My Life With… V-Rally 3 – Game Boy Advance

My Life With… V-Rally 3 – Game Boy Advance

When the Game Boy Advance SP arrived in 2003, I was a couple of years into the job at a Japanese electronics mega-corp that I’m still to escape, which has had me travelling the world on a far too regular basis. Now I still owned the original Gameboy, and a Gameboy Advance, and a vast collection of games for both, but in reality, they weren’t that portable, and for the latter, playing in anything less than the equivalent of midday summer sunshine was a major challenge.

The SP, with its tiny, travel-friendly folding shell and it’s backlight, and not to mention its awesome battery life, was an absolute game changer for the nerdy regular flyer! Whilst we’re only talking 15 years or so ago at the time of writing, air travel wasn’t anything like what it is now – your limited electronics (giant Archos MP3 player for me!) were forbidden for the best part of an hour that seemed like an eternity wherever you were going; there wasn’t the huge selection of films on tap like you get now on every long-haul flight – you rented a pair of headphones with a customised adaptor and watched whatever crap they were showing; and unless you carried half a library with you (which I often did), you didn’t want to blow the whole of your book on the journey there!

And that’s why I’ll always think of the SP as the beginning of flying in relative comfort, although Nintendo still haven’t solved the problem of being six-feet one inch in economy class… And more than any other, I’ll think of V-Rally 3 as the game that saw me through thousands and thousands of miles.

I’d actually picked up V-Rally 3 on release a year or so before I got my SP, and even without a nice backlight, this thing was really special. For starters, it looked absolutely stunning, especially in my preferred cockpit view; actually, that was probably the biggest draw for me – ever since playing Chequered Flag on the Spectrum, I’ve never wanted to drive a car I’m ten metres behind and three metres above! Everything is in full 3D, with detailed textures flying past you everywhere you look with never a hint of slowdown. I’d even go so far as to say this wasn’t that far off what you’d have expected on a full console at the time.

Once you get past the breathtaking visuals, it’s all about the handling of the car, and I’d maintain that this is still one of the best feeling rally games there was before or has been since; as I write this, I’m dipping in and out of Dirt Rally 3 on the Playstation 4, and as much as I want to enjoy its ultra-realistic driving experience more than a 15-year old game on an ancient handheld, I simply don’t! Once you’re in cockpit mode, it just feels like you’re chucking a real car across dirt, snow, sand, gravel, tarmac, up and down hills or over jumps. Everything behaves like you think it should, which again, when you consider it’s on this old tiny handheld, is some achievement! And if I’m making it sound like some stony-faced simulation (also see Dirt Rally 3), it definitely isn’t – for all it’s great physics, this definitely feels like an arcade racer.

The meat of V-Rally 3 is a career mode, where you sign up with a real car manufacturer and compete in a championship that spans different countries, from miserable Great Britain to an incredible looking Kenyan Savannah. You race across five stages in each race, with a chance to repair damage after every other race – especially important if you’re in cockpit view and the windscreen is covered in a load of cracks that appear one at a time with every bump, and ends up looking like an inpenetrable mass of spider webs that often spell game over! You can, should you wish, also modify the car set up, but in all the racing games I’ve ever played this has never appealed to me! I’m not sure how much difference that would make, but I’ve never had a problem getting through the first championship fairly comfortably, at which point you’re given a bunch of better teams to sign up with, and a bigger engine. The challenge does pick up a lot here, and winning this one does take some delicate finger work!

There’s also a time trial mode that I don’t think I’ve ever really bothered with (and again, you could apply the same to pretty much any other racing game I’ve ever played), and there’s a really cool mode where you’re forsaking the lonely regular rally experience and going head to head against other cars in a more traditional car race. However, playing it again now you’ll notice that collision physics have come a long way in the last 15 years, and wonder how you ever put up with being slowed down regardless of where your car was in relation to the one that it’s just made contact with!

It’s a tough call to say whether I’d take this over Mario Kart Super Circuit as the best GBA racer, so let’s just say this is the best rally game on the Gameboy, and probably my favourite rally game ever!

