Rediscovering Soft & Cuddly on ZX Spectrum

Rediscovering Soft & Cuddly on ZX Spectrum

I think the 10th Personal Computer World Show, held at London’s Olympia from 23-27 September 1987, was the first of what became a brief annual trip for me, up to its end in 1989, though we definitely made at least one trip to ECES – the European Computer Entertainment Show at Earl’s Court – the following year because that’s where my original Game Boy with Tetris and Super Mario Land came from just after it launched! Apart from that, the first was definitely the most memorable, and not just for the vast amount of free stuff we came back with compared to the next two years, which really are not memorable apart from the diminishing amount of free stuff on offer!

Anyway, back in August 1987, I’d won a Microprose competition in Your Sinclair for an all-expenses paid trip to the show for a go in a real-life AH-64 Apache simulator as part of the launch of the wonderful Gunship helicopter game, which we’ll definitely come back to here very soon! As well as that, and copies of Gunship and Pirates and loads of other Microprose booty, I remember having a tenner to spend on games as well, most of which went on the just-released – and my future top 5 favourite game of all time – Renegade on the ZX Spectrum. With a couple of quid left over, we passed a tiny table-top stand for a company called The Power House, where they were selling a game I’d never heard of called Soft & Cuddly, but a quick look at the inlay and you had the most garish, gruesome graphics you’d ever seen, and it came in a sick bag, and it was £1.99! And obviously, to 15-year old me just discovering a lifelong love of horror, it was a no-brainer!

Once we got home though, the problem it had was that 15-year old me was also just discovering a future top 5 favourite game of all time! And let’s just say that once you’d seen a few of its surreal, grotesque screens, the part-platforming and part-shooter gameplay wasn’t quite on par with Renegade’s, so from then and forever after it would then only ever get the occasional look in! But after all this time, did it deserve more of a look in? Let’s find out…

Before Soft & Cuddly, there was Go To Hell. Developed in 1985 by John George Jones, after a title screen that ripped off the Alice Cooper Goes To Hell album cover, it had you searching a garish colour clash hell for your friend after you’d told him to go there. And he did. I only remember seeing this in magazines when I was still sporting a VIC-20, but I think once you got past its horrific graphical gimmick, there wasn’t a lot of fun to be had in the sub-Atic Atac gameplay. A couple of years later, and John George Jones is back with Soft & Cuddly, turning his hellscape up to eleven, introducing a bit more urgency to proceedings and having your little man fly around the ridiculous labyrinth of screens, moving across the Ultimate Play the Game back catalogue to Jetpac maybe… That said, I’ve always got a bit of a Manic Miner feel out of this despite everything. But we’re jumping ahead of ourselves!

The cassette, with its skinless fanged demon perched on a pile of bloody, decapitated heads, is a bit cryptic about what’s going on. “All dead, all dead, all dead and gone. But this is the Cyborg Age. Kids laugh and joke on the streets and say “we can re-build him!” Well you can, but it has to be the right mix of sinew and metal and first you have to enter the nightmare to retrieve the pieces of what spawned you… Eurgh! …Horror show, horror show.” Somehow poetic, but as said, a bit cryptic. Venture inside the inlay and we’re told that your mother, The Android Queen, has had an accident and been badly damaged. But apparently not before she locked your father in the fridge with a bunch of evil spirits. You need to find eight spirit keys, taken them to your father in the fridge, and exchange them for the lowdown on where the parts of your mother are hidden; which sounds a bit more than being badly damaged in an accident, but it was £1.99 so we’ll go with it! Once you’ve then found all the bits of your mother, you need to get them back to the fridge too, then go and find the needle and thread so she can be sewn back together.

First off, you’re going to be looking for the fridge, which is randomly placed in this 256-screen nightmare at the start of every game. Each screen is a room full of platforms and passages, spikes, falling objects and mundane things that might do you no harm on one screen then kill you in an instant on the next! There’s also various ghosts, aliens, pumpkin monsters, TV’s and unidentifiable machines of ill-repute flying about the place either shooting at you or just waiting for a touch to drain your life away. You can take these enemies out with your laser gun, but use it too much too soon and it overheats and jams. You can also become invisible three times per life, making you invincible as well, but then the only way you’ll know where you are is by shooting your gun to reveal yourself. Your gun can even be used to take out the scenery – spend ages shooting at a brick or a tree, for example, and eventually you’ll whittle away what’s probably going to be a very pointless shortcut!

