My Life With… Shao-Lin’s Road – Arcade / ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Shao-Lin’s Road – Arcade / ZX Spectrum

The mid-eighties video rental experience offered endless possibilities for the martial arts-obsessed teenager; you might have rented them a dozen times, but there was still a whole world beyond Enter the Dragon and Way of the Dragon that didn’t stop with other Bruce Lee films, or even those of the Bruceploitation greats like Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Lie, Bruce Lai, Bruce Thai, Brute Lee and, of course, Lee Bruce! The works of Jackie Chan were the natural progression, with stuff like Drunken Master, Police Story, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow or Brazil-based food-truck vigilante classic Wheels on Meals easy selections from the bulging martial arts video shelves. We’re just pre-Seagal and Van Damme here, so Chuck Norris was the big western alternative with the likes of The Octagon, Code of Silence and An Eye For An Eye, featuring loads of signature roundhouse kicks and Christopher Lee as his drug-baron nemesis.

Outside of these heavyweights we had more niche stuff like New York- based The Last Dragon, with its classic Shogun of Harlem bad guy, or Five Deadly Venoms, where different fighting styles are represented by five different animal masks, each with its own deadly venom – you had Lizard, Centipede, Scorpion, Snake and, er, Toad! Crippled Avengers offers a similar concept, but with the fighters having a unique disability rather than a fancy mask! There was also a ton of more generic warring faction (or more likely warring kung-fu school) stuff like Martial Club, Opium and the Kung-Fu Master, Shaolin Temple or The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter – you really could start watching these now and never run out!

And I’m almost forgetting all that ninja goodness we loved so much in the eighties too! American Ninja is maybe the pinnacle of the genre (closely followed by its four sequels!), but there was an endless supply of these as well – Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, Ninja in the Dragon’s Den, Pray for Death, Nine Deaths of the Ninja, Ninja Terminator and The Ninja Strikes Back, which brings us full circle to Bruce Lee… No, hang on, it was Bruce Le, which has also taken me right back to that very easy early-teenage beginner mistake of picking up something you thought was a Bruce Lee film you hadn’t seen yet!

We’d always be watching these things, whether at home or in our slightly older next-door neighbours’ house, who were members of the other video rental shop in Bedford, which was a bit further away but had an even bigger selection of martial arts movies! Being a bit older also meant that when we were all at the local leisure centre after kung-fu or a Saturday morning roller disco or whatever was on, they’d also get first go (or most goes because they had more money) on whatever the current selection of two arcade machines was in the refreshments area where the drink and snack machines were; at least my brother and me could enjoy a Dr Pepper in the only place you could get it at the time while we watched!

In this very limited experience of arcade games, I often wonder if my favourites are favourites because they’re actually any good, or if they were just there and made a lasting impression because they were better than anything I’d ever have at home! Looking at my big list of all-time favourite games, and the top 25 specifically, there’s not a lot on offer from the arcades, but from what is there, I doubt that many would argue with Star Wars, 1942 and Out Run being subjective top likes, but then as we approach my top ten we have Elevator Action, and finally, right inside my top five, we have Shao-Lin’s Road… and I’m sure that many haven’t even heard of them, let alone ever put them in any kind of best-of arcade list!

But back in our local leisure centre in our 1985 and 1986 heyday, those two sat side by side after Shao-Lin’s Road replaced Kung-Fu Master in the very slow, very infrequent machine rotation that – apart from fun fairs twice a year – dictated my exposure to that golden age of arcade games. And coming back to my previous point, I still play and absolutely love both the arcade and ZX Spectrum versions of both as much as other all-time favourites like arcade Out Run or Spectrum Renegade or Atari ST Supersprint, for example, so it’s not all rose-tinted. And yes, these non-arcade versions of Renegade and Supersprint are stories for another time, but as a point of interest, exclusively ports and not originals of Gauntlet, Enduro Racer and Commando also feature in my top 25!

Whilst we’ve established that I might not have been that well informed on arcade games in the mid-eighties, there certainly wasn’t much I didn’t know about Bruce Lee, Brute Lee, nunchuks and ninjas! And after our first taste of the union between the two media with Kung-Fu Master’s hero-versus-many rhythmic scrapping that we knew so well from our beloved movie rentals, when Shao-Lin’s Road came along there at some time in 1986, it added a whole new vertical dimension to that against the odds brawling, and I can still picture watching over my neighbour’s shoulder as he played it for the first time and just being blown away!

Something I did know around this time was Yie Ar Kung Fu, mainly from the very distinctive advert for the home computer versions with its own take on Bruceploitation, as well as those really distinctive characters in Commodore 64 promo screenshots, with all those chains and poles and absolutely groundbreaking variety in what was still the very early days of one-on-one fighting games. And when the home conversions of Shao-Lin’s Road appeared on the horizon, it got even more cool points with me because it turned out that all this time it was actually a follow-up to Yie Ar Kung Fu. Or at least that’s what the adverts said, because in the very same issue of Computer & Video Games magazine at the end of 1986, there was another advert for something called Yie Ar Kung Fu II, which was surely a more likely follow up, right? It was definitely adamant it was, highlighting it was officially endorsed by Konami and it was a sequel not a follow-up!

Actually, I was so excited about home ports of Shao-Lin’s Road that I didn’t pay much attention at the time, but it turns our that while Ocean had been sorting out the licence to the official sequel, competing publisher The Edge had done the same for Shao-Lin’s Road, and decided to advertise it as “The smash hit follow-up to Yie Ar Kung-Fu.” Taken literally, you might argue that was not incorrect because it’s also by Konami and it did come out a year or so after Yie Ar Kung-Fu in the arcades, in April 1985, so technically it was following it up, but it’s a pretty outrageous thing to do all the same! Even more outrageous was when reviews for both started appearing in early 1987 and Road was outscoring Fu II, albeit generally as signficantly less average rather than anything outstanding in its own right! It had a couple of 8/10 reviews though, and I remember Your Sinclair liking it a lot, as well as being quite sure it was the sequel to Yie Ar Kung-Fu! All that said, I’m not 100% sure how much Ocean’s official sequel is a real official sequel either, or where the planned Konami sequel that ended up being Martial Champion fits in, but we’ve spent far longer on a possibly unrelated game than I planned to here already, so we’re moving on!

Anyway, we were going to talk about this home version advert because this is our first hint at what’s going on in the arcade game we’ve been playing all this time! And it starts with another allusion to it’s follow-up status… “Our hero has finally mastered the secret martial art “CHIN’S SHAO-LIN” but is trapped by triad gangs. With kicks and other secret powers, escape from and travel SHAO-LIN’S road to freedom!” Not sure about Yie Ar Kung-Fu, but that’s definitely along the lines of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow or something!

When we finally get our mitts on the home versions, the cassette inlay goes even further… “As our Hero Lee you have finally mastered the secret martial art, “Chin’s Shao-Lin”. You find yourself trapped in the temple by hoards of Triads. Using your kicking skills and magic powers you must fight off the Triads and get out of the temple and head for the road to freedom. At each step on your way on your road to freedom you will encounter more and more of the Triads, and at each stage you will discover one that is particularly skilful! Look out for flying kicks, breathing flame, and punches that come clear out of nowhere!”

And there we were thinking we just had a great arcade game on our hands! Unlike its predecessor – one way or another – Yie Ar Kung-Fu, which is a pure fighter, Shaolin’s Road is more arcade platformer, where you’re working your way through five multi-tiered environments packed with goons to kick and magic away, and once you’ve done that the level restarts with more goons and the aforementioned particularly skilful boss characters; get rid of them all and you move on to the next level. Beat the last one and you’ll start all over again, but with even more particularly skilful characters on top of even more goons – some of which now throw knives or throwing stars or themselves – from the outset, as well as birds dropping eggs of death onto you! Some of the goons (you’ll know them by their trousers) release power ups after a good kicking which you have to quickly catch to get one of your magic powers. The first is a spikey ball that you can kick to knock over any enemies on your level of the level, and you can even catch and do this jumping super move with if you time things right. Next is a fireball that shoots out of both sides, but only seems to work on enemies a fair distance away. Last is a ball of energy or the like that spins around you, taking out enemies as it passes by on its rotation. The boss characters are nicely varied, with demonic looking things that breathe fire, some Yie Ar Kung-Fu style weapon wielders, an angelic looking lady with a lethal flying kick and just some big, bad dudes, but here’s an expert tip – just anticipate them going up and down, kick them, then go up or down! Patience is king in Shao-Lin’s Road!

Apart from one or two expert moves with power-ups that are completely superfluous to beating all the levels, the gameplay is simplicity itself, with you jumping up and down levels and kicking your way through loads of enemies. Jump. Attack. Nothing fancy! There is a bit of strategy needed in the boss characters, and in timing your up and down movements to avoid taking unecessary damage if you want to go far, but you’re going to be on the second level and feeling like Bruce Thai in one or two goes! Most of this happens on a single screen, but at each end you’ll get a very short side-scroll that extends the play area a bit, and within each stage’s three platform levels you’ll also get some gaps in the floor or roofs to jump between to add a bit more danger, with a fantastic slapstick animation if you get too close to an edge! Clearing a level of enemies gives a slightly more rewarding animation though, with a strongman pose and the word “GUTS” captioned about your little guy Lee, who’s got three lives, and three hits are allowed per life per level.

