My Life With… Mini Munchman – Handheld

My Life With… Mini Munchman – Handheld

For all of my history with Pac-Man, I don’t actually have a great deal of history with Pac-Man the arcade game. I mean, I’ve played it and its sequels and its spin-offs loads over the years, and I’m not bad at it, but for me Pac-Man has always been about Pac-Man rather than Pac-Man! Make sense? Of course not…

Like everyone else, I was certainly aware of Pac-Man when The Animated Series came along in 1982, but that’s where I became a fan. Thanks Roland Rat Superstar! I went into huge detail on that when I went into huge detail on its video game spin-off, Pac-Land, here, which is not only my favourite Pac-Man game (yes, I know, the heresy, but there’s even more to come…), but also one of my top five favourite arcade games ever, and probably the single game I’ve spent the most time playing across the most systems, from Spectrum to Atari Lynx and Atari ST to PC Engine. I love it!

The “proper” Pac-Man game I’ve played the most would be Pac-Man 256 on iOS. This came out in 2016, and is an endless runner inspired by the level 256 glitch on the original Pac-Man, where you’re moving Pac-Man up a vertically scrolling maze that plays a lot like original Pac-Man, with a lot of strategic depth from the different ghost’s AI, and risk-reward from the lure of chaining together continuous dot pick-ups, power-ups and power pill collection with the glitch on your tail. It was addictive as hell, I ended up way higher on the online leaderboards than is usual for me, and then it came crashing down with a load of free-to-play mechanics. Hell of a lot of fun while it lasted though!

Speaking of free-to-play, it can be done right, as 2021’s battle royale take, Pac-Man 99, demonstrates almost perfectly. We had a bit of a rough start, and I really didn’t appreciate having to buy a skin when it turned out I kept getting into the top ten then dying because of a red enemy Pac-Man on the black background that I couldn’t see because no settings compensated for my very common red-black colourblindness… But the skin was a Xevious one, and it was cheap, and the game was free, and it’s a really, really good competitive multiplayer take on the classic core mechanics (with a bit of Championship Edition thrown in). And it’s really, really addictive, so I’m going to begrudgingly forgive it and say that at the time of writing, it’s about number eight in my top ten games of the year so far.

What about favourite proper, proper Pac-Man ever though? The one with mazes and dots and ghosts… It’s not Pac-Man, or Ms. Pac-Man, Super Pac-Man, Pac & Pal or even Pac-Mania (although the Atari ST version of that comes pretty close). In fact, my favourite doesn’t have ghosts in it, or even Pac-Man! Just aliens, or to be more specific, Alien. On Atari 2600. You’re having a wander around your ship, Nostromo, investigating weird sounds that turn out to be alien eggs being laid around its maze-like hull. And apart from a flamethrower and a Frogger-style bonus stage, it’s a really pure version of Pac-Man, in a very Atari 2600 way, and is far better than the original on there! I wrote a load about that too here, and yeah, I know, but it’s my favourite Pac-Man and you can’t stop me!!!

When Pac-Man: The Animated Series came along, I don’t even remember seeing the original arcade game anywhere, let alone playing it, but I definitely remember the first Pac-Man I did play. Kind of! Apart from Donkey Kong, in the early eighties Wild West of video games, I reckon Pac-Man got cloned more than anything else. As well as the aforementioned Alien on Atari 2600, it had Bank Heist, Lock ‘n Chase and Mouse Trap. The early home computers were at it too! There was Gobbler and Dung Beetles on Apple II, as well as Taxman, which ended up becoming one of the first officially licensed versions after a bit of legal argy-bargy with Atari. The Atari 8-bit had Jawbreaker and Ghost Hunter; there was KC Munchkin, Scarfman, Snake Attack and Munch Man on those weird Texas Instruments computers that no one ever wanted. The ZX81 had pac rabbit, and on the VIC-20 I’d have Jelly Monsters a couple of years later, although Hungry Horace on the Spectrum is probably my favourite old clone! There were loads more as the Spectrum and Commodore 64 began to dominate, but remember that before them we’re still in that period when home computers were still science fiction for most of us, and the best we could get was an electronic handheld or tabletop version, so we’ve got a ton of clones to look at over there too!

Most of the ones I know were gazed at longingly every time a new Argos catalogue came out… The starting point was actually a licensed tabletop Pac-Man (or Puck-Man in America) by Tomy in 1981, but this led to what might be the first clone, when Grandstand licensed the technology from them that very same year, but they didn’t license the Pac-Man name itself, so here in the UK we got Munchman… Complete with Pac-Man art on the box, but as I said, Wild West, and you could still mostly get away with it. And as you might have guessed, we’re going to come back to Munchman (not to be confused with Munch Man) very soon.

Also in 1981, there was PacMan2 from Entex, who were no strangers to the courts after their handheld versions of Space Invaders and Galaxian, although they did briefly end up with a license. Anyway, this one had a cool (if not entirely practical) two-player mode with individual controllers on opposing sides of the game. A year later they released another similar one, Turtles, which had you rescuing six turtles around the maze, and you both had actual little joysticks this time that were just crying out to get snapped off! Likewise, Tandy’s Ogre Eater had a prominent joystick that was almost lost on the huge case it came in! One of the best tabletop versions also arrived in 1982 from Gakken with Puck Monster, and as well as being a great version, it has a great-looking multicoloured LED screen too. There was even a watch and game (as opposed to Game & Watch) that year, with Tomy Watchman: Monster Hero; a simple Pac-Man game that wasn’t branded as Pac-Man when it initially released even though they owned the rights, but that did change when it eventually arrived in America.