My Life With… Enduro Racer – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Enduro Racer – ZX Spectrum

I bought Computer & Video Games magazine religiously every month between the end of 1983 and around 1991. By April 1987, my school journey consisted of either one slow bus from about ten minutes walk away from home that went right across town, or a quick one from the end of the road into town then pick up the slow one there. As well as less of a walk, the latter also allowed a cheeky visit to WHSmith, which at around 7.45am was always an interesting shop because only the newsagent bit was open, signified by the lights being on there whilst the rest of the shop was in darkness! Anyway, until I realised that Smash Hits wasn’t really covering the type of music I liked anymore, it meant I could buy that every week, then for a few days every month go in wondering if C&VG would be out yet.

Seeing the cover on the shelf was always exciting, and over the years produced some incredible, iconic artwork that could sell you a game by itself, let alone the magazine! But  now and then it was a bit crap, as was the case with the May 1987 issue – an evil looking, wounded elf-thing throwing two badly proportioned, overly-loaded dice with some purple pterodactyls flying about behind him. “Join the Guild of Thieves!” it exclaimed. Really didn’t do much for me, but slightly deflated, I still dutifully bought it and things quickly picked up inside…

But before that, I’m going on one of my asides. I went digging back through my old copies to find the pictures you can see here, and remember what I said about Smash Hits a minute ago? Well, right there in the contents is a picture of the guitarist from Dark Angel – Music, p.56… I’d completely forgotten about C&VG’s We Will Rock You section, which this month featured reviews of the aforementioned Dark Angel’s Darkness Descends, Joe Satriani’s Not of This Earth, classic Christian metal act Stryper’s To Hell With The Devil, and a tiny, two paragraph review of an album called Master of Puppets by Metallica, which they’re not very impressed with due to the lack of originality and their lack of songwriting skills! Maybe they should stick to games in future…

And the same probably applies here, so let me go back to where other things were picking up inside the May 1987 issue. Inside cover – advert for one of my favourite compilations, HIT PAK, featuring Scooby Doo, Fighting Warrior, 1942, The Sacred Armour of Antiriad, Jet Set Willy 2, Split Personalities and Duet (a previously unreleased bonus game that I really don’t remember being on my copy when I eventually got it). Some of my all-time faves all in one place! Opposite was an advert for Paperboy, then the heavy metal contents page, then a big double page advert for Enduro Racer. And for a Spectrum owner, this advert was very special because whilst the game was out on Amstrad and C64 (and possibly Atari ST or that might have been shortly after), the two screenshots were very definitely Spectrum ones and not the usual C64 fodder, so things were boding very well. Then we got to news, a couple more adverts, then Game of the Month… Arkanoid! Classic of course, though not as good as the Your Sinclair cover freebie Batty on the Spectrum. Then, what’s this? Another Game of the Month… Enduro Racer! And two more Spectrum screenshots!

I’ve gone on about this a bit because, as mentioned in previous tales, I very rarely got games at launch, but with my birthday only a month away, C&VG’s closing words of “Get it!” had a real resonance with me after reading and re-reading and re-reading their review and poring over the incredible looking Spectrum screenshots!

I do have a vague recollection of seeing Enduro Racer in an arcade in Great Yarmouth, but not so much the game as seeing people violently heaving back on the faux-bike they were perched on to try and get over the game’s big selling point – jumps! It was Sega’s follow-up to Hang On, and shared the above and behind the rider view, but now switched the action to racing an off-road bike.

You’ve got one minute to complete each race, with five different tracks that take in different vistas featuring deserts, snow, lakes and the seaside, all of which are filled with hills and undulations that scroll the track up and down brilliantly at a hell of a pace, other riders, cars, vegetation, water, far too many rocks and boulders, and of course, those wonderful jumps that you had to wheelie in front of just right so you didn’t slow down!

The Spectrum conversion was, quite simply, phenomenal. It is probably the best arcade conversion ever made for the machine – the graphics, the playability, the feel of the bike, the speed, the slight panic as you bounced off the ground after a jump, the little touches like the rider putting his foot down if you went far enough into a turn… and the 128K version even sounded okay! It really was a feat of programming that no other racer on the machine ever really equalled.

