My Life With… Xenon II – Atari ST

My Life With… Xenon II – Atari ST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Games Completed in 2020

Games Completed in 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most Hours Spent in Gaming

Most Hours Spent in Gaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Life With… Kick Off – Atari ST

My Life With… Kick Off – Atari ST

There once was (and still is) an experimental alternative rock band called Butthole Surfers, and their influence can be heard all over the place even if their music isn’t so much, from Nirvana to Marilyn Manson. Back in 1993, I had one of their albums, Independent Worm Saloon, on cassette, until my brother borrowed it to play in his Mini. Unfortunately his Mini got nicked that day and several weeks later was discovered deep in the River Ouse just outside Bedford, and whilst the cassette did eventually find its way back to me after the car was recovered, it had seen better days and would never be played again! Before that, in 1987, Butthole Surfers released the delightfully named Locust Abortion Technician album, and the opening track of that was called Sweat Loaf. It started with a sample of a boy asking his dad what does regret mean? His dad replies, “Well son, a funny thing about regret is that it’s better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven’t done. And by the way, if you see your mum (mom) this weekend, would you be sure and tell her Satan! Satan! Satan!” And yes, I could have got with the far more well-known early nineties Orbital dancefloor-filler Satan, which sampled the Buttholes, but I don’t have any good stories about Orbital!

Anyway, since then, I’ve always thought that’s a pretty good philosophy. I also like the one about never regretting something (or someone) that made you smile. Of course, all of this is easier said than done, and we often have little control over our cognitive or emotional responses. In most cases there’s also no undo button, although in my case, just £14 for a legit copy of Elite on Atari ST would actually go some way towards undoing what was previously my only standout regret in gaming! That said, I’ll never be able to buy back the time spent that the lady who worked where my grandma was a cleaner and very kindly and very illicitly photocopied the mega manual for me over a period of days so I could answer the security question when the game loads. She did get a box of chocolates for her troubles after my mum found out what had gone on though! Anyway, aside from that, from day one I’ve always felt a bit dirty about what turned into thousands of hours on my number nine favourite game of all time all being done off a copied disk, care of my school-friend Thomas! And despite my little slogans, I have regretted never buying a legit copy – even now, as I write this in full knowledge of the low entry cost!

At the time of writing, the rediscovery and subsequent reinstallation of my Atari ST as a permanent feature in my study has made all those years of regret over Elite a bit redundant though… There’s a bigger crime, you see! Those thousands of hours in Elite make it my second most-played game of all time, but on trying to remember how to fire up an Atari ST (and subsequently ordering new TV cables to make it viewable), I pressed the stiff old disk eject button and came to the terrible realisation that the game I’d played more than any other, including Elite – and also my number two favourite game of all time – was also pirated! Kick Off + Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is what the fading pencilled text on the 3.5″ floppy said. I think it spent so long in my machine during the second half of its very long life, and then its even longer hibernation, that I’d completely blanked it being dodgy. And now my foul deeds are more than doubled and we have a total of even more several thousand hours of gaming that I’ve never paid a penny for; it’s like The Gasman episode of Bottom, where Ritchie and Eddie are siphoning off Mr Rottweiler next-door’s gas and eating his sausages and cakes and pickled eggs and stuff! That all said, this newly discovered heist didn’t involve retrospectively bribing anyone to photocopy manuals, so by my reckoning I can make my greatest crime against gaming 100% right for under a tenner on Ebay, meaning all in we have a life without regret for about £25 should I ever feel the need! And yes, I know the developer will never see that money, but I’ll be spending it all the same!

The next little mystery is where this copy of Kick Off (or Kick Off: Extra Time to be precise) came from. Most of my ill-gotten Atari ST gains were from the aforementioned school-friend Thomas, but neither him nor his cronies would have ever bought a copy of a football game – way too distant from Dungeons & Dragons! Ghouls ‘n Ghosts isn’t giving me much of a clue either, apart from dating it from the end of 1989 onwards! The other stuff written on the disk also isn’t helping much – Disktool (ahem!) then “(Hi Res Emulator)” and “Acize (Norm)” appear to be lost to the mists of time. And it’s all in my handwriting, meaning I probably copied it, though it can only have been from another copy because until I was looking up stuff just now, I don’t think I’d ever laid eyes on the boxes for ST Kick Off or Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. By the way, I’m not going into it here, but that version of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is superb! You can’t get turned into an old man, and the incredible rain effects in the arcade version are definitely toned down here, but otherwise it’s a great way to run about in your pants chucking daggers at some great-looking undead, as they mercilessly and brutally team you how to play the old-school way!

I’m reaching the conclusion that Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was probably the reason behind this disk, and that might also be the case for whoever I got it from. I was a huge fan of its predecessor, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, on both Spectrum and C64 (see here), but that’s not to say that I didn’t have some pedigree in football games too! I’m not sure the double-bat version of Pong that called itself Football (and also Hockey!) on the Interstate 1160 console (or similar) is ever really considered in the annals of football games, but the dreadful Artic Computing World Cup Football on the Spectrum – which I think is the first proper football game I played, back in 1984 – certainly would be. It was Match Day on the Spectrum that became my first football love though! That also came out in 1984, but it would be a couple of years later that I became surely one of the best players in the world when I had my own Spectrum, and I think I got it on the They Sold a Million 2 compilation. Playing it today, it runs a bit slow to say the least, but it’s an incredible piece of football game history, with ground-breaking proper football features like throw ins, corners and even dribbling, all on a side-on but kind of isometric proper pitch! The player sprites looked like proper players too, even if they were lifted straight out of BurgerTime-inspired platformer Bear Bovver! My next love was the sequel, Match Day II, but in its 128K guise of International Match Day, which added more players, more directions of control, and – for the first time in a football game – deflections and a shot power gauge… Which was a bit dodgy and often resulted in a back heel!

