Bonus Post – Steve Blower Imagine Software Art Uncovered

Bonus Post – Steve Blower Imagine Software Art Uncovered

I didn’t realise at the time, but those glorious old Commodore VIC-20 cassette covers, that were often the primary reason for buying a game (unless you were seduced by some misleading C64 screenshots on the back), were actually real pieces of art by real artists! Maybe it was all those logos and stuff all over them…

One such artist was Steve Blower, of Imagine and then Ocean. I was recently pointed towards some very special versions of some of his cover art by Mark R. Jones (@MarkRJones1970) who was himself a bit of an artistic legend at Ocean! They’re special because there’s no logos and stuff all over them. It’s the original uncommercialised real deal. 

And one of them is of the very game that inspired the name of my blog (separate post later I’m sure), Arcadia! Enjoy…

Interestingly, once he’d moved to Ocean, he also came up with some cover art that was cut out of C&VG and stuck on my bedroom wall, and as a super-fan should have been very special to me. But it’s a game I’ve neither owned nor even played, Frankie Goes to Hollywood. I’ll try and remedy that in a future bonus post – FGTH played and reviewed for the first time, right here, right now. Because Frankie Says so! Even so, I think I’ve probably missed out on the live version of Relax. 

You can catch up with Steve Blower on Twitter, @wsteveb. 

My Life With… Hard Drivin’ – Atari ST

My Life With… Hard Drivin’ – Atari ST

Just take a look at this for a second…

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Yes, it’s a loop. And in 1989, that was a complete groundbreaker. It’s why you had to own this game – the ultimate show off to your mates title; they’d simply never seen anything like it. It was seeing Virtua Racing on my brother’s MegaDrive all over again. But there was more! The more-or-less filled 3D vector graphics, cars and trucks [slightly inexplicably] on the track in both directions, the Dukes of Hazzard style bridge jump, the instant replay, and the cow! Take out the cow by the farmhouse [located at the side of the race track] and you got a beautifully sampled, realistic MOO! And the realism didn’t stop with the cow – the car drove like a real car, and I should know because I’d just turned 17 and started driving lessons! Which was great, but temporarily spelt an end to the riches from my Saturday job at Sainsbury’s that had funded my ST and its burgeoning games collection up to that point.

A year into my role there, and I was specialising in collecting trolleys. I was the master! I knew all the hiding places around Bedford town centre – the car parks, the alley ways, where the bins were at the back of Iceland… I could get ten of them into a car park lift at once. I could push fifty of them in a massive train like a supermarket Rubber Duck out of Convoy. Nothing annoyed the shopper more than no trolleys, so once the supervisors picked up on my brilliance, there was no more stacking shelves or till duty. especially as the old mechanical tills I knew had transitioned to electronic ones that were clearly beyond me once I’d missed the training. This afforded such freedom too, being paid to hang out on the top of a car park surveying the impressive Bedford skyline with a can of Dr Pepper and a Boost bar, putting a bet on the Grand National, buying tickets for a Simple Minds concert, or – wait for it! – taking part in a police identity parade and earning an extra precious tenner for the driving lesson fund! And in retrospect, fortunately not getting collared in the process!

I’d pass my test, first time, after 15 lessons, which I’m sure owed no small debt to Hard Drivin’. As I said, this game felt realistic, which I think had a lot to do with the mouse controls (a first for me) – they felt great once you got used to them, offering far more control than my days with a keyboard on Chequered Flag or Out Run with a QuickShot II on the Spectrum. It was also easier to pull off a deliberate skid (also maybe a first?) which meant faster lap times and meant slightly more forgiving cornering, especially on the speed track when a decent time rewarded you with the challenge of the Phantom Photon ghost racer (another first?) on the stunt track .

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Like collecting trolleys, the stunt track was where the glamour was at. And specifically, being upside down on the loop. In 1989, there was no thrill ride outside of the corkscrew roller coaster at Alton Towers that was like it. If you could stay on the loop, take the banked corners, pull off the jumps, avoid the trucks (that wouldn’t look out of place in Crossy Road with all those straight lines) and resist the urge to hear the MOO, beating the exotically named Phantom Photon would result in the Phantom Photon taking on the ghost of your ride in the next race, which you could even save to disk, providing endless challenge despite there only being two tracks.