The action starts in a temple with an impressive looking big golden Buddha statue dominating an otherwise sparsely decorated opening scene. It does highlight all the onscreen characters though – big, detailed and full of personality, and their dress-sense really pops against the dominant blacks on this level; they really move at pace too. It’s also a good place to appreciate the bouncy, if slightly stereotypical oriental theme tune, which gets more frantic as the action hots up, with an ominous bass-line warning of impending doom! Sound effects are really meaty as well – you feel like those kicks are connecting! Stage two is where the graphics really come into their own, with you outside the temple (I guess) and everything is bold and bright and really nicely detailed against a rich blue sky; it would all look great in a big SNES JRPG! Stage three sees you at what is probably the grand entrance to the temple grounds, similar in style to stage two. Stage four has you outside a long, lower building with some huge bonsai-like trees behind it providing the third layer of verticality this time, and a bit of variety to the impressive but similarly styled array of traditional Japanese architecture elsewhere. Even more variety in the final stage as you make your way through some kind of desert canyon, with the temple far behind you in the background. Really nice looking stage – especially on the Spectrum…

Apart from being the most hit or miss game to load I ever (legitimately) owned on the Spectrum, it was a superb conversion, and whilst the arcade version might have been the one that always stuck with me, the Spectrum is certainly where I spent the most time. They absolutely nailed the easy to play, hard to master, utterly addictive feel of the original, though I think it gets harder quicker before it evens out a bit in the later levels. There’s also a bit less of the enemies moving up and down to get some vertical advantage, but there is an awful lot more bonus items (vases, possibly pizzas…) flying about here to kick for extra points, which does add a risk-reward element and some high-score longevity once you’re finding yourself good enough to be going around all the levels.

The characters are a bit less varied and a bit less cartoon-like than the original, and, of course, the colours have been toned down a bit, with a lot of use of different types of monochrome with just the odd (really welcome!) colourful flourish in the background, but in the main it looks just like the arcade version. The third level does go a bit more wild, with the resulting black characters feeling a bit like you’re playing in negative, but otherwise they’re nicely detailed, full of personality and everything moves smoothly enough, apart from a little jerkiness when it scrolls, but nothing especially jarring. Just don’t spend too much time analysing the flying kick – I think his leg is shrinking a bit when he does it, and who knows why doing one forces you down a floor! It sounds alright too, with a great rendition of the arcade theme playing on the title screen and a good scattering of pleasingly inoffensive sound effects!

It took me a very long time after the fact to find out that the arcade version had been available on the original PlayStation for several decades, as part of the Konami Arcade Classics compilation, together with Yie Ar Kung Fu – which is fine too, but not a patch on its sequel! And that’s where I generally play it now, before jumping over to the Spectrum version just to see if I can finally decide which one is really the one that makes it number five in my all-time favourite games list. But it’s always both! Simple, addictive and just like being in an eighties martial arts movie!

Discovering Alien on Atari 2600

Discovering Alien on Atari 2600

For all the hours I spent playing on my best friend’s Atari 2600 in the early eighties, it would take the best part of another four decades to discover my favourite game on there (submarine rescue ‘em up, Seaquest), and then even longer to discover it was also home to what I genuinely think is my favourite Pac-Man game ever (not counting Pac-Land as a Pac-Man game, of course)! And not only that, but it’s also not a Pac-Man game at all, but Alien, which, amazingly, given my love of the films and it’s now 2021, is also the first Alien game I’ve ever played! But that’s not a bad place to start, given it was the very first Alien game, and surely one of the earliest officially licensed movie tie-ins too; there was a Death Race arcade game in 1976, but not a lot else until a flurry on the 2600 in 1982, starting with Raiders of the Lost Ark, then stuff like Alien, Tron, King Kong, Star Wars, E.T…

The game’s plot, all explained onthe back of the box, couldn’t provide a better justification for ripping off Pac-Man; in fact, it does such a good job that I’m wondering if Pac-Man might have ripped off Alien! Ever since you blasted off from the last planet you visited, you’ve been hearing weird sounds around your ship, Nostromo, so you set it onto auto-pilot and have a look around… Turns out every hallway in the maze-like hull has been lined with alien eggs, so you have to run around all these corridors, crushing them underfoot as you go. But what could have produced such terrible eggs? “A hideous being with jaws like a beartrap” of course, and as you run away there’s another just ahead, and don’t forget that no one can hear you scream in space!

The manual goes further, telling us that we have to run through the hallways of the space ship, crushing all of the Alien eggs which have been placed there while also avoiding or destroying the adult aliens, and snatching up as many prizes as possible. And what do prizes make? Points of course, which the manual helpfully has space for you to write down at the back! You just move the controller up, down, left and right to run over the eggs and steer clear of the aliens, where the slightest touch from the albeit slightly forgiving collision detection means instant death. On either side of the screen you have a “Hyperwarp Passage” that is better than Pac-Man’s version because it’s called a Hyperwarp Passage, but similarly takes you to the other side of the screen. However, in an even larger departure from Pac-Man, you’ve also got a flame thrower which you can use up to four times to scare off or immobilise or potentially have no affect at all on the aliens, unless you’re on the extreme right or left of the screen where fire doesn’t work – I’m sure there’s a great reason!

Each maze also has three pulsars (or power pills) that you can destroy to weaken the aliens and, er, gobble them up or similar. You can also use the flame thrower to run over the pulsars so you can save them for later, adding a nice expert tactical touch that Pac-Man simply cannot equal! What Pac-Man also cannot equal is Frogger! Clear mazes and you get a bonus round, which involves you making a Frogger-style dash up the screen between moving groups of aliens against a harsh clock, so you need to make your route choice and stick to it quick.

As was often the case with the Atari 2600, the developers had to make the most of all those levers and switches on the console, so Alien also gives you four difficulty switch settings, where the aliens travel randomly or in fixed patterns, and where a pulsar has an effect or has no effect on the aliens (which actually equates to three settings because one of those makes no difference)! You’ve also got four skill settings, from practice to expert, though for all of these options (same as for pretty much all 2600 games), I’ve not had any more fun in any of these endless variations than by not touching anything!

Alien looks and sounds like an Atari 2600 game – it’s hard to dress it up much more than that, except it looks like a good one! The mazes are well defined, movement is smooth, the alien eggs look like dots and the pulsars look like asterisks, but there is real character in the aliens – especially the sinister yellow one! Barely any flicker either (apart from the sinister yellow one, but let’s say that’s intentional to up the scares), which you definitely can’t say for the strobe-ghost horror show of official 2600 Pac-Man! There’s a really cool effect when you go into the hyperwarp thingy at the side of the screen too, where you dissolve as you enter it before re-emerging on the other side. In the sound department you’ve got various siren noises that either up the tension or just drive you mad, and there’s a constant crunch as you take out the alien eggs underfoot. Again, classic Atari 2600, but I’ve heard an awful lot worse on the Spectrum and they work absolutely fine!

Apart from Pac-Land (more here) – and the Pac-Man cartoon it’s based on – I’m not the world’s biggest Pac-Man fan, though I’ve definitely had my fill of all kinds of revisions on all kinds of systems for over forty years! I even became something of an expert on Pac-Man 256 a few years ago, absolutely playing it to death until free-to-play arrived and sucked out most of its soul. Anyway, I like Pac-Man. But I like this more! It plays a very pure version of Pac-Man, to the point I generally forget about the flame thrower even existing. The character is responsive; the seemingly random nature of the alien AI is challenging and often panic-inducing; the mazes feel good and the Frogger bonus screen is a really nice incentive to keep going, though the concept is arguably just as addictive without it. And it’s got 2600-cool aliens from Alien chasing after you, which is loads better than crazy flickering ghosts! And for me at least, that all combines with a clear love of the film that might not be able to transcend the technical limitations of the time and the system, but is just about enough to transcend all other versions of a similar game!

My Life With… Scooby Doo – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Scooby Doo – ZX Spectrum

Scooby Doo, Where Are You! probably has a lot to answer for! It was one of two gateway drugs to my lifelong passion for horror, along with Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, which I first came into contact with on my auntie’s bookshelf in the late seventies, and gradually became more and more obsessed with as the eighties progressed after she eventually relented and let me have it! After all these years I can pretty much read it without looking at it anymore, and I’d rank it in my top ten favourite books ever – I’m not big into fiction (though M.R. James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is forever number one!) so there’s a lot of serial killer, World War II and rock biography stuff in there too; and this wonderful big hardback encyclopedia from 1973 that’s packed to the gills with every horror movie you ever need to see when you’re old enough!

Speaking of top tens, I’d rank Scooby Doo, Where Are You! at number three in my top ten TV shows ever, after Bottom and Miami Vice. Also note I’m being specific about “Where Are You!” just to avoid any association with later abominations involving Scrappy Doo! Anyway, between them, these two things are entirely responsible for the 3,000+ movies and untold amounts of horror memorabilia I’m now sitting on! This also explains my absolute excitement when a very jaw-dropping advert started appearing in computer games magazines during the autumn of 1985, and this is where our very own mystery begins…

The advert promised the world! The “first ever computer cartoon” with over a hundred scenes of animated action, and it was going to kick off a new craze in computer gaming. The main image has Scooby and Shaggy doing a runner from an old guy that looks like he’s from the Miner 49er episode, with the Mystery Machine parked outside a creepy castle behind them. As well as being chased around the castle and the dungeon, the accompanying text tells us we’ll also be hurtling through abandoned mines in a runaway coal truck and being chased by a shark in a rowing boat. Sounding like the best game ever so far…

It was all backed up by ten very Spectrum-like screenshots; now, I could be wrong, but on closer inspection today I actually think they’re hand-painted to look like Spectrum screens, with some very authentic yellows and clear avoidance of colour clash in the sprites to throw you off the scent! You’ve got half a hanged, oversized skeleton in some kind of dungeon. There’s Shaggy and Scooby in bed with a creepy looking painting – no doubt with false eyes – on the bedroom wall. There’s a really cool view out of a coastal cave with some kind of old galleon going out to sea in the distance, then the next screen seems to a distant view of the same thing, but it’s nearly all sea and it’s very hard to make out. The next two are also a bit hard to make out, with what might be a vase and some other unidentifiable junk in some kind of dungeon in one, and a partial large modern ship in a harbour with some more unidentifiable shapes in a dominant mass of yellow behind it. Then we have a beautiful haunted castle in some windswept green expanse before going a bit unidentifiable again, but it seems to be a wooden frame with some lamps on it in another dungeon-type setting. The last two are far more identifiable and exciting, with Scooby heading towards us down a corridor in one and possibly a sewage pipe in the other.

