My Life With… WWF Attitude – PlayStation 

My Life With… WWF Attitude – PlayStation 

When I get to a post about Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, remind me to mention the year this game came out, 1999. But you might be able to work out the link already! And it turned out not to be a lifetime away…

My future wife and I were living in a brand new, two bedroom flat in East London – I dread to think what it’s worth now, but never regret something that made you smile! Since moving out of my parent’s house, the PlayStation now had its own room, which was shared with the insane horror video collection I’d amassed by then; DVD was still over a year away for me, as was the crazy expensive desktop PC that would introduce me to the format (in partnership with The Blair Witch Project). In the meantime, there it sat, connected to the red portable TV that once hosted my VIC-20, amongst nearly a thousand neatly stacked VHS titles such as Death Curse of Tartu and A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell. As an aside, that collection is now more than three thousand, with storage very much benefiting from the advancement and miniaturisation of viewing technology, and a much bigger house!

VHS was still playing a big part in my appreciation of wrestling too. The Sky box was still many years from being something that recorded stuff as well, and setting something to record every week on the 9-year old video recorder that I’d got for my 18th birthday was still a major pain in the arse – no series link on there! But it was worth the effort. This was the heyday of Stone Cold and The Rock, Triple H, Mankind and, of course, my all time favourite The Undertaker. You also had the emergence of innovative tag teams like The Hardy Boys, The Brood and The Dudleys. And it was WWF at its sleaziest, with The Kat going no holds barred, getting her knockers out after winning one of the best evening gown swimming pool matches ever.  But 1999 is probably always going to be remembered for Owen Hart falling 70 feet onto the turnbuckle and dying in the ring at Over the Edge. Tragedy. 

I probably played the previous year’s WWF War Zone more than Attitude – Becky was far more tolerant of both the PlayStation and wrestling before we moved in together – but Attitude took what was probably the most atmospheric and complete wrestling game at that point to another level. 

All the characters were there, including the recently deceased Owen Hart and some subtle tributes, with multiple outfits and realistic entrances, complete with wrestler voicing, that in reality you probably only ever watched once at most! Spend enough time with your favourite (The Undertaker, obviously) and the vast array of grapples, moves and reversals became second nature as you worked your way through the various modes; career mode was great in Attitude as you worked climbed the ranks and the WWE show calendar. Despite there only being four wrestlers in the ring at once, you even had the full 30-man Royal Rumble, where the risk-reward thrill of going for a throw over the top ropes was the highlight of the game for me. 

There was so much content in this game! You could create a pay per view, where you could go into incredible detail right down to choosing the lighting, logos on the ring apron  and even the turnbuckle colours. Create a wrestler used an RPG style attribute system where you could assign a certain number of points to speed, power, mat skills, etc. You could choose from names that would translate into the game commentary and crowd chants; the crowd noises were a huge enhancement over War Zone and more than made up for the lack of atmosphere generated by the rather mundane commentary. You even could put dirty words on the character’s clothes. And this all resulted in some great looking freaks that could pull off the most bizarre entrances and exotic finishers!

As you can tell, I could go on about this all day, and whilst in gameplay terms it may have been quickly superseded by Smackdown and Smackdown 2: Know Your Role, this one took a groundbreaking template, blew it out of the water, and could keep you going for months and months. And for me it did! 
 

My Life With… Shockway Rider – ZX Spectrum 

My Life With… Shockway Rider – ZX Spectrum 

1987 was the golden age of graphics on the Spectrum. And the 6-PAK Volume 2 compilation included some prime examples, featuring nazi-Gauntlet variant Into the Eagle’s Nest, a great shooter called Light Force, an average flight sim called ACE, the classic International Karate, better-than-Arkanoid Batty, and the stunning Shockway Rider. 

I got 6-PAK Volume 2 for Christmas that year. Also memorable for seeing my beloved Ghostbusters for the first time when it premiered on ITV on Boxing Day! And my Grandma buying me Abigail by King Diamond. I’ve no idea how she knew I wanted it, and much less what the shop assistant must have thought when a 62-year old Irish lady turned up at the counter to buy it… or more likely ask for it! But it was something that I immediately fell in love with, and I reckon I’ve listened to at least once per month for the last thirty years, the last time being on my flight to California just a couple of weeks ago.