Aside from these (and not counting the wonderful Football Manager – another game in my top few most hours spent in gaming ever titles), I enjoyed player-sim Footballer of the Year, and dabbled with the Emlyn Hughes and MicroProse Soccer games, plus budget stinker Advanced Soccer Simulator, and I think there was a five-a-side budget game too, but nothing ever really topped my affection for Match Day and its sequel on the Spectrum. Around the time I bought my ST, I’m not sure if I wasn’t really in the market for football games, or if there just wasn’t a lot around. I definitely picked up Football Manager 2 early on, with its wonderful realistic 3D match highlights, and I played it to death. And at some point I was given a copy (real, not pirate!) of MicroProse Soccer, but I’ve a feeling that was post- Kick Off, meaning it never got much of a look in. Same with the later Manchester United game – it was really good, and definitely an historic stepping stone between something like Match Day and what we now know as FIFA or PES style, but it wasn’t Kick Off… Even Kick Off 2 wasn’t Kick Off, but we’ll come back to that! Aside from that, and back to the earlier days of having an ST, I remember some Peter Beardsley, Kenny Dalglish and Gazza games making their way to 16-bit, and the Footballer of the Year sequel, but certainly nothing memorable.

Thinking about it, maybe nothing else is memorable when you consider the arrival of Kick Off in the summer of 1989! “Best computer game ever” said Amiga User International. “Probably the best sports game ever” said The Games Machine. And so on. My own beloved Computer & Video Games magazine lauded its realism, if not its graphical thrills, and called it the best ST footie game yet… But as we’ve already discovered, that’s not such high praise, and the 84% it scored also possibly wasn’t the high praise that demanded I rush out and get a copy when there was stuff like Dungeon Master (more here), Defender of the Crown and Ghouls ‘n Ghosts to grab my attention… If not necessarily my cash!

All that said, we’ve now established that I was something of a connoisseur of football games by this point (far more than I could say I am now!), and by whatever means, the second I eventually clicked “2” for Kick Off rather than “1” for Ghouls ‘n Ghosts on the Pompey Pirates’ dodgy disk splash screen, a new chapter in my life in gaming began, and it was one that would span the end of my school years, the whole of my university life, my first job and most of the next-generation PlayStation’s life, right up to buying my first flat and moving in with my then-girlfriend and then wife almost a decade later, when my ST got put in a box for several decades!

Where Match Day and its sequel were ground-breaking in bringing real aspects of football into a video game, as C&VG noted, Kick Off was ground-breaking for bringing realism. And a lot of that realism was down to the ball not sticking to a player’s feet, though Kick Off can’t actually take credit for that. Back in 1985, Nintendo released NES stinker Soccer, which did exactly the same thing, though that would have gone well under the radar of most of my brethren in the UK particularly, where the console never really got much of a look in, and anything that didn’t have a Mario in it certainly didn’t! NES Soccer reminds a bit of Artic’s aforementioned stinker, but is more formless, slower, and moving a defender makes the keeper mirror his movement! Reviewed alright though, with C&VG only scoring it 1% less than Kick Off! It’s also worth mentioning Sensible Soccer here – another dearly beloved 16-bit footballer, and as far as I know is very similar to Kick Off in all but the ball sticking to your foot.

Everything in Kick Off is top down. You’ve got a full size pitch, scrolling in all directions, with everything properly proportioned. There’s a scanner showing player positions, and all the players have their own abilities, based on pace, accuracy, stamina and aggression. I’m not sure if this was a first, but the referees had their own style too, dishing out yellow and red cards, awarding penalties and adding injury time, with all the “accuracy” of a real-life referee! A single button and your joystick were all you needed to dribble, pass, shoot, chip, head and tackle. The goalie did his own thing until he had the ball, which was the cause of all kinds of blaming and shaming when you lost a game! There’s five difficulty levels, from International to Sunday League, and a great feature is being able to test yourself against higher level teams (where you being Sunday League versus International will eventually become the default). Otherwise, it’s a fast-paced, realistic game of football!

Kick Off was always about how it played more than how it looked, and no one was ever blown away by screenshots on adverts! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it in the looks department though. Despite their size and the angle you’re seeing them from, the players have a lot of character, and there’s just enough detail in the model and its animation to make you feel like you’re in complete control of the ball and the part of the player’s body that it’s in contact with. Otherwise, the pitch does its job with a nice sense of scale and everything moves on it at just the right speed – fast! The game comes alive in the sound department though, with dynamic crowd noise especially creating real atmosphere, bringing to life a stadium that you’ll quickly forget isn’t even there!

I should also mention the Extra Time bit of Kick Off: Extra Time. This was a data disk with four new playing surfaces – wet, soggy, hard and artificial – that affected ball physics and player pace and stamina, plus wind effects, more tactics, more types of goal kicks, more player attributes, more league options and 20 unique referees. What might be called a sequel today! I’m not sure of the exact release date for this, but it must have been very quick after the original game launched.

