My Life With… Xenon II – Atari ST

My Life With… Xenon II – Atari ST

The word “Xenon” was very probably the first thing I ever wrote on a 3.5″ floppy disk, but before you tell me that if I pirate software I’m a thief, and thieves will be prosecuted, who’s to say the next word wasn’t “saves” or something equally exonerating! Actually, going back to the Atari ST today, having a bunch of floppies to hand so you can save what you’re playing is one of the most jarring things you come across, but back in the late eighties it was pretty liberating being able to save a game at all!

As an aside, as I thumb through the two custom storage boxes I created when we had access to an injection moulding machine as part of A-Level Technology, my mind now boggles at what were obviously my attempts to get the absolute maximum out of the 360kB single-sided or 720kB double-sided available using one type of “disk management” shareware or another! For example, we’ve got a Dragon Ninja demo disk, where I’ve flipped the read/write protection switch off and apparently added Mousetrap and Diablo. With a note to say there’s 34k still available and Disector ST (some utility or other) is now on the disk for Spell It (a spell checker), which also includes Connect 4 game Line-up 4, C-Panel (no idea!) and disk one of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes of the Lance, which is odd in itself because I bought the actual game of that. Anyway, all makes trying to micro-manage your Resident Evil 4 inventory to fit the rocket launcher in seem like a walk in the park!

The very first time I laid eyes on Xenon was, like most things ST before I got mine, at my friend Thomas’ house, one autumn Monday evening in 1988 after our weekly Young Enterprise meeting, which was within walking distance of his house so I’d get picked up there after a quick gaming session. This was a charity / school / local company endeavour that taught not-cool kids like us about business, and we ended up making a load of cash selling pipe cleaner worms! All the same, what was I thinking, you and I may be wondering? No doubt the prospect of cash, plus a couple of friends from other schools also going, and possibly some decent representation from the posher of the two private girls schools in Bedford! Like either of us had a chance…

While I might often give the plaudits for selling me on Atari ST to Dungeon Master and Defender of the Crown, Xenon wasn’t far behind, and would end up being the one that stuck with me the most of the three. First and foremost, the level of polish here was absolutely astounding, and, as we’d all later learn, was to become the hallmark of developers The Bitmap Brothers. As far as I’m concerned, this was the first time we’d ever had arcade quality at home, and everything about it was just stunning! Of course, it wasn’t the first time we’d played a vertical shooter, but this was as refined as one had ever been. Four stages, shoot everything, collect power-ups beat the end of level boss; standard stuff, though in some stages you’ll be shooting stuff from the ground as well as from the air – your choice. It’s nicely tough, and each stage will take some learning – especially the bosses – and you’ll have the absolute best time doing it!

The graphics are equally joyful to behold, beautifully drawn, animated (especially the explosions!) and those metals… This was the most metallic-looking game I’d ever seen! I know all about the Amiga version and its fanciness, but this is probably my favourite bit of Atari ST music too, narrowly beating the Bitmap’s Speedball, which came from the prolific David Whittaker, who you’ll find all over the best of eighties and nineties gaming tunes! To quote my own Top 25 Gaming Anthems – Part 1 (here), “this one is all synth multi-melodies and harsh stabby string things over this Euro-disco rhythm that simply shouldn’t work – especially when the stabs completely intentionally drop slightly out of time – but it’s all just right!” Well said, and if it wasn’t the most original, it was definitely the most amazing shoot ’em up ever!

A bit over a year later, enjoying the last of my last school holiday, the cover of Computer & Video Games magazine asked, “Xenon II – the most amazing shoot ’em up ever?” All sounded familiar, and inside they confirmed it, awarding 94% on ST and 96% on Amiga, for the extra bits of music I guess. And we’ll come back to that music, but so far I’m just about sold on Xenon II: Megablast with or without it – I love the original and my favourite magazine loves the sequel. But there’s no truer test than trying it out yourself, and here I am in WHSmith in Bedford leafing through a copy of the October 1989 issue of ST Format magazine, and it’s only got a Xenon II demo on the cover! Since getting an ST, I’d obviously abandoned Crash, Sinclair User or Your Sinclair as the second magazine I’d get each month, and now it was usually ST Format, ACE, The One or Zero magazine when it launched shortly after (more here), and that choice was generally down to what was on the cover disk. Flicking through my cover disks now, I obviously picked up the very dry Atari ST User and also dry but more games-focussed ST Action a couple of times too. A bit later again, there was also a short-lived disk-based magazine called Stampede, which was a pricey £3.99, but you were getting two disks that included a full free game every issue, demos, public domain stuff, reviews, tutorials and more… And firing up some of them again now, I’ve just discovered that issue 3 includes the full Mr Heli, my new favourite PC-Engine and ZX Spectrum shooter! How on earth did I miss that for three decades??? They also gave away Microprose’s Dark Side, Trivial Pursuit and several other full-pricers… Actually, £3.99 wasn’t bad, but you can see why it was short lived!

ST Format offered a more traditional cover disk, and theirs was very much a reflection of the magazine, which covered games, but would also go in-depth on programming, productivity tools, graphics creation, music creation and full electronic projects like building a disk drive head display, and to an A-level Technology nerd like me, all of that was right up my street! It’s worth taking a look at this month’s cover disk, because it gives a great snapshot of what these were all about, especially because this month also includes 16-bit public domain darling the fractal generator! You’d be rounding-up to 800K of demos, games and utilities, but as we’ve already learned, this was dependent on you having a double-sided disk drive – if not, you only got side A and not side B (meaning no fractal generator in this case!), but all wasn’t lost because if you sent in a cheque or postal order for £1.75 they’d send you the other side too in return! Assuming you’re double-sided though, we’ve got the Xenon II demo (which also got a Format Gold award elsewhere in the mag); there’s Sun Crossword and Times Crossword, depending on your intellect (paraphrasing their words not mine); and rounding out side A, there was a utility to go with that disk drive project, and a backup utility specifically for making a backup of this disk it says. Over on side B, there’s not one but three fractal generators – I probably spent more time with this running on my ST than anything outside of Kick Off and Elite, but mainly because it would take days to create one of its random landscapes! Then you had some programming tutorial files, a slide show utility, a picture compression utility and a colour screen emulator for monochrome displays and vice versa. Absolutely classic cover disk!

As mindblowing as it turned out to be, there was only so far that Xenon II’s demo was going to take you though… And that was to your favourite local game shop, because you were only getting half of the first level before it looped back to the start! But it clearly did its job – like a crack dealer giving out free samples – and very shortly after I was the proud owner of another 18x15x3cm lump of Atari ST cardboard box housing a couple of disks and 25-page English / Italian manual sitting on top of a giant piece of foam! The manual – like all Bitmap Brothers releases – is a real treat, not only telling you how to play, but also going into the ridiculous, bombsatic lore that’s brought you here from the original game, and where it’s taking you next! And that’s a good place to jump in… They tell you that no one likes a bad loser, and no one comes more universally despised than the Xenites. For a thousand years they’ve been plotting revenge for their humiliating defeat in the last Galactic Conflict, and now the very fabric of time is in danger. They’ve planted five time bombs through history and it’s up to you to save the day and the universe. “The last time you met it was a playground scrap. This time it’s war.”

This journey through time follows the process of evolution through five vertically scrolling levels. Which the manual bizzarely refers to as horizontally scrolling. Anyway, each has its own scenery and lifeforms, from prehistoric lowlife to metallic mayhem in the centuries to come. Unfortunately all of these lifeforms have beens screwed up by the time bombs planted at the end of each level, mutating everything into crazed aggressors that you’re going to be blasting away at in your ship, The Megablaster, initially equipped with a thruster that goes back a bit as well as forward, a basic but very upgradeable blaster, and a shield that’s going to run down until you’ve lost all three of your lives. As jagged-edged and uninviting as is often looks, the scenery doesn’t damage your ship, unless you get stuck in a dead end and crushed as everything keeps scrolling! We might move away from the ST and onto other versions later, and we might come back to that! It all gets more maze-like as you progress, and you don’t really want to be going backwards for long, so like the patterns of the lifeforms, you’ll also be learning which way you want to go when the scenery splits.

Every level ends with a big boss thing, and later on they’ll be appearing all over the place on top, but the one at the end is going to be your key to defusing those pesky time bombs. The first boss, the nautilus shellfish with its mine-spitting apendages, is without doubt one of the most iconic bosses of the 16-bit era – up there with that first level guy from actual horizontal shooter R-Type. The level of detail on that shell and its exquisite colouring are just unforgettable, and while the giant spiders, snakey things and more mechanical monstrosities that follow are big and really cool and stuff, they never quite hit that level one peak.

I get why the best bosses in Xenon II and R-Type are both in the first level though, because most people aren’t going to see much of the rest! It’s hard, although as we’ve said, it’s also learnable through repetition, and put your mind to it and you’ll be seeing the end of level two at least! And there’s all those upgrades too – occasionally you’ll see capsules floating about the place, and they’ll have power-up tokens in them, and you’ll also notice that killing stuff leaves cash behind, and twice per level you’ll have the chance to buy stuff or sell anything you’ve already picked up in Crispin’s Swop Shop! Equipment includes weapons such as a side shot, smart bomb or Super Nashwan Power, which provides ten seconds of total destruction. There’s health potions, speed and power boosts, an electric wrecking ball attachment and even an autofire function – and your thumb might thank you for that before long! Or if you’re minted, you could buy a really cool but generally useless dive function that lets you briefly dive into the screen and under all that parallax scrolling; and for the crazy wealthy, there’s the even more useless Bitmap Shades, which seem to make the screen slightly darker! You can also chuck cash at Crispin for mostly reliaible advice about how to play or what weapons to use in different areas, so isn’t a bad idea once per level at least until you know what you’re doing. There’s attachments too – a Megablaster for your Megablaster… I guess they forgot that they’d also called the ship Megablaster, but anyway, you can bolt up to three of these laser beasts to the front of your ship. You can protect your back-end too, with a rear shot that “clamps onto your behind and protects your rear from fear.” Finally, a mine dropper lets you hold down fire and leave a trail of floating and exploding death behind you.

That’s an awful lot of shooting stuff that you’re going to be doing before you see most of that though, but work out the first few bosses and you’ll be rolling in cash. You will pick up a rear-shot on the way, but initially you want to buy a side-shot as soon as possible, and autofire is going to mean you’re killing more and getting more cash, as well as saving you from claw-hands! You don’t really want to be losing much health early on, so top that up if you need it, but otherwise you can’t beat a bit of Super Nashwan Power in reserve too. Then you want lasers, more lasers and more health. And from there, if you’re still alive, just go crazy and get that screen filled with awesome firepower! I know that like its predecessor, Xenon II wasn’t the most original shooter ever when it appeared, even if it was what could be described as definitive, but I can’t remember anything else that offered these kind of immense weapon loadouts at the time!

What was unique was the look. If the original had introduced arcade quality into the home, this was absolutely nailing it, and to this day I really think it’s the best looking game that ever appeared on either the ST or the Amiga. The ambitious imagination behind the time-travelling concept, with its starfield-backed intricate mesh of evolution built on the smoothest of parallax scrolling is still a joy to behold. The swarms of enemies that start by just creeping you out with insect-familiarity and later terrify with mechanical intent are immactulately designed, detailed and animated, as are all the explosions, the weapons and other effects that the first game also excelled at. The colour palette is also a delight and is perfectly placed in each scenario, creating realistic textures from which rich, organic details simply pop. And it’s all so relentless that you’ll feel everything closing in on you even during the odd short moments of respite, which is helped by the constant speed and lack of slowdown even when the screen is filled with the opposite of respite! As an aside, by concidence, Taito’s wonderful arcade platformer New Zealand Story came out on ST at just about the same time as Xenon II, and I reckon that comes a close second as best looker on the platform – now there’s a colour palette and a half!