The scenery though!!! Let’s cut to the chase… The gameplay we’ve just described is boring, and there’s no way you’re going to be putting up with it long enough to do all that collecting and sewing in a fridge crap. What you’re actually going to be doing is travelling from room to room marvelling at the sick and twisted scenery! Right from the off (assuming you avoid the falling anvil in the opening seconds) you’re going to be blown away by the half a screen high oozing fish head in glorious red and blue with big green eyes, moving surprisingly smoothly about the place without a hint of colour clash! You’ll soon be seeing an oversized bleeding head being repeatedly squashed by hydraulic spikes on a platform that simply says “DIE!”

Then there’s a framed picture of a skull in an army cap surrounded by green skulls in army caps, then a big one appears and chases you around as another set of spikes ominously hang from the ceiling next to a sheep with a fish’s head moving around on a trolley. There’s four co-joined babies being stretched on a rack over a dead body being drained of blood by some spikey hammer things. There’s gibbets and other medieval torture devices amongst the Spectrum-magenta brickwork; there’s piles of bodies and another baby, but this time its head is in a cobra’s mouth! And all of these things are huge and brightly coloured and moving around with gay abandon between all the platforms and moving catwalks and traps you need to negotiate.

And then you’ll enter a very plain black room with a load of bricks or some grass or something along the bottom, but hang on because here comes the big one! A huge scarred, slashed-up, very bloody wild-haired witch face thing has just appeared out of nowhere to take up most of the screen and absolutely destroy you!

And all of that is why you need to go back and play Soft & Cuddly! It’s not about the mundane and slightly confusing gameplay (which as I’m playing and writing still bizarrely think feels like Manic Miner even though it’s absolutely nothing like it!), or the very functional sound effects or the early-eighties enemy or platform designs (sounds like Manic Miner!). It’s not even about the free bonus music track by H.E.X. on Side B, which is actually a very good piece of pre-romo post-punk… It’s about what surreal, grotesque (but almost completely colour clash-free) monstrosity you’ll come across next. And how big it will be!

Before I started here, I did have a concerted effort for a proper run at the game, and I found the fridge and some other bits a few times, but there’s so much of it and once the nightmares start repeating you definitely reach a point where you feel you’ve seen everything even if you havent. But until you reach that point, it’s quite the sight to see all the same!

My Life With… 1942 – Arcade / ZX Spectrum

My Life With… 1942 – Arcade / ZX Spectrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game Review: Indiana Jones and the Fountain of Everlasting Life – ZX Spectrum

Game Review: Indiana Jones and the Fountain of Everlasting Life – ZX Spectrum

There was once a marvellous arcade game called Kung-Fu Master, and eventually it made its way to the ZX Spectrum where it became the most disappointing game of all time, and no matter how many times I give it a second chance, I reckon it’s always going to stink!

It was terrible – a mass of colour clash; played like a dog (in slow motion); scrolled like a speech impediment; had one of the most grating theme tunes that even the Spectrum could manage… Although if you were really lucky, the collision detection would take out the enemy behind you while you were kicking something in front, or if the screen “scrolled” when a knife-throwing enemy appeared it would turn into a regular one!

Unlike Kung-Fu Master, Indiana Jones and the Fountain of Everlasting Life isn’t terrible – in fact, it’s the exact opposite, and that’s why it’s almost equally disappointing! In its defence, it was released as an April Fool’s joke in 2017 by Misja van Laatum, developer of the still in development at the time of writing point-and-click adventure The Fountain of Youth, a game “in the spirit of LucasArts’ classic Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis”. And the joke is that it’s over before you know it, and there’s the precise nature of our disappointment here, because it’s not only nearly the best Indiana Jones game on the Spectrum, but given that’s not a major accomplishment in the eyes of many, it’s also nearly an absolute classic Spectrum platform adventure. And in the company of Manic Miner, Monty, etc. that would be a hell of an accomplishment!