And now we conclude our tour by going back to 1981, and Epoch’s Epoch Man (also known as Pak Pak Man) handheld, where you’re guiding your little not-Pac-Man around a little maze with two charming, rustic bridges, collecting fruit and avoiding ghosts. Like lots of Epoch games, it was licensed to German handheld company Schuco where it was given a wider screen and rebadged as Pocket Pac Man – sometimes referred to as Pocket C-Man, because instead of the world “Pac” they used a picture of a Pac-Man that also looks a bit like the letter C, and I guess either avoided or solved any legal complications. And then in the UK it was picked up by Grandstand, who seem to have just taken the design wholesale, made it yellow and rebadged it Mini Munchman. And here we are!

I reckon my brother Phil got his Mini Munchman either for Christmas 1982, when I think I got my Snoopy Tennis Game & Watch, or as a birthday present the following June; it was quite possibly the latter because he also had Bandai’s Missile Invader, and that might have been the Snoopy Tennis equivalent when we were both getting presents… Absolutely awesome Space Invaders clone that I’d completely forgotten about until just now, and seems like you can pick up for a not outrageous price, although with all of its little recesses you’ll be lucky not to be doing some cleaning of decades old sweat and crumbs! And now that thought is in my head I know that we might come back to this at some point soon! Needless to say, all three of those games were a hit with both of us. It really is hard to imagine now that we’d never seen anything like this before, let alone owned anything like it – the nearest you’d come was mechanical stuff like Tomy’s Pocketeers or my beloved Demon Driver. From about 1982 to 1984 though, these were the kings of playground status symbols, and everyone used to love the last day of term at school when you could bring in toys, and we’d all be queueing up for a go on Cavemans and Scrambles, Turtle Bridges and Donkey Kongs! Then after 1984 it was all Walkmans and Kappa tracksuits!

There was always something both exotic and fragile about these LCD games, in no small part down to the warnings that used to come with them, coupled with the mysterious liquid crystal itself and the subsequent tales of friends of friends with burnt skin after touching it! This comes from the yellow warning paper in my Snoopy Tennis box: “The liquid crystal uses glass parts. It should not be dropped, hit or placed under pressure. Any of these can cause damage to the liquid crystal. The liquid crystal is designed as well as possible to prevent shattering of glass and leaking of liquid if the crystal is broken. If, however, liquid does contact the skin, wash immediately with soap and water.” I seem to remember the screen on our original Mini Munchman just died though, like when the battery is low and it starts fading away. And that was the end of that for quite a long time!

Unlike Missile Invader, Mini Munchman isn’t an easy game to come by now. Unless you’re prepared to pay silly money, especially for a boxed version. That box is worth it though! As much as I love the gold and silver Nintendo Game & Watch box designs, this one was proper silver, like a mirror! And like its non-Mini big brother, it’s got proper Pac-Man artwork all over its shiny surface! The other thing that was a big deal back then was that it wasn’t only an “LCD pocket arcade game” but also came with a myriad of other features, all getting almost equal billing on the box with the game itself – watch, stopwatch, lap timer, day / date and alarm. Digital clocks were still a novelty then – if you were lucky your parents might had a radio alarm clock in their bedroom with those numbers that flipped over – and this was a selling point to certain people, like the educational value of a Commodore VIC-20 would be to me a couple of years later!

Once I’d put my mind to getting a working version of this again towards the end of 2020, and after months of not wanting to spend really silly money, I did pick up an unboxed but fully working game from eBay at the top end of what I was prepared to pay. You do get what you pay for with these things though, and there is a small blemish on the liquid crystal, though it’s partially covered by the maze overlay, and once you’re playing and there’s loads of other stuff on the screen it’s pretty unobtrusive. Apart from this, theres a few tiny scuff marks where silver is poking through the matt black surface areas, but the buttons all work fine, the battery unit is in perfect condition, and the display is still very clear all over. And that brilliant, bold yellow plastic case is as brilliant and bold as it was when it was new!

Mini Munchman is a proper handheld! It’s about 7cm wide, 10cm high and a slimline just under 1cm thick. And for someone with girl’s hands like me, it’s a great fit, and was even better when I was 10 or 11 years old! And far more so than that Invader From Space beast, which, as insanely good as it was and still is, I remember laying on the floor, elbows down, with it plugged in to one of those multi-power adaptors on the floor, scared to move because if you did that dodgy power socket was switching it off mid-game for you!

The instructions for these things are always a treat! It tells you to select the game mode, which you’ll recognise because “monsters and foods are displayed in the gameboard.” After a display of your previous high score and simple intro tune, you’re starting off at the bottom-right corner of the maze, with Munchman looking out at you with a mischievous grin on his face. There’s not a great deal to talk about graphically here, but he’s always looking at you, with alternating facial expressions once you get going – open-mouthed then a kind of wiggly Halloween pumpkin smile. That’s about as far as any animation goes, with the two ghosts just moving around, one blink at a time, and the “?” bonus symbol appearing now and again. There’s a nice variety of fruit to collect though, with very recognisable and detailed pineapples, black cherries, seemingly white cherries, a bunch of grapes, bananas, strawberries and what could be apples or could be oranges, but we’ll cut it some slack there because it’s monochrome and about 2mm high!