There’s a pleasing density to the sound effects that blip, blast and explode enough to mostly drown out the bombastic soundtrack, which actually is very, very good and a perfect fit for a vertical shooter, but at the time annoyed me for having Bomb the Bass plastered over the box! I’m not sure that musical snob was the right word (although it would be now!), but back in 1989, as uncool as I was, there were at least some signs of life from the music I was listening to! As thrash was becoming stadium metal, Metallica’s …And Justice For All and Slayer’s South of Heaven from the previous year had inspired a deeper exploration into metal, and the more extreme the better, with stuff like Napalm Death’s From Enslavement to Obliteration, Bolt Thrower’s Realm of Chaos and Death’s Leprosy sowing seeds for a lifelong love of what would emerge for both me and the genre into black metal in particular. And that meant I had no time for Bomb the Bass and rubbish like that, to the point of it actually being offensive to me, and therefore I didn’t appreciate having it shoved down my throat everywhere the game was mentioned!

With the benefit of a lot more age and a bit more hindsight, we’ve got a pretty good theme tune playing from the loading screen onwards though! It turns out that the Megablast subtitle isn’t just where the name of your ship and potentially some of it’s clip-on accessories comes from, but it’s actually lifted from Bomb the Bass’ track Megablast (Hip Hop on Precinct 13). Our musical hero from the first Xenon, David Whittaker, is on arranging duty this time, sampling the original track up to the title screen, then stripping it down a little while the game is playing. I think the Amiga got the whole original track, hence the slight preference when they were reviewed together.

Xenon II would get ported to Sega’s Master System in a stripped down but pretty playable form at the end of 1991, and then to the Mega Drive or Genesis in 1992, and this one’s interesting because it’s the version I played a lot of in the years while my ST was in hibernation, but until I went back to the original, didn’t realise quite how much it suffered in conversion and now struggle to go back to! First and foremost, those gorgeous intertwining parallax meshes look blocky (and brown) enough for the Commodore 64 to have spat them out, but would probably have done a better job of making them scroll! Can you believe the ST is being praised for its smooth scrolling over this stuttering mess?!?! Getting stuck on the scenery is also a regular occurence that I don’t recall ever experiencing elsewhere, and no amount of backwards thrust is going to pull you clear – it’s reset the system or bust! The music sounds a bit off here too.

On one hand, if you were desperate to play Xenon II and only had a Mega Drive, you’d be happy enough, but on the other, that system is stacked with wonderful vertical shooters – Truxton, Mega SWIV, Twin Cobra, Elemental Master, M.U.S.H.A… And they’re just the ones a non-expert like me can think of off the top of my head before we even dive into anything horizontal (and I’m talking about you, Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar)… You hopefully won’t notice this, but writing that sentence just sent me on a Mega Drive shooter odyssey for the last hour! Back to Xenon II, there were also versions on weirdo machines like the CDTV, Archimedes and Atari Jaguar, but the other one I did spend quite a lot of time with when it came out towards the end of 1992 was for the Nintendo Game Boy. All that stuff we discussed before about buying a side-shot first – forget it! You want the speed ups because the ship crawls in comparison to other versions, but once that’s sorted, this isn’t bad at all! It’s understandably more stripped-down than even the Master System, but apart from that it feels like Xenon II and does a great job of sounding like it too!

Let’s head back to September 1989 C&VG’s cover question – the most amazing shoot ’em up ever? As much as I love it, and probably associate this game with the Atari ST more than any other, including my number two favourite game ever Kick Off, and not far behind Elite, it’s not quite my favourite shooter. That would be 1942, for it’s more frantic action and more personally attractive World War II setting. For vertical shooters, it would be next though, and overall for any direction scrolling shooters, it’s a toss up with either arcade P-47 or Thunder Force AC. Without doubt a stunner then, and still very much a stunner now!

Discovering BurgerTime on My Arcade, NES, Arcade and More!

Discovering BurgerTime on My Arcade, NES, Arcade and More!

As much as I always liked the look of BurgerTime when it arrived in town with the traveliing funfair a couple of times a year, it was always competing with Pole Position for those fleeting few minutes of my attention when we were allowed in its classically smoke-filled, seedy arcade. Before long, it would be competing with a sit-down Star Wars cabinet too, and by then even a spectacular 3D racer with a steering wheel and a gearstick that once blew a 10-year old’s mind was going to struggle to get another look-in!

BurgerTime was originally known as Hamburger when it was produced by Data East in Japan in 1982, but fearful of potential trademark issues, Bally Midway decided to rename it when they licensed it for Western release. Everything takes place on a single screen, where you control a little chef called Peter Pepper as he runs around six increasingly challenging mazes of ladders and platforms, creating dirty hamburgers from the ingredients lying around while avoiding various enemies, the dastardly Mr Hot Dog, Mr Egg and Mr Pickle! You create the burger by getting to the platform where one of the ingredients is placed and walking over its full length, which will cause it to drop to the level below. These include buns, patties, lettuce and sometimes tomatoes or cheese, and I’m sure they taste all the better for being trampled! If there’s another burger bit under it, then that will drop down a level too, until you’ve got them all stacked up on the bun at the bottom.

As well as avoiding the Mr men, you’re armed with a limited supply of pepper sprays, which will briefly hold them in their tracks, and extra bonuses will also appear from time to time in the form of french fries, coffee and ice creams. Dropping an ingredient on the bad guys is to be encouraged too! And once you’ve dropped all of the ingredients onto all of the burger plates (rather than the bad guys) on the screen, you can move on to the next. Complete all six screens before getting Mr Pickled with all of your lives and it will start all over again.

As stuff like Track & Field, Pac-Land, Out Run and Operation Wolf gradually evolved, running around some platforms making hamburgers and avoiding Mr Hot Dog wasn’t just not happening anymore, but was also just consigned to history! But only for a while… As well as a strangely limited number of home ports (which I’ll touch on shortly) and a much wider range of clones, such as Mr Wimpy, there were also some arcade sequels, with Peter Pepper’s Ice Cream Factory in 1984 and two-player Super BurgerTime in 1990, though I’ve never seen either in the wild; I think the latter is available on Nintendo Switch though. There was an Intellivision-only sequel called Diner too, an odd, blocky, pseudo 3D thing about kicking food down platforms! We pick up my story with BurgerTime again in 1991, but now we’re on that handheld miracle the Game Boy, under the guise of BurgerTime Deluxe.

The core gameplay loop might be the same, but the loop around six screens definitely isn’t in this version! You’ve got 24 all-new levels on Game Boy, though you’re probably going to see them all way before you see all of the arcade ones. They’re mostly quick to complete, and most are not massively difficult in comparison; you also get a password every four screens which makes your lives feel fairly expendable. There’s even more sprinkles on top though! You can get extra power ups, from chocolate, which makes you invincible (just like in real life!), to chicken nuggets that turn your enemies in hot dogs, but not Mr Hot Dogs I presume because that would be the opposite of a power-up! And we didn’t even talk about the cut scenes that tie together all of those loose ends you’ve been wondering about since 1982, or the giant donut that turns up later! It’s great to look at, with a huge amount of personality in those tiny, monochrome graphics that really make me pine for single-screen versions of Rodland and Bubble Bobble on there, and you’re also getting a jaunty take on the BurgerTime tune to keep you company and a nice variety of sound effects too. Most importantly, it feels fantastic to play, and despite the slightly easier difficulty, all the strategy is intact and moving Peter Pepper around the platform mazes is a joy.

In the intervening years since 1991, I’ve always gone back to BurgerTime Deluxe from time-to-time, but I’ve spent quite a lot of time on the NES version too. It’s a lovely port – not quite as polished as the arcade version, but it’s all present and correct, and in the absence of owning the arcade version, you can’t go wrong. My only criticism would be that it’s missing a little finesse in the controls (especially compared to Deluxe), and there’s a stickiness, especially on ladders, that you get used to, but demands a level of precision that feels like it shouldn’t be there.

The other version I know and love is the Atari 2600 port. Now, I get that there’s no need to ever play this when you have any of the other versions (though who has a Coleco Adam or an Aquarius nowadays?), but everyone should have a soft-spot for any attempt at an arcade port on there, and this is one of the better ones! As soon as you let your eyes adjust, you’ve got all the fun and all the strategy of a game of BurgerTime, and it’s as a good as it could possibly be! What’s missing, though, is any sniff of conversions for ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 or that other one. But, of course, we had some nice clones! Barmy Burgers is one I remember, but going back now it controls like a dog and it sounds weird, even for a Spectrum! There were loads more to choose from if that didn’t take your fancy though; in fact, it’s a bit like all those Bruce Lee clones you had around the same time – Bruce Le, Bruce Li, Bruce Thai, Lee Bruce… We had Burger Time, Burger Chase, BurgerSpace, Burger Boy, Chip Factory, Lunchtime, Burger Builder and Basic Burger. And probably better known than even BurgerTime in many parts, we had the mighty Ocean Software’s Mr Wimpy, of burger chain Wimpy fame! It wasn’t BurgerTime though…

I’m skipping past mobile games like 2007’s BurgerTime Delight, 2011’s 3D update BurgerTime World Tour on the consoles of the day, and the more recent BurgerTime Party on Switch from 2019 because I’ve never played any of them! Instead, we’re going to land on 9th May 2021, which was my birthday and I received a rather lovely table-top BurgerTime arcade cabinet replica from my Mum… And here finally begins a journey almost forty years in the making (and I’m not just talking about reading this post so far), the arcade version of BurgerTime! Almost, because this is actually that NES version again, but it’s worth stopping off here before we get to the “proper” arcade version!

The My Arcade BurgerTime Micro Player is fully licensed, stands at 17cm or nearly 7 inches tall, and features a quality 2.75 inch colour, backlit screen with plenty of brightness and the right amount of contrast. The design of the cabinet is very realistic – it could have just been a vague representation and no one would have complained, but this is nicely shaped, angled and proportioned, and well-built too. It’s powered by micro USB or four AA batteries, and it sounds awesome if you plug in some headphones, but for some casual play its built-in speaker sounds absolutely fine too. The glossy cabinet artwork closely resembles the original, with what appears to my eyes to be accurate imagery, but on a slightly modified layout to suit the mini cabinet dimensions and lack of coin slots and instruction panels.

There’s a big, surprisingly tactile on/off switch where the coin slots would have been at the bottom of the cabinet, and the “slots” light up red when it’s on. The control panel has a start and reset button, two buttons which both trigger the pepper spray, and a removable joystick so you can use the d-pad underneath if you prefer. Either method feels fine to me, though if I’ve got it on a table it feels slightly more natural to use the joystick than angle your fingers to the d-pad. What I really love here is that you’re in a game within two seconds of turning it on – hit start when the screen lights up and you’re away! Playing on a small scale like this does take a bit of getting used to, and it’s probably not ideal for long play sessions unless you want your hand cramping into a claw, but until it does there’s no problem zipping around the platforms and ladders. Speaking of zipping around, I have experienced a bit of slowdown a few screens in, but it’s brief when it happens and it seems to happen rarely. Just one other complaint – it doesn’t save your high scores when you turn it off!

Right, we’ve covered the arcade cabinet of sorts, now let’s cover the arcade game itself, and our final port of call, which is most definitely the original arcade version, but now we’re on the original PlayStation, and Arcade’s Greatest Hits: The Midway Collection 2. This is a really cool collection from 1997, and as well as BurgerTime, features the relatively obscure Blaster (a kind of 3D Robotron 2084 follow-up), Joust 2 (a proper follow-up), the unreleased (and very odd) competitive food-fighter Splat, and stone-cold classics Spy Hunter, Root Beer Tapper and Moon Patrol. Everything emulates really well here, and apart from a bit of time needed to get used to Spy Hunter, the PlayStation controller feels good too. The collection also includes a trivia game, which no one’s ever going to know most of the answers to, but the real fun here is in the video clips of the original game developers explaining those answers. Overall a very nice collection, as are the other volumes which include Atari and Williams classics too.