The main source of joy in Kick Off is the controls, and how they allow you to interact with the ball, which in itself is a joy as it responds to ground and air friction. The manual referred to the controls as “instinctive” and picking it up again now, I can’t think of a better word. Yes, there might be some muscle memory at play, but a beginner could still pick this up and enjoy it. Then, over time, the pioneering nature of Kick Off’s ball not sticking to a player’s foot comes to the fore, with endless possibilities for heading, trapping, spinning and turning, switching feet, passing and shooting and volleying; and not to mention running onto the ball too, or – when you know exactly where each teammate is going to be – letting them run onto a perfectly timed, perfectly delivered pass too. With skill you can put together the most intricate, free-flowing and sometimes outrageous passes, dribbles, crosses and shots, and there’s no doubt that this freedom is behind the compulsion to keep playing. You never know what’s next, just like the real thing! This all works when the opposition are in possession too, allowing for controlled tackling and tactical delaying like never seen before, but yeah, there’s no denying that Kick Off’s wild slide tackles are another joy! 

As well as single player, multiplayer and various practice modes, there’s a league competition. I don’t think until I was playing it again a couple of weeks ago at the time of writing that I even realised that this mode was there, let alone trying it out! Which I’m now struggling to find a reason for, except that I was too busy with my own competitions! To spice single player things up, I took Arsenal and England and applied my Kick Off team to their matches. We matched Arsenal’s league, European, FA Cup and League Cup campaigns, as well as every competitive or friendly England match, as well as European Cup and World Cup, all in real time, and all noted down in dozens of pocket notebooks! If they went out of a competition we just carried in with the team that knocked them out, then maybe the team that knocked them out too. Some serious attention to detail and serious work needed to stay on top of it! Eventually we won everything, but not all the time. The FA Cup was a particular hoodoo, and between 1991 and 1996 we never even reached the semi-finals. Eventually, in 1997, everything came right. Real-life winners Chelsea (but Arsenal for these purposes) were playing Middlesbrough in the final. My aforementioned then-girlfriend and now-wife and me were on our first holiday together in Luxor, Egypt while the actual FA Cup Final happened, so I had to delay the Kick Off version by a couple of weeks. It was worth the wait, with a 5-0 win! 

On top of years’ worth of mirroring actual football competitions, every player in my team had a name, from David Seaman in goal to Roberto Baggio wherever he fancied playing. Same team regardless of domestic or international – my fantasy game, my rules! And every player was rated at the end of each match, and had their goal tally recorded, and imaginary awards were given at the end of every season! Andy Cole and Ian Wright were generally the top goal scorers, but Marco Van Basten was usually voted best player on the planet. My brother Phil’s team all had names too, and we spent hours and hours and hundreds or thousands of matches playing against each other for bragging rights that lasted until the next final whistle, relentlessly abusing each other’s players (by name), and often resorting to local bedroom football hooliganism when the ref made an outrageous decision or there was a particularly vicious slide tackle that could have put an end to your player of the year!

Kick Off wasn’t just a great game, but it also absolutely nailed a love and understanding of football and all the reasons why people are so passionate about it. It got the tension, the unpredictability and all of the excitement just right, and on top of that it absolutely nailed how it feels to play, win and lose. And in providing everything you needed to make you keep coming back for thousands of hours, there was still enough missing in terms of player names and team licensing (that would later win or lose the football game wars) to make you use your imagination and create your own football fantasies, which prolonged its life even more… Filling in the blanks, just like all the great 8-bit games of any genre had done just a very short time – but also what was also a video gaming lifetime – before. And that’s why its no surprise that Kick Off is the game I’ve played more than any other, and is unlikely to ever be replaced as my second favourite game of all time.

Of course, Amiga User’s “best computer game ever” was always going to get a sequel, but before Kick Off 2 arrived, we had Player Manager in 1990, which used the Kick Off match engine to power a football management sim where you played as a single player in the team. And apparently it was very good! The same year, the sequel proper brought a more tactical game and more tactical player movement, as well as slightly enhanced ball physics. There were complex league and cup competitions, loads of distinctive refs and some kit editing and other stuff. There were a load of expansion disks too. But there was also after-touch, and this ruined the game for me. Apparently you could turn it off, though I didn’t know at the time (and I don’t even have the excuse of no instructions this time having actually bought it)! Anyway, it let you change the direction of the ball in flight, and over time you could just use it all the time to become unstoppable, and that just became frustrating, especially against other human players doing the same thing. I know everyone else loves it, but I was just still so in love with the first game that the after-touch thing is possibly just glossing over that I wasn’t ready for it to be for me!

Also not for me was Super Kick Off on the Gameboy. You could only see a tiny bit of the pitch, and if you weren’t close to any pitch markings you had no idea where you were, and more importantly where anyone else was. The players were just too small and moved too quickly to have any degree of ball control with too. This was a bigger disappointment for me than not clicking with Kick Off 2. Partially because by the time it came out there was a lot less disposable money available to student me, but also because I was desperate to love it – can you imagine carrying your almost favourite game ever around in your hand?

