Top 25 Favourite Gaming Anthems – Part 2

Top 25 Favourite Gaming Anthems – Part 2

Here we be for the final stretch of my Top 25 favourite anthems in gaming, running down the top ten. Just like in our run down from 25 to 11 in part one (here if you missed it), there’s not really any rules, but I’ve definitely favoured sounds coming from the innards of a machine over a recording studio. I’ve also stuck with the versions I know, rather than seeking out the best possible version of anything. Let’s get on then, from number ten…

10. Shadow of the Beast II Game Over Music on Commodore Amiga

I never really got Shadow of the Beast on Atari ST. A lot of side-scrolling wandering about with minimal action then you’d find somewhere interesting and die. Looked and sounded incredible though; actually, at the time, maybe more so than pretty much anything else ever had, which I guess is what sold it to me! The 1990 sequel tried to up the gameplay with more complex combat, conversation systems and some puzzles. Unfortunately they just combined to suck out the last remaining fun that might have been there before! It was way too hard and you were dead before you knew what had hit you, but strangely that might also have been one it’s few saving graces… you saw the game over screen a lot!

This time around I was watching more than playing, on a friend’s Amiga, but I can still hear Tim and Lee Wright’s glorious, haunting title music so I’ve a feeling he might have been too! When he did play though, it wasn’t long before what could be the greatest music in video game history made an appearance! Why’s it at number ten then, I hear you ask? Well, as you might imagine, I’ve agonised over where it should be in this list, and whether or not it should be here at all, because in reality it’s more of an epic sound effect than piece of music – if you take out the fade in and out, you’re left with about 20 seconds. It’s a compromise! We start with a choral synthesiser ambience, then out of nowhere this incredible, echo-drenched soaring sampled lead guitar line makes an all too brief appearance. Listening to it again recently, it puts me in mind of the music you’d get in Miami Vice when one of Don Johnson’s big-haired love interests has just exploded and he’s leaning on a palm tree, staring wistfully out across the ocean. And actually, the more I think about it (and having just spent months watching the Miami Vice box set), I reckon it might have actually been sampled from Miami Vice because it really is that good!

9. Transparent Obstacle From Gauntlet IV on Mega Drive

I have serious form with the Spectrum version of Gauntlet! It currently sits at number nine in my top ten games of all time, after countless hours of play with my brother, starting one Saturday lunchtime in 1987 after we’d made a special trip to town to buy it; I remember every moment that day right up to loading it up and the absolute relief that it really was as good as we’d hyped ourselves (and our very limited pocket money!) up to hope it would be! I often wonder why we were so excited about Gauntlet over anything else in those glory days of the Spectrum, but I assume we’d seen the arcade machine somewhere. Anyway, the expansion pack and the sequel followed, then I wasn’t that impressed with the isometric Gauntlet III and skipped it on Atari ST. Mega Drive Gauntlet IV in 1993 was much more the ticket, combining the gameplay of the original with some RPG elements; the original was included too, which I think was my first time playing the arcade version! It was great but to this day I’d still rather play the Spectrum version, unless I’m in the mood for a bit of music…

Behind all the sampled speech and dungeon mastery sound effects – lifted straight out of the arcade version – we’re also at the very pinnacle of the Mega Drive’s musical capabilities! Hitoshi Sakamoto, Masaharu Iwata, Hal Canon and Earl Vickers’ epic dragon-synth soundtrack is as fine an electronic orchestra performance as you’ll ever hear, and Transparent Obstacle is its absolute climax! Sweeping pads juxtapose the shimmering introduction as the nineties does its best eighties action hero drumbeat, then this pure funk groove kicks in, and before you’ve had your fill of that the main melody comes crashing down on top of it all, leading to all kinds of atmospheric interplay. As good as it ever got on the Mega Drive!

8. Haunted Graveyard From SNES Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts

I’ve always loved this side-scrolling platforming series far more than I was any good at any of it! I was useless at the excellent Spectrum version that I picked up at a service station on the way home from our 1987 summer holiday (more here), but I’d happily play the graveyard section over and over and over… Same with my friend’s gorgeous Commodore 64 port – one of the few games that ever made me jealous of not owning one! I could get a bit further on the Atari ST version of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, where we’re now definitely in just about arcade perfect territory, though the rain drops versus the original’s full on storm were definitely a bit of a disappointment! Since then, I’ve sought out pretty much every version of every game, from arcade to WonderSwan and Arthur to Maximo, but never really got any further than the first stage or two on any of them! Aside from 1991’s Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, which I finally played much more recently on SNES Classic Mini, and something about the double jump combined with my sheer enjoyment of how it looked and sounded drove me on, way into the second stage!!!

Mari Yamaguchi didn’t just create a soundtrack for Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, but pretty much the only soundtrack to Halloween you could ever need! We go from whimsical drama to disturbingly sinister, but everything is just drenched in a joyous creepiness, and screams trashy b-movie in the best possible way! After your damsel gets in distress with the demon that’s run off with her at the start, there’s no better way of instilling a sense of eerie panic than my favourite track (possibly by default as I’ve never really heard much beyond it!) as you travel through the haunted graveyard. It’s actually a relatively simple affair, but the attention to detail is wonderful, using the SNES to expand on Ghost ‘n Goblin’s iconic first level theme, with big Phantom of the Opera organ riffs dressed with orchestral flourishes and an energetic but wickedly subtle bass-line inspiring the horror-filled chase you’re just starting out on.

7. Nemesis the Warlock Title Music on Commodore 64

If I were to list my favourite comic book characters, apart from Dan Dare and Doomlord from Eagle, I think they’d all come from 2000A.D. Actually, let’s have a quick go, in no particular order… Slaine, Rogue Trooper, Judge Dredd, Judge Death, Strontium Dog and, of course, Nemesis the Warlock, because otherwise there’d be no point in any of this nonsense! In a particular order, we’d probably go Judge Death first then Nemesis, then Slaine, then it doesn’t really matter here! Anyway, Nemesis the Warlock is a demonic alien out to free the galaxy from religious nut-job Torquemada’s tyranny. It’s all very swords and sorcery in a sci-fi setting. The 1987 Spectrum game arriving was a huge deal for me, though I think I mostly enjoyed it for being the character and how it looked (despite some interesting colour clash!); the single screen platforming as you shot your way through terminators (no, not those ones!) wasn’t that inspiring. Apart from being able to use their piled-up bodies as new platforms! I eventually got to the Commodore version, but whilst that didn’t even have the art style, it did have a very special title screen!

You’ll have noticed a couple of recurring names as we’ve travelled through this countdown, but as we might just continue to find out, there’s none so recurring as Rob Hubbard! And back on his rightful C64 throne this time too! Here we have what might be his most epic work, clocking in at a whopping seven minutes long! At the very beginning it harkens to the intro to Michael Jackson’s Beat it, but instead of going pop it goes even more ominous with a dense bass drum beat slowly picking up steam and this Tardis-type effect ushering in a militaristic heavy synth melody. About half way through and we’re in full flow, with a new, more high-pitched, more complex melody that puts me in mind of stuff like Devil May Cry where you get style points for how you kill – this is the soundtrack to Nemesis in full slaughter mode! As we approach six minutes, Hubbard’s SID chip magic show is in full effect, with everything going on around each other, interspersed with drum fills and snippets of new melody, which becomes more prominent as the tempo starts to slow and we gradually return to that ominous ambience where it all started. Don’t press fire to start, just stay here forever!

6. Mega Man X Spark Mandrill Stage Theme on SNES

I’m noticing a pattern here – a lot of my favourite sounds are from the games that punish me the most! I’m not sure, but I think Mega Man X was the first Mega Man game I played, and certainly the only one I played when it came out, albeit very briefly on a Super Nintendo demo unit; which would have been 1993 in if I’m right. About 25 years later I’d become a bit obsessed with Mega Man, playing through the original six brutal 2D platformers in the space of about a year, before jumping onto Mega Man X and realising that game I’d had a quick go on in a shop all those years ago was actually my new best friend! As well as a slick new look, you get all mod-cons here, with dashing and sliding and wall-jumps and stuff, but the Mega Man fundamentals don’t change as you take on boss-themed levels that absolutely hate you in any order you like. Interestingly, apart from the much more recent Mega Man 11, I’m still to play any game in the series beyond X. Need to fix that!

I’m not great at dodging, so the electric-themed Spark Mandrill stage is definitely not my favourite (although the boss fight can be one of the easiest), but if you want a good tune it’s the place to go! Setsuo Yamamoto and the team of Capcom musicians came up with some corkers for Mega Man X – you can just feel the love in every track – but this stage’s music just goes the extra mile for me. I think it’s the bass-line, which seems to be made up of strobing electronic drumbeats, that turns it into this intense energy fest, which couldn’t be more fitting! The proper drumbeats themselves are awesome too, with non-stop fills and rolls making sure the intensity never relents, and the multi-layered synth melodies sound like something Iron Maiden would come up with in an alternate dimension! Electrifying, literally!

5. Aquatic Ambience From Donkey Kong Country on SNES

The SNES has been well represented in these parts recently, and now we’re at the very top of that particular tree with one of the few parts of this game that doesn’t involve trees! I would say I’m much more of a Donkey Kong fan than I am a Donkey Kong Country fan… actually, where’s the Donkey Kong music in this list? Anyway, SNES Classic Mini strikes again with this one all the way from 1994, and while I did have a fine old time with it, and have since played through the sequel on Switch and the 3DS games, I can kind of take or leave it. I think it’s all the monkey-folk. Not my bag. I do like a good pre-rendered background though, and I do really, really like the underwater sections!

David Wise was behind most of the DKC soundtrack, and has noted that Aquatic Ambience was its biggest technological achievement, where he created a waveform sequence on the SNES using a Korg Wavestation synth. It really is SNES audio to the limits, but I think it achieves far more than that too; it seems to transcend musical taste – whatever you’re into, this is an absolute masterpiece! The oceanic ambience, the crystal clear melodies and then about halfway this haunting lead-line that’s part guitar, part brass, and wouldn’t go amiss on a saxophone in the middle of some huge Dire Straits ballad on Brothers in Arms. And then it slides back into the murky depths. This is probably the most beautiful piece of music ever made for a video game (if you don’t count Shadow of the Beast 2’s game over sequence)! And it’s all about a monkey riding a swordfish!

4. Skull Man Stage Theme From Mega Man 4 on NES

First two Robocops, now two Mega Men, and even more sonic treats from something else that hurts you so bad! And who would have thought the humble NES would out-anthem its successor here too! Of all the Mega Mans, my heart lies with Mega Man 2 – it just has an extra bit of magic that I’ve never really been able to quantify! But of all the Mega Man bosses, Skull Man from 1991’s (or two years later in Europe) Mega Man 4 is the man! My Mega Man Official Complete Works encyclopaedia implies that a lot of this game’s bosses resulted from player submissions to come up with new ones, and the developers liked this guy so much too that they completely scrapped then redesigned the level he was originally intended for. Anyway, apart from a charge shot and a Russian bad guy, it’s familiar territory as you action-platform your way through eight punishing boss-themed levels in the order of your choice. It’s a very good Mega Man!