It’s a simple concept, with four directional buttons controlling your movement around the maze. There’s about twenty fruit to collect before you move on to the next level, two of which are hidden under the bridges. Get caught by one of the ghosts and it will eat you, using up one of your four lives, though getting to 500 and 1500 points will bag you an additional Munchman. As well as the fruit, there’s two pieces of power food on the maze, and once you’ve nabbed one you’ll have five seconds to eat the ghosts, which are now blinking more deliberately than in their regular animation! Get one and it will reappear at one of the warp tunnels; there’s four of those, one in each corner, but only two are ever open at the same time, so you need to keep an eye on those opening and closing, especially when you’re a few levels in and everything’s moving a bit quicker! Anyway, eating monsters quickly is the key to a big score – the first one is 10 points, but keep eating them and they’ll be worth 30 points, 50 points, 70 points and so on. In theory, because you’re never doing that! You get a nice double-beep for catching a ghost too, but otherwise the sound is just a beep for going over fruit. All perfectly simple and perfectly pleasant…

And that’s a perfect summary of the game as a whole! It’s a very pure version of Pac-Man, and that core mechanic works as well on a small-scale maze like this as it does on a bigger one, whether the original game, Pacmania or Championship Edition DX+. It may sound ridiculous, but those two bridge overlays really give this version something unique, resulting in some great up, down, over and under interplay with the ghosts when you’re out of power pellets. And like the best Pac-Men, once you’re in the zone with a fix on how the ghosts are moving, this is as addictive as hell, and when you’re a few levels in and things start moving at crazy speeds, your brain is moving at the same speed, and it’s a real rush! Then it’s all over and it’s going to tease you with that high score as that intro music starts again, and those sweaty fingerprint ridges are starting to appear on those cool protruding silver direction buttons and you’re in the Munchman Pac-Man zone, which, actually, is probably worth every penny of that silly eBay money!

Discovering BurgerTime on My Arcade, NES, Arcade and More!

Discovering BurgerTime on My Arcade, NES, Arcade and More!

As much as I always liked the look of BurgerTime when it arrived in town with the traveliing funfair a couple of times a year, it was always competing with Pole Position for those fleeting few minutes of my attention when we were allowed in its classically smoke-filled, seedy arcade. Before long, it would be competing with a sit-down Star Wars cabinet too, and by then even a spectacular 3D racer with a steering wheel and a gearstick that once blew a 10-year old’s mind was going to struggle to get another look-in!

BurgerTime was originally known as Hamburger when it was produced by Data East in Japan in 1982, but fearful of potential trademark issues, Bally Midway decided to rename it when they licensed it for Western release. Everything takes place on a single screen, where you control a little chef called Peter Pepper as he runs around six increasingly challenging mazes of ladders and platforms, creating dirty hamburgers from the ingredients lying around while avoiding various enemies, the dastardly Mr Hot Dog, Mr Egg and Mr Pickle! You create the burger by getting to the platform where one of the ingredients is placed and walking over its full length, which will cause it to drop to the level below. These include buns, patties, lettuce and sometimes tomatoes or cheese, and I’m sure they taste all the better for being trampled! If there’s another burger bit under it, then that will drop down a level too, until you’ve got them all stacked up on the bun at the bottom.

As well as avoiding the Mr men, you’re armed with a limited supply of pepper sprays, which will briefly hold them in their tracks, and extra bonuses will also appear from time to time in the form of french fries, coffee and ice creams. Dropping an ingredient on the bad guys is to be encouraged too! And once you’ve dropped all of the ingredients onto all of the burger plates (rather than the bad guys) on the screen, you can move on to the next. Complete all six screens before getting Mr Pickled with all of your lives and it will start all over again.

As stuff like Track & Field, Pac-Land, Out Run and Operation Wolf gradually evolved, running around some platforms making hamburgers and avoiding Mr Hot Dog wasn’t just not happening anymore, but was also just consigned to history! But only for a while… As well as a strangely limited number of home ports (which I’ll touch on shortly) and a much wider range of clones, such as Mr Wimpy, there were also some arcade sequels, with Peter Pepper’s Ice Cream Factory in 1984 and two-player Super BurgerTime in 1990, though I’ve never seen either in the wild; I think the latter is available on Nintendo Switch though. There was an Intellivision-only sequel called Diner too, an odd, blocky, pseudo 3D thing about kicking food down platforms! We pick up my story with BurgerTime again in 1991, but now we’re on that handheld miracle the Game Boy, under the guise of BurgerTime Deluxe.

The core gameplay loop might be the same, but the loop around six screens definitely isn’t in this version! You’ve got 24 all-new levels on Game Boy, though you’re probably going to see them all way before you see all of the arcade ones. They’re mostly quick to complete, and most are not massively difficult in comparison; you also get a password every four screens which makes your lives feel fairly expendable. There’s even more sprinkles on top though! You can get extra power ups, from chocolate, which makes you invincible (just like in real life!), to chicken nuggets that turn your enemies in hot dogs, but not Mr Hot Dogs I presume because that would be the opposite of a power-up! And we didn’t even talk about the cut scenes that tie together all of those loose ends you’ve been wondering about since 1982, or the giant donut that turns up later! It’s great to look at, with a huge amount of personality in those tiny, monochrome graphics that really make me pine for single-screen versions of Rodland and Bubble Bobble on there, and you’re also getting a jaunty take on the BurgerTime tune to keep you company and a nice variety of sound effects too. Most importantly, it feels fantastic to play, and despite the slightly easier difficulty, all the strategy is intact and moving Peter Pepper around the platform mazes is a joy.

