My Life With… Ganymede – VIC-20

My Life With… Ganymede – VIC-20

There’s a reason “Graphics” was usually the first thing scored in a review by Computer & Video Games, Commodore User, et al, and that’s because despite what anyone said then or still says today, you generally can judge a book by it’s cover! And that’s definitely how we judged games sitting on the shelves of WHSmith or Boots or the local newsagent in the eighties because that was often all you had to go on! Graphics have always been a yardstick, then, now and forever, and for the developer at that time it must have been a nightmare keeping up, given the massive leaps that were being made from release to release – you just have to compare something like Hungry Horace to R-Type or Chase HQ, all on the same piece of Spectrum hardware and all arriving within a few short years of each other!

Being blown away by how games looked was a regular occurrence – something that hasn’t been regular for the best part of two decades now at least! Nothing was ever going to look better than this, until the next issue of C&VG at least! But as anyone that was there at the time will remember, our Commodore and Sinclair and BBC (and, for some weirdoes, Amstrad) computers weren’t just about games. They were about productivity, creativity and doing your homework too! Or at least making your own games by typing in magazine or book listings.

Being blown away by type-in games wasn’t, on the other hand, a regular occurrence. It was very rare you knew what you were getting (or not getting as they very rarely worked) – you just blindly typed in the BASIC commands (or machine code if you were a real pretentious masochist). If you were lucky you’d get a description of the greatest game you were ever likely to play, then some info about how it worked and maybe some diagrams of some sprites on a grid, then pages and pages of 30 C=23: R=33: DD=32321, 40= POKEFNA(0),+A, CS : SX=X and so on… and was that really a space between the letters and the colon, and how come zero has brackets around it on this line but not in the next POKEFNA on the next line, and so on. But after hours of typing it in, you’d finally get to the really fun part – trying to work out where you’d made mistakes because it wouldn’t load! Anyway, in addition to all of that, if you were really, really lucky, you might get a screenshot. Like this one!

If you’re interested – and I’m assuming you are – that one is Spacewar for the VIC-20, from VIC PROGRAMMES Volume 1 by the wonderful Nick Hampshire, who wrote this and another book I owned called VIC GRAPHICS that were genuinely a big part of my early computing and gaming life. All of his programmes worked too, though his graphics are another story… as wonderful as everything should have looked, what I’d failed to notice when I bought that book was the sticker on the back saying I needed a Commodore Super Expander Cartridge to run anything in it. Wasn’t a cheap book either. Oops! But I did enjoy reading what I could have got up to all the same, and when I finally got a Spectrum +2, did actually recreate a lot of the listings on there too, so thanks Nick!

However, Nick Hampshire wasn’t behind my favourite book for the VIC-20. And as great as Spacewar still looks today, I don’t remember being blown away by it or anything else in that book, or in More Games for Your VIC, or Creepy Computer Games, or any of the dozen or so other type-in code books I owned. As I said, being blown away by type-in games wasn’t a regular occurrence… But it did happen! Once! Let me introduce you to my favourite computer book ever, VIC Innovative Computing by Clifford Ramshaw.

Classic piece of 80’s design, but don’t judge the book by the cover – check out the luxurious, all glossy screenshots you got peppered throughout the book. And check out how cool those games look!

The one that really got me was Assassin. If you bought a game that looked like that in 1982, when the book was published, you’d be overjoyed! It turned out to be a really cool game too, and of course, it wasn’t the only one… But before we get there, I’d encourage you to judge this book by its back cover. Just check out the space shuttle and the alien mothership. Unreal!

We’ve now established you could be blown away by how multiple type-in games, all in the same book, looked, but even I’m not so shallow that a game will be covered here – amongst my favourites ever – just for how it looks. In fact, when we talk about Ganymede for the VIC-20, we’re talking about the most basic-looking of even the most BASIC games listings! Definitely not worth of a glossy page in VIC Innovative Computing. Just text covering your in-games variables and a list of commands…

You’re managing a moon base on Ganymede, moon of Jupiter, and you need to set up mines on the planet’s surface to get the ore you need to import oxygen to keep your people alive to build ships to set up more mines and so on. Keep it going long enough to make enough money and the government of Earth will be very grateful for your service. Screw it up by not making enough to buy enough oxygen to go around and keep building space ships and mining, and either the people will revolt or you’ll just run out of them, meaning game over.

(At this point I’d normally share one of my own screenshots, but I can only emulate VIC-20 at the moment, and the only copy of the original .prg file I can find on the internet just generates a syntax error when you try and load it… and no, I’m not typing the whole thing in again for a screenshot! Therefore I’ve taken the liberty of taking the only known screenshot on the internet, from the same place as the program file, the wonderful VIC-20 LISTINGS page here. Which has every single game listing in the book and many others for download – just can’t guarantee they work)!

Seeing the code is interesting because after it sets up your user interface, and sets you up to import oxygen, build and load up ships, send them off, mine, come back then sell their booty, the majority seems to be ways of scuppering your plans! This means you’ll be trading-off between fuel loads, oxygen imports and ore sales, as well as reacting to variables like storms taking out your mines, or running out of fuel before a ship gets back because you didn’t have enough money to fill it up before it left.

There’s also ships stranded to worry about, babies being born to maintain your population, fluctuations in the price of ore and transportation and various other balancing acts that all make for a very addictive game that at the very least you’d have happily paid £1.99 for!

I did a lot of type-in games on the VIC-20, and the Spectrum when I got one, and some of them (when they worked) might have looked and occasionally sounded better, but I don’t remember anything coming close to the longevity and comparability to proper games than Ganymede! It might be all but forgotten in the annals of gaming history, but there’s a niche within a niche right here that still salutes what an achievement it was!