I don’t know much about Kick Off 3, 96, 97, 98, 2002 or the unreleased 2004, except that they didn’t make much of a splash, but I did pick up the 2016 Kick Off Revival on PS4, from original Kick Off mastermind Dino Dini. It was elected second worst game of 2016 on Metacritic, and accused of being the worst football game ever made by Vice. You can pretty much copy and paste my disappointment from the Game Boy version here, except that after decades apart I tried even harder to love it! I even studied the series of post-launch screenshots of spreadsheets that told you how to kick the ball. And I’m not exaggerating – look them up! But they did me no good…

And you know what, having parted with a load of money on three sequels that disappointed me enormously in one way or another, I’m feeling a whole lot better now about that regret thing. And I’m going to send that regret right back to Elite. And Elite photocopy lady!

My Life With… Stunt Car Racer – Atari ST

My Life With… Stunt Car Racer – Atari ST

Not for the first time in its lifetime, as I write this my Spectrum +2 has just had to make way for my Atari ST! I’ve got Spectrum emulators coming out of my ears, but the ST isn’t as straightforward, and a recent obsession over an old ST favourite on other platforms meant it had to come out to play again!

And there’s a sore point we’ll come back to shortly, but for now, my ST has sat in a plastic Selfridges carrier bag in my loft for the last two years, that was also its home in my Dad’s loft for the best part of thirty. (And that’s the same plastic bag it came home from London in when I bought it in Selfridges all those years ago). Apart from looking a bit dishevelled and grubby (which is probably how it looked when it went in the bag), everything just about worked fine. My Quickshot Python 1 joystick has seen better days, with left sticking a bit, and that stupid joystick port under the front next to the mouse port is still a right pain to get at, but otherwise it powered on and the possibly pirated disc containing Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and Kick Off which was still in the drive worked great! It was a little jarring going back to that ST homescreen and remembering how to boot up a game from the floppy disc though – too much Windows in the interim when all I needed to do was press the reset button!

Neighbouring the ST in its bag in the loft was a far more appropriate Lion bar cardboard board full of games, organized to completely fill every space in the box to perfection, with all the skill of the Tetris master that once packed it. Unfortunately he’s not been a Tetris master for a while now, and there’s no way they’re all going back in that box ever again! Not that we’ve got any more plans for the box any time soon – we have everything we need right here! Well, almost everything…

Apart from having a good idea what was in there, opening that box must have been like when Howard Carter opened Tutankhamun’s tomb! There was Pac-Land (more on that here) sitting on the top with another incredible arcade conversion, Star Wars. Poking out underneath was Starglider, glorious flight-sim Falcon and game creation language suite STOS, with two Spy vs Spy games and the Gunship manual padding out a gap on one of the sides. Then there were the boxes of “loose” floppy discs, not all of which were of dubious origin I might add! Actually, I think most of them are issues of short-lived disc-based magazine Stampede. There was probably a hundred games in there in all, and as much as I enjoyed browsing through every single one in turn for the first time, then carefully deciphering the faded pencil labels just to make sure the second time, I was less enthralled with the denial then realisation the third time around that Stunt Car Racer simply wasn’t there!

Yes, for a couple of months now I’ve been playing tons of this on the Spectrum, because I had no idea it was on the Spectrum until recently, then on the C64 because I had no idea that existed either for even longer! And as wonderful an achievement as the Spectrum version is, the C64 version isn’t far off Amiga quality, which isn’t far off my beloved old Atari ST game, and it was only a matter of time until I had to get everything out and get playing that version again!

I still can’t believe that as far as I can tell, absolutely everything except Stunt Car Racer – the one game I was prepared to sacrifice my Spectrum for the second time for – is in that box! I’ve no idea why it wouldn’t be in there. I mean, it was in one of the big style Atari ST boxes where you’d get the manual and a special insert to stop the precious disc bouncing around that vast cavern, and they do take up a lot of box space, but there’s some right old crap in there (what even is Kayden Garth and why do I own it???) that could have gone in another box! And I’ve got any boxes with old copies of 2000A.D. or Murder Casebook in that it might have been shoved into instead to fill a space, and that wouldn’t have been easy to miss when I sorted those out on re-arrival with me a couple of years ago too.

I won’t bore you with the rest of the stages of grief I tore through yesterday at the time of writing, but on reaching acceptance I was immediately on eBay looking at precisely two listings for Stunt Car Racer on the Atari ST. Oh dear, thinking I was going to be spoilt with choice and pick this up for a fiver plus about the same in postage for that huge box was turning out to be wishful thinking. I added them both, at £30 each, to my watch list. Within a couple of hours, there was an offer from the seller for one of them for £26. I ignored it for 18 hours then went back with what I’d decided was my maximum price whenever I was eventually going to buy it of £20; especially knowing perfectly well that my original copy is going to turn up as soon as I click pay on anything! And within minutes they went for it, and we are now back in business!

Buying Stunt Car Racer first time around came late in my Atari ST relationship – probably in 1991 – and excluding multiplayer games of Super Sprint and Rampage with my brothers, was definitely the only single-player game that ever got a look in once Kick Off – the game I’ve still played more than any other on any platform – got its hooks into the three of us! In fact, Kick Off would extend the lifetime of my ST beyond even that of the original PlayStation! But, as much as I loved Stunt Car Racer, it’s very much associated with a specific timeframe during my second year of university.