A lot more detail appeared in the October 1985 issue of Crash magazine, where they have an exclusive preview of the cartoon-adventure “which should be released this month!” And it’s here that we find just about the most detail we’d ever get. The concept was to create a groundbreaking game where you direct the action rather than control a character. Artists started developing animations from original cartoons, while programmers worked out how to compress it all to fit on a Spectrum. We then learn that the the game is set in a Scottish castle belonging to Shaggy’s aunt, who’s being driven out by spooky goings-on. She gives the gang 48 hours to solve the mystery and unmask the inevitable villain before she decides to sell up. This was all to translate to seven or eight action sequences interspersed by the Scooby gang interacting with each other, all against the clock.

In one example of actual gameplay, Scooby is walking down a corridor in what sounds like an animation, then as he approaches a trapdoor the viewpoint changes and it’s up to you to direct the action, interfering with the outcome of the cartoon rather than just playing a game; we’re clearly talking about something like Dragon’s Lair I guess, but the intention was the action and the outcome would be different each time you played. They wrap up saying that when they visited Elite, the raw material was all there and it was being edited together, with all the animations committed to memory and just a few final details to work out…

The following month a Computer & Video Games magazine preview heralded the best graphics they’d seen on a Spectrum and comparisons with laser-disc cartoon games, all ready for review the following month…

1985 was quickly becoming 1986 and still no sign of the game, apart from what seemed to be the box art in an Elite advert for “free-lance” programmers in the January issue of C&VG.

In the February issue there’s a double-page Thorn EMI advert with possibly Frank Bruno holding up the box, where’s it pitted in a fight against Gremlin Graphics’ Super Sleuth. Lots of words about the game but even less information than before, and ominously there’s no longer a screenshot of the best graphics on the Spectrum…

The following month C&VG has an exclusive on all sorts of stuff from Elite, dominated by the iconic first level of Bombjack on C64, but opening with something intriguing… “Despite what you’ve read in other magazines, Elite still plans to release its cartoon computer adventure, Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery, for the 48K Spectrum. On the next page we’ve also got the Scooby screenshot from the advert, where we’re told the game is now coming in April, but Elite boss Steve Wilcox also tells us “it will be different from the version which has been heavily advertised.” Seems they’d run out of memory in the 48K Spectrum after all, so the plot thickens – all in the space of the same preview!

To mark the launch of the game, the April C&VG is giving away fifty copies. It seems like I filled out the entry form but was stopped in my tracks when I had to choose which machine I wanted it for when I realised I didn’t own any of them yet!

If I’d known how long I’d be waiting, I could have picked one and would probably have had it by the time the game turned up with the winners ! For now the trail goes quiet again for another six months, then we’ve one final little twist to the mystery in the November issue of C&VG – a new full page advert is on the inside cover; it still talks about a computer cartoon, but that screenshot is new… Fortunately the contents page says Scooby Doo on page 8 with a tantalising shot of a high score screen no less, but get to page 8 and not a trace. Not a trace anywhere. We need to move on one more time!

Another version of the advert with two better screenshots of the new game welcomes us to the December 1986 issue of C&VG, telling us that “after months of development he’s finally here!” And there’s even a review in the same magazine this time that confirms it!

When I reviewed The Games That Weren’t by Frank Gasking (here), I said that as much as I love what we finally got, I still look at the original advert and wonder what could have been. Those screenshots are just so good, even if I am now questioning exactly what “machine” they’re from!

In the course of our investigation, we’ve spanned a high profile cartoon license marketed for over a year with huge cost, double-page, full-colour adverts in the top gaming press, plus all the other associated pre-launch marketing costs – not to mention what sounds like serious development costs – but no game to show for it, no resulting sales, and no doubt a fair bit of corporate egg on the face too! In retrospect, all those cartoon-accurate scenes were never going to fit into 48K of memory, but Elite still needed a Scooby Doo game, and whilst it wasn’t going to be an 8-bit laser disc showstopper, Gargoyle Games had something more than decent they could quickly realise for them. And also in retrospect, a brutal take on Kung-Fu Master probably had far more mileage for the player too even if it wasn’t really a computer cartoon.

I’ve always known the final product as just Scooby Doo – it’s what the box says, the title screen, and it’s even in big words along the bottom of the screen in case you forget when you’re playing, but there appears to be one possible hangover from what was originally planned… The loading screen says Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery; it’s a great loading screen too! In its defence, the game is still a mystery set in a castle, where as you arrive Shaggy, Velma, Daphne and Fred are spirited away, and it’s up to you to fight your way through the ghosts and demons that lurk around the mad scientist’s lair to rescue them. From flasks!

After the wonderful Spectrum rendition of the Scooby gang on the title screen, we’re in that classic Spectrum rendition of a castle… it’s yellow, like all the best ones on there are! We’re in control of Scooby, next to a suit of armour, and we can see a grand staircase on the floor above us and a couple of doors. And doors are about to become your worst enemy because that’s where the ghosts and the witches and the demons and the spectral fish are coming from to attack you. Relentlessly!

You’re not quite defenceless, with a Scooby punch dispatching them instantly, and you can do a really scaredy-cat duck (by a dog) to avoid bats and the like in later levels, and jump, which will take you over the lethal skulls on the floor, gaps and the bowling ball things that also appear on later levels. A touch from every enemy type means instant death, and a few levels in when they’re coming down stairs as well as out of doors, those six lives you started with and any bonus ones from Scooby Snacks you’ve come across aren’t going to feel quite as generous as you first thought!

Once you’ve found your friends in four increasingly difficult, increasingly complex maze-like levels, each with their own unique colour scheme and bizarre enemies, you’re then hunting the mad scientists. Yes, turns out there’s more than one; in fact, as far as I can tell, once you’ve got one you’ll just keep moving to the next repeated level layout to find the next, and rather than finish it will then just keep looping the levels ad infinitum!

It might be about a cartoon character, but this game pulls no punches. It’s bruta, and even once you’ve learnt the levels, it’s going to take some serious luck with enemy spawns to fight your way to where you need to be! A nice touch is a practice mode where you can get the lie of the land in each level before mounting an attack on the full game – seems a bit more casual in this mode too, though not easy by any means!

I’m not sure if this is the right way to play, but rather than spend long in practice modes, what worked for me is applying the patience of a saint to space management-based scrapping (not to be confused with Scrappy, the original Jar Jar Binks)! As said before, if you’re familiar with Kung-Fu Master and the like, you’ve got enemies coming from left and right, sometimes at different speeds, and you’re working out which way to punch first, then quickly doing it the other way. With other games, the enemies are generally coming from one of the edges of the screen, but here they’re coming out of doors as well as edges. And there’s doors everywhere! That translates to inching your way forwards, waiting got something to come out of a door, going past the door, waiting for something else to come out, then inching forwards a bit more, then repeat! Later on you need to watch out for what’s coming from above as well, and you need to apply a similar process to stairs, gaps and skull jumps until you’ve found your friend’s head in a scientific experiment somewhere on the top floor!

This winning strategy takes forever, and I definitely struggle to maintain my patience when I’m tempted by a nice-looking staircase, but it’s still fun and it’s the only way I ever got to “finish” the game… one day I might do a walkthrough video and it will become the most boring walkthrough ever; the anti-speedrun! But most times when I play I just forget all of that and enjoy larking around in the first two levels beating up ghosts! One other winning strategy, if you’re interested in high scores, is to get a couple of levels in, back up against a wall, and just hold down fire as the spooks run into your deadly paw. You can stay there forever and just watch those numbers rise!

You don’t want to be watching numbers when you’re playing Scooby Doo though; even if it wasn’t a computer cartoon, this game was helping to usher in the absolute golden age of ZX Spectrum graphics, where bold and vibrant colours backed up big, detailed monochrome sprites. The character design is superb too, with Scooby and the gang instantly recognisable (even when they’re just heads in flasks!), and the animation perfectly captures the feel of the cartoon. Just turn the sound down a bit because there’s not a lot going on, but when you notice that grating punching noise combined with the sound of ghosts coming out of doors is as relentless as they are, you’ll never unhear it!

The story of the game that wasn’t might be more interesting than the one that was, and that might not be the game I thought I wanted, but in the end it turned out to be the one I loved. It’s equally fun jumping back into for short bursts as it is knuckling down and rescuing all of your friends; or their heads at least , but with no ending (outrageously also meaning no unmasking!) as far as I can tell, we’ll never know about the rest of those pesky kids!

My Life With… Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa (Nintendo 3DS)

My Life With… Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa (Nintendo 3DS)

There’s loads of game series I’ve had a quick go on at some point, but for whatever reason didn’t grab me until many years later, when they really did grab me and then some as I lapped up everything about them! Castlevania and Mega Man are the two prime suspects, but there’s also big hitters like 2D and 3D Mario and Zelda, and then there’s stuff like Road Rash and Splatterhouse and TwinBee and… I almost forgot my newly beloved Silent Hill! For all of these I’ve dived headfirst into pretty much every entry on every system (one way or another), and pretty much played through every one of them to completion (or at least to death) too, all in a relatively very short space of time.

But there’s only one series I can think of that all of this also applies to, but until relatively recently I’d genuinely never even heard of. And that would psychedelic Defender-ish shooter Fantasy Zone!

That’s not to say it had never been in my line of sight. When the Mean Machines section of Computer & Video games was still only a couple of pages at the back of the magazine, and covering stuff like the Sega Master System which realistically I was never going to own, I just don’t think I would have paid it much attention. In my defence in this case though, it was easy to miss! The May 1988 issue had a very odd mass Sega review section, and it’s odd because just as it’s explaining Fantasy Zone’s shop mechanic (we’ll return there). arcade game. That’s thrown you, but it’s actually exactly what the review does! The words “arcade game” suddenly appear after a full stop, then after another full stop they’re busy explaining team selection in World Soccer! Which is a shame because they’re definitely about to big up Fantasy Zone in their missing conclusion! Instead we’re just left with some scores in series! Nines across the board for graphics, sound, playability and overall is some good going! For comparison, the other four games (yes, four games – no wonder it got cocked-up!) in this single review didn’t fare quite as well… scrolling beat ‘em up Kung Fu Kid did alright with all eights. They loved playing World Soccer, with only graphics and sound trailing Fantasy Zone – and that’s exactly how it should be for pretty much all games ever! Teddy Boy is some kind of platform shoot and collect thing, and was deemed fairly average with sixes and sevens. Then there’s a little game called Double Dragon – which actually had its own separate review but shared the score box – with eights for everything except slightly average sound.