We start with a lovely loading screen – even more lovely than Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a Spectrum game that I am hugely fond of – with Indy in front of a burning pyramid and two flying saucers firing laser beams at stuff, and then were ready to begin for real in Bora Gora, French Polynesia in 1939. The first screen is called Fortune and Glory, and you’re at the rainforest entrance to some ancient ruin full of ropes, platforms, occult-looking bull statues and what might be magenta spikes or poisonous flowers, but they’re magenta so just steer clear! You’re running, climbing and jumping your way up to the top and then into the Snake Pit! Indy might not like snakes, but there’s a statue a bit like the one at the start of the first movie down there, so we’ll grab that on the way down and back up, avoiding the patrolling snakes and more magenta flowers, but stopping on the way to get a tantalising glimpse of the crazy UFO screen you’re about to encounter next. This screen, The Dig Site, is the cruellest part of this April Fool’s joke, because unless you’re already in on it, it’s the point where you get excited about this game maybe being a classic, as the platforms get more complex in layout, and there’s a guard as well as giant insects and magenta flowers, not to mention the mystery of that big flying saucer at the bottom of the screen… And then once you’ve made the leap of faith down the big drop at the end of the screen, it all comes crashing down with “Happy April Fool’s Day” and a message about them having been making this game for a long time but not 31 years. And then in your disappointment you treat yourself to another playthrough, because what’s another 90 seconds when you’ve been so close to a classic, but now you’re so far away!

I was actually in on the joke by the time I played this, having seen my friend Nick Jenkin suffer the disappointment live on his wonderful YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/njenkin) – if you’re into retro-gaming, be sure to check that out, with a load of video reviews every week that are about how much you’d enjoy the game on those first few goes rather than expert gameplay… though in the style of gameplay we’re talking about here, he is a bit of a master! And there’s also a couple of live streams per week that are always an evening well-spent with the great community he’s gathered around him. Definitely never a disappointment!

Even after all of that, I still wanted to play the game and I still wanted to write about it because, for as long as it lasts, it is really good! I’ll never buy their real game, The Fountain of Youth, because I have absolutely no desire to ever play a point-and-click adventure, but I would pay good money and play the living daylights out of a Spectrum (or even Spectrum-inspired) platformer if this is the quality they can knock up as a joke! It’s a great looking game, with all kinds of detail in the different blocks and platforms, simple but perfectly functional character designs, and some very well thought out (and very varied) use of Spectrum colour, with only a bit of clash adding to its modern-day charm. Less is more in the sound department too, with perfectly well realised sound effects and thankfully no ten second loop of a dreadful Spectrum rendition of a nursery rhyme or something, as was the case with many of these games! And they’ve nailed the all-important jump controls too. It’s just great, and they need to abandon that other thing and just make more of this please!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game Review: White Jaguar (ZX Spectrum)

Game Review: White Jaguar (ZX Spectrum)

The year 2020 might be remembered for other things before its ZX Spectrum game releases, but it’s definitely worth pointing out that towards its end we were really spoilt by some serious quality! We talked about late December’s wonderful Wonderful Dizzy here, but a month or so before that we were treated to something not a million miles away from the legendary Oliver Twins’ all-new epic, both in terms of gameplay, polish, and pushing the Spectrum to its graphical limits!

The Yandex Retro Games Battle is an annual ZX Spectrum development contest, with the best fifteen published and voted for by the public, then the top three get cash prizes. Keeping in mind everything is in Russian, I think I’m right in saying the eventual winner was Marsmare: Alienation, a metroidvania-infused arcade platformer; we’re going to have to come back to that because as fantastic as it looks, I didn’t know it existed until about thirty seconds ago! But what we can talk about it what I think was the runner-up, White Jaguar, a metroidvania-infused arcade platformer by developer and probable future legend romancha, alias Roman Varfolomeev!

I’m a great believer in you can judge a book by it’s cover, and the very first time you lay eyes on White Jaguar you know you’re in for something special… Just look at all the detail in those graphics and all those Spectrum colours all over each other! It really is one of the best-looking Spectrum games you’ll ever come across, drenched in Native American atmosphere set against this pinky, bluey, blacky forest skyline. It’s not just the fantastic use of minimal-clash colour too, but the incredible attention to detail, from distant birds and twinkling stars to the staggering variety in the stones and bricks and other environments, all meticulously and individually crafted and coloured. And the more you notice it, the more you look, and the more staggering you find it all! And this all goes on across multiple levels, each comprising a load of distinctive, just beautiful screens, filled with smooth-moving enemies and the fluid running, jumping and chucking of your little man. Not to mention his smooth-moving, fluid long hair too – this guy could bathe up a mountain and flick it about the place and Timotei would be all over him!