During my first year, we were offered a kind of year-long exchange with l’ecole d’ingenieurs de Tours in France, and being an unnaturally fluent French speaker – the background for which will forever be a mystery – I decided I’d give it a go. When September came, me and another guy on my course, Stuart, who I’d become as thick as thieves with when we eventually reunited in our final year, went off with the guys (it was an engineering degree in the early 90’s!) from the year above who were doing their sandwich year for an induction week… And what a holiday that week was with the guys from our own year when it was our turn proper the following year! Anyway, we were abandoned at the end of the week (but not as badly as happened the following year!) and eventually found our way to the campus and our halls and our new life in what is the perfect university city. We made some great friends and had a great time, including some of the craziest fresher’s week antics I’ve ever heard of, but over time the course wasn’t quite what I’d signed up to and when I was offered a get-out before the end of the year I decided to take it and get back to normal. Unfortunately everyone else was already back to normal, and I ended up renting a room with a family where I certainly wasn’t hanging around for the weekends, and for the rest of that term I remember two very specific things about those weekends. First, my insistence on having U2’s Achtung Baby album playing on the car journey back there with my parents every Sunday night, and second playing Stunt Car Racer until I couldn’t put that journey off any longer!

We’re now a few days removed from all of the above, and it’s turned up in the post, so we can finally talk about Stunt Car Racer! It had been out for a couple of years before I got it first time around, and given some of the rubbish my big Lion bar box suggests I bought (let alone copied!) in the intervening time, that gap from release to purchase is a complete mystery! I was certainly aware of it, from the very first time it graced the cover of Computer & Video Games magazine in August 1989, with the headline “The best race game ever?” And that’s a very good question!

Ignoring cars, because the question also does that, I’ve got to go with SSX 3 on PlayStation 2 as the best, but that was decades away in August 1989, so we’re then looking at Supersprint on formats such as arcade, Spectrum and Atari ST as the best race game ever, with the caveat that its top-down nature is maybe not in the spirit of the question. Does Out Run qualify as a race game? That’s next if it does; arcade and – always controversially – Spectrum (more here)! Then Destruction Derby 2 on Playstation, also a big while away, so doesn’t count yet either. Then Enduro Racer on Spectrum (see here this time). I reckon Stunt Car Racer can come next in my list, just before the arcade version of Virtua Racer (also three years away), making the answer to the question “No, but it’s maybe top three” when it was asked!

Back to C&VG, and in their gushing 93% August 1989 review they start by bemoaning that aside from Super Hang On – which would be next in my list – there’s not much going on in 16-bit racing. They’d clearly forgotten about the similar-scoring Test Drive II from a couple of months earlier. Anyway, they decided it was the best race game ever. Outside of the arcades. On a home computer. Just looking through my Lion bar box, apart from Super Hang On, there’s Hard Drivin (more on that here, but also recently positively reviewed by C&VG), RVF Honda (which C&VG has also just very postiviely reviewed), Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge (I won’t labour the point) and Vroom (predictable now). Some serious quality there, so no complaints if that lot still all counts as not a lot to choose from, but I’m not disagreeing with much they say about Stunt Car Racer itself!

For all the race games we’ve just run through, Stunt Car Racer can undoubtely call itself the most unique. It’s a one-on-one car race in a first-person cockpit perspective, but on a raised 3D track that you not only have to stay on, but, as you might imagine, there’s stunts too, in the form of ramps, bumps, hurdles, gaps, massive ski jumps and all kinds of rollercoaster shennanigans. At the start of each race, you’re winched onto the track, held up by chains that let you loose when the man says go. Fall off the track, and after what seems like an agonising wait – especially for some of the more flamboyant crash scenarious you might find yourself in – and you’re going to be winched back onto the track again. The winch is genius, building up big anticipation with your car swinging all over the place before it finally settles in position for you to drop.

The races themselves are hugely strategic affairs of cat-and-mouse with your opponent, and it’s going to take some experience – especially on later tracks – for you to know when you should stay and when you should go. That said, there’s nothing like the thrill of firing boost and just going hell for leather out of the blocks (or being unchained), getting your nose in front and then just trying to defend your lead for the whole race! Even when your opponent is out of sight, a very simple mechanic of telling you how far away they are adds an amazing amount of tension when you can see how fast they’re catching, or how you’re running out of laps to catch them, or even worse, that big lead you had disappearing as you’re being winched back on after a crash! And aside from deciding when to sit back, when to overtake and when to fly with your limited supply of nitrous boost, depending on your specific track situation, you’re also constantly balancing speed for the different obstacles and even for the normal turns, just to make sure you stay on the track.

And the strategy goes on. Winning a race gets you two points, which contributes towards your league position against two computer opponents. But getting the fastest lap nets you a bonus point, so what you’re going to have to consider on top of everything else is making sure that second lap is an absolute corker, because if the computer is in the lead on the last lap then you might not be scoring a time before the race ends, and if you’re in the lead you’re likely to be concentrating on staying in front and not getting a record lap time! With two tracks in each of four increasingly tough divisions, each with two different computer opponents (which the computer works out the results for), and two races each per track per season, those fastest lap points become all important towards deciding whether you’re promoted, relagated or stay where you are.

We need to come back to crashing, and one final tension-building strategic mechanic, which is the big crack that gradually spreads across your roll cage as you sustain damage! Take a corner too fast, small crack; come off the track, bigger (and bigger) crack; hit the opponent or they hit you, devastating crack if you hang around too long! If your crack gets too big, you’re wrecked and it’s race over (so make sure you got a decent lap time in before that happens)! To compound this, once you get past Division 4, there’s going to be permanent serious impact damage in the form of holes in the roll cage that the crack just jumps across, accelerating your doom!

