I’m not sure I’ll ever both love and hate any game as much as I did 2017’s jaw-droppingly stylish platform adventure Hollow Knight… 50 hours splattered with vicious difficulty spikes, filthy checkpointing and regular loss of everything that constantly had my blood boiling, with two rage-deletes before it kept pulling me back to finish it! Yacht Games’ Shovel Knight did come close though, offering a more focussed but equally polished, equally brutal take on the genre. And here they are again with Cyber Shadow, which sits somewhere in the middle in terms of gameplay experience, and comes even closer in terms of love / hate ratio! This time they’re publishing though, with indie dev Mechanical Head Studios the true sadists behind this genius nearly-NES side-scrolling cyberpunk platformer.
Creator Aarne Hunziker, who actually did pretty much everything here apart from the music, described the game as combining “the level design principles of Mario, the skills and action of Ninja Gaiden, the enemy designs of Contra and the dark visual aesthetic of Batman.” I definitely picked up the Ninja Gaiden vibe from the outset, not just from the ninja you’re leaping about killing stuff as, but also the very slick, almost cinematic way the gameplay feels. I’d also say there’s a strong whiff of Mega Man, especially in the way you progress into boss fights, and Super Metroid, both aesthetically and with some of the backtracking you can do later that makes further progress (marginally!) easier.
The plot begins perfectly lightweight and off-the-wall, with your cyborg ninja exploring the far-distant future of Mekacity to rescue his fallen clan, whose mystical powers are being harvested by nasty synthetic lifeforms. That translates to you fighting your way through ten chapters of varied sci-fi environments in and around the city as the story of the mad scientist, his robot army and your place in everything evolves into something a little more complex, and for better or worse, a lot more so than you’d find in Mega Man!
You start off basic, with your techno-ninja running, jumping and slashing, but as you progress you’ll start to discover and evolve regular genre tropes such as dashes, wall-slides and double-jumps, as well as health and secondary weapon or power lifespan upgrades. The latter are also unlocked as you progress, with a basic shuriken for longer-range combat then being enhanced with additional properties, and also being supplemented by special abilities such as energy bolts or an upward slash that fires poweful flame attacks; these are obtained and selected at most of the checkpoints you come across, in exchange for cash you’ve found on the way, and generally offer something useful for the next section or boss. As a reminder of the game’s cruelty though, take three hits with one of these equipped and you’re losing it!
Speaking of checkpoints and cruelty, once you get to about chapter four, you’re going to die and die and die again before you see the next one! As you might have worked out by now, whether you love it or hate it or both, this game only hates you! As everything naturally gets trickier the further you go, you’re also going to start to see things like robot enemies positioned exactly where you need to be landing, then between you and your landing point there’ll be an electric pit with a floating platform you need to recharge your double-jump on in the middle, but it’s covered in spikes except down one side! And that’s not enough because here come the robot spiders or a beam that’s going to trigger all sorts of homing destruction or just a wave of instant death! If it was just one such obstacle that you need to learn to get perfect at overcoming (because imperfection means instant death) that would be one thing, but increasingly there’s going to be screen after screen of them between you and the next checkpoint. But the most frustrating thing is that even when you know there’s no room for any error, you also always know it’s beatable if you try it enough times!
I think there were two points in the whole game that this frustration got me to the point of quitting though… The first was a huge mechanical dragon boss that you could start to predict fairly quickly, but killing floating robots so they turned into platforms you could use to launch enough attacks from while avoiding the dragon and the electrified water below added a whole new level of challenge. In retrospect, it was just a brilliant piece of punishing boss design, and by the time you’ve worked it out, practiced it to the point of being able to beat it and accepted you just need to be extremely patient with it, you’re going to beat it without losing any energy at all. The final boss turned out to be very similar, albeit with three stages, and the third being a bit more punishing and unpredictable, so you need a few planets to align before eventually beating it!
There were a couple of overly long, crazy difficult platforming sections too, the second of which really had me thinking life’s too short even though it was actually the approach to the final boss! The main problem I had with this one was a reliance on a clumsy pogo-to-double-jump mechanic once you got past a cruel, sprawling platforming ascent that reminded me of the awful sandcrawler section in SNES Super Star Wars! Over several evenings I was able to navigate this part unscathed (or it wasn’t worth continuing anyway), then you emerge into a multi-section ascent involving what is the only imprecise mechanic in an overall very precise experience. It was just horrendous, especially when you finally got within touching distance, only for some otherwise easy robot enemy to take your last bar of health – which, of course, is precisely why it was there! And because the checkpoint was a good ten minutes back, and you know perfectly well it might take another ten attempts before you get close again, it was just soul-destroying! That said, I’ve never felt such relief in a game as when I eventually landed on that checkpoint!
Apart from this though, the difficulty never felt unfair – it was just letting you know you weren’t good enough yet! And new abilities and power-ups generally gave you the crutch you needed to overcome the relentless introduction of new forms of sadism that never stopped right up to that final stage of the final chapter. In the main, checkpoints were just about right too; I was particularly appreciative of how they allowed you to jump straight back into boss fights (something Hollow Knight didn’t do so well). I used that last checkpoint, right before the final boss, so many times over the course of a weekend, though by that point, having got there at all, I was doing it a few goes at a time then having a break and coming back later when I’d cooled down a bit, taking time after each session to also appreciate the visible progress as you cracked the first stage, then the second, then worked out how to do it without taking too much damage so you had a fair shot at the third and final stage. And that final stage, in the game’s final twist of the knife, would have been a tough nut to crack without the other two!
Brutal difficulty is certainly not the only place that Cyber Shadow looks to the NES for inspiration. Graphically, this is the NES game of your dreams! It’s authentic, but it’s like any technical limitations have been removed, so it’s full of NES colour, full of detail and full of stuff that can kill you! I really loved the way it used big black spaces with muted highlights and shadows to invoke a very oppressive atmosphere at points too, and when you notice all that parallax scrolling, or the 8-bit rain coming down on top of it all, it just looks gorgeous! Pretty much the same can be said for Enrique Martin’s cyber-synth soundtrack too, which was noticeably sometimes the only saving grace at some of the game’s more bleak difficulty spikes!
I really loved Cyber Shadow, but I did really hate it too! And I reckon that’s what it was aiming for. I don’t think it’s going to rank as one of my favourite games ever (like Hollow Knight did), but finishing this on Xbox One certainly left me feeling that I’m not as bad at games as I often say I am, and over the course of thirteen hours and almost 1100 deaths I had a wonderful, very NES at its very best time! I know it’s only the first day of March as I write this, and I’ve not given Ghosts ‘n Goblins: Resurrection more than an hour or so yet (because there’s only so much punishment you can take at any one time!), but without doubt the most engaging and simply the best thing – old or new – that I’ve played in 2021 so far!
Here we be for the final stretch of my Top 25 favourite anthems in gaming, running down the top ten. Just like in our run down from 25 to 11 in part one (here if you missed it), there’s not really any rules, but I’ve definitely favoured sounds coming from the innards of a machine over a recording studio. I’ve also stuck with the versions I know, rather than seeking out the best possible version of anything. Let’s get on then, from number ten…
10. Shadow of the Beast II Game Over Music on Commodore Amiga
I never really got Shadow of the Beast on Atari ST. A lot of side-scrolling wandering about with minimal action then you’d find somewhere interesting and die. Looked and sounded incredible though; actually, at the time, maybe more so than pretty much anything else ever had, which I guess is what sold it to me! The 1990 sequel tried to up the gameplay with more complex combat, conversation systems and some puzzles. Unfortunately they just combined to suck out the last remaining fun that might have been there before! It was way too hard and you were dead before you knew what had hit you, but strangely that might also have been one it’s few saving graces… you saw the game over screen a lot!
This time around I was watching more than playing, on a friend’s Amiga, but I can still hear Tim and Lee Wright’s glorious, haunting title music so I’ve a feeling he might have been too! When he did play though, it wasn’t long before what could be the greatest music in video game history made an appearance! Why’s it at number ten then, I hear you ask? Well, as you might imagine, I’ve agonised over where it should be in this list, and whether or not it should be here at all, because in reality it’s more of an epic sound effect than piece of music – if you take out the fade in and out, you’re left with about 20 seconds. It’s a compromise! We start with a choral synthesiser ambience, then out of nowhere this incredible, echo-drenched soaring sampled lead guitar line makes an all too brief appearance. Listening to it again recently, it puts me in mind of the music you’d get in Miami Vice when one of Don Johnson’s big-haired love interests has just exploded and he’s leaning on a palm tree, staring wistfully out across the ocean. And actually, the more I think about it (and having just spent months watching the Miami Vice box set), I reckon it might have actually been sampled from Miami Vice because it really is that good!