As implied previously, your little man is a Native American, and now we’re past the cover and onto his story, which actually, having played through the game, I’m still not that sure about! It seems to involve him seeking out his destiny and general greatness, and becoming “one of us” which I think means turning into a jaguar! This translates into a pretty intuitive arcade platformer, where you’ll be collecting items and new abilities that will allow you to backtrack and collect more, which in turn open up new areas until eventually your destiny turns up, and we’ll come back to that later! On the way, you’ll be platforming across rivers, through caves, over cactii and among ruins, avoiding obstacles, animals out to do you no good, and some really nasty mystical pieces of work that are going to gobble up your three lives in a heartbeat!

As well as a really precise jump, you can duck and throw an axe, which is very limited use and you’ll be desperately seeking out more as you go. It really does feel as good to play as it looks, and you’ll soon have a lie of the land, a handle on how to manage each of the enemy types, and will be going backwards and forwards through magical portals between levels making serious progress. It’s definitely not easy, and there were a couple of real difficulty spikes, but it’s not brutal by old-school Spectrum platformer standards by any means, and after a few goes you’ll have explored everything and be well on your way to completion well within an hour or so. Intriguingly, once you’re past the final double-boss fight (very reminiscent of a certain port of Ghosts ‘n Goblins), you’re informed youve completed Part 1, and it’s to be continued. And I certainly hope it is!

Just playing through it again, I still can’t get over how good some of these screens look, but the sound is definitely worth a shout out too, with pleasingly inoffensive and sparingly used Spectrum sound effects backed by a really impressive soundtrack that – like the graphics – ranks as some of the best the system has ever offered.

Like Wonderful Dizzy, anyone with any kind of interest in the Spectrum needs to play this, but it’s not just a great Spectrum game that more holds its own in one of its strongest genres, but a great game in general, and I can’t wait to see what romancha comes up with next… Part 2, please???

My Life With… Scooby Doo – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Scooby Doo – ZX Spectrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favourite Sights in All of Gaming – Now The Top 10 (and more…)

Favourite Sights in All of Gaming – Now The Top 10 (and more…)

Ever since I put together my list of favourite sights in all of gaming, a few weeks ago at the time of writing, I’ve been giving more favourite sights in other games a bit of thought, and we’re definitely in a position now where we can add some more to the list and make up a top ten!

You can read about the original top five here, but just to recap…

1. The road opening out in the first stage of arcade Out Run
2. The sunset background in level two of arcade P-47
3. Olli & Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle’s second screen on ZX Spectrum
4. The sunset background in level two of PC Engine Victory Run
5. Mega Drive Streets of Rage 2 third stage pirate ship

I struggled a bit to get far beyond a top five previously, but did give a single honourable mention to Super Castlevania IV’s ghost and glitter and gold level, also known as Stage IX, also known as The Treasury, so it’s only fair that we start right there at our new number six favourite sight in all of gaming!

I could probably make up another top ten only using sights from Super Castlevania IV on SNES! And actually, before I came up with Stage IX, my initial thought was climbing the famous Castlevania steps up to the final boss with the moon behind the castle. Absolutely stunning, and in every Castlevania this sight is an indicator that your’ve nearly made it! If I had to choose any game world to live in, it’s this one (or maybe Silent Hill… more later)! I absolutely adore the unique gothic art-style, the sumptuous colours and the sheer imagination. The game has already put you through the ringer by the time you get to Stage IX, but seeing this unique environment compared to everything you’ve been through before is like a reset, refreshing you for the last push! The ghosts that float up all around the screen are harmless but remind you that in Castlevania, all that glitters – and there’s a lot here that does – might not always be gold. What is gold, though, is this little tip – jump on any treasure chest in this level 256 times and you’ll be rewarded with a big meat to boost your health. It’s all just glorious, unique in the game, and you’re welcome!

If I ever do a list about gaming music, that level in Castlevania might figure too (though it might have some competition from Symphony of the Night), but what would definitely figure – and probably right at the top of the list – would be Commando on the Commodore 64. And that’s where we heading now in our favourite sights list too! This is a mid-eighties vertically-scrolling run and gun arcade conversion, where your commando (who is more Rambo than Commando) is shooting up the enemy, chucking grenades and freeing hostages. When it first came out, like many kids on many games of the time, I spent most of my time in the first stage. And that didn’t matter, of course! And at the end of that first stage, you’re clearing out a few last soldiers as you reach a huge set of double-gates. As you get close, they spring open and all hell breaks loose as masses of enemy soldiers rush you all at once. You’d start off getting into a good position to spray them down with bullets from the side, then it was a case of just never stop moving, and should one of the enemies come face-to-face with your rifle, take them out! If you’re lucky you won’t get killed by the last guy left – which seemed to be what happened most times – and you’ll run through the gates into stage two. But if you don’t, no worries, because every time you get there you’ll get that same sense of anticipation and exhileration as those gates swing spring apart and all those guys break through!