As great as glossy screenshots are, I’m going to conclude by going one better here with another game from the same book, which you can see peaking out next to the open drawer bottom right. Grand Prix was a kind poor-man’s Supersprint, and this is my brother playing it in my bedroom on the black and white portable that ended up there. One car, one track that you went around and around, but we had a great time with it! You can also see the start of my games collection there, with Crazy Kong by Interceptor Software at the front – more on that another time!

Before we go, I can’t resist sharing this machine code type-in treat from Your Spectrum magazine from 1985. The Grid. For all you pretentious masochists! Enjoy…

Sacrilege!!! The Perils of Willy On ZX Spectrum!

Sacrilege!!! The Perils of Willy On ZX Spectrum!

Yes, you read that right. What was once hallowed ground for the VIC-20 owner is here and now on the Spectrum…

And once I was over not having our own exclusive Manic Miner / Jet Set Willy game anymore, I was totally thrilled with Perils of Willy finally being ported to the ZX Spectrum! It’s perfect and it’s available now!

This was my favourite VIC-20 game, and currently sits at number 17 in my top games of all time list. It’s all about getting Miner Willy home after a night out by collecting musical notes through a variety of platforming locales, but as is hopefully increasingly the case, you can read my full thoughts on that here!

The Perils of Willy Spectrum recreation was lovingly crafted by Allan Turvey, and as far as I can tell so far (because after several hours of play I can still only get through about a quarter of the 32 brutal screens) it’s a direct port apart from the screen dimensions being necessarily shifted a bit. Some might say the background music is slightly more bearable too!

It genuinely feels as good now as it did in 1984, meaning a tough as nails lesson in hardcore platforming that I can’t stop playing all over again!

You can download it either free or for a donation of your choice here.

Just never forget the VIC-20 had it first!

My Life With… Agent X – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Agent X – ZX Spectrum

I have two very distinct memories of buying stuff from Boots (when they were still much more than a chemist) in May 1987 – that month being significant for my birthday, meaning I had more money then than at any other time of the year and could afford to buy two things! The first was U2’s The Joshua Tree; my £4.99 contributing to it becoming the fastest selling album in British music history. I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favourite albums (maybe top 50), but side one is without doubt one of the strongest ever, and to this day I still listen to it regularly whenever I notice it in my record rack. That said, there’s a moment in their 1988 Rattle & Hum movie (about 55 minutes in) where you hear the keyboard intro from Where The Streets Have No Name kick in, and the words “Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Arizona” appear on the screen, and to me those words and the next 5 minutes of live performance were the most rock star things I’d ever seen to that point! If I was here naming the top ten things that inspired me to form a band, that would definitely be one of them, but that’s something for another day…

Back to the slightly less glamorous lower floor of Boots, at the bottom of the spiral walkway in the even less glamorous Harpur Centre in Bedford, and from the very same entertainment section we come to my second purchase. This time we’re slightly later in May, during school half term and I’m with my Mum and two brothers, which I know because my other very distinct memory is walking with them to my Grandma’s house on the way back from town, reading the Agent X cassette inlay!

The reason I’m writing about Agent X – or Agent X in the Brain Drain Caper to give it its full name – right now rather than something else is because I was just flicking through the June 1987 Your Sinclair magazine and noticed it climbing up the top ten. Actually, it was the whole top ten that caught my eye first, which, including Agent X, features no less than four of my top ten favourite games ever – Feud, at number one where it deserves to be in whatever games chart you care to mention, plus Olli and Lissa (not Lisa, Your Sinclair, but see my post on that here for the full rundown!) and Gauntlet. Pretty good month for games in my opinion!

Also of note in that copy of Your Sinclair, just before the chart rundown, was the legendary advert for Barbarian featuring Wolf from Gladiators and Page 3 stunner Maria Whittaker, which I may have mentioned before, but as it’s of so much cultural significance to the 15-year old boy in 1987, bears repeating again here!

Back to Agent X, it’s interesting it was climbing the charts now because I think it had been released at some point in late 1986, and seems to have been reviewed pretty well in early 1987, but as a £1.99 release from Mastertronic, wonder why it took a while to get going? If I’d noticed it in the shops earlier, I’d have certainly bought it on the strength of the screenshots on the back of the box alone. Maybe everyone else was strapped for cash until their birthday too!

It wasn’t just how good it looked on the box that caught your eye, but the variety you were getting too. This was pretty much unheard of until now in a budget title – it looked and read like you were going to be part of an entire James Bond movie! “A multi-load mega action adventure, in which you set out to stop some lunatic scientist turning the President into a warmongering maniac. You are the only one who can help. If you’re superb at espionage, karate, driving, flying helicopters and bomb aiming you MIGHT have a chance. Just.” Not entirely sure that multi-load was the key selling point they thought it was at the start of that pitch, but what’s not to love about the rest?

After your first multi-load, the game starts out with you in your sports car on the way to the abandoned mine / underground lair. This is a really nicely presented section, playing a bit like a simplified isometric Spy Hunter but instead of guns your car can jump. Speaking of nicely presented, your current health is displayed by your agent, cigarette in mouth, moving ever closer to his gravestone in a beautiful moonlit graveyard. What you want to do is get to the end of this section with that intact! It’s not that hard to reach the end but to have a chance later on you need to get there without the tanks coming towards you, and dozens of lorries and police cars in front and behind, knocking you into the kerbs or various holes in the road and causing damage.

Another fantastic multi-load and you need to stop the tape, press any key but do not rewind! The next section is switching to a Kung-Fu Master (see my views on that here) style side-scrolling beat ‘em up. Now this is where the challenge ramps up… As well as the colour clash, with your man changing from white to whatever garish colour the current background feature happens to be – green doors, yellow control panels, pink No Smoking signs and so on; make a feature of the colour clash and it’s not a problem anymore… They should have put that on the box with multi-load too! If you get to the end of this section halfway to your grave you’re doing pretty well. As well as regular goons, you’ve got what looks like guys in capes and fencing masks, unicyclists and runaway minecarts to deal with coming at different speeds from all sides. Real damage limitation stuff as you kick and jump and flying kick your way gradually to the left until the relief (and joy) of your next multi-load appears from nowhere!