9. Transparent Obstacle From Gauntlet IV on Mega Drive
I have serious form with the Spectrum version of Gauntlet! It currently sits at number nine in my top ten games of all time, after countless hours of play with my brother, starting one Saturday lunchtime in 1987 after we’d made a special trip to town to buy it; I remember every moment that day right up to loading it up and the absolute relief that it really was as good as we’d hyped ourselves (and our very limited pocket money!) up to hope it would be! I often wonder why we were so excited about Gauntlet over anything else in those glory days of the Spectrum, but I assume we’d seen the arcade machine somewhere. Anyway, the expansion pack and the sequel followed, then I wasn’t that impressed with the isometric Gauntlet III and skipped it on Atari ST. Mega Drive Gauntlet IV in 1993 was much more the ticket, combining the gameplay of the original with some RPG elements; the original was included too, which I think was my first time playing the arcade version! It was great but to this day I’d still rather play the Spectrum version, unless I’m in the mood for a bit of music…
Behind all the sampled speech and dungeon mastery sound effects – lifted straight out of the arcade version – we’re also at the very pinnacle of the Mega Drive’s musical capabilities! Hitoshi Sakamoto, Masaharu Iwata, Hal Canon and Earl Vickers’ epic dragon-synth soundtrack is as fine an electronic orchestra performance as you’ll ever hear, and Transparent Obstacle is its absolute climax! Sweeping pads juxtapose the shimmering introduction as the nineties does its best eighties action hero drumbeat, then this pure funk groove kicks in, and before you’ve had your fill of that the main melody comes crashing down on top of it all, leading to all kinds of atmospheric interplay. As good as it ever got on the Mega Drive!
8. Haunted Graveyard From SNES Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts
I’ve always loved this side-scrolling platforming series far more than I was any good at any of it! I was useless at the excellent Spectrum version that I picked up at a service station on the way home from our 1987 summer holiday (more here), but I’d happily play the graveyard section over and over and over… Same with my friend’s gorgeous Commodore 64 port – one of the few games that ever made me jealous of not owning one! I could get a bit further on the Atari ST version of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, where we’re now definitely in just about arcade perfect territory, though the rain drops versus the original’s full on storm were definitely a bit of a disappointment! Since then, I’ve sought out pretty much every version of every game, from arcade to WonderSwan and Arthur to Maximo, but never really got any further than the first stage or two on any of them! Aside from 1991’s Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, which I finally played much more recently on SNES Classic Mini, and something about the double jump combined with my sheer enjoyment of how it looked and sounded drove me on, way into the second stage!!!
Mari Yamaguchi didn’t just create a soundtrack for Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, but pretty much the only soundtrack to Halloween you could ever need! We go from whimsical drama to disturbingly sinister, but everything is just drenched in a joyous creepiness, and screams trashy b-movie in the best possible way! After your damsel gets in distress with the demon that’s run off with her at the start, there’s no better way of instilling a sense of eerie panic than my favourite track (possibly by default as I’ve never really heard much beyond it!) as you travel through the haunted graveyard. It’s actually a relatively simple affair, but the attention to detail is wonderful, using the SNES to expand on Ghost ‘n Goblin’s iconic first level theme, with big Phantom of the Opera organ riffs dressed with orchestral flourishes and an energetic but wickedly subtle bass-line inspiring the horror-filled chase you’re just starting out on.
7. Nemesis the Warlock Title Music on Commodore 64
If I were to list my favourite comic book characters, apart from Dan Dare and Doomlord from Eagle, I think they’d all come from 2000A.D. Actually, let’s have a quick go, in no particular order… Slaine, Rogue Trooper, Judge Dredd, Judge Death, Strontium Dog and, of course, Nemesis the Warlock, because otherwise there’d be no point in any of this nonsense! In a particular order, we’d probably go Judge Death first then Nemesis, then Slaine, then it doesn’t really matter here! Anyway, Nemesis the Warlock is a demonic alien out to free the galaxy from religious nut-job Torquemada’s tyranny. It’s all very swords and sorcery in a sci-fi setting. The 1987 Spectrum game arriving was a huge deal for me, though I think I mostly enjoyed it for being the character and how it looked (despite some interesting colour clash!); the single screen platforming as you shot your way through terminators (no, not those ones!) wasn’t that inspiring. Apart from being able to use their piled-up bodies as new platforms! I eventually got to the Commodore version, but whilst that didn’t even have the art style, it did have a very special title screen!
You’ll have noticed a couple of recurring names as we’ve travelled through this countdown, but as we might just continue to find out, there’s none so recurring as Rob Hubbard! And back on his rightful C64 throne this time too! Here we have what might be his most epic work, clocking in at a whopping seven minutes long! At the very beginning it harkens to the intro to Michael Jackson’s Beat it, but instead of going pop it goes even more ominous with a dense bass drum beat slowly picking up steam and this Tardis-type effect ushering in a militaristic heavy synth melody. About half way through and we’re in full flow, with a new, more high-pitched, more complex melody that puts me in mind of stuff like Devil May Cry where you get style points for how you kill – this is the soundtrack to Nemesis in full slaughter mode! As we approach six minutes, Hubbard’s SID chip magic show is in full effect, with everything going on around each other, interspersed with drum fills and snippets of new melody, which becomes more prominent as the tempo starts to slow and we gradually return to that ominous ambience where it all started. Don’t press fire to start, just stay here forever!
6. Mega Man X Spark Mandrill Stage Theme on SNES
I’m noticing a pattern here – a lot of my favourite sounds are from the games that punish me the most! I’m not sure, but I think Mega Man X was the first Mega Man game I played, and certainly the only one I played when it came out, albeit very briefly on a Super Nintendo demo unit; which would have been 1993 in if I’m right. About 25 years later I’d become a bit obsessed with Mega Man, playing through the original six brutal 2D platformers in the space of about a year, before jumping onto Mega Man X and realising that game I’d had a quick go on in a shop all those years ago was actually my new best friend! As well as a slick new look, you get all mod-cons here, with dashing and sliding and wall-jumps and stuff, but the Mega Man fundamentals don’t change as you take on boss-themed levels that absolutely hate you in any order you like. Interestingly, apart from the much more recent Mega Man 11, I’m still to play any game in the series beyond X. Need to fix that!
I’m not great at dodging, so the electric-themed Spark Mandrill stage is definitely not my favourite (although the boss fight can be one of the easiest), but if you want a good tune it’s the place to go! Setsuo Yamamoto and the team of Capcom musicians came up with some corkers for Mega Man X – you can just feel the love in every track – but this stage’s music just goes the extra mile for me. I think it’s the bass-line, which seems to be made up of strobing electronic drumbeats, that turns it into this intense energy fest, which couldn’t be more fitting! The proper drumbeats themselves are awesome too, with non-stop fills and rolls making sure the intensity never relents, and the multi-layered synth melodies sound like something Iron Maiden would come up with in an alternate dimension! Electrifying, literally!
5. Aquatic Ambience From Donkey Kong Country on SNES
The SNES has been well represented in these parts recently, and now we’re at the very top of that particular tree with one of the few parts of this game that doesn’t involve trees! I would say I’m much more of a Donkey Kong fan than I am a Donkey Kong Country fan… actually, where’s the Donkey Kong music in this list? Anyway, SNES Classic Mini strikes again with this one all the way from 1994, and while I did have a fine old time with it, and have since played through the sequel on Switch and the 3DS games, I can kind of take or leave it. I think it’s all the monkey-folk. Not my bag. I do like a good pre-rendered background though, and I do really, really like the underwater sections!
David Wise was behind most of the DKC soundtrack, and has noted that Aquatic Ambience was its biggest technological achievement, where he created a waveform sequence on the SNES using a Korg Wavestation synth. It really is SNES audio to the limits, but I think it achieves far more than that too; it seems to transcend musical taste – whatever you’re into, this is an absolute masterpiece! The oceanic ambience, the crystal clear melodies and then about halfway this haunting lead-line that’s part guitar, part brass, and wouldn’t go amiss on a saxophone in the middle of some huge Dire Straits ballad on Brothers in Arms. And then it slides back into the murky depths. This is probably the most beautiful piece of music ever made for a video game (if you don’t count Shadow of the Beast 2’s game over sequence)! And it’s all about a monkey riding a swordfish!
4. Skull Man Stage Theme From Mega Man 4 on NES
First two Robocops, now two Mega Men, and even more sonic treats from something else that hurts you so bad! And who would have thought the humble NES would out-anthem its successor here too! Of all the Mega Mans, my heart lies with Mega Man 2 – it just has an extra bit of magic that I’ve never really been able to quantify! But of all the Mega Man bosses, Skull Man from 1991’s (or two years later in Europe) Mega Man 4 is the man! My Mega Man Official Complete Works encyclopaedia implies that a lot of this game’s bosses resulted from player submissions to come up with new ones, and the developers liked this guy so much too that they completely scrapped then redesigned the level he was originally intended for. Anyway, apart from a charge shot and a Russian bad guy, it’s familiar territory as you action-platform your way through eight punishing boss-themed levels in the order of your choice. It’s a very good Mega Man!
Minae Fujii’s soundtrack to Mega Man 4 is extensive and inspired, which is also familiar territory for the series on NES and way beyond! There’s an incredible density and vibrancy to all of the robot boss stage themes here, but I also want to make special note of the fantastic urgency in the level select music too – come on, make your choice, doesn’t really matter… Skull Man’s theme isn’t just my favourite because he is, but it goes to so many places, and as a result gets so much out of the NES! And once they simply couldn’t get any more out, they’ve just added a bit more at the end of the part where it should have been so you know that was the intention! The main riff is a real earworm, all electronic brass, but there’s always so much more going on with it and around it, from the relentless high-speed bass-line and chip-tune blast-beats trying to keep up as they throw in a roll or a fill, to the occasional haunting pipe melody reminding you you’re fighting your way through a literal boneyard! It’s like each element is looking at each other as it’s playing saying right, your turn, now your turn, okay, now top this, now let’s do that bit again but together this time! The only thing that would make this better is lyrics about Skull Man on top… Now there’s a project!