I’d discovered King Diamond in a friend’s copy of Kerrang – a pull out poster of him in full make-up holding a burning upside down cross; that got unfolded in religious education right in the face of the most Catholic of our Catholic school teachers! He got kicked out of the class, the poster got confiscated, and my world moved forward… I can distinctly remember my first listen of Abigail, as soon as we got home from my Grandma’s house on Christmas Day evening. Standing at the record player in a pair of big seventies can headphones (because the lead wouldn’t reach a chair), marvelling at the spine-chilling tale unfolding through every track. It’s a masterpiece, and there’s no finer (or gloriously terrifying) opener to any album ever! I know most of you will never have heard of this, which I pity you for, but just give the opening 40 seconds a go! 

But back to Shockway Rider… The name came from a 70’s sci-fi novel, but to me the premise was more than a bit Judge Dredd – the inlay even talked about cruising the triple-speed walkways that circled the “Megacitys of the 21st Century.” (I quote to avoid any responsibility for bad punctuation). Anyway, you’re part of the Shockway Riders, an athletic, aggressive and arrogant street gang, on the cruise to do a full circle of the moving walkway that did indeed move at three speeds, and contained ramps, speed traps, cops, vigilantes and other gangs trying to thwart your “ultimate ambition” to go all the way around… Yes, the story wasn’t its strong point! 

What was its strong point was how bold and vibrant it looked, with big, detailed, varied sprites on a bright yellow background. Once you’d jumped off the pavement onto the walkway, the challenge soon mounted as you swapped lanes to collect stuff to chuck at your oncoming enemies, avoiding the obstacles and other pedestrians, who had a habit of morphing into enemies without warning! Actually, swapping lanes was probably the biggest challenge – jump timing wasn’t exactly forgiving. That was slightly compensated by the death animation though – once you’d inexplicably exploded, all that was left was your head on the conveyor belt you died on. 

There wasn’t a massive amount of progression – I think the backgrounds changed and the obstacles changed as you went from block to block – but it stayed true to its simple concept and that continues to be its strength. 

To finish on what I didn’t realise would be a related topic before I started writing this, as well as a list of top several hundred games, I have a list of top ten albums, where King Diamond’s Abigail will forever reside…

1. The Damned – Phantasmagoria

2. The Afghan Whigs – Gentlemen

3. The Doors – In Concert

4. King Diamond – Abigail

5. Sugar – Copper Blue

6. Satyricon – Age of Nero

7. Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Welcome to the Pleasuredome

8. Slayer – Reign in Blood

9. The Mission – Children

10. Klimt 1918 – Just in Case We’ll Never Meet Again

My Life With… Horace Goes Skiing – ZX Spectrum 

My Life With… Horace Goes Skiing – ZX Spectrum 

In April 1983, Home Computing Weekly awarded this 100% for graphics. The first time I laid eyes on it, I probably concurred – another of those moments when you realise that your machine is no longer at the cutting edge; actually, I seem to remember quite a few of those moments with my VIC-20!

Horace Goes Skiing was the first game I ever played on a Spectrum. It came out in 1982 but April 1983 was probably about the time I played it, just after my best friend (and future best man) Paul’s eleventh birthday. And just as my favourite band of the day, Spanish Ballet, hit number one and the big time with True. 

There were some really striking things about the Spectrum. It was tiny compared to VIC. You could attach any cassette player to it. And it made the strangest digitised screeching sounds you’d ever heard when you loaded a game! Little did I know that I’d soon know every nuance of those loading sounds as intimately as I’d know the sax solo in True!

After a particularly garish loading screen, perfectly complementing the garish sounds coming out of the speaker, you’ve got to get Horace across the road to the ski shop. This is a particularly brutal, but great looking take on Frogger. You start at the top of the screen with some money in your purse for ski hire. The shop is at the bottom, and in between are some fantastically detailed lorries, cars and motorbikes, moving unpredictably in both directions at a serious pace. Get hit and an ambulance takes you back to the start, for a price. If you’re left without cash for ski hire, you charge around the road to be rewarded for your recklessness! Get across with enough money and it’s time to hit the slopes. 