Before we move on, I’m going to quickly mention the advert for Commando too. Obviously, the advert for Barbarian was the greatest gaming advert of all time ever, closely followed by its sequel. But, for the purpose of this discussion, let’s pretend there’s no adverts featuring Page Three stunner Maria Whittaker wearing a couple of scraps of metal… As dire as that world might be, the Commando advert – complete with what appears to be a hand-painted screenshot – is definitely one my favourite gaming adverts.

I’m not sure I can write many more words about Silent Hill 2 than I did already here! I think it’s the greatest horror game of all time, which I’d also say about its predecessor if this didn’t exist! The original Silent Hill was probably as famous for its fog as its sequel is for Pyramid Head, but this was mostly there to hide graphical limitations of the original PlayStation; it just happened to create an incredible atmosphere while it did it! The second game, on the PlayStation 2, didn’t have those limitations, but it did have fog… the absolute best fog in any game to this day! At the very start of the game, you notice wisps of fog swirling around you, and then you begin your descent, and then the fog starts to envelope you. And when you’re moving down towards the town and slowly become completely surrounded by this brilliant, multi-greyed, almost living and breathing entity, you suddenly realise that you’re really back in Silent Hill. And that’s a wonderful realisation in a wonderful moment!

In 2020, Star Wars: Squadrons came very close to the thrill of flying an X-Wing, but a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, something else came even closer! When you sat down in the sit-down Star Wars arcade cabinet in 1983, you were Luke Skywalker climbing into the cockpit of an X-Wing. And you’d never seen graphics like this before – you were in a 3D colour vector dogfight approaching the Death Star, then you were navigating your way across the surface of the Death Star, and then, in one of the most exhilerating moments you’ll ever come across in the history of gaming, you dropped down into the trench! You’re being shot at from side-mounted cannons and you’re avoiding beams up and down and in the middle, and it all feels wonderfully claustrophobic and so dangerous, until that moment of absolute panic when you need to fire your proton torpedo down the exhaust port. “Great shot kid, that was one in a million” then rings out as the Death Star explodes and you start all over again with the difficulty ramped up. Never before did a few coloured lines spark so much imagination!

We’re closing out our top ten with a game that took the giant leap into filling-in those coloured lines, and not only that, but doing something else you’d never seen the like of in a game before… especially a racing game! I have absolutely no recollection of Hard Drivin’ in any arcade, but it was a huge deal when the conversions hit in 1990, and the undisputed highlight of Christmas that year was the Atari ST version (more on that here)! Even though I’d never played it before, like everyone else that played it, I knew exactly what I was looking out for the very first time I loaded it up. Go up the hill from the start, do a right towards the Stunt course, take the bridge (again and again until you realise the speed limit signs at the side of the road aren’t just there for decoration), one more right, and there it is in all it’s majesty – the legendary loop-the-loop! I still think it’s a technical marvel every time I play it, and I still every time I go around it I still wonder quite how I did it! And there you were thinking I was going to say the cow that moos when you run into it!

As we had an honourable mention in our previous top five, which is now our number six, before I summarise the full top ten I just want to award a replacement honourable mention! I struggled to not include this, but if I had included it, I’d have struggled to decide exactly what I was not going to include, or, indeed, what from this game I would! Before stuff like Halo (RIP) or Uncharted or Tetris or various Marios became system sellers on their respective consoles, a game called Defender of the Crown was exactly that on the Atari ST. I don’t think there was ever a graphical leap between computer or console generations like that one. One minute you’re prodding monochrome ghosts in Scooby Doo on the Spectrum, and the next you’re looking at this jaw-dropping vista with the most realistic medieval castle you’ve ever seen recreated on anything!

I’m also awarding another honourable mention because if the first instalment had one, then surely this one deserves one too? This time we’re talking about the arcade version of Gradius II, known as Vulcan Venture outside of Japan. I’ve dabbled with Gradius and its offshoots (such as Salamander, also known as Life Force) for years, and I’m equally terrible at all of them, but fortunately this sight comes midway through the first level, so even I get to have a gander! This is a 1988 side-scrolling power-up shooter, and you’re quickly dodging these stunning suns that fire-breathing fire serpents occasionally slither out of. Then at one point you’re surrounded by three of these fiery planets and it just looks terrifyingly beautiful. If only I could get past the flaming boss at the end of the level, because who knows what incredible sights lie ahead?