3. Ghostbusters Theme on Commodore 64
I’m not sure any game’s title screen made my jaw drop as much as this one did in 1984, and it was a double whammy! First what might have been the first sampled speech I ever heard shouting “Ghostbusters” (and if you’ve ever heard it I can guarantee you’re hearing it again now!) and then some actual real life music that you’ve heard in the movie or seen on Top of the Pops is actually playing on your computer. Or my friend’s C64 in this case! The game remains pretty much unique, and is absolutely faithful to the movie, with you buying your ghostbusting equipment then patrolling the streets of New York from a map view, then when you spot a ghost infestation you’re top down in Ecto-1, sucking up rogue ghosts on the way (if you bought the right gear) until you arrive at the haunted building. Now your setting your trap, positioning your two guys and teasing the ghost above it without crossing the streams, then when it’s near enough you unleash the trap and get your reward. As the city’s paranormal activity rises (together with your bank balance) you’ll eventually meet the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and head for the big Zuul climax. As you can tell, I could talk about this game all day – it remains one of the best movie licenses ever made, and I still play through it on both C64 and Spectrum regularly. And I still absolutely love it!
Back to the title screen, and we’re back to that incredible SID chip rendition of Ray Parker Jr.’s incredible Ghostbusters theme by Russell Lieblich. It’s a complete – albeit marginally slower – recreation of the seven-inch single, and just so you can be sure of that, there’s a little ball at the bottom of the screen bouncing along the lyrics at all the right times so you can sing along. It might not have had the very first sampled speech (Sinistar, right?), but I reckon it’s the first in-game karaoke! It may not be the most complex C64 tune of all time, but the attention to detail more than makes us for that. Every element is 100% recognisable, and each has its own take on every nuance in the song; when you get to bits like the “bustin’ makes me feel good” part, you’ll have a huge grin on your face over and over as you appreciate what he’s done here. That said, I have a huge grin on my face every time regardless, from the moment the spooky, wobbly melody of the song’s introduction starts, and only fractionally less so than the first time I heard it and realised what was going on! The very best thing, though, is that once you get into the game proper, it’s on an infinite loop, and nothing is better than infinite Ghostbusters!
2. Divine Bloodlines From Castlevania: Rondo of Bloodon PC-Engine
My beloved Castlevania meets my beloved PC-Engine! Stuff like Ghosts ‘n Goblins might have made me want a Commodore 64 from time to time, and that Amstrad CPC version of Chuckie Egg might have even made me raise an eyebrow in that weird direction once or twice, but I never lusted after any machine like I did the exotic, unattainable PC-Engine! And as a Japanese exclusive on there, that made 1993’s Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (or Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo) even more unattainable! It was soon reimagined as Dracula X on SNES, though it took the PlayStation 4 double-up with Symphony of the Night for me to get my hands on the original version. A couple of years later I’d finally get them on the official Japanese version too, albeit on the wonderful PC-Engine Mini console rather than original hardware. But near enough at last! And after Splatterhouse, it would be the second game I’d complete on there, as well as be the last classic Castlevania I hadn’t previously played through. Super Castlevania IV on SNES is still the best though!
Castlevania’s soundtracks are crammed with standout tracks, full of intensity, tension and richly atmospheric gothic drama. Symphony of the Night has a good shout for the greatest video game soundtrack of all time. Super Castlevania IV is a game world I’d happily retire to, and that’s down to its atmosphere, and that’s mostly down to its soundtrack. Bloodlines on Mega Drive was another groundbreaker on that system. But nothing says Castlevania to me more than Rondo of Blood’s soundtrack, and on there, the all-too-short Stage 1’s Divine Bloodlines (or Blood Relations of Heaven and Earth, translated from the original Japanese) by Akira Souji says it the loudest! We begin with a tight guitar lick that’s always reminded me so much of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes, as the main song kicks in after the piano intro! From there, drums and keyboards kick you into the perfect rocking electronic guitar soundtrack with a simple riff that somehow perfectly complements everything burning behind you, then some sweeping synths emerge and your suddenly hearing the theme to an epic eighties American soap opera – something classy like Dynasty mind! The guitar riff brings you back down to Earth and the undead skeletons lobbing beer barrels at you, accompanied by an almost Doors-like haunted keyboard track that slowly introduces this gorgeous lead keyboard solo as orchestral strings crash across everything. Then the bassline that’s been hammering in the background suddenly wants a piece of the action too, and launches you back into the main riff and even more vampiric interplay. It’s just so rich and textured and brilliantly produced, and keeps the world burning so brightly.
1. Commando Theme on Commodore 64
No game says C64 to me more than vertically-scrolling run and gun Commando (more here). I first played it on my friend’s machine when I still thought it was about the ultra-cool Arnie movie I wasn’t allowed to watch that also came out in 1985! I’d also been well hyped by the big double-page adverts (my absolute favourite game adverts ever too!) in Computer & Video Games magazine, complete with what I think are hand-painted screenshots! Anyway, despite no Arnie, it didn’t disappoint. Some time later I played the Spectrum version a hell of a lot more, and it was a great version, but it wasn’t the same; and I’m not only talking about the weird colours! Actually, for pure gameplay the Spectrum was better because you had to hit space on the keyboard to throw grenades on the Commodore, but a flick of the joystick would do it on the Spectrum, and that made a big difference. But anyway, it wasn’t the same, and neither were the later 16-bit versions or even the arcade version when I finally played that about thirty years later, because it turns out a lot of the experience was down to the C64 music!
Since the very moment I first heard Rob Hubbard’s Commando theme, it’s been my favourite music in any game ever! It’s an astounding, greatly enhanced, more complex version of the original arcade music, which he famously put together in less than twelve hours! He did a lecture where he talks about getting invited to Elite’s offices, so he gets on a train from Newcastle to Birmingham that same afternoon and when everyone else goes home, he’s left on his own there. After one listen to the original arcade music, he did an all-nighter, and by the time everyone else arrived back for work the next morning he had the C64 music playing on every machine in the office. Then he was given his cheque and was on a train home by 10! What he did to manipulate the C64’s three “voices” here is nothing short of black magic; it’s like getting Elite to run on a BBC B – not possible but there it is! The level of intensity in this military rave surely comes from loads more stuff than that going on at once! It all sounds like black magic too – apart from the electronic tom-toms and a relatively grounded bass-line driving it all along, the insanely complex set of main melodies are just terrifying sci-fi trance waveforms dancing around each other like maniacs! Then about half way through this sonic heart attack, everything goes crazy high-pitched, and just as you think your ear-holes are going to explode, for a brief second if relents and you think you’re safe as what might be identified as the melodic ringleader by now makes its return, only to be instantly replaced again by this high-pitched cacophony, which gradually turns into an exotic solo and we all go again! There’s just so much going on here that it can’t contain its own energy, and somehow that ends up amplifying the gameplay on the Commodore 64 version more than on any other machine. And some of that energy jumped right into my thirteen year-old soul back in 1985 and cemented itself as my number one favourite anthem in gaming ever!
Obviously, there’s stuff I’ve missed, even from my limited pool of gaming experience. There’s a few things particularly that jump out, but I’ve just not heard enough of them for them to have stuck yet… I’m not a big Michael Jackson fan (though he’s now had two mentions here), but I remember stopping and listening to the Moonwalker arcade game rendition of Smooth Criminal and thinking it was incredible. I am a very big Airwolf fan, and actually persevered with the famously difficult Spectrum version far more than it deserved, but if you want the theme music, you want the Commodore version; unfortunately they upped the difficulty even more here by also making it absolutely appalling to control, making it effectively unplayable. There’s also the similarly unplayable (for the same reasons) The Last V8 on Commodore 64, which features yet another Rob Hubbard classic, but you’ll never hear more than 20 seconds of it before game over!
I could very easily do a top Castlevania anthem list, such is the consistent quality of soundtracks in that series, but I tried to pick the absolute best of the best of most things in this list to keep it relatively varied, only repeating a couple of times where games might have the same subject matter but were different beasts on different systems. Similar for Mega Man and Thunder Blade especially. Likewise, I could have picked stuff from Shadow of the Beast rather than the sequel, and I could easily have picked the theme from that too. Then there’s probably stuff deep in a load of space shooters or run and gun platformers that I have got but will simply never be good enough to deserve to know about! Oh yeah, Robocop and Cybernoid 2 on C64 – just forgot about them!
Anyway, unlike a lot of my favourite things lists that I can usually put together in minutes or even seconds, this one turned into several months of very enjoyable thought and recap as I looked at my history in gaming in a whole new light, so while it might not be 100% comprehensive and will no doubt evolve over time, I’ve had an absolute blast doing it and definitely recommend the exercise to anyone else!