I’ve played a ton of skiing games in my time, and this controls as well as any I’ve played. Despite reverting to slightly less impressive graphics for this stage – in fact, VIC could have managed these – you really felt like you were on snow. Hitting every gate was tough, especially when they were placed right behind a tree, but most of the fun was to be found on the jumps. These weren’t especially useful, but again felt so right. Apart from the bizarre jumping sound, but that sort of out of place noise was something else I’d eventually learn to love on the Spectrum! Get to the bottom and you were rewarded with doing it all again. Which was just fine! 

I’m not so sure about the 100% graphics score any more. It was up there for a while with games like Alcatraz Harry and that awful Artic football game, but then came Daley Thompson… which is a tale for another time! Horace Goes Skiing was simple, and by no means the best Spectrum game ever, but it was a classic and remains so to this day. 

My Life With… California Games – Atari Lynx

My Life With… California Games – Atari Lynx

In this post I think we’re going all the way back to the June 1991. It’s my brother Phil’s 17th birthday and he’s just unwrapped an Atari Lynx. I’m back from my first year of university, having spent what seemed like weeks in a sweltering sports hall doing exams in mechanics and other awful engineering things. In a few months I’d be off to France for my second year – a decision that confounds me to this day – but in the meantime a huge summer break beckoned, reunited with my school friends, exploring Southern Comfort, being either on or off (I’ve lost track which at that point in time) with the flame-haired Irish girl my former best friend and I had both fallen for on the same night the previous year, and collecting trolleys for Sainsbury’s… Which funded, alongside the aforementioned exotic things, seeing Guns ‘n Roses at Wembley, complete with an expletive-tastic Skid Row and the UK premier of Nine Inch Nails. 

That summer had its moments, one way or another (mostly another, the closer I got to leaving for France), and this was very much reflected in my experience with Phil’s Lynx. On one hand, he’s only got the Gameboy killer! I’d not even had it a year, and here’s this all singing and dancing powerhouse with its huge screen running arcade quality graphics. On the other, it came with California Games!

Several years earlier, I’d spent dozens of hours playing Winter Games on my friend Steven’s Commodore 128 and on our Spectrum +2. Not only was this a successor, but it came with all the glamour of The Beach Boys, CHiPs and the hottie in a bikini on roller skates on the cover!

Speaking of which, despite the Lynx being a powerhouse, there was a bit of compromise. Only four of the six events appeared here, sacrificing frisbee and said skater hottie rolling provocatively down a path next to a road. I don’t think we were missing out on too much, and if I remember right she appeared on the scoreboard screen so you could still get your kicks there!

But what you did get was BMX, half-pipe, footbag and the big one, surfing! Actually, they could have compromised on all the events as long as surfing was there. The waves felt like waves, and the controls responded perfectly to them. It looked the part as well – the blue sky, the realistic spray as the wave closed in, and the blond surfer dude just out there having fun in the warm California sun. 

BMX felt very similar, with flipping off the top of waves replaced by flipping and jumping and spinning your way around a great-looking BMX track. Half-pipe, situated right in front of the Hollywood sign, wasn’t quite as responsive, but you eventually got the hang of it and then it could really feel good – big air and big turns could rack up serious points once you puzzled out how to get a bit of speed up. Footbag was a less extreme affair, but you could still get a lot of satisfaction out of putting together a long and varied combo with some carefully timed nudges to the joypad. 

Very recently I played the Atari 2600 version of this, on the portable I got last Christmas (2016). That is a remarkable achievement, with easily the best graphics on the system, and its own version of Louie Louie! It’s very playable, can handle up to eight players, and the footbag feels great. Definitely worth seeking out to see Atari’s original powerhouse in all its glory!

California Games stayed close to my heart for far longer than the Lynx could ever hope to; in fact, Blue Lightning is the only other game I remember playing on it! But even California Games, as much as I love playing it on various systems to this day, can’t hold a flame to my Gameboy. Also known as Lynx killer!

See you next time, but let’s finish with a reminder of America’s greatest cultural export…

My Life With… Dungeon Master – Atari ST

My Life With… Dungeon Master – Atari ST

In 1987, aged fifteen, I was skirting perilously close to being 100% nerd. All the elements were there – the shy boy that was still considerably shorter and younger looking than a lot of his classmates; a love of thrash and death metal, the unexplained, horror, The Hobbit, Fighting Fantasy books and 2000AD. I’d discovered White Dwarf magazine and was beguiled by the painted figures, something called Warhammer and big tabletop war games, and of course Dungeons & Dragons. 

