My Life With… Resident Evil 4 – Nintendo GameCube

My Life With… Resident Evil 4 – Nintendo GameCube

On the 1st August 1996, I was a couple of months into a five year career working for an electronic components distributor in the glamourous town of Leighton Buzzard. As well as being notable for rampant inbreeding (so a bigger boy told me!), it’s also known for the Great Train Robbery and actor Rusty Goffe, who was a Jawa and several other similarly-sized things in a film called Star Wars, though many of us will be more familiar with his work as The Canary Dwarf, Britain’s bounciest weather man, on the sadly defunct Live TV’s Topless Darts. None of that is relevant whatsoever here, except there wasn’t anywhere to buy games in Leighton Buzzard, so I had to call in to Toys R Us in Bedford on the way home to buy Resident Evil, because that was the day it came out here and I needed it immediately!

And there begins my rather disfunctional history with Resident Evil. There was never any question of me getting it the instant it came out – the violence, the realism, the zombies… It was going to be the best game ever! And for quite a long time, I absolutely loved it. Wandering around the best spooky mansion since Scooby Doo, shooting stuff in the face to that epic soundtrack, the first (and still one of the greatest) jump scares in a video game was all fantastic. But there was this ridiculous inventory system, and I kept finding all these items that I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in working out what to do with. Then Wipeout 2097 came out and Destruction Derby 2 and Twisted Metal 2 and WWF in Your House and Legacy of Kain, and then it had no chance of being the best game ever!

That didn’t stop me going through exactly the same process with its sequel a couple of years later though! Or Resident Evil 3: Nemesis in 1999, though in my defence having just played Remake on PS4, I reckon I was most of the way through that one when I ditched it! When I got a GameCube at the end of 2001, more than enough time had passed to justify getting its shiny new remake of the original, as well as Code: Veronica and Zero as a bit more time went by!

I think I just liked the idea of Resident Evil more than actually playing it! And that’s partially behind my decision not to buy Resident Evil 4 the day it came out, or, indeed, for about thirteen years afterwards (when I’d then sit on it for a couple more). For all the hype the game was getting ages before it came out in 2005, to me it just wasn’t Resident Evil – I was interested in zombies, not crazed Spaniards in mud huts. Even if one of them had a chainsaw and a bag on his head! I really was the worst hardcore Resident Evil fan ever! Anyway, I didn’t like how it looked in screenshots either – all that brown was like playing on a Commodore 64 all over again! I just wasn’t interested, no matter what the reviews said, ironically echoing all that best game ever stuff I’d had in my head when I handed over my money for the first game.

Before deciding I was finally going to play through Resident Evil 4 on the GameCube over Christmas 2020, there’s a bit more history to add. I finally played through the remaster (such as it is) of the original on PS4 a couple of years before that, prompted by being lent a copy of Resident Evil 7 and thinking I can’t play the new one without at least a refresh after all those years, particularly after it had been free one month with PlayStation Plus. And lo and behold, this time something was clicking here, no doubt down to the patience that comes with age; or more likely getting less good at just shooting stuff! I finished it then immediately dived into Resident Evil 7, and being decades beyond all about my aforementioned misplaced loyalty to the original games, loved the tense Texas Chainsaw vibe of the first two-thirds before it get a bit more mundane and unnecessarily dragged-out towards the end. Then I went back to my original PS1 disc, this time on the PS3, then the same with the original sequel before playing the absolutely brilliant Resident Evil 2 Remake on PS4 in 2019, followed by the less brilliant but – in my opinion at least – fun all the same Resident Evils 5 and 6 on Nintendo Switch. And through all of this, my impulse (i.e. cheap) eBay pick-up from some time over the last few years, Resident Evil 4, still sat there unloved next to my GameCube; and also next to a to-this-day equally unloved copy of Zelda: Wind Waker, but that will be another story!

In summary, aside from two GameCube games, we’re now caught up in the series to a respectable level at least, having at the time of writing in January 2021 literally just finished the also absolutely brilliant Resident Evil 3 Remake on PS4, so that makes it time to talk about its sequel! And would you believe that for all the years of first having an aversion to it, then having complete indifference to it, Resident Evil 4 has now had a remarkable impact on me and my long history in gaming.

We could go all the way back to way before the start of our tale here when the first one came out, and if you’d asked me what my favourite games were, without any hesitation whatsoever I’d have said Feud on the Spectrum, Kick Off on Atari ST and Renegade, also on the Spectrum and not that arcade version with its weird controls. And whilst my favourite games list has got much bigger, after all these years the bit at the top has never changed… And then we get to about halfway through Resident Evil 4, and this voice in my mind-brain starts telling me that this 15-year old imposter might actually be my favourite game ever, however outrageous that was sounding and however much I genuinely didn’t want to hear it! I mean, Silent Hill 2 (more here) entering the top ten not that long ago was bad enough – poor old Elevator Action – but now we’re talking about complete disruption to a load more things that have been not only been even more deeply pondered over, but have also been even more utterly sacred for so long…

It ended up at number three; nothing will ever top Feud and Kick Off! What’s even more shocking, though, is that it ended up there after such strained beginnings! By the time we got here, right at the end of 2020, having been through all those Resident Evils and developed a proper affection for what the series actually is – even if affection was all it was – I really wanted to get stuck into this. I duly inserted tiny little GameCube Disc 1 (which thankfully has you covered until the final chapter), pressed start and got into the opening Umbrella and its misdemeanours in 1998 recap; jump to six years later and returning hero Leon Kennedy is in “rural Europe” looking for the American President’s missing daughter, who was kidnapped by a strange cult just before he started an assignment to protect her. Someone’s spotted someone that looks like her, so here we are in the back of a police car with two distinctly Mexican-sounding local police escorts, on your way to your start point at a distinctly medieval-looking village, in the middle of nowhere in what is obviously meant to be Spain!

A couple more cutscenes later and we’re on our way, in what was a revolutionary over-the-shoulder viewpoint that would completely re-write action-adventure gaming… Except now, after all those re-writes you’ve been playing for the last fifteen years, the controls absolutely stink! And that’s before you’ve drawn your gun or pulled out your knife. Oh dear! Okay, we’ve come this far down this very atospheric dirt track in the woods and that looks like a house in the distance, so we’ll have a look. Now, this being a Resident Evil game, you’re obviously not going to use any gun ever given the choice because you have to save up all of your ammo for the final credits, so this first guy you’ve got to kill because you’re now in his house is going to have to get stabbed up. Shoulder button, knife out, slash, try and slash in the right direction, and what the hell is going on with this direction button??? Now we’re dead. Restart the game!

A couple more deaths later and you’ll have resorted to your gun; it’s twitchy as hell, the sight is moving wildly all over the screen in the opposite direction to where you want it, and you’ll be lucky to shoot this guy anywhere, let alone in the head where you know he wants it! He’s dead, so time to search the house then jump out of an upstairs window to go through the same process with two more guys (at once if you’re not quick enough). A couple more restarts later and you know where the items near them are, so decide to grab them then do a runner instead of fighting, right down to a save point in a shed! At this point I decided not to save but keep practicing my knife skills instead, but they didn’t get any better, so we save and move on down towards the village that had turned me off in all those screenshots, occasionally stopping to shoot one of the loads more enemies hanging around the trail if you have time to line up a shot because their back is turned, but otherwise just running, stopping only to try and smash open item boxes in more sheds with that stupid knife, then get out before one of them comes in and corners you!

Big gate ahead signifies a checkpoint and we’re in the village and there’s tons of angry villagers with a dead look in their eyes, and you know perfectly well that for all the creeping around you do at the start, you’re in for the most hellish fight you’ve ever been in – just because of these awful controls! Eventually you’re trapped in a house, and it goes all Night of the Living Dead with you trying to block up windows while you try and shoot and stab (good luck!) your way to some kind of safety upstairs, where they’re also now coming in through the windows on ladders! Somehow you get by and get out of one of them, and just start running frantically – at least you’re getting used to how that works now, even if you can’t shoot anything! And then the guy with the chainsaw and the bag on his head appears with a load more psycho-villages, and you can keep running but you can’t hide and eventually – more checkpoint restarts later – you concede that you’re going to have to get some tactics down for a scrap, but at least by now you’re starting to get used to shooting stuff, and eventually you’re starting to appreciate the incredible tension of being stuck in that house with loads of stuff coming through windows, or coming up against Dr Salvadore, the chainsaw guy, because now you’ve got a chance.

A couple of hours later, with the village sections behind you, the archaic controls are going to feel the most natural and pretty much perfect you could ever wish for, even by today’s standards! You’re going to be combining quick leg shots with knives and kicks, jumping between pistols, shotguns, sniper rifles and grenades, dodging and spinning and knowing what’s going to work for cover or just slowing things down, and then you can relax a bit and start marvelling at how everything looks because it turns out it’s not all about brown!

So far I’ve liked the initial creepy but too short woodland stroll, and the wooden-hutted village and farm bits actually turned out to be pretty cool as you run around them, with tons of detail giving a real sense of oppression and a surprising amount of claustrophobia, like that you might experience being stuck in a big city rather than rural Spain. You’ll eventually emerge into a valley, absolutely riddled with wooden platforms, rope bridges and all kinds of huts and a swarm of different enemies, and this is where you really first notice both the scale of the game and also its incredible visual quality. It’s also worth noting that we’re talking visual quality on a GameCube on a modern TV, so when it came out I can only imagine how impressive what they were getting out of that little purple box must have been! What really got me though, not long after this, was going up an even creepier wooded path then emerging into a big graveyard with a church towering over it on the hill in the distance. At this point I actually stopped playing the game, turned off the lights, and started taking photos of the TV, adjusting Leon until I got the shot of the scene over his shoulder that I wanted, and with the benefit of hindsight and far more thought than you should give something so trivial, can say it’s one of my favourite sights in any game ever!