Minae Fujii’s soundtrack to Mega Man 4 is extensive and inspired, which is also familiar territory for the series on NES and way beyond! There’s an incredible density and vibrancy to all of the robot boss stage themes here, but I also want to make special note of the fantastic urgency in the level select music too – come on, make your choice, doesn’t really matter… Skull Man’s theme isn’t just my favourite because he is, but it goes to so many places, and as a result gets so much out of the NES! And once they simply couldn’t get any more out, they’ve just added a bit more at the end of the part where it should have been so you know that was the intention! The main riff is a real earworm, all electronic brass, but there’s always so much more going on with it and around it, from the relentless high-speed bass-line and chip-tune blast-beats trying to keep up as they throw in a roll or a fill, to the occasional haunting pipe melody reminding you you’re fighting your way through a literal boneyard! It’s like each element is looking at each other as it’s playing saying right, your turn, now your turn, okay, now top this, now let’s do that bit again but together this time! The only thing that would make this better is lyrics about Skull Man on top… Now there’s a project!

3. Ghostbusters Theme on Commodore 64

I’m not sure any game’s title screen made my jaw drop as much as this one did in 1984, and it was a double whammy! First what might have been the first sampled speech I ever heard shouting “Ghostbusters” (and if you’ve ever heard it I can guarantee you’re hearing it again now!) and then some actual real life music that you’ve heard in the movie or seen on Top of the Pops is actually playing on your computer. Or my friend’s C64 in this case! The game remains pretty much unique, and is absolutely faithful to the movie, with you buying your ghostbusting equipment then patrolling the streets of New York from a map view, then when you spot a ghost infestation you’re top down in Ecto-1, sucking up rogue ghosts on the way (if you bought the right gear) until you arrive at the haunted building. Now your setting your trap, positioning your two guys and teasing the ghost above it without crossing the streams, then when it’s near enough you unleash the trap and get your reward. As the city’s paranormal activity rises (together with your bank balance) you’ll eventually meet the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and head for the big Zuul climax. As you can tell, I could talk about this game all day – it remains one of the best movie licenses ever made, and I still play through it on both C64 and Spectrum regularly. And I still absolutely love it!

Back to the title screen, and we’re back to that incredible SID chip rendition of Ray Parker Jr.’s incredible Ghostbusters theme by Russell Lieblich. It’s a complete – albeit marginally slower – recreation of the seven-inch single, and just so you can be sure of that, there’s a little ball at the bottom of the screen bouncing along the lyrics at all the right times so you can sing along. It might not have had the very first sampled speech (Sinistar, right?), but I reckon it’s the first in-game karaoke! It may not be the most complex C64 tune of all time, but the attention to detail more than makes us for that. Every element is 100% recognisable, and each has its own take on every nuance in the song; when you get to bits like the “bustin’ makes me feel good” part, you’ll have a huge grin on your face over and over as you appreciate what he’s done here. That said, I have a huge grin on my face every time regardless, from the moment the spooky, wobbly melody of the song’s introduction starts, and only fractionally less so than the first time I heard it and realised what was going on! The very best thing, though, is that once you get into the game proper, it’s on an infinite loop, and nothing is better than infinite Ghostbusters!

2. Divine Bloodlines From Castlevania: Rondo of Blood on PC-Engine

My beloved Castlevania meets my beloved PC-Engine! Stuff like Ghosts ‘n Goblins might have made me want a Commodore 64 from time to time, and that Amstrad CPC version of Chuckie Egg might have even made me raise an eyebrow in that weird direction once or twice, but I never lusted after any machine like I did the exotic, unattainable PC-Engine! And as a Japanese exclusive on there, that made 1993’s Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (or Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo) even more unattainable! It was soon reimagined as Dracula X on SNES, though it took the PlayStation 4 double-up with Symphony of the Night for me to get my hands on the original version. A couple of years later I’d finally get them on the official Japanese version too, albeit on the wonderful PC-Engine Mini console rather than original hardware. But near enough at last! And after Splatterhouse, it would be the second game I’d complete on there, as well as be the last classic Castlevania I hadn’t previously played through. Super Castlevania IV on SNES is still the best though!

Castlevania’s soundtracks are crammed with standout tracks, full of intensity, tension and richly atmospheric gothic drama. Symphony of the Night has a good shout for the greatest video game soundtrack of all time. Super Castlevania IV is a game world I’d happily retire to, and that’s down to its atmosphere, and that’s mostly down to its soundtrack. Bloodlines on Mega Drive was another groundbreaker on that system. But nothing says Castlevania to me more than Rondo of Blood’s soundtrack, and on there, the all-too-short Stage 1’s Divine Bloodlines (or Blood Relations of Heaven and Earth, translated from the original Japanese) by Akira Souji says it the loudest! We begin with a tight guitar lick that’s always reminded me so much of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes, as the main song kicks in after the piano intro! From there, drums and keyboards kick you into the perfect rocking electronic guitar soundtrack with a simple riff that somehow perfectly complements everything burning behind you, then some sweeping synths emerge and your suddenly hearing the theme to an epic eighties American soap opera – something classy like Dynasty mind! The guitar riff brings you back down to Earth and the undead skeletons lobbing beer barrels at you, accompanied by an almost Doors-like haunted keyboard track that slowly introduces this gorgeous lead keyboard solo as orchestral strings crash across everything. Then the bassline that’s been hammering in the background suddenly wants a piece of the action too, and launches you back into the main riff and even more vampiric interplay. It’s just so rich and textured and brilliantly produced, and keeps the world burning so brightly.

1. Commando Theme on Commodore 64

No game says C64 to me more than vertically-scrolling run and gun Commando (more here). I first played it on my friend’s machine when I still thought it was about the ultra-cool Arnie movie I wasn’t allowed to watch that also came out in 1985! I’d also been well hyped by the big double-page adverts (my absolute favourite game adverts ever too!) in Computer & Video Games magazine, complete with what I think are hand-painted screenshots! Anyway, despite no Arnie, it didn’t disappoint. Some time later I played the Spectrum version a hell of a lot more, and it was a great version, but it wasn’t the same; and I’m not only talking about the weird colours! Actually, for pure gameplay the Spectrum was better because you had to hit space on the keyboard to throw grenades on the Commodore, but a flick of the joystick would do it on the Spectrum, and that made a big difference. But anyway, it wasn’t the same, and neither were the later 16-bit versions or even the arcade version when I finally played that about thirty years later, because it turns out a lot of the experience was down to the C64 music!

Since the very moment I first heard Rob Hubbard’s Commando theme, it’s been my favourite music in any game ever! It’s an astounding, greatly enhanced, more complex version of the original arcade music, which he famously put together in less than twelve hours! He did a lecture where he talks about getting invited to Elite’s offices, so he gets on a train from Newcastle to Birmingham that same afternoon and when everyone else goes home, he’s left on his own there. After one listen to the original arcade music, he did an all-nighter, and by the time everyone else arrived back for work the next morning he had the C64 music playing on every machine in the office. Then he was given his cheque and was on a train home by 10! What he did to manipulate the C64’s three “voices” here is nothing short of black magic; it’s like getting Elite to run on a BBC B – not possible but there it is! The level of intensity in this military rave surely comes from loads more stuff than that going on at once! It all sounds like black magic too – apart from the electronic tom-toms and a relatively grounded bass-line driving it all along, the insanely complex set of main melodies are just terrifying sci-fi trance waveforms dancing around each other like maniacs! Then about half way through this sonic heart attack, everything goes crazy high-pitched, and just as you think your ear-holes are going to explode, for a brief second if relents and you think you’re safe as what might be identified as the melodic ringleader by now makes its return, only to be instantly replaced again by this high-pitched cacophony, which gradually turns into an exotic solo and we all go again! There’s just so much going on here that it can’t contain its own energy, and somehow that ends up amplifying the gameplay on the Commodore 64 version more than on any other machine. And some of that energy jumped right into my thirteen year-old soul back in 1985 and cemented itself as my number one favourite anthem in gaming ever!

Obviously, there’s stuff I’ve missed, even from my limited pool of gaming experience. There’s a few things particularly that jump out, but I’ve just not heard enough of them for them to have stuck yet… I’m not a big Michael Jackson fan (though he’s now had two mentions here), but I remember stopping and listening to the Moonwalker arcade game rendition of Smooth Criminal and thinking it was incredible. I am a very big Airwolf fan, and actually persevered with the famously difficult Spectrum version far more than it deserved, but if you want the theme music, you want the Commodore version; unfortunately they upped the difficulty even more here by also making it absolutely appalling to control, making it effectively unplayable. There’s also the similarly unplayable (for the same reasons) The Last V8 on Commodore 64, which features yet another Rob Hubbard classic, but you’ll never hear more than 20 seconds of it before game over!

I could very easily do a top Castlevania anthem list, such is the consistent quality of soundtracks in that series, but I tried to pick the absolute best of the best of most things in this list to keep it relatively varied, only repeating a couple of times where games might have the same subject matter but were different beasts on different systems. Similar for Mega Man and Thunder Blade especially. Likewise, I could have picked stuff from Shadow of the Beast rather than the sequel, and I could easily have picked the theme from that too. Then there’s probably stuff deep in a load of space shooters or run and gun platformers that I have got but will simply never be good enough to deserve to know about! Oh yeah, Robocop and Cybernoid 2 on C64 – just forgot about them!

Anyway, unlike a lot of my favourite things lists that I can usually put together in minutes or even seconds, this one turned into several months of very enjoyable thought and recap as I looked at my history in gaming in a whole new light, so while it might not be 100% comprehensive and will no doubt evolve over time, I’ve had an absolute blast doing it and definitely recommend the exercise to anyone else!

Top 25 Favourite Gaming Anthems – Part 1

Top 25 Favourite Gaming Anthems – Part 1

For someone whose life is so occupied with music, it often surprises me that I’ve generally had so little interest in game soundtracks! Now, of course I might appreciate them while I’m playing, but apart from a couple of listens to the Castlevania: Symphony of the Night soundtrack and a bit of Thunder Force now and again, I don’t think I’ve ever gone out of my way to listen to any in-game music.

That’s also not to say I don’t have favourite pieces of gaming music (despite owning a ZX Spectrum for much of my formative gaming life!) and that’s why we’re here and now! I’ve been thinking about this for a good few months, after seeing a couple of gaming soundtrack best-of videos on YouTube. Not really any rules, but I’ve definitely favoured sounds coming from the innards of a machine over a recording studio. I’ve also stuck with the versions I know, rather than seeking out the best possible version of anything. We’ve also split the whole thing in two because I didn’t quite anticipate its epic nature until about a quarter through, but that also builds up the suspense and gives you something to look forward to! But apart from that, this is what I’ve thoroughly enjoyed coming up with so far, starting at 25 all the way to 11…

25. Fear of the Heavens From Secret of Mana on SNES

I only got to Secret of Mana – originally released in 1993 – for the first time playing through everything that the SNES Classic Mini had to offer when that came out, and not being a JRPG connoisseur it got shoved right to the back of that queue, meaning my history with it is very recent at the time of writing. Also not being a JRPG connoisseur, my play-style possibly meant I wasn’t making life as easy for myself as I might (more here), but I eventually got hooked on the grind and completed it, and at the very least got to experience its wonderful soundtrack as originally intended!

