My Life With… Kane – ZX Spectrum

Like everyone else of a certain age, my memories of Saturday afternoon TV in the late 70’s up to the mid 80’s obviously start with sitting with your grandmother while she made roll-ups watching ITV’s World of Sport wrestling, then some time after the football results there was The Muppets and The Incredible Hulk, or later The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazzard and Knightrider (all of which are likely to get individual goings-over in later posts so I’ll leave it there for now). Were Airwolf and Streethawk in those late afternoon slots too? One of the reasons for doing this blog is to get all of this down before I get too senile and forget more important things like that! Anyway, you get the picture – the golden age of TV, despite there only being three channels to choose from.

My Saturday afternoons were spent with my two brothers at my Grandma’s house – she didn’t smoke roll-ups; Benson & Hedges if I remember right, and this was probably the period when she was vowing to give up if a packet of fags ever reached a Pound! We spent a lot of the time between classic TV programmes outside, climbing trees, seeing how many neighbouring garden’s fences we could chuck stuff across, fighting, and all the other good stuff kids used to be allowed to do. But even in those glorious times, sometimes the weather got too grotty, and you’d have a choice on TV of guessing which horse would win on the racing, an ancient musical starring Mario Lanza, or a black and white western like My Darling Clementine or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; High Noon or Red River. To the boy from the 70’s, nothing was more glamorous than seeing the white man slaughtering the evil Apaches. Except maybe shooting Germans. We all had a cowboy outfit, a sheriff’s badge and a collection of cap pistols and rifles. For those of us fortunate enough to holiday in Great Yarmouth, there was the Wild West show where the sheriff and his posse had a real-life shootout with a band of outlaws in what I remember to be an entire frontier town recreated on the Norfolk coast. And in 1986, Mastertronic gave us Kane on the Commodore 64!

I played this a few times on my friend Steven’s Commodore, but don’t have much recollection of that version beyond frustration from never getting far enough to ride horses like did on the second stage, but it must have made an impact because when I later got my Spectrum+2, it was the first game I went out and bought. Although the familiarity in a bewildering mass of titles available compared to the now meagre pickings for my VIC20, combined with £1.99 price tag, may also have been a factor! With a bit of practice, I soon worked out the secrets of that first stage, and soon realised I was in cowboy heaven, and some thirty years later Kane would work its way into my top twenty games of all time when I started compiling that list that inspired what you’re reading now.

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In Kane, you’re a cowboy doing different cowboy stuff over four stages. The first stage sees you in front of a colourful Red Indian village surroumded by some even more colourful (clash inducing) mountains, armed with a bow and arrow. It was all about lining up a crosshair just in front of some birds and timing your shot to hit their undersides as they flew at different heights from left to right. The higher the bird, the more time you had to allow for the arrow to get there, less as it got closer and flew twice as fast. Kill enough, and you’re on to stage two, but if you didn’t kill a few more than enough you were still screwed because the amount dead dictated how many lives you carried on with – lives traded for lives with the injuns or something. Clever. Then you got to ride your horse across the arid western prairie, jumping over some rocks and bushes for what seemed like forever, especially if you’d missed a few birds earlier. This was all about timing again, because it was all too easy for your horse’s back foot caught on an obstacle and get thrown off if you were a fraction out, especially on the dreaded double-rocks! Or if you were on a keyboard, missing the jump completely. Eventually you got to the Wild West town for stage three, a fantastic shootout where the outlaws appeared from behind barrels, wagons, in windows or through the saloon doors, and you had a second or two to get your revolver’s sight on them and get them before they got you. Kill enough and it’s back onto your trusty steed as you sped along the side of a runaway express train to slam the brakes on.  And if you thought that the imaginatively titled “Horse Ride 1.” stage required superhuman timing, then you were in for a treat on Horse Ride 2. with some cruelly positioned rocks and cacti and stuff! Get to the front before the timer runs out and you get to start the whole game all over again!

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I love the presentation of this game, despite there being minimal sound of any kind, and some of the most garish colours the Spectrum ever produced! And there may have been four stages, but in reality this meant not much more than four different screens. But what screens they were! You got a bit of every western ever made in them, and they all did a great job of telling your brain that you were The Duke in all his finest roles! The character design was simple but with some great animation, especially the horse accelerating from a canter to a gallop.

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Apart from Horse Ride 2. it wasn’t the most challenging game once you’d played it a few times and worked out the timing, but every stage was satisfying in its own way, and you made your own challenges as you went round the loop again and again after saving all the train passengers, trying to kill every bird, clear every jump or shoot every baddie. Endless cowboy fun. Literally!

As much as I’d adore Red Dead Redemption many years later for finally bringing all those childhood cowboy fantasies virtually to life, it was no Kane. One of the best £1.99’s I’ve ever spent… But not quite the best. Stay tuned!