As an aside, that was probably around the same time I came across my first porno mag in a clump of bushes we used as a 45-and-in (a more pro-active version of hide & seek) hiding place in Bedford’s Jubilee Park. It was a copy of Escort, until then a distant and exotic vision on the top shelf of WHSmith next to stuff like Club International, Mayfair, Playboy, Men Only and the classic Razzle. No real relevance here, but the mystery of how porno mags became a regular sight in bushes, hedgerows and ditches continues to fascinate me!

Back to Dungeons & Dragons, and that was equally mysterious to me. Why were there no pictures of it anywhere? Just rule books, paper with a grid on and dice with loads of sides! My best friend, Thomas, talked about it all the time. His older brother, William, who I’d known for years from my previous incarnation as a scout, became instantly more cool when I found out he was a Dungeon Master! He had a hundred-sided dice too. Wild man! And they had such adventures with goblins and poison and battle axes and stuff. It would be another year, during the long post-GCSE summer holidays that the mystery was solved. Such an anti-climax…

Sometime that winter, Thomas introduced me to something close though. To my extreme jealousy, he’d got an Atari ST and that’s when I first laid eyes my future love, and on Dungeon Master. Suddenly my Spectrum looked like a relic (though not as much as when I first laid eyes on Defender of the Crown soon after)!

This was a whole new world – a disk, a huge manual (including what was virtually a novel on how you had to find the Firestaff to rid the dungeon of Chaos or some such nonsense), and how on earth were you supposed to play with the sliding block that moved an arrow around the screen? What do you mean no joystick??? And those lifelike 3D stone walls…

Once you’d picked your four heroes, it was out with your torch and into the labyrinth ye go. Fighting the scariest, most beautifully animated monsters you’d seen in a game to date with the icons that surrounded the main window was actually straightforward. As was using them to create spells with weird symbols, sort out your gear, solve puzzles, avoid traps and carry the bones of fallen allies to reincarnation altars. Providing your torch didn’t go out first! One of the truly “next-gen” features of this game was the ever diminishing light from your torch, and unless you had a spare or a spell that did the job, this was the cause of far more tension than big groups of mummies shambling about!

Some things weren’t so different to my old last-gen relic though; the corridors might have looked great, but they all looked the same, so making your own map was essential. And the dungeon was so big that it made mapping something like Firelord on the Spectrum seem a breeze!

I was in nerd heaven for every second I spent playing this at Thomas’ house. It was the embodiment of what he’d told me about the mysteries of D&D; it was Deathtrap Dungeon brought to life; it made up for all the missing fantasy credentials that made me feel a bit inadequate when I read White Dwarf – oh, the irony!

My very own ST came about a year later, and my own copy (literally) of Dungeon Master, but there’s a tale for another day. 

See you soon, when I’ll make up for the delay in posting this because I was in California with something very Californian!

My Life With… Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future – ZX Spectrum

Never regret something that made you smile… I’m not sure the free Space Spinner on issue one of the relaunched Eagle comic on the 27th March 1982 made me smile enough not to regret tearing lumps out of the cover to get the sellotape off! 

I’d read a few old annuals that had belonged to my Dad, but this was the start of my real love for Eagle that would last several years until peer pressure would see me switch to 2000AD. It started out pretty exotic to someone who’d previously read TV Comic, Whizzer & Chips and Beano – it was full of photo stories! Yes, like girls’ comics had! But they didn’t have Sgt. Streetwise or Doomlord, the alien in a crappy rubber mask and an outfit borrowed from Liberace’s wardrobe. And, of course, Dan Dare, who thankfully kicked off in a more traditional comic strip format, with Return of the Mekon. This was the guy I knew from my Dad’s old stuff, though actually the 1982 version was his great, great grandson from 200 years in the future. 

The game appeared four years later. The Mekon’s returned again, this time threatening to destroy the Earth with a hollowed out asteroid. Once Dan arrives on it, you’ve got two hours to explore the subterranean structures to find five bits of a self destruct mechanism, one on each level. Lose all your energy and you’re put away for ten minutes. This all equates to running about with your laser gun, exploring and shooting Treens. 