Next we’re in an Operation Wolf (yes, you guessed it, more here!) style setting, and you’re face-to-face with the lunatic scientist in his lab! Visually this is really striking, even if you don’t really want to think too hard about what’s going on here. He’s in the middle of the screen in a kind of lab control room, surrounded by eight mechanical doors that shoot out 3D shapes (missiles, according to the depressingly slow progress bar at the side) at you. You need to move your crosshair to shoot them, which is greeted by a speech bubble full of comic-style obscenities from him, otherwise you get a “Ha” if you miss, and a big step towards your grave. This is another tough section that’s really going to put a strain on your joystick as you wrench it all over the place, especially when things get a bit frantic towards the end. Hang on for long enough, and your man lines up his crosshairs on the lunatic scientist with a “This one’s for you pal!” and he blows a whole through the glass and takes his head clean off leaving a smoking neck hole. Cool!

Make the most of this multi-load as it’s your last one – you’re now on the home stretch, flying Airwolf style in a helicopter to get a bomb from a platform out in the sea. By the way, you won’t find a link to any post on Airwolf here any time soon. You’d soon get bored of me going on about the first three screens – I might be able to beat Mega Man but I’m not that good! The first part of this is pretty simple, flying through gates and avoiding missiles, then things get a bit harder with guys on jetpacks (wait for it…) shooting at your approach to the bomb, which you’re going to bring all the way back to Omega Base as the underground lair seems to be called! This is a great looking side-scrolling section that doesn’t have that much to it but it’s really nice to control the helicopter when you’re at speed on the return leg. Or the return return leg after you re-plant the bomb and get the twist…

As you can tell, I still love this game! The variety works brilliantly, nothing is too challenging that you won’t get through it sooner rather than later, then it’s just about getting good enough at each section to set you up for finishing the next. Apart from VIC-20 text adventure Pirate Cove, I think this was one of the first games I ever finished, and as I write this almost 33 years later, it’s the last game I finished too. The best £1.99 I ever spent? Well, it’s one of the top three at least!

Based on the commercial success of the first game, Agent X did come back for more with different genres tackled in Agent X II, but it never really clicked with me. The first section was a very frustrating side-scrolling shooter that looked like Zynaps meets Jetpac (here you go!) that just went on and on for way too long. Then you had a platforming section where you had to jump about collecting codes, followed by a bonkers version of Breakout where everything moved too quick and out of control for its own good, and was more luck than judgement, though you would get lucky most of the time. It did feature one of the Spectrum 128’s most acclaimed pieces of music, so worth seeking out for that, but otherwise was a bit anticlimactic in every other respect (especially the abrupt ending). Better to stick with the original if you want a proper good time

The Retro Arcadia Top Ten Games of 2019

The Retro Arcadia Top Ten Games of 2019

The best games released in 2019 were obviously the Switch versions of Elevator Action, Bomb Jack, Track & Field, Hyper Sports, Yie Ar Kung Fu, Virtua Racing and Out Run (which I finally finished after decades of trying, then obsessed over finishing every possible route). I also played and finished the seminal Final Fantasy 7 for the first time, also on Switch – still tells a great story and plays fine even if it’s not the looker it once was. Just like me! The Konami Contra, Castlevania and Arcade Anniversary Collections were also fantastic, giving me all sorts of fun, especially with my old flames Scramble and Nemesis, as well as TwinBee, which I can’t believe I’ve been missing out on since about 1985. And with SNES arriving on Switch, after 35 hours in just 10 days following its launch, found all 96 exits in Super Mario World.

Everything else is just filler, but as it’s new(ish) filler…

1. Baba is You (Nintendo Switch)

Fiendishly clever logic puzzler that gives you the ability to manipulate the rules of the level to reach a goal. Baba is You, Water is Defeat, Wall is Stop, Flag is Win, etc. All written in the single screen environments as individual words for you to push about and change, so if Flag is Win and Wall is Stop and the flag is surrounded by a wall, how about pushing “Win” around so Wall becomes Win and you can just move your little guy to the wall instead! I’ve never played anything so creative, so brain-busting and so satisfying when you eventually work out a puzzle – and quite how they came up with so many is beyond me. Absolute genius! And the hugely simplistic art style, which works great because it keeps you focussed on the puzzle, reminded me of the rubbish Eastern European cartoons you’d get on kid’s holiday TV in the 70’s, which I’d completely forgotten even existed!

2. Bleak Sword (Apple Arcade on iPad)

This is an absolute dark fantasy joy! One of the first games I picked up during my Apple Arcade trial, thanks to being grabbed by a screenshot of its super-minimalist monochrome art style that, combined with some great sound, somehow manages to invoke real atmosphere on a big iPad screen. It plays simply and beautifully on a PS4 controller, now supported on iPad with the release of iOS13. Very addictive, and the equally minimalist RPG style has a wonderful flow to it, whether played in bitesize chunks or extended sessions. Unlike its influence Dark Souls, it had me completely hooked within ten minutes, and it very quickly became clear this was coming from out of nowhere to become one of my favourite games of the year!

3. Resident Evil 2 Remake (PS4)

I played this almost immediately after finishing the original Resident Evil Remaster on PS4 – a game I bought day one decades ago on the original Playstation but barely ever scratched the surface of. Its old stylings had definitely outstayed their welcome by the end, but only heightened my appreciation for this full on remake of its sequel. I’d loved the 30-minute one-shot demo before release, and the full game didn’t disappoint – looks great, sounds great, and together with the game’s brain-testing narrative quickly builds up this incredible horror atmosphere and tension that just gets worse (in a good way). Especially when that big dude starts following you about. It doesn’t control like a 90’s nightmare anymore either!