Finally, unless I think of anything else that urgently needs to be included in the next five minutes (like stage one of 3D Fantasy Zone II W, or a mass of ghosts in Gauntlet, or the cemetery in Resident Evil 4, for example), I’m going to further preview what’s potentially already turned into the inevitable top fifteen! It would be be here right now – and in all probability be a lot more than something after the honourable mentions too – except I reckon there’s a better version of it waiting in the arcade game, and that’s the wonderful scene from Stage V of Splatterhouse on PC-Engine with the flying scarecrow pumpkin skeleton thing and it’s bony zombie army. I’ve just never got that far in the arcade game, but there’s a challenge for me one fine day…

In the meantime, let’s just run down our all new top then!

1. The road opening out in the first stage of arcade Out Run
2. The sunset background in level two of arcade P-47
3. Olli & Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle’s second screen on ZX Spectrum
4. The sunset background in level two of PC Engine Victory Run
5. Mega Drive Streets of Rage 2 third stage pirate ship
6. Super Castlevania IV ghost and glitter and gold level (Stage IX)
7. Gates opening at the end of C64 Commando first stage
8. When the fog engulfs you at the start of Silent Hill 2 on PS2
9. Dropping into the trench in Star Wars arcade (sit-down)
10. The loop-the-loop in Atari ST Hard Drivin’

As a final aside, when I was playing Star Wars again recently to get some screenshots, I noticed something that I’ve never noticed before in all these years! After you’ve done you’re business in the trench, check out the Death Star just before it explodes… May the Force be with you!

Discovering 4×4 Offroad Racing on ZX Spectrum

Discovering 4×4 Offroad Racing on ZX Spectrum

Very prominent screenshots from another system were something I became accustomed to when I had a VIC-20, but by the time I’d had a Spectrum +2 for a while I’d get a bit suspicious when what were clearly C64 screenshots were plastered all over the box. In the case of 4×4 Offroad Racing, you can kind of see why they did it though!

That said, back in the November 1988 issue of Computer & Video Games, their 47% review of that version ended with an update, saying that US Gold were unhappy with the C64 release, and the Spectrum and Amstrad versions would contain “vast improvements” when they eventually arrived.

Maybe they spent all their time on vast improvements on the Amstrad version, because let’s be clear, the only reason we’re here is the Spectrum version stinks! Sinclair User gave it 40% and Crash were slightly more impressed, awarding 42%. I think they were both generous to say the least, with their main concerns being loads of loading, and its attempts to mix some racing strategy with arcade racing falling flat and doing neither in any interesting way.

I do have that copy of C&VG, though my own recent history with this was simply coming across a very garish Spectrum screenshot on social media and being intrigued. And here we are! I’m not going to review it, but I would like to give you a commentary of my first (and last) impressions if you’ll allow!

After a decent loading screen, you’re straight into a very uninspiring list of the four “toughest, roughest” course locations and a helpful description of the terrain you can expect in brackets next to it. From what I can tell, that terrain is exactly the same regardless of the description, apart from either one or both colours you get on the screen (you read that right) changing…

1. Baja (Rough Desert). Yellow and red monochrome.
2. Death Valley (Desert). Same as rough desert but yellow and black.
3. Georgia (Mud & Hills). Same as rough desert and desert but green and black.
4. Michigan (Winter). Same as rough desert, desert and mud & hills but white and blue.

And everything in every course is genuinely those same two colours – car, road, background, obstacles, other racers…

After some more loading (and it won’t stop there) it’s time to choose your utility vehicle. There’s several, there’s lots of stats about each, and again, it’s all very uninspiring and won’t make the slightest difference to anything!

You are then a guy that looks like a darts player from the eighties wandering about outside some shops. He’s wearing some strange high-heeled shoes. You can walk into the Custom Shop to buy a bumper and something else I couldn’t work out the identity of. Then you can walk to the Auto Mart to buy extra fuel, springs and stuff like that. All of this is like a bad version of Ghostbusters. Eventually you work out that you then need to walk right to the right edge of the screen (rather than walk to your new car which is parked outside the shops) and press fire to race. This bit looks a bit like a bad Everyone’s a Wally game, and is utterly pointless. Even the next multi-load is more interesting!