Winning Division 1 is going to take you ages, not just from learning the nuances of each track and each opponent, but also puzzling out how the hell you’re going over some of those obstacles in the first place! And there’s some really fiendishly designed tracks on offer here! But do it, and it’s not game over yet – you’re going into the Super League with a hugely overpowered new car! Don’t worry about that for now though. First you’ve got to get over the thrill of the race on a crazy track, then you’ve got to get to know the tracks in every division, then you’ve got to get your racing strategy down. And that’s going to take some time and you’re going to love every second of it!

By chance when I was looking through my ST floppies, I found my brother Phil’s old Division 2 save on one, under the name of Bern Rubba. I sent him a pic and he replied saying how much fun it was, but he bets it looks like a dog now. I’d say it’s a little primitive by today’s standards, but the 16-bit versions at least run like a dream, even if the backgrounds are sparse, and the opponent’s car is only marginally less sparse, being made up a less 3D polygons than you could count on one hand! The lovely detailing of your cockpit and front of the car – especially the flames coming out of the exposed engine when you boost – take a lot of the graphical pressure off what’s going on outside though. But all the same, the raised 3D tracks do exactly what they need to, and all of this combined was more than enough to blow anyone away at the time! There’s some lovely between race, very 16-bit cartoon-like scenes too, celebrating your victory or having you dejectly looking on at someone else doing it. Sound isn’t spectacular, but is more than functional, and I reckon any more than that would be a distraction in a game like this.

I’ll quickly mention the 8-bit versions, as, like I said, that’s actually where this recent story begins. I was well beyond the Spectrum when I was playing this on the Atari ST, and although C&VG really bigged that version up, saying it was identical to the ST apart from being monochrome, it was only very recently that I came across it again and actually paid attention. I would say that it runs like my brother imagined the ST version to run like now, but the gameplay is all still there! And I very quickly got very addicted to it all over again! C&VG said it promised to be one of the most amazing games yet seen on the Spectrum, and I can’t disagree on that point!

Even more amazing is the Commodore 64 version. Yes, it’s got more colour (even if a lot of it is C64 brown), and the cockpit really isn’t far off looking like the 16-bit versions, but it also runs at a slightly more comparable pace. And so my addiction jumped to that platform, until I finally thought why not go to the effort of opening the loft hatch right above where I was playing and getting the ST out, because I had a nagging feeling that despite being technically close to the experience I remembered now, there was something still missing…

Playing them all in tandem now, there’s one subtle but massive difference for me between these 8-bit versions and both the Atari ST and Amiga (which I’ve also played a bit, emulated on a MacBook Pro) counterparts, which is what makes the game stand out over everything else, and that’s exhileration. Yes, if you’d never played on 16-bit, you’d never miss it and you’d have a wonderful time, but there’s something about the extra fidelity, the longer draw distances, the speed and something about the car physics that makes driving feel more tactile. You’re going to feel every bump, and that’s going to make you also brace yourself for every bump, whether just going into a curve a bit too sharply, or landing a huge jump and bouncing around from the impact. And as a result, your stomach will often be in your mouth and you’re going to be leaning all over the place as you try not to wrestle your joystick too hard because you remember just how easily they can snap by pushing a bit too far in one direction!

This game on the Atari ST is just so immersive, and has so much going for it that you’ll be coming back forever. Eventually, when you’ve admitted to yourself you aren’t going to find it again and need to splash some cash! I still question C&VG’s complaint about the lack of racing games on the platform, but if there is a lack, then no problem because this is the only racing game you need on there. It might not be the best race game ever anymore, but it’s still not far off, and there’s no question in my mind that it is still one of the most exhilerating too!

Finally, next month in C&VG… Xenon II – the most amazing shoot ‘em up ever? Yeah, maybe!

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… Operation Wolf (ZX Spectrum / Atari ST)

My Life With… Operation Wolf (ZX Spectrum / Atari ST)

I vaguely remember seeing Operation Wolf, with its mounted Uzi, in an arcade, but where it really made an impression was long before that in Computer & Video Games magazine’s Arcade Action section. Whilst I’d generally skip over that section with just a few glances at the screenshots, I remember three games on those pages that absolutely blew me away, and there was no chance in hell there’d ever be home computer conversions! They were R-Type, Out Run, and, of course, Operation Wolf, where all your Rambo fantasies could finally come true with graphics like you’d never seen before! 

As a side note, at the time of writing in February 2019, I recently picked up arcade perfect conversions of R-Type and Out Run on the Nintendo Switch; they did come, and with Out Run in particular, I still can’t quite believe what I’m seeing on my TV screen even three decades later- when you consider how amazed I was by the ZX Spectrum version when it came, and how bad everyone else seems to think that version is, maybe not a surprise!

I don’t think I’d ever wanted a game as much as I did this; with arcade conversions, especially such high profile ones, expectations of quality were always secondary to the fact that it was just coming to the Spectrum! It arrived in all its monochrome glory for Christmas 1988, and if I remember right was a present from my grandma and auntie. What I definitely remember right is my first time playing it on Christmas Day evening, in my auntie’s bedroom, on her Spectrum+2 and a 14-inch black and white portable TV. As was often the case playing Spectrum games at the time, the fact it lacked colour didn’t, in reality, matter that much! That said, let’s not forgot it more than made up for the lack of colour in the main game by filling the little “suiting up” montage you got when you first loaded the game up with the most garish colours it could manage!