Anyway, we’re here for BurgerTime! It’s certainly a definitive version, and its interesting to play it back-to-back with the mini cabinet and the proper NES version, because there’s really not a lot in it apart from the aforementioned “finesse” to the controls, and a bit of graphical and audio clarity on top. The animation is very 1982, but I still don’t think a sesame seed burger bun has ever looked better in a game since! There’s also a surprising amount of detail in that tiny chef’s outfit, right down to the buttons, and the same for the shine on Mr Hot Dog or the highlights on Mr Pickle, though I will say that Mr Egg is a little less impressive! The audio is pure early eighties arcade too, with its shrill (in the nicest possible way) theme tune coming and going around the various sound effects and jingles.

Where this still absolutely holds up – in much the same way as its better known brethren like Pac-Man – is in its depth of gameplay. It doesn’t take long before your mind is a few seconds ahead of the action on screen, plotting out an optimum pattern that will lead enemies away from where you need a safe route to an ingredient, and even grouping them together so dropping something on them all at once gives you maximum breathing space! Like Pac-Man, you also need to avoid getting trapped between two incoming enemies, or getting stuck in a dead-end, because the only way out of these is to use your pepper spray, and ideally you don’t want to be using that until you really need to. There’s a couple of other tricks of the trade you soon get used to using – you start at the top and let gravity take the ingredients below with it; the only time you want to distract yourself with other layers is if it’s going to take a load of enemies with it. You can drop enemies down with the ingredients too, though this will involve them being on it as you stand on the last part of its length, so is a risky strategy.

The first stage is pretty straightforward, with a limited number of enemies and a limited number of platforms that you need so drop the ingredients down from, but from stage two onwards you’re being introduced to dead ends and enemy funnelling, and their numbers are going to start ramping up too! By the time you’re at stage four, your going to see eight layers of platforms to drop the hamburgers down from, and you’re going to spend most of your time trying to lead the enemies on a merry dance around the complex set of platforms just to pick off a single ingredient, so patience becomes key. The next two stages are less dense, but there’s also more dead ends and less connections between platforms, and whilst patience still applies, you can’t hang around on either of these! Apparently (because I’ve never got past stage six), this now loops until you get to 28, when the enemies go super-fast for periods and it all becomes about ducking in and out of safe zones. Which I will never need to worry about!

Absolutely wonderful game with timeless appeal, which does make me wonder why it’s not quite as consigned to history now like it seemed to have been for a while in the mid-eighties, but all the same is never mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Pac-Man and other arcade classics of the time, or even stuff like Chuckie Egg that soon followed in the same vein on the home computers… Maybe it just needed Pac-Man on some platforms instead. Or Peter Pepper should have learnt to jump!

Game Review: Travel Through Time Vol. 1 – Northern Lights on ZX Spectrum

Game Review: Travel Through Time Vol. 1 – Northern Lights on ZX Spectrum

Throughout its lifetime, the limits of the ZX Spectrum were regularly tested and redefined by its racing games. Ironically, of course, that’s in stark contrast to its main 8-bit rival, whose limits were regularly defined by them… Buggy Boy, Super Cycle and maybe its interpretation of Power Drift excluded. Maybe.

Anyway, back on the Spectrum, we can go all the way back to the 1983-realism of Chequered Flag, with its lifelike cockpit and household name tracks; and it’s where my life with the Spectrum began! Not so much a racing game and more of a driving game, but no denying that the third-person 3D crime-fuelled cityscapes of 1986’s Turbo Esprit were a blueprint for Grand Theft Auto and more that followed. Things went nuts in 1987, with my number one (if we’re excluding Supersrint) Spectrum racing game ever Enduro Racer and its big thrill, big sprite off-road motorbiking; we also had another great arcade bike racer in Super Hang-On, and I’ll always maintain that the Spectrum’s conversion of Out Run was a stunner too! The superb arcade ports didn’t let up the following year, with WEC Le Mans’ super-smooth action coming very close to also being top of the pile. Then there was the depth of Nigel Mansell’s Grand Prix, and I’m also going to mention Super Trux for trying something new too, especially when it came to hills, and just being a really fun, under-appreciated racer!

Speaking of hills, 1989 saw a fantastic conversion of Power Drift which really nailed the gameplay of the original, and another game that’s often mentioned as one of the best (if not the best) of them all, Chase HQ, although as impressive as it runs, I’ve never really clicked with that on any system. I definitely clicked with Stunt Car Racer on another system (Atari ST), but the Spectrum also got a very impressive, albeit more bare bones version that really knows how to throw those big 3D shapes that make up those outrageous elevated tracks around. A couple of years later and we’re now really getting the most out the system’s 3D graphics capabilities – Chevy Chase is a beauty (especially the gorgeous sunset level); take your pick between Test Drive II or Toyota Celica GT Rally as the closest you’ll come to driving a car on the Spectrum (at least to look at…); and finally we approach the end of the Spectrum’s life with Super Monaco GP realising everything we thought we were looking at when we started our journey with Chequered Flag almost a decade earlier!

Super hang on a minute though! What’s all this talk about end of the Spectrum’s life? Okay, maybe briefly, but like another guy with a beard, it didn’t take Sir Clive’s little zombie long to rise from the grave with a bit of help from the insane homebrew scene that’s still thriving as we speak – no doubt whenever you’re reading this! We’ve had some absolute corkers when it comes to racing games especially over the last few years – all the way back in 2004 we had 4K Race, which was followed up with the sublime Pole Position-esque sequel 4K Race Refuelled, a super-smooth, super-fast arcade racer that fills a gap on the Spectrum I didn’t realise was there until I played it. Fast forward a few years to 2019 and we’ve got a couple of releases from developer Zosya Entertainment, who by this point were establishing themselves as a real sign of quality for modern ZX Spectrum gaming. The first game of theirs I remember wasn’t a racing game, but this really great looking fantasy (literally!) Amazon action adventure called Valley of Rains, complete with its raunchy cassette inlay! They’ve also produced the excellent platformer Bonnie and Clyde, in the vein of Bubble Bobble or Rodland, and the jaw-dropping first-person shooter The Dark: Redux, and you really need to be checking out anything with their name on… Including uber-stylised drift racer, Drift (which I’m rubbish at), and an arguably better take on the original Super Hang-On conversion by the name of Just a Gal, featuring the tale of a lady racer named Maureen!

And between the style and the storyline of these two games, we end our journey at the present day, with Zosya’s 2021 release, Travel Through Time Vol. 1: Northern Lights. Now, in getting here we’ve taken in the very best of ZX Spectrum racing (and sometimes ZX Spectrum gaming full-stop), but from the very outset it’s obvious that we’re also in the presence of something very, very special with this one!

We begin as you begin your amateur racing career in 1950’s Sweden, and what follows is a story-based racing game that spans four decades, six vehicles from those decades (up to the eighties in case you’re struggling to keep track) as the automotive industry develops in parallel, and follow the life of one family through that time. And all of this plays out through stylish cutscenes, and a variety of racing types, from challenge to time trial and duel to checkpoint chasing, and you’ll be racing at night and through different seasons and weather too.

We’re understandably in 128K-only territory here, so after a bright and breezy loading screen you’re getting a very bright and breezy AY theme tune, with meandering melodies skillfully layering over a familiar sounding Spectrum rhythm section that eventually end up in a quite moving crescendo. From there, as well as choosing your preferred control method, you’re also asked if you want OST CD or chip sound during gameplay, then you’re dumped into the 1950’s with a beautifully coloured, finely detailed and minimally animated cutscene.

The first stage is the simplest of all the different race modes – just drive with no time limits, get used to the controls and enjoy the scenery as you make your way to the first checkpoint. The first thing that hits you is the absolutely unique art style. It’s a kind of textured cartoon-noir that uses shadows to not only provide atmosphere, but somehow restrict the actual screen size without you really noticing, and this no doubt contributes to the immediate visual miracle in detail, speed and smoothness of movement. I’m a complete philistine when it comes to stuff like frame rate, and could not care less about 60 frames per second, 30 frames per second, performance mode, whatever. As long as doesn’t look like stop motion, I’ll take tons of graphics over the rest any time. And that’s the great thing about Spectrums and the like – no one cares! But when you’re hitting 25 FPS on there, even I know that’s pretty impressive. Especially when there’s tons of graphics going on in parallel!

From the outset, there’s so much detail everywhere you look that isn’t sky or shadow, which again, is such a clever performance enabler in this type of game! The first time it really hits you is something as simple as a pedestrian crossing you go over at the start of the first stage, and you think “that’s impressive” before you start noticing the dynamic shadows coming off the telegraph poles or trees or top of your car as it goes under a bridge, or the skidmarks when you brake hard, or just the difference in texture as land becomes water beneath the bridge you’re on. There’s so much attention to detail here that I’ve already said more than I should – it’s a racer but I really don’t want to spoil anything beyond a taster of the first few minutes! All that road decoration is more than eye-candy too, and you’ll soon be paying extreme attention to road signs that warn of upcoming hazards like sharp turns, narrowing roads and other regular racing game stuff, but also things like railway crossings – the first one you can ignore, but go through the next barrier without stopping and you’re in trouble… By the way, you’ll be thinking “that’s seriously impressive” by now and we’re still mere seconds into the first stage! The car sprites have an air of Buggy Boy about them – big and chunky, and what that lack in colour is more than made up for in detail – just check out the glimpse of side of the car when you’re turning! Although there’s not massive variety in them during individual events or even time periods, as a whole you are getting plenty to drive and even more to avoid, with the other cars’ AI apparently always having an eye on the rear-view mirror to make sure it’s always just in the way enough for a time-sapping clip as you pass by!

You should breeze through the first few stages despite the other cars, the trains and the introduction of various timers, and each brings new and varied scenery, new colours to complement the deep shadows (with only the slightest of occasional bleeding), and you’ll also progress the story through cutscenes. I have the say that the story isn’t the game’s strongest point, and while it’s a nice way to mix up the racing action, when you have a racer this good I can live without it! I reckon the developers had an idea this might be the case for many of us because a long hold on the gear change button will skip it and get you straight back into the action!

It was the first part of stage four where the challenge spiked a bit; this one is a checkpoint race, and the first checkpoint must have taken me about fifteen goes to get to. It’s all about setting expectations though, because from here onwards you’re going to have your work cut out, and the very next stage – a one-on-one duel – took forever, watching our opponent disappear at the start and then get further and further away on your little in-car distance meter as the race went on, over and over! By now it’s clear that the game is demanding perfection, and on many stages (but not all) that means learning every bend, every gear change and every beautiful undulation! Again, because it’s as good as it is, it just about gets away with it, because we’re still only starting out here!

Which is a good time to remind myself that this isn’t a text-based walkthrough, and I’ve already said I don’t want to spoil things, so after about 18 different stages and a brief vehicle change, you’re going to be doing that time travelling thing the game name talks about, and heading into the 1960’s to do it all over again, in a smart modern car and in all kinds of new environments and conditions. And then the 1970’s, and finally the 1980’s. I have to admit that getting there is going to be a push. As good as it feels to play, and for all the variety of race types, I honestly can’t see many people even getting half way, especially with the more brutal time limits on some of the stages. And certainly not in one session because your hand will have cramped into a claw long before that, although there is a password around 1970 if you’re not using save states between levels! That’s about as far as I’ve got so far too, but I reckon you’re looking at 5-6 hours of story at least.