This is actually the title music to Secret of Mana, kicking off a masterful soundtrack by Hiroki Kikuta, but I think it only really got its claws into me when it appeared again in the game itself when I found the Mana Tree. We’re starting our list here with something simple, but for the most part beautifully haunting too (but don’t worry, we’ll soon change that!). Just an electronic piano kind of melody with occasional flourishes from a cymbal, then a a melodic bassline takes over as some very electronic woodwind provides harmonies, then it ups the ante a bit for a brief combined climax before heading back to calm. A nice reflection of the game itself!

24. Splatterhouse 3 Title Theme on Mega Drive

You didn’t think it was going to stay all fairy-nerd for long did you? This is more like it, when Splatterhouse mixed things up by going all Streets of Rage! I love this series, and the original side-scrolling gore-fest is one of the few arcade games I’ve ever completed; the PC-Engine version is also one of my favourite arcade conversions. We then get to more of the same with Splatterhouse 2 on the Mega Drive, and it feels right at home there, but 1993’s Splatterhouse 3 didn’t just add new dimensions to the violence, but also to the gameplay as a whole, being a far more non-linear affair. And that possibly makes it the best game in the series… Mmmm, not sure about that thinking about PC-Engine… We’ll come back to that!

Eiko Kaneda’s whole soundtrack here is classic horror b-movie, and the when this song kicks in on the title screen you know exactly what you’re in for! After an intro that mainly serves what’s happening on the screen behind it, we start out proper, right in Munsters territory, with spooky haunted house melodies gradually joined by some gentle percussion and overlapped with a shifting, more complex and more electronic melody (and occasional very Doom-like monstrous sound effects). By the end it’s transitioned to something very upbeat, which strangely you’ll have barely noticed happening, though that might be down to the insane strobe effects complementing the title image going on throughout!

23. Xenon Sector One on Atari ST

Apart from what’s right at the top, this track was one of the first things that came to mind when I started thinking about this list. The Bitmap Brothers were absolute groundbreakers in sheer graphical and audio polish when they launched with this most metallic-looking ever vertically-scrolling shooter appeared in 1988, and that never stopped through Speedball, both sequels, Gods, The Chaos Engine, maybe some of the later stuff I never really played… Xenon 2 remains one of my very favourite ST games, though that’s more to do with that incredible organic aesthetic it has than “Music by Bomb the Bass” as proudly emblazoned on the box – not my cup of tea!

In terms of music though, the original Speedball title music is narrowly pipped here by the similar vibe, but just more bombastic first-level music of the original Xenon. They’re both by the incredibly prolific David Whittaker, whose stamp can be found all over eighties and nineties gaming! 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!

22. Metal Squad From Thunder Force IV on Mega Drive

I love the Thunder Force games – gorgeous multi- or just side-scrolling, weapon-switching space shooters that I think I’ve mostly experienced backwards, from Thunder Force V on PlayStation to IV then III on Mega Drive to AC (an arcade port of III) on Switch, then most recently Thunder Force II back on the Mega Drive! It’s a toss up betwen IV and AC as to where my favourite lies, possibly for no other reason that I’ve played them both the most – along with Road Rash II, they are both my regular football half-time games depending on which room I’m watching it in! Thunder Force IV is an absolute stunner, with some incredible parallax scrolling, but in reality doesn’t add much in gameplay terms, and that’s absolutely okay!

The soundtrack by composer Takeshi Yoshida is among the strongest on the Mega Drive too, and not just because it must be among the most complex to ever come out of that FM sound chip, but it’s probably the most metal too! If you listen to the whole thing you’ve got about an hour and a half of jaw-dropping creativity, but we’re stopping here at Stage 8 for an incredible piece of space-thrash, where layer upon layer of pure metal energy emerges on top of this pulsing bassline and high-octane drumbeat. If Judas Priest called up Dragonforce and said let’s make some Mega Drive music, it would sound like this!

21. Hard Road From Arcade Super Hang-On

One of the few benefits of not having regular exposure to arcades in the eighties was that by the time the my Atari ST came along, as far as you could remember (if you were lucky), most arcade conversions were pretty much arcade perfect! Star Wars, Operation Wolf, Pac-Land, Bubble-Bobble, Championship Sprint… Loads of them! With Super Hang-On, it’s really not far off either, with everything intact except maybe for a bit of pace and some graphical fidelity, and it was on the Atari ST that I first came to properly appreciate the soundtrack, even if that turned out to be a little less impactful than the original too, which I’ve more recently enjoyed on PlayStation 3 and 3DS.

It might not be as magical as its sibling, Out Run, but the four tracks by Katsuhiro Hayashi and Koichi Namiki that you get to choose from at the start of each race in Super Hang-On absolutely scream out arcade game music circa 1987! Hard Road has always been my go-to track regardless of platform, with pacey rock drums supporting a lead-guitar-like bassline and an increasingly intense (dare I even say prog at its heady heights!) keyboard track, that in its defence mostly veers between eighties b-movie theme and early Spandau Ballet in its some of its chord changes. I’ve just described the best song ever…

20. Big Blue From F-Zero on SNES

When I bought my launch day Game Boy Advance, I also got my first exposure to legendary space race series F-Zero – sitting on a toilet in the Milton Keynes hotel room I was staying in for a work night out because that’s where I could get the most light onto its pitch-black screen! That was Maximum Velocity, and I’d later work my way through later GBA releases, then GX on the GameCube and finally back to where it started in 1990 on the SNES, or for me the later Classic Mini variant.

It doesn’t take long for you to get to the original F-Zero Big Blue theme. You’ll know it because for a second you’ll think you’ve reached the final boss on some insane bullet-hell shooter instead of beginner track number two! I often think this course was all about showing off colour on the SNES, and I reckon composers Yumiko Kanki and Naoto Ishida wanted to deliver the the audio equivalent with this. Electronic drama, an impossible bass-line and enough melody for a dozen bonkers eighties cartoon soundtracks!

19. Warhawk on Commodore 64

Warhawk is very nearly a very forgettable vertically-scrolling shooter from 1986, just like a hundred other budget tiles from the time. It’s generic, it’s hard as nails, and is one of those games that we all took a punt on because it was only £1.99, but that was also all the money you had in the world and it just became an object of regret! Except this one had the most incredible music!

One name is synonymous with C64 music – Rob Hubbard! He was truly at one with the machine’s SID chip; its sonic cyborg! And this track won’t be the last time we’ll hear from him in this list… Stripped back melodies alternate with supernatural synthesiser ambience before launching into this epic, complex, driving fist-pounder, then doing it all over again. It’s a shame the gameplay itself didn’t offer similar peaks to complement its troughs! It’s also a shame that whilst the title track also plays while you’re playing, you won’t hear most of it because it’s sharing the same chip as the sound effects, and that fire button is also going to be taking a pounding!

18. Robocop 3 Title Music on SNES

The original Robocop, which I loved on both Spectrum then Atari ST, was a masterclass in polished, varied, fun movie tie-ins. I wasn’t so keen on the sequel, which just tried a bit too hard and was less fun as a result, and less fun can also be used to describe the third instalment from 1992, but that’s now down to it being way too hard… and then it made you start from the beginning every time either the difficulty or the dubious collision detection killed you! In its defence it’s got a great look, but once you get past the title screen there’s not a lot else to recommend it!

If this was a list of the best NES music, Jonathan Dunn’s Robocop 3 title music on there would be at the top. This version is not my favourite SNES music (and not even my favourite Robocop music!), but it’s certainly an unmatched take on this amazing song, and certainly has the most accomplished rhythm section you’ll ever hear in a game! Moody guitar licks layer on top of each other, with subtle but complex synth melodies adding colour to, er, panpipes, but don’t worry – it all works, and it all screams Robocop!

17. Gotham City Street From Batman on Mega Drive

The world went Bat-crazy in the summer of 1989 for Tim’s Burton’s uber-stylish Batman movie. The Bat was everywhere, and Prince’s iconic soundtrack wasn’t far behind! Batman: The Movie came out on everything 8- and 16-bit in 1989, was equally stylish and didn’t just give you some fighting goons across platforms, but you also got to drive the Batmobile and fly the Batwing (and play a Bat-version of Mastermind). The Atari ST version especially blew me away, but it was no Prince to listen to! A year later, the NES got its own game that was very much its own thing, then once Nintendo’s strangehold on the license expired, the Mega Drive got something far closer to the plot of the movie. It looks really nice, but is distinctly average in its sub-Castlevania platforming and side-scrolling shooter sections, and although you can beat it in 45 minutes, you probably won’t!

The very first level, Gotham City Street, sees you simply beating people up from left to right, but while the action here is a bit sparse, you’ll be thankful for the lack of interruptions to Naoki Kodaka’s beautiful piece that accompanies you (especially when the rain kicks in and demands that bit more atmosphere). Some big drum hits instantly set the drama as these almost siren-like synth sounds start to weave you around what would surely have been the best Batman cartoon theme song ever, then the drums start filling and accentuating, and these wonderful chord changes bring you back around and it’s all over way too soon!

16. Mega Turrican Stage 1-2 on Mega Drive

My history with Turrican begins with the February 1991 Zero magazine dual-format Atari-ST and Amiga cover disc, and in yet another decisive victory over the Amiga, a Turrican II demo that only worked on the ST! And it gave you 99 lives for very good reason because if you escaped the level with half of them intact you were doing very well! As we’re discussing music though, if I was stuck with only the ST or Commodore 64 versions I’d be happy taking either Turrican II soundtrack here! By 1995, Super Turrican 2 on the SNES was a different matter, all well-balanced shooting and grappling and some less well-balanced Mode 7 effects! The first level features some absolutely stunning backdrops too, with the wrecks of these old galleons atmospherically rotting away against a desert sunset! I got to 1993’s Mega Turrican on the Mega Drive much later, which is another graphical stunner that plays great, with huge levels full of secrets and huge enemies, weapon upgrades and a sci-fi twist on Sonic the Hedgehogs spin-dash!

There’s little that this game does wrong, especially in the music department! Chris Huelsbeck’s synth-rock soundtrack clocks in at an hour, and the craftsmanship never relents, but you’re getting the best first, with the intro, then the first stage, and then when you’re wondering where it can possibly go next, Stage 1-2 comes along and blows you away! If Nick Kershaw had stuck some words over this ten years earlier it would be on every hits of 1983 compilation ever, with its painfully catchy melodic interplays over those seminal Mega Drive drums driving your attention. It’s simply Turrican in song form!

15. Central Park Music From The Last Ninja 2 on Commodore 64

Winter Games was the first thing that really blew me away on Commodore 64 – those trees! It took a couple more years to get to The Last Ninja, but that did it all over again – those flowers! It wasn’t always as good to play as it was to look at (or listen to), but all the same, this was eighties ninja obsession being acted out in the palm of your hand (by your joystick) – who needed to rent American Ninja 2: The Confrontation by the time this appeared alongside it in 1987? Well, luckily someone did or we’d never have got all the way to number five!