Without question in my top twenty games of all time – number fourteen to be specific, sandwiched between The Perils of Willy on the VIC-20 (with its own post here) and Journey on PS4! And just to conclude, we move forwards to the June 1987 cover of C&VG, where normal service resumed with an illustrated Wolf from Gladiators and busty Page-Three starlet Maria Whittaker, of course based on the legendary Barbarian cover art, but that’s another story for another time!

Bonus Post – Ghouls ’n Ghosts on iOS: Arcade Perfection Behind Massive Controls!

Bonus Post – Ghouls ’n Ghosts on iOS: Arcade Perfection Behind Massive Controls!

This is something I wrote in 2017 that started for someone else then fell between the cracks, but having just found it again I didn’t want it to go to waste…

My history with the original Ghosts ‘n Goblins is indelibly etched on my mind, from the second in the summer of 1987 that I bought it for £1.99 at a service station on the M4, on the way back from a holiday camp in Dorset, possibly Pontins; although the only real memory I have of the camp itself was its shop, which had a fantastic array of pop badges, where I got a fantastic reflective Adam Ant badge that I still wear to this day! Back at the service station, two games jumped out at me from a bargain games rack (which must have been an eighties service station thing) that I’d heard about in C&VG magazine, but like most games, didn’t have the money to buy on release. For completeness, the second game was Southern Belle, which, apart from the London to Brighton speed run mode, never really got a look in for quite some time once we got back home to my Spectrum! That conversion of Ghosts ’n Goblins was all I was interested in that hot and sticky afternoon, and in time would become one of my favourite games ever, despite never getting very far!

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Ghouls ‘n Ghosts admittedly made less of an impression – maybe because by the time I’d picked it up on the Atari ST, I’d been playing platformers for the best part of ten years, and the ST offered so many newer things in gaming to me – Hard Drivin’s 3D replays and mooing cows, Defender of the Crown’s cinematography, Carrier Command’s vehicular variety, Speedball’s sporting violence, etc. But for all the familiarity of the genre by now, it was still lots more of Ghosts ’n Goblins in every way, especially when you consider that I was coming from the dumbed-down Spectrum version! The graphics were beautifully detailed and drawn (and without a hint of colour clash!), the soundtrack was one of the best on the ST to date, and the simplistic, hard as nails gameplay was on another level. Which meant not getting very far all over again!

There was one thing missing though, which it took me the best part of another twenty years to realise… There were no dirty great virtual buttons all over the TV screen! Fast forward to 2017, and Capcom have finally solved that huge (literally) omission with the release of Ghouls ’n Ghosts for iOS!

Ghouls ’n Ghosts arrived onto iOS a few months after its predecessor, which was released earlier in 2017 together with mobile versions of 1942 and Commando; two more games that are among my favourites of all time! They’re all pretty much arcade-perfect versions, which blows me away every time I load any of them up – we’ve come a long way since Snake on phones, and even further since the Spectrum!

Unfortunately, the few months between releases weren’t spent on the dirty great elephant in the room that all of these versions occupy – the controls. Now, I play a lot of games on iOS and I’ve got absolutely no problem with touch controls, virtual buttons, swipe controls, etc. but these are something else! And rather than trying to optimise them for Ghouls ’n Ghosts after all the “constructive criticism” they can’t have missed for the other releases, Capcom have simply offered the same wealth of bizarre alternatives…

Type A gives you left and right arrows, two slightly misaligned (but massive so it doesn’t really matter) up and do wn buttons, and on the other side massive attack and jump buttons, all with convenient icons in case you can’t read the massive words on them. Type B offers two massive up and down arrows with invisible left and right between them, and massive attack and jump as before. Type C gives you invisible up, down, left and right and the standard massive jump and attack. Then there’s virtual controls, which give you a more normal looking directional control that should be the best of the lot but I’m still strangely drawn to Type A as my preferred method.

