My Grandma stayed on in England after World War II, and coming from an Irish family of twelve brothers and sisters, by the time we got to me that meant a lot of toing and froing of relatives for as long as I could remember. It also meant the occasional trip to Ireland for us too… And that always meant the Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire ferry at the end of a relatively epic car journey through darkest Wales, or a train to London then another west that I’m sure took far longer in the 80’s than the under four hours it does today! Fortunately, the ferry marked the end of the journey too, as our final destination was also Dun Laoghaire, a port town developed to serve Dublin in the early 1800’s, and where Bob Geldof and most of the rest of The Boomtown Rats come from too.
Bob Geldof was probably busy with planning Live Aid around the time I’m going back to now – I reckon we’re in the late Spring half term of 1985 and I’m just thirteen, sporting some great highlights in my hair and a part-new romantic, part-C&A lemon jacket that Don Johnson would have been proud to wear as he made his way across the Irish Sea! I reckon he’d have been just about cool enough to hang around the couple of arcade machines on the ship as well, once the cold had brought you in from standing on deck and the subsequent monotony of being stuck on there for another three hours had kicked in!
And of course, the highlight of whatever the rest of the arcade machines were on this particular ferry crossing was an all-new vertically scrolling war plane shoot ’em-up marvel called 1942! It originally appeared the previous year, at the hands of Capcom’s Yoshiki Okamoto, who, as well as designing its follow-up, would later go on to design Final Fight and a much under-appreciated series called Street Fighter! But back in 1984, he was very successfully following in the footsteps of another Capcom vertical shooter (and actually, I think it was their very first arcade game), Vulgus, where you alternated between being on a planet surface and in outer space taking out giant insect mutants from the planet Vulgus! Despite that, it’s not terribly memorable, though I do have a soft spot for it as a clear predecessor to 1942, and it’s also where that famous Capcom “Pow” power-up icon first began!
Back in 1942, it wasn’t giant mutant insects, but certain enemy planes (the red ones) that would give you this Pow power-up if you shot down the whole group, and that would give you a double-shot, wide-shot, a smart bomb that clears the screen or, a bit later, a pair of escort planes that lasted until they were shot or collided with something – easily done because suddenly your plane isn’t just your plane anymore! Speaking of power-ups, you also had what was a shooter super power at the time, the roll button, and that took you out of the 2D action and into a loop-the-loop, meaning you temporarily avoided any enemy planes or fire. You could do this three times in every stage, but got a decent score bonus at the end for not using it… No chance of that though – it was the coolest thing in the game and exactly what totally gripped me the first time I saw it in the middle of the Irish Sea because it was also one of the coolest things I’d ever seen in any game to that point!
The other thing that got me was the subject matter, which I realise I’ve virtually skipped so far, though there’s really not a lot to it and if you didn’t already know it you’ll have mostly worked out by now! In 1942 you’re the pilot of a “Super Ace” – the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a single-seat fighter plane used by the US Army Air Corps in World War II that was a real jack-of-all-trades including fighter-bomber, bomber-pathfinder and long-range escort fighter; it performed uncommonly well at very high altitudes too, and was responsible for 90% of all the aerial film captured over Europe. Questionable whether or not it could have taken off from an aircraft carrier though… And yes, at this exact moment in 1985 I was also a bit of a World War II plane nerd! Anyway, you’re in the Pacific Theatre, where the P-38 did most of its real-life fighting, shooting down the entire Japanese air fleet and its various fighters, light bombers and heavy bombers, plus four slighly less realistic big boss planes across 32 stages on your way to Tokyo, over the sea and over tropical landscapes. At the end of each stage you’re briefly landing on an aircraft carrier, getting a stage summary, then you’re on your way again. Simple stuff, but, having worked for a Japanese company for one month short of twenty years at the time of writing, and learnt quite a lot about Japanese culture from many visits, it’s curious subject matter all the same having the Japanese as the bad guys!
The first few levels are very sea-based, meaning lots of fighting over a mildly textured blue background! For all of the nicely detailed, mostly recognisable little planes flying all over the screen, it’s not that much of a looker yet, but then that aircraft carrier you strictly speaking cannot land on appears, and you land on it, and it’s a really wonderful sight! Get a little better, and things pick up as you cross very Pacific island-looking Pacific islands, with lush jungle foliage, volcanoes, outcrops, ruins lakes and beaches scrolling smoothly below the aerial warfare, then transitioning back into the contrastingly bleak but very blue expanses of sea.