For someone whose life is so occupied with music, it often surprises me that I’ve generally had so little interest in game soundtracks! Now, of course I might appreciate them while I’m playing, but apart from a couple of listens to the Castlevania: Symphony of the Night soundtrack and a bit of Thunder Force now and again, I don’t think I’ve ever gone out of my way to listen to any in-game music.
That’s also not to say I don’t have favourite pieces of gaming music (despite owning a ZX Spectrum for much of my formative gaming life!) and that’s why we’re here and now! I’ve been thinking about this for a good few months, after seeing a couple of gaming soundtrack best-of videos on YouTube. Not really any rules, but I’ve definitely favoured sounds coming from the innards of a machine over a recording studio. I’ve also stuck with the versions I know, rather than seeking out the best possible version of anything. We’ve also split the whole thing in two because I didn’t quite anticipate its epic nature until about a quarter through, but that also builds up the suspense and gives you something to look forward to! But apart from that, this is what I’ve thoroughly enjoyed coming up with so far, starting at 25 all the way to 11…
25. Fear of the Heavens From Secret of Mana on SNES
I only got to Secret of Mana – originally released in 1993 – for the first time playing through everything that the SNES Classic Mini had to offer when that came out, and not being a JRPG connoisseur it got shoved right to the back of that queue, meaning my history with it is very recent at the time of writing. Also not being a JRPG connoisseur, my play-style possibly meant I wasn’t making life as easy for myself as I might (more here), but I eventually got hooked on the grind and completed it, and at the very least got to experience its wonderful soundtrack as originally intended!
This is actually the title music to Secret of Mana, kicking off a masterful soundtrack by Hiroki Kikuta, but I think it only really got its claws into me when it appeared again in the game itself when I found the Mana Tree. We’re starting our list here with something simple, but for the most part beautifully haunting too (but don’t worry, we’ll soon change that!). Just an electronic piano kind of melody with occasional flourishes from a cymbal, then a a melodic bassline takes over as some very electronic woodwind provides harmonies, then it ups the ante a bit for a brief combined climax before heading back to calm. A nice reflection of the game itself!
24. Splatterhouse 3 Title Theme on Mega Drive
You didn’t think it was going to stay all fairy-nerd for long did you? This is more like it, when Splatterhouse mixed things up by going all Streets of Rage! I love this series, and the original side-scrolling gore-fest is one of the few arcade games I’ve ever completed; the PC-Engine version is also one of my favourite arcade conversions. We then get to more of the same with Splatterhouse 2 on the Mega Drive, and it feels right at home there, but 1993’s Splatterhouse 3 didn’t just add new dimensions to the violence, but also to the gameplay as a whole, being a far more non-linear affair. And that possibly makes it the best game in the series… Mmmm, not sure about that thinking about PC-Engine… We’ll come back to that!
Eiko Kaneda’s whole soundtrack here is classic horror b-movie, and the when this song kicks in on the title screen you know exactly what you’re in for! After an intro that mainly serves what’s happening on the screen behind it, we start out proper, right in Munsters territory, with spooky haunted house melodies gradually joined by some gentle percussion and overlapped with a shifting, more complex and more electronic melody (and occasional very Doom-like monstrous sound effects). By the end it’s transitioned to something very upbeat, which strangely you’ll have barely noticed happening, though that might be down to the insane strobe effects complementing the title image going on throughout!
23. Xenon Sector One on Atari ST
Apart from what’s right at the top, this track was one of the first things that came to mind when I started thinking about this list. The Bitmap Brothers were absolute groundbreakers in sheer graphical and audio polish when they launched with this most metallic-looking ever vertically-scrolling shooter appeared in 1988, and that never stopped through Speedball, both sequels, Gods, The Chaos Engine, maybe some of the later stuff I never really played… Xenon 2 remains one of my very favourite ST games, though that’s more to do with that incredible organic aesthetic it has than “Music by Bomb the Bass” as proudly emblazoned on the box – not my cup of tea!
In terms of music though, the original Speedball title music is narrowly pipped here by the similar vibe, but just more bombastic first-level music of the original Xenon. They’re both by the incredibly prolific David Whittaker, whose stamp can be found all over eighties and nineties gaming! This one is all synth multi-melodies and harsh stabby string things over this Euro-disco rhythm that simply shouldn’t work – especially when the stabs completely intentionally drop slightly out of time – but it’s all just right!
22. Metal Squad From Thunder Force IV on Mega Drive
I love the Thunder Force games – gorgeous multi- or just side-scrolling, weapon-switching space shooters that I think I’ve mostly experienced backwards, from Thunder Force V on PlayStation to IV then III on Mega Drive to AC (an arcade port of III) on Switch, then most recently Thunder Force II back on the Mega Drive! It’s a toss up betwen IV and AC as to where my favourite lies, possibly for no other reason that I’ve played them both the most – along with Road Rash II, they are both my regular football half-time games depending on which room I’m watching it in! Thunder Force IV is an absolute stunner, with some incredible parallax scrolling, but in reality doesn’t add much in gameplay terms, and that’s absolutely okay!
The soundtrack by composer Takeshi Yoshida is among the strongest on the Mega Drive too, and not just because it must be among the most complex to ever come out of that FM sound chip, but it’s probably the most metal too! If you listen to the whole thing you’ve got about an hour and a half of jaw-dropping creativity, but we’re stopping here at Stage 8 for an incredible piece of space-thrash, where layer upon layer of pure metal energy emerges on top of this pulsing bassline and high-octane drumbeat. If Judas Priest called up Dragonforce and said let’s make some Mega Drive music, it would sound like this!
21. Hard Road From Arcade Super Hang-On
One of the few benefits of not having regular exposure to arcades in the eighties was that by the time the my Atari ST came along, as far as you could remember (if you were lucky), most arcade conversions were pretty much arcade perfect! Star Wars, Operation Wolf, Pac-Land, Bubble-Bobble, Championship Sprint… Loads of them! With Super Hang-On, it’s really not far off either, with everything intact except maybe for a bit of pace and some graphical fidelity, and it was on the Atari ST that I first came to properly appreciate the soundtrack, even if that turned out to be a little less impactful than the original too, which I’ve more recently enjoyed on PlayStation 3 and 3DS.
It might not be as magical as its sibling, Out Run, but the four tracks by Katsuhiro Hayashi and Koichi Namiki that you get to choose from at the start of each race in Super Hang-On absolutely scream out arcade game music circa 1987! Hard Road has always been my go-to track regardless of platform, with pacey rock drums supporting a lead-guitar-like bassline and an increasingly intense (dare I even say prog at its heady heights!) keyboard track, that in its defence mostly veers between eighties b-movie theme and early Spandau Ballet in its some of its chord changes. I’ve just described the best song ever…
20. Big Blue From F-Zero on SNES
When I bought my launch day Game Boy Advance, I also got my first exposure to legendary space race series F-Zero – sitting on a toilet in the Milton Keynes hotel room I was staying in for a work night out because that’s where I could get the most light onto its pitch-black screen! That was Maximum Velocity, and I’d later work my way through later GBA releases, then GX on the GameCube and finally back to where it started in 1990 on the SNES, or for me the later Classic Mini variant.
It doesn’t take long for you to get to the original F-Zero Big Blue theme. You’ll know it because for a second you’ll think you’ve reached the final boss on some insane bullet-hell shooter instead of beginner track number two! I often think this course was all about showing off colour on the SNES, and I reckon composers Yumiko Kanki and Naoto Ishida wanted to deliver the the audio equivalent with this. Electronic drama, an impossible bass-line and enough melody for a dozen bonkers eighties cartoon soundtracks!
19. Warhawk on Commodore 64
Warhawk is very nearly a very forgettable vertically-scrolling shooter from 1986, just like a hundred other budget tiles from the time. It’s generic, it’s hard as nails, and is one of those games that we all took a punt on because it was only £1.99, but that was also all the money you had in the world and it just became an object of regret! Except this one had the most incredible music!
One name is synonymous with C64 music – Rob Hubbard! He was truly at one with the machine’s SID chip; its sonic cyborg! And this track won’t be the last time we’ll hear from him in this list… Stripped back melodies alternate with supernatural synthesiser ambience before launching into this epic, complex, driving fist-pounder, then doing it all over again. It’s a shame the gameplay itself didn’t offer similar peaks to complement its troughs! It’s also a shame that whilst the title track also plays while you’re playing, you won’t hear most of it because it’s sharing the same chip as the sound effects, and that fire button is also going to be taking a pounding!
18. Robocop 3 Title Music on SNES
The original Robocop, which I loved on both Spectrum then Atari ST, was a masterclass in polished, varied, fun movie tie-ins. I wasn’t so keen on the sequel, which just tried a bit too hard and was less fun as a result, and less fun can also be used to describe the third instalment from 1992, but that’s now down to it being way too hard… and then it made you start from the beginning every time either the difficulty or the dubious collision detection killed you! In its defence it’s got a great look, but once you get past the title screen there’s not a lot else to recommend it!
If this was a list of the best NES music, Jonathan Dunn’s Robocop 3 title music on there would be at the top. This version is not my favourite SNES music (and not even my favourite Robocop music!), but it’s certainly an unmatched take on this amazing song, and certainly has the most accomplished rhythm section you’ll ever hear in a game! Moody guitar licks layer on top of each other, with subtle but complex synth melodies adding colour to, er, panpipes, but don’t worry – it all works, and it all screams Robocop!