The good news is that if still can’t decide on the method that suits you best, rather than connect a bluetooth controller, Capcom wants to save you all that messing around with pairing and connecting, and gives you the choice of Normal or Compact control modes! If you’re taking advantage of the arcade experience on an iPad’s big, lovely screen, the Compact method might be the more user-friendly option unless you have giant hands, as the Normal mode spreads the action to all four corners of the screen for you. In their unplayable defence, they are a bit smaller in this mode. This really is a new level in touchscreen design!

But what about the game hiding beneath the massive controls? I’m pleased to report it’s definitely Ghouls ’n Ghosts in all its gorgeous, brutal glory! Every element of the original side-scrolling, medieval-shooting arcade platformer is intact – the stunning, crisp, atmospheric graphics; the Phantom of the Opera on a chip-tune organ soundtrack; the oddly high-pitched sound effects; and, of course, the mystifying amount of fun to be had from a game so horrendously difficult!

That difficulty isn’t helped by the controls, and it takes quite a lot of playing before you stop mashing the wrong buttons in panic when you’re surrounded by grim reapers and a swooping vulture! But when I faced similar problems with Commando (or Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando in case you’re struggling to find it by its Western name), having this on my phone and tablet meant too much to me to let the controls beat me – the game did a good enough job of that by itself! Just find the least offensive control method and persevere, and there’s the same endless enjoyment you had taking Arthur through hordes of undead, demonic stuff that you experienced in the eighties!

A new casual mode is offered if things get too tough. You get more lives, a double jump, and I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but it is a bit easier – possibly less enemies – though it all still seems pretty frantic to me! Regardless of the mode you choose, you’ve still got all those lovely touches that made this game stand out all those years ago – losing your suit of armour on the first hit and playing in your pants; the magician popping out of a chest and turning you into a defenceless duck; the grim reapers peeking out from behind trees; and I want to give a special mention to the wind effects, should you ever get out of the graveyard, which hinder your progress but reward you with the most stunning trees getting blown about that you’ve ever seen in a game, and they really pop on an iPhone 7 or iPad Pro screen!

Many will find the control issues a game breaker, but every time I get frustrated with them I just think of myself thirty years ago and wonder what that fifteen year old would have thought about not only carrying a version of this around in his pocket, but carrying around the arcade version in his pocket… That had cost him less than half the price of a Mastertronic game… Then I hit that virtual start button again!

Before I leave you, one closing word on the controls. If you think these are bad, just check out Sega’s new port to mobile of Phantasy Star II, released just a week ago at the time of [original] writing. At least Capcom had the forethought to show you most of the action, but if you have any interest at all in the story behind this text heavy, creaking RPG, you might want to find a different way to play it!

Bonus Post – Top Ten Games of 2017

I very rarely have the impulse to buy anything day one, and I’ve spent most of this year playing catch-up with stuff I’ve been given for birthdays or Christmas that I’d directed people to get for me at bargain prices – Wolfenstein The Old Blood, Doom (which was the only game that’s ever induced serious motion sickness in me then outstayed its welcome a bit but I finished it), Dishonored, Dirt 3 and the marvellous Trackmania Turbo were highlights. Lego Dimensions, particularly the Midway Retro Arcade level pack and all the old favourites of mine it included, has also been a mainstay, as has No Man’s Sky, which I’ve now pumped hundreds of hours into and it remained my go-to game until November when I decided I just didn’t want to play it any more. Special mention also to Super Mario Run which appeared right at the end of 2016 and I’ve continued to play throughout 2017. I also got a New Nintendo 2DS which opened up a whole new world of Nintendo games that I’d missed out on since the Game Boy Advance – Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Harvest Moon, Super Mario Tennis and much more…

1. Elevator Action

Seeing this appear out of the blue on the PlayStation Store new release list towards the end of November was a console generation highlight for me, only previously (almost) equalled by the same for Renegade a couple of years ago! Every time I play it I’m standing in front of an arcade cabinet in the cafe area of our local leisure centre in 1984, with the music from the Saturday morning roller disco in the background and a can of Dr Pepper from the only vending machine in town to stock it on the table beside me. It’s the arcade version of Elevator Action, released on PS4 as part of their Arcade Archives series, and by default is the best game released in 2017 on any platform.