My Life With… Commando – Commodore 64 / ZX Spectrum

I usually start these posts with the year I first played the game and what I was up to, but not this time. I want to show you something from the 29th May 2017, just two days ago at the time I started writing, whilst watching my ten year old son play cricket…

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I’ve been persevering with Commando on iOS, complete with dreadful touch controls, since it appeared in its Japanese “Wolf of the Battlefield” guise a couple of months ago. But there was no way I was going to let something like that spoil an arcade-perfect version on my phone, so I played and played until the frankly bizarre nature of the controls was meaningless and I saw this screen for the first time ever!

Commando on the C64 was an incredible achievement – also arcade perfect as far as I could tell at the time (though I learnt two days ago that it was lacking a few stages), and that music… I normally switch off when I hear the words Rob Hubbard or SID, but this theme tune is as intense as the first time those big gates swing open at the end of the 1st Area! There’s a great quote from the man himself on this Hubbard remix – “[I] started working on it late at night, and worked on it through the night. I took one listen to the original arcade version and started working on the C64 version. […] By the time everyone arrived at 8.00 in the morning, I had loaded the main tune on every C64 in the building! I got my cheque and was on a train home by 10.00.”

But let’s get back to form, and probably Christmas 1986, which I think must have been the Christmas my brother Phil and me received our ZX Spectrum +2, though verifying that hasn’t been as easy as I’d expected of Google! I’d recently said goodbye to my VIC-20, which was part of the upgrade deal; we sold it and almost all of my games collection for £25 to my Grandma’s next door neighbour for her young son. And it still hurts! It was also the time my friend Steven and I officially went our separate ways. He’d got a Commodore 128 for his birthday the previous April. He’d later get an Amiga and I got an ST, then he went XBOX and I went Playstation, and so it continues to the present day. It was never really a Commodore vs Spectrum rivalry though – I loved his machine as much as my own, which looking back I don’t think he was so impressed with…

During this Christmas period, we played a ton of Winter Games and Commando at his house. And probably Oh Mummy! at mine, but the less said about that the better.

I have to admit that Commando, as great as it was, wasn’t quite what I expected – where was Arnie??? His film of the same name had come out the previous February, and despite it having an 18 rating and me being 14 (and looking 12), I’d obviously seen it just after release thanks to the magic of pirate video! When we’d started upper school at Bedford’s St Thomas More the previous year, there’d been an influx of kids from Milton Keynes, about 15 miles away and without a Catholic school of its own, so they were bussed in; and out, fifteen minutes earlier than us Bedfordians, much to our chagrin. Naturally, after a few months friendships formed, and I became friends with a kid called Clive. Back in those days, the modern metropolis of Milton Keynes had Sky TV, which just wasn’t available to us yokels. He talked about American wrestling a lot, which the rest of us got to see once or twice a year as a special treat in the Saturday afternoon ITV wrestling slot, though my only real recollection of this was a guy called Moondog Rex… when I later became an WWF connoisseur, I learnt that he had a tag partner called Moondog Spot. The Moondogs. Great days. Anyway, at some point he lent me a video of that week’s WWF show, which was the one where Macho Man dropped the ring bell off the top rope onto Ricky The Dragon Steamboat’s throat. And that hooked me, so he’d start recording it every week for me. And along with that the movies started to flow, generally filmed off a primitive camcorder in a cinema, complete with people walking by to go to the loo. Notably that year, we had Platoon, Top Gun, Highlander and Cobra, which was a close second to my favourite pirate video that year, Commando, with Arnie as a retired special forces guy on a massive killing spree to rescue his daughter, Alyssa Milano, who’d grow up to be a right old sauce pot. This film influenced me so much that I actually bought a camo stick like he used for my face; I never used it, but it was probably a safer bet than buying a massive gun and not using it.

At some point in the distant past I was talking about a video game, and the point is that despite sharing a name with this film, it was actually nothing to do with it. Which took about thirty seconds of play to stop being a problem. There may have been no Arnie, but the premise was the same – you’re a crack commando travelling up the screen, shooting everything in sight, lobbing your limited supply of grenades and freeing the odd hostage across eight areas on the way to taking out the enemy fortress.

When I picked up the Spectrum version at some point in 1987, it took a few more seconds than that to get over a different problem, which was the graphics. Or more specifically, the colours. The loading screen is kind of what would have you’d have expected of the Spectrum, with all colour removed, but the developers had other blue and red and yellow ideas for the game itself, which resulted in some lovely colour clash if one of the enemy soldiers ended up behind a tree!

Aside from the colours though, this was another great conversion. The graphics are beautifully detailed and everything seemed to have been translated over from the arcade machine in all the right places – something else that the new iOS version revealed! It’s missing the great C64 tune, of course, but the sound effects are fine. The gameplay remains outstanding though, with a relatively easy first area that culminates in a frantic onslaught out of the first mini-fortress, but then the action really heats up with bunkers, bazookas, gun emplacements and barracks full of enemy soldiers appearing from all directions. It controls so well though that it rarely feels unfair when you die, generally in the second area if you’re as skilled at playing as I am, which kind of negated the high score table for me – it was only ever about getting to the third area!

This is a Spectrum classic, and standing waiting for those big gates to swing open and unleash hell at the end of each area is an enduring magical moment in gaming! Until next time…