Couple of interesting points on what they’re saying about Fantasy Zone before they’re so rudely cut off… They start by saying that despite it being a “beaut” they’d seen the game “die a death” at The Crystal Rooms in Leicester Square. Now, if this is the place I’m thinking of, it was a very old-school casino in London that just did slot machines and bingo. Possibly why it died a death there? Anyway, what’s fun about it is that unlike most swanky London casinos the only dress code was that your clothes didn’t obscure the security cameras!

The other thing they call out is the “VERY” unusual colourful backdrop and aliens. And I love that because that is precisely what didn’t grab me in the small screenshot that accompanied the review back in May 1988, but very much did grab me in May 2017 when I first fired up the Sega 3D Classics Collection on 3DS that I’d just received for my birthday that month. As I’ve written about here, when the compilation first appeared at the end of 2016, I started getting the urge for the arcade version of Power Drift in the palm of my hand! My old favourite Thunder Blade was a real added bonus too, and I was fond of Puyo Puyo, but not especially fond of Sonic and Altered Beast, and I had no idea what these Galaxy Force and Maze Hunter and all-sorts of Fantasy Zone games were!

You’re getting the remade Fantasy Zone II and the Master System version in the standard game carousel, but there’s also a not very well hidden bonus game to find too! You just need to click the Extras button on the main game select screen, and from there it’s easy to spot the very obvious Fantasy Zone themed icon in the bottom left, where you’ve got the Master System version of the original too.

Before things get too confusing, it’s worth a quick history lesson (which admittedly may well confuse things even more)! The original Japanese arcade version of Fantasy Zone arrived there in 1986. It ran on an arcade board called System-16, which will be important in a sec! It then got the home version on Master System we’ve already looked at, and it would soon also end up on NES, MSX, PC-Engine, and Sharp X68000. The NES one is interesting because it was a Sunsoft Japan-only release originally, then an unlicensed (crappier) version was published by Tengen in the West in 1989. For completeness, Fantasy Zone Gear appeared on Sega Game Gear in 1991 and a Sega Saturn version also appeared in 1997, and then it was completely remade for PlayStation 2 using polygons rather than sprites, and had some Space Harrier styled stages where you were playing from behind. Mobile versions would follow in the early 2000’s, before Virtual Console and similar releases followed a few years later. The latest version I have is the stacked Sega Ages release on Nintendo Switch, though I’m still not convinced about the controls on there – neither method feels perfect.

In a bit of a reversal of the normal way of things, the sequel, Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa, appeared first on the Master System in 1987 and then got an arcade port, as well as versions for NES (strangely sub-titled The Teardrop of Opa-Opa) and MSX. The Master System version is probably the best-looking game on the system (although Road Rash might also have a shout), but conversely, the problem with doing things this way around is the arcade version looked worse than its predecessor; around two decades later this would finally be remedied! Fast-forward to 2008, and Sega released the Sega Ages Vol. 33 Fantasy Zone Complete Collection for PlayStation 2. And I really wish I could still get hold of a copy! It included Fantasy Zone, Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa, Fantasy Zone Gear, enhanced NES version (and secret inclusion) Fantasy Zone Neo Classic, paddle-controller shooter Galactic Protector (starring Opa Opa) and… Fantasy Zone II DX, and now we’re finally getting close to the point!

As we’ve noted, the arcade sequel came arse about face, but what if it had been developed originally on the System-16 arcade hardware rather than the Master System? That’s where wonder-retro developers M2 were coming from with DX. Their CEO, Naoki Horii, played a lot of the Master System game but always yearned for an original arcade version, so they took the System-16 board, added a little bit more memory to it, and came up with what was dubbed the DX version to avoid confusion with the1987 arcade version (which I’m still wondering if I’m doing here)! We’ll eventually come back to what it does differently, but for now we’re finally going to arrive at the game we’re supposed to be talking about here, because it was then re-released with even more extra features on Nintendo 3DS in Japan in 2014, then globally as 3D Fantasy Zone II W the following year. Which by my reckoning is what ended up on my Sega 3D Classics compilation!

My own journey to what turned into an absolute adoration of this version of Fantasy Zone II took quite a lot longer to develop though, and encompassed only marginally lower levels of adoration across various other Fantasy Zones on the way! In fact, after dabbling with everything on this compilation when I got it, I didn’t pay much attention to any of it again for the best part of four years, when once again the lure of Power Drift came calling! But that short time dabbling with it had lit a spark. I don’t think it was even the new and special version of Fantasy Zone II that did it either; it was that very original secret Master System version, and then things started to spiral all over the place…

I was messing around with emulating old games on Raspberry Pi around this time, and for the first time ever I was starting to appreciate the NES (and what a whirlwind journey that would turn into in a very short space of time on all sorts of systems with all those games we started with here)! And in doing so, I came across a dodgy US version of a game I was now finally familiar with on Master System called Fantasy Zone… big mistake – you want to stick with the Japanese version that doesn’t look all jerky and washed out! A short time after that, I picked up the handheld PocketGo after my Game Boy Advance SP backlight died, and that turned out to be very good at Game Gear games, and Fantasy Zone Gear turned out to be a very good Game Gear game! It would be messing around with emulation on a hacked PlayStation Classic (one of the best consoles ever in this dubious form!) in the middle of 2019 where my love for the series really started picking up steam though. I’ve been emulating stuff for decades, but this thing made it easy to emulate everything in one place, and it turns out an original PlayStation controller is a great universal controller too! By now I was looking out for Fantasy Zone as one of the first ports of call on any “new” system, and I was giving the Master System a lot of attention for the first time (where the Road Rash obsession I now have also started), and that’s where the sequel originally started getting under my skin – far more than it had on the 3DS first time around. And the PC-Engine version, and the Mega Drive’s Super Fantasy Zone, but they both deserve their own mention…

On any given day, I could easily justify to myself why any of 3D Fantasy Zone II W, Mega Drive Super Fantasy Zone and PC-Engine Fantasy Zone are not only my favourite games in the series, but one of my favourite games of all time! I really think it’s just the way the 3DS circle-pad feels with this game that generally wins out, but as I’m writing this, I was playing the PC-Engine version ten minutes ago (during half time of a not very exciting Leeds versus Arsenal game) and thinking maybe I’ve got that wrong. And if I’d fired up Super Fantasy Zone instead, probably the same outcome!

My brother-in-law and his wife very kindly got me a Mega Drive Mini for Christmas 2019, and of course I spent a couple of weeks playing everything, but then for a good four or five first months of 2020 it became my Super Fantasy Zone and Road Rash II (best game on the system!) machine. This is the perfect next-gen version of the original, with great graphics, great colours and the most joyful music you’ll ever hear in a video game! As well as some quality of life gameplay enhancements and more upgrades, there’s also new bosses, and I reckon it’s all a bit quicker and a bit harder too.

In June 2020, the new PC-Engine Mini finally hit the COVID-stricken virtual shelves, and this time my own wife had equally kindly preordered one for my birthday in May. And what a moment having my own piece of proper PC-Engine hardware after all those years of lusting after it was – the gaming equivalent of hooking up with Winona Ryder, though my wife is unlikely to have so readily sorted that out for me! First thing I played? Splatterhouse! But since then, that wonderful version of Fantasy Zone has become my gaming comfort food; me playing it earlier is no coincidence – I watch an awful lot of football and I play this in an awful lot of half-times!

Football-related circumstances then bring us full-circle back to the 3DS version. As I said ages ago, it started once again with the lure of Power Drift on the Sega 3D Classics Collection, when my son’s academy season finally restarted after the first COVID-related lockdown. All training is behind closed doors, meaning three lots of two hours worth of hanging around in a car park every week, which the 3DS is obviously the perfect antidote to! I beat every set of tracks on Power Drift in a week and a half (though to this day I haven’t really stopped playing it yet), and then we got serious with 3D Fantasy Zone II W… I think! That history lesson definitely confused me at the very least!

Now might be a good time to talk about the game itself! This is absolutely everything that was great about the original game and the sequel – the freely-scrolling tough but not brutal alien and base and boss shooting action; all of the main mechanics, from the ability to shoot and bomb on separate buttons, to the timed weapon and engine shop where you upgrade your ship using money collected from what you’ve shot. And of course, the absolutely glorious, colourful, whimsical aesthetic; and not forgetting that most joyful soundtrack ever!

We have loads on top of the original game though! Firstly, we’ve got late eighties arcade-quality graphics, and they’re imaginative and detailed and smooth (especially when compared back-to-back with the Master System original on there), and they’re just full of so much character. And although I’m not a fan, you’ve got stereoscopic 3D effects to blow you away here too. The flow of the game itself is a reimagining of the Master System game and subsequent conversions too, with some highlights (enemies, environments, music…) lifted but a lot of it new, and there’s even bits of the first arcade game here too. And you can even dial down the difficulty if you like; it’s your conscience!

One of the biggest changes, though, is the level design – every stage has parallel dimensions, the regular Bright Side and the higher reward but harder Dark Side. You can warp between the two where warp-zones appear behind some of the beaten bases, and if you take out a base in the Bright Side, it’s also gone in the Dark Side and vice versa. If you happen to be in the Dark Side when you take out the final base on a level, you’re going to get the same boss too, but with much harder attack patterns. There is a predictably bonkers story about your sentient craft, Opa-Opa, and the myriad cash-spewing invaders you’ll come across in each diverse stage, and you can start on any of the stages you’ve already beaten to progress the story a bit more easily, though your scores will suffer as a result.