Finally we’re at whatever race we chose ages ago. Winter is blue and white and is the only one you’ll have any recollection of choosing. Your car looks like it was programmed in BASIC.

Once you’re underway, you’ll notice there’s no car physics in evidence. Driving feels like moving a slider left and right. Which is precisely what you’re doing and there’s no attempt to disguise it. I think a lot of racing games move the track rather than the car, and this might be a very good example of why that trick exists!

The sound doesn’t help with any potential suspension of disbelief. You’ll find the garish monochrome graphics are perfectly complemented by completely monotone engine sounds regardless of the high or low gear you’re in. Every race is just never-ending drone!

In every course, the main obstacle is the cactus in the middle of the track every few seconds. If you hit the cactus you explode. That’s why you have three lives in a racing game in case you were wondering. You also get potholes or piles of stones or exploding blades of grass or something to avoid (like a rubbish Buggy Boy), and there’s more obstacles on the track than other racers.

There’s a lot of hills and valleys in this game. These are signified by a line on the road then the screen violently shifting, and most of the car disappearing off the top of bottom of the screen.

You also get a lot of rivers – and sometimes something slightly wider than a river – on your courses. Now, I was always impressed reading about the scale of some of the American rivers that the old pioneers used to struggle to cross on their way west, but some of these here are seemingly more ocean than river. Anyway, often when you drive through a river on any level you get stuck, and unless you’re prepared to slowly waggle the joystick left and right and up at the same time for several minutes (assuming there is a shore in sight which isn’t always the case), you’re better off just shutting down and loading the whole game again. Or just playing something else! And I’ve no idea how I worked that out or persevered in doing it once I did during my very short playtime!

The road sometimes forks like Out Run. I’m not sure if it means anything, but it’s a bit of variety I suppose. Similarly, but of more concern in a racing game, is whether or not your race position means anything. It was, admittedly, the last thing on my mind until I noticed it for the first time on the Ghostbusters-like screen you also get when something goes wrong. I’m also not sure what triggers that – your damage indicators are something else that seem meaningless most of the time. Anyway, whatever that most important problem is, now you’re here you can try and fix it (which seems possible by clicking random icons whether you bought the right gear in the Everyone’s a Wally stage or not).

Back to your race position, I didn’t notice it anywhere else, but as I said, like many things in this game I’m not sure it means anything anyway! The courses are so long and monotonous that you’re unlikely to ever get to the end of one, let alone worry about where you came. And all of the opponents are as non-descript and seemingly as uninterested as you are, so what does it matter which one comes first! It’s like those scenes in The Matrix with all the same people fighting each other. Everyone wins or no one wins or no one cares. Actually the only winner here is the cactus. Cacti. Steer clear!

On paper this isn’t a million miles away from Victory Run on PC-Engine. For a system not known for its great racers, this is a great racer. In fact, it’s a toss up between Victory Run and Pac-Land for my favourite game on the system. Anyway, if you like the sound of this and fancy a bit of spare part management in your racing, you’re far better off admiring a garish screenshot of Spectrum 4×4 on social media then going there instead!

Commodore 64 vs ZX Spectrum Power Drift Power Face-Off!

Commodore 64 vs ZX Spectrum Power Drift Power Face-Off!

Power Drift passed me by for a very long time. I remember the arcade game in the late eighties, and thinking it looked like Out Run on a rollercoaster, but don’t think I ever played it, and never got a home version, which at the time would have been the Atari ST one for me. Much like Stunt Car Racer (see here), it’s a bit of a mystery why I didn’t get it because it was right up my alley and I seem to remember it reviewing pretty well. That said, looking at it on the ST more recently, the cars look too big for the tracks and it seems to struggle a bit with some of the more exotic track furniture, so maybe steering clear was a good move. I also remember the PC Engine version being reviewed, and like most things on there, wished I had one of them!

