the Spectrum’s. It looks very much of its time, with simplistic single-colour sprites and level features on a black background, just like the Spectrum version, but everything is a bit chunkier and seems a bit more well-defined here; mother duck is a bit bigger and more intimidating too! There’s not a lot going on in the sound department – just some very basic (though not annoying like the Spectrum!) running and jumping stuff, and a very basic (though not annoying like the Spectrum!) chip tune when you die. But all of that is all it needs to do when it’s such a masterclass in gameplay on either that strange, exotic machine or my beloved Spectrum.

If you look really hard you’ll find a sequel that appeared in 1985 on the usual 8-bit suspects, as well as the Atari ST (yay) and Amiga (boo). By this time, Nigel Alderton was working for Ocean and the Mr-Do! style sequel that had been hinted at previously never materialised, but A&F attempted to cash-in on the success of the original undeterred with Chuckie Egg 2. This time Hen-House Harry is collecting stuff in a 120-screen factory, like a big Jet Set Willy, but nowhere near in that game’s league, and nowhere near as playable or addictive as its predecessor.

The sequel never dared show its face in the laminated furniture, laminated carpet tiled grubby hall of residence room that five 18-year old nerdy students effectively called home for that first year at university. Nor did any other game for that matter, making Chuckie Egg on the Amstrad CPC not only one of my favourite games ever, but also still the only game I’ve ever played on that platform almost exactly thirty years later (and thirty six years after the machine first appeared) at the time of writing.

I’m going to leave you with one more car related story from then though. One of the guys in our circle, Ian, lived in one of the university’s other halls of residence, Roehyde, which was also known as Rawhide for it’s wild west reputation. Such was my fear of this reputation that the only time I ever ventured into its prefabricated, temporary classroom-styled walls was to roll one of four wheels from Ian’s Mini down to his bedroom door in the dead of night so we could pile them up there, knock on his door and run away! Yes, that’s what happened when you decided you were staying in to work on an assignment rather than play Chuckie Egg with the Hatfield Hard Men!!! And the car? It was safely sitting wheel-less in the middle of a roundabout half a mile away where we’d rolled it to, without keys or access to the handbrake! Great days…

My Life With… Daley Thompson’s Decathlon (ZX Spectrum)

My Life With… Daley Thompson’s Decathlon (ZX Spectrum)

I’m fairly certain that Daley Thompson’s Decathlon was the fourth game I ever played on the ZX Spectrum! My best friend Paul had moved from an Atari 2600, and our days of playing Boxing and the one with the two tanks (Combat?) on their family TV in the living room were replaced in the most part, in my memory at least, by the distinctive sound of Spectrum loading screens in his bedroom, interspersed by actually playing the occasional game! It was the Classic setup – rubber-keyed 48K Spectrum connected to the type of small portable cassette recorder every home had at the time but didn’t belong to anyone in particular, connected to a tiny portable TV and a couple of games; all on the floor.

I think Horace Goes Skiing (more here) was my first experience of the ZX Spectrum, with it’s Frogger rip-off first screen getting in the way of what still holds up as one of the best-feeling skiing games ever! Second was Chequered Flag, and I can still remember being totally blown away by that in-car view with the moving wheels and steering wheel! Still one of my favourite racers ever. Then a bit later his collection extended to Alcatraz Harry, an early Mastertronic £1.99 title where you negotiated the maze-like prison, avoiding guards and collecting escape tools, but usually ended up caught and in front of a firing squad. We did actually finish that one once! And then a bit later still we got to what would become one of the system’s defining games, as well as the ruin of many a Spectrum itself…

Not sure if he had any other games up to then, but I don’t remember playing anything else over what must have been his first year owning it, with most of the action happening over the summer of 1984; frequent trips backwards and forwards down the network of alleyways that connected the roads where we lived. We all knew and loved every inch of those dusty, poorly surfaced, weed-strewn alleways that ran the length of both sides of each of three roads, behind the terraced houses and gardens and sometimes garages, and were connected by another at each end, one of which was interrupted by the roads. These were our hide and seek and ball tig grounds; our cycle tracks and skate parks; our football and cricket pitches; our assault courses and everything else we needed them to be whenever we were playing outside with the neighbouring kids! And from the time I was allowed to walk to Paul’s house by myself, to when we used to get the bus to upper school near there, to when as young bucks on the prowl I’d go to his house on Friday and Saturday nights to get a taxi into town to go out drinking, that was my own almost private shortcut!