What’s incredible about the soundtrack here is how much music maestro Matt Gray got out of so little memory! There’s about an hour’s worth of deep, expertly composed and bewilderingly polished audio in six distinct stage themes and one for the final boss, and it’s all in about 40K of data! The Central Park music starts ominous – like a John Carpenter horror theme – then so much texture comes out of nowhere, climaxing in a classic action-hero melody that meanders into this atmospheric extended drum break and back into classic slasher territory before going even more action-hero than before! I can’t remember the theme to American Ninja, but I really hope it sounded just like this!

14. Agent X Title Music on ZX Spectrum (and the 48K one no less!)

We’re now on sacred ground, with my number 12 favourite game of all time (more here)! Never did £1.99 provide such quality and attention to detail from such variety, as you took your Bond-type character through four stages of multi-load heaven! First it’s isometric driving, then a side-scrolling beat ‘em up that slightly numbs the pain of the Spectrum Kung-Fu Master horror show, then it’s indoor Operation Wolf before chasing off the dastardly villain Airwolf-style but with sensible difficulty! I love this game now as much as I did in 1987 (to the point I had to interrupt writing this until I’d completed it again).

If you locked Brian Wilson away with a 48K Spectrum and one-too-many packets of Chewits, the Agent X title music is probably what he’d have come up with! This impossible polyphonic rave by Tim Follin simply shouldn’t exist on a Spectrum! The 128K Spectrum might have had all the sounds – including some marvellous stuff in the less than marvellous Agent X II – but I can’t think of any original Spectrum music that came close to this for originality, for sucking the machine’s sonic capabilities dry, or for sheer bonkers-ness. Absolute genius!

13. Robocop Title Music on Game Boy

At this point I’m wondering if any other top 25 gaming anthems list ever has ever approached its halfway point with a 48K Spectrum game followed by something on the Game Boy? Maybe more likely there’s been one with two Robocop games in it though, because everyone knows that Robocop is the best music! Anyway, Game Boy Robocop came out in 1990 and isn’t quite as brutal as other Robocops we’ve already talked about here, but being a conversion of a late-eighties arcade machine, isn’t far off! It’s a side scrolling gun ‘em up with occasional first-person hostage rescues, and it’s no Operation C, but it’s alright.

As hauntingly beautiful as it is (yes, we’re still talking Game Boy!), I’m not entirely sure why this title music by Jonathan Dunn (remember him from the other Robocop?) exists – it’s not only pretty much hidden away on a niche handheld game on a screen that’s gone in the click of the Start button, but it’s also completely at odds with anything to do with Robocop! This is a lesson in melancholic composition that is somehow perfectly at home on this ridiculous audio output, creating far more raw sound than it has any right to! It also turns out to be perfectly at home on home appliance adverts and well-known rap songs, but you can’t carry them around in your pocket!

12. Pacific Coast From Mega Drive Road Rash

As we already discussed, Road Rash II on Mega Drive is what I’d describe as my gaming comfort food. Road Rash is a series I knew from the outset, but could take or leave until relatively recently – I think it was playing the original game for the first time on Master System in about 2017 that properly converted me. It’s an incredible technical feat even if it’s not massively challenging for a very long time. But I loved it, and migrated to the Mega Drive version, then everything the PlayStation had to offer (which is mostly soulless in comparison despite some wonderful licensed alt-rock sounds), then back to the third instalment on the Mega Drive which was great until I got to number two on the wonderfully curated Mega Drive Mini and it just absolutely clicked for me.

There’s some great music in all three Mega Drive Road Rashes, especially the gothic Knight Rider vibe of the Redwood Forest course in the 1991 original, but even that mystifying concept is narrowly surpassed by the sublime intensity of Pacific Coast in the same game. The complex rhythms; the dramatic melodies; the high-speed pan pipes being overtaken by this haunting guitar-thing… oh, the intensity! If you’re going to punch a fellow motorcyclist in the head, you want to be doing it with this on your Walkman! Oh yeah, it’s by C64’s best-known musician Rob Hubbard too. Don’t tell those Commodore fans!!!

11. Magical Sound Shower From Arcade Out Run

Yes, you’re reading that right – eleven not one! Out Run completely upped the ante for video games when it was unleashed in the arcades in 1986. Nothing else looked like it, sounded like it, played like it, or was quite so exotic, exhilarating and aspirational! I wrote about my favourite sights in all of gaming here, and the moment where the coastal highway spreads out into six lanes near the start of Out Run easily tops the list. It’s just stunning! No surprise it’s also one of my favourite games ever (even more here), but what might be a surprise given how rubbish at games I generally am is that I’m actually quite good at it too – every route on pretty much every version now! Only took 35 years of practice…

Before every race you’re tuning in your radio to choose from what’s still one of the most iconic soundtracks to any game ever – Passing Breeze, Splash Wave and, of course, Magical Sound Shower. (You’ve also got post-race Last Wave later too). Composer Hiroshi Kawaguchi has tied everything together with a kind of Latino-Calypso feel, part rock and part jazz, but all feel-good! They’re all to love too, but I’m going with Magical Sound Shower just because it can transport me right back to the mid-eighties just a little bit quicker than the others! If Miami Sound Machine had written the theme to Miami Vice it would sound exactly like this, and if you were driving down that coastal highway in a Ferrari with your hot girlfriend by your side, there’s no other track you’d want to have blaring out of your cassette player! That said, my wife just walked by as I’m listening to it and said that’s the most irritating music she’s ever heard! Maybe she’s more of a Splash Wave girl…

Anyway, as we exit that glorious coastal highway we conclude our journey for now, and look forward to the next instalment where we count down the top ten.

Discovering Out Run on Sega Game Gear

Discovering Out Run on Sega Game Gear

The greatest thrill for me in Out Run is when the road opens out into a majestic six lane coastal highway, just a few seconds into the very first stage. In fact, that moment is my favourite sight in all of gaming (which you can read about here).

The Game Gear version doesn’t do that. In fact, it takes a while before you even realise it’s a coastal highway at all, let alone anything more than a two lane one! For better or worse, this version is its own thing. No lazy Master System port for Out Run (although no one would have complained), and for all the compromises made as a result to get it inside this old Sega handheld, it’s exactly the port you need if you have one!

I love Out Run (even more to read on that here), and for someone who’s generally rubbish at games, I’m still pretty good at it; I think I’ve seen every inch of every track that the arcade version and several others have to offer. What I’d never done is play the Game Gear version, and despite my brother owning one in the early nineties, I don’t think Out Run on there even registered with me. In fact, it took Sega’s 30th anniversary of the Game Gear Japan-only Game Gear Micro – released mere days ago at the time of writing in October 2020 – for me to notice it at all.

Now, there’s absolutely no doubt that I’m going to own one – if not all four – of these bonkers tiny machines (and magnifying glass if you buy the lot) at some point in the near future. At the Japanese Yen equivalent of $50 plus exorbitant shipping costs, these things come in four colours with four games on each colour. The black one (my inevitable starting point!) includes Sonic the Hedgehog, Puyo Puyo 2, Out Run and Royal Stone. The red one comes with Revelations: The Demon Slayer, Shin Megami Tensei Gaiden: Last Bible Special, The GG Shinobi and Columns (which I did play a lot of on my brother’s original Game Gear). Blue has got Sonic Chaos, Gunstar Heroes, Sylvan Tale and Baku Baku Animal. And finally yellow is a bit more specialist for the non-Japanese speaker, coming with the text-heavy Shining Force Gaiden: Ensei – Jashin no Kuni he, Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya, Shining Force Gaiden: Final Conflict and (I hope I’m pronouncing this right) Nazopuyo Aruru no Ru. And they all come with a literally postage stamp-sized 1.15 inch, 240 x 180 screen!

About an hour ago as I write this, I was just touching up my epic on Silent Hill 2 (which you can read here, assuming that like me, you are also in the future by now). That was a game where I showed similar levels of self-restraint to those I’m increasingly struggling to contain right now! From the moment the credits rolled on the first game, just a few months ago (long story that I won’t repeat here), I spent six weeks waiting for it to go for sub-£20 on eBay, which is the price I’d justified to myself I needed to pay. Likewise, I thought that sooner or later either I’ll turn up in Japan again or they’ll turn up here, and all I really want to do is play a new version of Out Run anyway, so why not just get the Game Gear version of Out Run for the time being? Most sensible!

Despite the compromises, which we’ll jump into shortly, the premise of Game Gear Out Run is a familiar and authentic one. You’re choosing your music then cruising down branching routes from behind your Ferrari with your girlfriend in tow (in the seat next to you, not literally). The start line in the palm trees is classic Out Run, and although what then follows is cut-down a bit, and the tracks have their own identity in the main, it all stays completely recognisable throughout!

That music is also completely recognisable – no compromises here! In fact, what you get are some of the best versions of Out Run’s iconic soundtrack tunes that you’re ever going to hear, and I’m not just talking about on conversions either! And it’s all here, with your choice of Magical Sound Shower, Passing Breeze and Splash Wave waiting for you before every race. These versions are just so complete and so joyful, and I really can’t imagine that anything else coming out of a Game Gear speaker has ever bettered them!

In terms of difficulty, there’s various things at play to balance it out when you’re comparing with the original. Firstly, you’re completing four stages of your choice rather than five, so it’s shorter. There’s also less traffic, which makes getting around a bit easier than the arcade version, but with track space limited to two lanes throughout, and a shorter draw-distance – especially over hills – you’re going to be slowing down a lot more, or just hitting things, with similar frequency. And time to complete each stage is not generous! In the arcade version, if you’ve got your foot down in the main, you can get away with a crash or a couple of spin-outs and still rack up enough extra seconds from the first couple of stages to reach the end. Not so here, where reaching the end of each stage seems to be down to the wire from the outset, and even without any mishaps in the first few stages, you’re going to be lucky to reach the end.

But Out Run isn’t about reaching the end (which I’m now qualified to say having reached all the ends)! It’s about a glamorous thrill-ride in a fast car through exotic locales and then doing it all over again. And whilst it might take a while to see the end of any of these routes, you’re going to get your money’s worth out of every game and most likely see a couple of stages at least right out of the box. The tracks are missing all the beach huts and stone arches and cliffs of the original, but what’s there is flying by at a very smooth, very fast pace. And the developers really went out of their way to give the Game Gear its own experience, with every track offering something unique. You might start in familiar territory – even if it does take the sea a while to make an appearance – but you’ll soon be bombing around glorious desert sunsets (which you’ll see I do have a bit of a fetish about in my gaming sights thing here), Egyptian pyramids and something like Las Vegas to name just a few favourites. Incidentally, you can also race single stages against single computer opponents on a choice of tracks from the home screen, though it’s not much of a challenge. If you’re up for the challenge of connecting a friend’s Game Gear in the 2020’s, that mode might offer more of a gaming challenge too!