In the intervening years since 1991, I’ve always gone back to BurgerTime Deluxe from time-to-time, but I’ve spent quite a lot of time on the NES version too. It’s a lovely port – not quite as polished as the arcade version, but it’s all present and correct, and in the absence of owning the arcade version, you can’t go wrong. My only criticism would be that it’s missing a little finesse in the controls (especially compared to Deluxe), and there’s a stickiness, especially on ladders, that you get used to, but demands a level of precision that feels like it shouldn’t be there.

The other version I know and love is the Atari 2600 port. Now, I get that there’s no need to ever play this when you have any of the other versions (though who has a Coleco Adam or an Aquarius nowadays?), but everyone should have a soft-spot for any attempt at an arcade port on there, and this is one of the better ones! As soon as you let your eyes adjust, you’ve got all the fun and all the strategy of a game of BurgerTime, and it’s as a good as it could possibly be! What’s missing, though, is any sniff of conversions for ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 or that other one. But, of course, we had some nice clones! Barmy Burgers is one I remember, but going back now it controls like a dog and it sounds weird, even for a Spectrum! There were loads more to choose from if that didn’t take your fancy though; in fact, it’s a bit like all those Bruce Lee clones you had around the same time – Bruce Le, Bruce Li, Bruce Thai, Lee Bruce… We had Burger Time, Burger Chase, BurgerSpace, Burger Boy, Chip Factory, Lunchtime, Burger Builder and Basic Burger. And probably better known than even BurgerTime in many parts, we had the mighty Ocean Software’s Mr Wimpy, of burger chain Wimpy fame! It wasn’t BurgerTime though…

I’m skipping past mobile games like 2007’s BurgerTime Delight, 2011’s 3D update BurgerTime World Tour on the consoles of the day, and the more recent BurgerTime Party on Switch from 2019 because I’ve never played any of them! Instead, we’re going to land on 9th May 2021, which was my birthday and I received a rather lovely table-top BurgerTime arcade cabinet replica from my Mum… And here finally begins a journey almost forty years in the making (and I’m not just talking about reading this post so far), the arcade version of BurgerTime! Almost, because this is actually that NES version again, but it’s worth stopping off here before we get to the “proper” arcade version!

The My Arcade BurgerTime Micro Player is fully licensed, stands at 17cm or nearly 7 inches tall, and features a quality 2.75 inch colour, backlit screen with plenty of brightness and the right amount of contrast. The design of the cabinet is very realistic – it could have just been a vague representation and no one would have complained, but this is nicely shaped, angled and proportioned, and well-built too. It’s powered by micro USB or four AA batteries, and it sounds awesome if you plug in some headphones, but for some casual play its built-in speaker sounds absolutely fine too. The glossy cabinet artwork closely resembles the original, with what appears to my eyes to be accurate imagery, but on a slightly modified layout to suit the mini cabinet dimensions and lack of coin slots and instruction panels.

There’s a big, surprisingly tactile on/off switch where the coin slots would have been at the bottom of the cabinet, and the “slots” light up red when it’s on. The control panel has a start and reset button, two buttons which both trigger the pepper spray, and a removable joystick so you can use the d-pad underneath if you prefer. Either method feels fine to me, though if I’ve got it on a table it feels slightly more natural to use the joystick than angle your fingers to the d-pad. What I really love here is that you’re in a game within two seconds of turning it on – hit start when the screen lights up and you’re away! Playing on a small scale like this does take a bit of getting used to, and it’s probably not ideal for long play sessions unless you want your hand cramping into a claw, but until it does there’s no problem zipping around the platforms and ladders. Speaking of zipping around, I have experienced a bit of slowdown a few screens in, but it’s brief when it happens and it seems to happen rarely. Just one other complaint – it doesn’t save your high scores when you turn it off!

Right, we’ve covered the arcade cabinet of sorts, now let’s cover the arcade game itself, and our final port of call, which is most definitely the original arcade version, but now we’re on the original PlayStation, and Arcade’s Greatest Hits: The Midway Collection 2. This is a really cool collection from 1997, and as well as BurgerTime, features the relatively obscure Blaster (a kind of 3D Robotron 2084 follow-up), Joust 2 (a proper follow-up), the unreleased (and very odd) competitive food-fighter Splat, and stone-cold classics Spy Hunter, Root Beer Tapper and Moon Patrol. Everything emulates really well here, and apart from a bit of time needed to get used to Spy Hunter, the PlayStation controller feels good too. The collection also includes a trivia game, which no one’s ever going to know most of the answers to, but the real fun here is in the video clips of the original game developers explaining those answers. Overall a very nice collection, as are the other volumes which include Atari and Williams classics too.

Anyway, we’re here for BurgerTime! It’s certainly a definitive version, and its interesting to play it back-to-back with the mini cabinet and the proper NES version, because there’s really not a lot in it apart from the aforementioned “finesse” to the controls, and a bit of graphical and audio clarity on top. The animation is very 1982, but I still don’t think a sesame seed burger bun has ever looked better in a game since! There’s also a surprising amount of detail in that tiny chef’s outfit, right down to the buttons, and the same for the shine on Mr Hot Dog or the highlights on Mr Pickle, though I will say that Mr Egg is a little less impressive! The audio is pure early eighties arcade too, with its shrill (in the nicest possible way) theme tune coming and going around the various sound effects and jingles.