After a bit more killing (zombie wolves not dogs for a change!) and a bit of classic Resident Evil item collection and puzzle-solving, it’s around here that we’re going to find Ashley, the President’s daughter, and oh no, next disappointment, she’s coming with us and it’s not only going to be dreadful escort missions, but she’s a 20-year old American girl that acts like a 15-year old American girl! Actually, neither turns out to be so bad, and for a mostly non-playable character from 2005, she even displays a modicum of intelligence and tactical nouse in combat! Anyway, I was going to say, this is probably a good point to expand on the plot, because it’s now clear that there’s more to all of this than just finding your newly un-kidnapped sidekick!

This mysterious cult that kidnapped her is called Los Illuminados, and it turns out that all these villagers that keep attacking you have not only renounced farming to pledge their lives to it, but have also become infected by a parasite called Las Plagas that’s taken over their minds! On your travels so far, you’ll have been captured and infected by it too, and while captive you meet Luis Sera, an investigator who was researching the cult; once you both escape he’ll become useful for filling you in on the plot throughout the game! And then we find Ashley, who it turns out was also injected with the parasite, and the cult leader’s plan is for her to take it home to inject her father with it, which will in turn allow him to take over the world. Once you’ve found her, you’ll end up in freaky man-child Ramon Salazar’s castle, get separated then have to start searching for her all over again. In the lead-up to fighting mutated Salazar, you’ll meet saucy blast from the Resident Evil 2 past Ada Wong who’ll both help and hinder you as you go on.

Next you’ll go to an island research facility to find Ashley, and someone else from Leon’s spec-ops past, Jack Krauser, appears as the mercenary that kidnapped Ashley. Now we learn that both he and Ada Wong are working for star (also STAR) of original Resident Evil Albert Wesker, now a born-again nutcase who also wants a piece of the Las Plagas action. After dispatching him you’ll find Ashley again, discover a big machine that can cure the pair of you, then have a showdown with the also-mutated big bad cult leader, assisted by Ada Wong and her inevitable Resident Evil final boss rocket launcher! As a final twist in the tail, Ada’s going to do a runner with Leon’s parasite sample, and all that’s left to do it escape the island on a jet-ski before it explodes!

The parasite enemies versus zombie enemies of previous Resident Evils do change things up quite a lot, where they’re quicker and have some intelligence about them, though shooting them in the head still works fine – especially when it’s from miles away with a fully-upgraded scope on your rifle! It’s not just zombie cult farmers, tooled-up chanting monks, very well-armed (and sometimes shielded) soldiers, walking suits of armour, chainsaw bag-head guys and the like you’ll be shooting up though. There’s different, much tougher (and far more sinister) versions of them that wouldn’t look out of place in Silent Hill; there’s various parasites, flying bugs and those undead wolves; there’s lumbering giants that act as regular mini-bosses and Iron Maidens with extending spikes on the outside; and there’s the regenerator – no doubt one of the most feared monsters in gaming history, relentlessly moving towards you, with multiple parasites regenerating body parts, each requiring individual attention from your rifle (or just shutting a door on them)!

That’s regular enemies, but you’ll come across a wonderful menagerie of bosses too. I’m not that keen on boss fights, but I think I only really struggled with Salazar when he turns into a humungous zombie flower and you need a bit more precision at speed than I’m capable of any more! It only took a few goes though. The rest are wildly varied, from a set-piece filled epic with superman Krauser to more regular shooting all the pulsating sacs filled with ooze Lovecraft-style monsters. The final boss – cult leader Osmund Saddler now mutated into a huge four-legged oozing thing – is a lot of fun, and when that rocket launcher is thrown into the mix there’s a great feeling as you realise you’ve just about done him in, but my favourite boss I think was the very first one. This was a lake monster, brought back to life by Saddler to stop anyone crossing it, and you’re hunting it down in a tiny fishing boat that is being dragged around by this giant whale thing after it got caught up in the anchor. And it’s from this vantage point that you’re trying to harpoon it, while steering and trying to avoid being capsized, which results in a frantic swim! Once its done for, it’s not over though because you’re still attached and now being dragged to the bottom. Thank goodness for quick-time events – one of many you’ll experience throughout the game, but I don’t remember this one being quite as punishing as others that may assume far more familiarity with a GameCube controller than you may have so long after the fact!

The aftermath of this fight sees you end up in a cabin on the other side of the lake, and another visually stunning moment as you look out of the window into the rain. This was another favourite moment for me, and that went straight into another! As you go outside and peer across the murk of the lake, you can just make out some blue flames, which you’ll now be starting to recognise as the welcoming signal of the Merchant having set up shop there. As fantastic as this guy is, you don’t want to be thinking too much about him and his various impossibilities though, like why he’s not dead, how he travels in the blink of an eye, who else he’s selling to and various other stock management issues – just enjoy this constantly out-of-place walking weapons shop with his wares hidden inside his long black coat or in his backpack, or in some of the more permanent establishments he frequents around the game, like this one! You’ll be buying new weapons and upgrades using coins you’ve found or by selling him treasures or stuff you don’t want. At certain locations he’ll also have an optional shooting gallery on the go, and he’s usually near a save point too!

Recalling all these things I enjoyed one after the other is testament to the game’s pacing throughout the 25 or so hours it took me to complete it. From the very start, it’s relentlessly pushing you forwards, whether to progress the story or to progress your ability to progress the story. You’re rarely going to be wondering where to go next or trying to fathom obscure puzzles involving myriad items and all the related back and forth Resident Evils before this loved to throw at you so much. There’s a bit of backtracking and a bit of puzzle-solving, but I’m struggling to remember anything that bothered me whatsoever, and on the whole you’re on your way from one set of set-pieces in one area to another set in the next, interspersed by different levels of adrenaline rush. This might be from something as simple and frequent as taking down a regular enemy with some style, getting through an onslaught of firey catapults, completing one of the frantic on-rails sections, or finding yourself face to face with Dr Salvadore and his chainsaw in a minecart, but the biggest rush for me came from just turning around and looking back at one particular room…

In Chapter 4 (of 5, each split into 3-4 areas plus one final chapter), you’re after a lion ornament to go into something else and open up a new part of the castle – all classic Resident Evil! You go through a door in from a very steampunk area to be faced by a cavernous room full of maze-like stone stairways and walkways across a sea of volcanic lava spraying all over the place. There’s also a load of dragon statues ready to spit flaming death all over you too, manned by monks in skeleton masks that you’ll need to snipe while taking on a load of their mates out to get you as you make your way across various platforms and obstacles. This took me a few goes, but once you’ve got the lie of the land you do fine, and the pay-off when you pick up the ornament and head back is incredible! You’re faced with this incredible, impossible set of structures across this vast flaming pit, smoke and fire everywhere, and you just think did I really just do that? Absolutely stunning. Again! When you combine so much fun from so much variety with that pacing we talked about, you’re getting close to perfect gameplay, but surely there’s a catch?

It wouldn’t be a Resident Evil game without some inventory management, so you’re going to spend a fair amount of time playing Tetris in your attaché case and making painful decisions about what to store or just abandon. As usual, it’s expandable as you make your way through the game, and key items and treasure are kept separately so they’re not taking up slots. And as usual, you can combine some health items, ammo and bits of weapons. I think there was one instance where there was a rocket launcher that just wasn’t going to fit, but otherwise there was usually space for all that handgun ammo I didn’t actually need!

We’ve not talked about how things sound yet, and as you’d expect from a game in this series (and genre in general) there’s some very ham-fisted dialogue delivered in typically unique ways! Actually, the voice acting isn’t bad – it’s certainly no Silent Hill 2 – and the script is mostly fine, even offering up a couple of genuinely funny lines, but it definitely gets cringeworthy at times, and I’m sure that in any remake that might come along in the future, Luis won’t be talking about her dad equipping Ashley’s with ballistics! And probably no close ups of his crotch when he says he’s got something for you guys either… You are going to get a lot of abuse coming your way in Spanish too, which is probably more effective if you don’t know Spanish (which I assume Leon doesn’t which is why it’s never translated), but it is proper good abuse!

The soundtrack is responsible for so much of the horror you’re going to experience throughout the game’s duration. It moves seamlessly from disturbing localised ambience to pulsating primitive rhythms, and from minimal almost industrial pieces to climactic gothic orchestrations. There’s thankfully a couple of tracks that wouldn’t be out of place in an eighties action movie like Cobra or Bloodsport too! Sound effects layer on even more disturbing ambience – love those killer monk chants! – and it really sounds like they’ve gone the extra mile with things like gunshots, where each distinct sound is going to include the chink of spent cartridges and the sounds of a reload as well.

I’ve talked about how impressive it still looks even being pumped out of a GameCube onto a modern TV. I know I have the benefit of being a complete luddite when it comes to things like resolution and frame rate though, where the upscaled PS4 version doesn’t look all that different to me, although that said I’m not certain it actually is! Some of the locations like the swamp, any of the woods, the church and a lot of the castle are pure Hammer Horror though, which might be a good analogy for how it looks – Plague of the Zombies (best film ever created!) looks like it was made when it was, but it still looks great! The polish might have tarnished a little with the years, but the creativity and artistry on the locales and their inhabitants (especially some of the nastier-looking bosses) haven’t one bit, with all the character models looking and moving great through brilliantly lit environments (especially when night comes). Details like the heat haze in that lava room, or just smoke rising or rain falling would also still impress today, bouncing realistically off of different surfaces, and those effects when you pop something’s head off are still second to none!

What else to say? Well, it’s oven got its own zombie dogs through the window moment! Like what I did there? Otherwise, looks great, sounds great and eventually plays great; is full of atmosphere, full of horror and full of variety; and the gameplay is just outstanding. And that’s even in 2021 as I write this, having now played the GameCube version twice and the Wii version once in the first three weeks of the year! I have to say that on one hand I expected a bit more of the Wii version, having heard many lauding its motion controls and it being the ultimate way to play, but I wasn’t that fussed. On the other hand, it cost me £1.10 on eBay so I can’t complain!!!