This game looked and sounded like a stunner, moving at pace with great attention to detail – the cracked windscreen when you crashed, the engine sound, the skidding noise, the manual gear shifting from a separate joystick, but mostly the cow! And the replay was worth every crash, switching to a fully 3D rendering of your final moments.

A gorgeous,  groundbreaking 3D masterpiece at the time, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find something to match that precarious feeling half way around the loop wondering if you’ll make it around or just drop off!

 

 

Bonus Post – Gamerboy Art

Bonus Post – Gamerboy Art

During the course of writing this blog, my original Gameboy sadly gave up the ghost (RIP Game Boy), but I’ve also really got back into my Game Boy Advance – Mario Kart: Super Circuit, Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfing, V-Rally 3… 

I’d forgotten how great that machine is, so I got a real kick when I take across this today!

Gamerboy is a great piece of art by Mike Stafleu and captures the time of the Game Boy’s launch perfectly! See more of his stuff here.

My Life With… Tomy Demon Driver

My Life With… Tomy Demon Driver

Now we’re going right back into my early gaming days! The first video game I remember playing was Tennis (Pong) on something with a wooden box my uncle bought in the late 70’s – we knew it was a special occasion when we were allowed into “the parlour” on our weekly Friday night visit to my Grandma and Grandad’s small mid-terrace house to see it! It had two paddles, a lightgun, and you flicked a switch to cycle between tennis, football (Pong with two bats) and a couple of games where you shot a square moving around the screen, providing you had the gun pressed against the TV! No idea what it was. A Telstar maybe? Some knock off? 

What I do remember is that it was also the first game I owned when we got our own Interstate 1160 console soon after, with exactly the same set up. And a garish orange box that I think still sits in my Dad’s loft. 

That would have been around 1978 when I was six years old. The same time that Space Invaders appeared. I don’t have any recollection of arcade games back then, and having a game like that at home was still science fiction, although in reality my Grandstand Invader From Space game was only a couple of Christmasses away!

But what I did have was my Tomy Demon Driver tabletop electronic game, which brought you “all the thrills & spills of Formula 1” right there in your hands!

To a six year old, you can only imagine how realistic this was – the steering wheel was the highlight, making it just like driving a real car. You had three gears too, that sped you up and slowed you down as you raced along the plastic film track filled with other racing cars to avoid as you racked up laps on the counter. Crash and it was game over, but a new game was only a firm push on the Start / Reset button away. 

It’s hard for anyone that wasn’t that age at that time to imagine not just how much fun this game was, but what a big deal it was. We’d flicked balls into plastic pockets, rolled balls into holes and, more recently, pumped balls submerged in watery cases into hoops and stuff, and let’s not forget Pocketeers (definitely worth a separate post!), but this was a whole different level with batteries and everything! A real taste of things that were, in retrospect, to come very soon, but were then still beyond our wildest dreams. 

And almost forty years on, with an engineering degree behind me, I still can’t work out how they pulled off the collision detection. Two films? Holes in one? The mind boggles to this day!

My Life With… Commando – Commodore 64 / ZX Spectrum

I usually start these posts with the year I first played the game and what I was up to, but not this time. I want to show you something from the 29th May 2017, just two days ago at the time I started writing, whilst watching my ten year old son play cricket…

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I’ve been persevering with Commando on iOS, complete with dreadful touch controls, since it appeared in its Japanese “Wolf of the Battlefield” guise a couple of months ago. But there was no way I was going to let something like that spoil an arcade-perfect version on my phone, so I played and played until the frankly bizarre nature of the controls was meaningless and I saw this screen for the first time ever!

Commando on the C64 was an incredible achievement – also arcade perfect as far as I could tell at the time (though I learnt two days ago that it was lacking a few stages), and that music… I normally switch off when I hear the words Rob Hubbard or SID, but this theme tune is as intense as the first time those big gates swing open at the end of the 1st Area! There’s a great quote from the man himself on this Hubbard remix – “[I] started working on it late at night, and worked on it through the night. I took one listen to the original arcade version and started working on the C64 version. […] By the time everyone arrived at 8.00 in the morning, I had loaded the main tune on every C64 in the building! I got my cheque and was on a train home by 10.00.”