But for all the difficulty spikes, it’s always wonderful racing! Behind the graphical (and some nice dynamic audio) frills, which genuinely never stop being a joy to behold (except, if I’m being a bit harsh, maybe in the snow stages where you lose the impact of all that missing black shadowing), this feels a lot like WEC Le Mans to play. And there’s not really a greater compliment I can pay any Spectrum racer’s gameplay; or at least none that doesn’t involve the words “Enduro” and “Racer” but for as good as it appears to be, I’m not quite ready to go there with this yet! Anyway, the car is very responsive, and you’ll find yourself constantly making decisions on accelerator position versus gear change versus brake as you seek the perfect runs often demanded, and with time, so far at least, these are always achievable with persistence. And as someone who just finished WEC Le Mans for the first time, I reckon I have that persistence, and I definitely have no problem with playing this for many more hours!

For anyone with any interest in the ZX Spectrum, you have to check this out! It’s up there with the machine’s very best racing games, whether from its original incarnation or any of the wonderful homebrews since. The ingenuinity, the creativity and the sheer craftsmanship on display here will simply blow you away. Oh yeah, while there is a cassette release for you purists, the digital version is completely free. No excuse. And volume one had better mean there’s a volume two on the way… Incredible!

Grab it here.

Retro Arcadia Top 10 Games of 2021 – The Half Way Point!

Retro Arcadia Top 10 Games of 2021 – The Half Way Point!

Not sure I’ve ever got to the end of June and had a top ten games already, but I’m guessing the jump to Xbox Series X and it’s little Game Pass feature might have something to do with it! And that’s partly why I’m doing this now, because given what’s hopefully coming for the rest of the year, I reckon it might change a bit by December, so I just wanted to give these guys some credit before they don’t deserve it!

1. Resident Evil Village (Xbox Series X)
I wasn’t fussed about next-gen until the doors of Castle Dimitrescu were swept open in that very first gameplay footage back in January, and we climbed the grandest of staircases under the grandest of chandeliers under the grandest of ceilings, and it was just the best-looking thing I’d ever seen in a game! That combined with the clear influence of Resident Evil 4 – my third favourite game ever – to have me more hyped about Resident Evil Village than even Shao-Lin’s Road on the ZX Spectrum in 1986! And it more than lived up to that hype! A beautiful time, several times and counting.

2. Cyber Shadow (Xbox One)
Back in January, on my son’s hand-me-down Xbox, I succumbed to another Game Pass subscription for this retro arcade platformer, because a second one in the house for a month was still way cheaper than getting it on Switch! Little bit Metroid and a lot Ninja Gaiden – really punishing but begrudgingly fair, controls like a dream, and the levels are really well designed with some great variety, despite a couple of overly harsh checkpoints! And it’s also the best-looking and sounding NES game you could ever dream of, oozing this oppressive atmosphere behind all that polish.

3. Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection (Switch)
I’ve spent decades having the time of my life getting killed on the first two levels (but mostly the first!) of this game’s various Ghouls, Ghosts and Goblins predecessors, and I’m pleased to report that this one is no different! By far the most brutal in the series so far (although there are options for wimps and even optional mid-level checkpoints for all), and also the best looking, best sounding and, by all accounts, the most varied, though I’m unlikely to ever know about that!

4. Outriders (Xbox Series X)
Finally, I found my new Destiny! Fantastic feeling cover-shooter built around an addictive, repetitive and often joyfully mindless progressive level-up and loot loop that feels loads better if you jump in with others, though the flexible difficulty system means it works fine solo too. The magic classes mix things up, there’s various enhancement systems and all kinds of modification possible, a ridiculous amount of better weapons and armour to keep finding, and the story isn’t bad either. Looks mighty fine as well!

5. Narita Boy (Xbox Series X)
A pleasantly modern-feeling sort of metroidvania homage to the eighties that starts a bit bewildering as you’re dumped into a complex story made of complex language, but persevere a while and your back and forth will reward you with enormous environmental variety and loads of different enemies to overcome with increasingly fluid combat. And as you’re wandering and wondering at some glorious pseudo-Tron visuals and a fantastic synth-wave soundtrack, you’ll even start to work out what it’s all about too!

6. Genesis Noir (Xbox Series X)
I should hate this! Pointing, clicking and jazzing isn’t me… Unlike Howard Moon, I’m definitely not the jazzy boy! But I’m okay with some film noir, and I like some Pink Panther cartoon aesthetics, especially when they’re so painfully stylish! And this isn’t really point-and-click; it’s very tactile, and, unusually for that genre, its puzzles are mostly logical. There’s no escaping a bit of smoky jazz club in this absolutely unique anti-creation tale though, but I can forgive it that.

7. Travel Through Time Vol. 1: Northern Lights (ZX Spectrum)
For anyone interested in ZX Spectrums, you have to check this out! It’s up there with the machine’s best racing games, whether Enduro Racer and WEC Le Mans et al from its original run, or anything like 4K Race Refuelled or Just a Gal that followed more recently. Speaking of which, it’s from the same developer as Just a Gal, but this time the ingenuity, creativity and sheer craftsmanship on display here will just blow you away even more. Just stunning!

8. Pac-Man 99 (Switch)
I really didn’t appreciate having to buy a skin when it turned out I kept getting into the top ten then dying because of a red enemy Pac-Man on the black background that I couldn’t see because no settings compensated for my very common red-black colourblindness… But it was a Xevious one, and it was cheap, and the game was free, and it’s a really, really good competitive multiplayer take on the classic core mechanics, and it’s really, really addictive, so I’m going to begrudgingly forgive it that and just say it’s great!

9. Danterrifik III (ZX Spectrum)
Yes, you read that right – another Spectrum game! This is a triumph of both minimalist design and the most brutal of old-school split-second, pixel-perfect punishing platforming. The intricate black, white and occasionally red Nazi-soiled religious imagery would look like this on any platform, and the exquisite soundtrack is as good as has ever graced the Spectrum – you might even think you’re listening to a Commodore 64 while your 99 lives are being chipped away in very rapid succession!

10. The Medium (Xbox Series X)
As the first game I played that was made for my new next-gen console, this was a disappointment! Just imagine the leap from playing Zub on ZX Spectrum to Defender of the Crown on Atari ST… Well, it was pretty much the opposite of that, and I might even say was a backwards step from something like Final Fantasy VII Remake on PS4! But as a horror walking simulator of sorts with a fantastic psychic otherworld mechanic and hard-hitting story, it really hit the spot.

My Life With… Test Drive II: The Duel – SNES

My Life With… Test Drive II: The Duel – SNES

With the benefit of hindsight, I’ve recently been putting together a really nicely curated collection of Atari ST racing games, which, during its hey-day back in the late eighties and early nineties, consisted of Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge, Stunt Car Racer, Hard Drivin’ and Super Hang On, with a bit of R.V.F. Honda being mostly forgotten on the side. Actually, that’s not a bad collection given there was allsorts of other stuff to play on there and I was a skint student for most of that time! But the Atari ST had so much more, and over the last couple of years since it re-emerged from my Dad’s old loft, I’ve had a great time seeking out the likes of Formula One Grand Prix, Vroom, Buggy Boy, Chase HQ, Out Run, Turbo Out Run, Powerdrift, Toyota Celica GT Rally, Crazy Cars II and III, and, of course, that Lotus sequel! In fact, I just need Continental Circus at a decent price and my work there is just about done!

That’s not to say the ST didn’t have its fair share of racing stinkers too – the pitifully slow Days of Thunder possibly being the highlight, and I still can’t believe I spent all that money on that and then wasted all that time playing it to try and justify doing so! I had similar feelings about Drivin’ Force, which was visually a bit like Powerdrift, but if I remember right you could choose pretty much any vehicle under the sun to drive – I would load it up and check that last point, but I’m not sure my eyes can take that kind of high-speed mess anymore; I do remember that if you hit anything you’d bounce backwards about a hundred metres though!

Then there was Test Drive and its sequel, Test Drive II: The Duel, and until very recently when I was feeling a bit completionist, neither of them have ever interested me in the slightest! “My Life Without… Test Drive II” might have been a more appropriate title so far! Anyway, with the first one I’m not really sure why, apart from it looked a bit average in screenshots, and while reviews at the time were mostly positive, they were not £25 positive! I definitely had a reason for not splashing the cash on number two though – for whatever reason, in April 1991 Computer & Video Games magazine decided the ST was only getting a single page for five reviews and all of that month’s news (plus five screenshots), but in the little it did say about Test Drive II: The Duel, it said buy Lotus Esprit Challenge instead. And that’s what I did, although by “buy” I possibly mean acquire, but either way, no regrets!

Fast forward several decades, and I’m doing a similar collecting exercise with the Sega Mega Drive, albeit in a much less expensive way than my current ST odyssey, with emulation on a modded PlayStation Classic, and there’s a recommendation on one of those “information” sites for retro games enthusiasts that Nintendo doesn’t like – “If you liked Road Rash II, you might also like… Test Drive II: The Duel.” And for the princely sum of half a second of downloading, I thought why not, because for that price, I might also like! I didn’t that much. If you’d bought it you’d have found some fun in it for sure (unlike Days of Thunder!), but even the original Road Rash on the Master System looks way better than this does, and it just feels like a lazy port of what I imagine the ST version to play like! In this case I’m not going to recommend Lotus II instead because I’m not a massive fan of the Mega Drive version of that either, but instead switch machines and go for Kawasaki Superbikes or Road Rash II instead. Or you could, of course, switch machines completely…

One more fast forward, but only a couple of years this time, to the 4th of March 2021 when my friend and YouTube’s premier retro gamer, Nick Jenkin (do visit him here) reviewed a game called Test Drive II: The Duel on SNES. And that’s when the game that’s never interested me on a system mostly known for those small scale Mode 7 racers like the glorious F1 Race of Champions and that thing with go-karts started to get interesting! In fact, it looked like a whole different game to the one I wasn’t very familiar with, with speed and fluidity of movement, all sorts of sound effects and graphical flourishes that didn’t include rocky crags that looked like worms crawling up a lump of brown to create a cliff face! At the very least it was more than enough to encourage me to spend half a second downloading this version too, which I did immediately, and then spent several hours when I should have been in bed unable to tear myself away. Apart from the aforementioned Road Rash II and F1 ROC: Race of Champions, I’m not sure I’ve ever clicked so instantly with a racing game like I did this one. Then it was all I played for days, at the expense, no less, of the almost endless possibilities for fun in Forza Horizon 4 and the gloriously lit but ultimately tedious Dirt 5.0 on the new Xbox Series X that had arrived a week before! And a few months later it’s firmly established itself as one of my top ten racers ever, not that I’ve ever thought about that before, but this is as good a place as any so let’s see where it slots in!

Right, top ten favourite racers of all time! This is difficult, because what’s a racer? Okay, I’m not counting things without motors like SSX 3 or top-down stuff like Super Sprint, which negates what would have been my top two otherwise! I reckon anything else goes though…
1. Out Run (Arcade but I’ll make a case for ZX Spectrum version any day)
2. Destruction Derby 2 (PlayStation)
3. Enduro Racer (ZX Spectrum)
4. Stunt Car Racer (Atari ST)
5. Virtua Racing (Arcade)
6. Super Hang-On (Atari ST)
7. F1 ROC: Race of Champions (SNES)
8. Power Drift (Arcade)
9. V-Rally 3 (Game Boy Advance)
10. Test Drive 2: The Duel (SNES)

Can’t believe I’ve never done that before, and I know what you’re thinking, but what you didn’t see there was that behind the curtains I’d simply extracted racers in order from my big list of favourite games, and not just shoe-horned this game into number ten! That said, I’m a little disappointed that Victory Run on PC-Engine came out at number eleven and isn’t included there; far more so than Mario Kart Super Circuit, Hard Drivin’, Race Driver GRID and Super Cycle that would have rounded out a top fifteen. If we’re not counting SSX 3 and Supersprint and maybe Badlands, though I’m still toying with where that actually fits into my big list! Anyway, lucky it did come out at number ten or I’d have wasted almost as much time writing all of this as you have reading it!