On the home versions, the Uzi was replaced by a crosshair, which controlled fine with a joystick, as the screen scrolled from left to right and enemy soldiers, tanks, gunships and gunboats filled the screen from all directions to bring you death. As well as your Uzi, you could also bring them death with your limited supply of grenades; letting the screen fill up with vehicles and soldiers then dispatching them all at once this way was a great feeling! As was shooting one of the daggers out of sky as it flew at the screen before it hit you and briefly stayed in place, full stab.

The story, such as it was, was true to the arcade original – go through six military themed levels in jungles, prison camps, airports and various bases to rescue the hostages. Each one was a bit more than just shooting everything in sight; you’d have a task like cutting off the enemy communications or getting information out of the enemies, although all of that did involve shooting everything that moved unless it was one of the fleeing civilians or nurses carrying some unfortunate in a stretcher who shouted “NO!” if you shot them. The first few levels were all do-able but I’m not sure I ever got to the end of the final level in the airport. 

The Spectrum version was one of the best arcade conversions the machine got, with absolutely stunning looking graphics that perfectly captured the feel of the original. And there were so many types enemies on screen at once in the distance and in the foreground (including the one that looked like something out of The Village People) and all over the place without any kind of slowdown or mess. The +2 version sounded good too, with a suitably testosterone-juiced theme tune. Overall, out of the two versions I owned, it’s the one I really remember most fondly…

As time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to dip into recollections from decades long past, but in the case of my Atari ST Operation Wolf experience, I have a major helping hand! Christmas always brought with it a diary for the coming year, and in the days after Christmas you would start re-writing your friends’ phone numbers, family birthdays and school holidays into your latest pocket-sized planner. They always had a theme too, like fishing or cycling or football, with half the pages full of related encyclopaedic content. And for the first few days of the year, you might even use it to record what you’d been up to… “I rushed home to play Op Wolf and it lived up to my high expectations. It is brilliant, the only problem being that it is on three disks. I got to stage 5 on my first go.” The diary then goes on to describing watching Lethal Weapon that evening!

This was all around the beginning of 1990 for me, but the ST version came out around the same time as the Spectrum one, and was probably the only dampener on that version – as great as the Spectrum version looked, in magazines like C&VG you were seeing it side by side with this incredible, virtually arcade perfect looking version on the ST. As well as the glorious graphics, you also had all the little details like the pigs running around you could shoot for extra ammo, and some great enemy death animations especially when you shot one of the guys up close to you. And more than anything, it had a mouse that made shooting stuff a lot easier than with a joystick! This was a really great conversion, but what’s interesting to note is that I don’t remember ever being blown away by it, like I had been the Spectrum version just over a year earlier – it didn’t take long at all to become spoilt by the incredible games that just came as standard in the next-gen machine. Or maybe it was just all the disk swapping.

And despite getting to stage 5 on my first go, I never did get to the end of the game here either!

Remember ZERO Magazine?

Old gaming magazines like Computer & Video Games, Crash and Zzap! 64 quite deservedly still get a lot of attention, but whilst looking for a specific copy of C&VG from a pile that covers most of the eighties for my last post, I found a rogue magazine in my carefully ordered, er, pile! That magazine was issue one, November 1989, of something I’d completely forgotten existed, ZERO, “the brand new magazine for you, the 16-bit and consoles games player.” As I’d forgotten about it, I thought others might have too, so here we are!

What I expect drew me to it, and the subsequent issues I bought during its three-year lifespan, was the cover disk, which featured not only demos, but actual full games for the Atari ST and the Amiga. Actually, this mag did cause a bit of controversy when it stuck a strip poker game, Cover Girl Poker, on the cover. In the interests of a well-researched post, I did seek out this game and play a few rounds… It appears to have been linked to the UK’s finest newspaper, The Daily Sport, and features some of its finest regular glamour babes, including gaming favourite, Maria Whittaker. By complete coincidence, this is the second post in a row that mentions her – the previous referencing her most well-known work, the Barbarian cover! Anyway, it’s not a great game but I’m sure served it’s purpose for ZERO mag.

Issue one featured a couple of games, worth £40 according to the first issue’s cover! On the ST you had Recoil by Jonathan Smith, who’s previous works included classic Spectrum conversions Green Beret, Hypersports, Batman, Mikie, Cobra and more. This was a Defender clone that was pretty fun. On the Amiga you had Merv the Merciless, which I’ve never played but you seem to be a troll collecting stuff and avoiding other stuff whilst trying to keep up with a top-down scrolling screen. Also looks very nice.

Back to the mag itself, reading it again it’s pretty cool. Usual stuff – previews, reviews, competitions, developer features, tips, comic strips, and best of all, The Price I$ Right, a feature on budget games that is actually presented by Leslie Crowther! Or at least there’s a picture of him on the page, which I really wasn’t expecting when I flicked through it today!

This month one of the opening features was a kind of lighthearted mass review of some of the big flight sims making waves on ST, Amiga and PC at the time, including Falcon, F-16 Combat Pilot, Interceptor and F-15 Strike Eagle II. Quite rightly,  Falcon came out on top with a score of 92% – Top Gun had finally arrived on your home computer with this corker – MIG21’s, burning it up over desert mountain ranges, outside views for a cool fly-past and some brilliant cockpit action (my words not theirs)!