The cash you collect is persistent, so you can also withdraw a bit of that when you start to give you a literal boost. However, I did find myself always sticking to an absolutely essential engine boost, twin bombs and an occasional laser weapon to make later stage bases a bit quicker to take down, and this is all very buyable from what you’ll make in any given run. If you die, or the very short timer on the weapons runs out, you are back to square one, so having a bit of cash, but also being a bit frugal and not buying a crazy engine (that you’ll also struggle to control unless you’re using it all the time – which you won’t be). There’s also secret weapons in secret shops that you just need to make sure you’re paying attention to find, and depending on what you’ve bought and how much of the Dark Side you’ve experienced, there’s apparently three endings, though I’ve only seen one so far! Actually, the end-game is the only place I’d make any real criticism because there’s a boss-rush before you get anywhere near, and I hate boss-rushes! Finally, there’s a completely separate endless survival mode where you’re playing as Upa-Upa, Opa-Opa’s brother, fighting his way through Link Loop Land. And it’s another absolutely amazing Fantasy Zone in its own right!

Long before I ever played Defender, I absolutely loved Andes Attack, a masterful Jeff Minter llama-based take on the game for the VIC-20. It’s fast and colourful, it’s old-school tough, and it’s as addictive as hell. And I still like it more than Defender! Fantasy Zone II on 3DS isn’t Defender, but the mechanics are not that far off, and I reckon how it looks probably isn’t far off how my imagination was filling in the gaps that my eyes weren’t seeing back in 1983 or whenever I first played Andes Attack!

The Fantasy Zone games I’ve talked about here are all unique and beautiful in their own way, but I think – at the time of writing at least – that Fantasy Zone II for 3DS is the most unique and beautiful of them all! The only thing that would improve it is if you could play it on a big screen, but still using that perfectly suited 3DS circle-pad. And that’s admittedly a bit of an ask! As would be being able to play that version for hours at a time in my car, so I’ll just count myself fortunate that the best version of the game is also perfectly suited to handheld. So far I reckon I’ve played it that way for around twenty hours, then at least the same again at home… I can’t get enough of it! And now I say that, I’m also slightly concerned that such a concentrated amount of time played might be swaying my opinions on this version over the Mega Drive and PC-Engine games that I’ve also come to love so dearly in only a slightly less concentrated period of time! On the other hand, all this love is probably all a bit cumulative from lapping up the series very late, but with all the enthusiasm and joy I’d have no doubt felt if I’d paid a bit more attention to that section in the back of a magazine in May of 1988… Just enjoy them all!

As a closing treat, you might have spotted that the issue of C&VG in question had a free badge on the cover. I think I’ve still got it, pinned to the old notice board it was stuck on the day I bought it!

Favourite Sights in All of Gaming – Now The Top 10 (and more…)

Favourite Sights in All of Gaming – Now The Top 10 (and more…)

Ever since I put together my list of favourite sights in all of gaming, a few weeks ago at the time of writing, I’ve been giving more favourite sights in other games a bit of thought, and we’re definitely in a position now where we can add some more to the list and make up a top ten!

You can read about the original top five here, but just to recap…

1. The road opening out in the first stage of arcade Out Run
2. The sunset background in level two of arcade P-47
3. Olli & Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle’s second screen on ZX Spectrum
4. The sunset background in level two of PC Engine Victory Run
5. Mega Drive Streets of Rage 2 third stage pirate ship

I struggled a bit to get far beyond a top five previously, but did give a single honourable mention to Super Castlevania IV’s ghost and glitter and gold level, also known as Stage IX, also known as The Treasury, so it’s only fair that we start right there at our new number six favourite sight in all of gaming!

I could probably make up another top ten only using sights from Super Castlevania IV on SNES! And actually, before I came up with Stage IX, my initial thought was climbing the famous Castlevania steps up to the final boss with the moon behind the castle. Absolutely stunning, and in every Castlevania this sight is an indicator that your’ve nearly made it! If I had to choose any game world to live in, it’s this one (or maybe Silent Hill… more later)! I absolutely adore the unique gothic art-style, the sumptuous colours and the sheer imagination. The game has already put you through the ringer by the time you get to Stage IX, but seeing this unique environment compared to everything you’ve been through before is like a reset, refreshing you for the last push! The ghosts that float up all around the screen are harmless but remind you that in Castlevania, all that glitters – and there’s a lot here that does – might not always be gold. What is gold, though, is this little tip – jump on any treasure chest in this level 256 times and you’ll be rewarded with a big meat to boost your health. It’s all just glorious, unique in the game, and you’re welcome!

If I ever do a list about gaming music, that level in Castlevania might figure too (though it might have some competition from Symphony of the Night), but what would definitely figure – and probably right at the top of the list – would be Commando on the Commodore 64. And that’s where we heading now in our favourite sights list too! This is a mid-eighties vertically-scrolling run and gun arcade conversion, where your commando (who is more Rambo than Commando) is shooting up the enemy, chucking grenades and freeing hostages. When it first came out, like many kids on many games of the time, I spent most of my time in the first stage. And that didn’t matter, of course! And at the end of that first stage, you’re clearing out a few last soldiers as you reach a huge set of double-gates. As you get close, they spring open and all hell breaks loose as masses of enemy soldiers rush you all at once. You’d start off getting into a good position to spray them down with bullets from the side, then it was a case of just never stop moving, and should one of the enemies come face-to-face with your rifle, take them out! If you’re lucky you won’t get killed by the last guy left – which seemed to be what happened most times – and you’ll run through the gates into stage two. But if you don’t, no worries, because every time you get there you’ll get that same sense of anticipation and exhileration as those gates swing spring apart and all those guys break through!

Before we move on, I’m going to quickly mention the advert for Commando too. Obviously, the advert for Barbarian was the greatest gaming advert of all time ever, closely followed by its sequel. But, for the purpose of this discussion, let’s pretend there’s no adverts featuring Page Three stunner Maria Whittaker wearing a couple of scraps of metal… As dire as that world might be, the Commando advert – complete with what appears to be a hand-painted screenshot – is definitely one my favourite gaming adverts.

I’m not sure I can write many more words about Silent Hill 2 than I did already here! I think it’s the greatest horror game of all time, which I’d also say about its predecessor if this didn’t exist! The original Silent Hill was probably as famous for its fog as its sequel is for Pyramid Head, but this was mostly there to hide graphical limitations of the original PlayStation; it just happened to create an incredible atmosphere while it did it! The second game, on the PlayStation 2, didn’t have those limitations, but it did have fog… the absolute best fog in any game to this day! At the very start of the game, you notice wisps of fog swirling around you, and then you begin your descent, and then the fog starts to envelope you. And when you’re moving down towards the town and slowly become completely surrounded by this brilliant, multi-greyed, almost living and breathing entity, you suddenly realise that you’re really back in Silent Hill. And that’s a wonderful realisation in a wonderful moment!

In 2020, Star Wars: Squadrons came very close to the thrill of flying an X-Wing, but a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, something else came even closer! When you sat down in the sit-down Star Wars arcade cabinet in 1983, you were Luke Skywalker climbing into the cockpit of an X-Wing. And you’d never seen graphics like this before – you were in a 3D colour vector dogfight approaching the Death Star, then you were navigating your way across the surface of the Death Star, and then, in one of the most exhilerating moments you’ll ever come across in the history of gaming, you dropped down into the trench! You’re being shot at from side-mounted cannons and you’re avoiding beams up and down and in the middle, and it all feels wonderfully claustrophobic and so dangerous, until that moment of absolute panic when you need to fire your proton torpedo down the exhaust port. “Great shot kid, that was one in a million” then rings out as the Death Star explodes and you start all over again with the difficulty ramped up. Never before did a few coloured lines spark so much imagination!

We’re closing out our top ten with a game that took the giant leap into filling-in those coloured lines, and not only that, but doing something else you’d never seen the like of in a game before… especially a racing game! I have absolutely no recollection of Hard Drivin’ in any arcade, but it was a huge deal when the conversions hit in 1990, and the undisputed highlight of Christmas that year was the Atari ST version (more on that here)! Even though I’d never played it before, like everyone else that played it, I knew exactly what I was looking out for the very first time I loaded it up. Go up the hill from the start, do a right towards the Stunt course, take the bridge (again and again until you realise the speed limit signs at the side of the road aren’t just there for decoration), one more right, and there it is in all it’s majesty – the legendary loop-the-loop! I still think it’s a technical marvel every time I play it, and I still every time I go around it I still wonder quite how I did it! And there you were thinking I was going to say the cow that moos when you run into it!

As we had an honourable mention in our previous top five, which is now our number six, before I summarise the full top ten I just want to award a replacement honourable mention! I struggled to not include this, but if I had included it, I’d have struggled to decide exactly what I was not going to include, or, indeed, what from this game I would! Before stuff like Halo (RIP) or Uncharted or Tetris or various Marios became system sellers on their respective consoles, a game called Defender of the Crown was exactly that on the Atari ST. I don’t think there was ever a graphical leap between computer or console generations like that one. One minute you’re prodding monochrome ghosts in Scooby Doo on the Spectrum, and the next you’re looking at this jaw-dropping vista with the most realistic medieval castle you’ve ever seen recreated on anything!

I’m also awarding another honourable mention because if the first instalment had one, then surely this one deserves one too? This time we’re talking about the arcade version of Gradius II, known as Vulcan Venture outside of Japan. I’ve dabbled with Gradius and its offshoots (such as Salamander, also known as Life Force) for years, and I’m equally terrible at all of them, but fortunately this sight comes midway through the first level, so even I get to have a gander! This is a 1988 side-scrolling power-up shooter, and you’re quickly dodging these stunning suns that fire-breathing fire serpents occasionally slither out of. Then at one point you’re surrounded by three of these fiery planets and it just looks terrifyingly beautiful. If only I could get past the flaming boss at the end of the level, because who knows what incredible sights lie ahead?

Finally, unless I think of anything else that urgently needs to be included in the next five minutes (like stage one of 3D Fantasy Zone II W, or a mass of ghosts in Gauntlet, or the cemetery in Resident Evil 4, for example), I’m going to further preview what’s potentially already turned into the inevitable top fifteen! It would be be here right now – and in all probability be a lot more than something after the honourable mentions too – except I reckon there’s a better version of it waiting in the arcade game, and that’s the wonderful scene from Stage V of Splatterhouse on PC-Engine with the flying scarecrow pumpkin skeleton thing and it’s bony zombie army. I’ve just never got that far in the arcade game, but there’s a challenge for me one fine day…

In the meantime, let’s just run down our all new top then!