4. Lonely Mountains: Downhill (Xbox One)

I took up an incredible £1 for almost five months of Game Pass offer on my son’s Xbox One, which included this equally incredible game that I’d previously been fully prepared to go full price on for PlayStation or Switch. You’re riding down a series of increasingly tough but beautifully stylised descents on your mountain bike, completing various levels of challenge on each. It is a bit like Trials from a different, low-polygon perspective as you explore every inch of each mountain to optimise your ride, with similar levels of infuriating difficulty and addictiveness. The controls are so tight, and the exploration, experimentation and general obsession needed to achieve the expert times is just brilliantly realised.

5. Graveyard Keeper (PS4)

If you asked me what ingredients would make my perfect game, Stardew Valley in a graveyard would be high up on the list. And this is pretty much that, once you get past the sometimes overwhelming busy work that’s teaching you (over many hours) about the tools you need to tart up your graveyard, morgue, house, crematorium, church and pretty much everything else in your surroundings whilst running an endless supply of often intertwining quests; all in a bid to get back to your real world. Nowhere near done with this yet but this beautiful world is inhabited by a definite graveyard keeper.

6. Trials Rising (PS4)

Speaking of Trials, here’s a great new entry into the Trials series with big production values and wonderful attention to detail; the most high fidelity controls you could hope for as you delicately juggle weight, brakes and gas across a massive variety of courses and challenges; and some great slapstick moments resulting from the hard as nails gameplay. I just wish I was playing it on Switch rather than PS4, but unfortunately there was simply no comparison, at launch at least.

7. Konami Pixel Puzzle Collection (iPad)

I came across this in Retro Gamer mag when I was on holiday in July. I’d never worked out what Picross / nonogram / etc. games were all about, but the fact that this went back through Konami’s 50 year history made it worth finding out. It’s completely free with some very unobtrusive static ads for recent anniversary collections, PES, etc. when you compete a puzzle, of which there are about five hundred, from simple to serious time-sinks, that all reference every Konami game you can think of and more. Great tutorial too if you’ve never tried one before – after which I got obsessed and spent about 50 hours on this, then Picross on Switch, Mario Picross on Game Boy… a whole new genre to love!

8. Cuphead (Nintendo Switch)

The hand-drawn and hand-animated 1930’s cartoon style graphics are probably the most stunning (and often most surreal and sinister) I’ve ever seen in a game. The 3-hour live big-band soundtrack is expertly played and fits that theme perfectly. But normal people will have torn their hair out long before they see most of any of that because it’s also one of the most brutal games you’ll ever play. You spend hours learning every nuance of the boss’ movements and attacks, and you’re still not good enough to beat it; then, of course, you get close enough to think it’s possible, and more hours later you do it, just to start again at the next one! And it’s perfectly suited to the Switch rather than the pervert platforms it first came out a couple of years ago.

9. Wargroove (Nintendo Switch)

I’ve tried these turn-based strategy games many times over the years and have always been crap at them, but always looked at Advance Wars and thought it might have been the one that hooked me had I not completely missed out on it. Then along came Wargroove, effectively giving me the same opportunity to find out. It’s clearly a great example of the genre and worthy successor to Advance Wars, but as much as I enjoyed it, I still don’t really get it!

10. Speed Demons (Apple Arcade on iPad)

Another great advert for Apple Arcade, this is a gorgeous top down racer with huge nods to both Spy Hunter and Super Sprint that feels absolutely fantastic to play on the touchscreen, less so on a PS4 controller. Split into loads of chapters, each with Burnout-style challenges from simple races against Speed Demons to takedowns and escapes, all taking place on a packed, neon-infused motorway. Not much to it but who cares when it’s this much fun.

My Life With… Jetpac (VIC-20)

My Life With… Jetpac (VIC-20)

When I started thinking about Jetpac on the VIC-20 recently, a couple of questions immediately came to mind: Where does it fit in my top VIC-20 games? And because I kind of already knew it wasn’t going to figure quite as highly as it maybe should… Where does it fit in the top VIC-20 games?

Coming back to the first question, this one is easy thanks to my big nerd list of my favourite games of all time ever.

  1. The Perils of Willy
  2. Andes Attack
  3. Jetpac
  4. Omega Race
  5. Submarine Commander

The Perils of Willy (read more here) will always be my favourite VIC-20 game, but this was the first time I’d thought about a top five, and genuinely didn’t know most of what was going to follow when I went through my big list looking for VIC-20 games from top to bottom. Andes Attack, Jeff Minter’s llama-focussed Defender clone, was a surprise in second place – without thinking much I actually thought I was going to see Submarine Commander there! But thinking much about it, it’s probably right in my mind. As is Omega Race in fifth place, and our subject here, Jetpac, in third. I don’t like that Pinball Wizard (read more here) isn’t there though! But taking away the all important nostalgia factor, we come to the second question – where does it fit in the top VIC-20 games?