I’m a little disappointed by the main event review this month – Tintin on the Moon. No interest in Tintin ever, and I imagine that 17-year old me was equally unimpressed. Continental Circus, the pioneering “True 3D” arcade racer was next, justifiably getting a better score than Tintin; interesting fact here – it was supposed to be called Continental Circuit but without Google Translate in 1989, they had a few Japanese to English translation problems! Also reviewed were Steel, Dynamite Dux, Gunhed, Vigilante, Bloodwych, APB, Oil Imperium, and the mighty Strider, which received a disgraceful 84% on the ST, and 81% on the Amiga, which makes me a bit happier! In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best month ever to launch a new games mag! To be fair, things did hot up a bit in the Review Shorts section, which mostly featured conversions of older gems like Paperboy and California Games, but also the 3D alien Pong favourite of mine, Shufflepuck Cafe (83% on the ST and 82% on the Amiga – justice done again!), which was actually a longer review than the non-Shorts reviews earlier in the mag!

After the reviews, one of the features made me smirk… Chip Shop Boys,  a feature on getting the most out of your MIDI music features with some bloke from Bomb the Bass, which begins with “Fancy yourself as Jason Donovan? Garry Glitter? Richard Clayderman?” I can’t believe they spelt Gary Glitter’s name wrong…

The tips section featured a complete solution to Spherical, which I don’t have any recollection of, and a map for Mr Heli. Again, hardly magazine sellers, but with £40 of games on the cover, who cares? There’s even a section for hex, POKEs and hacks to type in!

Near the end now, and it’s time for the Price I$ Right, featuring £9.99 budget titles such as Populous Promised Lands, which scored 80%, and Postman Pat at 77%; funny how nowadays you don’t hear about the Postman Pat game only 3% less than you hear about Populous…

Even in 1989, computer games mags still insisted on an adventure game section, quite rightly at the back of the mag where no one cared about it, but ZERO really knew how to close a magazine, and in issue one it did so with an interview with none other than Jeremy Beadle. Genius!

I had a great time flicking through this, even if most of the games in October 1989 were a bit crap. What’s really cool is seeing the adverts you used to see every month everywhere again after a near 30-year gap! Remember this one with the MIDI keytar?

My Life With… Hard Drivin’ – Atari ST

My Life With… Hard Drivin’ – Atari ST

Just take a look at this for a second…

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Yes, it’s a loop. And in 1989, that was a complete groundbreaker. It’s why you had to own this game – the ultimate show off to your mates title; they’d simply never seen anything like it. It was seeing Virtua Racing on my brother’s MegaDrive all over again. But there was more! The more-or-less filled 3D vector graphics, cars and trucks [slightly inexplicably] on the track in both directions, the Dukes of Hazzard style bridge jump, the instant replay, and the cow! Take out the cow by the farmhouse [located at the side of the race track] and you got a beautifully sampled, realistic MOO! And the realism didn’t stop with the cow – the car drove like a real car, and I should know because I’d just turned 17 and started driving lessons! Which was great, but temporarily spelt an end to the riches from my Saturday job at Sainsbury’s that had funded my ST and its burgeoning games collection up to that point.

A year into my role there, and I was specialising in collecting trolleys. I was the master! I knew all the hiding places around Bedford town centre – the car parks, the alley ways, where the bins were at the back of Iceland… I could get ten of them into a car park lift at once. I could push fifty of them in a massive train like a supermarket Rubber Duck out of Convoy. Nothing annoyed the shopper more than no trolleys, so once the supervisors picked up on my brilliance, there was no more stacking shelves or till duty. especially as the old mechanical tills I knew had transitioned to electronic ones that were clearly beyond me once I’d missed the training. This afforded such freedom too, being paid to hang out on the top of a car park surveying the impressive Bedford skyline with a can of Dr Pepper and a Boost bar, putting a bet on the Grand National, buying tickets for a Simple Minds concert, or – wait for it! – taking part in a police identity parade and earning an extra precious tenner for the driving lesson fund! And in retrospect, fortunately not getting collared in the process!

I’d pass my test, first time, after 15 lessons, which I’m sure owed no small debt to Hard Drivin’. As I said, this game felt realistic, which I think had a lot to do with the mouse controls (a first for me) – they felt great once you got used to them, offering far more control than my days with a keyboard on Chequered Flag or Out Run with a QuickShot II on the Spectrum. It was also easier to pull off a deliberate skid (also maybe a first?) which meant faster lap times and meant slightly more forgiving cornering, especially on the speed track when a decent time rewarded you with the challenge of the Phantom Photon ghost racer (another first?) on the stunt track .

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Like collecting trolleys, the stunt track was where the glamour was at. And specifically, being upside down on the loop. In 1989, there was no thrill ride outside of the corkscrew roller coaster at Alton Towers that was like it. If you could stay on the loop, take the banked corners, pull off the jumps, avoid the trucks (that wouldn’t look out of place in Crossy Road with all those straight lines) and resist the urge to hear the MOO, beating the exotically named Phantom Photon would result in the Phantom Photon taking on the ghost of your ride in the next race, which you could even save to disk, providing endless challenge despite there only being two tracks.

This game looked and sounded like a stunner, moving at pace with great attention to detail – the cracked windscreen when you crashed, the engine sound, the skidding noise, the manual gear shifting from a separate joystick, but mostly the cow! And the replay was worth every crash, switching to a fully 3D rendering of your final moments.

A gorgeous,  groundbreaking 3D masterpiece at the time, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find something to match that precarious feeling half way around the loop wondering if you’ll make it around or just drop off!