Where this still absolutely holds up – in much the same way as its better known brethren like Pac-Man – is in its depth of gameplay. It doesn’t take long before your mind is a few seconds ahead of the action on screen, plotting out an optimum pattern that will lead enemies away from where you need a safe route to an ingredient, and even grouping them together so dropping something on them all at once gives you maximum breathing space! Like Pac-Man, you also need to avoid getting trapped between two incoming enemies, or getting stuck in a dead-end, because the only way out of these is to use your pepper spray, and ideally you don’t want to be using that until you really need to. There’s a couple of other tricks of the trade you soon get used to using – you start at the top and let gravity take the ingredients below with it; the only time you want to distract yourself with other layers is if it’s going to take a load of enemies with it. You can drop enemies down with the ingredients too, though this will involve them being on it as you stand on the last part of its length, so is a risky strategy.

The first stage is pretty straightforward, with a limited number of enemies and a limited number of platforms that you need so drop the ingredients down from, but from stage two onwards you’re being introduced to dead ends and enemy funnelling, and their numbers are going to start ramping up too! By the time you’re at stage four, your going to see eight layers of platforms to drop the hamburgers down from, and you’re going to spend most of your time trying to lead the enemies on a merry dance around the complex set of platforms just to pick off a single ingredient, so patience becomes key. The next two stages are less dense, but there’s also more dead ends and less connections between platforms, and whilst patience still applies, you can’t hang around on either of these! Apparently (because I’ve never got past stage six), this now loops until you get to 28, when the enemies go super-fast for periods and it all becomes about ducking in and out of safe zones. Which I will never need to worry about!

Absolutely wonderful game with timeless appeal, which does make me wonder why it’s not quite as consigned to history now like it seemed to have been for a while in the mid-eighties, but all the same is never mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Pac-Man and other arcade classics of the time, or even stuff like Chuckie Egg that soon followed in the same vein on the home computers… Maybe it just needed Pac-Man on some platforms instead. Or Peter Pepper should have learnt to jump!

Rediscovering Merlin on ZX Spectrum

Rediscovering Merlin on ZX Spectrum

When we were looking at The Trap Door (here), we had quite the discussion on Twitter (I may have even gone a bit viral for a moment!) about the best-looking Spectrum game – came up with quite the list too! The Trap Door obviously came out pretty well, as did stuff like R-Type, Exolon, Dan Dare, Light Force and Bomb Jack; no disagreement here so far! I discovered some absolulute corkers I’d never even heard of too, like Savage, Draconus and Astro Marine Corps, all of which possibly coincided with the arrival of my Atari ST! And we also covered a few more modern Spectrum games, like 1997’s The Dark, 2014’s Metal Man Reloaded, 2019’s Valley of Rains and the even more recent, very wonderful Wonderful Dizzy (more here!). Aside from The Trap Door, there were quite a few shouts for other Don Priestley games – the sequel, Through The Trap Door, Flunky, Benny Hill’s Madcap Chase, and probably just about as popular as The Trap Door, Popeye! I had a problem with Popeye though, because everything else (apart from Benny Hill!) looks as good in action as it does on screenshots; Popeye, on the other hand, moves like a dog, and delivers the exact amount of colour clash you’d expect a game with that much colour moving about on a Spectrum… Loads!

It’s not the first time we’ve been caught out by a screenshot though! All those VIC-20 games like Jump Jet with those beautiful Commodore 64 screenshots on the back of the box; the Spectrum wasn’t averse to those kind of shenanigans either, though we did occasionally get our own back with masterpieces like Enduro Racer! And it wasn’t the last time either, although the game missing from the list above may well have been the last time for me at least, with the aforementioned Atari ST looming large on the horizon, and that was, of course, Merlin!

There was no more effective way of selling your game than festooning it with some of the biggest and best-looking graphics you’ve ever seen and then sticking a £1.99 price tag on it, and that’s exactly what Firebird Software did with Mike Westlake’s Merlin early on in 1988. He’d still be plugging away at the Spectrum’s life support machine five year later, with a similarly big and bold pirate take on Merlin, Pieces of Eight, then another called S.A.S. Combat Assault, which appeared when the only people putting out games were Sinclair User magazine! But as good as all of them look, I’m all about his first Spectrum game, Tarantula, a 1987 cavern crawler where you’re flying about on a jetpack collecting stuff and avoiding insects, especially the giant tarantula, which is genuinely one of my favourite sights in all of gaming!

Anyway, back to getting sucked in by Merlin! I was, and whilst it’s nowhere near in the league of something like Kung-Fu Master, I distinctly remember coming home one evening from my Saturday job collecting trolleys at Sainsbury’s with this graphical powerhouse in my pocket, loading it up and just being so disappointed. Big generally isn’t beautiful, whatever wishful thinkers might say, and it also makes playing what thinks of itself as a modern-day Manic Miner an absolute stinker! We’ll get to that again, I’m sure, but however much that evening was just about all the chance I ever gave playing it, it’s always been on the tip of my tongue every time there’s talk of fancy 8-bit graphics, and over three decades on I reckoned this was the time to have another look at it, so here we are!