17. Gotham City Street From Batman on Mega Drive
The world went Bat-crazy in the summer of 1989 for Tim’s Burton’s uber-stylish Batman movie. The Bat was everywhere, and Prince’s iconic soundtrack wasn’t far behind! Batman: The Movie came out on everything 8- and 16-bit in 1989, was equally stylish and didn’t just give you some fighting goons across platforms, but you also got to drive the Batmobile and fly the Batwing (and play a Bat-version of Mastermind). The Atari ST version especially blew me away, but it was no Prince to listen to! A year later, the NES got its own game that was very much its own thing, then once Nintendo’s strangehold on the license expired, the Mega Drive got something far closer to the plot of the movie. It looks really nice, but is distinctly average in its sub-Castlevania platforming and side-scrolling shooter sections, and although you can beat it in 45 minutes, you probably won’t!
The very first level, Gotham City Street, sees you simply beating people up from left to right, but while the action here is a bit sparse, you’ll be thankful for the lack of interruptions to Naoki Kodaka’s beautiful piece that accompanies you (especially when the rain kicks in and demands that bit more atmosphere). Some big drum hits instantly set the drama as these almost siren-like synth sounds start to weave you around what would surely have been the best Batman cartoon theme song ever, then the drums start filling and accentuating, and these wonderful chord changes bring you back around and it’s all over way too soon!
16. Mega Turrican Stage 1-2 on Mega Drive
My history with Turrican begins with the February 1991 Zero magazine dual-format Atari-ST and Amiga cover disc, and in yet another decisive victory over the Amiga, a Turrican II demo that only worked on the ST! And it gave you 99 lives for very good reason because if you escaped the level with half of them intact you were doing very well! As we’re discussing music though, if I was stuck with only the ST or Commodore 64 versions I’d be happy taking either Turrican II soundtrack here! By 1995, Super Turrican 2 on the SNES was a different matter, all well-balanced shooting and grappling and some less well-balanced Mode 7 effects! The first level features some absolutely stunning backdrops too, with the wrecks of these old galleons atmospherically rotting away against a desert sunset! I got to 1993’s Mega Turrican on the Mega Drive much later, which is another graphical stunner that plays great, with huge levels full of secrets and huge enemies, weapon upgrades and a sci-fi twist on Sonic the Hedgehogs spin-dash!
There’s little that this game does wrong, especially in the music department! Chris Huelsbeck’s synth-rock soundtrack clocks in at an hour, and the craftsmanship never relents, but you’re getting the best first, with the intro, then the first stage, and then when you’re wondering where it can possibly go next, Stage 1-2 comes along and blows you away! If Nick Kershaw had stuck some words over this ten years earlier it would be on every hits of 1983 compilation ever, with its painfully catchy melodic interplays over those seminal Mega Drive drums driving your attention. It’s simply Turrican in song form!
15. Central Park Music From The Last Ninja 2 on Commodore 64
Winter Games was the first thing that really blew me away on Commodore 64 – those trees! It took a couple more years to get to The Last Ninja, but that did it all over again – those flowers! It wasn’t always as good to play as it was to look at (or listen to), but all the same, this was eighties ninja obsession being acted out in the palm of your hand (by your joystick) – who needed to rent American Ninja 2: The Confrontation by the time this appeared alongside it in 1987? Well, luckily someone did or we’d never have got all the way to number five!
What’s incredible about the soundtrack here is how much music maestro Matt Gray got out of so little memory! There’s about an hour’s worth of deep, expertly composed and bewilderingly polished audio in six distinct stage themes and one for the final boss, and it’s all in about 40K of data! The Central Park music starts ominous – like a John Carpenter horror theme – then so much texture comes out of nowhere, climaxing in a classic action-hero melody that meanders into this atmospheric extended drum break and back into classic slasher territory before going even more action-hero than before! I can’t remember the theme to American Ninja, but I really hope it sounded just like this!
14. Agent X Title Music on ZX Spectrum (and the 48K one no less!)
We’re now on sacred ground, with my number 12 favourite game of all time (more here)! Never did £1.99 provide such quality and attention to detail from such variety, as you took your Bond-type character through four stages of multi-load heaven! First it’s isometric driving, then a side-scrolling beat ‘em up that slightly numbs the pain of the Spectrum Kung-Fu Master horror show, then it’s indoor Operation Wolf before chasing off the dastardly villain Airwolf-style but with sensible difficulty! I love this game now as much as I did in 1987 (to the point I had to interrupt writing this until I’d completed it again).
If you locked Brian Wilson away with a 48K Spectrum and one-too-many packets of Chewits, the Agent X title music is probably what he’d have come up with! This impossible polyphonic rave by Tim Follin simply shouldn’t exist on a Spectrum! The 128K Spectrum might have had all the sounds – including some marvellous stuff in the less than marvellous Agent X II – but I can’t think of any original Spectrum music that came close to this for originality, for sucking the machine’s sonic capabilities dry, or for sheer bonkers-ness. Absolute genius!
13. Robocop Title Music on Game Boy
At this point I’m wondering if any other top 25 gaming anthems list ever has ever approached its halfway point with a 48K Spectrum game followed by something on the Game Boy? Maybe more likely there’s been one with two Robocop games in it though, because everyone knows that Robocop is the best music! Anyway, Game Boy Robocop came out in 1990 and isn’t quite as brutal as other Robocops we’ve already talked about here, but being a conversion of a late-eighties arcade machine, isn’t far off! It’s a side scrolling gun ‘em up with occasional first-person hostage rescues, and it’s no Operation C, but it’s alright.
As hauntingly beautiful as it is (yes, we’re still talking Game Boy!), I’m not entirely sure why this title music by Jonathan Dunn (remember him from the other Robocop?) exists – it’s not only pretty much hidden away on a niche handheld game on a screen that’s gone in the click of the Start button, but it’s also completely at odds with anything to do with Robocop! This is a lesson in melancholic composition that is somehow perfectly at home on this ridiculous audio output, creating far more raw sound than it has any right to! It also turns out to be perfectly at home on home appliance adverts and well-known rap songs, but you can’t carry them around in your pocket!
12. Pacific Coast From Mega Drive Road Rash
As we already discussed, Road Rash II on Mega Drive is what I’d describe as my gaming comfort food. Road Rash is a series I knew from the outset, but could take or leave until relatively recently – I think it was playing the original game for the first time on Master System in about 2017 that properly converted me. It’s an incredible technical feat even if it’s not massively challenging for a very long time. But I loved it, and migrated to the Mega Drive version, then everything the PlayStation had to offer (which is mostly soulless in comparison despite some wonderful licensed alt-rock sounds), then back to the third instalment on the Mega Drive which was great until I got to number two on the wonderfully curated Mega Drive Mini and it just absolutely clicked for me.
There’s some great music in all three Mega Drive Road Rashes, especially the gothic Knight Rider vibe of the Redwood Forest course in the 1991 original, but even that mystifying concept is narrowly surpassed by the sublime intensity of Pacific Coast in the same game. The complex rhythms; the dramatic melodies; the high-speed pan pipes being overtaken by this haunting guitar-thing… oh, the intensity! If you’re going to punch a fellow motorcyclist in the head, you want to be doing it with this on your Walkman! Oh yeah, it’s by C64’s best-known musician Rob Hubbard too. Don’t tell those Commodore fans!!!
11. Magical Sound Shower From Arcade Out Run
Yes, you’re reading that right – eleven not one! Out Run completely upped the ante for video games when it was unleashed in the arcades in 1986. Nothing else looked like it, sounded like it, played like it, or was quite so exotic, exhilarating and aspirational! I wrote about my favourite sights in all of gaming here, and the moment where the coastal highway spreads out into six lanes near the start of Out Run easily tops the list. It’s just stunning! No surprise it’s also one of my favourite games ever (even more here), but what might be a surprise given how rubbish at games I generally am is that I’m actually quite good at it too – every route on pretty much every version now! Only took 35 years of practice…
Before every race you’re tuning in your radio to choose from what’s still one of the most iconic soundtracks to any game ever – Passing Breeze, Splash Wave and, of course, Magical Sound Shower. (You’ve also got post-race Last Wave later too). Composer Hiroshi Kawaguchi has tied everything together with a kind of Latino-Calypso feel, part rock and part jazz, but all feel-good! They’re all to love too, but I’m going with Magical Sound Shower just because it can transport me right back to the mid-eighties just a little bit quicker than the others! If Miami Sound Machine had written the theme to Miami Vice it would sound exactly like this, and if you were driving down that coastal highway in a Ferrari with your hot girlfriend by your side, there’s no other track you’d want to have blaring out of your cassette player! That said, my wife just walked by as I’m listening to it and said that’s the most irritating music she’s ever heard! Maybe she’s more of a Splash Wave girl…
Anyway, as we exit that glorious coastal highway we conclude our journey for now, and look forward to the next instalment where we count down the top ten.