We’ve already established a bit about Test Drive II, but Distinctive Software (later sucked into EA) released it at that moment of crossover when everything had to be on everything, so in 1989 we saw it on Atari ST and Amiga as well as the old guard of MSX, Amstrad CPC, Spectrum and Commodore 64, then we also got it on Apple II and MS-DOS, though I wouldn’t lay eyes on either of those systems until the following year when I went to university. Then in 1992 it appeared on Genesis or Mega Drive, depending on your location, and then either right at the end of 1992 or well into 1993 (also depending on your location) it finally appeared on SNES too, a full four years after we were told to buy something else instead! And it built on the lack of much at all that made the first game a bit average by expanding into a Cannonball Run kind of race between exotic cars whilst avoiding the police across varied American landscapes. Which is way better than seeing how fast you can drive around a single track!

When the console versions did eventually arrive, they’d mixed up those American landscapes a bit, taking the computer versions’ multi-stage course (and penchant for cliffs with worms running up them!) and turning them into four courses which offer different difficulty levels and race lengths, ranging from five to eight stages. Desert Blast is the easy course, traversing a southwestern-style desert with mostly straight roads, not many off-road objects and it’s all in daylight. City Bound (medium) has you tearing around a more winding road somewhere with Mount Rushmore in the background, with more to crash into and a night stage. East Coast is hard and takes in New England and its coastline if you get that far; half of this course is in the dark or in the rain, there’s more objects to hit and the roads are more complex to navigate. Hardest of all is West Coast, referencing some Seattle landmarks in the opening stages and chucking the full works at you – wind, rain, snow, night, crazy curves, loads of traffic and loads to collide with. As well as separate track difficulties, you’ve got four driving difficulties too, with the default Rookie (auto-shift) letting you focus on getting a feel for the road, then Auto-Shift with a tougher opponent. Manual-Shift gives you manual gears, but also introduces the tachometer, and if you’re working the engine too hard for too long you’re going to start seeing smoke in the rearview mirror as all your power gets blown out of the exhaust pipe! Finally, Pro (manual-shift) is going to chuck in far more aggressive cops and far tougher opponents.

You’ve got a choice of cars including Porsche 959, Ferrari F40 and Lamborghini Diablo. The Porsche has one less gear than the others, but being a complete car philistine I usually go for that because it means a click rather than a move and click of the controller! If you plug in a second controller and know what buttons to press, there’s a mass of customisation possible too, from car height to drag coeffient and scrub rate, none of which I understand in the slightest, let alone the effect of any of them on your game – what I do know is you can make your car jump by doing this though! Similarly, you have the same choice when it comes to choosing your opponent, and I’m not sure there’s any difference here, or you can choose to race the clock. As well as the usual car driving guff, your cockpit includes a radar detector, which is occasionally going to start flashing and beeping, meaning there’s a cop hanging about somewhere close and you need to slow to the speed limit or you’ll be pulled over and get a ticket, meaning a 20-second penalty.

The problem with that is you’re not winning any supercar race by sticking to the speed limit, so having a go at outrunning them is probably the only option, and that ain’t easy once you’re on the harder courses! To help you with this balancing act, you’ve also got what the manual proudly refers to as “Dots at the Top of the Screen” which represent you, your opponent and any police about, and your position between the start and the finish, which will be a gas station providing end of stage information. Fuel plays a role as well, and if you overshoot the gas station you’ll suffer in the next stage, losing a life and getting a time penalty if you run dry; this is also the case if you crash or blow your engine, and running out of your five lives is by far more likely to be the cause of game over than winning or losing a race! There is a chance for redemption if you’ve done well in a stage on the higher driving difficulties though, for example, by keeping your average speed above 120mph you’ll get a bonus life.

For a game that was never interesting to me, it turns out there’s some serious depth here, and it’s not over yet! Regardless of winning or losing, there’s good and bad endings too, depending on whether or not you’ve avoided police pursuits by sticking to the speed limit. Which I’m still not convinced is in the spirit of a racing game, but it’s all very early nineties anarchy, with a saucy 16-bit female cop suggestively informing you of the outcome, one way or another, when you reach the end of a stage.

As we’ve already alluded to, being more Volvo than Ferrari, the SNES in general isn’t great at first-person 3D, but somehow what we have here is a real sense of speed as scenery flies by really smoothly, and with no Super Nintendo slowdown anywhere that I’m aware of, even when things get busy. Whilst other traffic, roadside objects and the various backgrounds are also more Volvo than Ferrari, they work fine, and are elevated by some really nice attention to detail, with the lights having form at night, or giving the rearview mirror a real sense of purpose as you try to keep some cars between you and your opponent, but also little touches like them using indicators as they peek out to overtake, or bugs hitting the windscreen, which I don’t think that even the likes of Dirt 5’s jaw-dropping next-gen graphical enhancements attempted! That said, Dirt 5 couldn’t match Atari ST’s Toyota Celica GT Rally for wiper effects either, but I’m sure we’ll come back to that one day… Top ten favourite racing game windscreen wipers? Anyway, each of the cars also has its own cockpit design with loads going on, and I love that my default behind the wheel view isn’t just the game’s default but also the only view you get! I know it’s asking a lot of the SNES to do any more than this, but the only thing I would have appreciated is a little more draw distance, especially for overtaking on a narrow stretch of road, or coming to a halt close to the gas station, but it’s not a big sacrifice for everything else! Not a huge amount to say about sound design – it’s also functional, with some nice engine effects, police car sirens and so on, but it’s a shame that the pan-pipe rock theme tune isn’t available during gameplay, which is something the Mega Drive version does offer! The volume of police car sirens coming and going depending on distance, and the very sultry “Test Drive Two” you get on the title screen now and again does make up for it though!

Now the tricky bit that as I write I’m not quite prepared to write about yet… We’ve got a fairly basic racing concept with added depth that I don’t really care about backed by mostly functional graphics and sound, so how has it jumped into the hallowed ground of my top ten racing games of all time in the space of a couple of months? Incidentally, I’ve also spent the last few weeks trying to rationalise the opposite side of the same coin with my game of 2021 so far at the time of writing, Resident Evil Village (more here), that for all its wonder still comes nowhere near its very much predecessor Resident Evil 4 (even more here) in that big list of favourite games. That said, Resident Evil 4 had a very similar jump into my top three games ever, having also been dismissed for various reasons until late 2019!

Anyway, in the case of Test Drive 2, it’s a bit easier. It’s just the gameplay, and specifically the gameplay of this SNES version! I felt absolutely in tune with controlling those cars from the second I loaded it up for the first time, in much the same way I did with Virtua Racing and V-Rally 3, as opposed to the absolute exhileration of something like Out Run or Super Hang-On. You can feel the point at which the car’s about to transition from smooth movement to skid, and from there, over time, the point of being in control versus out of control, and sitting right on the edge there as you make split second decisions on whether to overtake or not overtake, slow down or make a run for freedom. And I just love the resulting micro race strategy based on how your car feels in motion at any given moment of time, and how you’ll emerge into the next one based on how well you pulled off the last – as well as the frantic correction in-between if you didn’t do so good!

I will get the Atari ST version at some point, when the price is right, but I’m pretty sure that like the Mega Drive version, it’s a different game. And I’ve now got more than enough racing to do on there, if I can ever force myself to eject another recent buy, that marvellous Super Sprint follow-up Badlands I mentioned earlier! I’m still nowhere near done with this either – I’ve not even mentioned the high score table, which, again, much like Virtua Racing, is far more of a draw after extended play than you might expect for a racing game, and adds even more depth that I am actually interested in this time! I’m not sure that thirty years of disinterest in something really qualifies as love at first sight, but let’s just keep telling ourselves it’s a different game and I reckon that electric spark of instant attraction counts just fine!

Discovering Rodland on NES

Discovering Rodland on NES

I recently came upon a wonderful game called Mr Heli, or Battle Chopper in the US, or Mr. HELI no Daiboken on PC-Engine where I played it first, to be precise, or, minutes later, plain old Mr Heli again on ZX Spectrum! It’s a bit like Fantasy Zone meets multi-directional cavern shooter, and was originally a 1987 arcade game from Irem. When the ports arrived in 1989, I definitely remember the name, but that’s as far as it went – no interest in playing something like I could see in the tiny screenshots on the advert that did the rounds in the gaming magazines, when there were the wonders of Defender of the Crown, Xenon, Stunt Car Racer and Dungeon Master to experience on my fancy new Atari ST. And Mr Heli to a 17-year old… Now Battle Chopper might have been a different story!

Anyway, it’s a nice example of a game I’ve heard of but never had any intention of playing until I knew better. And then I loved it! There’s lots of others too, like Mega Man 2 then many other Mega Mans, or Balloon Fight and Dr Mario, also on NES, or the aforementioned Fantasy Zone and its variants. More recently (slightly) there’s Daytona USA and Sega Rally, or Super Mario Sunshine and Viewtiful Joe, and while we’re on the GameCube, I almost forgot my relatively new top three favourite game ever, Resident Evil 4! What’s a rarer breed, though, is games I haven’t played because I’ve just never heard of them. Now, obviously, there’s probably even more of these than the previous set of games, but because I haven’t heard of them they’re much harder to quantify! I can provide three examples though… The first is Victory Run, which I had no idea existed until I got my PC-Engine Mini for my birthday in 2020. And I just fell in love with its powered-up Out Run styled shenanigans immediately! Similarly, another racing game completely got me when a retro collecting friend mentioned getting an import cart of F1 ROC: Race of Champions on SNES. Sounded weird, turned out to be one of my favourite racers ever that I’ve now been playing solidly for over two years! And then we have Rodland…

I really can’t remember where I came across Rodland, but somehow it had completely escaped me between its release in the arcades in April of 1990, care of Jaleco, and some time in early 2021. Actually, it may well have been the appearance of its Arcade Archives release on Nintendo Switch – every Thursday at 2pm, I go to the switch eShop to see what this week’s Arcade Archives game is! What I can remember is that from the couple of screenshots you get with those, it reminded me of Rainbow Islands, and that alone made it worth investigating a bit more. Then within a few short steps across to some dodgy sites, there we were trying out a shiny new ROM of the NES conversion!

Given that the original is available on Switch, for mere Pounds no less, you may be wondering why I’m fannying about with the NES port. Well, it was partly being a skinflint, partly being scared of MAME, but mostly just another case of love at first sight, and I wanted some time to savour the NES version before the original stole my gaze forever, and several months later that’s where we still are! That said, I spent a good six weeks scouring eBay for the Atari ST version, which comes up occasionally, but I’d set myself a limit of £12 and we hadn’t got there when I realised the fallacy of getting into another conversion when I could get the real deal for half the price! I may have dabbled with the Commodore 64, Spectrum and Game Boy versions in the meantime though, and we’ll come back to them later.

Let’s have a quick look at the premise – cutesy single-screen platformer for one or two players about two fairies trying to rescue their mother from 40 screens of Maboot’s Tower after she got kidnapped. Our fairies, Tam and Rit, are armed with magic rods – presumably something to do with being in Rodland – which first stop the baddies (ranging from gargoyles to squirrels to orange men with killer hats!) in their tracks, then once they’re trapped by its magical forces, you can smash them dead into the platform! If you’re lucky, they’ll leave behind a variety of power-ups like a kind of shotgun ball or dynamite, or some bonus fruit, and kill them all then you’re onto the next level. Sounds more Bubble Bobble than Rainbow Islands so far, especially when you use bubbles to get about on some levels, but they do have one more trick up their sleeves – a temporary magic ladder that you can pull out to get somewhere you couldn’t before, ideal for doing a runner or some surprise entrapment. Each level also has a load of flowers on it, and if you get to all of them before you kill all the baddies you’ll enter a bonus mode where the enemies are powered up, but if you kill them quick enough you’ll be on the way to an extra life. Every ninth level is a boss stage, and that will net you big bonus points… A lot going on, and I think a lot of the appeal is its nods to the very best of Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Islands, but also BurgerTime and Chuckie Egg and the like, all with a modern early nineties sheen!