You might get glamorous screenshots for £1.99, but you rarely got a literary work of art to back them up, even when it’s based on one like this is! Yes, this Merlin is that Merlin! “Mystery magic and mayhem from Merlin the magnificent mage” is what the back of the box tells us; nothing else, but we are getting it in no less than seven languages! Let’s delve deep inside the inlay card instead… “Guide Merlin around the mystical Kingdom of Camelot collecting stars to recover his lost magic powers.” That’s it! No heavyweight medieval romances here, just wander about and collect some stars. For £1.99 I’m not even going to point out that the legendary Camelot is a castle and court, not a kingdom, though given that everything happens in a little castle and its spooky garden, I think we’re all square anyway!

I know I’ve come across as a little dismissive so far, but let’s be clear, once you get past the slightly ropey loading screen, this game is absolutely stunning to look at! It really is up there with me, The Trap Door and the rest as one of the best-looking things you’ll ever see on a Spectrum. It’s not just Merlin that’s massive, it’s everything. Except the castle! But everything else – the suits of armour (or are they actual knights standing about?); the intricate tables and chairs and bookcases; the lecterns holding a literal literary heavyweight; the giant fish that lives in the moat and the oversized barrels of booze in the cellar… all enormous! In the middle of the castle, you’ve got King Arthur’s Round Table, and we know it’s this and not any old table because it’s written in big capital letters on the side – twice – like some kind of old brand logo. Makes me laugh every time! The colour palette is classic Spectrum, but there’s an awful lot of it, with beautifully detailed magenta brickwork, some exquisite red woodwork and a subtly shaded bright green pikeman!

We could say all of that about Popeye though, so how is it in motion? Given that Merlin’s probably an old man, his stiff movement is forgivable, although he’s quick on his feet – too quick for something that relies on a bit of precision a lot of the time! That said, a lot of the stiffness of movement is very much down to the lack of animation – apart from bending his knees to either duck or jump, I’m not convinced there’s any whatsoever! He’s either facing left or right and there might be a bit of movement in his feet, but even despite his enormous size, it’s really hard to tell! There’s so many objects in so many colours everywhere, there’s an awful lot of the time that you won’t really be able to see Merlin at all, which, again, isn’t always ideal for this kind of game! And all of those colours do exactly what you think they will; there’s some glorious colour clash here! I think my favourite examples are any time his bright blue wizard’s hat goes past anything (which is a lot of the time given his size), and when he moves behind the red, green and yellow bookcases and almost completely disappears – all you can see is a total merging of the sprites as he moves across them, Predator style. Actually, with a lick of paint this could have been even better than the actual Predator game that I think came out at exactly the same time!

The sound is a bit grating. The unrelenting classic Spectrum footstep noise is just about tolerable, but there’s these higher-pitched, almost nasal versions of it for some of the enemies which are really annoying, or quieter versions for others, which range from big insects to ghosts to living broomsticks, though these are mostly normal game size, which is a little odd when you’re in one of the few less cluttered environments, but they mostly move about in an inoffensive way. Which isn’t the case for some of the other sound effects – the squelchy beep as you catch a star, or the squelchier one when you lose a life and the more high pitched variant when you’re just losing life force. It’s all just a bit of a cacophony of annoying Spectrum sounds! The title screen music isn’t much better – if I had to write a game theme, I reckon it would sound like this – random notes until you get a hint of a melody, then speed things up and repeat it!

I’m not sure how many screens make up the seemingly small castle of the kingdom of the Camelot, but I reckon around thirty. There’s absolutely no variety in the gameplay no matter which direction you go and how many you make it through though – you’ll have a bunch of stars to collect on each one, which will involve some light jumping and ducking, and some pixel perfect avoiding of enemies that are usually synchronised to make anything less than pixel perfect mean either loss of life force or instant death. I never did work out which enemies would cause which outcome, but you’ll soon find out why you start with ten lives and a life force meter for each one! As we’ve already hinted at, regardless of you being an overly fast but ultimately stiff giant, that pixel perfect thing really gets most problematic when you’re going all Predator in the colour clash jungle of death and you can’t actually tell where he is in relation to the baddies! And that’s the major fun-sucker here.

In the end, all those wonderful graphics are Merlin’s downfall. Too big, too much, and whilst a bit of all fur coat and no knickers can go a long way in delaying such simple gameplay quickly running out of steam, in this case it just serves to accelerate it. But for all it lacks in any kind of long-term fun, I probably got my £1.99’s worth out of bringing it up over the years every time I get the chance to talk about the best-looking game on the Spectrum!

My Life With… The Trap Door – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… The Trap Door – ZX Spectrum

FRANKIE SAYS that there’s all sorts of reasons why 1984 is the greatest year in the history of history! It was the be-all and end-all for pop music, from the majesty of Purple Rain to the stadium new romanticism of Spandau and Duran; when people talk about eighties music, what they mean is music from 1984! The arcades were evolving from sci-fi distraction to creating fantasies, from wartime aerial dogfighting in 1942 to being Bruce Lee in Kung-Fu Master in the arcades; we weren’t doing too badly at home either, with a non-stop parade of what would become all-time greats, from Jet Set Willy to Knight Lore to Elite. When the games got kicked off of the TV for the evening, Miami Vice introduced the world to the eternal definition of being cool, and Airwolf and Blue Thunder fought for helicopter supremacy. Over in the cinema, the classics just didn’t stop – Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones, Police Academy, Gremlins, The Terminator, Ghostbusters… And, of course, This is Spinal Tap became the last word in movie comedy, forever cemented in my top ten favourite films ever!