Throughout approximately eight hours of play time with this over the past couple of weeks, there was one thing I’d never had any expectations to find in this version of Out Run, and that was exhilaration. For decades, the main draw of the arcade machine was the exhilaration of the first stage. I never forgot it. And then in 2019, with the release of the Sega Ages version on Nintendo Switch, I discovered another moment that may have even surpassed that, in the final stage of route D, where you went up then down and into a bend at full speed, surrounded by traffic and lines of trees leaning over the road that simply took my breath away. There are occasions in Stunt Car Racer on Atari ST (more here) that maybe come close, but I can’t think of any other more exhilarating moment in all of gaming than that. And yes, that does, of course, include the Game Gear version, but it did still manage to surprise me. I was playing through to the end of every route, and I think it was the second last (right, right, left at the forks), on the final stage of the route, where we got into some serious undulations around corners with a bunch of traffic, and I’m in the dark and completely absorbed, and I got that thrill, completely unexpected and wonderfully out of nowhere!

I can take the arcade version with me wherever I go on the Switch, so I’m not sure I’ll be all over the Game Gear version like I’ll always be all over that one, but it truly surprised me. It’s not the same, and that’s fine, because it still manages to feel like Out Run (and most definitely sounds like Out Run), and that alone makes it an awful lot of fun and just a marvellous achievement! Worth another £45 plus shipping from Amazon Japan??? Watch this space…

Favourite Sights in All of Gaming

Favourite Sights in All of Gaming

A year or so ago I was playing P-47 on Amstrad CPC (and that’s P-47 Thunderbolt or Freedom Fighter depending on where you’re looking in that package at any given time), and thinking what a great job they’d done on capturing the atmosphere of the sumptuous, sun-setting second level of the 1988 arcade version… Far more so than the Spectrum version I was far more familiar with, where atmosphere by complex colour gradients was a bit more of a challenge! And then I thought about the arcade version and how that level was still just one of the best-looking things I’d ever seen as I approached my sixth calendar decade of gaming.

Being a bit useless with MAME and arcade emulation, I went straight to the next best thing with the PC-Engine version, quickly remembering that this was a bit more of its own interpretation of the original. My old band rarely did cover versions, but when we did, we’d make a point of not listening to the original and just going from memory and what we thought it sounded like (which is how our Brown Sugar ended up being an 8-minute goth-punk odyssey)! And that’s just how this feels! You know what it is, but, for example, the train “boss” at the end of the first stage is now the big plane that briefly drops into the arcade version mid-stage. Fortunately, they remembered the sunset background on the next level and got it pretty spot-on; actually, the second level is a pretty good conversion, though overall, for a machine so well-known for its shooters, it does feel a bit floaty to control, and the CPC and Spectrum versions are more fun to play, if not quite as fun to look at.

Since then, earlier in 2020 we got the Arcade Archives release of the orignal P-47 on Switch and elsewhere I expect too, giving us that ancient holy grail of the arcade-perfect version to play at home. And also the holy grail of that wonderful, sumptuous, sun-setting second level in all of its glory on the TV in our living rooms! Now, as regular viewers will know, I like a list. And all of this has had me thinking for months about my favourite sights in all of gaming, and here we are!

I wanted to keep this focussed on quality over quantity, so I’ve been thinking about top five rather than top more. But interestingly, that five was pretty straightforward for me to come up with, where a top ten, for example, would be more of a challenge because I’m still struggling to really come up with anything else that has had the same visual impact on me. Actually, the only thing I have come up with in those months as a potential number six is that glittery ghosty gold level in Super Castlevania IV on SNES (also known at Stage IX)!

I’m also not sure about the right order yet, so I’m going to start with the undisputed winner then just see what happens! And the undisputed winner is, of course, a very specific moment near the very start of the very first stage of Out Run, where you’ve just hit the first hill and then the initial dual three-lane bits of road you’ve been driving on come together into this vast, exotic six-lane coastal highway, giving you the first of many exhilerating moments of speed and gravity as you take in that glorious view. And whilst I’m talking about the arcade version here, the Spectrum version – which I’ll defend forever (see here) – had a similar visual impact at that exact moment! The more I play Out Run, the more I think it’s perfect, which is an accolade I’d maybe only also apply to Tetris and Super Mario World aside from that. And whilst that’s very subjective, I think I can be less subjective when I say that this 1986 vintage arcade machine is still an absolute stunner!

Next up I’m going with the aforementioned P-47’s second level. I’ve just always thought that use of colour here is absolutely jaw-dropping, and couple that with loads going on on-screen and at least 7-8 layers of parallax-scrolling clouds going by under the setting sun, and you’ve got a sight that will keep you coming back to the game for that alone. Good luck getting past it, but if you do get a bit further along there’s some more really nice cloud effects to swoon over, but they’re grey not orange, which means they’re not quite as good!

We’ve been from 1986 to 1988 so far, and now we’re landing right back in the middle with 1987’s Olli & Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmore Castle on the ZX Spectrum. Apart from Feud on the same machine, more than anything else this is my go-to gaming comfort food, and whilst the first screen is my chicken wings and garlic bread, here we’re talking about the second screen and a giant ham, mushroom and pineapple (yes, pineapple!) pizza all to myself! The game itself (more here) is old-school brutal and unforgiving pixel-perfect platforming. And it’s also absolute vintage ZX Spectrum colour scheming, and I can’t think of any better background colour than yellow for the final atmospheric flourish in this beautifully detailed haunted castle! If I could live in any computer game, it would be a toss up between here and the aforementioned Super Castlevania IV. And as for this screen, I could just sit staring at it all day!

Even now, I still think of the PC-Engine as being a graphical tour-de-force, and can still remember every untouchable screenshot that Computer & Video Games had a habit of shoving down my throat every month in the late eighties! For the next entry we’re still hanging around 1987, albeit in the last couple of days of the year, with the release of Victory Run. And yes, it’s another racing game, and yes, it’s another sunset, and yes, I might be some kind of orange pervert! The PC-Engine (or Turbografx-16 if you prefer) isn’t exactly stacked with racers, but this one is unique. It’s based on the Paris-Dakar Rally, it has a deep vehicle maintenance system (but not in a car-nerdy way) and it’s tough, but my favourite thing about it is that it’s also totally unpredictable, which gives it real longevity too, even after you think you’ve cracked it. The sight we’re looking at now is in the second stage, generated by the day-night cycle that accompanies your progress. The look isn’t a million miles from Out Run or a load of other contemporary racers, and actually you’ve had a preview of the sunset effect in the previous stage, but here in the mountains as you head south through France the effect really comes to life as this brilliant solid orange sky appearing over the top of perfectly tinted clouds. I can only imagine how it looks if you actually make it to Dakar, but until then I’m happy for my game to end around here just about every time I play!

We’re going to conclude this tour of my favourite sights in all of gaming with something that I was going to say is a bit less orange until I looked at it again just now, and that is the pirate ship in Stage 3 of Streets of Rage 2 on the Sega MegaDrive. At the time of writing in October 2020, Streets of Rage 4 is sitting in my top three games of the year so far (spoiler, the other two are In Other Waters and Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2). And that is a looker! Best looking toilet graffiti I’ve ever seen in real-life or a game, and such is the attention to detail that you’ll be noticing something new (or old!) play-through after play-through. Speaking of looker, Blaze has only strengthened her case as the hottest video game character of all time too! Anyway, in Stage 3 back in the second game, you’re in an amusement park and eventually you’re going through a door with a “Pirates” sign over it, through the inside of a ship and ending up on the deck full of ninjas. Not pirates. Ninjas. Don’t worry, the only thing that could have made this pirate ship deck look any better was ninjas coming down the rigging at you! This ship is such a contrast and such a surprise after the gritty journey so far, with so much detail in the wood and the ropes and the general ship’s decoration. There’s also a lovely touch with the dark blues of the night-time sky and coastal town in shadow in the background, swaying around like it’s been painted onto a canvas sheet on poles behind an amateur theatre production. And yeah, pick Blaze and she’s also there, all muscle and violence with her eye-catching minimal martial arts-wear, and if you’re lucky maybe a sword pick-up in her hand as well! Thank goodness for pause, because that ship moment is all too brief (and yes, who’s the pervert now?) and you really need to slow down the fighting and take it all in every time you get there.

And there we are, but you didn’t think I was going to let you escape without that Spectrum Out Run moment did you??? Hope you enjoyed the tour, and I would be truly fascinated to find out about your favourite sights in all of gaming!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Life With… Pac-Land (Arcade / ZX Spectrum / Everything Else!)

My Life With… Pac-Land (Arcade / ZX Spectrum / Everything Else!)

There are very scientific reasons about why I can remember not only every second of Live Aid, but also where I was sitting when Status Quo came on, for example. Same for what I was eating for breakfast (toast) when the Mary Rose was pulled up, or what music was playing (1999 by Prince – see here for more on that) the first time I played Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. It’s a bit like those ghost theories about high-impact things being imprinted on places, but more real and that place is your brain, not the creepy underground boiler room in your middle school that I had forgotten all about until just now… But while that works for high-impact, I am wondering why I also remember what I was wearing (blue La Coste tracksuit) when I bought Queen’s Greatest Hits from the record section downstairs in Boots in Bedford in about 1984. And also why I don’t remember almost anything about what was an hotly anticipated, but in retrospect horrendous sounding, annual church trip to Great Yarmouth that was in full annual swing around the same time. Incidentally, I also have very few memories of why I bought Queen’s Greatest Hits as I’ve never been a fan!

Anyway, I’ve mentioned the church trip before, and playing Mini Munchman on the bus on the way there one year, and the arcade by the big funfair with the giant outside where we were dropped off and picked up that had a Track & Field machine. And on top of that, I vaguely remember thinking that one of the rollercoasters there seemed really rickety as we were going around it one time, but generally, I was thinking my only memories of what we actually did there revolved around that arcade. Now, a apart from a section in Computer & Video Games mag, an arcade was a once-per-year novelty in itself – so kind of makes sense according to our theory – and we’d be in it as soon as we arrived, then be hanging around in it with no money left to play anything anymore for a bit before we left. But coming back to memory, apart from “arcade” and exactly where the Track & Field machine was, in the far back-right corner, I really don’t remember anything else about what else was inside it either… At least until one year something new appeared, around the corner and about five machines to the right of Track & Field, that immediately demanded your full attention and pocket full of 10p’s!

Look it at it today, and it’s probably hard to imagine why Pac-Land might have that impact on a passer-by, but try passing-by this on the way to Track & Field in 1984 or 85, when you’re getting a double-whammy of not only seeing the Pac-Man in a new perspective, but a whole new side-scrolling perspective on gaming too!

Let’s get into the first new perspective, and its cartoon inspiration. As much as I’m a huge fan of Hanna-Barbera’s 1960’s and 70’s output, when it comes to the 1980’s it’s all about Pac-Man: The Animated series, which first aired in 1982 and ran for 21 episodes and a couple of specials until then end of 1984. And that makes it the first cartoon ever based on a video game! It was always going to be a hit with me because it was shown as part of my absolute school summer holiday favourite, Rat on the Road, the Roland Rat [Superstar] show that came on at the end of TV:AM! Which gives us a probable first airing date here of summer 1983. Interesting fact about this is that Roland Rat’s appearance then boosted the ailing breakfast show’s viewer numbers from around 100,000 to 1.8 million. Yeeeeaaaaaaahhhhhhh, Rat-fans!