1. The road opening out in the first stage of arcade Out Run
2. The sunset background in level two of arcade P-47
3. Olli & Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle’s second screen on ZX Spectrum
4. The sunset background in level two of PC Engine Victory Run
5. Mega Drive Streets of Rage 2 third stage pirate ship
6. Super Castlevania IV ghost and glitter and gold level (Stage IX)
7. Gates opening at the end of C64 Commando first stage
8. When the fog engulfs you at the start of Silent Hill 2 on PS2
9. Dropping into the trench in Star Wars arcade (sit-down)
10. The loop-the-loop in Atari ST Hard Drivin’

As a final aside, when I was playing Star Wars again recently to get some screenshots, I noticed something that I’ve never noticed before in all these years! After you’ve done you’re business in the trench, check out the Death Star just before it explodes… May the Force be with you!

The Battle of 1984: Perils of Willy vs Elite!

The Battle of 1984: Perils of Willy vs Elite!

Back in October 1984, as was usual, I was avidly flicking through a friend’s new issue of Computer & Video Games magazine. A couple of months later I’d be starting an almost decade-long collection of my own, but for now reading it second-hand was just fine because devouring almost every word together was part of the fun!

And I very much remember this issue for one reason – there was a kind of review feature on the Amstrad CPC, which had come out in April that year, and there was screenshot of a ghost in front of a castle that I thought I could program on my Commodore VIC-20, so I duly borrowed the magazine and if I remember right I actually did it, though any evidence is long since gone!

Flicking through it again more recently, exactly 36 years later in fact, just past the CPC ghost castle and the feature review of Avalon on the Spectrum (a game I still can’t get excited about), a couple of reviews jumped right out at me from the very same page. I’m sure that 12-year old me took them in at the very least, and one of them might have even influenced a purchase I’d be making a few months down the line, but I’d certainly have had no concept of the significance of these games to me as a 48-year old with his utterly nerdy but highly curated (and very extensive) list of his favourite games of all time!

The first of those games was Perils of Willy for the VIC-20 (+16K Expanded). You’re Willy of Miner Willy from Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy fame over on the Spectrum, and you’re in for a brutal platformer as you travel home from a boozy night out, collecting musical notes that are hanging in the air and avoiding manic geese and stuff on the way. There’s no doubt it’s still my favourite game on the VIC-20, and overall it sits at seventeen in my all time favourite games list! I’ve written a load on this here, and also on the 2020 Spectrum port here.

What I’ve not written about elsewhere (yet) is the other game that jumped out at me. This one is also a bit special to me and – possibly more-so than Perils of Willy – is a bit special to lots of other people too… Elite for the BBC B computer! I think it was my friend Thomas that had a BBC, and assuming it was I remember watching him play Elite a couple of years later, fascinated by the enormous scale and scope of it all. And it was definitely him that years later copied it for me on the Atari ST, and lent me the 64 page manual that was then illicitly photocopied so I could answer the “first word on page x” security question every time you loaded it up! It is also definitely that wonderful version of the original limitless space-trading adventure that sits at number nine in my favourite games of all time list!

My lovingly curated favourite games list now numbers 200, and as I look at it now I can see the final game on there is Southern Belle on the Spectrum (which I covered here), and now I’m thinking that can’t be right so will no doubt be spending hours poring over it again later! There’s no way I like Tai-Pan at 199 more than Southern Belle. Outrageous! And to give it some context, that’s two hundred out of thousands of games played since the seventies. Super Mario Bros. didn’t make the cut. Ocarina of time is there but doesn’t crack the first hundred. My list isn’t a normal list and it’s certainly not easy to get into!

Which makes those two games, reviewed on a single page in the November 1984 issue of Computer & Video Games magazine, very special to me indeed, but how did they fare with them?

Perils of Willy is alright by C&VG! They’re impressed by faithful transition of the Willy character from the Spectrum, and seem to like the gameplay set-up because it let’s them make willy jokes. They talk about the enemy dogs and balloons, though I think they do underplay quite how nasty these things are. This really is a tough-as-nails old-school platformer, even by 1984 standards; though having just been playing Hunchback on the Spectrum as I write this, it certainly wasn’t the only one! They conclude by saying it’s not as good as Manic Miner or Jet Set Willy (but I don’t see either of them on my list!), but it is one of the best “climbing” games they have seen on the VIC-20. I like how descriptive reviewers used to get before “platforming” became a generic term, which can’t of been much after this?

Anyway, here’s the scores they awarded Perils of Willy:
Graphics 7
Sound 8
Value 7
Playability 7

Elite next, and let’s keep in mind, this might be number nine in my list, but has regularly topped proper best game ever lists for decades! I absolutely love how this review starts… “Put simply, Elite is a flight simulation game for people who can’t normally get to grips with flight simulations.” I also love that almost 50% of what in retrospect might be deemed one of the most important games they ever reviewed is dedicated to the manual, the reference card with commands on it and the 48-page novel you also get in the box. They gush over the graphics, and rightly so, as this was some pioneering 3D going on here, right on the BBC B! One of the BBC computer designers, Sophie Wilson, once called Elite “the game that couldn’t have been written” and C&VG also point out its complexity – possibly the most complex game ever produced on any system. Quaintly, they also mention the ability to save the game because “it’s going to take some time to complete the mission.” I’m assuming they hadn’t “completed” it when they wrote the review! Then in a final bizarre twist, they invite readers to submit their high scores to them…

Here’s the scores they awarded Elite:
Graphics 10
Sound 5
Value 7
Playability 7

As a quick scores on the doors, Elite wins outright on graphics, Perils of Willy sounds better, they both offer exactly the same amount of value for your pocket money, and they are both equally good to play. Where to begin…

No discussion needed about graphics. Perils of Willy is a 2D climbing game on the VIC-20. Its dogs and geese are among the best looking on the system, and there’s some nice animation going on in the balloons. I’ve also always loved the way certain sections of floor fall away from under you as you walk over them. But they’re not the best graphics on the machine – Jetpac and Skramble spring to mind at definite 8 out of 10’s – but I reckon for the end of 1984 and a bit too much sprite flickering, that 7 is about right. Equally, 10 is about right for Elite! The wireframe 3D models flicker a little, but apart from that just look at it now and everything still moves so smoothly, and that hyperspace jump is still a treat! There’s also loads going on in your cockpit, with the dual radar and no less than fourteen different indicators surrounding it. And 3D like this back in 1984 was just jaw-dropping. Incredible stuff!

Sound is a little more interesting! Elite’s sound is functional and nothing more. There’s not a great deal going on when you’re not shooting stuff and 5 out of 10 might be a point or so on the low side in my view, but is in the right ballpark. Over on Perils of Willy, we’ve got 8 out of 10… And I can only assume that’s for sheer amount of sound rather than quality!!! If I remember correctly, there’s a quite jarring death sound that is perfectly apt, and a beep when you collect a musical note. That’s your sound effects. But on top of those is a non-stop loop of the first 8-9 seconds of a VIC-20 – with its three pulse wave and one white noise generators – rendition of the opening of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. And it will drive you completely nuts! Actually, play it enough and you desensitise, but it really is a piece of work on your ears!

With the benefit of 2020 vision, if I was reviewing these games I’d be giving them both 10 out of 10 for value! As I write I’ve just gone over 500 hours in Animal Crossing, but Elite – together possibly exclusively with Kick Off – would be in the several thousands. Granted that’s the Atari ST version, but I don’t think it would have been much different if I’d owned a BBC back in 1984. No one is playing thousands of hours of any Willy game, but there’s no doubt I got my £5.95’s worth out of it! It was the first and possibly only game I ever left a computer secretly running for days for because, unlike Elite, you couldn’t save it and I wanted to get the most out of my infinite lives poke! But also unlike Elite, I still play Perils of Willy regularly today! Back to C&VG’s scores though, in the eyes of a normal person I reckon Elite is being a little harshly scored here. But I’m also not sure they got what Elite actually was when they were reviewing it – that review really doesn’t stink of greatest game of all time material!

Finally, we have nice subjective playability. I’ve always read that as how good something is to play. And I don’t think you can really compare how good a platformer is to play versus a space-trading sim, but again, I’ve got to veer on the opinion that Elite is being hard done by here – as said just now, 7 out of 10 for anything does not scream best (or even ninth best) game ever! I’m wondering now if the fact that Elite was so ground-breaking had a negative effect on some of these early reviews; that people just didn’t get it, or alternatively couldn’t quite comprehend the vastness and complexity of what they had in their hands because they’d simply never seen anything like it before. It didn’t just define the space-trading with a bit of combat sim genre, but also defined a lot about video game design full stop. As the only reference point for gameplay in any context in this review, the playability score surely has to be as much higher as it can be! Subjectively speaking of course… Oh yeah, while we’re being subjective, 7 out of 10 also stinks for Perils of Willy!

In summary, I actually love that my old VIC-20 favourite Perils of Willy is scoring on par with Elite in my favourite old computer games magazine! But before we say goodnight, let’s quickly see how other games reviewed in the same issue stack up against one (two!) of the greatest games of all time!