But let’s get back to form, and probably Christmas 1986, which I think must have been the Christmas my brother Phil and me received our ZX Spectrum +2, though verifying that hasn’t been as easy as I’d expected of Google! I’d recently said goodbye to my VIC-20, which was part of the upgrade deal; we sold it and almost all of my games collection for £25 to my Grandma’s next door neighbour for her young son. And it still hurts! It was also the time my friend Steven and I officially went our separate ways. He’d got a Commodore 128 for his birthday the previous April. He’d later get an Amiga and I got an ST, then he went XBOX and I went Playstation, and so it continues to the present day. It was never really a Commodore vs Spectrum rivalry though – I loved his machine as much as my own, which looking back I don’t think he was so impressed with…

During this Christmas period, we played a ton of Winter Games and Commando at his house. And probably Oh Mummy! at mine, but the less said about that the better.

I have to admit that Commando, as great as it was, wasn’t quite what I expected – where was Arnie??? His film of the same name had come out the previous February, and despite it having an 18 rating and me being 14 (and looking 12), I’d obviously seen it just after release thanks to the magic of pirate video! When we’d started upper school at Bedford’s St Thomas More the previous year, there’d been an influx of kids from Milton Keynes, about 15 miles away and without a Catholic school of its own, so they were bussed in; and out, fifteen minutes earlier than us Bedfordians, much to our chagrin. Naturally, after a few months friendships formed, and I became friends with a kid called Clive. Back in those days, the modern metropolis of Milton Keynes had Sky TV, which just wasn’t available to us yokels. He talked about American wrestling a lot, which the rest of us got to see once or twice a year as a special treat in the Saturday afternoon ITV wrestling slot, though my only real recollection of this was a guy called Moondog Rex… when I later became an WWF connoisseur, I learnt that he had a tag partner called Moondog Spot. The Moondogs. Great days. Anyway, at some point he lent me a video of that week’s WWF show, which was the one where Macho Man dropped the ring bell off the top rope onto Ricky The Dragon Steamboat’s throat. And that hooked me, so he’d start recording it every week for me. And along with that the movies started to flow, generally filmed off a primitive camcorder in a cinema, complete with people walking by to go to the loo. Notably that year, we had Platoon, Top Gun, Highlander and Cobra, which was a close second to my favourite pirate video that year, Commando, with Arnie as a retired special forces guy on a massive killing spree to rescue his daughter, Alyssa Milano, who’d grow up to be a right old sauce pot. This film influenced me so much that I actually bought a camo stick like he used for my face; I never used it, but it was probably a safer bet than buying a massive gun and not using it.

At some point in the distant past I was talking about a video game, and the point is that despite sharing a name with this film, it was actually nothing to do with it. Which took about thirty seconds of play to stop being a problem. There may have been no Arnie, but the premise was the same – you’re a crack commando travelling up the screen, shooting everything in sight, lobbing your limited supply of grenades and freeing the odd hostage across eight areas on the way to taking out the enemy fortress.

When I picked up the Spectrum version at some point in 1987, it took a few more seconds than that to get over a different problem, which was the graphics. Or more specifically, the colours. The loading screen is kind of what would have you’d have expected of the Spectrum, with all colour removed, but the developers had other blue and red and yellow ideas for the game itself, which resulted in some lovely colour clash if one of the enemy soldiers ended up behind a tree!

Aside from the colours though, this was another great conversion. The graphics are beautifully detailed and everything seemed to have been translated over from the arcade machine in all the right places – something else that the new iOS version revealed! It’s missing the great C64 tune, of course, but the sound effects are fine. The gameplay remains outstanding though, with a relatively easy first area that culminates in a frantic onslaught out of the first mini-fortress, but then the action really heats up with bunkers, bazookas, gun emplacements and barracks full of enemy soldiers appearing from all directions. It controls so well though that it rarely feels unfair when you die, generally in the second area if you’re as skilled at playing as I am, which kind of negated the high score table for me – it was only ever about getting to the third area!