Back to Pac, you’ve got Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man (known as Pepper for some reason) and Baby Pac (in his only speaking role!), and they live in Pac-Village in a place called Pac-Land, of course! Actually, as we’re going far deeper into Pac-lore than I ever intended, what about the older Pac-kid, Jr. Pac-Man? I get that his love antics with Blinky’s daughter might have been problematic to the storyline, but it’s like he never existed! As some compensation, you do get Super-Pac in the second season! The plotline in most episodes is Pac-Man protecting the village and its power pellets from his familiar ghost foes (and Sue from Ms. Pac-Man) and their evil uncle, The Ghost Wizard of Mezmeron… And let me tell you something, if I ever decided to change my name, I would change it to The Ghost Wizard of Mezmeron!

The hugely vibrant look of the show was ported wholesale to the arcade game, as was the iconic music that looped throughout, which you could sniff out in an arcade like a pig sniffing out truffles; in an audio kind of way! The detailed character designs, complete with hats and hair – not to mention their super-smooth animation style – were also a big feature of the game. Pac-Man alone had 24 different frame patterns, where one or two was the norm at the time. As a[nother] side note, something that didn’t come from the cartoon, but by coincidence is relevant here, are the controls – they came from Track & Field, using buttons instead of a joystick, which allowed for those lovely springboard long jumping bits that will always be my favourite part of the game!

And this brings us to that second new perspective. Super Mario Bros. might spring to mind when you think of side-scrolling platformers, and rightly so because it pretty much set the template for anything else that followed it, but Pac-Land was doing the power-upped walking and running and jumping bidirectional horizontal scrolling thing a good year beforehand. It was far more influential than it gets credit for, but seeing it moving in an arcade was seeing that cartoon brought to life, from left to right and sometimes back again, and at the time that was very probably something you’d never seen the like of before!

Back to playing the game, each of the levels is a multi-stage journey to Fairy Land to get a lost fairy home, rewarding you with some super boots that will make your journey back through the level to your family a bit easier. You’ll be going through towns, forests, deserts then castles, and each stage ends with Break Time at the church on the hill where you’ll be awarded bonus points for your jumping performance as you come to a stop (preceding Mario and his flagpole), and I can’t emphasise how welcome that Break Time sign is on some of the more frantic stages! That said, it’s worth saying that things never really gets that frantic, which I think is why I appreciated the arcade game so much – good value for money for the casual player was as important as anything!

Obviously, there’s the ghosts that are constantly on your tail, driving buses at you, chucking stuff at you out of planes and allsorts more to hinder your progress. Then there’s enviromental obstacles like the aforementioned springboard, quicksand, ropey wooden bridges with spinning logs, fire hydrants and other water-based hazards ready to spray you down and take you down. But as well as the boots and sporadic power pills that do exactly what you expect them to do, there’s also a bunch of hidden stuff that will help you out. For example, turn around and push the right fire hydrant in certain stages and you’ll get a hat that will stop you being harmed by dangers from above. There’s also hidden fruit behind certain jumps (something else it preceded Mario with) and even a Galaxian flagship worth loads of points!

And the whole thing comes together to be such a joy to play! On the arcade machine, you’re going to get your 10p’s worth out of the first couple of stages for the visuals alone – the transitions from one distinct stage to another are just wonderful, and no matter how far you go, everything will soon become reassuringly familiar, and after each Break Time you’ll be fondly entering the next bit… before you realise that at some point things got a bit hard and you’re starting again!

In the grand scheme of things, whilst it had the biggest impact on me, the arcade machine is the version I played the least. That’s not unusual for me, having had infrequent access to arcade machines back then, but what is unusual is that I might have played a lot on more different versions of Pac-Land than any other game I can think of. It came out on nearly everything, and somehow I’ve spent a lot of time with it on nearly everything!

As was often the case, the Spectrum was the first version I really spent a lot of time on. Strangely though, the Spectrum version did come out about four years after the fact in 1988, along with CPC, MSX and Atari ST versions, and then the C64 version arrived even later. The Spectrum conversion gets a bad rap – it’s got weird colours and Pac-Man has a funny nose and it doesn’t scroll (meaning you need to remember that falling log is right after the next screen-flip!), but its genuinely only latterly that I’ve had those thoughts! It was and still is a very competent port with nearly everything else present and correct, and as was also often the case, it was Pac-Land in your house, on your Spectrum, and that’s all you needed for it to be fun! In terms of reviews at the time, I do remember it getting a bit of a hammering though. If it had come out in 1985 it might have fared better, but we’re not only years after the original (which was decades in eighties home computing terms!), we’re also years after the new Super Mario yardstick.

The version I’ve played most seriously on – not quite finishing it but not being far off – is the PC-Engine conversion from 1990, though actually playing it was much more recent. As much as I’d love it to be a part of the mostly beautifully curated library on my PC-Engine Mini, it’s not, but another machine in my collection does a very good impression of a PC-Engine and plays whatever game you care to throw at it right with no fuss, right through an HDMI cable! Much like the Spectrum conversion of Pac-Land, the PlayStation Classic is very unfairly maligned; at least when it has a USB stick with a certain emulator suite stuck on it! For me this is the ultimate conversion of Pac-Land. I know I’m going from almost 40-year memories, but this is exactly how the arcade version looked, sounded and played. In the last couple of years I’ve played dozens of hours, having a couple of games at least once a week. And that’s a beautiful thing to be able to do!

Trying its best to be as beautiful is the Commodore 64 version, and as a contemporary conversion for an 8-bit machine, you couldn’t expect any more. I’ve been playing this on the C64 Mini for a few years at the time of writing. The colours are a little muted, there’s only 16 levels (I think in common with most if not all other 8-bit conversions) and you can’t jump on top of some of the enemies so a touch from below is death here, but the soundtrack is classic C64! And it scrolls! It’s also a bit easier than the other versions so getting to the end of this one is very achievable.

I’ve not played a huge amount of the Amstrad CPC version – actually, when I finally got around to emulating a CPC for the very first time in 2019 (also on the PlayStation Classic, albeit a bit more fiddly to do than the PC Engine), it was the first thing I fired up and has been about the only thing I’ve regularly gone back to! It’s a real mish-mash of the other two 8-bit versions here, and would be on a par with the C64 version if it hadn’t inherited the Spectrum’s lack of scrolling!

Jumping back to around 1990, and the Atari ST version was a whole fantastic different matter. When I made the jump from Spectrum +2 to Atari ST, I very distinctly remember this being one of the games – together with Star Wars and Operation Wolf – that announced that arcade conversions were finally that mythical arcade-perfect we’d been hearing about for years! In retrospect it stuttered a bit in places, and was lacking parallax scrolling, but do you think that mattered coming from the Spectrum version? This was the holy grail of Pac-Land conversions to that point!

My brother was also a big fan of Pac-Land in the Great Yarmouth arcade, and he also owned a Lynx! And a couple of years later again, Pac-Land on there was also a fantastic conversion. I’d say in some stages it’s even more vibrant than the arcade version, with very faithful graphics, sound and gameplay. And let’s not forget, that’s a contemporary conversion in your hand, which the Atari Lynx was very good at! It moves at pace but the scrolling is a little off when it’s got big stuff like buildings to move along the screen (though I’ll take this over flip-screening and even the ST suffered from this). It’s checkpointing seemed a bit broken too – die in the forest and restart in halfway through the town, for example! It’s main crime though – and I’ll say “apparently” because I’m not the target audience for stuff like this – is that it has no ending! Just keeps going, I assume replaying the same levels over and over. No complaints from me about this version at all though. Still massively impressive!

Moving forwards half a decade again, and the original PlayStation was being peppered with loads of original arcade game version compilations covering loads of ancient stuff, and Namco was front and centre with no less than six of them! Pac-Land finally appeared in 1997 on Volume 4, drawing a short straw I think, being packaged with lesser known games in the West like Ordyne, Assault, The Return of Ishtar and Genpei Toma Den… Where’s Metrocross, Pac-Mania and Dragon Spirit??? (For information, coming a year later in Volume 5). But now we finally have the real holy grail of the actual arcade version in your home. And now I’m sitting here wondering why I spend so much time playing the PC-Engine version when the actual original is also sitting on exactly the same machine… Having just fired it up again, one thing is for sure – all that PC-Engine practice has made me really, really good at the arcade version now!

Most recently, we come to Namco Museum Archives Volume 2 on Nintendo Switch, which along with a favourite version of classic vertical shooter Xevious (Super Xevious) and loads of other NES goodies, we also have the NES conversion of Pac-Land. Firstly, it takes some getting used to, because as far as I can work out, unlike the PC-Engine version that allows you to press Select to switch from default “button” controls to regular “lever” controls, this one only seems to have button controls. And they take a bit of getting used to because you’re walking and running and changing direction on your right hand, and jumping with a directional button on the left. It’s also very minimal looking, Pac-Man is tiny on the screen, and it suffers from a bit of slowdown despite there being very little detail in the characters or backgrounds. There’s a few bits missing too, including the fairy screen – you get a Fairy Land sign like for Break Time instead – and also no super boots for your return trip. And like the Lynx version, I think it loops after 16 levels. I’m not doing a great job of selling it, but despite all of that, give it a chance and it plays absolutely fine, sounds lovely, and is a great version to have if you’re out and about with your Switch!

And that’s a whole lot of Pac-Land, one of my top five favourite arcade games (we’ll cover that another time), same on PC-Engine, and probably true on a lot of other systems too! Now do yourself a favour and dig up that cartoon!

My Life With… Paperboy – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Paperboy – ZX Spectrum

It’s easy to forget there was TV outside of Miami Vice in 1986, such was its influence on the style of a 14-year old at the time, but it did exist! The Chart Show started a 12-year run, and would become almost equally influential later for its indie or rock chart every other week… Winona by The Drop Nineteens, in my top three favourite songs ever (behind The Cure’s Pictures of You and Ride’s Vapour Trail, if you’re interested) was found there. I seem to remember Today by The Smashing Pumpkins too, and bands like Faith No More and Suede. Shame you had to sit through so much crap to get to those five minute slots, though we were, of course, entertained by Samantha Fox’s Touch Me on there in its first year, so you got something else worthwhile out of it sometimes! I was also a big fan of courier-cum-detective Boon, which would be around for another six years from then, though I always feel that over time it got a bit eclipsed by the adventures of sexy antiques rogue Lovejoy, who first appeared in 1986 too. We also got Neighbours for the first time, most hours of the day from what I remember!