The ports started appearing in 1990, with the NES version eventually turning up here in Europe in 1993, though I don’t think it ever got released in the US. Having still not actually played the original version, it’s a bit difficult for me to make too many comparisons, but I do know that for everything that got lost in translation, there’s a few liberties taken too! There are benefits to having not played it though, because apart from seeing a few screenshots that tell me there should be some glorious backgrounds that are just crying out for an equally glorious PC-Engine port, I don’t really know what else I’m missing out on yet!

What you are getting is just an absolute joy to play, with so many ways to play, especially if you’re after big scores. Killing monsters is one thing, but grabbing all those flowers beforehand is another, and if you want to get the most out of getting all those flowers, you need enough monsters left on the screen to spell out EXTRA with the letters they leave when they die, but that’s high risk because you’ll be against the clock. It controls like a dream, with magic rods and magic ladders all behind a single button press, and no mucking about trying to line up a ladder climb – you just go where you want to go, using direction and momentum in descent from platforms to not only escape from sticky situations, but also puzzle out getting at some of the flowers. There’s a bit of puzzling (but not much) to the bosses too, but mostly it’s about planning your moves while reacting to immediate peril, and it works perfectly. And smashing those monsters from side to side is so much fun, but there’s strategy there too, using them as a weapon or positioning yourself so you smash them on one side then throw them off the edge on the other. Very simple, and a lot to get your teeth into!

I’ve still not got all the way through, but I am very much into the score chasing mechanics, meaning a real sense of frustration when I accidentally blow up the last monster before I’ve got all the flowers! That’s as much of a challenge as avoiding getting killed by the patrolling enemies up to the first boss, and whilst deaths are usually going to be down to your impatience attacking a shark and getting caught out by a ghost thing sneaking up on you rather than bad luck, there are a few difficulty spikes. For example, not long after the first boss (a load of crocodiles moving up and down platforms spitting smaller enemies at you) it’s very easy to get caught out by these flying mosquitos that suddenly spray high velocity venom spikes or whatever it is they spray at you! For an arcade conversion from its era, it’s not massively brutal though.

Graphically, on top of Rainbow Islands, there’s another similar game that comes to mind here, New Zealand Story. Very bold and in your face colours, even though there’s not massive variety in the somewhat bland backgrounds or the platforms themselves, for all the clever ways they’re positioned on each level. The monsters are full of their own personality though, as are your one or two fairies, and everything is brought to life by clever animations, from stars appearing as you swing a monster about to the various swaying flowers throwing out increasing numbers of points as you pass by. There’s a cheery title tune on top of some very cheery sound effects, but it’s mostly upbeat beeps of various kinds that are mostly forgettable, as pleasant and breezy as it all is.

The Rodland arcade game had a very special and unique feature – the sequel came with it! Just finish the game and there it is, a whole new story about an alien pyramid making off with your father, new characters and new level designs, although I don’t think there’s much different happening gameplay-wise. You could also get to it with a secret code, then go back again with another – pay your money, press up or down three times, off you go! This all led to three different endings too, one for the original game, one for the sequel and one for switching to one or the other with the code and beating an extra level that throws up. Sadly this wasn’t included in the NES version, but there were some nice hidden touches here too! On the options screen, you get to name your two fairies, but enter something rude like BUM, TIT, POO, NOB, SEX, etc. and you’ll make them blush! And ICH and EAT will let you jump between levels in the game. One of the options allows your fairies to jump, which also isn’t in the original, meaning stomping on enemies adds a new dimension of adorable violence!

I’ve only dabbled with some of the other ports, and mostly the Game Boy version, which only suffers from not being able to get a full level onto a single screen, making strategising about monsters versus flowers a little harder to keep track of. Otherwise, it feels just as good to play as the NES version. It’s a great looking game too, with some subtly shaded backgrounds hosting the most vibrant graphics you could hope for on a monochrome screen! Sounds lovely too, and I think I prefer its rendition of the theme tune over that of the Commodore 64, which definitely starts to grate a bit if you leave it on in the background; not SID’s finest hour! It’s not exactly vibrant either, with some classic C64 browns on a black background, and your character kind of floating around the place rather than moving around with any solidity and purpose. And despite that, it still manages to feel more sluggish than the other versions, including the Spectrum, which plays very nicely, sounds awesome in 128K, but despite some detailed sprites is completely black and white – no colour clash though!

One of the reasons I’m still messing around with video games over four decades on is that there’s still so much to discover, even if the surprises are gradually diminishing. But now and again they keep coming all the same, and Rodland is the perfect example of a wonderful surprise that might have been hidden for most of that time, but is definitely out in the wild now! All the qualities of the single-screen platformers that preceeded it are there – especially that one more go addictiveness – but there’s so much to offer of its own that keeps stacking on the fun. And as well as the Spectrum version, which I think deserves a bit more of my time, I’ve still got the original arcade version to get to, but that isn’t far away now – I promised myself that as a reward for getting to this point, so you never know, we might be back here again sometime!

Rediscovering Merlin on ZX Spectrum

Rediscovering Merlin on ZX Spectrum

When we were looking at The Trap Door (here), we had quite the discussion on Twitter (I may have even gone a bit viral for a moment!) about the best-looking Spectrum game – came up with quite the list too! The Trap Door obviously came out pretty well, as did stuff like R-Type, Exolon, Dan Dare, Light Force and Bomb Jack; no disagreement here so far! I discovered some absolulute corkers I’d never even heard of too, like Savage, Draconus and Astro Marine Corps, all of which possibly coincided with the arrival of my Atari ST! And we also covered a few more modern Spectrum games, like 1997’s The Dark, 2014’s Metal Man Reloaded, 2019’s Valley of Rains and the even more recent, very wonderful Wonderful Dizzy (more here!). Aside from The Trap Door, there were quite a few shouts for other Don Priestley games – the sequel, Through The Trap Door, Flunky, Benny Hill’s Madcap Chase, and probably just about as popular as The Trap Door, Popeye! I had a problem with Popeye though, because everything else (apart from Benny Hill!) looks as good in action as it does on screenshots; Popeye, on the other hand, moves like a dog, and delivers the exact amount of colour clash you’d expect a game with that much colour moving about on a Spectrum… Loads!

It’s not the first time we’ve been caught out by a screenshot though! All those VIC-20 games like Jump Jet with those beautiful Commodore 64 screenshots on the back of the box; the Spectrum wasn’t averse to those kind of shenanigans either, though we did occasionally get our own back with masterpieces like Enduro Racer! And it wasn’t the last time either, although the game missing from the list above may well have been the last time for me at least, with the aforementioned Atari ST looming large on the horizon, and that was, of course, Merlin!

There was no more effective way of selling your game than festooning it with some of the biggest and best-looking graphics you’ve ever seen and then sticking a £1.99 price tag on it, and that’s exactly what Firebird Software did with Mike Westlake’s Merlin early on in 1988. He’d still be plugging away at the Spectrum’s life support machine five year later, with a similarly big and bold pirate take on Merlin, Pieces of Eight, then another called S.A.S. Combat Assault, which appeared when the only people putting out games were Sinclair User magazine! But as good as all of them look, I’m all about his first Spectrum game, Tarantula, a 1987 cavern crawler where you’re flying about on a jetpack collecting stuff and avoiding insects, especially the giant tarantula, which is genuinely one of my favourite sights in all of gaming!

Anyway, back to getting sucked in by Merlin! I was, and whilst it’s nowhere near in the league of something like Kung-Fu Master, I distinctly remember coming home one evening from my Saturday job collecting trolleys at Sainsbury’s with this graphical powerhouse in my pocket, loading it up and just being so disappointed. Big generally isn’t beautiful, whatever wishful thinkers might say, and it also makes playing what thinks of itself as a modern-day Manic Miner an absolute stinker! We’ll get to that again, I’m sure, but however much that evening was just about all the chance I ever gave playing it, it’s always been on the tip of my tongue every time there’s talk of fancy 8-bit graphics, and over three decades on I reckoned this was the time to have another look at it, so here we are!

You might get glamorous screenshots for £1.99, but you rarely got a literary work of art to back them up, even when it’s based on one like this is! Yes, this Merlin is that Merlin! “Mystery magic and mayhem from Merlin the magnificent mage” is what the back of the box tells us; nothing else, but we are getting it in no less than seven languages! Let’s delve deep inside the inlay card instead… “Guide Merlin around the mystical Kingdom of Camelot collecting stars to recover his lost magic powers.” That’s it! No heavyweight medieval romances here, just wander about and collect some stars. For £1.99 I’m not even going to point out that the legendary Camelot is a castle and court, not a kingdom, though given that everything happens in a little castle and its spooky garden, I think we’re all square anyway!

I know I’ve come across as a little dismissive so far, but let’s be clear, once you get past the slightly ropey loading screen, this game is absolutely stunning to look at! It really is up there with me, The Trap Door and the rest as one of the best-looking things you’ll ever see on a Spectrum. It’s not just Merlin that’s massive, it’s everything. Except the castle! But everything else – the suits of armour (or are they actual knights standing about?); the intricate tables and chairs and bookcases; the lecterns holding a literal literary heavyweight; the giant fish that lives in the moat and the oversized barrels of booze in the cellar… all enormous! In the middle of the castle, you’ve got King Arthur’s Round Table, and we know it’s this and not any old table because it’s written in big capital letters on the side – twice – like some kind of old brand logo. Makes me laugh every time! The colour palette is classic Spectrum, but there’s an awful lot of it, with beautifully detailed magenta brickwork, some exquisite red woodwork and a subtly shaded bright green pikeman!

We could say all of that about Popeye though, so how is it in motion? Given that Merlin’s probably an old man, his stiff movement is forgivable, although he’s quick on his feet – too quick for something that relies on a bit of precision a lot of the time! That said, a lot of the stiffness of movement is very much down to the lack of animation – apart from bending his knees to either duck or jump, I’m not convinced there’s any whatsoever! He’s either facing left or right and there might be a bit of movement in his feet, but even despite his enormous size, it’s really hard to tell! There’s so many objects in so many colours everywhere, there’s an awful lot of the time that you won’t really be able to see Merlin at all, which, again, isn’t always ideal for this kind of game! And all of those colours do exactly what you think they will; there’s some glorious colour clash here! I think my favourite examples are any time his bright blue wizard’s hat goes past anything (which is a lot of the time given his size), and when he moves behind the red, green and yellow bookcases and almost completely disappears – all you can see is a total merging of the sprites as he moves across them, Predator style. Actually, with a lick of paint this could have been even better than the actual Predator game that I think came out at exactly the same time!

The sound is a bit grating. The unrelenting classic Spectrum footstep noise is just about tolerable, but there’s these higher-pitched, almost nasal versions of it for some of the enemies which are really annoying, or quieter versions for others, which range from big insects to ghosts to living broomsticks, though these are mostly normal game size, which is a little odd when you’re in one of the few less cluttered environments, but they mostly move about in an inoffensive way. Which isn’t the case for some of the other sound effects – the squelchy beep as you catch a star, or the squelchier one when you lose a life and the more high pitched variant when you’re just losing life force. It’s all just a bit of a cacophony of annoying Spectrum sounds! The title screen music isn’t much better – if I had to write a game theme, I reckon it would sound like this – random notes until you get a hint of a melody, then speed things up and repeat it!