We’re only scratching the surface too! What about Wham and Van Halen, Radio Ga-Ga and Big in Japan, Pac-Land and Hyper Sports, Sabre Wulf, Moon Fleet, Fraggle Rock, Karate Kid, Romacing the Stone, Footloose, Footloose, kick off your Sunday Shoes…? And don’t forget, we’re still in prime A-Team, Knightrider, Dukes of Hazzard and ITV World of Sport Wrestling territory, and we’ve got 2000AD and Eagle, and the FA Cup Final is still a big event, and there’s the LA Olympics to look forward to, and Do They Know It’s Christmas… Okay, I get it, that last one’s got you convinced and I don’t need to go on! I was 12 in 1984, and there’s no doubt that this cultural tsunami is why I am what I am today, and, combined with an emerging taste for the weird and horrific, it’s also why I was perfectly positioned to completely fall in love with another new TV show that year, The Trap Door!

“Somewhere in the dark and nasty regions, where nobody goes, stands an ancient castle. Deep within this dank and uninviting place, lives Berk, overworked servant of the thing upstairs – “Berk! Feed Me!” – but that’s nothing compared to the horrors that lurk beneath the trap door, for there is always something down there, in the dark, waiting to come out…”

What I didn’t appreciate at the time, but with the benefit of a horror collector’s hindsight can very much appreciate now, is that this was a parody of the introductions Vincent Price used to do at the start of his horror movies like The Haunted Palace and The House on Hanted Hill. Slightly more child-friendly, we were then treated to the iconic theme tune, which was penned by none other than the guy who wrote then equally iconic Shakin’ Stevens’ Merry Christmas Everyone – “Don’t you open that trapdoor, you’re a fool if you dare! Stay away from that trapdoor, ’cause there’s something down there…”

What follows is a stop-motion plasticine animation set in the gothic psychedelia of the aforementioned ancient castle – we’re stylistically somewhere between the simplicity of Tony Hart’s Morph that we already knew and loved, and those dreadful Wallace and Gromit things, which some of the team here would actually go on to be involved in. Most of the action takes place in the castle pantry and cellar, where Berk, a big blue blob from the West Country lives with Boni, an intellectual talking skull, and his pet spider Drutt. Then there’s his master, The Thing Upstairs, who we never actually see but in most episodes he’s ordering Berk to make him food, fix things or clean him; and in most episodes, these orders spark some kind of misadventure involving Berk opening The Trap Door, which shuts out the monsters and “horrible things” living in the caverns below.

As an aside, even though we never see The Thing Upstairs, the clues are there if you pay attention… There’s sponge-like tentacles in a flash of lightning in one episode; Berk also refers to his three eyes and later asks which of his heads is suffering from toothache; we also see bits of him – that sore tooth comes out and is more than half the size of Berk, and at one point one of his eyes ends up in The Trap Door, and that’s almost as big as him; there’s also references to three humps and having wings, which we hear beating at one point. Anyway, the sort of thing you’d probably jump through monstrous hoops for!

Creators Terry Brain and Charlie Mills, supported by the instantly recognisable voice talents of Willie Rushton, gave us 25 episodes of The Trap Door, which if I remember rightly ran on weekday evenings on ITV to begin with, then on one of their Saturday morning shows, and lasted about 5 minutes each. There was a second series, but not until 1990, and as far as I know those episodes were mostly re-hashes of the first one, but being 18 at the time I was probably more into Sarah Greene on Going Live on Saturday mornings! Actually, I’d have been collecting trolleys for Sainsbury’s in Bedford, but that’s far less exotic than Sarah Greene! Anyway, back in 1984, two years later we’d finally get The Trap Door game of the cartoon, released by Piranha Games on ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC, and written by none other than Don Priestley, who by this time had made a bit of a name for himself – especially on the Spectrum – for really groundbreaking oversized and very colourful graphics. I think a friend’s copy of Popeye was one of the very first games I played on my Spectrum +2, and I was just blown away by these enormous, detailed sprites that really brought one of my favourite comic strips to life, even if they didn’t move so well and the game wasn’t really that much fun to play! But you can see the seeds sown in the not dissimilar but even less fun predecessor Benny Hill’s Madcap Chase starting to grow into something that might end up really good!

And in 1986, The Trap Door evolved his signature format into something really good that didn’t just drag the Spectrum kicking and screaming way beyond its normal limits to perfectly nail the look of the cartoon, but captured the essence of what made it so engaging too, masterfully transporting its plot mechanics into solid puzzle-solving gameplay mechanics. Like the cartoon, you as Berk are grudgingly carrying out the orders of The Thing Upstairs, but there’s an end game – a safe full of loot – if you successfully carry out five increasingly bizarre tasks in the harder but more rewarding Super Berk mode, or four in the easier but lower scoring Learner Berk mode. You need to do them quickly and accurately before his anger boils over, sending your completeed offerings Upstairs on the dumb waiter in the hope that The Thing accepts it. As you might have guessed, each of these tasks is going to involve opening up that Trap Door and letting out one of the ‘orrible monstrosities that lurk down there, which, if you’re lucky, is going to play a role in in completing it. And if you’re not lucky, you’re going to have to get rid of it (somehow!) before you either run out of time or worse. If that wasn’t bad enough, having the trap door open in Super Berk mode risks letting spooks out, and like everything else in Berk’s world, they’re hungry and the only way to get rid of them is to feed them whatever you have at hand (even your mate Boni!) before they do you mischief.