Now that it’s firmly entrenched in my top three games of all time, shockingly relegating the definitive version of Renegade to number four after all those years sitting pretty there, do I regret not playing it until now? If it wasn’t for those pesky screenshots, I’d have probably bought Resident Evil 4 back in 2005, day one, just like all its predecessors! But just like them, I’d have probably played it for a bit before being distracted by God of War, Call of Duty 2 and Star Wars Battlefront 2… What a meathead! But for me at the end of 2020, it was perfect! And now that remake would be pretty perfect too…

Discovering Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti on NES

Discovering Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti on NES

As much as I’ve enjoyed dabbling with the series for years, I’d never actually made a serious attempt at any version of Splatterhouse until my PC-Engine Mini came along in June 2020. It was the very first game I fired-up on there, and to date is the only thing I’ve finished on there, though Fantasy Zone has certainly taken more of a beating! Anyway, PC-Engine Splatterhouse is a fantastic version that looks and feels perfectly at home there. Marvellous game!

It took me a few months of chipping away to get to the end, after which I planned an assault on the original arcade game, then the Mega Drive versions of II and III. And all along, I wasn’t even aware of anything of the sort on NES! Actually, it took a podcast I was listening to mentioning a “troubling” hooded figure in the NES game to make me pay attention and look it up. Now, I’m not the person to find anything offensive, but I can only imagine that the source of their offence was the innocent Satanist boss character who was something mistaken for something more racist…

Back to Splatterhouse, it’s an arcade beat ‘em up from Namco in 1988 that’s wonderfully heavy on the gore. It follows a couple (named as Rick and Jennifer in the later home versions) who get split up in a haunted mansion, where she gets possessed by monsters and he gets possessed by a Jason Vorhees mask. Then he goes on a side-scrolling squelchy, bloody rampage to save her. Which doesn’t really sound like your typical NES-fodder, so enter Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti, a very weird, cutely deformed Japan-only take on the arcade game that arrived on NES in 1989. Welcome to Devil Town…

The clues are there that this is probably a prequel, though it’s not hugely clear and not hugely important! Jennifer is mourning the death of Rick at his grave, he gets resurrected Vorhees-style (complete with mask, but not sure why this time) by a bolt of lighting, and all is well until The Great Pumpkin King – who happens to be buried in the grave next to him – gets sparked back into life by a second bolt of lighting and kidnaps her! A scrap across seven stage ensues, and if you manage to take him out at the end you’ll be informed by the game’s director that this would make a great movie. And then Rick takes off the mask and it comes to life through spooky powers, no doubt for future adventures.

Where Splatterhouse-proper is just a very simple, violent plod from left to right, there’s a bit more platforming involved in the chopping heads up with your axe here. But there’s not a lot more to the gameplay than that – it’s certainly fun, but it’s no Mario and it’s not really Splatterhouse either. Actually, it reminded me a lot of Kid Dracula, and what that is to Castlevania – a cartoon parody that still manages to cram in a bit of horror behind the laughs.

I must admit I was hoping for a bit more to the laughs as well, but that was entirely down to the game setting some high expectations early on! The first level is in a graveyard (and a very fine one at that, like a more populated version of the C64 Ghosts ‘n Goblins one), and towards the end you’ll come across Dracula emerging from under the ground to what sounds like Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Then four green gooey zombie monsters appear, the disco lights start, and they do an extended Thriller routine. And it’s really good! There are a good few fun bits that follow, with the black mass and the Alien scene standing out for me, but they never really reach those heights.

Something else that never reaches any great heights are the boss fights, which is absolutely fine by me! They are all perfectly pitched, where it’s going to take you a few goes to get to work them out, but once you’ve spotted the pattern you won’t be taking any damage – much like the in some of mainline Splatterhouse games, which aside from the violence and gore is a definite attraction to no-like-boss me. Speaking of damage, it’s handled in a interesting, almost RPG-like way, where every enemy you kill is racking up points for you. Get to fifty points and it’s permanently adding some health to your bar. However, if you die and use the between-stage password to carry on from where you left off, you’ll be starting with your basic health again which makes the game a lot harder, but again, it’s still very beatable, which is great!

There’s no doubt that the deformed art style is one of the main pulls here. It might be cute, but it still manages to pull off the monstrous, albeit usually in a very unrealistic Nintendo way. But the various environs are as creepy (and sometimes just plain dark) as you like, and they often look stunning – sometimes as good as it gets on the NES, with some really rich, vibrant colour palettes that are as full of character as the characters! There’s a semi-hidden Egyptian level that has the best large-scale use of gold colours you’ll ever see on a NES too! You’ve got some really cool monster design throughout, paying homage to the arcade game, but also referencing horror film and pop-culture all over the place – The Fly boss was another favourite! And everything animates so smoothly, with some very nice multi-layered scrolling for the time. It’s a looker without any doubt! Sounds alright too – the spot effects aren’t groundbreaking, but the chip tunes are perfectly positioned, and as multi-layered as the scrolling!

After getting a little down on the gameplay, talking about all of that has really brought home why I wanted to talk about the game in the first place! If you want a great platformer, there’s loads to choose from on NES. If you want over-the-top arcade horror, you’ve got the original Splatterhouse and it’s various sequels and remakes. But if you want the cutest upside-down cross you’ll ever see, you’ve got the Wanpaku Graffiti variant on NES!

My Life With… Submarine Commander – Commodore VIC-20

My Life With… Submarine Commander – Commodore VIC-20

As I start writing this at the end of 2020, on a third consective day of freezing temperatures and an inpenetrable fog that Silent Hill would be proud of, I’m thinking about my favourite games of the year. Actually, my favourite game of this year is easy; it’s the supporting cast that needs a bit more thought!

Anyway, In Other Waters on Nintendo Switch hasn’t been in any doubt as not only my game of 2020, but one of my top 25 games of all time since I first played it in around June of this year. You play an artifical intelligence guiding a xenobiologist through an underwater alien landscape, discovering its impossible lifeforms, its secrets, its history, and ultimately yours too. Everything centres around its beautifully refined and descriptive user interface, which almost immediately becomes second nature, and drives the wonderful story, as well as your imagination. It’s intuitive, claustrophobic, tense and – despite its visual simplicity – stunningly atmospheric.

And from the minute I started playing In Other Waters, it drew my mind back to a very similar experience I had many, many years ago on the Commodore VIC-20 that could be described using pretty much exactly the same terms… This was everything I loved about Submarine Commander all over again!

By the time Boxing Day 1984 had passed, the mighty 16K RAM expansion I’d been giving for Christmas the day before had passed its first test in The Perils of Willy (more here), and I was seeking out new possibilities that I’d spent the past year disappointedly skipping over on the shelves of Woolworths, Boots and WHSmith when I was unexpanded. Of course, in those days none of them would be open until the following day, so whatever money you might have been given for Christmas was now really burning a hole in your pocket. Actually, even worse was that same 48-hour hold-up when you’d got something that needed exchanging… I still remember the agonising wait the following year when I’d been given a really cool pop-up book on Halley’s Comet (just as it was poised to become a phenomena in 1986), but the working pop-up telescope had a tear in it which obviously ruined everything!

Anyway, back on Friday the 27th December 1984 and I like to think that once David Icke and Frank Bough had finished doing their thing on Breakfast Time, I watched Charlie Brown then by the time Inch High Private Eye had been and gone I was just about ready to leave for the shops before the dreadful Lassie started at 9.50am. And that’s where I made a beeline to Submarine Commander in the VIC-20 section in Boots, because to 12-year old me there was no greater use of 16K of RAM than piloting a World War II submarine, and having spent months staring longingly at this box more than any other on display, there was absolutely no hesitation that this was where my Christmas money was finally going!

Submarine Commander was originally developed right back in the dark ages of 1982 for Atari 8-bit, then appeared on the VIC-20 the following year. Publisher Thorn EMI went heavy on the advertising, with an equally heavy message that like their Jumbo Jet Pilot, this was more real-life simulator than game… “They’re designed for players who expect more of a challenge from a video game than creatures from outer-space can provide.” That’s all fine, but the advert itself still mystifies me, with its very serious and a little bit sterile almost double page spanning submariner artwork and three tiny screenshots on one side, where in reality in 1983 and for the next two years at least, those screenshots sold the game to anyone that was likely to buy it by themselves!

Which is why there being no screenshots on the box was also a mystery, especially when it referred to the nerve tingling action being spread over 3 screens. The front cover and wordy reverse was clearly enough to suck me in though, and seeing “FOR VIC-20 + 16K” at the top was always an indication that there was something special going on here! It also tells us that as the commander of a Mediterranean-based submiarine, your job is to sink as much enemy shipping as possible. Then you’ve got the killer sell, where it brilliantly encapsulates the action from every great black and white submarine film you’d see on TV on weekend afternoons at the time, like Run Silent, Run Deep or We Dive At Dawn… “Using your skills and cunning you must identify the enemy shipping, close in undetected using sonar, take aim through your periscope, fire your torpedoes and get out fast. You will have to evade the shadowing warships which are armed with depth charges. This is a highly addictive game of skill and strategy and your aim is to sink enemy shipping without being sunk yourself.” 

That bit about depth charges sinking you is so powerful, because this was always the most tense part of those war movies, where the crew would all be stood in complete, terrified silence, dripping sweat and probably smoking Marlborough Reds in this suddenly fragile, claustrophobic metal tube as all hell rained down on them from the surface, with these vast underwater explosions waiting to tear them apart if the barrels fell close enough. And what wonderful shots of that you’d get from outside of the submarine too, with all the special effects they could muster in the Forties and Fifties still having precisely the desired effect all those decades later. Of course, this would all end up with a a bit of ominous creaking and a few pipes bursting before the ships passed by and they could carry on about their business, but the tension in those moments was always heart-in-mouth as you watched, and screenshots or not, those words combined with the imagination of a 12-year old that loved his war films worked brilliantly to convey exactly what you were in for… And just in case, it did say it had “amazing sound and graphics” on the box too!