Its great fun, and is a dream come true for any Eagle fan – with captions aiding the story, it feels like the comic come to life. But what really makes it come to life is how it looks; this game was utterly goundbreaking as far as the Spectrum was concerned. Absolutely loads of colour – probably more than any other Spectrum game at the time – and not a not a hint of clashing. The character animation is also superb, and everything runs super fast and smoothly. The whole package was a real landmark in Spectrum gaming, to the point that loading it the first time gave you that same sense of awe you’d get moving up to the next generation of machines. 

I don’t think I ever found all five pieces, but for the rest of my time with the Spectrum it remained close to hand (in one of those dreadful rotating tape holders), long after the comic was a distant memory, lost to Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper and Nemesis the Warlock, whose spin-off games never quite had the same impact, though we’ll come back to those later. The same is true of Dan Dare II: Mekon’s Revenge and Dan Dare III: The Escape, despite the latter probably being the final word in colourful Spectrum games! 

See you next time with something from my Atari ST days. 

My Life With… Kung-Fu Master

My Life With… Kung-Fu Master

Like many others that didn’t live in a seaside resort, my experience of the golden age of video game arcades was limited to a week in the summer and when the fair came to town. The closest we had was the Bunyan Centre – a big sports centre a few hundred metres from home where I’d spent a few years becoming something of a kung-fu master myself every Saturday lunchtime. My brother and me were there on Monday nights too for trampolining for a while; we’d have to leave for it just after Inspector Gadget. I think five-a-side football was Wednesday night. Probably after Danger Mouse. Then if you were lucky there was a roller disco once a month while that was the coolest thing in the world. And afternoon multi-sport sessions in school holidays, which is where another Kung-Fu Master comes in. 

These sessions were pretty much Lord of the Flies – kids running riot around the centre, whacking squash balls up through the fan at the top of the court, trying to clean and jerk the biggest thing you could find in the weight room and so on. And overlooking the main hall was a balcony area with a couple of vending machines (one of which was the only place in town to buy Dr Pepper) and three regularly rotated arcade machines. 

I reckon Kung-Fu Master appeared there around 1985. An iconic (and possibly the first) horizontally scrolling beat ’em up where you’re making your way against the clock and waves of goons to a boss by the stairs to the next of five floors. I remember watching older kids playing it and getting a few floors up, but this is one of those games I absolutely loved without being very good at it and never getting beyond the second floor. 

It’s not a visual feast, but it drips martial arts movie atmosphere, being very inspired by the Bruce Lee movie Game of Death. You’ve got a punch and kick button, then left, right, crouch and jump on the joystick; you could also waggle it to free yourself from an enemy grip. You got more points for punching than kicking, but a jump kick was worth more. And the number of points depended on the type of enemy, whether regular thugs, tougher ones, knife throwers or oddball “bonus” enemies like moths and vases! Then you had the bosses for more points – I can only really talk about the one with sticks on the first floor and not getting beyond the one with boomerangs on the next, but they get more exotic with a giant, a black magician and Mr X. I think generally if you could back the first ones up to the stairs you just had to punch and kick a lot to beat them. 

This game soon got frantic with enemies ganging-up on both sides, but much like Ghosts n’ Goblins, the difficulty never made it frustrating to me to play. I was more than happy putting 10p after 10p in and spending a couple of minutes on the first floor, then watching the older kids get a bit further until it was my turn again. 

That was until the Spectrum version appeared in 1986! I’m generally the world’s most forgiving when it comes to arcade ports – to me every Out Run and Operation Wolf was arcade perfect because it was in my house and that was unbelievable at the time! But this one was truly a shocker that even my misplaced generosity couldn’t stretch to approval of. It’s a heartbreaking realisation when you’re twelve or thirteen to realise that the pocket money you’d been saving up to buy a game you thought you loved had been wasted. The graphics were terrible, the colour clash made worse by the use of bizarre colours, it didn’t scroll properly and no matter how fast you mashed the joystick button, the attacks just moved in their own time – which was about half the speed they needed to be to give you a chance in hell – and even if you landed one you were very lucky if the game realised it. I’d love to love this game on the Spectrum and I even played it again only yesterday to try and convince myself I’d got it wrong, but I’m afraid I hadn’t. 


Until next time… but before I sign off, here’s that other kung-fu master I mentioned earlier, circa 1980!