Over on kids TV, which I was becoming a bit more choosy about by this point, the biggest thing happening was probably Zammo’s ongoing slide into heroin oblivion on Grange Hill; if only he hadn’t made such a big deal of winning the moustache-weighing competition, he might have got away with it, and we’d have never had to suffer Just Say No… We also suffered the end of Bananaman, Robin of Sherwood and the wonderful Terrahawks, but we did see the launch of Gaz Top’s Get Fresh on Saturday mornings (though he was still no Sarah Greene), The Trap Door (which also spawned the best looking Spectrum game ever), and a quiz show that no one remembers called First Class…

No one remembers First Class because the majority of the programme was completely forgettable – a BBC1 kids quiz show with general knowledge and popular culture rounds for teams representing their schools. But make it through those, and things got interesting because the last round was an arcade game round, where members of the team were nominated to compete against each other on Hyper Sports or Paperboy, and I think 720 too. And for me at least, there was no better advert than seeing any of them for the first time than on the living room TV! If only they had home computer versions… If only I didn’t have a VIC-20… As an aside, when I said the majority of First Class was “completely forgettable” I was doing a disservice to its presenter, Miss Great Britain 1984, Debbie Greenwood, who could definitely give Sarah Greene a run for her money!

Of course, in the grand scheme of things it wouldn’t take long for the home versions of all three to arrive – and fine ports they all were – and my Spectrum +2 wasn’t far behind either. But for another 20 years, my only experience of arcade Paperboy was that tantalising segment on First Class! I eventually got my hands on the arcade version on the PlayStation Portable no less, as part of the Midway Arcade Treasures: Extended Play compilation, which also included 720 and around 20 other arcade wonders. The whole thing was a modern wonder, but it was on a tiny screen, and it would be another 10 years (2016, in case you’re keeping track) before it turned up in Lego Dimensions Midway Arcade level pack and I got to play it on a much bigger screen than originally intended via my PlayStation 4!

But now we’re way ahead of ourselves, and we need to get back to the origin story. Paperboy hit the arcades in 1985, complete with its bicycle handlebar controls that were actually a modified version of the yoke found in the greatest arcade machine of them all, Star Wars! This meant you were pushing forwards to speed up, back to brake, then steering your bike left and right as normal… If you’re bike had an X-Wing yoke instead of handlebars, which is now the greatest bike of them all! Anyway, there was also a button on either side that allowed you to chuck your newspapers…

The game had you, the paperboy, delivering newspapers to your subscribers down Easy Street, Middle Road or Hard Way (also the three difficulty levels), every day from Monday to Sunday. You start with a minimap of the street showing where your friendly neighbourhood subscribers are, and also where the villainous non-subscribers are, though you will pretty much ignore this as one lot live in bright houses and the others dark houses. You need to deliver the newspapers by throwing them at the mailbox outside the house, ideally, which gets you the most points, and if you get them all you’ll double your score. This will also win back any non-subscribers you’ve lost previously because you missed their house. You also get points by vandalising non-subscriber houses, and smashing one of your newspapers through a window is still one of my favourite things in all of gaming! (Closely followed by breaking what I think are gravestones you can bust in half)! But don’t go too nuts because you’ve got a limited supply of newspapers so keeping your subscribers happy needs to be your priority, though you will come across refills on the way.

All the way down the street you’re avoiding hazards like bins and rampant tyres and lawnmowers, cars, go-karts, pets, skateboarders, breakdancers and all kinds of crazies that will spell instant death, losing you a life but thankfully allowing you to carry on your journey until you run out of them. Get to the end of the street and you’re rewarded with a go on the training course, with ramps to jump over, moving obstacles and targets to throw your remaining papers at for more points. Including this was a genius move, because whilst they already had a unique game in an isometric racer that involved delivering newspapers, they also hit on the massive BMX craze in the mid-eighties with the training course that pretty much sold the game by itself! Anyway, get to the end (or not) and you’ll get your daily totals and any cancelled subscriptions, and you’re onto more of the same but harder and with different things to kill you on the next day.

The home versions started appearing in 1986, and would eventually be available on pretty much everything you could imagine, but I guess I picked up my Spectrum version around Christmas 1987. And it’s a fantastic conversion! The main gameplay area – about two-thirds of the screen – is presented in a blue and black monochrome with some lovely colour-clash provided by the odd garish obstacle! Apart from the lack of colour and things being a little on the small side, the impressive attention to detail of the original is all present and correct, and that transfers to the gameplay itself, which feels exactly how it should at it scrolls along at a fair old whack. It’s just as tough too, but like the original is never overly punishing once you get used to what’s happening and where you need to be to avoid it – for the first couple of days at least!

I did get the Atari ST version a few years later, in one of those awkward oversized cassette-style cases it used to favour, though I don’t really remember playing it much. From what I do remember, it was pretty much the arcade version, with big colourful graphics and a lot more sound than the incidental beeps the Spectrum version managed! I played a fair bit of the Game Boy version too, which was like a mash up of my previous two versions – big graphics, great sound, all monochrome! Very impressive though, but not as impressive as the final version I’m going to mention, which I’ve only played on emulation but is a real technical marvel – the Commodore 16 / Plus 4 version! Considering this would have been squeezed into about 12K of code, it still manages to at least resemble and, more importantly, feel like the arcade game (if it was slowed down a bit).

I’ve only ever played the SNES version of the 1991 sequel, Paperboy 2. This time you could be a papergirl if you wanted, and you were delivering to both sides of a more elaborate road as even more bizarre obstacles got in your way. It’s fun but it’s all a bit soulless though, and there’s no way I’d ever load this up when there’s so many ways to play the original… Which I probably still wouldn’t load up while my Spectrum +2 is sitting right here in front of me!

My Life With… Jetpac (VIC-20)

My Life With… Jetpac (VIC-20)

When I started thinking about Jetpac on the VIC-20 recently, a couple of questions immediately came to mind: Where does it fit in my top VIC-20 games? And because I kind of already knew it wasn’t going to figure quite as highly as it maybe should… Where does it fit in the top VIC-20 games?

Coming back to the first question, this one is easy thanks to my big nerd list of my favourite games of all time ever.

  1. The Perils of Willy
  2. Andes Attack
  3. Jetpac
  4. Omega Race
  5. Submarine Commander

The Perils of Willy (read more here) will always be my favourite VIC-20 game, but this was the first time I’d thought about a top five, and genuinely didn’t know most of what was going to follow when I went through my big list looking for VIC-20 games from top to bottom. Andes Attack, Jeff Minter’s llama-focussed Defender clone, was a surprise in second place – without thinking much I actually thought I was going to see Submarine Commander there! But thinking much about it, it’s probably right in my mind. As is Omega Race in fifth place, and our subject here, Jetpac, in third. I don’t like that Pinball Wizard (read more here) isn’t there though! But taking away the all important nostalgia factor, we come to the second question – where does it fit in the top VIC-20 games?

Even through my rose-tinted spectacles, I can look at my list and say that The Perils of Willy [maybe!] isn’t the best game on the VIC-20, though I won’t hear any argument that it isn’t up there somewhere!!! But seriously, looking at my list here for the first time, extracted like this as my VIC-20 top five, the first thing that came to mind was hang on, why isn’t Jetpac in first place? Instinctively, surely there’s no better game on the platform from a technical viewpoint, or aesthetically, or in terms of gameplay or longevity? From my top five, maybe Submarine Commander is an equivalent technical marvel, but I reluctantly concede that its gameplay has a more niche appeal. Omega Race also needs to be in there as an almost flawless conversion of the incredible playable – and re-playable – twist on Asteroids arcade game. Add a few other titles I’m familiar with, and after far more personal deliberation that was probably necessary, we have this:

  1. Jetpac
  2. Omega Race
  3. Gorf
  4. Jump Jet
  5. Pirate Cove

We’ll get into Jetpac (finally) in a minute. In second and third place, I could easily switch positions between Omega Race and another incredible arcade conversion feat in Gorf, a multi-level spin on Space Invaders that included screen effects like I’d never seen before, not to mention the biggest enemy I’d ever seen with the Flag Ship appearing every four levels! Then we have Jump Jet (read more here), which is a Harrier flight-sim that at the time I got it was surely as good as flight sims would ever get! I could argue that A.C.E. (Air Combat Emulator) – coincidentally another flight-sim – should be in this spot too, but that was even harder than this was, and its plane couldn’t take off vertically from an aircraft carrier! It never made me air-sick like its box said it might either… Then we have Pirate Cove, part of that incredibly immersive VIC-20 text-based adventure series (almost any of which could really be here instead if you prefer) by Scott Adams where you “Go North” or “Use Mongoose” (to kill a snake if I remember right)! And if I also remember right, the first game I ever finished, not long after the mongoose incident!

List complete, and there we have it. Jetpac is officially the best game ever on the VIC-20! We should find out why.

Jetpac was released by Ultimate in 1983, but I’m fairly certain I got this after Christmas in 1984; it definitely needed an 8K expansion so it wouldn’t have been much earlier than that. Without doubt it was the screenshots on an advert or review I’d seen in C&VG or Commodore User, or on the back of the box, that attracted me to it, and amazingly they were probably even VIC-20 screenshots and not, as was usually the case, nefariously hijacked from a C64 version (which in this case never actually appeared). They could have come from the Spectrum version, but any VIC owner could proudly say that even if they did, you’d struggle to tell the difference. In fact, this was especially true because the VIC-20 version had colour clash that any Spectrum owner would have been proud of!

You play as Jetman, though bit like Mario’s first appearance in Donkey Kong, I don’t remember ever knowing him as Jetman – he was just an astronaut with a jet-pack and a blaster who had crashed on a planet far, far away and had to rebuild his rocket from the bits strewn about the place then fuel it up and start making his way home. All of this happens on a single wraparound screen, with three rocket parts that had to be dropped on top of each other in order, which you’d find lying on the ground or on mid-air ledges, whilst fending off the planet’s fauna that randomly flies around the place impeding your quest. Once you’ve put the rocket back together, fuel starts dropping out of the sky, also randomly landing around the screen, together with bonus jewels and stuff, which you collect and drop onto your rocket until it’s full up. Then you walk back into the rocket, it takes off and you start collecting fuel on the next planet, which is a similar screen but with a whole new set of meanies to attend to.

The game loops around a set of four levels, after which you’ve obviously crashed again and need to rebuild the rocket from scratch, which makes for the perfect setting for the game’s score-chasing intentions. This simplicity is what makes the game great – this gameplay loop is without fault, and it sits in the company of Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, etc. as timeless games that play just as well today, still offering endless challenge and replayability.

The sound is very functional and of its time, but the aforementioned graphics are absolutely outstanding, and unlike most VIC games stand up just as well today, with big bold sprites for the main character and the various enemies, and this incredible sense of scale as the rocket is put back together. And when you eventually fill it up with enough fuel, that sense of exhilaration as it takes of and exits the screen is still there today too! The planet design, in contrast, couldn’t be more basic, with three platforms suspended over blackness – there’s not even any ground at the bottom of the screen! But you won’t even notice that when you’re frantically trying to create a path through a kind of large-scale bullet-hell array of fast-paced aliens, either by shooting or dodging or sheer fluke as you panic your way around to get to a rocket part or fuel drop or tasty morsel. And I say you won’t even notice it because for all the hours I’ve spent playing this over decades, I didn’t either until just now! There’s a lovely subtle flame effect from your jet-pack, which moves as you change direction, and from the rocket too as it flies up the screen; the aliens have their own explosion animation too, and I really like that this happens when they crash into a platform as well as when you shoot them. Aside from a bit of flicker, you really have to pinch yourself and say yes, this really is happening on a VIC-20!