2. Stardew Valley (PS4)

This is one of the most joyous gaming experiences I’ve ever had! It also gives me the chance, as someone living on a farm in the country with no intention of ever farming or even vaguely embracing country life, to experience all of that stuff from the comfort of my own living room! You just do whatever takes your fancy, whether it’s clearing some land, doing up some buildings, growing some crops, fishing, looking after your chickens, playing the arcade games in the village pub, mining, building a fence, beach combing, helping out villagers or just wandering about the place. Slow-paced, open-ended, great looking and wonderful – just like the life waiting right outside my front door if only it wasn’t so much hassle!

3. Pokemon Ultra Sun (3DS)

For this game I did get that rare impulse to buy day one! Pokemon Gold (see below) very recently introduced me to a series I’d missed out on for decades, but this brought me right up to date with a stunning handheld masterpiece. The world is brimming with life (including some great Pokemon), the story will cost you hours that you thought were minutes, and even the necessary grinding stays fun. So much gameplay here and I can’t recommend it enough. Especially if you’re still the sceptical non-player that I was until a couple of months ago.

4. Everybody’s Golf (PS4)

I’ve never really played as much Everybody’s Golf as I should have, given I’ve owned iterations on various platforms since the original Playstation release. I have made up for that a bit with the latest one though. It’s still instantly familiar, albeit with a PS4 sheen and all kinds of modern gaming depth, maintaining a very simple mechanic that makes it very easy for a quick nine holes to turn into ninety!

5. Pokemon Gold (3DS)

Okay, it’s another pure re-release (but definitely not the last one in this list), this time of an ancient GameBoy Colour game with no 21st century bells and whistles added, but it was my first ever Pokemon game, I’ve sunk dozens of hours into it and its fantastic immersive world hasn’t aged a day, so definitely deserves to be in the top half of this list. Check out a more detailed post I did on this here.

6. Wipeout Omega Collection (PS4)

Before you think it, it’s a remaster and not a re-release! But anyone, I’m playing by my rules here so anything that came out this year goes! This collects some of the more recent titles, updating them with incredibly fast moving and great looking graphics, but the core gameplay remains, meaning it’s still the best futuristic racer out there and was a joy to come back to.

7. Fire Emblem Heroes (iOS)

For a free-to-play game built around loot crates, this is an incredibly generous, very focussed tactical fighting game. Production values are off the charts; it’s accessible but deep; there’s some very saucy characters, and in my 30+ hours with the game I collected the strongest possible units and rinsed every mode in the game without ever feeling I was grinding for it; without ever spending a penny.

8. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp (iOS)

This game is pointless. And that’s most of the reason I love it. I don’t care that it’s constantly (though completely unobtrusively) reminding me that I can spend money that I won’t spend. I’m quite happy waiting for stuff to appear that I can use to help out the animal people hanging around my campsite who give me money and materials to buy more stuff then wait for that to appear while I fish and catch bugs and rearrange things. The most casual, relaxing, mindless and fun waste of time I’ve played this year.

9. Resident Evil Biohazard

I’d have loved it if this didn’t have the word “Biohazard” in the title and been able to maintain the feeling of Texas Chainsaw inspired anxiousness that built up in the first few hours before the ooze started appearing. I’d also have appreciated it being a few hours shorter. But all the same it takes the series back to its horror roots, even including a nice nod to the dogs jumping through the windows in the original. It’s a lovely looking game, great attention to detail with surprisingly varied settings, and happily the puzzles aren’t too obscure, the inventory system isn’t too restrictive, and the save points aren’t too far apart.

10. Rogue Trooper Redux (PS4)

Some of the mechanics are creaking a bit by today’s standard, but this remaster (the last on this list I’m proud to announce) will bring a tear to the eye to anyone that’s not read Rogue Trooper since they were a kid in the 80’s! Okay, it’s not a patch on the Spectrum version that everyone’s forgotten ever existed first, but just to spend a few hours running and gunning across Nu-Earth and bringing back all those 2000A.D. memories makes it essential!

My Life With… Kung-Fu Master

My Life With… Kung-Fu Master

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

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

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

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

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

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


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