My Life With… Pac-Land (Arcade / Spectrum / Everything Else!)

My Life With… Pac-Land (Arcade / 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 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) and probably in my top five 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!

Crash! PC-Engine & Bimbos of the Death Sun

Crash! PC-Engine & Bimbos of the Death Sun

As a current employee of what used to be NEC Electronics, I couldn’t resist sharing this page from the August 1989 issue of Crash magazine. But I’m really not sure what caught my eye first – a very unexpected “advert” from NEC in a Spectrum magazine, or the the proper advert it shares the page with for Bimbos of the Death Sun! Actually, it was the latter, but I think they both deserve a bit of attention…

I started working for Japanese electronics monster NEC just under 12 years after this was published, but you’d still see occasional material with this old, very Japanese logo, especially when you visited one of the two offices I used to frequent in Tokyo. As well as being very Japanese, I really had to laugh at how typically corporate the message on this advert was, even though the readership of Crash was mainly kids who owned Spectrums – if we did it now, I’m sure it wouldn’t be all that different either!

This is all about the PC Engine, and how “NEC Corporation, NEC Home Electronics Ltd, and NEC (UK) Ltd (collectively ‘NEC’ hereafter)” didn’t want it being sold in the UK. Therefore, you need to know it’s not compatible with our old European PAL TV’s, and if it is then it’s been surreptitiously modded by someone that shouldn’t be selling it to you regardless, and if anything goes wrong with it, tough!

Obviously, it probably wouldn’t be wise for me to offer too many more opinions than I have already, but all the same, this is such a wonderful snapshot of the transition from our beloved 8-bit machines to 16-bit computers and consoles. I’d just about moved to my Atari ST at the time, but I do remember the PC Engine was a very exotic-looking piece of kit, with its exotic-looking arcade ports and just generally stunning graphics in screenshots. I also remember it seeming very expensive to own, even once you’d got hold of a console you could actually connect to your telly!

In hindsight, through emulation then much more recently my beloved PC-Engine Mini, it’s also become the one machine I wish I’d owned at the time, but personal favourites like the wonderful Devil’s Crush, Pac-Land and Victory Run, and all the other stuff it’s probably better known for, are maybe stories for another day!

What I can offer an opinion on is the second advert, featuring “MURDER MOST FUN!” with Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb. Firstly, why has this never been made into a movie? You might be surprised to hear that in 1988, this won the Edgar Award for Best  Original Paperback Mystery, though apparently it was less well received from the sci-fi and fantasy scene it parodied. And in that case, I assume it parodied it very well.

It’s all about a nerd convention called Rubicon, where the guest of honour Viking fantasy author, Appin Dungannon, gets murdered with a bullet through the heart. Everyone hates him, so who done it is anyone’s guess, but according to the back of the book, fellow author James Owens Mega, “…dons the role of Dungeon Master, and solves this uproarious whodunit in the ultimate Dungeons & Dragons role-playing climax!”

It’s still in print (and digital), and apart from some out-dated technology references, seems to still be pretty much spot-on in terms of nerd culture and their stinky gatherings, as well as being a decent pulpy thriller.

Follow Up: Deathstar Interceptor on Commodore 64

Follow Up: Deathstar Interceptor on Commodore 64

Previously on Retro Arcadia, we took a look at Deathstar Interceptor – a game I first came across being advertised in the May 1985 issue of Computer & Video Games magazine, liked the look of, but wouldn’t play for decades.

I won’t bore you with any more recapping because you can read all about it right here, but I will just mention again that the Commodore 64 version was very much an afterthought in the advert…

I recently went back a year or so further into the C&VG archives, to July 1984 specifically, and that gives us a bit more to go on than the assumption that it was an afterthought because it’s a stinker in comparison to the Spectrum version. Which it certainly is, but with this new context, it’s all about the Spectrum because the C64 version had been the subject of previous advertising. And the headline might confirm this, with the fight continuing on the Spectrum because the C64 version appeared already. Maybe?

Apart from the word “Deathstar” we are not really getting the very in your face Star Wars vibes of the Spectrum advert, so we are possibly pre-licensing of the Star Wars theme tune. And when we previously mocked the C64’s hamburger and coat hanger enemies, they might simply have been what was there in this original(?) version before any Star Wars association – as loose as it was – materialised on the Spectrum.

A disservice then? Absolutely not! It’s still garbage, though that does make the outrageous advertising blurb even more comical. And I quote…

52K of pure machine code giving you 12 screens of 3D graphics, super smooth 3D animation, unbelievable sound effects music, 4 skill levels and hiscore table… this is the ultimate challenge? This game has to be played to be believed! You have not seen what the Commodore 64 is capable of until you have played Deathstar Interceptor! – Commodore 64

You’re really better off not knowing what it’s capable of if that means playing this awful game! However, thanks to this advert you don’t even need to, because look closely and in one final twist, their strange insistence on showing every gameplay element on offer in tiny numbered screenshots includes “Victory (Screen 12)” – the end game screen!

History once again teaches us everything if we care to look. And I’m glad I came across this older advert and could maybe shed a bit more light on this version – and a bit more context on the Spectrum version – of a true Star Wars (or not?) curio.

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 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!