As mentioned before, wizardy adventure Avalon on the Spectrum is this month’s marquee game, and apart from graphics it’s beating Elite significantly on every front. As an aside, I remember being really impressed by how this looked on the Commodore 64 when it was reviewed, but the Spectrum version just never did it for me. Maybe I need to pull myself together and give it a proper go now I have a proper yardstick for how good it is! American election sim Election Trail on C64 is next, and whilst they conclude by saying it’s not a game you’d buy for its entertainment value, it’s still out-scoring Elite on playability! As is the Spectrum port of one of my Atari 2600 favourites, Enduro. Falcon Patrol 2 on C64 wins out on everything except graphics, as does Pi in ‘Ere on the Spectrum, which looks a bit like Boulderdash but I can’t say I’ve ever really paid much attention to! The reviews are getting more brief now as we move down the pecking order of C&VG excitement, but Spectrum Piromania, Terrahawks and decent Manic Miner-a-like Frank n Stein, as well as BBC Crawler, are also outperforming Elite on all but graphics. Now a bit more colour on the page again, and Bird Mother and Gumshoe on C64 are trouncing all over Elite and even coming close on graphics with 9 out of 10 each. Same for the full-page (and fully deserved) spread on Pyjamarama, which is in all honesty the first recognisable game for most that we’ve covered here in a while! The Wally (not Willy) games on the Spectrum were always lookers, and that deserves its 9 out of 10 for everything except sound, which only got 8. Next we’ve got Activision classic Zenji on the C64! It’s a maze game that looks like something on an old Atari machine, and despite being “all in all a fairly dull game” is still more playable than Elite. And Perils of Willy!

Moving into the special section they’ve got this month for MSX games, which strangely has its own scoring system, we can still easily conclude that Comic Bakery is better than Elite on all fronts except a narrow miss on graphics. And finally, also on MSX, we have classic Konami penguin ice-skater Antarctic! Again, not too hard to draw a conclusion…
Additive quality 10
Lasting appeal 8
Graphics 10
Overall 10

Keep in mind that even though lasting appeal is all that’s stopping it being the perfect game, it’s still out-lasting the thousands of hours worth of gameplay available in Elite and the decades of challenge in Perils of Willy! In the words of the reviewer, “I recommend this family game to anyone who has an MSX computer. It’ll be remembered as a classic.” And I want you to remember that the next time anyone tells you Elite is the greatest game of all time!

My Life With… Winter Games – Commodore 64

My Life With… Winter Games – Commodore 64

When my friend Stephen got his Commodore 128 for Christmas, I couldn’t spend enough time at his house. And his house was so close to ours that I couldn’t even use the racing bike I got the same year to get there! The best Christmas present I never got… Except maybe my brother’s Mini Munchman and BMX Flyer handhelds! Anyway, that Christmas, and any other time I could get away with until I got my Spectrum +2 a year (or possibly two) later, I was at his house playing almost exclusively C64 games on his C128!

I think my very first experience of his better Commodore than my VIC-20, possibly the day after Boxing Day, probably in 1985 though I’m not 100% sure, was Impossible Mission. To this day I still have no clue what was going on, but somersaulting over electric robots, searching computers and stuff, and going up and down those awesome huge lifts where you could see “under the ground” either side of the shaft was more than enough to say this was the best game I’d ever played!

It was certainly better than the next game we played, Special Delivery, where you flew about in Santa’s sleigh avoiding lightning while you caught presents from angels in the clouds, then landed on a roof, climbed down one of three ladders in an unfeasibly oversized chimney dodging unspecified baddies, then crept around a crude 3D house to deliver it under a tree while avoiding its inhabitants. I recall landing was pretty cool, and actually the variety did give it a bit of life, but there’s a reason why it’s not mentioned alongside stuff like Impossible Mission or The Last Ninja and the like!

What can be mentioned in the same breath as those classics, though, is what came next. And that was, of course, Winter Games! And Impossible Mission instantly became the shortest-lived best game I’d ever played of all time!

As a graphical showpiece for what any home computer could do in 1985, I can’t think of anything more mind-blowing than Winter Games on the C64. The trees were undoubtably the standout, with multiple shades of green that made them look more like trees than anything I’d seen on a computer screen before. Even in Horace Goes Skiing! Then there were the clouds and the snow-capped mountains, and incredible details like the shadows under the fences in the biathlon… The whole thing just transported you to an alpine environment with almost no imagination needed, which is saying something for even the greatest games of that golden age! More than anything, it felt suitably cold!

But we’re jumping way ahead of ourselves! What about that opening ceremony when the game first loads, with its bombastic anthem playing in the background as the torch-carrying athlete runs towards the huge Olympic cauldron and lights a fire that looks and acts like real fire, as doves fly by the fluttering flags in the background! And such was the depth of attention to detail throughout the game, this was just the first of many incredible first impressions you’d be getting for hours to come!

Epyx had released Winter Games earlier in 1985, and it followed the previous year’s Summer Games and then its 1985 sequel, neither of which I’d ever played, but distinctly remember being very impressed by in one of my earlier copies of Computer & Video Games magazine – actually, I think it was the great-looking fire from the opening ceremony that got me in that advert screenshot too!

Now, I recently responded to a Facebook post about albums where you never skipped a track… I was aghast that people actually did that! I mean, I was never a big fan of Round and Round on Spandau Ballet’s Parade album, but I’d have never dreamt of skipping it! I could say the same about Kiss on Prince’s album of the same name. If you’re playing an album you’re playing an album! Especially when it’s on vinyl and skipping involves a steadier hand than you’d need removing the funny bone in Operation if you don’t want to scratch your disc up! And anyone that’s played Winter Games knows exactly where I’m going with this diatribe!

Once you’d torn yourself away from the opening ceremony, there were a very generous seven events included in Winter Games. You had Hot Dog, where you did ski tricks off a ramp. Then there was Biathlon, which was all about skiing speed versus breath control to make sure your shooting bits were up to scratch. The big glamour event was Ski Jump, with its massive ramp and massive tension as you fly past some of the game’s most beatiful scenery. After that you’ve got the rhythmic joystick waggling of the Speed Skating event. Another glamour event was the unique Bob Sled with its big turns and big crashes. And then there was Figure Skating (Spandau’s Round and Round)… And then there was Free Skating (Prince’s Kiss)! In one you had to do a set number of tricks and in the other you could do what you wanted but it went on longer. Which wasn’t ideal, but regardless of the ability to play individual events or some events and completely avoid these two stinkers for the rest of your life, it was not an option. You shall not skip the skating events!

Actually, they weren’t that bad, but when you could have had slalom or downhill or moguls or something else instead of at least one of them, and when everything else was just so cool, your heart did sink a little bit when they appeared as the next event! And as a 13-year old at the time, I didn’t play computer games to pirouette! At the time of writing my son is the same age, and if I went and suggested to him now he should turn off Fortnite and try something where he has to pirouette instead, I know what the answer would be! 

There was also a practical reason to not only play them, but to be really good at them, and that was multiplayer, and even in spite of its graphics and sounds and music, this is where Winter Games really shone! You could do an incredible 8-players turn-based, or two players simultaneous (at least in events like Speed Skating where that was practical), and with occasional help from Stephen’s sister and my brother, we caned the hell out of both to the point that Free Skating at least became critical to overall success or failure. And it’s definitely worth looking at the events from the viewpoint of the expert player (which is a viewpoint I’m rarely familiar with so need to take advantage of whenever the opportunity presents itself)!

Going in order of choosing “compete in all the events” you’re starting off with Hot Dog. This is marked out of ten, so getting ten is essential to start competitive! And to do that, you’re pressing fire to start, then doing one trick (for example a mule kick which is joystick left down) then returning the joystick to neutral and doing one somersault (for example joystick right), or doing two different somersaults, then returning back to neutral in time to land. Those tricks are all about timing though, and you’re holding the joystick in position for the duration of the trick, no more and no less!

After a little awards ceremony, national anthem and maybe one of your multi-loads that cue up the next set of events (yes, I know, but it’s a small and very bearable sacrifice), it’s Biathlon. You’re cross-country skiing across a perfectly animated little alpine stream at a nice steady rhythm onto a downhill screen which is also fairly laid-back, but you want to get three downward thrusts in to give you some speed on the uphill screen that you need to frantically waggle your joystick up and is going to completely ruin your breathing, highlighted by an increasingly fast-beating heart indicator. This is important because every few screens you’re going to be shooting five targets (down, up, shoot, down, up shoot…), and the higher your pulse, the less accurate you’ll be. This event is all about overall time, with each missed target giving you a five second penalty, but you shouldn’t be missing anything so whether or not you’ve taken the lead after the second event is going to be about tenths of seconds.

That’s your fun over for a while because now it’s Figure Skating! As I said, it’s not that bad, but it’s just so very bland compared to other events. Most of the screen is ice white, with some crowds behind some flags scrolling by at the very top, though I have to say that the music – which wouldn’t be out of place in a Robocop game – is fantastic! Your execution of the mandated tricks is going to be down to how well you judge foot positions and the little shadow that signifies where your skater is jumping or spinning or whatever. I am being really harsh here again though, because the absolutely stunning character animation is far more useful for getting your timing right than the also well animated shadow alone! Anyway, do your sixty second routine with enough double-axels and triple-lutzes without falling over and the honours for this event should be even with maximum points all around as you get back onto the mountain!

Ski Jump is going to be most people’s favourite event. It looks great and it’s skilful, but it’s also unpredictable and is somewhere else where you’re going to need to score points! You start in a tower at the top of this enormous ramp, then a second fire button press as close to the end of the ramp as you dare is going to launch you onto the jump proper screen, with its wonderfully vibrantly coloured ski resort welcoming you at the bottom. Once you’re in the air, it’s all about the keeping your posture as perfect as possible to get the maximum distance, with continous joystick adjustments of your little man shown in close up in a second screen in the top right as you see him flying through the air in the background. If the skis are crossed, joystick down, leaning back too far, joystick right and so on. The longer your posture is good, the further you’ll go, and the more likely the next anthem played will be yours. Which would probably be the same as your opponent’s too if you’re sat in their bedroom unless you’re trying to be cool and choose USA instead of UK…

Now we’re Speed Skating. I always found this a bit disconcerting because youv’e got four lanes for four racers but I’m sure you only ever saw two of them at the end, and regardless of whether or not you won I’m also sure one of them was always in front on you. I might be overthinking my memories though, and regardless this was a lot of fun, especially because in simultaneous two-player play you’ve got a very clear and instant winner (if you ignore the other two)! You’re waggling your joystick rhythmically rather than especially frantically to try and get your speed guage to the max and keep it there, but actually this one is all about getting the best possible start. Of all the events, this one just feels really good once you’re in the zone.