The sound is very unique, in the same way a dog whistle probably sounds “unique” to a dog; in fact, I think I know exactly what that sounds like after playing 1942 so much recently! There’s some vaguely war movie type music playing now and again, and some very functional gun and plane engine revving sounds as it loops, but there’s also a non-stop whistle! And it’s like the whistle you’d get at the start of Match Day or something on the Spectrum! A shrill, beeping impersonation of a whistle… Beep, Beep-Beep, Beep, Beep, Beep-Beep-Beep, [silence], Beep! I don’t know what it’s meant to be, or what the rhyme or reason is for the sequences it’s sounding in, but it’s terrible! I guess it made people look as they went by though, and while you’re playing it does add an air of chaos to that wonderful gameplay, especially when you’re fully powered up and mowing down everything before it’s even realised your on its screen!
Speaking of the Spectrum, I’m not sure I was ever more excited about an arcade conversion on there than I was for 1942! Okay, maybe Shao-Lin’s Road (more here), but sacred ground like that aside, I couldn’t wait for this to land! The main difference here was that I’d played loads of arcade Shao-Lin’s Road over a long period of time, whereas in reality I’d played minutes of 1942 on a single ferry journey, but somehow those minutes had had an enormous impact on me, and just to be able to play it again in any form – let alone one in my own home – just had me at absolute fever pitch!
Elite handled the 1986 conversion, which was promising after they’d recently scored big with fantastic conversions of Bombjack, Paperboy, Commando and Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and I think that 1942 is programmed with a similar philosophy to Commando especially – a simple conversion that focusses on the simple gameplay mechanics that work so well in the original. By which I mean yes, there’s not a huge amount to look at, especially in the first couple of levels, apart from reasonably detailed planes with some occasionally suspect colour choices! What is there has plenty of attention to detail though – the planes moving in partial 3D as they tilt their wings to turn; there are unique explosions depending on the plane type, with multiple explosions when you take down a big one; and all the planes have working propellors, even the ones that indicate how many lives you’ve got left! They nailed that special roll too!
It does all pick up once you start flying over islands though, as does the inevitable result of some of those colour choices, with some especially fine examples of colour clash when you make landfall! Sound is equally – and mercifully – bare bones too; can you imagine all that whistling coming out of the Spectrum??? They cracked the gameplay though! It’s a little less frantic than the arcade version, though no less challenging, and some very minor suspicions about collision detection now and then aside, it’s always held its own as both a Spectrum shooter and a great conversion. And most importantly for something as addictive as 1942, it was now in your bedroom, so no more bugging your mum for another 10p, and not a disembarkment in sight!
I have played other versions, though not to any great extent… The C64 version is a reasonable conversion, let down some very blocky larger enemy sprites, and what I’ve always considered a very geographically misplaced rendition of Ron Goodwin’s 633 Squadron theme – was there ever a more completely British tune that that, so why’s it playing over the Midway skies? The NES got a great version apart from the sound effects, which are a mix of a dumbed-down take on the arcade’s iconic beepy whistles and some white noise for guns! And I spent a fair bit of time with the Game Boy Colour’s version, which I think is a port of the NES version, but to me seems a lot easier, although the sound is definitely less offensive out of those tiny speakers! It would take the Capcom Classic Reloaded collection on PSP for me to finally get that holy grail of the arcade version not only at home, but in my hands too, back in 2006, and then another fifteen years to be able to play it on a telly as well with Capcom Arcade Stadium on Switch.
That PSP collection was also where I first got my hands on the sequel, 1943: The Battle of Midway, though it was some time later that I really took any version of that seriously with the Japan-only 1991 PC-Engine reimagining, 1943 Kai, which is actually based on the also Japan-only alternate arcade version of the sequel, 1943 Kai: Midway Kaisen, with reworked graphics, sounds and even lasers! But either version was effectively more of the same, with you now taking out Japan’s naval fleet as well as its air force, so you’ve got bombs for them, and a health bar rather than lives too. I must confess I’ve barely touched the original original on Capcom Arcade Stadium so far – after all, it’s got original original 1942 on it! But I have played the Spectrum version, which is graphically very impressive, going into complete overdrive compared to its 1942, but I find the gameplay a bit soul-less, and I’ll generally switch it off before my life bar is depleted! The NES version is also worth noting because it features a persisent upgrade system for your plane.