A Look at Star Wars Curio Deathstar Interceptor

A Look at Star Wars Curio Deathstar Interceptor

The April 1985 issue was when I decided I needed to buy my own copy of Computer & Video Games magazine, and not rely on reading hand-me-downs from friends when they were feeling generous. What might have sparked the decision was the type-in game Starship Victory for the unexpanded VIC-20; I was big into those at the time (as you can read about here) and there was no way I was missing out on a cool Asteroids clone like this! There were also a few reviews that probably caught my eye – at the time, there was still pretty good coverage for the VIC-20 here, but of course we were in the minority… and you couldn’t help looking over the fence at what you were missing out on for the big new machines! Impossible Mission, Ghostbusters and Cauldron being of particular note that month! It wasn’t so much jealousy – at least for a year or two – but just wanting to lap up the massive amount of exponentially increasingly incredible games that were now coming out on a massive amount of computers; in that month alone, a quick scan just now revealed stuff for BBC, Electron, C64, Spectrum, VIC-20, MSX, Atari, Amstrad, Dragon and Texas, and I’m sure I missed some PET and C16 stuff too!

I’ve never been that big into superhero stuff, but I always consider the May 1985 cover of C&VG as iconic as well as fairly unique in its styling for them. There’s so much going on in both the main illustration itself and also the text blurb around it. Amazingly, if you actually read it, it was mostly all just promoting stuff you could win, including a copy of text-adventure Questprobe 3, featuring the featured Fantastic Four, but not forgetting a map of Alien 8, which was about the first thing shoved in your face after the contents page! What really stuck in my mind that month though was the advert inside the cover for a game called Deathstar Interceptor by System 3 Software.

I might not have been into superheroes, but Star Wars was another matter, and that X-Wing and the three screenshots had me hooked (mostly because the text was pink on black which was near enough to my red-black colour blindness to make it not worth trying to read). Definitely a Star Wars game though, even though it doesn’t mention it! Strange… Actually, it barely even mentions what the game’s called, which is why it might have long-since escaped my memory by the time I eventually got a Spectrum, and would do so for another 35 years until I was sorting through a stack of old computer games magazines in the garage!

“The Fight Continues… On The Spectrum. …Earth is threatened by an Empire Deathstar, can you penetrate its defences, destroy it before it destroys you? …Deathstar Interceptor gives you 12 screens of 3D graphics, super smooth 3D animations, unbelievable sound effects, music, 4 skill levels and hiscore table …this is the ultimate challenge! …This game has to be seen to be believed! You have not seen what the 48K Spectrum is capable of until you have played Deathstar Interceptor.”

I was probably just as well off with the screenshots! The first one is the first part of the game. A real oddity where you’re taking off in your X-Wing, which at some point will veer off to the side of its own accord and you have to guide it back towards the hyperspace thingy (I guess) at the top. It’s not very scientific and seems to be a matter of luck if your single press in the right direction actually gets you into the middle of it or not, allowing you to proceed into space and the second screenshot!

This looks fantastic; it’s a kind of Galaxians with tie-fighters and some other nasties, and you have horizontal and a bit of vertical movement… Expert tip – move to the top left and nothing can shoot you! As this is going on, the Empire Deathstar is getting bigger and bigger it’s close enough, then you’re into the trench. There’s a couple of phases, involving dodging lasers from the sides then shooting some more enemies, then either I got lucky with an unintentional shot to the exhaust port (unintentional because I never even noticed it) or it does it for you.

Either way, you’re rewarded by the ultimate insult to the red-black colour blindness sufferer – the red explosion in the black of space! Like the advert, I don’t think I was missing a lot here; it was hardly the mind-blower when the same thing happened in the Star Wars arcade game. Then you start all over again, looping until you die and you get a really nice rendition of the Star Wars theme.

If you look hard enough, the advert also mentions it’s available for the Commodore 64. Not surprised they didn’t make a big deal of it though – it’s a shocker! The Spectrum game looks like a Star Wars game and has a bit of variety to its “12 screens of 3D graphics” but for as much as I played of it, the second stage en-route to the Empire Deathstar is a really ropey shooter, then when you get to the trench you’re still playing the same ropey shooter as before but against a trench background. And you’re not even fighting tie fighters in the C64 version, but what look like coat hangers and hamburgers!

The best thing here is the Empire Deathstar design in the second stage though – for some reason, the C64 version has the big round shooting part at the top of the Empire Deathstar repeated at the bottom too! Two death bits! Even the Star Wars theme sounds better on the Spectrum, and when did you last hear that?

As you can tell, at the time of writing in the year 2020 I’ve now played both versions (actually both emulated on a PlayStation Classic console!), and I even got to the end of the Spectrum’s loop. And I think I appreciated that version at least a little more than I would of in 1986 or 1987 when I got my Spectrum +2 because there was loads more going on there then than hunting out this old Star Wars curio I couldn’t remember the name of anyway. The Spectrum version is really fun!

But what about Star Wars? Is this a Star Wars game? Or was it really the case the in the wild west of video games in the mid-80’s you could get away with ripping off even Star Wars this blatantly? Well, partially at least it seems. I’ve learnt recently that the Star Wars theme tune was licensed, but as for the rest, probably not! Which might explain certain aspects of the advert, and using words like “Empire Deathstar,” and not even mentioning their limited official Star Wars licensing, let alone barely mentioning what the game is called! A curio indeed.

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… 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!

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.