Even through my rose-tinted spectacles, I can look at my list and say that The Perils of Willy [maybe!] isn’t the best game on the VIC-20, though I won’t hear any argument that it isn’t up there somewhere!!! But seriously, looking at my list here for the first time, extracted like this as my VIC-20 top five, the first thing that came to mind was hang on, why isn’t Jetpac in first place? Instinctively, surely there’s no better game on the platform from a technical viewpoint, or aesthetically, or in terms of gameplay or longevity? From my top five, maybe Submarine Commander is an equivalent technical marvel, but I reluctantly concede that its gameplay has a more niche appeal. Omega Race also needs to be in there as an almost flawless conversion of the incredible playable – and re-playable – twist on Asteroids arcade game. Add a few other titles I’m familiar with, and after far more personal deliberation that was probably necessary, we have this:

  1. Jetpac
  2. Omega Race
  3. Gorf
  4. Jump Jet
  5. Pirate Cove

We’ll get into Jetpac (finally) in a minute. In second and third place, I could easily switch positions between Omega Race and another incredible arcade conversion feat in Gorf, a multi-level spin on Space Invaders that included screen effects like I’d never seen before, not to mention the biggest enemy I’d ever seen with the Flag Ship appearing every four levels! Then we have Jump Jet (read more here), which is a Harrier flight-sim that at the time I got it was surely as good as flight sims would ever get! I could argue that A.C.E. (Air Combat Emulator) – coincidentally another flight-sim – should be in this spot too, but that was even harder than this was, and its plane couldn’t take off vertically from an aircraft carrier! It never made me air-sick like its box said it might either… Then we have Pirate Cove, part of that incredibly immersive VIC-20 text-based adventure series (almost any of which could really be here instead if you prefer) by Scott Adams where you “Go North” or “Use Mongoose” (to kill a snake if I remember right)! And if I also remember right, the first game I ever finished, not long after the mongoose incident!

List complete, and there we have it. Jetpac is officially the best game ever on the VIC-20! We should find out why.

Jetpac was released by Ultimate in 1983, but I’m fairly certain I got this after Christmas in 1984; it definitely needed an 8K expansion so it wouldn’t have been much earlier than that. Without doubt it was the screenshots on an advert or review I’d seen in C&VG or Commodore User, or on the back of the box, that attracted me to it, and amazingly they were probably even VIC-20 screenshots and not, as was usually the case, nefariously hijacked from a C64 version (which in this case never actually appeared). They could have come from the Spectrum version, but any VIC owner could proudly say that even if they did, you’d struggle to tell the difference. In fact, this was especially true because the VIC-20 version had colour clash that any Spectrum owner would have been proud of!

You play as Jetman, though bit like Mario’s first appearance in Donkey Kong, I don’t remember ever knowing him as Jetman – he was just an astronaut with a jet-pack and a blaster who had crashed on a planet far, far away and had to rebuild his rocket from the bits strewn about the place then fuel it up and start making his way home. All of this happens on a single wraparound screen, with three rocket parts that had to be dropped on top of each other in order, which you’d find lying on the ground or on mid-air ledges, whilst fending off the planet’s fauna that randomly flies around the place impeding your quest. Once you’ve put the rocket back together, fuel starts dropping out of the sky, also randomly landing around the screen, together with bonus jewels and stuff, which you collect and drop onto your rocket until it’s full up. Then you walk back into the rocket, it takes off and you start collecting fuel on the next planet, which is a similar screen but with a whole new set of meanies to attend to.

The game loops around a set of four levels, after which you’ve obviously crashed again and need to rebuild the rocket from scratch, which makes for the perfect setting for the game’s score-chasing intentions. This simplicity is what makes the game great – this gameplay loop is without fault, and it sits in the company of Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, etc. as timeless games that play just as well today, still offering endless challenge and replayability.

The sound is very functional and of its time, but the aforementioned graphics are absolutely outstanding, and unlike most VIC games stand up just as well today, with big bold sprites for the main character and the various enemies, and this incredible sense of scale as the rocket is put back together. And when you eventually fill it up with enough fuel, that sense of exhilaration as it takes of and exits the screen is still there today too! The planet design, in contrast, couldn’t be more basic, with three platforms suspended over blackness – there’s not even any ground at the bottom of the screen! But you won’t even notice that when you’re frantically trying to create a path through a kind of large-scale bullet-hell array of fast-paced aliens, either by shooting or dodging or sheer fluke as you panic your way around to get to a rocket part or fuel drop or tasty morsel. And I say you won’t even notice it because for all the hours I’ve spent playing this over decades, I didn’t either until just now! There’s a lovely subtle flame effect from your jet-pack, which moves as you change direction, and from the rocket too as it flies up the screen; the aliens have their own explosion animation too, and I really like that this happens when they crash into a platform as well as when you shoot them. Aside from a bit of flicker, you really have to pinch yourself and say yes, this really is happening on a VIC-20!

And all of this is why Jetpac sits at the top of the pile for the VIC-20, even if it’s not actually as good as The Perils of Willy in my opinion!

I’ve never played any of the Jetman sequels, and have steered clear of the overly restyled XBOX title Jetpac Refuelled, but did eventually play the Spectrum version of Jetpac in 2018, when the Rare Replay collection went backwards compatible on XBOX One. You’ve got more screen space to play in and it’s the same fantastic, timeless game that the VIC-20 offered, but it doesn’t seem quite as fast and frantic, so I’m sticking with the VIC as having the superior version despite only having half the levels of the Spectrum version. And saying that is even more incredible when you come back to what a technical achievement it is that it’s on there at all, when it’s not such a technical marvel on the Spectrum; and when you consider the pedigree of Ultimate’s other games on the Spectrum. Really incredible!

A Note on the Game Boy in the Konami Anniversary Collections

A Note on the Game Boy in the Konami Anniversary Collections

They might not have the profile of some of the other games in these wonderful compilations, but the Game Boy is well represented in Konami’s Castlevania Anniversary Collection with both The Castlevania Adventure and Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge included. And then we have Operation C, where C, of course, stands for Contra in the Contra Anniversary Collection.

I’m going to skip over The Castlevania Adventure because I recently covered it in a bit more detail here. Instead, we’ll take a very quick look at the other two, which I’ve also played all the way through on Nintendo Switch.

Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is both a technical spectacle and an excellent game, and a perfect companion to Adventure. By this point the developers properly knew how to get the most out of the handheld hardware, so it looks even more wonderfully atmospheric, runs smoothly and sounds even more like a Castlevania game than its predecessor, despite the same limitations.