Once you’ve loaded the game up, you’re presented with one of the most unassuming title screens in the history of gaming, but that means there’s no messing about – choose your skill level, press F3 and you’re instantly dumped somewhere in the Mediterranean, signfied by a flashing dot on your wonderfully detailed map, surrounded by all your instruments and readings and everything you need to start hunting down the enemy. The identity of the enemy isn’t really specified, but – just picking one of the instruments at random – battery charge is represented by a C for charge, which it wouldn’t be in German, so therefore we’ll assume you’re not in charge of a U-boat.

The instrument panel is brilliantly dynamic. On the left side of the screen you’ve got your attitude, dictating depth and direction on the compass below through your keyboard or joystick inputs, then there’s a mission clock, torpedo supply, fuel supply and battery charge. Your speed is controlled by the number keys, and you’re getting that here in knots. On the right side, you’ve got the all-important depth guage, and under that the hydrophone chart, which shows ships as peaks that you use together with the sonar screen to line-up your prey when you get close, and once you’ve taken them out you’ve also got a reading of tonnage sunk that contributes to your post-mission assessment. Then there’s the chart showing depth below the keel, which is my favourite bit of the whole game – it’s showing the bottom relative to your ship, which opens up a whole new dimension to exploring and seeing how deep you can go in different parts of the ocean; it’s also the source of utter panic when you’re manouevering a bit too close to shore! Next, you’ve got your damage indicators for the hull, instruments and engines, and there’s a nice risk-reward element here of chancing carrying on or finding somewhere to surface to get repairs done. Of course, a particularly serious screen-shaking battering from depth charges, or grounding yourself is going to end up in the hull cracking and finding yourself in a watery grave!

Being underwater or on the surface is always on your mind – you’ll be faster on the surface, but if you get caught short by the big guns escorting a convoy you’re going to be crash diving as deep and as silent as possible while those depth charges drop all around you. This is a lovely example of the amazing attention to detail you’re getting in this VIC-20 game from 1983 – if you do end up within visual range of a convoy, you’ll get a bell (kind of!) to warn you to take action. Underwater gives you an advantage, but you do need to keep an eye on air and batteries, and as another great piece of attention to detail, if you switch to your sonar (or fire a torpedo) they’re going to clock that distinctive ping regardless!

Once you’ve worked out where you are at the start of the game, you’ll be looking for shipping movements on your map, and once you’ve swung your sub around in the right direction you’ll be scooting off across the surface. As you approach, you’ll want to dive and switch the main screen from map to sonar, which, together with your hydrophone chart, is going to get you close and pointing your torpedoes at the enemy. Get up to around 25 feet and your periscope is going to come into play so you can accurately line up the enemy and fire your torpedoes; this is where the thrill-ride happens, and you’ll be identifying and prioritising tankers, destroyers and patrol boats across the sea, as occasional clouds pass by in the sky, somehow adding to the sense of space and your vulnerability as the ultimately fragile hunter in this vast open expanse of water. Line everything up right and you’ll see your torpedo trail heading ominously across the surface until it impacts with your target, which will sink it with a bit of luck, though it might take a few direct hits at higher skill levels. What a great feeling, together with a sense of relief, when that happens! Or you might just miss and see one of your precious torpedoes float harmlessly by the now fully alerted enemy! 

This game of cat and mouse goes on until you’ve sunk all the enemy convoys at play across the entire map, and is going to take you a good thirty minutes to an hour at higher levels – again, pretty cool for a 1983 VIC-20 game! But that’s if you haven’t used up all your oxygen or fuel or battery in the meantime, and that you havent been taken out by depth charges or run yourself aground because in the heat of the battle you forgot to reduce your speed as you turned into the channel between Italy and Sicily, and out of nowhere the bottom appeared on your chart and you couldn’t blow your ballast tanks in time to do anything about it!

We started by talking about 2020 masterpiece In Other Waters… Intuitive, claustrophobic, tense and – despite its visual simplicity – stunningly atmospheric. And that’s Submarine Commander too. There’s so much going on, so much to think about, and that’s before you’re presented with this 3D sea-scape where a ship appears on the horizon and you don’t know what it is yet, but as you get closer you realise it’s the high-tonnage prize of a tanker, but hang on, there’s a destroyer right behind it, but you only noticed it after that first torpedo slammed into its escort and now you’re in for a scrap, but first you need to kill your speed and dive, dive, dive!

In the great pantheon of VIC-20 games, for me Submarine Commander sits only behind The Perils of Willy, Andes Attack and Jetpac. But that said, if we’re scoring complexity of game, it beats everything else on the system outright. And the same for atmosphere. And – maybe apart from Jetpac (more here) – how it stands up as a gaming experience in 2021 (which somehow happened in the process of writing this!) too. And I reckon I knew all of that when I had to give up my VIC-20 and all of my games to fund my Spectrum, but somehow this – together with Jump Jet (more here) managed to escape the box of booty we sold!

Game Review: Wonderful Dizzy – ZX Spectrum

Game Review: Wonderful Dizzy – ZX Spectrum

When Dizzy arrived on the ZX Spectrum and Amstrad in 1987, there was no absolutely no reason not to buy it! The screenshots looked great, it was reviewing well, it was by the incredible BMX (and other) Simulator people Codemasters, and it only cost £1.99! The little egg felt great to control too, with his unique somersault jump a joy as you made your way around his puzzle-platform adventure. Before long though, the novelty wore off for me, and it became the founding member of an exclusive little club that would later also welcome Silent Hill and the first two Resident Evils, that it would take me decades to actually get, then finally really, really appreciate! Of course, on the surface you may wonder what this cartoon egg on the Spectrum has with these heavyweights of original PlayStation survival horror, but the secret to success in all of them is finding stuff and doing something with it; you won’t get far just jumping about or shooting dead things in the face. And for for me at any point up to my mid-forties, the latter is where I found most of my enjoyment in games!

Several decades later, this left me with all kinds of catching up to do (now mostly done!), and there we were at the end of 2020 when no fewer than two new official Dizzy games appeared! A very quick note on the first, a new version of 1989’s Pac-a-like, Fast Food Dizzy, which at that time was the third Dizzy game, but was actually called Fast Food rather than Fast Food Dizzy! Anyway, the new one is definitely called Fast Food Dizzy, and was released on the Nintendo Switch to showcase the FUZE games coding tool, where it’s not only free but the code is also fully editable. And if that’s not your bag, you can also buy it as part of the FUZE Player, which comes at a crazy price that makes the original Dizzy look expensive, together with no less than nineteen other FUZE-developed games and more to download for free! It plays like a very good Pac-Man clone with a few ideas of its own across its ten levels, it’s very polished, and is a lot of fun too!

A month later, a few days before Christmas, the second new Dizzy game arrived – Wonderful Dizzy. Now, this one’s been hanging around for a while and I think was originally supposed to be released as a Kickstarter stretch goal for the Spectrum Next in 2018, but that ended up being the collaborative effort and also wonderful Crystal Kingdom Dizzy. Wonderful Dizzy never went away though, and finishing it became a labour of love for original Dizzy developers (and gaming legends) The Oliver Twins, who not only eventually went on to fully design it themselves then get it made by their Crystal Kingdom friends, but also decided to  give it away free on their website, where you can either download the 128K Spectrum file and play it one way or another, or just take option two and play it right there in your browser!

Wonderful Dizzy is based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the children’s book by L Frank Baum that was interpreted as a reasonable movie if you’re under ten years old called The Wizard of Oz in 1939, then various other dreadful things since. And having said that, I look forward to the wrath of Johnny Depp’s Twitter defence league – I kid you not, go on there and post something derogatory about his even more dreadful Sweeney Todd and see what happens!!! Anyway, in Wonderful Dizzy, you’re the kind of Dorothy but in egg form, and as a fierce wind approaches, you and your pet Fluffle, Pogie, take cover in your house, but that gets torn out of the ground, chucked around in the wind then lands on the Wicked Witch of the East, one of four witches that rule the magical land of Oz where you’ve ended up. The West one isn’t happy and runs off with Pogie, so you need to rescue it and find a way home. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz can probably help with that, and you’re going to be platforming and puzzling your way around Oz and his Emerald City, coming across familiar scarecrows, lions and tin men on the way – all in egg-form, of course!

This translates to classic Dizzy – discovering the map, finding clues, finding the items that relate to those clues, and gradually unravelling the story through all the other characters you meet. Even for someone like me that used to shun the merest hint of a puzzle, none of these are especially taxing – think Resident Evil 3 more than Monkey Island! The biggest puzzle is probably remembering where you might have seen something that you’ve just been told about, or then working out how to juggle your three-item inventory, meaning leaving stuff you’ve found already all over the place and remembering that too! As well as finding and using the items that progress the story, you’re going to be collecting coins too, and these are going to become important… So important that later on, you might spend nearly as long finding the one you’ve missed as playing through the rest of the game!!!

Unlike some (or maybe all?) of the earlier Dizzy games, the map is three-dimensional, so you’re not only going left and right, but into and out of the screen too. From your starting point in Munchkin Village, you’ve got the Red Brick Road to the left that’s going to lead to five – about half – of the areas in the game, then its better known Yellow sibling leads to the rest in the other direction. Actually, your very first puzzles are going to be finding stuff around Munchkin Village and using them to open the gates to the two roads. As well as Emerald City, you’re going to be exploring various castles and palaces, woods and fields, caves and harbours and various other buildings and structures. These are all multi-screen affairs, with a surprising amount of verticality in a lot of them too that is going to test your platforming skills. Dizzy himself controls better than ever, and for all that extended somersaulting animation every time you jump, you’re going to feel a surprising amount of precision to everything. Screw up a jump and fall too far and you’ll eventually end up a bit Humpty Dumpty though! There’s also a few enemies out to do you damage too, but you’ve got three lives, and fruit to replenish your health is relatively abundant (until you’re near the end and you’ve used it all up); it’s all just about the right level of challenge.

