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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Life With… 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!

Follow Up: Deathstar Interceptor on Commodore 64

Follow Up: Deathstar Interceptor on Commodore 64

Previously on Retro Arcadia, we took a look at Deathstar Interceptor – a game I first came across being advertised in the May 1985 issue of Computer & Video Games magazine, liked the look of, but wouldn’t play for decades.

I won’t bore you with any more recapping because you can read all about it right here, but I will just mention again that the Commodore 64 version was very much an afterthought in the advert…

I recently went back a year or so further into the C&VG archives, to July 1984 specifically, and that gives us a bit more to go on than the assumption that it was an afterthought because it’s a stinker in comparison to the Spectrum version. Which it certainly is, but with this new context, it’s all about the Spectrum because the C64 version had been the subject of previous advertising. And the headline might confirm this, with the fight continuing on the Spectrum because the C64 version appeared already. Maybe?

Apart from the word “Deathstar” we are not really getting the very in your face Star Wars vibes of the Spectrum advert, so we are possibly pre-licensing of the Star Wars theme tune. And when we previously mocked the C64’s hamburger and coat hanger enemies, they might simply have been what was there in this original(?) version before any Star Wars association – as loose as it was – materialised on the Spectrum.

A disservice then? Absolutely not! It’s still garbage, though that does make the outrageous advertising blurb even more comical. And I quote…

52K of pure machine code giving you 12 screens of 3D graphics, super smooth 3D animation, unbelievable sound effects music, 4 skill levels and hiscore table… this is the ultimate challenge? This game has to be played to be believed! You have not seen what the Commodore 64 is capable of until you have played Deathstar Interceptor! – Commodore 64

You’re really better off not knowing what it’s capable of if that means playing this awful game! However, thanks to this advert you don’t even need to, because look closely and in one final twist, their strange insistence on showing every gameplay element on offer in tiny numbered screenshots includes “Victory (Screen 12)” – the end game screen!

History once again teaches us everything if we care to look. And I’m glad I came across this older advert and could maybe shed a bit more light on this version – and a bit more context on the Spectrum version – of a true Star Wars (or not?) curio.

My Life With… The Perils of Willy – Commodore VIC-20

My Life With… The Perils of Willy – Commodore VIC-20

Expanding my VIC-20 to 16K RAM was always going to be a hard sell to my parents. “This plug-in cartridge adds 16K RAM to your VIC’s memory, which allows you to write and use longer programs, store more data and increase your VIC’s capacity.” To an 11-year old equipped with his Ladybird How it Works… The Computer book and a couple of marathon type-in games under my belt, it all made perfect sense, but between Christmas 1983 and Christmas 1984, none of this really translated into parental justification! 

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During that time though, one thing happened, that in my mind at least, was all the justification anyone needed – I played The Perils of Willy at my friend Steven’s house! Not being able to afford most of the exotica you saw every month in Computer & Video Games magazine, this method of games discovery would be a mainstay for the next few years, at least until he went C64 and I went Spectrum, and things like Ghostbusters happened… Having said that, as I write this I’ve just had a go at their version of Green Beret on my new C64 Mini, and they definitely didn’t get it all their own way!

Over the course of 1984 – the greatest year in pop music history – I became extremely clued up on Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, but I think I stayed pretty oblivious to Miner Willy’s other adventures on the ZX Spectrum. I would later own Jet Set Willy on there, and play Jet Set Willy 2 on the Commodore 64, but it would be more than thirty years later that I’d actually get my mitts on the wonderful Manic Miner! 

The year went by, and despite still not having a clue what this bizarre, anonymous brown box that plugged into the back of my VIC-20 did, the 16K Expansion cartridge and a copy of The Perils of Willy were dutifully delivered by my parents for Christmas after months of badgering – there may have been some doubt about people knowing it was Christmas time that year, but I definitely knew it!

You could look at The Perils of Willy as a stripped-down Manic Miner knock-off that somehow found it’s way, via Software Projects, onto the VIC-20 – it may have now been a massive 16K beast to me, but to most I guess it was seen as a dying minnow, expanded or not, at that time. However, I prefer to see it as the official Miner Willy game developed exclusively for the VIC-20 that it really was. The Spectrum crowd could only look on in wonder and jealousy at the 33 screens and superior sound!

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The premise is that Willy’s had a bit too much to drink on a night out and decides to walk home, catching the notes of music “that seem to hang in the air” across a variety of screens meant to be parks, railways, possibly rooms and other areas. Unlike Manic Miner, none of the locations were named, and given they’re generally a colourful jumble of platforms and conveyor belts with killer dogs, ducks and balloons flying about, it can be hard to work out where you’re at. But the gameplay itself makes it straightforward enough to navigate – collect the notes on the screen within a certain time and you move onto the next. What’s not straightforward is playing it! This is a tough game requiring precision timing of jumps that are a bit floaty (even though Willy appears to have put on a bit of weight on the VIC-20) and take some getting used to, but once you do then this is as much fun as any other Miner Willy game. What I really loved were the dirt platforms that dropped away as you ran over them – real Indiana Jones stuff (which, as a side note, I potentially saw for the first time at my Grandma’s house on Christmas Day night the very day I got the game)!

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Despite the hours spent being hypnotised by one of the most “hardcore” 8-bit theme tunes ever created, I never did finish it – I do recall there being a POKE in Computer & Video Games giving you 255 lives. I also recall starting it with POKE in hand on a Sunday morning, leaving it on whilst out with the family on Sunday afternoon, then playing until bedtime, and surreptitiously leaving it on overnight and all day Monday while I was at school. I got through a hell of a lot of it (or, put another way, less than 33 screens of it), but never got to the end game. Assuming there actually was one, as it was rumoured it never finished even after 33 screens! 

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I guess if I’d played Manic Miner or Jet Set Willy at the time I might feel differently, but I didn’t and The Perils of Willy remains my favourite old-school platformer. Ever!

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 he 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…