It’s pretty quick to get through the linear levels, which you can play most of the way through in any order, though the final boss fight is a bugger! You genuinely have to memorise every single move it’s going to make and every pixel on each of the on-screen platforms that you need to be positioned on for each move to counter it. Not to mention the untold experimentation to work out some of them. This is a real shock after the relative simplicity of getting that far, but it is a great feeling when you finally beat it.

Operation C was the first Contra game I jumped into from that collection – having dabbled with them all as a complete newcomer to the series, it seemed a bit easier than the rest, and as you can tell, I’m easily impressed when it comes to the Game Boy!

The classic run and gun design is all present in a compact form, but it did leave me struggling a bit until I tweaked the controls to be like Mega Man, then I sailed through the first area. I was then amazed that the second switched to top-down shooting like Ikari Warriors – not having any history with Contra beyond remembering a few screenshots and trying several first levels, I didn’t see that coming!

I think there were five gradually more bonkers stages in the end, including another top-down level with organic backgrounds and giant insects running about like something from Xenon 2! Some really cool jungle stages too in the classic Contra mould – just like Castlevania(s) on the Game Boy, the developers worked wonders with the monochrome visuals to generate just the right atmosphere.

Whether side-scrolling or top-down, none of the levels took more than a few goes to get through (apart from the first until I changed the buttons around), and the bosses were fairly easy until the (almost) last one, and that was also fairly straightforward once you worked out its couple of attack patterns. Which is how I like my bosses, and overall how I like my games!

Dr. Mario World First Impressions

Dr. Mario World First Impressions

Dr Mario World has landed a day early. I’ve played through the first 25 stages, and it’s definitely more Candy Crush than Dr Mario so far in gameplay terms, and it’s starting to feel like it in free to play mechanics too – there’s definitely timers ticking in the latest area and hearts ready to restrict my play time!

The idea is that you need to get rid of coloured viruses by matching two or more of them with your coloured capsule, which you slide up the screen and let it go on its way once you’ve got it positioned. There’s a single player campaign and versus mode where you can play your friends (maybe…), which unlocks when you’ve played enough of the campaign. And that’s about where paid gems and hearts and stuff came into play too.

It looks and sounds as great as you’d expect, and it’s a perfectly fine example of the match-three mobile puzzler, with skills and items and even a choice of doctor and assistant characters. Now and again it feels like Dr Mario (even when you’re Dr. Bowser). But only now and again unfortunately.

In theory the multiplayer does give it something extra, but this is Nintendo we’re talking about! I have unlocked this, I’ve played a random and it’s fun, but it looks like my Nintendo account friends can’t be accessed (or if they can, I don’t know how), and looking for Facebook friends is just giving error messages. Speaking of which, you’d better have a decent connection all the time – even with one I’ve had several lost connection error codes appear, and game freezes appearing too during normal gameplay. Hopefully that can be patched out like it was on Super Mario Run.

Despite the negative tone, I do enjoy a match-three, and I’m enjoying this so far… but I enjoy Dr. Mario on the NES an awful lot more, and I’d much rather be playing that timeless classic on my phone!

In Defence of The Castlevania Adventure

In Defence of The Castlevania Adventure

I think Game Boy Castlevania Adventure gets a bum rap. Then again, I think that about Pit Fighter and the Spectrum version of Out Run too! (You can find out why here). Anyway, I remember being hugely impressed with it on the original hardware, and in retrospect, considering how early in the Game Boy’s life it came out, it really was an achievement. I’ve also just really enjoyed playing through it again in the Konami Castlevania Anniversary Collection on Switch…

The idea is that you make your way through four stages (or dark dungeons, torture chambers and vampire crypts as the description goes) of Dracula’s lair. After that, you enter what is called “the “dead” of night” to quote it exactly, to face off against Count Dracula and his multiple personalities. All with your “mystic” whip and mindful wits to sort you out.

A lot of the criticism I’ve seen of late relates to its inclusion on the aforementioned collection, on the basis of it being dull and poorly designed compared to the excellent sequel – also present – which renders it redundant, and no doubt taking the place of a GBA game or Symphony or whatever the missing favourite of the person criticising it is. I do get it, and wouldn’t have complained about an Aria of Sorrow or something being on here instead, or even the Game Boy Kid Dracula; actually, having just finished the NES version, I’d have really liked that! But I don’t think that makes it a bad game.

Admittedly the first stage is a bit sedate, but there’s some really challenging platforming, races against time and boss fights later on. Took me a few goes to remember how the end bit works, but the rest felt comfortably familiar, and more importantly, as fun as I remember. It looks really good too – very clean, very atmospheric, and it’s very clear where you need to be to make some of the more precise jumps that are called for later. It sounds like a Castlevania game too. And I for one am glad I got to play through it again on the collection!

Now I just need that Arcade Archives Pit Fighter release. Get talking to Atari, Hamster people!

My Life With… Out Run – Arcade / ZX Spectrum / Switch

My Life With… Out Run – Arcade / ZX Spectrum / Switch

A few weeks ago at the time of writing, the main event of WWE’s Wrestlemania 35 was the culmination of years of nauseating, cringeworthy, revisionist history, self-congratulation about revolutionising women’s wrestling… In other words, they stopped hiring porn stars to do bra and panties matches, and instead had real-life athletes pretending to knock the crap out of each other to varying degrees of success. 

Anyway, Ronda Rousey, Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch headline the biggest event of the year, and after all the build-up and excitement, the match is decided by a botched finish. Rousey is pinned by Lynch, she clearly has her shoulders up, the ref carries on counting regardless, Lynch wins. And whilst the result was predictable, no one saw it coming like that, including, apparently, the competitors; then there’s a second of awkward silence rather than the huge desired pop that was destined to be replayed ad-infinitum from the crowd in attendance; meanwhile those watching at home are rewinding it to check that they really did just screw up the first (and last, while Vince McMahon is still alive) women’s Wrestlemania main event.