Speaking of better than ever, I can’t not talk about how Wonderful Dizzy looks for any longer! Off the top of my head, if we’re talking best-looking games on the Spectrum, you’ve got Trap Door, Exolon, R-Type, maybe Head Over Heels, definitely either of the first two screens in Olli & Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle… And now we have to add Wonderful Dizzy to that list – it really is that good, to the point that when I first saw it, I assumed it was actually a Spectrum Next game, but no, it’s proper unsullied 128K Spectrum. It even embraces the colour clash, which is one of many knowing nods to old-school gaming you’ll come across! The amount of detail in every aspect of every screen is incredible, as is the way Dizzy moves around the world – not only in his animation, but also the way he physically belongs in it, and I really don’t want to be specific here because these deserve to be noticed fresh!

Sound effects are typically functional for the Spectrum, but I like the way they’re sparsely used, usually alerting you to something. There’s also a nice subtle sound when you jump, which I like a lot more than the continuous classic Spectrum footsteps you got in the original game! The looping music sounds great without being anything groundbreaking – it’s not massively memorable, but equally isn’t going to annoy you for the duration.

That duration for me was about four hours, including about thirty minutes looking for the final coin, as well as thirty minutes or so having a go and working it out when I downloaded it. I reckon if you went back and did it again (or aren’t as rubbish at games as me), you could at least half that once you know the lay of the land. And I enjoyed every minute of that, done in two sessions during a single day. It really is a joy to play, and even if you’re like my former-self and not massively into Dizzy or this style of game or survival horror, if you’ve ever played on a Spectrum you just need to have a go and see it in action! And at free of charge, there’s even less reason to not see it in action than its ancestor all those years ago!

You can play or download Wonderful Dizzy right here.

Book Review: The Games That Weren’t by Frank Gasking

Book Review: The Games That Weren’t by Frank Gasking

Towards the end of of 1985, adverts started appearing in my Computer & Video Games magazines for “the first ever computer cartoon” – Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery! And to a massive Scooby Doo fan like me, it was incredible! They were clearly Spectrum screenshots on there, but they definitely looked like nothing else, except maybe what a Spectrum port of something like Dragon’s Lair might look like… which, the following year, we’d find out was more or less the case!

Anyway, as 1985 became 1986, previews started appearing that hinted at an interactive story involving a spooky Scottish castle belonging to Shaggy’s aunt, presented as cartoon action sequences that you directed to solve the mystery. And yes, it really was like a laser-disc game crammed into a 48K Spectrum! As the months passed, the big double-page, full colour adverts kept coming, but no sign of any game, then in March 1986, in an Elite preview exclusive, C&VG said “despite what you’ve read in other magazines, Elite still plans to release its computer cartoon adventure, Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery for the 48K Spectrum,” but towards the end of the article also says that it won’t be in the “heavily advertised” form because there wasn’t enough memory left to make it playable! And, of course, what we eventually got at the end of 1986 was the fantastic, but utterly brutal Scooby Doo, an arcade-platformer take on Kung-Fu Master, with some of my favourite graphics ever on the Spectrum!

As much as I love what we finally got, I still look at the original advert and wonder what could have been… And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling 48K of memory! If only Sir Clive had come up with 128K a bit sooner it might all be different, but that’s the tale of my very first encounter with a game that weren’t. Wasn’t!

Fast forward to Christmas 2021, and I received a wonderful new book called The Games That Weren’t, written by Frank Gasking and published by my favourite retro-gaming book peddlars Bitmap Books, who are responsible for all kinds of equally wonderful stuff on my bulging bookshelves, but nothing that bulges quite as much as this 644-page hardback behemoth!

As someone that writes about games from time to time, I think I’m qualified to say that everything about this puts me to shame! The first thing you notice, the very first time you flick through it, is that it’s clearly an absolute labour of love, much like Frank’s website of the same name that he started way back in the nineties to document and find lost and unreleased games across many platforms. The next thing you notice is that it’s visually stunning – even more so than Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery! And then you realise that it’s so much more than that…

As games industry legend David Crane tells us in the foreword, this is all about games that never quite reached the game-playing public. Going all the way back to 1975 and up to 2015, the book covers 80 games that weren’t, and they weren’t for myriad reasons that all get unravelled here – flawed game design, internal politics, over-ambition, poor hardware sales, high cartridge costs or cabinet costs, failed field tests, expired licenses, not being able to fit a computer cartoon into 48K… Actually, I should say that Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery didn’t make the cut here (which gives me hope that it still might arrive one day!), but some of the tales around these unreleased games are definitely mysteries worthy of Scooby and the gang!

Having spent some time in my stack of old game magazines just get my head around enough of the Scooby Doo story to mention it here, I can really empathise with Frank’s decades-long obsession with investigating these mysteries – that 30 minutes putting together a timeline from first advert to previews, doubts, cancellations then something else emerging in its place was really fascinating! But where I’ve just included a picture of an old copy of C&VG, every game covered in The Games That Weren’t includes a load of development assets, screenshots, photos and artistic impressions – all reproduced in the very highest quality and sometimes for the first time – to illustrate the wonderfully in-depth analysis on each game.

Before we analyse that analysis, let’s quickly mention a few of those games to give us a bit of context, as well as what is probably my favourite thing about the book, which is not only discovering stuff you didn’t know existed, but discovering stuff you would have actually bought, and even seeing screenshots of it! And that’s why we’ll start with Elite on the Nintendo Game Boy, which got to prototype stage then the deal with Ocean fell through and consigned it to history; another nice feature is that for each game it tells you if it’s available to play or not… And apparently this one is, so definitely expect more from me on that in the future! We all know about Elite, but there’s an awful lot more that you probably won’t know anything about, such as Death Pit, Dick Special, Eye of the Moon, Virtua Hamster(!), Spitfire Fury and Starring Charlie Chaplin to name but a few. There’s unreleased sequels like Heart of Yesod, Star Fox 2 and, er, Gazza 2. There’s all kinds of film licenses that (possibly thankfully) never saw the light of day like The Terminator, Lethal Weapon and Waterworld, as well as other licenses like Daffy Duck and Tony Hawk’s Shred Session. And then there’s the versions of games you probably do know but never made it, like Rescue on Fractalus! or Bubble Bobble, Ridge Racer or The Last Ninja…

As I write this, the last game I played before I went to bed last night was Arcade Archives Frogger on Nintendo Switch, so I reckon that Frogger 2: Swampy’s Revenge on Nintendo 64 is the perfect place to talk about the actual meat of the game analysis you’re getting here! It starts with a title screen summarising the reason it weren’t – cartridge costs in this case – then the year it weren’t (2000), the developer, the platform and whether or not it’s available to play. Then we get some background history – why Frogger epitomises 1980s arcades, the aim of the game, its reception and its ports. Then we get into what happened next; in the case of Frogger, it obviously never stopped being released on different platforms, but there was a Hasbro remake developed by Millenium Interactive in 1997 that leads us directly into the non-sequel. When Hasbro wanted a sequel, Millenium weren’t available to do it, so they approached Interactive Studios. We then hear from Philip Oliver, and then the project’s technical manager, Matt Cloy, who talks about the team and how they set about developing the game for the Nintendo 64. We get right into the development kits and all the juicy technical details here, right from the horse’s mouth, as well as some great detail on the process of developing then moving on from the earliest designs.

This turned into very much a 3D game, in stark contrast to the overhead 2D original, with complex geometries and some wild-sounding environments that weren’t too far removed from Super Mario Galaxy, years ahead of its time. But Hasbro didn’t like it! Need something more traditional, more 2D, more like Frogger. So then we hear about how it was all stripped back, the action became more immediate to the player, and a story was introduced involving Swampy the Crocodile being jealous of Frogger’s fame and fortune! At this point we start getting some really nice detail about how the game actually played as levels took shape and started to be tested and tweaked, and then there’s some substitutions made in the team to bring on some experience and make sure the game was brought home as planned.

And then it was all brought down with a bang! Hasbro got cold feet on increasing cartridge production costs and lead times, and the prospect of any profit was becoming risky, so at 70% complete, the Nintendo 64 version was canned. Now we jump to the PlayStation, PC, Dreamcast and Game Boy Colour versions that did eventually make it into the wild, reviewed okay, but never really had a chance to sell properly because after a year Konami said they wanted it removed from sale because the licence had expired! Now we get into the fun part of years then passing, glitchy prototypes sneaking out into the hands of collectors, and later builds appearing that featured things like placeholder sounds from other games and Pac-Man styled frogspawn collecting that would never have made the final cut. Finally, we get to what happened next, where we are now with availability of the various unfinished states online, and how the developers feel about the project in retrospect. And as we’ve already discussed, all those written words are supported by some beautiful visuals, in this case a full-page unpublished advert for the game including the Nintendo 64 logo at the top, and a selection of half-page, well-curated (and well-defined) screenshots that serve perfectly well to bring the game to life. It really is an incredibly polished package, and that’s all for just one of the eighty games!

Now, not every game gets the thousands of words of research and interviews that Frogger 2 gets – though an awful lot of them do – but regardless, you can see the care, attention and passion that’s gone into every single feature on every single game. And all of this this is complemented by five purpose-built “Hardware That Wasn’t” blueprint features and a load of interviews with the likes of the aforementioned David Crane, Jeff Minter, the Oliver Twins, Matthew Smith, Geoff Crammond and many other industry big-hitters, plus an honourable mentions section on loads of other games, all in chronological order, that you can find out more about digitally.