That’s about it until 2016 and the Sega 3D Classic Collection on 3DS, and suddenly realising how much I’d wanted to be able to play Power Drift for all those years without ever knowing it! And it’s the arcade game in your hand, which will never cease to amaze me whether it’s this or R-Type or Elevator Action! That said, in this case I’m still pining for the arcade version of Power Drift at home on a big screen, and hope that one day Sega will do the right thing on the Nintendo Switch so I’ve got the best of both worlds! Just like its predecessors Out Run and Super Hang On, the sprite scaled 3D with loads of parallax scrolling is still a wonder to look at, with all those huge ramps and bombastic environments. And the game still feels great to play, where your car is always just about under control as you fling it around some really fun track designs. But that’s not why we’re here today…

We’re also not here to talk about Fantasy Zone II on that compilation, but I need to give it a mention because I’d never even heard of this gorgeous side-scrolling shooter franchise until then, and it would not only become the game I played more than even Thunder Blade on there, but it would also become a beloved series for me as a result! Since then I’ve obsessed over seeking out every Fantasy Zone game on every system I can get my mitts on, and whilst I may never admit it again, any number of Fantasy Zone variants might top Andes Attack on the VIC-20 as my genre favourite when I get around to thinking about it properly!

Back to Power Drift, after the arcade game was released in 1988 it was ported all over the place the following year to the 8- and 16-bit computers, then the PC Engine and I think the Saturn too. But as was often the case for stuff like this at this time, versions for my old flames the Spectrum and Commodore 64 would be way off my radar for decades to come. Until now!

At this point I need to thank my kindred spirit and favourite YouTube streamer Nick Jenkin for taking me on this particular journey of discovery, as well as several others – on top of the C64 version of Power Drift, which led to the Spectrum version, there’s also Pacmania and Super Monaco GP on the C64, and Komando 2 and Enduro on the Spectrum to name just a couple. I’ve been watching his retro gaming reviews for a few years, but have recently really enjoyed his company several evenings per week in his live streams. Very nice man and very nice community having a very nice time with retro games on a variety of systems, and you should check out his channel here!

Racing games were never really a big part of my original C64 experience (not being a big part of my C64-owning friend Stephen’s C64 experience), but I’ve always loved that version of Buggy Boy. I’ve latterly spent a lot of time playing Super Cycle too. And I’ve played some stinkers, with WEC Le Mans probably being the greatest culprit of all… Play it on the Spectrum instead! And we’ll come back to that later.

My first impression of the C64 version wasn’t that great. And keep in mind that at this point, this is my only experience of an 8-bit version of the game, not Spectrum bias! The road edges looked rough, and when you hit the hills you’ve got a jarring journey up the screen on a straight, flat floating road with no ground on either side, versus the exhilerating gravity rushes of the arcade version. I’m not a fan of the sound either – if I have to make a choice, I want engine sounds in a racing game and not a chiptune. But for all of that, it’s so much fun to play! I had no expectations that this was going to run at any kind of pace at all, but apart from the lacklustre hills, everything flies by in beautifully varied 3D across the different courses. Cornering feels really tight but loose enough at the same time to make you feel like you’re hanging on for dear life in the later tracks. This is a really, really good conversion!

Over on the Spectrum, it starts off looking and feeling very much like its superlative version of WEC Le Mans. With rollercoasters! And no, I know what you’re thinking, but I won’t have a word said about the Spectrum version of Out Run (see more here)! Anyway, it’s by the same guys that did the Le Mans game, and carries over all of its detail and all of its speed (as well as its colour schemes, for better or worse), delivering not only a great-looking version of Power Drift, but a very faithful rendition to play too.

This just feels like a much more ambitious conversion that the Commodore 64 one. The graphics have loads more going on, with all sorts of bumps in the road that you really feel, as well as the arcade-like hills going off in all directions. The 128K version (which is the one you want to avoid multi-load) kind of fixes the lack of sound effects too… Until someone in front of you finishes before you, in which case everything seems to go silent in sympathy! And sometimes it seems to just decide you’re getting music instead of the preferred engine sounds on some tracks too.

Compared to the C64, the Spectrum version is a harder game which feels more tactical and more like you’re in a race. Actually, I’m even tempted to make that comparison with the original arcade version too! It reminds me a lot of Enduro Racer on the Spectrum. And that is high praise indeed!

But now that Spectrum bias is back, right? Just look at all those Spectrum words! Well, maybe they’re compensating for how I’m going to close this. For everything the super-slick Spectrum version does right, and for the really, really crappy hills in the C64 version, the latter is just more fun to play! It absolutely nails the spirit of the arcade version, and doesn’t try to go one better like the Spectrum one.

Which, in conclusion, means that you need to be playing both versions of this for two different, but probably equally engaging versions of the wonderful Power Drift.

My Life With… Stunt Car Racer – Atari ST

My Life With… Stunt Car Racer – Atari ST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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