At this point, just don’t think too hard about the Battle of Midway actually taking place in 1942 or it will throw the whole space-time mess of the entire rest of the series into total destructive disarray! Not that I have much experience of the rest though – 1941: Counter Attack seemed like a 1990 update of the original; 19XX: The War Against Destiny in 1996 had multiple planes to choose from; 1944: The Loop Master in 2000 offered tactical invicibility; and then we had 194X: 3D Dogfight in 2005, 1942: Joint Strike in 2008 and 1942: First Strike in 2010, none of which I’d even heard of until two minutes ago!
Despite having multiple versions of the original 1942 now, I think it’s a testament to the deceptive quality of the Spectrum conversion behind that simple facade that I still play on there more than anywhere else. That fleeting glimpse at the arcade machine on a ferry with its loop-the-loops and exotic warplanes might have sparked my imagination, but the Spectrum is where the game really came to life for me, and it’s never really stopped living there, despite the bells and those shrill, beeping whistles of the original!
Despite my being there day one, I was a little slow on the uptake when Demon’s Tilt appeared on Xbox Game Pass at the end of 2019. I’m going to blame it on my kidneys briefly giving up the ghost during the first half of an MK Dons football match at around the same time! Anyway, once I was out of hospital a week later, and in the brief (usually very late night) moments that my son wasn’t plugged into FIFA or Madden or Fortnite on his Xbox, I was very quickly being reeled in by what started as the obviously best occult pinball action game I’d ever played, then maybe the best pinball game I’d ever played, and then just one of my favourite games of all time! It left Game Pass long before I’d got my own Xbox Series X, but its appearance on Switch had already given me unlimited access, and 14 months later as I write, it’s still often the last thing I do before I go to bed at night!
Demon’s Tilt is turbo-charged pinball and then some, with its demonic ritual-driven story spanning three intense screens, multiple hidden bonus rooms and special modes. It looks and sounds insane, often veering into bullet-hell territory, and the depth of gameplay is just incredible. My love of pinball games might have started with Pinball Wizard on the VIC-20 (more here), but it ends with Demon’s Tilt!
All that said, connoisseurs of nineties pinball games might have just felt the pang of familiarity that took me slightly longer to notice as I was dealing with my lower-right abdomen’s pangs of exploding! I got there eventually though, with a little help from some kind reviewers, who were starting me on an often obsessive journey, first making various stops on the PC-Engine, then ending by way of a couple more on the Sega Megadrive / Genesis. Our tale proper begins with Alien Crush, a game I’d actually played quite a lot of on PC-Engine at this point, but had no idea of its lineage or influence, and as obvious as it may seem now, didn’t immediately make the link…
Alien Crush is a 1988 PC-Engine three-screen, Alien-inspired sci-fi pinball game by Japanese developer Compile, possibly better known now for their Puyo Puyo series. And despite being a little dated today by its flip-screening, it still plays wonderfully, offering what must have been unprecented depth at the time! It was followed on PC-Engine in 1990 by Devil’s Crush, which replaced the sci-fi with the occult, and we’ll come back here later! After that little masterpiece, there was a Japan-only Super Famicon sequel, Jaki Crush, in 1992, inspired by Japanese depictions of hell, where I guess the demon jaki from the title lives! It still plays great too, with more complex pinball mechanics, some really cool graphical effects and a classic soundtrack to drive you onwards. Then for the official conclusion to the “Crush Pinball” series, we skip all the way forwards to 2008 with Alien Crush Returns, part sequel and part remake of the original for the Nintendo Wii via its WiiWare service. This one’s a little soul-less, with a lot of the incredible attention to detail of the original games sacrificed for more sparse big 3D graphics. Move forwards again to just over a decade later, and we’re finally up to date with very spiritual successor Demon’s Tilt, soul once again intact… At least until it tears it right out of you!
The PC-Engine Mini, which was a belated birthday present when it launched here in mid-2020, took me on its own ongoing journey of discovery, but I think so far Alien Crush is still what I’ve played the most on there – it was made to be seen on a great big flat-screen! However, as my Demon’s Tilt-inspired journey of occult pinball discovery continued in parallel, we come to another “Mini” console, the PlayStation Classic and its very easy, non-intrusive modding to play almost anything, including the PC-Engine and its Devil’s Crush!