As I flick through the book to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything, I’m so tempted just to keep going here! I happened to stop on Solar Jetman, where a wonderful Commodore 64 loading screen capture caught my eye; then Spitfire Fury, which would have been amazing to play on our school’s A-level Technology class’ exclusive Archimides; or maybe my brother would have bought Rolling Thunder for his Atari Lynx; and don’t get me started on Gauntlet for Ninendo DS!!! I just love this book! And it’s not only the quality of the written content that’s to love, but the hardcore hardback binding, the weight of the glossy paper, the definition on the mass of pictures, the bookmark ribbon, the generous font size for our ageing eyes… And of course, the real stars of the show are all these games that we never got to love, finally getting some of the recognition they deserve.

I hope in some way this also gives Frank Gasking and Bitmap Books some of the recognition they deserve too! Congratulations to all involved – you’ve come up with a masterpiece!

You’ll find The Games That Weren’t right here at Bitmap Books.

Discovering Friday the 13th on Commodore 64 & ZX Spectrum

Discovering Friday the 13th on Commodore 64 & ZX Spectrum

You often see the NES Friday the 13th game referenced in rubbish game lists, but the C64 and Spectrum versions never get a look in and I wanted to find out why!

There’s another “why” I want to look at before we answer that though… As a decades-long massive fan of both systems and the films, why am I playing these games for the first time in 2020?

Friday the 13th came to Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC in 1985, courtesy of Domark. I very much remember seeing it advertised because I cut the advert out and put it on my bedroom wall! I also very much remember the Computer & Video Games magazine review; it went along the lines of once you were past the gore of said shock advertising, the game was average, but the black and white screenshot they used was enough to put me right off. It looks like some kind of dreadful prototype of The Sims, not Hollywood’s greatest slasher!

Friday the 13th was long forgotten by the time I had a machine that could play it, and it was even longer before I saw my first Friday the 13th movie. I think I saw The Omen and The Entity in my early-ish teens thanks to the Wild West days of video rental shops, but the slasher movie passed me by until the very late eighties. I’d eventually make up for lost time though, and Jason Vorhees remains this 3000+ horror movie collector and general nerd’s favourite genre icon!

As many times as I’ve now seen every movie, the game remained absolutely forgotten for decades, and it took one of the aforementioned crappy NES game videos to start me digging again! I think it was a simple C64 walkthrough being recommended, but I didn’t even click it – I just made a note to look up the Spectrum version at some point.

As well as the advert, the box did its very best to lure in curious. And I’m not just taking about that immediate red-flag to me of C64 screens being used on a (relatively speaking big-budget) Spectrum inlay! There was a stark warning that before you play the game, close all doors, windows and curtains – yes, curtains have always been Jason’s kryptonite! Then you have to turn out the lights, but can use a candle if necessary – possibly down to some of the garish colours on the Spectrum version burning your eyes through some kind of light overload. Then you have to make sure granny isn’t in the room – I expect she slipped the tenner into your hand that paid for the game and you don’t want her to know you wasted it on this crap! Then turn up the volume to the max! Now, of all these tips, don’t do that. I’d there’s one thing worse than the graphics, it’s the sound, whether the horrendous (not in a good way) scream sound as one of your mates dies somewhere on the Spectrum, or the dreadful context-sensitive nursery rhymes on C64! Speaking of sound, the box also includes a competition to win a monitor if you can identify ten of the noises you heard while on holiday in Crystal Lake. Good luck identifying more than one of them!

To Domark’s credit, they clearly knew they’d spent a load of money on the license but had a stinker on their hands, and they did their best to fix that by chucking a load more money at all kinds of provocative marketing. The game pitch is pretty decent on the surface too… Jason is hiding out in the forest in his “filthy grotto” waiting to avenge his mother’s death when a bunch of teenagers turn up to party at nearby “eerie” (that’s what several massacres will do – if only they’d had Domark’s marketing people) holiday camp. He dons his hockey mask, sharpens his machete and gets ready for a “razor-edged massacre” (nice)!

From there, I’m slightly at odds with how the box then describes the gameplay loop… “You must warn everyone that the mad murderer is on the rampage and lead them all to safety – without, of course, losing your head!” The reality is that you’re going to wander around a few screens that include a farm, some archery targets, a church and lots of gravestones and lots of trees looking for a weapon then hitting everyone in sight with it trying to work out which one is Jason so you can keep hitting him until he’s dead. And while you’re doing that, Jason is wandering around killing everyone. If you die or they all die (indicated by their avatar at the bottom, of the screen turning into a gravestone) then it’s game over.

Here we need to talk specifics about each version because they go about things – by design or not – in slightly different ways. On C64, Jason is disguised as one of your fellow campers. As you walk around the various locations, you might notice someone acting a bit suspicious, whether they’re following someone else or simply just in the act of murdering them or you. Assuming you’ve found a weapon, this is your cue to hit him, and assuming you’ve found Jason, he’ll turns from a camper into a guy in a black outfit.

And that’s about all there is to it. If you’re lucky, you’ll work it out in a few minutes, but in the game I eventually beat Jason, I was walking around forever, exploring the same places over and over again but never finding him. And once you’re down to a couple of your friends left alive, the frequency of death has all but dried up and there’s really not very much happening. You just walk about, with only minor tension that all this walking about for ages is potentially about to end in time running out because everyone else is dead.

Kill the man Vorhees and you get a game over screen telling you he’s dead, but for how long? Well, having then played the Spectrum version to completion too, there’s an easy answer to that…

There’s not a lot to the C64 version, but it has a degree of 1985 charm to it. The Spectrum version doesn’t only have no charm (which even the bizarre use of magenta on the brick walls can’t fix), but it’s a buggy stinker! Eventually you’ll work out that rather than potentially being disguised as one of your friends in this version, Jason is the guy that looks the same as you. If you get confused which is which, don’t worry, he’s the one who can walk through stuff like trees and haystacks. Get close and he’ll batter you, no escape – he’s got some very sticky pixels and that’s all your hard work wandering about these ultra-uninteresting landscapes wasted! Naturally, as you might think, he can also attack you from any direction. You, on the other hand, can only attack if you’re on his left because no matter which way you’re heading, your weapon only comes out to play on the right!

When you do get on his left, there’s absolutely no feedback that you’re actually connecting with him. Your score (which is irrelevant anyway) doesn’t even change like the C64 version. You just keep maybe hitting him and nothing happens – which, thinking about it, is how a fight with Jason Vorhees probably should turn out, but it doesn’t make for a great game! Anyway, after far more experimenting than the game deserves, I worked out that the axe will damage him even if you don’t know its working until he’s dead. The chainsaw might offer the glamour, but leave it; spear things, pitchforks, knives and other things you can chuck at him seem to do nothing. That’s all assuming you can actually pick the weapon up because it’s quite often somewhere like a top corner and the screen has flipped before you can get close enough to trigger picking it up.

And while your either on the hunt for Jason, or more likely running away, you’re also going to get stuck on scenery all the time, which is the exact opposite to Jason who can walk into fences and simply vanish into thin air. And quite often you’ll be trying to traverse what appears to be thin air between screens but you’ll get stuck on something that isn’t there regardless.

Spectrum Friday the 13th is just about without merit, but I’d definitely recommend a go on the Commodore version if you’re a fan of the films. It’s a very C64-looking game circa 1985, which I always find somehow comfortable, but like so many other licenses of the time, is just bland once you get past the fancy box art. And that kind of answers my original question about why these versions never get a mention nowadays too, but in the case of these systems there were so many greater crimes against licenses – Highlander is always a good place to start there – and there were so many worse games spanning well over a decade of their lifetimes… Sadly, Friday the 13th is just very forgettable.

Games Completed in 2020

Games Completed in 2020

How about a self-indulgent review of games I’ve played and completed in 2020? I know no-one else cares, but it’s kind of like a diary, and I’ve already written it, and I’ve got nowhere else to stick it!

January
3 January: Untitled Goose Game (Xbox)
13 January: Punch-Out! (NES on Switch)
16 January: Spyro the Dragon (PS4)
19 January: Mega Man X (SNES Classic Mini)
26 January: The Ninja Saviors (Switch)
31 January: Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (SNES on Switch)

Ninja Saviors the undoubted highlight for January. Goose Game didn’t blow me away like it seems to have done everyone else, but that’s the first game I ever finished on an Xbox! Also nice to finish Spyro on the collection I got for Christmas after starting it all those years ago, as well as some other old classics I hadn’t played before (but am now seeing in my sleep, Punch-Out!). And now I’m torn between what’s my favourite Mega Man. I reckon it’s still 2 but X was a corker!

February
3 February: Bulletstorm (PS4)
5 February: Koral (Switch)
7 February: Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES on Switch)
9 February: Super Mario Bros. (NES on Switch)
10 February: Super Cycle (C64 Mini)
16 February: Bioshock (PS4)
18 February: Castlevania – Circle of the Moon (Game Boy Advance)
19 February: Bloodstained – Ritual of the Night (Xbox One)
25 February: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Game Boy Advance)
27 February: Ninja Gaiden Shadow (Game Boy)
29 February: Ghostbusters (C64 Mini)

Always glad to get value out of PS+, and very much did this month with Bulletstorm and Bioshock. Same for Game Pass and Bloodstained (though my excessive play of Demon’s Tilt on there makes that a given). For medical reasons, my handhelds got plenty of love this month with Castlevania: Circle of the Moon being a particular highlight, though finally finishing the original Mario Bros was pretty cool too. And as I like to every now and again, I reminded myself why Ghostbusters on C64 is in my top 30 favourite games ever – a practice game to remind myself how it goes (which I actually did on the Spectrum this time), then straight through as usual. Timeless!