As a related aside, on what was probably one of the last of hundreds or thousands of journeys down those alleyways to Paul’s house, I had music playing on something – most likely my Aiwa PX347 “Walkman” with Super Bass, Feather Touch Control and Dolby 8 NR! It was an incredibly hot summer day, probably around 1993 or 1994, and on came Heat by The Mission, and the lyrics that I knew inside out by that point somehow chose that particular listen to make an eternal connection in my brain between that song and that mundane trip on that particular scorching Friday evening:
And the heat comes down
And the heat comes down
And hand in hand
We melt in the heat

Almost exactly ten years before that, at the end of that exact journey, something similar had happened with another song, 1999 by Prince. Like The Mission’s Heat, it would have been a song I was already very familiar with by that time; it had come out two years earlier in 1982 and was obviously a massive hit, getting non-stop airtime all over the radio and in my fledgling record collection, as well as becoming a regular feature at school discos when 80’s nights really were 80’s nights! But there was something about that song that just happened to be playing in the background at the exact moment I started hammering two rubber keys as fast as humanly possible for my first ever 100m dash that forever connected 1999 with playing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon in Paul’s bedroom! Actually, it was very much the concept of the song at that time that stuck with me during that particular listen, maybe taking note of what the lyrics were saying for the first time… To a 12-year old in what would have been heading into late or even Christmas 1984 by the time the game actually appeared on Spectrum, all that partying like it’s 1999 seemed like science fiction! It was literally more than a lifetime away, too far in the future to fathom. And then when we got there far sooner than this 12-year old might have imagined, that memory and that connection in my brain was still there, but it didn’t seem so long looking back as a 27-year old. And it seems even closer all these years further on! Funny how your brain makes connections just as strong for minor, seemingly random and mundane events as those it makes for remembering where you were on 9/11 or when you heard Kurt Cobain was dead or when the Mary Rose was pulled out of the sea…

Or maybe even where you were when Daley Thompson won his first Olympic decathlon gold medal in 1980 (about my limit!), or again in 1984. Daley Thompson was massive – even bigger than Prince at the time! Remember, we had four TV channels and things like the Olympics, and athletics in general, were a major factor in the summer TV schedule even if you weren’t much of an athlete. And if you owned a Spectrum, you just needed a copy of Ocean Software’s Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. Interestingly, I don’t remember any of my Commodore 64 owning friends ever having a copy (even though I think it came first and was the same great game and a bit more, for example having a second competitor on the screen on track events), and obviously I didn’t know anyone with an Amstrad CPC, which it also appeared on!

As well as cashing in on the man himself, Track & Field was also a big deal in the arcades at the time, sucking up my 10p’s during a church trip to Great Yarmouth that year (also memorable for playing a neighbour’s Mini Munchman on the bus journey there) and the next, and this was as close as you were getting to a home version. In fact, you’d have to wait until 1988 and the Game, Set and Match 2 compilation for a Spectrum (or Amstrad CPC) version; and it wasn’t great, especially as we’d been spoilt by an excellent port of Hyper Sports inbetween. That said, this compilation was generally awesome on the Spectrum – Super Hang On, Basket Master, Match Day 2 and Championship Sprint more than made up for any duds (and the stuff you weren’t interested in, Nick Faldo Plays The Open I’m talking about you)!

The game, predictably, has you taking part in a decathlon. I’d like to say as Daley Thompson, but your character is very white. You might justify this by thinking that’s just to cover up any colour clash, but I’m not sure how the very “white” character hairstyle contributes to that. The loading screen goes a step further, where he’s even more white than the white fellow competitors behind him! At least the hair works a bit better there, and the cassette inlay makes further strides in recognising his actual skin colour.

Anyway, regardless of whether you are playing as Daley or a white imposter, you’ve got two days of athletic pursuits ahead of you, one of each side of the tape! On day one, you’ve got 100 metres, long jump, shot putt, high jump and 400 metres. On day two, you move on to 110 metre hurdles, discus, pole-vault, javelin and 1500 metres. Gameplay ranges from the famous, keyboard killing button mashing of two keys (or joystick waggling if you really want to break some stuff quickly) to make you go faster in races or run ups, to precisely angled jumps then more strategic stamina management in the long distance races. You effectively have three lives, meaning fail to hit the qualifying time or distance or height in an event three times and you’re out. Get through everything and you’re the champ!