This is a Spectrum classic, and standing waiting for those big gates to swing open and unleash hell at the end of each area is an enduring magical moment in gaming! Until next time…

My Life With… Jump Jet – Commodore VIC-20

My Life With… Jump Jet – Commodore VIC-20

I’m not going to lower my teenage cool credentials any further than I have already by admitting that I was into planes, but I kind of was. World War II planes mostly. I’d had my share of Airfix models that looked great until the paint came out. I had huge St Michael encyclopaedias about them that came down off my bookshelf regularly and I’d pore through them, making notes on what I read  and badly drawing my favourites  – which reminds me, I have a fantastic aside on these to share later! And I’d dream of being a fighter pilot, at least until I was 16 and had my red / black / green / brown colourblindness well and truly confirmed by the RAF. But that was still three years away in 1985. Top Gun was still a year away too, so what on earth would make a thirteen year-old boy want to be a fighter pilot? The Harrier Jump Jet, of course!

Without getting too bogged down in it, the Harrier was a fighter plane that could take off and land vertically. A bit like a helicopter, though generally it took off from a kind of ski ramp at the end of an aircraft carrier to save fuel. And that’s as technical and nerdy as we get in my yard; for this post at least… And in the mid-eighties, it was the coolest plane in the world – everyone knew what it was from the Falklands War build up –  images of them lined up on aircraft carriers, then 20 confirmed kills, and probably a couple of Blue Peter appearances too; who needed Kelly McGillis with her incredibly hot eighties hair and little pilot sidekick when you had Christmas decorations made out of coat hangers, Sarah Greene and a sunken garden. Which is something I’d love to make an aside about but footballers have far more money than me and I’ve no chance of winning that battle! Sarah Greene though. Mmmmm. 

I’d had a couple of VIC-20 flight sims at this point. The first was 1983’s Flight Zero – One Five…

You had a map in the bottom right showing progress towards your goal – a O at the top of it – and basic controls to manage variables like fuel, height, speed and so on. The idea was to keep them all in the right ballpark for each stage of the whole flight, managing various hazards that occurred like being blown off course. If they went out of the right ballpark, the screen started flashing blue and there was a horrible alarm sound. If you corrected whatever was wrong in time, you were back on track, and if not you were screwed. No one can say this game aged well, even six months after its release, but its significance to me can’t be underestimated. I was actually flying a plane in my bedroom! That was something you only imagined doing at that time, so using that same imagination to fill in the gaps demanded by the presentation of this game was a very short stretch. I probably flew enough hours in this to get a pilot’s license! 

1984 would then bring Bomber Mission, complete with my first proper cockpit view!

Okay, proper cockpit view was a bit of a stretch. More like view of a cockpit, as most of the time there wasn’t a lot going on outside the window. If I remember right, there was the odd appearance of a fighter plane, but what was great was the feeling of helplessness when you met flak over enemy soil (represented by a cockpit view full of flashing asterisks). This was another groundbreaker though, because now you were really flying a plane. And it was a World War 2 bomber! You chose your target, chose your bomb, took off, navigated to the target, dropped your Tallboy then flew home and landed. And it was brilliant! 

Then there was Flight Path 737, which I borrowed from my friend Steven, who lived around the corner. That had a real cockpit view, but for some reason I didn’t borrow the instructions, so never actually got beyond take off before I crashed. Over and over. Which made it rubbish and therefore it doesn’t count…

Now we are in 1985, and with a 16K RAM expansion stuck up its jacksy, VIC is in its prime! I got Jump Jet for my thirteenth birthday and looking at the back of the box couldn’t believe what I was looking at on the back of the box… From the “CBM64 screenshot version.” Oh dear, this didn’t bode well. And I genuinely remember feeling that. As I remember playing this two months later on the morning of Live Aid. But that really is going to be another story! 

I didn’t have too much to fear though. The VIC version held up pretty well to those screenshots. In fact, the first time I loaded it up, my black and white portable TV screen was displaying something beyond my wildest dreams! The realistic cockpit instruments. The aircraft carrier take off section. And once you got high enough, the endless blue ocean where you’d hunt the enemy in virtually lifelike splendour! 