March
4 March: Destruction Derby 2 (PlayStation Classic)
14 March: Doom 3 (Switch)
18 March: Anodyne (Switch)
30 March: Agent X (ZX Spectrum)
31 March: Agent X II (ZX Spectrum)

50 hours on Animal Crossing over two weeks after release is quite apparent in this month’s list! Loved the chance to win everything in Destruction Derby 2 again, and Doom 3 became probably my favourite shooter ever! For the purposes of Retro Arcadia postings, I finished the wonderful Agent X for the hundredth time, and its less wonderful sequel on the Spectrum for the first time.

April
4 April: Death Star Interceptor (ZX Spectrum)
11 April: Doom 64 (Switch)
13 April: Doom (Switch)
26 April: Doom II (Switch)
27 April: Kid Dracula (Game Boy)
30 April: Saboteur 2 – Avenging Angel (Switch)

Caught up on a load more classic Dooms on Switch last month. As much as I enjoyed them, I’m a bit done with Doom for now! Also caught up with Death Star Interceptor, an even older game I first came across in 1985! I’d also forgotten I was right near the end of Game Boy Kid Dracula a few months ago when I abandoned it for some reason, so got that done too. Same for Saboteur 2 on Switch. Started at Christmas, got sidetracked (by Ninja Saviors) and forgot I had it, but will never forget that map from playing it on the Spectrum years ago!

May
3 May: TimeSplitters (PS2)
5 May: TimeSplitters 2 (PS2)
6 May: Streets of Rage 4 (Switch)
7 May: Moley Christmas (ZX Spectrum)
14 May: Streets of Rage 2 (Mega Drive Mini)
18 May: Daley Thompson’s Decathlon (ZX Spectrum)
26 May: Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare (Game Boy Colour)
31 May: Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (PS4)

May began with the delivery of a replacement PS2, and meant I could finally finish the two TimeSplitters games I’d had a hankering to play for a while. And I’m still playing regularly to improve times on the original too! Streets of Rage 4 made a claim for the top of my game of the year list so far, but otherwise it was going back to some old favourites. Oh yeah, nearly forgot the latest Star Wars game too, which is indicative of how memorable I found it!

June
12 June: TMNT (GBA)
13 June: Call of Duty WWII (PS4)
14 June: American Election (Mac)
14 June: Wampus (NES)
16 June: I’m Bored, Let’s Explore (Ruins) (Mac)
16 June: Masks (Mac)
18 June: Intrepid (Mac)
23 June: In Other Waters (Switch)
26 June: Rik the Roadie (ZX Spectrum)
28 June: Milk Race (ZX Spectrum)
30 June: Akumajo Dracula (Super Castlevania IV) (Switch)

Thought the Japanese version of Super Castlevania IV might make a nice change for my annual play-through, but turned out wonderfully similar to what I know and love! Otherwise my MacBook got some unusual love with the fantastic Itch.io’s Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality, which also included a fantastic all-new NES game Wampus. And an underwater sci-if exploration game called In Other Waters made a hell of a shout for game of the year!

July
12 July: Manic Miner 2020 – Special Edition (ZX Spectrum)
13 July: Super Mario Bros. COVID-19 Edition (ZX Spectrum)
13 July: Monument Valley 2 (iPad)
18 July: Erica (PS4)
19 July: The Room 2 (iPad)
20 July: Silent Hill (PlayStation Classic)
28 July: Ghostbusters The Video Game Remastered (PS4)

New Spectrum games always welcome, especially those involving Miner Willy! Always nice to see a Mario invasion on there too! I’ve had Monument Valley 2 taking up space on my iPad for years and it turns out that work of art didn’t deserve to be kept waiting, but that’s a far lesser crime than how long I left Silent Hill hanging around… Just amazing, and how on earth did I ignore that series for so long?

August
8 August: Call of Duty – Modern Warfare 2 (PS4)
14 August: Carrion (Xbox)
24 August: Winter Games (ZX Spectrum)
25 August: Winter Games (C64 Mini)
27 August: Star Wars Episode 1 Racer (Switch)

Animal Crossing still in evidence while I was on holiday (from work at least) this month, though it marked the end of being about done with anything major on there I think. Lots of arcade stuff like P-47 and Sunset Riders this month that might have an ending but I’ll never see them, but Carrion was a definite, very unique highlight that I did finish. And always an absolute pleasure to spend time with Winter Games… Even in the height of summer!

September
3 September: Silent Hill 2 (PS2)
5 September: Super Mario All Stars – Super Mario Bros. (SNES on Switch)
8 September: Donkey Kong Country (SNES on Switch)
13 September: Bayonetta (PS4)
20 September: Duke Nukem 3D – 20th Anniversary World Tour (Switch)
26 September: Vanquish (PS4)

Some serious catching up done in September. Highlight was Silent Hill 2. First time playing (but already not the last), and I can safely say it’s one of my favourite games ever! Elsewhere some real big hitters I’ve somehow never managed to play before – horizons becoming truly broadened in my old (middle) age!

October
3 October: Super Mario 3D Land (3DS)
9 October: Bloodstained – Curse of the Moon 2 (Switch)
17 October: Powerdrift (Arcade on 3DS)
20 October: Out Run (Game Gear)
25 October: Road Rash Jailbreak (Game Boy Advance)
27 October: The Ninja Kids (Arcade on PS2)
28 October: Star Wars Squadrons (PS4)
31 October: Out Run (3DS)

I seem to have had a thing for handheld racers this month! With that and Mario 3D Land, my 3DS had more play in the last month than ever before. Highlight of the month was Bloodstained 2 though. Very nearly as good as any proper old-school Castlevania, and definite game of the year contender, closely followed by Star Wars Squadrons, which is just so much nerd fun, win or (mostly) lose.

November
8 November: Super Mario Sunshine (GameCube)
8 November: The Chaos Engine (SNES)
19 November: Secret of Mana (SNES Classic Mini)
23 November: Friday the 13th (C64 Mini)
24 November: Splatterhouse (PC-Engine Mini)
25 November: Friday the 13th (ZX Spectrum)
26 November: Rupert and the Ice Castle (ZX Spectrum)

Mario Sunshine tops the list this month. Now I can allow myself to play the new 3D All Stars version that’s not only still sealed, but in the envelope it came in on launch day months ago! Enjoyed Secret of Mana far more than expected and Splatterhouse as much as I hoped. Chaos Engine was fun if a bit repetitive, but it’s always nice to finish a game within 30 years of buying it! Otherwise, some crap and not so crap 8-bit stuff for Retro Arcadia!

December
1 December: Splatterhouse – Wanpaku Graffiti (NES)
1 December: Jungle Hunt (Atari 2600)
2 December: Fantasy Zone II W (3DS)
4 December: Splatterhouse (Arcade on Switch)
13 December: Animal Crossing New Horizons (Switch)

A flurry of Splatterhouse and other retro activity at the start of the month! Having finally completed Fantasy Zone II W, I did also finally settle a long-standing internal debate about which game in that wonderful series is my favourite (and it’s this one)! At 510 hours and getting my final fish – which completes everything you can complete in the game – I’m calling Animal Crossing, but I’m still playing! Not sure where the rest of the month went – I was at least supposed to finish Residemt Evil 4 on GameCube, but it will be a nice start to 2021!

Retro Arcadia Top Ten Games of 2020

Retro Arcadia Top Ten Games of 2020

My annual list here is supposed to be screaming next-gen this year, but after much deliberation that helped me make up my mind I wanted an Xbox over PS5, it also made me realise I wanted Game Pass and not a new machine. Enter my 13-year old son wanting to replace his Xbox One with a fancy new gaming PC for Christmas, as well as no actual next-gen games for Series X yet anyway, and here we are! Still pains me not having a launch-day PlayStation for the first time in its history though…

As much as my game of the year for 2020 did affect and continues to affect me – and has made the very unusual leap for anything new into my top 25 games of all time – it’s not the best! Or even second best! It took me a while, but finally properly playing Silent Hill this summer led me immediately to Silent Hill 2 on PS2. Then several times more! Wow, what a game. I wrote loads of words about it here so won’t dwell. Then I got to the last game in the Resident Evil series I’d never played, Resident Evil 4 on GameCube. Given its reputation I’m not sure why it took me so long to get to that either, but I got to the point where I wasn’t playing it to avoid finishing it! Absolute masterpiece!

But let’s now turn our attention to the masterpieces of 2020…

1. In Other Waters (Switch)
A very long time ago, a game called Submarine Commander on the Commodore VIC-20 was busy becoming one of my favourite games ever; it offered a claustrophobic and tense underwater experience that still holds up today. The first time I saw In Other Waters, I immediately knew it was going to do the same, with its beautifully refined and descriptive – but not dissimilar – user interface that almost immediately becomes second nature, and completely drives the wonderful story, as well as your imagination. Intuitive, engaging, nerve wracking and, despite it’s visual simplicity, I found it stunningly atmospheric. Just like some of those great old VIC-20 games!

2. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 (Switch)
I was massively excited when Bloodstained 2 was announced, then decided to voice my opinion on it costing more on Switch (my preferred platform so I could play on TV and handheld) than PS4 by not buying it on any platform for months… The protest finally ended with a Switch sale, and it was worth the wait. It may even have been worth the original price! The gameplay is so tight, it looks and sounds glorious, and it’s up there with the best of Castlevania! It’s comfortable and familiar – to the point you know exactly which walls are going to be holding secrets before you hit them – but brings its own identity with the ingenious character swapping, and offers loads to keep playing past the first credits for, especially something you really won’t see coming! Awesome.

3. Streets of Rage 4 (Switch)
Completely faithful to the series from what I’ve played, but also completely modern feeling and looking, and a fantastic beat ‘em up in its own right. So many things I love… some of the chaotic mass brawls that feel just like a Bruce Lee movie; finding the secret retro areas (and some old friends); just how 80’s the brilliantly styled (and massive variety of) hand-drawn art all looks; and, of course, the soundtrack isn’t bad either! Not much can top the massively concentrated fun on offer here, and with everything else on offer on top of the story mode, we definitely have a keeper to come back to for many years to come!