I’m not sure how many screens make up the seemingly small castle of the kingdom of the Camelot, but I reckon around thirty. There’s absolutely no variety in the gameplay no matter which direction you go and how many you make it through though – you’ll have a bunch of stars to collect on each one, which will involve some light jumping and ducking, and some pixel perfect avoiding of enemies that are usually synchronised to make anything less than pixel perfect mean either loss of life force or instant death. I never did work out which enemies would cause which outcome, but you’ll soon find out why you start with ten lives and a life force meter for each one! As we’ve already hinted at, regardless of you being an overly fast but ultimately stiff giant, that pixel perfect thing really gets most problematic when you’re going all Predator in the colour clash jungle of death and you can’t actually tell where he is in relation to the baddies! And that’s the major fun-sucker here.

In the end, all those wonderful graphics are Merlin’s downfall. Too big, too much, and whilst a bit of all fur coat and no knickers can go a long way in delaying such simple gameplay quickly running out of steam, in this case it just serves to accelerate it. But for all it lacks in any kind of long-term fun, I probably got my £1.99’s worth out of bringing it up over the years every time I get the chance to talk about the best-looking game on the Spectrum!

Discovering WEC Le Mans on ZX Spectrum

Discovering WEC Le Mans on ZX Spectrum

WEC Le Mans was an arcade game by Konami in 1986 that I never saw in the wild – I guess there was just too much Out Run everywhere when we went on holiday that year! In fact, I think the first time I ever really paid attention to it was when glowing reviews started appearing everywhere in early 1989 for the home versions. Which is a shame because this thing would have been a real showstopper in the arcades, especially if you came across the bonkers Big Spin version that jumped, turned and span 180 degrees! For an arcade game it was very simulation focussed though, with both day and night driving in a condensed but accurate version of the Le Man 24 race and some very challenging track designs. And with some impressive sprite-scaling it looks the part too – probably more so than Out Run – but while the soundtrack is no Magical Sound Shower, it’s pretty outstanding all the same!

Those home conversions came at exactly the wrong time for me, and to my shame I think I was pretty much ignoring Spectrum reviews by then no matter how big the score, especially when multi-format magazines like Computer & Video Games told you that Atari ST and Amiga versions were imminent! Actually, not just that, but the back page of that particular issue also confirmed this, with price information and some screenshots that definitely weren’t 8-bit, but in retrospect were probably from the arcade version. Regardless, that’s just about the last we heard of those versions and as a result it would be a very long time before I came back to WEC Le Mans!

The years have been good to WEC Le Mans, and if it missed out on challenging Out Run in the arcades, it certainly didn’t in the memories of Spectrum enthusiasts… I still love you though, Spectrum Out Run! Actually, the only reason I’m here now is because I was playing Out Run on there the other day, and that reminded me that I really should have a serious go at WEC Le Mans, so here we are with some first and several hours’ worth of subsequent impressions!

When you fire up the game for the first time, long before you think of reading the instructions or work out what’s being asked of you, there’s immediately two things going for WEC Le Mans on the Spectrum – it moves at pace and the car feels good to control. I didn’t really get much more than that out of the instructions when I did return to them – mostly marketing blurb telling you it’s the most realistic and addictive racing game yet, featuring four dramatic laps of the most gruelling and challenging car race in the world, with three checkpoints to pass on each one. Also some useful tips, like change the gear to go around bends, don’t oversteer, keep off the grass, don’t change gear too soon and always start in low gear. Everything you need to know to be successful in any racing game!

It might not last 24 hours, but hitting those checkpoints with enough time left to carry over a bit for the next one is rough! You’ve got 66 seconds to hit the first one, and if you make any mistakes here you might as well start again, but don’t because this game is way too much fun for that kind of seriousness, and anyway, you clearly need the practice! If you crash off the road, the timer does stop for you, but you’ll take so long getting back up to race pace that it’s not massively helpful. Everything is against the clock, but there’s loads of competitor cars to not crash into as well, and even though they all look the same, it feels like you’re racing them because they aren’t going to let you pass easily, and if you whack one of them you’ll be catching up with them again for another go – which is great until you get five or six of them at it at once to keep catching up with! They’re devious too, and you’re going to be trying to out-think them with every overtake; and there’s some extra realism with your opponents the further you get, with them sometimes losing concentration and spinning out just like you! Patience is definitely key, despite the very demanding checkpoint times. That said, get a few stages under your belt without any problems and bonus time starts stacking up, and you could always take a gamble on some dodgy collision detection, which will benefit you as much as hinder you once you’ve worked it out.

The graphics aren’t quite up there with Enduro Racer, but it’s as good as Spectrum racing gets apart from that (including Chase HQ, in this humble opinion). The track curves and undulates beautifully, and with the signs, adverts and trees along its sides, it’s all moving at a very smooth and a very fast pace. The backgrounds aren’t anything you’ve not seen before, and the car sprites are a little boxy, but they’re big and detailed, though I’m still not convinced about the choice of blue for your car, which is most apparent when you go off-piste and the colours start fighting with each other. But given the sense of speed, and the sheer amount of stuff being thrown around at that speed, I’ll forgive it a bit of clash, especially when the car’s in full spin. Sound is non-existent on the 48K version and barely functional on 128K, though it does have a nice bouncy title tune.

The final impression isn’t going to be so different from the first – this is up there with the very best of the Spectrum racers (even if it should have been up there with the very best of the Atari ST racers), but a lack of nostalgia means it has some catching up to do before it’s one of my very favourites. The speed and the handling make it an absolute joy to play, and whilst it doesn’t have the variety of Enduro Racer or Out Run’s changing environments, it certainly has the longevity – for all the hours I’ve now put in, I still haven’t quite finished it, and usually count myself lucky if I see the third lap! But this is the guy who spent 40 hours not giving up on Bay Bridge on arcade Virtua Racing, so watch this space!

My Life With… The Trap Door – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… The Trap Door – ZX Spectrum

FRANKIE SAYS that there’s all sorts of reasons why 1984 is the greatest year in the history of history! It was the be-all and end-all for pop music, from the majesty of Purple Rain to the stadium new romanticism of Spandau and Duran; when people talk about eighties music, what they mean is music from 1984! The arcades were evolving from sci-fi distraction to creating fantasies, from wartime aerial dogfighting in 1942 to being Bruce Lee in Kung-Fu Master in the arcades; we weren’t doing too badly at home either, with a non-stop parade of what would become all-time greats, from Jet Set Willy to Knight Lore to Elite. When the games got kicked off of the TV for the evening, Miami Vice introduced the world to the eternal definition of being cool, and Airwolf and Blue Thunder fought for helicopter supremacy. Over in the cinema, the classics just didn’t stop – Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones, Police Academy, Gremlins, The Terminator, Ghostbusters… And, of course, This is Spinal Tap became the last word in movie comedy, forever cemented in my top ten favourite films ever!

We’re only scratching the surface too! What about Wham and Van Halen, Radio Ga-Ga and Big in Japan, Pac-Land and Hyper Sports, Sabre Wulf, Moon Fleet, Fraggle Rock, Karate Kid, Romacing the Stone, Footloose, Footloose, kick off your Sunday Shoes…? And don’t forget, we’re still in prime A-Team, Knightrider, Dukes of Hazzard and ITV World of Sport Wrestling territory, and we’ve got 2000AD and Eagle, and the FA Cup Final is still a big event, and there’s the LA Olympics to look forward to, and Do They Know It’s Christmas… Okay, I get it, that last one’s got you convinced and I don’t need to go on! I was 12 in 1984, and there’s no doubt that this cultural tsunami is why I am what I am today, and, combined with an emerging taste for the weird and horrific, it’s also why I was perfectly positioned to completely fall in love with another new TV show that year, The Trap Door!

“Somewhere in the dark and nasty regions, where nobody goes, stands an ancient castle. Deep within this dank and uninviting place, lives Berk, overworked servant of the thing upstairs – “Berk! Feed Me!” – but that’s nothing compared to the horrors that lurk beneath the trap door, for there is always something down there, in the dark, waiting to come out…”

What I didn’t appreciate at the time, but with the benefit of a horror collector’s hindsight can very much appreciate now, is that this was a parody of the introductions Vincent Price used to do at the start of his horror movies like The Haunted Palace and The House on Hanted Hill. Slightly more child-friendly, we were then treated to the iconic theme tune, which was penned by none other than the guy who wrote then equally iconic Shakin’ Stevens’ Merry Christmas Everyone – “Don’t you open that trapdoor, you’re a fool if you dare! Stay away from that trapdoor, ’cause there’s something down there…”

What follows is a stop-motion plasticine animation set in the gothic psychedelia of the aforementioned ancient castle – we’re stylistically somewhere between the simplicity of Tony Hart’s Morph that we already knew and loved, and those dreadful Wallace and Gromit things, which some of the team here would actually go on to be involved in. Most of the action takes place in the castle pantry and cellar, where Berk, a big blue blob from the West Country lives with Boni, an intellectual talking skull, and his pet spider Drutt. Then there’s his master, The Thing Upstairs, who we never actually see but in most episodes he’s ordering Berk to make him food, fix things or clean him; and in most episodes, these orders spark some kind of misadventure involving Berk opening The Trap Door, which shuts out the monsters and “horrible things” living in the caverns below.

As an aside, even though we never see The Thing Upstairs, the clues are there if you pay attention… There’s sponge-like tentacles in a flash of lightning in one episode; Berk also refers to his three eyes and later asks which of his heads is suffering from toothache; we also see bits of him – that sore tooth comes out and is more than half the size of Berk, and at one point one of his eyes ends up in The Trap Door, and that’s almost as big as him; there’s also references to three humps and having wings, which we hear beating at one point. Anyway, the sort of thing you’d probably jump through monstrous hoops for!

Creators Terry Brain and Charlie Mills, supported by the instantly recognisable voice talents of Willie Rushton, gave us 25 episodes of The Trap Door, which if I remember rightly ran on weekday evenings on ITV to begin with, then on one of their Saturday morning shows, and lasted about 5 minutes each. There was a second series, but not until 1990, and as far as I know those episodes were mostly re-hashes of the first one, but being 18 at the time I was probably more into Sarah Greene on Going Live on Saturday mornings! Actually, I’d have been collecting trolleys for Sainsbury’s in Bedford, but that’s far less exotic than Sarah Greene! Anyway, back in 1984, two years later we’d finally get The Trap Door game of the cartoon, released by Piranha Games on ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC, and written by none other than Don Priestley, who by this time had made a bit of a name for himself – especially on the Spectrum – for really groundbreaking oversized and very colourful graphics. I think a friend’s copy of Popeye was one of the very first games I played on my Spectrum +2, and I was just blown away by these enormous, detailed sprites that really brought one of my favourite comic strips to life, even if they didn’t move so well and the game wasn’t really that much fun to play! But you can see the seeds sown in the not dissimilar but even less fun predecessor Benny Hill’s Madcap Chase starting to grow into something that might end up really good!

And in 1986, The Trap Door evolved his signature format into something really good that didn’t just drag the Spectrum kicking and screaming way beyond its normal limits to perfectly nail the look of the cartoon, but captured the essence of what made it so engaging too, masterfully transporting its plot mechanics into solid puzzle-solving gameplay mechanics. Like the cartoon, you as Berk are grudgingly carrying out the orders of The Thing Upstairs, but there’s an end game – a safe full of loot – if you successfully carry out five increasingly bizarre tasks in the harder but more rewarding Super Berk mode, or four in the easier but lower scoring Learner Berk mode. You need to do them quickly and accurately before his anger boils over, sending your completeed offerings Upstairs on the dumb waiter in the hope that The Thing accepts it. As you might have guessed, each of these tasks is going to involve opening up that Trap Door and letting out one of the ‘orrible monstrosities that lurk down there, which, if you’re lucky, is going to play a role in in completing it. And if you’re not lucky, you’re going to have to get rid of it (somehow!) before you either run out of time or worse. If that wasn’t bad enough, having the trap door open in Super Berk mode risks letting spooks out, and like everything else in Berk’s world, they’re hungry and the only way to get rid of them is to feed them whatever you have at hand (even your mate Boni!) before they do you mischief.