That would come some time later though. Taking off wasn’t that straightforward. You had to sort out your flaps, give it some vertical thrust them up you went. But get anything wrong and you incurred penalties. After nine penalties it was game over. And you could easily incur those while you were still looking down from above onto the aircraft carrier deck. Get off the deck and you got split head-on and sideways views of your plane ascending off the deck, as long as you got your thrust back under control in time or more penalties. Get to the top of the screen and you’re flying properly, for a few seconds at least, because there’s plenty more penalties to be had if your thrust isn’t right before you sort out your flaps. But once you prove to the game that you’re not flying that badly, it’s time to seek and destroy. Or be destroyed, as shooting down the lurking enemy plane isn’t that easy either. Once you’ve nailed it though, it’s time to find your ship and land, refuel and restock on weaponry. And good luck with that! Taking off and taking down enemy planes was nothing compared to landing on the deck of the split-screen aircraft carrier! You would need to fiddle with your instruments no end here, with pinpoint accuracy, to get back on the deck safely. Fortunately, the instruction book included a handy guide to your cockpit instruments…

But for all these control formulas you had to get exactly right in each phase of the game, once you got them you got them. Then it became fun, and they just served to keep you alert and occupied as you trawled the skies, which was probably for the best… The instrument panel was cool, as were the various carrier views, but in reality the flight graphics were a bit plane. I mean plain. The horizon didn’t even tilt when you turned like the crappy 737 game’s did! But it was well after Live Aid that I even noticed that, and I didn’t care. There’s more to a dream coming true than a tilting horizon. 

Together with Pinball Wizard and Submarine Commander, this was a game I couldn’t part with when I eventually sold VIC, though it once came close after I rescued it from a school car boot sale, as the £1 sticker still on it attests to! 

Oh yes, I promised an aside! I dug some of my big plane books out for my ten year-old son recently, who is way too cool to show the slightest interest. But I had an interesting flick through anyway, especially when this dropped out….

Bonus Post – RIP Game Boy (1990 – 2017)

Bonus Post – RIP Game Boy (1990 – 2017)

It is with great sadness that I announce the passing of my Game Boy, bought at launch in September 1990 and serving me faithfully until the 11th May 2017. This photo was taken moments before it went to its final resting place. In the bin. 

Actually, it was pretty much ditched when the Game Boy Advance appeared in 2001, which in turn survived two years (together with the ridiculous light attachment that made it vaguely playable) until I picked up the Game Boy Advance SP. The latter is still regularly dragged out of the box it shares with a fortune’s worth of the old huge cartridges and the later more sensible form factor ones – not convinced the screen brightness is what it used to be though, even with the backlight on. 

I remember buying the original at a computer game exhibition as soon as it launched, though I’m not sure my memories 100% tie up. I had in my head that it was in London’s Wembley Arena, though a bit of detective work seems to suggest it was more likely ECES (European Computer Entertainment Show) at Earl’s Court, which took place in September 1990. Who knows. Who cares! Though if anyone can shed some light on it I’d be mildly interested. 

I do, however, vividly remember playing Super Mario Land on the train home. And, of course, the bundled classic Tetris. 

For a console I’ve always held in such high regard, I actually have a very modest collection of games for the original Game Boy. Which was a lot to do with its heyday coinciding with my poorest time at university. But the few games I had got well and truly played to death, despite some of them not exactly being of Tetris calibre! Here’s the list, in what I remember to be the order I got them in…

Tetris 

I posted this a while ago on the wonderful Cane and Rinse forum for what, at the time of writing, is their next but one podcast: “If I had to name the perfect game, I’d probably pick this. A timeless masterpiece that my words can’t do justice to. Three word review: Invaded my dreams!” 

And invade my dreams it did! Or more specifically, those moments before you fall asleep… Blocks falling, lines forming in your mind! This was probably one of the last games I’d consider myself truly great at – Match Day, IK+, Kick Off, WWF Smackdown and this were games I can say I mastered. 

By the way, if you’ve never listened to their podcast, do yourself a favour! Very intelligent, well-researched, in-depth, non-pretentious chat on a single game per episode. Fantastic group of guys and girls, and the first podcast I ever felt a compulsion to do a monthly Patreon donation for! 

Super Mario Land

Here’s a gaming confession… I’ve never truly loved a Mario game. Except maybe Crazy Kong on the VIC 20, which was a  knock-off and therefore didn’t even feature Mario (aka Jumpman). I’ve been playing Mario Run on the phone for six months solid, but that’s more addiction than love! It’s not to say this wasn’t a great game though – side-scrolling platformers have just never been my thing, and it’s perhaps testament to what a great example of this genre Mario Land is that I played it so much. 