There’s more to Boni than being ghost-bait though, and if you pick him up he’ll sometimes give you a clue on what to do next. Drutt the spider isn’t quite so useful though, generally getting in the way as he hops around trying to catch worms to eat. Apart from that, you’re relying in The Thing Upstairs to tell you what he wants, then finding whatever it is you need to give it to him. These will be scattered around the place, and you’re going to have to work out what’s needed and when, then how to use it and what monster you’re going to need to complete it. The first mission gently introduces you to this multi-dimensional puzzling… You need to send up a can of worms, so you’re going to find a can in the kitchen and take it back to the room with The Trap Door, which you’re going to open to release some worms then try and catch before Drutt eats them. Get a couple in the can and that’s it, you can put them in the dumb waiter and send them up to your master.

Obviously, things soon get more complicated! You’ll be working out how to transport small eyeballs so you can grow them into bigger ones in plant pots before getting them into a vat so one of the monsters can crush them; you’ll be using fire-breathing robots to roast slimes; you’ll be using The Trap Door (sorry, has to be capitals!) to fling bullets or anything else at hand at bizarre birds that, after a load more equally bizarre steps, will end up as fried eggs, and so on. There’s some strategy at play with this puzzle solving as well though; The Thing Upstairs’ anger is measured by an anger meter, and you need to get stuff done before it gets too high, but once you know what you’re doing with the puzzles, you can use any time left over to maximise your score. For example, you might want to start those eyeballs growing or move objects to the locations they’ll need to be used in later before you send your current delicacy up in the dumb waiter. Get your four or five tasks done and it’s time to tidy up, which involves throwing everything down into The Trap Door, then working out how to open the safe and taking your place as a true Super Berk!

Learner Berk mode is definitely where you want to cut your teeth, learning the layout of the castle’s six screens and  just enjoying being there for a while as you work out the puzzles without stuff trying to kill you. The puzzles do require a bit of lateral thinking, but this isn’t Monkey Island, and a lot of the objects can be used in a variety of ways, so if for some reason you’ve lost the thing that might have been best-suited to doing something, you’ll most likely have a back-up if you give it a bit of thought. The game might be 35 years old at the time of writing, but I’m not going to spoil it too much more than this because its complex logic still deserves your attention way more than that! But it does involve a lot of moving a huge sprite up and down and left and right, manipulating objects and shoving them around, and where this game really deserves credit it the way it makes this so easy, almost guiding you in as you approach an item or a door. Super Berk mode is going to ramp up the difficulty, adding far more danger even if you are repeating a lot of what you’ve done before, but it’s also where you’re going to have the most fun, juggling escaping monsters breathing fire at you while avoiding the ghosts and trying to collect worms before your pet spider eats them all with that anger meter counting down in the background! And unlike Benny Hill and even, though it’s always pained me to say it, my beloved Popeye, for all its bells and whistles, The Trap Door really is fun!

But what bells and whistles they are though! There were a couple of times I remember the Spectrum going bigger later, for example that dreadful Merlin game, but apart from maybe its sequel and spiritual follow-up Flunky, I’m not sure the Spectrum ever got bolder. We should also mention that for all of those huge sprites, that would sometimes take up about a third of the screen, and all of that boldness, and all of that colour in them, there’s barely any colour clash. It really is a remarkable achievement, especially when you compare it to the other versions – not sure about the Amstrad, but the C64 actually had worse colour clash; actually, I always found that struggled a bit in comparison on most fronts, closer in performance to Spectrum Popeye than Spectrum Trap Door. The animation was impeccable too, with a smoothness that defied the sheer scale of some of the monsters especially, and you’d often just sit back and watch like it was a cartoon as Drutt and all the little nasties just wandered about doing their own thing; it really brought the characters to life too, providing a level of individuality to everything that moved! There were some great looking games on the Spectrum – Starglider, Exolon, Merlin, Savage, R-Type, Bomb Jack, Lightforce, and not forgetting Popeye of course… but if you’re talking visual aesthetics as a complete package, I’m not sure anything tops The Trap Door.

There’s not a huge amount going on sound-wise once you’re in the game, but before that there’s an occasionally bombastic rendition of the theme tune on the title screen! If only the Spectrum had even a bit of the Mega Drive’s finesse when it comes to drum sounds! Then it’s just a few blips and beeps as you open doors and pull levers, accompanied by a few more that act as audio highlights when Drutt is bouncing around, for example. It’s a little sparse, but less is often more when it comes to 48K Spectrum sound!

I think Don Priestley’s Flunky appeared before the sequel proper in 1987, but being utterly indifferent to anything royal, I gave it a miss then and still give it a miss now! From what I understand it was a similar affair, but in Buckingham Palace rather than a cool horror castle, and from what I’ve seen it still did the business graphically! As did Through The Trap Door, which appeared later the same year, but now the gameplay is getting mixed up a bit, with you able to switch between Berk and Drutt in a single-player co-op effort to rescue Boni from inside The Trap Door. I didn’t play a massive amount of this – you could argue it’s more interesting, but for me it was more Dizzy than the cartoon I loved. Definitely worth playing for Berk’s facial animations alone though!

The Trap Door was an absolute work of art on TV, and the same can be said for the original Spectrum game at least. If you ever wanted to impress your friends with your new Spectrum, this was the game to show them! It was a lot more than immense sprites though – just think of the turgid licenses for Miami Vice, Streethawk and the like; this was a TV license done absolutely right that completely tapped into the soul of the source material! And how many puzzle games have so much longevity after you’ve solved them? Super Berk, indeed!

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 – from Video Age (VHS downstairs, Betamax upstairs) – 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!