And all of this is why Jetpac sits at the top of the pile for the VIC-20, even if it’s not actually as good as The Perils of Willy in my opinion!

I’ve never played any of the Jetman sequels, and have steered clear of the overly restyled XBOX title Jetpac Refuelled, but did eventually play the Spectrum version of Jetpac in 2018, when the Rare Replay collection went backwards compatible on XBOX One. You’ve got more screen space to play in and it’s the same fantastic, timeless game that the VIC-20 offered, but it doesn’t seem quite as fast and frantic, so I’m sticking with the VIC as having the superior version despite only having half the levels of the Spectrum version. And saying that is even more incredible when you come back to what a technical achievement it is that it’s on there at all, when it’s not such a technical marvel on the Spectrum; and when you consider the pedigree of Ultimate’s other games on the Spectrum. Really incredible!

A Note on the Game Boy in the Konami Anniversary Collections

A Note on the Game Boy in the Konami Anniversary Collections

They might not have the profile of some of the other games in these wonderful compilations, but the Game Boy is well represented in Konami’s Castlevania Anniversary Collection with both The Castlevania Adventure and Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge included. And then we have Operation C, where C, of course, stands for Contra in the Contra Anniversary Collection.

I’m going to skip over The Castlevania Adventure because I recently covered it in a bit more detail here. Instead, we’ll take a very quick look at the other two, which I’ve also played all the way through on Nintendo Switch.

Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is both a technical spectacle and an excellent game, and a perfect companion to Adventure. By this point the developers properly knew how to get the most out of the handheld hardware, so it looks even more wonderfully atmospheric, runs smoothly and sounds even more like a Castlevania game than its predecessor, despite the same limitations.

It’s pretty quick to get through the linear levels, which you can play most of the way through in any order, though the final boss fight is a bugger! You genuinely have to memorise every single move it’s going to make and every pixel on each of the on-screen platforms that you need to be positioned on for each move to counter it. Not to mention the untold experimentation to work out some of them. This is a real shock after the relative simplicity of getting that far, but it is a great feeling when you finally beat it.

Operation C was the first Contra game I jumped into from that collection – having dabbled with them all as a complete newcomer to the series, it seemed a bit easier than the rest, and as you can tell, I’m easily impressed when it comes to the Game Boy!

The classic run and gun design is all present in a compact form, but it did leave me struggling a bit until I tweaked the controls to be like Mega Man, then I sailed through the first area. I was then amazed that the second switched to top-down shooting like Ikari Warriors – not having any history with Contra beyond remembering a few screenshots and trying several first levels, I didn’t see that coming!

I think there were five gradually more bonkers stages in the end, including another top-down level with organic backgrounds and giant insects running about like something from Xenon 2! Some really cool jungle stages too in the classic Contra mould – just like Castlevania(s) on the Game Boy, the developers worked wonders with the monochrome visuals to generate just the right atmosphere.

Whether side-scrolling or top-down, none of the levels took more than a few goes to get through (apart from the first until I changed the buttons around), and the bosses were fairly easy until the (almost) last one, and that was also fairly straightforward once you worked out its couple of attack patterns. Which is how I like my bosses, and overall how I like my games!

My Life With… Out Run – Arcade / ZX Spectrum / Switch

My Life With… Out Run – Arcade / ZX Spectrum / Switch

A few weeks ago at the time of writing, the main event of WWE’s Wrestlemania 35 was the culmination of years of nauseating, cringeworthy, revisionist history, self-congratulation about revolutionising women’s wrestling… In other words, they stopped hiring porn stars to do bra and panties matches, and instead had real-life athletes pretending to knock the crap out of each other to varying degrees of success. 

Anyway, Ronda Rousey, Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch headline the biggest event of the year, and after all the build-up and excitement, the match is decided by a botched finish. Rousey is pinned by Lynch, she clearly has her shoulders up, the ref carries on counting regardless, Lynch wins. And whilst the result was predictable, no one saw it coming like that, including, apparently, the competitors; then there’s a second of awkward silence rather than the huge desired pop that was destined to be replayed ad-infinitum from the crowd in attendance; meanwhile those watching at home are rewinding it to check that they really did just screw up the first (and last, while Vince McMahon is still alive) women’s Wrestlemania main event.

And what’s that got to do with Out Run? Well, a couple of days ago at the time of writing, after decades of playing it on all kinds of formats, I got to the end of one of its routes for the first time. On the arcade version no less, thanks to Sega Ages Out Run on Nintendo Switch. Over the past few months, I’ve come close a couple of times and knew that I knew this route well enough that it was just going to take a bit of luck to avoid more than one minor brush with danger, and I’d get there sooner or later. This run felt great, and whilst I didn’t look at the clock as I hit the final stage, I knew I just needed to take it easy, avoid traffic, and I’d do it. 

Then suddenly control of the car was taken away from me and I’m seeing the end-game screen. Did I really just get to the end? Did I miss a finish line and a heart-in-mouth second of thinking I’m about to do what I started trying to do more than 30 years ago? After that momentary confusion, the elation of a moment such a long time in coming arrived and what, thinking about it later, is probably my greatest gaming achievement. My heart was racing and would be again every time I thought of what I’d done over the next few hours. 

We need to go a long way back before we get to the Switch version though, via a much maligned version of Out Run on the humble ZX Spectrum! But to use another wrestling analogy, it might not be the Attitude Era, but I’ll take Macho Man versus Ricky The Dragon Steamboat every time! (And I’d take either over the bloated, politically correct, creatively bankrupt late night kids TV show we get now). 

Before we get there, we need to cover the arcade game too. As usual, I’d seen it coming in Computer & Video Games magazine back in 1986, and I remember being blown away by it in the wild (in Great Yarmouth I think) despite there only being a stand-up cabinet in that seaside arcade, rather than the deluxe sit-down version that was rumoured to spin you around and shake you about.

None of that was necessary though. This was the most exotic game ever – as close as you’d get to being in Miami Vice. The palm trees in the sand and the sails in the ocean zooming by; or the feeling of freedom as the road suddenly opens up in the very first corner from three lanes to this huge, six lane highway and the speed really kicks in… That first stage, which is honestly all I ever saw of it for a very long time, with its absolutely astounding graphics flying past at such an astounding speed, was the most exhilarating feeling I’d ever had playing a game. It was pretty tough though, and clearly made to keep your coins going in – hit another car or, even worse, a lorry, and if you were lucky you were just going to take a huge hit on your speed, but otherwise the car was spinning to a stop, or if you hit a roadside obstacle, you and your girl were spectacularly somersaulting through the air together with the Ferrari. And seeing any of these scenarios meant game over sooner rather than later because a very aggressive clock was ticking down to zero on every stage.

But even back then, strip away the remarkable technical achievement that was Out Run with or without physical bells and whistles, and it was still a lot more than your run of the mill racing game. There were no other racers and there was no first place; it was just you and your Ferrari trying to impress a girl by driving as fast as possible as far as possible down one or the other route of your choosing when (if) you got to the end of each stage, towards five different end locations, with the wind in your hair and the finest soundtrack that has ever graced a video game… That soundtrack! I wonder at what point they realised that Magical Sound Shower, Passing Breeze and Splash Wave were so good that they demanded their own selection screen before you started, with radio frequencies changing as a realistically moving hand moved the dial clockwise through them.

Before I move away from the arcade version for a while, as an aside, life met art earlier this year when I was in Florida with work, playing Out Run on the Switch in a hotel on the beach that was on a road that the first stage could have easily been modelled on. And while we’re aside-ing, now I’ve gone beyond the first stage, I can say that going down the big hill in the fourth of the final stages is now what I believe to be the most exhilarating feeling I’ve ever had playing a game!

As I mentioned in my previous post on Operation Wolf, together with that and R-Type, Out Run was a game I never thought I’d see a home version of. Which might be a lot to do with why I have such fondness for a conversion that everyone else seems to think is such a stinker! Or do they? Hang on just a minute before you start scoffing, while I share some review scores from early in 1988: Your Sinclair 8/10; Sinclair User 81%; Crash 71%. Not so bad, right? And justifiably so!

As usual, the Spectrum version took a hit on colours, going for a mostly monochrome look on various boldly coloured backgrounds, but apart from that your Ferrari looked just like you wanted it to – big and convertible with your girl by your side – and everything else looked more than fine and where it should be. You had all the tracks from the arcade version (not that I ever saw two thirds of them) and on my 128K version at least, you had great versions of two of the iconic pieces of music. There was a bit of multi-load going on to do a new track, but it stayed in memory if you were doing the same route again. Again, usual compromises and more than acceptable for having a version of this unbelievable arcade game in your own home. Until Operation Wolf arrived a few months later, getting this for my birthday in May was probably my most anticipated game ever, and I remember the very moment I loaded it up with little time left to do any more than that before I left for school, still not quite believing this was possible! I didn’t even notice it wasn’t quite as fast as the arcade version!

Yes, speed, apparently, is an issue for the Spectrum version that makes it so bad it’s mentioned in the same breath as Pit Fighter (also unjustified), though I’ve just played it again and I still don’t think it’s as bad as everyone thinks it is, looking through today’s eyes, let alone those of more than thirty years ago. It’s still perfectly playable, it’s just as hard as it always was, and it feels fine – just like the review scores from the time said it was!

Now I’m going to jump forward a few decades to Sega Ages Out Run for Nintendo Switch.  What on earth would 1987 me have thought about not just having the actual arcade version in my home, but having it in my hand too, should the mood take me! For less money than the Spectrum cassette was too! And not just the arcade version, but one with different coloured cars and speed, grip and damage buffs as rewards for getting to the end of four of the five routes and a true-to-life arcade experience once you’d done that and the fifth route too…

As I said earlier, I did finish the first of the five routes a few days ago with the regular red Ferrari. I was going to stop there – achievement enough and game finished as far as I was concerned – but within a day I was back in my new silver car to try out the increased grip version. Very nice and made corners so much easier. Then I decided I wanted to see every route and unlock every car. On my very next game, taking the same route to the final stage I’d memorised on my first run to the end, I got to the end of the second route. The third was fairly easy too, with only one new track to work out – my feeling is that once you’re on any of the final stages, you can just take it easy enough to avoid mistakes to reach the end. The fourth and fifth were a bit harder because you couldn’t get there by taking a left at the end of stage one, as I’d done all the time to this point, and had to go right instead onto a new set of tracks; they took me a couple more days. Definitely worth doing because the finished car with all four buffs active ends up handling a lot like the original one but a lot faster. Now I’m working my way through each of the routes on the original arcade version that finishing all five unlocked, and with the self-imposed pressure off, I couldn’t love this game any more than I do right now. Seems I’m finally quite good at it too!

Together with the aforementioned R-Type, I don’t think any game from the 80’s has stood the test of time like this has, and despite sequels and endless homages to it, has ever been or will ever be bettered for sheer exhilaration.