And what’s that got to do with Out Run? Well, a couple of days ago at the time of writing, after decades of playing it on all kinds of formats, I got to the end of one of its routes for the first time. On the arcade version no less, thanks to Sega Ages Out Run on Nintendo Switch. Over the past few months, I’ve come close a couple of times and knew that I knew this route well enough that it was just going to take a bit of luck to avoid more than one minor brush with danger, and I’d get there sooner or later. This run felt great, and whilst I didn’t look at the clock as I hit the final stage, I knew I just needed to take it easy, avoid traffic, and I’d do it. 

Then suddenly control of the car was taken away from me and I’m seeing the end-game screen. Did I really just get to the end? Did I miss a finish line and a heart-in-mouth second of thinking I’m about to do what I started trying to do more than 30 years ago? After that momentary confusion, the elation of a moment such a long time in coming arrived and what, thinking about it later, is probably my greatest gaming achievement. My heart was racing and would be again every time I thought of what I’d done over the next few hours. 

We need to go a long way back before we get to the Switch version though, via a much maligned version of Out Run on the humble ZX Spectrum! But to use another wrestling analogy, it might not be the Attitude Era, but I’ll take Macho Man versus Ricky The Dragon Steamboat every time! (And I’d take either over the bloated, politically correct, creatively bankrupt late night kids TV show we get now). 

Before we get there, we need to cover the arcade game too. As usual, I’d seen it coming in Computer & Video Games magazine back in 1986, and I remember being blown away by it in the wild (in Great Yarmouth I think) despite there only being a stand-up cabinet in that seaside arcade, rather than the deluxe sit-down version that was rumoured to spin you around and shake you about.

None of that was necessary though. This was the most exotic game ever – as close as you’d get to being in Miami Vice. The palm trees in the sand and the sails in the ocean zooming by; or the feeling of freedom as the road suddenly opens up in the very first corner from three lanes to this huge, six lane highway and the speed really kicks in… That first stage, which is honestly all I ever saw of it for a very long time, with its absolutely astounding graphics flying past at such an astounding speed, was the most exhilarating feeling I’d ever had playing a game. It was pretty tough though, and clearly made to keep your coins going in – hit another car or, even worse, a lorry, and if you were lucky you were just going to take a huge hit on your speed, but otherwise the car was spinning to a stop, or if you hit a roadside obstacle, you and your girl were spectacularly somersaulting through the air together with the Ferrari. And seeing any of these scenarios meant game over sooner rather than later because a very aggressive clock was ticking down to zero on every stage.

But even back then, strip away the remarkable technical achievement that was Out Run with or without physical bells and whistles, and it was still a lot more than your run of the mill racing game. There were no other racers and there was no first place; it was just you and your Ferrari trying to impress a girl by driving as fast as possible as far as possible down one or the other route of your choosing when (if) you got to the end of each stage, towards five different end locations, with the wind in your hair and the finest soundtrack that has ever graced a video game… That soundtrack! I wonder at what point they realised that Magical Sound Shower, Passing Breeze and Splash Wave were so good that they demanded their own selection screen before you started, with radio frequencies changing as a realistically moving hand moved the dial clockwise through them.

Before I move away from the arcade version for a while, as an aside, life met art earlier this year when I was in Florida with work, playing Out Run on the Switch in a hotel on the beach that was on a road that the first stage could have easily been modelled on. And while we’re aside-ing, now I’ve gone beyond the first stage, I can say that going down the big hill in the fourth of the final stages is now what I believe to be the most exhilarating feeling I’ve ever had playing a game!

As I mentioned in my previous post on Operation Wolf, together with that and R-Type, Out Run was a game I never thought I’d see a home version of. Which might be a lot to do with why I have such fondness for a conversion that everyone else seems to think is such a stinker! Or do they? Hang on just a minute before you start scoffing, while I share some review scores from early in 1988: Your Sinclair 8/10; Sinclair User 81%; Crash 71%. Not so bad, right? And justifiably so!

As usual, the Spectrum version took a hit on colours, going for a mostly monochrome look on various boldly coloured backgrounds, but apart from that your Ferrari looked just like you wanted it to – big and convertible with your girl by your side – and everything else looked more than fine and where it should be. You had all the tracks from the arcade version (not that I ever saw two thirds of them) and on my 128K version at least, you had great versions of two of the iconic pieces of music. There was a bit of multi-load going on to do a new track, but it stayed in memory if you were doing the same route again. Again, usual compromises and more than acceptable for having a version of this unbelievable arcade game in your own home. Until Operation Wolf arrived a few months later, getting this for my birthday in May was probably my most anticipated game ever, and I remember the very moment I loaded it up with little time left to do any more than that before I left for school, still not quite believing this was possible! I didn’t even notice it wasn’t quite as fast as the arcade version!

Yes, speed, apparently, is an issue for the Spectrum version that makes it so bad it’s mentioned in the same breath as Pit Fighter (also unjustified), though I’ve just played it again and I still don’t think it’s as bad as everyone thinks it is, looking through today’s eyes, let alone those of more than thirty years ago. It’s still perfectly playable, it’s just as hard as it always was, and it feels fine – just like the review scores from the time said it was!