Things start pretty smoothly. No brains required in the first event, just hit those left and right buttons as fast as you can and you’ll qualify pretty easily. Play it safe and you should qualify in at least one of your three long jumps next too – just hit jump near enough to the line and hold it down until you get to about 45 degrees – and make note of that number! Shot putt was a variant on that, but you’re throwing a heavy ball at 45 degrees instead of jumping when you get to the line, and it’s really easy as long as you don’t cross the line. High jump is where the challenge starts, and has you hitting and holding jump a second time to adjust your body angle mid-jump, and this is going to take some experimenting until you know the right angle numbers (about 80 and 20 degrees if I remember right) and more importantly, when to hit jump to take off because there’s no distance indicator before you reach the bar; keep going higher until you’ve fouled three times. Should you get there, 400 metres takes the button mashing approach of the 100 meters but goes on four times longer, and your fingers aren’t going to forgive you in a hurry!

Turn the tape over and you’re going to load into the 110 meters – button mashing with the added challenge of timing a jump whilst staying in your running rhythm; screw it up once and you’re going to struggle but avoid crashing into any hurdles and crossing the finish line feels really great. Discus has you spinning rather than running, then timing your 45 degree let-go when you’re facing the right way having reached a decent rotational pace. Another tough one until you’ve got the timing in your head, then it’s hard to not qualify.

Pole vault is another test of timing and knowing when to start dropping the pole, but like the 110 meters, you’re going to feel great when you finally get over a really high bar; like high jump, this keeps going until you foul three times, and is great fun when you’re chasing your record scores. Javelin goes back to the standard running and chucking formula, but I always found watching it (very) slowly ascend and flatten out along the top of the screen then descend quite hypnotic! Qualify this far and you’re at the 1500 meters, the epic final event that struck fear into any Spectrum gamer, but in reality was more sedate (or even boring, some might say) than the long distance test of finger stamina it was perceived to be! This time you have an energy bar, and the faster you go, the quicker it will deplete, so it’s all about finding a rhythm and speeding things up when your energy looks like it can take it. This is definitely the most thoughtful of all the events and whilst the gameplay might not invoke a frantic final push to the podium, it certainly feels great when you get there, though it’s hard to fail once you know what you’re doing.

Sound effects are mostly non-existent up to this point, apart from some white noise of varying lengths representing a starting gun or crowds cheering when you qualify, but there are some short bursts of music elsewhere between events, and, most notably, when you win gold at the end of all this, with a beautiful (in Spectrum terms) rendition of Chariots of Fire as white Daley stands on top of the podium with his arms held high. Then you get the final score and you’re ready to go all over again. After loading side one again, of course.

Apart from Daley Thompson’s questionable ethnicity in the game, there was an awful lot to look at and be impressed by. As said earlier, the white character did avoid any serious colour clash so everything else was very colourful. That screen was really clearly presented (and pretty much directly lifted from the Track & Field user interface) – your score and qualifying requirements at the top, current attempts and records below, then the best crowd representation I’d seen up to that point, moving around excitedly with their Ocean banners; below them you’ve got the track or field area with your main man in action, and at the very bottom a speed, angle and distance guage that appeared as required. Every event was smoothly animated even if the running has aged a bit today, with nice touches like the guy with his tape measure in the long jump or the shadow under the shot putt as it flies through the air.

The game won Best Arcade Style Game at C&VG’s Golden Joystick Awards in 1984, and also Best (Overall) Arcade Game in the Crash Readers Awards, fending off challenges from the mighty Jet Set Willy and only marginally less mighty Sabre Wulf. The following year it joined both of those games and Beach Head on the first They Sold a Million compilation, so we can assume it sold a ton too. And rightly so! Play this or Track & Field or Hyper Sports today, and whilst bashing buttons for speed might not feel as natural and ubiquitous today as it did in the mid-eighties, it’s just as much fun and is just as destructive to your equipment… And don’t forget the old pro tips about rubbing a biro really fast across the keys for an extra boost. I’m sure they all work equally well nowadays!