Just Free Skating between you and the home stretch now! Precisely two minutes of Free Skating… This is like the other skating event, where you’re looking at big air and perfect landings care of a well-timed press of fire when the shadows are right for decent points, though you’re going to want to perfectly transition from pirouette to sitting piroutte with perfect timing for the best possible points! This is free style so you’re needing to do a decent mix of tricks and transitions, and because it’s less prescribed than the other skating event, it’s not all about both of you making sure of maximum points so don’t fall over now!

Of all the events on offer here, Bob Sled is probably the most memorable to me. By which I mean I can still hear in my mind the swish as you hit the corners, and feel exactly how hard do push that joystick from middle to left or right! Half the screen is taken up by an overhead view of your progress on the course, but you’re going to be staring intently at the other half, anticipating the glorious 3D turns with a bang of the joystick to the left, then a bang to the right, and don’t forget that double right at the end. And even more glorious is you and your fellow players watching that all-important big stopwatch underneath you! This one is over in less than 22 seconds, but play this game enough and it’s going to boil down everything that’s happened in the half an hour or so before it into that short period of time, and as the final standings appear, someone it going to be jumping up and down on the bed like a loon, and someone is going to be trying desperately to be sensible with the Atari joystick still in their hands!!!

Winter Games was baked into the wonderful C64 Mini, so around 2018 I did eventually own my own copy (complete with that clunky old-school joystick we used to use), but naturally, when I got a Spectrum long before that I had Winter Games there too, and became just about perfect at everything all over again! And while it doesn’t look or sound quite as good (and that all important skating shadow is completely missing in action), it still looks and sounds very good, and most importantly plays just as perfectly.

As an aside, around the same time I also got a very similar game called Winter Sports, which did have downhill and slalom skiing, and ice hockey too, and it was a lot of fun, but in a world where Games existed with all of its polish, just wasn’t enough fun to be in the mix for what I’d later consider to be in my top five favourite sports games ever. Or, indeed, one of my top two winter sports games ever… Sorry Winter Games, you might beat Horace in the tree department, but with its lack of ice skates, SSX 3 on my PlayStation 2 and my GameCube just edges it!

My Life With… Milk Race – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Milk Race – ZX Spectrum

Nothing says 1987 like the Milk Race. Except maybe Lethal Weapon. And Robocop. And U2. And big storms in the south of England that meant we spent an afternoon in the school sports hall watching Clash of the Titans instead of lessons. But anyway, apart from those, round-Britain pro-am cycling extravaganza the Milk Race was a big deal! To put it into context, Tour de France was a song by Kraftwerk, but everyone knew the Milk Race – in no small part, simply due to it being televised, and at the time there wasn’t a huge amount of early evening viewing choice. Just like snooker in its BBC Two 18.5 million viewer heyday a couple of years earlier.

However, unlike snooker, the Milk Race can be traced all the way back to 1945, and the Victory Cycling Marathon from Brighton to Glasgow. It would soon attract the News of the World newspaper as a sponsor, then the Sporting Record, then the Daily Express until they decided to put their money into a new sport called Formula 1 motor-racing instead. In 1954, Quaker Oats got in on the act until their breakfast bowl bedfellows the Milk Marketing Board took over in 1958, and that partnership would go on for another 35 years until 1993, when they got wound up because of pesky European monopoly laws. And as that takes us well beyond our start date of 1987, I think this completely unplanned history of the Milk Race, its politics and its sponsors can come to a close! Except to say that nowadays you’d be right to think its now called the Tour of Britain.

Despite all of its relative popularity, and despite the £1.99 budget price tag, I still wonder how confident Mastertronic were when they signed off on a niche game about a niche sport. But I suppose that once it was on the shelves the inlay looked pretty cool, the screenshots suitably conveyed its likeness to what you could see on telly, and the blurb did its best! “In May cycling nations from all over the world send their best competitors to England for the 1000 mile trek…” And there wasn’t much more you could ask for when you were staring at cassette boxes in your local games emporium, desperate to spend your pocket money.

The most fun you’ll have is in the first stage (which is lucky because unless you get serious it’s where you’ll spend all your time) where you’ve got forty or so riders in front of you and you get a real sense of being in the pack. It’s also much harder to position yourself to pick up milk from either side of the road, which is how you’re going to keep your energy bar topped up enough to manage all those hills and keep up a decent enough speed to make your way fowards.

Stay near one edge or the other and you should be able to pick up milk regularly enough, so just  keep an eye on your gears and speed when you’re going uphill and energy won’t be too much of a problem for most of the race. 

After a couple of stages you should be somewhere near the lead and you just need to stay there or thereabouts, which shouldn’t be too much of a problem for a while. Actually the only problem you’ll now have is the cars that don’t just drive by you, but might decide to swerve up and down the whole width of the road – this is the only way you’re not going to stay in the lead for now…

That’s until you get to stage 12 of 13 because for some reason the Milk Race has apparently run out of milk! And where the other riders couldn’t steal it away from you fast enough in the early stages, they couldn’t care less about the lack of it now and will sail past you as you panic about conserving energy, and you watch that top three position you’ve now held through most of the race dwindle away. And that’s not the only thing to be in a panic about, because there’s no way you’re completing a time trial with enough energy left to finish the next stage though the mountainous region that is apparently Chelmsford to Milton Keynes! What a treat to have Milton Keynes featured so prominently in a game in 1987 though…

This penultimate stage is all about luck. The gradients you’re going up and (sometimes) down throughout the game seem to be randomly generated. If you’re lucky here you’ll avoid any really nasty slopes, avoid the ridiculous swerving cars, and have enough after the time trial to trundle to the finish in the top few.

The milk’s still off the menu in the final stage around the streets of the capital, but this is short and you’re unlikely to be in first place at the start, so you’re just going flat out to get back in front before you get to the finish. Again, assuming the gradient gods allow!

Then you have one of the most anticlimactic endings to a game ever. Mainly because it’s not the end – after your 1000 mile trek, win, lose or draw, if you get there it’s just a Race Over message and you’re starting stage one again!

I always thought the game captured England (if not central London specifically in the last stage) in 1987 perfectly, with its monochrome hills, housing estates, shops and churches scrolling pretty smoothly by in the background at a decent lick, and brightly coloured spectators right in the foreground flying by slightly less smoothly. The completely monochrome cyclists, while all looking the same, move along equally well, with a nice sense of speed coming from the simple animations in the detailed wheel and pedal movements. Just don’t think too hard about the size of the bottles of milk at the side of the road!

The user interface at the top gives you a clear view of your all-important energy and the current gradient so you don’t need to take your eyes off the road, then look a bit harder and you’ve got speed, gears and position, and bizzarely a score, though given the ending I guess that explains why! Whilst there’s not much sound going on during the race stages themselves, there is one of the better examples of Spectrum chip-tunes on the between-stage map!

I remember Crash magazine being down on this game. Too simple, too tedious, and didn’t justify the price tag. (Yes, that’s the £1.99 price tag)! But I’ve always been a cycling fan, Milk Race or not, and there’d never been anything like it before so I’m glad I ignored them a took a punt. Or pint maybe.

And yes, I know. Snooker, India, 19th Century…

Crash! PC-Engine & Bimbos of the Death Sun

Crash! PC-Engine & Bimbos of the Death Sun

As a current employee of what used to be NEC Electronics, I couldn’t resist sharing this page from the August 1989 issue of Crash magazine. But I’m really not sure what caught my eye first – a very unexpected “advert” from NEC in a Spectrum magazine, or the the proper advert it shares the page with for Bimbos of the Death Sun! Actually, it was the latter, but I think they both deserve a bit of attention…

I started working for Japanese electronics monster NEC just under 12 years after this was published, but you’d still see occasional material with this old, very Japanese logo, especially when you visited one of the two offices I used to frequent in Tokyo. As well as being very Japanese, I really had to laugh at how typically corporate the message on this advert was, even though the readership of Crash was mainly kids who owned Spectrums – if we did it now, I’m sure it wouldn’t be all that different either!

This is all about the PC Engine, and how “NEC Corporation, NEC Home Electronics Ltd, and NEC (UK) Ltd (collectively ‘NEC’ hereafter)” didn’t want it being sold in the UK. Therefore, you need to know it’s not compatible with our old European PAL TV’s, and if it is then it’s been surreptitiously modded by someone that shouldn’t be selling it to you regardless, and if anything goes wrong with it, tough!

Obviously, it probably wouldn’t be wise for me to offer too many more opinions than I have already, but all the same, this is such a wonderful snapshot of the transition from our beloved 8-bit machines to 16-bit computers and consoles. I’d just about moved to my Atari ST at the time, but I do remember the PC Engine was a very exotic-looking piece of kit, with its exotic-looking arcade ports and just generally stunning graphics in screenshots. I also remember it seeming very expensive to own, even once you’d got hold of a console you could actually connect to your telly!

In hindsight, through emulation then much more recently my beloved PC-Engine Mini, it’s also become the one machine I wish I’d owned at the time, but personal favourites like the wonderful Devil’s Crush, Pac-Land and Victory Run, and all the other stuff it’s probably better known for, are maybe stories for another day!

What I can offer an opinion on is the second advert, featuring “MURDER MOST FUN!” with Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb. Firstly, why has this never been made into a movie? You might be surprised to hear that in 1988, this won the Edgar Award for Best  Original Paperback Mystery, though apparently it was less well received from the sci-fi and fantasy scene it parodied. And in that case, I assume it parodied it very well.

It’s all about a nerd convention called Rubicon, where the guest of honour Viking fantasy author, Appin Dungannon, gets murdered with a bullet through the heart. Everyone hates him, so who done it is anyone’s guess, but according to the back of the book, fellow author James Owens Mega, “…dons the role of Dungeon Master, and solves this uproarious whodunit in the ultimate Dungeons & Dragons role-playing climax!”

It’s still in print (and digital), and apart from some out-dated technology references, seems to still be pretty much spot-on in terms of nerd culture and their stinky gatherings, as well as being a decent pulpy thriller.

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.