Now I’m going to jump forward a few decades to Sega Ages Out Run for Nintendo Switch.  What on earth would 1987 me have thought about not just having the actual arcade version in my home, but having it in my hand too, should the mood take me! For less money than the Spectrum cassette was too! And not just the arcade version, but one with different coloured cars and speed, grip and damage buffs as rewards for getting to the end of four of the five routes and a true-to-life arcade experience once you’d done that and the fifth route too…

As I said earlier, I did finish the first of the five routes a few days ago with the regular red Ferrari. I was going to stop there – achievement enough and game finished as far as I was concerned – but within a day I was back in my new silver car to try out the increased grip version. Very nice and made corners so much easier. Then I decided I wanted to see every route and unlock every car. On my very next game, taking the same route to the final stage I’d memorised on my first run to the end, I got to the end of the second route. The third was fairly easy too, with only one new track to work out – my feeling is that once you’re on any of the final stages, you can just take it easy enough to avoid mistakes to reach the end. The fourth and fifth were a bit harder because you couldn’t get there by taking a left at the end of stage one, as I’d done all the time to this point, and had to go right instead onto a new set of tracks; they took me a couple more days. Definitely worth doing because the finished car with all four buffs active ends up handling a lot like the original one but a lot faster. Now I’m working my way through each of the routes on the original arcade version that finishing all five unlocked, and with the self-imposed pressure off, I couldn’t love this game any more than I do right now. Seems I’m finally quite good at it too!

Together with the aforementioned R-Type, I don’t think any game from the 80’s has stood the test of time like this has, and despite sequels and endless homages to it, has ever been or will ever be bettered for sheer exhilaration.

My Life With… Operation Wolf (ZX Spectrum / Atari ST)

My Life With… Operation Wolf (ZX Spectrum / Atari ST)

I vaguely remember seeing Operation Wolf, with its mounted Uzi, in an arcade, but where it really made an impression was long before that in Computer & Video Games magazine’s Arcade Action section. Whilst I’d generally skip over that section with just a few glances at the screenshots, I remember three games on those pages that absolutely blew me away, and there was no chance in hell there’d ever be home computer conversions! They were R-Type, Out Run, and, of course, Operation Wolf, where all your Rambo fantasies could finally come true with graphics like you’d never seen before! 

As a side note, at the time of writing in February 2019, I recently picked up arcade perfect conversions of R-Type and Out Run on the Nintendo Switch; they did come, and with Out Run in particular, I still can’t quite believe what I’m seeing on my TV screen even three decades later- when you consider how amazed I was by the ZX Spectrum version when it came, and how bad everyone else seems to think that version is, maybe not a surprise!

I don’t think I’d ever wanted a game as much as I did this; with arcade conversions, especially such high profile ones, expectations of quality were always secondary to the fact that it was just coming to the Spectrum! It arrived in all its monochrome glory for Christmas 1988, and if I remember right was a present from my grandma and auntie. What I definitely remember right is my first time playing it on Christmas Day evening, in my auntie’s bedroom, on her Spectrum+2 and a 14-inch black and white portable TV. As was often the case playing Spectrum games at the time, the fact it lacked colour didn’t, in reality, matter that much! That said, let’s not forgot it more than made up for the lack of colour in the main game by filling the little “suiting up” montage you got when you first loaded the game up with the most garish colours it could manage!

On the home versions, the Uzi was replaced by a crosshair, which controlled fine with a joystick, as the screen scrolled from left to right and enemy soldiers, tanks, gunships and gunboats filled the screen from all directions to bring you death. As well as your Uzi, you could also bring them death with your limited supply of grenades; letting the screen fill up with vehicles and soldiers then dispatching them all at once this way was a great feeling! As was shooting one of the daggers out of sky as it flew at the screen before it hit you and briefly stayed in place, full stab.

The story, such as it was, was true to the arcade original – go through six military themed levels in jungles, prison camps, airports and various bases to rescue the hostages. Each one was a bit more than just shooting everything in sight; you’d have a task like cutting off the enemy communications or getting information out of the enemies, although all of that did involve shooting everything that moved unless it was one of the fleeing civilians or nurses carrying some unfortunate in a stretcher who shouted “NO!” if you shot them. The first few levels were all do-able but I’m not sure I ever got to the end of the final level in the airport. 

The Spectrum version was one of the best arcade conversions the machine got, with absolutely stunning looking graphics that perfectly captured the feel of the original. And there were so many types enemies on screen at once in the distance and in the foreground (including the one that looked like something out of The Village People) and all over the place without any kind of slowdown or mess. The +2 version sounded good too, with a suitably testosterone-juiced theme tune. Overall, out of the two versions I owned, it’s the one I really remember most fondly…

As time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to dip into recollections from decades long past, but in the case of my Atari ST Operation Wolf experience, I have a major helping hand! Christmas always brought with it a diary for the coming year, and in the days after Christmas you would start re-writing your friends’ phone numbers, family birthdays and school holidays into your latest pocket-sized planner. They always had a theme too, like fishing or cycling or football, with half the pages full of related encyclopaedic content. And for the first few days of the year, you might even use it to record what you’d been up to… “I rushed home to play Op Wolf and it lived up to my high expectations. It is brilliant, the only problem being that it is on three disks. I got to stage 5 on my first go.” The diary then goes on to describing watching Lethal Weapon that evening!

This was all around the beginning of 1990 for me, but the ST version came out around the same time as the Spectrum one, and was probably the only dampener on that version – as great as the Spectrum version looked, in magazines like C&VG you were seeing it side by side with this incredible, virtually arcade perfect looking version on the ST. As well as the glorious graphics, you also had all the little details like the pigs running around you could shoot for extra ammo, and some great enemy death animations especially when you shot one of the guys up close to you. And more than anything, it had a mouse that made shooting stuff a lot easier than with a joystick! This was a really great conversion, but what’s interesting to note is that I don’t remember ever being blown away by it, like I had been the Spectrum version just over a year earlier – it didn’t take long at all to become spoilt by the incredible games that just came as standard in the next-gen machine. Or maybe it was just all the disk swapping.

And despite getting to stage 5 on my first go, I never did get to the end of the game here either!