As much as I’ve enjoyed dabbling with the series for years, I’d never actually made a serious attempt at any version of Splatterhouse until my PC-Engine Mini came along in June 2020. It was the very first game I fired-up on there, and to date is the only thing I’ve finished on there, though Fantasy Zone has certainly taken more of a beating! Anyway, PC-Engine Splatterhouse is a fantastic version that looks and feels perfectly at home there. Marvellous game!
It took me a few months of chipping away to get to the end, after which I planned an assault on the original arcade game, then the Mega Drive versions of II and III. And all along, I wasn’t even aware of anything of the sort on NES! Actually, it took a podcast I was listening to mentioning a “troubling” hooded figure in the NES game to make me pay attention and look it up. Now, I’m not the person to find anything offensive, but I can only imagine that the source of their offence was the innocent Satanist boss character who was something mistaken for something more racist…
Back to Splatterhouse, it’s an arcade beat ‘em up from Namco in 1988 that’s wonderfully heavy on the gore. It follows a couple (named as Rick and Jennifer in the later home versions) who get split up in a haunted mansion, where she gets possessed by monsters and he gets possessed by a Jason Vorhees mask. Then he goes on a side-scrolling squelchy, bloody rampage to save her. Which doesn’t really sound like your typical NES-fodder, so enter Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti, a very weird, cutely deformed Japan-only take on the arcade game that arrived on NES in 1989. Welcome to Devil Town…
The clues are there that this is probably a prequel, though it’s not hugely clear and not hugely important! Jennifer is mourning the death of Rick at his grave, he gets resurrected Vorhees-style (complete with mask, but not sure why this time) by a bolt of lighting, and all is well until The Great Pumpkin King – who happens to be buried in the grave next to him – gets sparked back into life by a second bolt of lighting and kidnaps her! A scrap across seven stage ensues, and if you manage to take him out at the end you’ll be informed by the game’s director that this would make a great movie. And then Rick takes off the mask and it comes to life through spooky powers, no doubt for future adventures.
Where Splatterhouse-proper is just a very simple, violent plod from left to right, there’s a bit more platforming involved in the chopping heads up with your axe here. But there’s not a lot more to the gameplay than that – it’s certainly fun, but it’s no Mario and it’s not really Splatterhouse either. Actually, it reminded me a lot of Kid Dracula, and what that is to Castlevania – a cartoon parody that still manages to cram in a bit of horror behind the laughs.
I must admit I was hoping for a bit more to the laughs as well, but that was entirely down to the game setting some high expectations early on! The first level is in a graveyard (and a very fine one at that, like a more populated version of the C64 Ghosts ‘n Goblins one), and towards the end you’ll come across Dracula emerging from under the ground to what sounds like Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Then four green gooey zombie monsters appear, the disco lights start, and they do an extended Thriller routine. And it’s really good! There are a good few fun bits that follow, with the black mass and the Alien scene standing out for me, but they never really reach those heights.
Something else that never reaches any great heights are the boss fights, which is absolutely fine by me! They are all perfectly pitched, where it’s going to take you a few goes to get to work them out, but once you’ve spotted the pattern you won’t be taking any damage – much like the in some of mainline Splatterhouse games, which aside from the violence and gore is a definite attraction to no-like-boss me. Speaking of damage, it’s handled in a interesting, almost RPG-like way, where every enemy you kill is racking up points for you. Get to fifty points and it’s permanently adding some health to your bar. However, if you die and use the between-stage password to carry on from where you left off, you’ll be starting with your basic health again which makes the game a lot harder, but again, it’s still very beatable, which is great!
There’s no doubt that the deformed art style is one of the main pulls here. It might be cute, but it still manages to pull off the monstrous, albeit usually in a very unrealistic Nintendo way. But the various environs are as creepy (and sometimes just plain dark) as you like, and they often look stunning – sometimes as good as it gets on the NES, with some really rich, vibrant colour palettes that are as full of character as the characters! There’s a semi-hidden Egyptian level that has the best large-scale use of gold colours you’ll ever see on a NES too! You’ve got some really cool monster design throughout, paying homage to the arcade game, but also referencing horror film and pop-culture all over the place – The Fly boss was another favourite! And everything animates so smoothly, with some very nice multi-layered scrolling for the time. It’s a looker without any doubt! Sounds alright too – the spot effects aren’t groundbreaking, but the chip tunes are perfectly positioned, and as multi-layered as the scrolling!
After getting a little down on the gameplay, talking about all of that has really brought home why I wanted to talk about the game in the first place! If you want a great platformer, there’s loads to choose from on NES. If you want over-the-top arcade horror, you’ve got the original Splatterhouse and it’s various sequels and remakes. But if you want the cutest upside-down cross you’ll ever see, you’ve got the Wanpaku Graffiti variant on NES!
You often see the NES Friday the 13th game referenced in rubbish game lists, but the C64 and Spectrum versions never get a look in and I wanted to find out why!
There’s another “why” I want to look at before we answer that though… As a decades-long massive fan of both systems and the films, why am I playing these games for the first time in 2020?
Friday the 13th came to Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC in 1985, courtesy of Domark. I very much remember seeing it advertised because I cut the advert out and put it on my bedroom wall! I also very much remember the Computer & Video Games magazine review; it went along the lines of once you were past the gore of said shock advertising, the game was average, but the black and white screenshot they used was enough to put me right off. It looks like some kind of dreadful prototype of The Sims, not Hollywood’s greatest slasher!
Friday the 13th was long forgotten by the time I had a machine that could play it, and it was even longer before I saw my first Friday the 13th movie. I think I saw The Omen and The Entity in my early-ish teens thanks to the Wild West days of video rental shops, but the slasher movie passed me by until the very late eighties. I’d eventually make up for lost time though, and Jason Vorhees remains this 3000+ horror movie collector and general nerd’s favourite genre icon!
As many times as I’ve now seen every movie, the game remained absolutely forgotten for decades, and it took one of the aforementioned crappy NES game videos to start me digging again! I think it was a simple C64 walkthrough being recommended, but I didn’t even click it – I just made a note to look up the Spectrum version at some point.
As well as the advert, the box did its very best to lure in curious. And I’m not just taking about that immediate red-flag to me of C64 screens being used on a (relatively speaking big-budget) Spectrum inlay! There was a stark warning that before you play the game, close all doors, windows and curtains – yes, curtains have always been Jason’s kryptonite! Then you have to turn out the lights, but can use a candle if necessary – possibly down to some of the garish colours on the Spectrum version burning your eyes through some kind of light overload. Then you have to make sure granny isn’t in the room – I expect she slipped the tenner into your hand that paid for the game and you don’t want her to know you wasted it on this crap! Then turn up the volume to the max! Now, of all these tips, don’t do that. I’d there’s one thing worse than the graphics, it’s the sound, whether the horrendous (not in a good way) scream sound as one of your mates dies somewhere on the Spectrum, or the dreadful context-sensitive nursery rhymes on C64! Speaking of sound, the box also includes a competition to win a monitor if you can identify ten of the noises you heard while on holiday in Crystal Lake. Good luck identifying more than one of them!
To Domark’s credit, they clearly knew they’d spent a load of money on the license but had a stinker on their hands, and they did their best to fix that by chucking a load more money at all kinds of provocative marketing. The game pitch is pretty decent on the surface too… Jason is hiding out in the forest in his “filthy grotto” waiting to avenge his mother’s death when a bunch of teenagers turn up to party at nearby “eerie” (that’s what several massacres will do – if only they’d had Domark’s marketing people) holiday camp. He dons his hockey mask, sharpens his machete and gets ready for a “razor-edged massacre” (nice)!
From there, I’m slightly at odds with how the box then describes the gameplay loop… “You must warn everyone that the mad murderer is on the rampage and lead them all to safety – without, of course, losing your head!” The reality is that you’re going to wander around a few screens that include a farm, some archery targets, a church and lots of gravestones and lots of trees looking for a weapon then hitting everyone in sight with it trying to work out which one is Jason so you can keep hitting him until he’s dead. And while you’re doing that, Jason is wandering around killing everyone. If you die or they all die (indicated by their avatar at the bottom, of the screen turning into a gravestone) then it’s game over.
Here we need to talk specifics about each version because they go about things – by design or not – in slightly different ways. On C64, Jason is disguised as one of your fellow campers. As you walk around the various locations, you might notice someone acting a bit suspicious, whether they’re following someone else or simply just in the act of murdering them or you. Assuming you’ve found a weapon, this is your cue to hit him, and assuming you’ve found Jason, he’ll turns from a camper into a guy in a black outfit.
And that’s about all there is to it. If you’re lucky, you’ll work it out in a few minutes, but in the game I eventually beat Jason, I was walking around forever, exploring the same places over and over again but never finding him. And once you’re down to a couple of your friends left alive, the frequency of death has all but dried up and there’s really not very much happening. You just walk about, with only minor tension that all this walking about for ages is potentially about to end in time running out because everyone else is dead.