4. Star Wars: Squadrons (PS4)
No game is ever likely to come close to the thrill of sitting down in that jaw-dropping Star Wars arcade cabinet for the first time at a funfair in Bedford almost forty years ago, but this wasn’t far off! The story offers non-stop spectacular sprawling set pieces across fifteen missions, and it’s non-stop nerdgasm the whole way through. There’s multiplayer all-sorts if that’s your bag too. If you ever wanted to fly something out of Star Wars, this is as good as it gets.

5. Animal Crossing – New Horizons (Switch)
I very rarely buy a game day one, but I knew that with Animal Crossing I’d be getting incredible enjoyment and incredible value from whatever the asking price. I also rarely ever play a game for over 50 hours, but I’d done that in two weeks and we’re now well over 500, and whilst I might have bought it physically so I could sell it on at the usual Nintendo tiny loss price, there’s still not much chance of that yet! It’s the ultimate in gaming escapism, it makes the mundane as addictive as crack, and on the Switch it looks and sounds and plays incredible. A timeless formula that couldn’t have been timed better.

6. Super Mario Bros Game & Watch
Snoopy Tennis Game & Watch was just about my first gaming love, and almost four decades later this wonderfully and accurately recreated piece of tech (and packaging!) celebrates not only that age of wonder, but also 35 years of Super Mario Bros, which remains more than perfectly playable, and perfectly suited to this pocket platform. The sequel, the of original Game & Watch game Ball, the Easter eggs, and, of course, the unique digital alarm clock combine to make this an absolutely priceless piece of nostalgia.

7. Carrion (Xbox One)
You play the bad guy and this game makes sure you know it! This is how a Predator (and maybe other types of predator) feels, with every decaying Lovecraftian tooth and eyeball and tentacle feeling like a flawless extension of your fingers on the controller as you effortlessly glide around then tear your prey apart. The horrific semi-pixel art Metroidvania-styled design is perfectly complemented by the incredible sound design, which is made all the more disturbing when you realise the sound has all gone! A beautiful, terrible thing.

8. Manic Miner 2020 – Special Edition (ZX Spectrum)
Can you believe that in the year of our lord 2020AD, we have no less than three new Miner Willy games (that I’m aware of at least) out on the ZX Spectrum? I’ve not played Manic Panic, but I have played a lot of a four decades late to the party port of my favourite VIC-20 game, The Perils of Willy, and whilst it fully deserves to be here too, it’s harder to justify as new even if it is a joy to play! This one was at least a new take, dedicated to all essential workers keeping things moving in lockdown, and is actually a cut-down riff on the original, featuring what you know and love, but in mirrored caverns. As you’d expect, it’s hard as nails, but the smile will never leave your face! Platforming perfection. Always.

9. Wallachia – Reign of Dracula (Switch)
A loving homage to Castlevania that plays like Contra, complete with zero concession to anyone that isn’t prepared to play hard and old-school! But like Contra, with practice you realise it’s fair, and you will improve to the point that it’s beatable over time. And like Castlevania, it oozes gothic atmosphere, with darkly stylish visuals and a whopping soundtrack.

10. Hotshot Racing (Xbox One)
Brilliantly retro-stylised and very slick arcade racer that controls like a dream once you get it, and has such a sense of speed! There’s elements of Out Run, Daytona 360, Virtua Racer and Sega Rally all present and correct, and whilst it’s unlikely that anything is ever going to reach any of those heady heights again, if you’re a fan then this loving, living tribute is going to appeal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most Hours Spent in Gaming

Most Hours Spent in Gaming

Here’s some more pure self-indulgence just because I can’t resist a list, so feel free to go and do something less boring instead! My recent examination of Elite versus Perils of Willy (here) – as well as passing the 500 hour mark in Animal Crossing on Switch – got me thinking about what games I’ve put the most time into over the decades. There’s no question about the first two, both running into thousands and thousands of hours:
1. Kick Off on Atari ST
2. Elite on Atari ST

Kick Off is my second favourite game of all time. I can’t imagine the hours I spent either playing against my brothers or in the complex single player leagues and cups I invented where every player had a name long before that kind of thing was a thing. We turned it into far more than a top-down football game, and it extended the life of my Atari ST into the late nineties, way beyond when the first PlayStation should have consigned it into the loft.

Elite is also well within my top ten games ever, and unusually for me, that opinion is not exclusive to me either! Early experiences of the space-trading sim on the BBC astounded then fascinated me, but this version absolutely captivated me. A game that never knew there were limits from the outset, and equally there were no limits to playing it, pretty much forever.

Building out my top ten, I’ve got some other contenders that immediately spring to mind in no particular order yet:
– Pro Evolution Soccer 4 on PS2
– Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 on PSP
– Destiny on PS4
– No Man’s Sky on PS4
– New Star Soccer on iOS
– Animal Crossing New Horizons on Switch
– Football Manager on C64 on Pocket PC
– Tetris on Game Boy

Thinking out loud, I reckon Pro Evo on PSP then Tetris then Pro Evo on PS2 make up the top five. The only actual point of reference (at 500 hours) is Animal Crossing, and I’m going with that next, followed by Destiny and No Man’s Sky. To round out the top ten we’re going pre-smartphone, emulated Football Manager, and its spiritual descendant (and on actual smartphone) New Star Soccer.

My wife used to go nuts about my PSP always being in my hand every evening, but actually I think it was the fact I only ever played Pro Evo that annoyed her! It was full season after full season on there, even though it was about as predictable as old-school Scottish Premier League, with only a couple of teams ever in the reckoning! Actually, in a strange twist of fate about seven years later, my top goal scorer’s son and my son would become best friends in real life!

I am very familiar with the Tetris Effect. Not the game (for motion sickness reasons), but the phenomenon. I was playing Tetris every waking and non-waking hour like it or not! I loved my Game Boy, and Tetris never stopped being an integral part of its joy, through my sixth form years, university and buying at least three houses!

PS2 Pro Evo was the first to rekindle that Kick Off experience, and now everything looked just like on Match of the Day, and like on PSP later, I didn’t need to keep score for my league and cup fixes. And that Master League was just awesome – no matter how good you got, it always seemed to come down to the wire between you and one or two rivals!

I very rarely buy a game day one, but I knew that with Animal Crossing New Horizons I’d be getting incredible enjoyment and incredible value from whatever the asking price. In under two weeks I’d played more than 50 hours, and we’re now over ten times that. It’s the ultimate in gaming escapism, making the mundane as addictive as crack!

Destiny might have delivered less than it promised in the eyes of many, but not me! The shooting is as good as it’s ever got in any game, but the continuous search for upgrade materials through a continuous search for whatever was going on in that time and place you were in provided exactly the same addictive quality as Animal Crossing; it’s a different type of mundane, but you still can’t stop! Until you move to the country and have terrible internet…

Given what I’ve said about Elite, it’s no surprise that infinite space-trading discovery adventure No Man’s Sky rounds out my top ten, and it’s a game where tinkering eventually killed it for me. I was so happy with this game when it came out – unlike the rest of the world – and the first few major updates added loads to the experience that maybe should have been there previously. But the updates kept coming, and still keep coming to this day. And the one that made my sprawling moon base end up floating in the air and completely inaccessible was the beginning of a sadly quick ending.

Football Manager was one of the first games I played on my friend Paul’s Spectrum, then played it endlessly when I got my own, but it was on that forgotten pre-smartphone gadget the Pocket PC is where I spent the most time on this. It was great for emulating the C64, and this game was great for emulation. And it’s another that used to drive my wife crazy for all the aforementioned reasons!

Moving from football manager to player, New Star Soccer on iOS is one of the most addictive games I’ve ever played, to the point that in the end I knew I had a problem and had to go cold turkey! Unfortunately (or fortunately, for my sanity) it’s now a great example of a premium game destroyed by free-to-play mechanics. As well as excessive tinkering. Again.

I’m mostly happy with my top ten, but there’s also a few wildcards that I’m struggling to quantify versus the others; I just have a hunch that they might also be up there too!
– Snoopy Tennis Game & Watch
– Alto’s Adventure on iOS
– V-Rally 3 on Game Boy Advance
– Game Dev Story on iOS

Snoopy Tennis was ubiquitous in my hands in the first half of the eighties until I got my VIC-20. Likewise in the early 2000’s, I was travelling loads and always had V-Rally on the go on my GBA, and have barely taken a break from playing it since. And by 2015 I was travelling insane miles all over the world, and Alto was my plane and hotel time-killer… Until it was almost usurped by its successor in 2018 then along came Sega Ages Out Run on Switch a year later! Game Dev Story on iPhone figures here somewhere too, but in a much more concentrated time period – I went completely nuts on that for a couple of months when it came out; also one of the most addictive games I’ve ever played!

As an aside, I can probably pick out my longest narrative-driven play-throughs without too much thought, and because they weren’t long ago I even know the timings:
1. The Witcher 3 + some DLC on PS4 – 95 hours
2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on Switch – 90 hours
3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – 80 hours

None of my long games list or my wildcards are much of a surprise to me. Unsurprisingly! But what I’d never thought about before was how many of these are football-related! I know your typical FIFA player is probably out-playing anything on my feeble list here every single year, but I don’t play stuff like that. Apart from the 50% of these games seemingly being stuff like that of sorts!

Wow. This wasn’t supposed to turn into an identity crisis! And let’s not even go to why a 48-year old man is spending 500 hours playing Animal Crossing in under six months… But ignoring all of that, I’m okay with representing on Atari ST with my two big hitters, and Kick Off is still my second favourite game of all time and Elite is still in my top ten, and that’s pretty cool, so let’s just stop there where everything is good with the world!