There’s more to Boni than being ghost-bait though, and if you pick him up he’ll sometimes give you a clue on what to do next. Drutt the spider isn’t quite so useful though, generally getting in the way as he hops around trying to catch worms to eat. Apart from that, you’re relying in The Thing Upstairs to tell you what he wants, then finding whatever it is you need to give it to him. These will be scattered around the place, and you’re going to have to work out what’s needed and when, then how to use it and what monster you’re going to need to complete it. The first mission gently introduces you to this multi-dimensional puzzling… You need to send up a can of worms, so you’re going to find a can in the kitchen and take it back to the room with The Trap Door, which you’re going to open to release some worms then try and catch before Drutt eats them. Get a couple in the can and that’s it, you can put them in the dumb waiter and send them up to your master.

Obviously, things soon get more complicated! You’ll be working out how to transport small eyeballs so you can grow them into bigger ones in plant pots before getting them into a vat so one of the monsters can crush them; you’ll be using fire-breathing robots to roast slimes; you’ll be using The Trap Door (sorry, has to be capitals!) to fling bullets or anything else at hand at bizarre birds that, after a load more equally bizarre steps, will end up as fried eggs, and so on. There’s some strategy at play with this puzzle solving as well though; The Thing Upstairs’ anger is measured by an anger meter, and you need to get stuff done before it gets too high, but once you know what you’re doing with the puzzles, you can use any time left over to maximise your score. For example, you might want to start those eyeballs growing or move objects to the locations they’ll need to be used in later before you send your current delicacy up in the dumb waiter. Get your four or five tasks done and it’s time to tidy up, which involves throwing everything down into The Trap Door, then working out how to open the safe and taking your place as a true Super Berk!

Learner Berk mode is definitely where you want to cut your teeth, learning the layout of the castle’s six screens and  just enjoying being there for a while as you work out the puzzles without stuff trying to kill you. The puzzles do require a bit of lateral thinking, but this isn’t Monkey Island, and a lot of the objects can be used in a variety of ways, so if for some reason you’ve lost the thing that might have been best-suited to doing something, you’ll most likely have a back-up if you give it a bit of thought. The game might be 35 years old at the time of writing, but I’m not going to spoil it too much more than this because its complex logic still deserves your attention way more than that! But it does involve a lot of moving a huge sprite up and down and left and right, manipulating objects and shoving them around, and where this game really deserves credit it the way it makes this so easy, almost guiding you in as you approach an item or a door. Super Berk mode is going to ramp up the difficulty, adding far more danger even if you are repeating a lot of what you’ve done before, but it’s also where you’re going to have the most fun, juggling escaping monsters breathing fire at you while avoiding the ghosts and trying to collect worms before your pet spider eats them all with that anger meter counting down in the background! And unlike Benny Hill and even, though it’s always pained me to say it, my beloved Popeye, for all its bells and whistles, The Trap Door really is fun!

But what bells and whistles they are though! There were a couple of times I remember the Spectrum going bigger later, for example that dreadful Merlin game, but apart from maybe its sequel and spiritual follow-up Flunky, I’m not sure the Spectrum ever got bolder. We should also mention that for all of those huge sprites, that would sometimes take up about a third of the screen, and all of that boldness, and all of that colour in them, there’s barely any colour clash. It really is a remarkable achievement, especially when you compare it to the other versions – not sure about the Amstrad, but the C64 actually had worse colour clash; actually, I always found that struggled a bit in comparison on most fronts, closer in performance to Spectrum Popeye than Spectrum Trap Door. The animation was impeccable too, with a smoothness that defied the sheer scale of some of the monsters especially, and you’d often just sit back and watch like it was a cartoon as Drutt and all the little nasties just wandered about doing their own thing; it really brought the characters to life too, providing a level of individuality to everything that moved! There were some great looking games on the Spectrum – Starglider, Exolon, Merlin, Savage, R-Type, Bomb Jack, Lightforce, and not forgetting Popeye of course… but if you’re talking visual aesthetics as a complete package, I’m not sure anything tops The Trap Door.

There’s not a huge amount going on sound-wise once you’re in the game, but before that there’s an occasionally bombastic rendition of the theme tune on the title screen! If only the Spectrum had even a bit of the Mega Drive’s finesse when it comes to drum sounds! Then it’s just a few blips and beeps as you open doors and pull levers, accompanied by a few more that act as audio highlights when Drutt is bouncing around, for example. It’s a little sparse, but less is often more when it comes to 48K Spectrum sound!

I think Don Priestley’s Flunky appeared before the sequel proper in 1987, but being utterly indifferent to anything royal, I gave it a miss then and still give it a miss now! From what I understand it was a similar affair, but in Buckingham Palace rather than a cool horror castle, and from what I’ve seen it still did the business graphically! As did Through The Trap Door, which appeared later the same year, but now the gameplay is getting mixed up a bit, with you able to switch between Berk and Drutt in a single-player co-op effort to rescue Boni from inside The Trap Door. I didn’t play a massive amount of this – you could argue it’s more interesting, but for me it was more Dizzy than the cartoon I loved. Definitely worth playing for Berk’s facial animations alone though!

The Trap Door was an absolute work of art on TV, and the same can be said for the original Spectrum game at least. If you ever wanted to impress your friends with your new Spectrum, this was the game to show them! It was a lot more than immense sprites though – just think of the turgid licenses for Miami Vice, Streethawk and the like; this was a TV license done absolutely right that completely tapped into the soul of the source material! And how many puzzle games have so much longevity after you’ve solved them? Super Berk, indeed!

Discovering Frankenstein’s Monster on Atari 2600

Discovering Frankenstein’s Monster on Atari 2600

For all of my various obsessions with 19th century gothic horror, Universal monster movies and Hammer Horror, I’ve never really been a massive Frankenstein fan. Apart from that Escape From Frankenstein board game, with the big rubber Frankenstein’s monster that carted off your little player! Definitely up there with Talisman, Chainsaw Warrior, Rogue Trooper and Chaos Marauders in my top five board games ever – there’s a new list for me to dwell on further that I wasn’t expecting to come out of this!

Anyway, that possibly explains why an old-school horror afficianado and first time around Atari 2600 enthusiast like me took so long getting to Frankenstein’s Monster on there! Not sure what it was about 1983, but as well as the wonderful board game we just talked about, that’s when Data Age released this. As I’m a little prone to do, I’m going off on a tangent about Data Age here, but this is a good one! By this point they’d only released five other games, but through no fault of its own, Frankenstein’s Monster turned out to be their very last release; you see, while Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial might get all the headlines from this period, Data Age had their very own E.T. moment the year before with a game called Journey Escape!

Journey Escape features Journey, the popular musical act, and is based on their 1981 album Escape, home to their mega-hit single, Don’t Stop Believing, and which you get a little Atari 2600 version of when you load up the game! It’s a very odd game, involving you sneaking each band member past “hordes of Love-Crazed Groupies, Sneaky Photographers, and Shifty-Eyed Promoters” to the “Journey Escape Vehicle” (which you’ll also find on the cover of the album). That translates to you dodging some weird graphics that push you back down the screen if you hit them. Which we’ll come back to later, but in the meantime, it’s crap!

Journey Escape didn’t just not sell, but they’d also spent $4.5 million on marketing it, and that after spending what must have been a fortune on licensing on of the early eighties’ hottest American rock bands. And that’s why, as we slowly head back to Frankenstein’s Monster, it ended up spelling their demise. However, the greatest shame of this was that we never got to see the Mr T game they had in development when they disappeared! It wasn’t the end for Journey though – 1983 also saw the release of Journey, the arcade game, where you had to reunite band members – represented by digitised photo heads on cartoon bodies – with their instruments. And let’s just say there’s probably a good reason why you had no idea that existed either!

Right, Frankenstein’s Monster! Firstly, unlike some other games, it’s not crap. The back of the box tells us that in the cold dark night we make our way through the ghoulish castle of Dr Frankenstein. There we must prevent him from completing his creation. Our only chance is to gather stones from the dungeon and bring them to the tower where we must build a barricade around Frankenstein’s Monster before he’s accumulated enough energy from the Power Probe gathering it from a storm to come alive. And to succeed, we’re going to have to move fast, avoiding poisonous spiders, vampire bats and terrifying ghosts. Complete the job and the village will be safe forever. It’s no Mary Shelley, but it’s as good a reason to be here as any!

This then manifests as a kind of a single screen Pitfall. You’ve got the monster and his Power Probe in the middle of the battlements gathering up energy, and you’re starting on his right, immediately avoiding a ghost and starting your climb down to the dungeons. On the way you’ll have to jump over pits, avoid spiders, jump on logs over acid pools and then collect your stone. Once you’ve got it, you need to get all the way back, and then on approaching the monster the screen is going to change view to you making the final part of the journey (not Journey!) through a mass of bats, and any contact with them is going to push you back down the screen – just like Journey Escape, but much more frantic, much more challenging, and much less rubbish! Once you’ve found a route up to the top of the screen, which might take some doing given the sheer number of bats at any one time, you’re going to drop the stone near the monster then head off looking for the next bit.

You have to go through this process a total of six times, gradually building the wall around the monster with each new bit of stone from the dungeons. And each time, things are going to get trickier, with more obstacles and enemies, bigger spiders and smaller logs to jump across. Hitting spiders (or bats on the bat screen) is going to reduce your score and slow your progress one way or another; interestingly, you start at 500 points, and depending on how effectively and how quickly you play, you’ll get more or less score. A more serious incident like falling into acid is going to cost you one of your three lives, and when you’ve either lost all three or the timer runs out (either 8 or 5 minutes depending on your difficulty switch settings) it’s game over, but don’t worry because that might just be the best bit!

In fact, apart from Shadow of the Beast II on the Commodore Amiga, with its mesmerising, Miami Vice-styled (and possibly actually taken from Miami Vice) soaring guitar solo, this might be my favourite game over screen of all time! When you’re done for, the monster breaks free and starts marching out of the screen towards you, its big bold pixels getting bigger and bigger until it fills the whole thing and you’re engulfed in a green and yellow strobe. Quite terrifying! That’s not the only way your game’s going to finish though, because once your six pieces of stone have successfully entombed the monster, you’ve won! Honestly, the winning screen isn’t as impressive as the dying one, but all the same, I do love an Atari 2600 game with an ending! A few hours of play should get you there, but despite the ending, this is really a high score game – you need to get to the end well, and then you need to get to the end well and get there quickly. And that’s a very addictive brew!

As well as the cool game over screen, the rest is a really fine looking Atari 2600 game too. There’s great use of solid and gradiented earthy colours – the Commodore 64 could take some lessons on making these pop from this! Your character and the enemies are simple but perfectly identifiable, and there’s some great attention to detail in the animation, which adds a bit of interest, but also things like having a separate animated viewpoint for climbing down a ladder, for example, is quite unusual for a platformer of this vintage – normally it’s the same side-on view but moving up and down instead of left and right! There’s a nice moment when you drop down a hole and kind of hesitate for a second before falling. There’s also a nice effect where the Power Probe, which flashes at the top of the screen, is interruped by lighting flashes behind the castle and connects to the electricity. This is accompanied by the sound of white noisy thunder, which, together with an occasional ominous two-note melody, adds some variety to the regular sounds of footsteps and jumping and dying!

What really elevates Frankenstein’s Monster for me – even above Pitfall and its sequel – is the way it plays. There might not be as much to it, but your character feels fast and solid, and every jump quickly becomes predictable. That, combined with the horror theming (even if it is only Frankenstein!), the best game over screen ever, and just the vibrancy of the whole thing, makes this the top platformer on Atari 2600 for me, and certainly up there with stuff like Seaquest, Alien, Solar Fox and Chopper Command as one of my favourite games on the system! Unlike Journey Escape!!!