Kill the man Vorhees and you get a game over screen telling you he’s dead, but for how long? Well, having then played the Spectrum version to completion too, there’s an easy answer to that…
There’s not a lot to the C64 version, but it has a degree of 1985 charm to it. The Spectrum version doesn’t only have no charm (which even the bizarre use of magenta on the brick walls can’t fix), but it’s a buggy stinker! Eventually you’ll work out that rather than potentially being disguised as one of your friends in this version, Jason is the guy that looks the same as you. If you get confused which is which, don’t worry, he’s the one who can walk through stuff like trees and haystacks. Get close and he’ll batter you, no escape – he’s got some very sticky pixels and that’s all your hard work wandering about these ultra-uninteresting landscapes wasted! Naturally, as you might think, he can also attack you from any direction. You, on the other hand, can only attack if you’re on his left because no matter which way you’re heading, your weapon only comes out to play on the right!
When you do get on his left, there’s absolutely no feedback that you’re actually connecting with him. Your score (which is irrelevant anyway) doesn’t even change like the C64 version. You just keep maybe hitting him and nothing happens – which, thinking about it, is how a fight with Jason Vorhees probably should turn out, but it doesn’t make for a great game! Anyway, after far more experimenting than the game deserves, I worked out that the axe will damage him even if you don’t know its working until he’s dead. The chainsaw might offer the glamour, but leave it; spear things, pitchforks, knives and other things you can chuck at him seem to do nothing. That’s all assuming you can actually pick the weapon up because it’s quite often somewhere like a top corner and the screen has flipped before you can get close enough to trigger picking it up.
And while your either on the hunt for Jason, or more likely running away, you’re also going to get stuck on scenery all the time, which is the exact opposite to Jason who can walk into fences and simply vanish into thin air. And quite often you’ll be trying to traverse what appears to be thin air between screens but you’ll get stuck on something that isn’t there regardless.
Spectrum Friday the 13th is just about without merit, but I’d definitely recommend a go on the Commodore version if you’re a fan of the films. It’s a very C64-looking game circa 1985, which I always find somehow comfortable, but like so many other licenses of the time, is just bland once you get past the fancy box art. And that kind of answers my original question about why these versions never get a mention nowadays too, but in the case of these systems there were so many greater crimes against licenses – Highlander is always a good place to start there – and there were so many worse games spanning well over a decade of their lifetimes… Sadly, Friday the 13th is just very forgettable.
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!
They might not have the profile of some of the other games in these wonderful compilations, but the Game Boy is well represented in Konami’s Castlevania Anniversary Collection with both The Castlevania Adventure and Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge included. And then we have Operation C, where C, of course, stands for Contra in the Contra Anniversary Collection.
I’m going to skip over The Castlevania Adventure because I recently covered it in a bit more detail here. Instead, we’ll take a very quick look at the other two, which I’ve also played all the way through on Nintendo Switch.
Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is both a technical spectacle and an excellent game, and a perfect companion to Adventure. By this point the developers properly knew how to get the most out of the handheld hardware, so it looks even more wonderfully atmospheric, runs smoothly and sounds even more like a Castlevania game than its predecessor, despite the same limitations.
It’s pretty quick to get through the linear levels, which you can play most of the way through in any order, though the final boss fight is a bugger! You genuinely have to memorise every single move it’s going to make and every pixel on each of the on-screen platforms that you need to be positioned on for each move to counter it. Not to mention the untold experimentation to work out some of them. This is a real shock after the relative simplicity of getting that far, but it is a great feeling when you finally beat it.
Operation C was the first Contra game I jumped into from that collection – having dabbled with them all as a complete newcomer to the series, it seemed a bit easier than the rest, and as you can tell, I’m easily impressed when it comes to the Game Boy!
The classic run and gun design is all present in a compact form, but it did leave me struggling a bit until I tweaked the controls to be like Mega Man, then I sailed through the first area. I was then amazed that the second switched to top-down shooting like Ikari Warriors – not having any history with Contra beyond remembering a few screenshots and trying several first levels, I didn’t see that coming!
I think there were five gradually more bonkers stages in the end, including another top-down level with organic backgrounds and giant insects running about like something from Xenon 2! Some really cool jungle stages too in the classic Contra mould – just like Castlevania(s) on the Game Boy, the developers worked wonders with the monochrome visuals to generate just the right atmosphere.
Whether side-scrolling or top-down, none of the levels took more than a few goes to get through (apart from the first until I changed the buttons around), and the bosses were fairly easy until the (almost) last one, and that was also fairly straightforward once you worked out its couple of attack patterns. Which is how I like my bosses, and overall how I like my games!
Dr Mario World has landed a day early. I’ve played through the first 25 stages, and it’s definitely more Candy Crush than Dr Mario so far in gameplay terms, and it’sstarting to feel like it in free to play mechanics too – there’sdefinitely timers ticking inthe latest area and hearts readyto restrict my play time!
The idea isthat you need to get rid ofcoloured viruses by matching two or more of them withyour colouredcapsule, which you slide up the screen and let it go on its way once you’vegot it positioned.There’s a single player campaignand versus mode where youcanplay your friends (maybe…), which unlocks when you’veplayed enough of the campaign.Andthat’sabout where paid gems and heartsand stuff came into play too.
It looks and sounds as great as you’d expect, and it’s a perfectly fine example of the match-three mobile puzzler, with skills and items and even a choice of doctor and assistant characters. Now and again it feels like Dr Mario (even when you’re Dr. Bowser). But only now and again unfortunately.
In theory the multiplayer does give it something extra, but this is Nintendo we’re talking about! I haveunlocked this, I’veplayed a random and it’s fun, but it looks like my Nintendo account friends can’t be accessed (or if they can, Idon’t know how), and looking for Facebook friends is just giving error messages. Speaking of which, you’d better have a decent connection all the time – even withone I’ve had several lost connection error codes appear, and game freezesappearing too during normal gameplay.Hopefullythat can be patched out like it was on Super Mario Run.
Despite the negative tone, I do enjoy a match-three, andI’menjoyingthis so far… but I enjoy Dr. Mario on the NES an awful lot more, and I’d muchratherbeplayingthat timeless classic on my phone!
This year my SNES Classic Mini was finally joined by its previously impossible to buy NES sibling, plus a C64 Mini and almost a PlayStation Classic – I cancelled the day before it was shipped, not because of the controversial games list, but it just sounded like the finished article was very bare-bones and the emulation was crap. On the ones I hadn’t cancelled, I’ve loved pretty much everything on them more than anything that will ever be released again. On a similar note, I also love most of the old NES stuff that came with the Switch online service – especially the wonderful Tecmo Bowl, Balloon Fight and Mighty Bomb Jack. And on another similar note, I’ve loved playing a ton of the Switch Arcade Archives releases of Donkey Kong and 10-Yard fight, as well as ACA NEOGEO Super Sidekicks 3, and the fabulous Megadrive and SNK collections. And with a Switch now in my possession, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Golf Story from last year, and of course, Breath of the Wild, which I sandwiched between Ocarina of Time and the original Legend of Zelda (which I played on two different platforms almost in parallel).
Hovering just outside this list would be the Williams packs on Pinball FX, featuring some of the best tables ever produced; last-gen racing powerhouse Burnout Paradise Remastered on PS4; Castlevania Requiem (if I’d played a enough of either game included in time); and a game I’ve seriously been waiting 25 years to play, Night Trap on the Switch, which might not be the most mechanically-varied game ever, but was a technical marvel at the time and is still a fun romp today. I’m sure that had I played it yet, Red Dead Redemption 2 would be somewhere around the top, but finally playing and completing Mad Max just before it was released only confirmed I’m a bit done with open worlds at the moment, and I’ve more than enough to keep me going until they finish patching it and the price drops. And I’d have loved to have Tetris Effect on here, but after fifteen minutes of my first game on the beta, the motion sickness began…
As always, the rule here is if it’s been released for the first time on a platform this year, it’s fair game…
1 Gris (Switch)
The very last game I bought in 2018 (at time of writing on Christmas Eve at least). If you ever wanted to convince a non-gamer that gaming is an art form, you’d show them this, because it really is a wonderful piece of art in anyone’s language. I don’t think I’ve ever seen (and probably heard) anything quite as stunning as this on any platform, and maybe aside from Journey, anything as powerful. It’s a dream to play, and a dream to experience as it becomes more and more beautiful as you progress, and subtly more complex. A genuine gaming masterpiece.
2 Minit (Switch)
I avoided buying Minit when it came out on other platforms in the hope it would appear on Switch one day, which seemed like the right place for it, and that day came but a few horrendously hot months later. Bizarre premise of your hero living for only sixty seconds in an old-school Zelda-esque black and white pixel art rogue-lite world, doing simple quests, solving puzzles and killing monsters. Sixty seconds at a time. But it really works! It begins with almost no context or instruction, but you soon work out how things work to progress your story, planning out your next sixty second life as you carry out the next set of activities for this one. Fantastic game, very different, and perfect on the Switch. And when you’re done with the story, there’s a couple more hours picking up the stuff you probably missed then new game plus where sixty becomes forty. Future cult classic!
3 Moonlighter (Switch)
That wonderful Stardew Valley vibe where minutes are actually hours. But with more fighting. Moonlighter is a greeat rogue-like by night, and shopkeeper-sim by day, where you kill for booty to sell to buy armour, weapons, upgrades, better shop stuff and things to liven up your town so you can access new dungeons with better booty. Fantastic to play day or night.