Devil’s Crush, direct sequel to Alien Crush as we’ve already discussed, is three screens high, but it’s now scrolling smoothly into a single continuous playfield containing three sets of flippers. They’ve also done wonders with the ball physics, and in the main the ball feels just like it’s supposed to feel. I was instantly sold on the occult theming, which is a joy to behold, full of sinister monks, oozing skulls and other exposed-bone monstrosities, the big vampire snake lady, dragons and hints of flame and all kinds of diabolical detail. Having worked for a Japanese company for just about 20 years, I’ve seen a lot of Japanese Powerpoint slides, and one way of identifying Japan as the source is that they like to fill every space on the slide with information – white space is wasted space! This game is the same, with not a single wasted pixel of space anywhere in the living, medieval dungeon-styled Devil’s castle backdrop.
There’s movement everywhere, with so much just waiting to respond or explode or squelch or fight back at the slightest touch from your balls, and completing the right challenges will open up one of eight special single-screen bonus tables. Get a perfect on all of these and you’re in for a big 4x score multiplier, but there’s also mega points available for all kinds of perfect shots, like dropping a ball into the snake woman’s crown without touching any slime. Actually, landing your balls in her crown regardless is going to give you the game’s trademark visual pay-off, with each one (followed by hitting the right bonus symbol) gradually changing her from some kind of vampiric sleeping beauty to alien snake monster as you play, then once she’s there you shoot her again and you’ve got another bonus table! Tilt is going to play a big part in scoring big too, with a single tilt “direction” making it a little hit or miss, but it is going to be far more forgiving than in many other pinball games, encouraging its use as part of your arsenal. Another mechanic of the Crush games is the last chance, where once you’ve lost your three balls you’ve got a spinning something-hundred number to stop; if that matches the last three numbers of your score, you get one more chance with an extra ball, so stop at 900 and your score is 427900, for example, and there you go!
There’s suitably eerie sound effects everywhere, mixed with more traditional pinball bells and whistles. Ball impacts sound suitably meaty, the plunger sounds suitably mystical, and there’s a suitably evil laugh from one of the bigger feature skulls when you lose a ball! We’ve also got a load of distinct theme tunes, with the title screen playing the pick of the bunch – a very Castlevania kind of haunted house music. Things hot up for the main in-game theme, which does a great job of eventually looping without ever getting annoying, and its high-tempo eighties keyboard-rock just hinting at something sinister. Then you’re brought back from the dead with the high score table theme taunting you with a vaguely oriental sound, somewhere in the middle of the other two! Bonus tables also have their own themes, all adding up to a lot of music, which isn’t the absolute best of the best on the PC-Engine, but it’s never very far off.
It should be noted that there’s a bit of censorship going on with Devil’s Crush, so make sure you’re on the Japanese version to get the original vision and the full occult beauty of this stunning game! Otherwise, you’ll be getting vases instead of coffins (which had those deeply offensive crucifix things on), and pentagrams and other such symbols of evil replaced by pretty pointed stars! Getting the right version is slightly easier as we move to the Sega Mega Drive (or Genesis) – and the title at the top of this page is also going to start looking less like a typo – though we’re going to have to muddy the waters of the Crush series even more to get there, which for me is just a couple of original PlayStation controller clicks away…
Devil Crash MD, to give it its full name, is the uncensored Japanese Mega Drive port of Devil’s Crush. However, it wasn’t just coffins that were deemed too much for western audiences, but the name itself, and America and Europe got the more fantasy-themed Dragon’s Fury, which was to all intents and purposes the western release of the PC-Engine game. There’s really not much between these two games whatever they’re called though, and on any given day I might veer between the larger playing area and more realistic physics of the PC-Engine version or the vibrancy and slightly more realistic flow to the game of the Mega Drive version. Overall the latter might just pip it at the post though, with its bit more gothic title music, set on top of a more flamboyant title screen featuring the snake lady. “More flamboyant” is a good way to desribe the main game theme on this version too, as well as some of the graphical flourishes like the steam going on around the base of the plunger, more flames and bigger explosions; it’s just generally all a bit more bold and in your face. It’s also got its own user interface down the right side of the screen, which does result in a comparatively smaller table size, but on the other hand is giving the serious player valuable progress information.
What the Mega Drive version does have is some really cool cheat codes. Both versions have a password save system, but enter the right password here and you’ll not only have 99 balls, but also your choice of changing the table music to the themes from Thunder Force II or III, Herzog Zwei, Elemental Master and more! I believe it’s also got an end game too, where if you score a billion points you’ll start a final boss battle, but I’ve definitely never seen that! And finally, it’s got its own sequel… Don’t get too excited, the 1993 Dragon’s Revenge is almost none of the things we’ve been so positive about with any of the games we’ve discussed up to now! Maybe that’s a little harsh, but it’s definitely a bit mediocre in comparison, with few of its own ideas except over-complicating the table design, going full on fantasy and making some dubious attempts at sexing everything up with some very 16-bit bikini-clad warrior women hosting the bonus tables! Demon’s Tilt might not be 100% canon, but it’s far more canon than this Mega Drive canon sequel!