Tennis

I’ve already written a lot of words on Tennis (and my early days with my Game Boy). As mentioned in that post, this is a game I put more hours into over a longer period of time than almost any other game I’ve owned. No fuss, simple presentation, perfect gameplay. The best tennis game on any platform ever!

WWF Superstars 

It’s incredible that autocorrect on my phone changed WWF to WWE! 

In retrospect, this was pretty basic. Five wrestlers (Macho Man, The Hulkster, DiBiase, Warrior and Mr Perfect), all with pretty much the same moves, and you simply had to beat the other four in a row to become champion. But it was so much fun, especially when you picked Savage or Warrior! As with many earlier games, this was one where you filled in the gaps and added your own complexity, creating storylines and feuds in your mind… where Savage always came out on top in the end!

Best of the Best: Championship Karate

I think I got this for my birthday in 1991. It arrived in the post while I was at lectures, needed a signature, and resulted in one of the few times I skipped lectures the following day to plod into Hatfield’s miserable town centre to pick it up.

Despite the title, I’m fairly sure this was a kick-boxing game! You trained at the gym then selected from a list of increasingly difficult fighters until you reached a championship fight. It was realistic, the AI was good enough that spamming buttons didn’t work, and once you’d reached the higher levels it was very fast and very tough! It took a while, but I got to the final tournament and that was probably the last time I played it. 

WWF Superstars 2

This time around you had six sports-entertainers (Hogan, Savage, The Mountie, Sid Justice, Undertaker, and Jake The Snake), but almost as importantly as finally being able to be The Undertaker on the go, there was a steel cage match! There were also (a few) more moves and more modes, including tag and one-on-one matches, so those imaginary feuds could really come to life! Winning the championship after beating down your opponent enough to get up and over the cage remains a classic gaming satisfaction!

Super Kick Off

As alluded to elsewhere on these pages, I once put together a list of my top 50 games. Kick Off came in at No. 2… I also mentioned my mastery of Kick Off just a minute ago… But you can be sure that neither of these facts have anything to do with the Game Boy version of this football gaming masterpiece! 

Believe me, I wanted to love this game so much; I’d being excited about (not for – I’m English) this arriving on the Game Boy more than any game since I’d heard Kung Fu Master was coming out on the Spectrum! Admittedly, it wasn’t as bad as that shocker, but it definitely wasn’t the monochrome version of my greatest love on the Atari ST either! 

There was no excitement, little skill required, and everything was too big and up close. I remember playing it lying in bed at university for hours and hours in the hope that it would eventually click, but despite my best efforts to not admit money I didn’t have not being well spent, it never really did. 

Kung-Fu Master

I’ve also written about Kung-Fu Master extensively on these pages, but the Game Boy version was a very different game, written ground-up for the system. The principle is similar, as are the simple punch-kick controls (though you did have a backflip too), but rather than ascending a dojo like in the arcade game, your traversing varied levels, including dodgy cities and a great moving train, taking out goons and bosses with chainsaws and other heavy weaponry. 

Unlike the aforementioned Spectrum disaster of the same name, the controls are responsive and it all ends up being a really fun handheld brawler. 

Gauntlet 2

Gauntlet was one of my great loves on the Spectrum, but this was the first time I’d ever played a sequel. You’ve only got two characters, but otherwise everything has been squeezed into the Game Boy, including speech from the arcade version, which is a remarkable achievement. 

Masses of monsters, the maze-like dungeons, the chests, the keys… it’s all present and correct, and was far more detailed than the Spectrum ever managed with the original! This is one, like Tetris, Elevator Action (see below) and Tennis that I still love to play to this day. 

Elevator Action

I actually bought this one in 2010, having never realised that one of my all time favourite arcade games even existed on the Game Boy! Everything is intact, the graphics are detailed and full of character, and the duck and shoot gameplay feels just like it did when I first saw my next-door neighbour drop a 10p into it at a local sports centre many years earlier! Classic game and fantastic conversion – who’d have dreamt you’d be carrying this in your pocket when you were gulping Dr Pepper after the roller disco in 1983!

And that concludes my original Game Boy cartridge collection, which will now be consigned too protruding ridiculously from my SP as and when the mood takes me. Until next time…