4 Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun! (Switch)
I searched Tokyo in 40 degree heat and 90% humidity for this bundled with the physical drum controller. I failed, but not long after it was all announced for European release and everything was well in the world again. I can’t remember the last time I had a stupid grin on my face playing a game, but there’s little here not to smile about, from the real drum you play along to a huge, bizarre playlist with, to the completely bonkers visual feast that could only come out of Japan happening on the screen. The ultimate party game, even if you’re the only one invited.
5 Mario Tennis Aces (Switch)
I never played Mario Tennis on the Game Boy Colour or Advance, so don’t lament the depth of their story modes apparently missing here. I did, however, sink dozens, if not hundreds of hours into Tennis (featuring Mario as umpire) on the original Game Boy. Jump into an online tournament on Mario Tennis Aces on the Switch, and that’s what you’ve got, dialled up to eleven with trick shots, specials, bullet-time and more, and all against real other people. There’s depth here too – after a few hours you start to notice little things that stack up to make all the difference; you work out how to properly use the trick shot or the blue glow around the ball or the star that sometimes appears on the ground or a dozen other minor things; and then you start winning one in five matches, then one in three, then two, and you’re reaching (and occasionally winning) tournament finals… Stunning looking game, polished to hell, full of character, and utterly addictive. Who cares about story modes (which is actually pretty enjoyable too)!
6 Hollow Knight (Switch)
Specifically here for the first 30 hours, then another 15 hours after 36 hours, then a few more after 53 hours. I absolutely hated everything in between and deleted the game twice in disgust at two bosses I just couldn’t beat. Until I did. Very few games over the last almost forty years have hooked me like this gorgeous looking, vast metroidvania did – even when it was gone, it kept dragging me back. 80% love, 20% pure hatred, and probably the best £7.99 I ever spent on a game.
7 Alto’s Odyssey (iOS)
I’ve played the original Alto’s Adventure more than any other game on mobile (or tablet in my case). It’s the perfect, premium mobile game, and has been my go-to time-passer across thousands and thousands of miles on plane journeys over the last few years. Alto’s Odyssey swaps snowboards for sandboards, but is more of the same, and then some. The new desert backdrop is stunning, and the day/night cycles, variable weather – especially the storms – and multiple biomes to explore make for some outstanding eye-candy. And the one-touch, backflipping gameplay remains as challenging, skilful and perfect as ever.
8 Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon (Switch)
Old-school Castlevania in all but name with some really clever character-switching mechanics, atmospheric old-school graphics and sound that make me want to live in it, and plenty to explore and go back to when you’re able. In the five hours or so to complete first time, it gets progressively more tricky, but aside from a few frustrating sections (generally involving moving platforms in the late game), it’s all do-able after a few attempts and some experimentation with the characters, even on veteran mode. My only gripe is the checkpointing on the double final boss battle – going back to the very start is a real pain while you’re dying over and over again to learn how to beat the second part! Once you’re finally done, definitely worth playing the newly unlocked nightmare mode to explore those places you couldn’t before you had the right characters available. Great game with a lot of retro-love oozing out of it.
9 Mega Man Legacy Collection (Switch)
Much like Zelda, I’d never played a Mega Man game before this year, and now I’ve played and finished three of them; 2, 1 and 3, in that order. I’m particularly proud of finishing Mega Man 2, over a period of months, as I completely avoided all the quality of life enhancements like rewind and save in-progress that come with this wonderfully presented collection of games 1-6 in the series. It’s not just the games though, most of which are bonafide hardcore classics; those enhancements, the mass of settings options and the museum of art that accompanies every game make it one of the best compilations I’ve seen. And it’s the reason why Mega Man 11 is missing – I’ve played the demo dozens of times and it’s awesome, and would certainly deserve to be here in place of this from what I’ve seen, but I’m going to be busy with games 4-6, as well as the Mega Man X game on the SNES Classic Mini, for some time yet!
10 Owlboy (Switch)
There’s still pixel-art everywhere this year, but this really is a marvellous lesson in pixel-art design, and a great Metroidvania game to boot. The sky islands you navigate in this vertical platformer are diverse and stunning. Controlling your owl boy feels great. The evolution of the game mechanics works brilliantly as you meet new partners in crime. And those characters are ones you really care about as you make your way through the thought provoking story. Another brilliant Switch indie.
Much like Nintendo as a whole in the 1980’s (after Game & Watch at least), the Nintendo Entertainment System completely passed me by. When it launched in Europe, I was still fairly new to the ZX Spectrum, and when it was time to move on from there, I don’t remember ever even considering any console – it was just a choice between Amiga (boo) and Atari ST (yay)! Super Mario Land on the Game Boy would be the first time I’d touched anything Nintendo since Snoopy Tennis, and whilst everyone knew of Mario, I’d certainly never heard of Yoshi or Kirby, and definitely not Zelda or Link!
Over decades of gaming, of course I became more aware of the Zelda games, but was never compelled to try one on the Game Boy and its successors, the GameCube or my son’s Wii. Then when I got a 3DS in 2017, Ocarina of Time was dirt cheap and knowing its reputation, bought it with the console. Then didn’t touch it… Fast-forward to May 2018, a Switch for my birthday, as well as a copy of Breath of the Wild , which I also didn’t touch for months, but I had an excuse this time!
I decided I couldn’t start Breath of the Wild until I’d played one of the classic Zelda games, to have an appreciation of where it was coming from. By this time, I actually had a choice – as well as Ocarina of Time, I now had a NES Classic Mini too, which also offered the original The Legend of Zelda and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. As I’d not really heard anyone over the years hyping up the NES games, and obviously everyone hypes up Ocarina of Time all the time, I went there first. And it was great, and I finished it (which took the entire summer), but it didn’t say greatest game of all time to me. I fired up Breath of the Wild the very same evening I finished Ocarina of Time, and over the 90+ hours it took me to finish it, it did blow me away. I was very glad I’d played Ocarina of Time first because it gave it context and also heightened the spectacle of this new masterpiece; now we’re getting closer to that greatest game of all time tag!
September 2018, and where do we go from here? By now, I’ve gone from couldn’t care less about Zelda to fanboy in the space of a few months, and I wanted more, so of course we go back to the beginning. And by now I have a choice of where to play it, with the launch of the Switch online service and its library of NES classics (and that dreadful football (soccer) game). I decided it deserved to be played with a proper controller though, so went for the NES Classic version. Initially at least…
Originally released in 1986 in Japan and 1987 elsewhere, you play Link, a young man out for some action-adventure who needs to find eight bits of the broken Triforce of Wisdom spread all over what must have seemed like a massive monster-filled Hyrule at the time, then confront the evil Ganon and rescue the kidnapped Princess Zelda. Then do it all again, should the urge take you, in a harder and remixed second quest.
I was aware that this game didn’t exactly hold your hand when your adventure begins; you start with nothing, and I knew about people spending hours burning bushes, bombing rocky outcrops and prodding statues just to find basic equipment before you even think about finding bits of Triforce. I’d also read an extremely useful tip – read the manual! In particular, it pointed to a map you find in there, apparently included because Nintendo of America decided it was all a bit too much…
Look really closely, and you can see question marks – at least you know where the bushes are worth burning! Eventually, suitably equipped with the start of what will be a veritable arsenal of powerful gear and life hearts by the time you’re done, you’ll come across a dungeon. Things are a bit more straightforward with the dungeons, where you’ll find a map, a compass, sometimes some equipment like a raft or whistle or magic rod, which will be essential for getting to or completing later dungeons, and then a boss between you and your bit of Triforce. Collect all the bits from the eight dungeons, then there’s one more dungeon hiding the big bad boss man and Princess Zelda.
As you get more powerful, the challenge ramps up, but all the time the focus is on exploring every aspect of the 128 screens of Hyrule and its dungeons, which is hugely rewarding when your patience finally pays off. The monsters that inhabit the dungeons do become more challenging too, and by the time you’re at the sixth or seventh, you’ll be tearing your hair out trying to dispatch a screen full of teleporting undead wizards or knights you can only attack from the side then getting out of there with enough health to make it worthwhile carrying on. None of this more so than in the final Ganon dungeon, which is a beast by the standards of 30 years ago or of today. Thank goodness for the modern convenience of easy saves and restarts on the NES Classic and the Switch…
I almost forgot the Switch. Somewhere around dungeon two, I’d completely fallen in love with this game and kept thinking how cool it would be to have this ready to go anytime and anywhere on the Switch. But by now I was thinking even more that the right way to play it was on a NES controller, as well as the fact that if I finished it on the NES Classic it would have made buying it worthwhile in itself. Then I had the brainwave of catching up to where I was on the NES Classic on the Switch, and playing every dungeon on there as soon as I’d finished it on the NES Classic. Which is what I did to the end, at which point I decided I could dabble in the second quest on the Switch whenever I feel like it.
The Legend of Zelda is an an incredible piece of games design today, and I can only imagine the impact it had on anyone that had the patience to get to the first dungeon back in 1986/7. The remarkably atmospheric 8-bit world completely immerses you – through the distinct looking forests, deserts, coastlines and lakes as you traverse Hyrule; through the menagerie of different monsters and characters you come across; through the wonderful music and now-iconic sounds; and through the vast and ingenious world and dungeon design. Truly epic, and for me, one of the greatest games of all time.