Back to Devil Crash or Devil’s Crush – it doesn’t really matter – you’re going to have the absolute best time with either version depending on your system of choice! It’s a stunning looking, stunning sounding, imaginative pinball game that still holds its own as one of the greats despite making up the rules as it goes along. Demon’s Tilt might have had several decades to perfect the formula, but in my collection at least, Devil Crash, Devil’s Crush (and let’s not forget Alien Crush!) have just about equal billing.
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!
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!
A year or so ago I was playing P-47 on Amstrad CPC (and that’s P-47 Thunderbolt or Freedom Fighter depending on where you’re looking in that package at any given time), and thinking what a great job they’d done on capturing the atmosphere of the sumptuous, sun-setting second level of the 1988 arcade version… Far more so than the Spectrum version I was far more familiar with, where atmosphere by complex colour gradients was a bit more of a challenge! And then I thought about the arcade version and how that level was still just one of the best-looking things I’d ever seen as I approached my sixth calendar decade of gaming.
Being a bit useless with MAME and arcade emulation, I went straight to the next best thing with the PC-Engine version, quickly remembering that this was a bit more of its own interpretation of the original. My old band rarely did cover versions, but when we did, we’d make a point of not listening to the original and just going from memory and what we thought it sounded like (which is how our Brown Sugar ended up being an 8-minute goth-punk odyssey)! And that’s just how this feels! You know what it is, but, for example, the train “boss” at the end of the first stage is now the big plane that briefly drops into the arcade version mid-stage. Fortunately, they remembered the sunset background on the next level and got it pretty spot-on; actually, the second level is a pretty good conversion, though overall, for a machine so well-known for its shooters, it does feel a bit floaty to control, and the CPC and Spectrum versions are more fun to play, if not quite as fun to look at.
Since then, earlier in 2020 we got the Arcade Archives release of the orignal P-47 on Switch and elsewhere I expect too, giving us that ancient holy grail of the arcade-perfect version to play at home. And also the holy grail of that wonderful, sumptuous, sun-setting second level in all of its glory on the TV in our living rooms! Now, as regular viewers will know, I like a list. And all of this has had me thinking for months about my favourite sights in all of gaming, and here we are!
I wanted to keep this focussed on quality over quantity, so I’ve been thinking about top five rather than top more. But interestingly, that five was pretty straightforward for me to come up with, where a top ten, for example, would be more of a challenge because I’m still struggling to really come up with anything else that has had the same visual impact on me. Actually, the only thing I have come up with in those months as a potential number six is that glittery ghosty gold level in Super Castlevania IV on SNES (also known at Stage IX)!
I’m also not sure about the right order yet, so I’m going to start with the undisputed winner then just see what happens! And the undisputed winner is, of course, a very specific moment near the very start of the very first stage of Out Run, where you’ve just hit the first hill and then the initial dual three-lane bits of road you’ve been driving on come together into this vast, exotic six-lane coastal highway, giving you the first of many exhilerating moments of speed and gravity as you take in that glorious view. And whilst I’m talking about the arcade version here, the Spectrum version – which I’ll defend forever (see here) – had a similar visual impact at that exact moment! The more I play Out Run, the more I think it’s perfect, which is an accolade I’d maybe only also apply to Tetris and Super Mario World aside from that. And whilst that’s very subjective, I think I can be less subjective when I say that this 1986 vintage arcade machine is still an absolute stunner!
Next up I’m going with the aforementioned P-47’s second level. I’ve just always thought that use of colour here is absolutely jaw-dropping, and couple that with loads going on on-screen and at least 7-8 layers of parallax-scrolling clouds going by under the setting sun, and you’ve got a sight that will keep you coming back to the game for that alone. Good luck getting past it, but if you do get a bit further along there’s some more really nice cloud effects to swoon over, but they’re grey not orange, which means they’re not quite as good!
We’ve been from 1986 to 1988 so far, and now we’re landing right back in the middle with 1987’s Olli & Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmore Castle on the ZX Spectrum. Apart from Feud on the same machine, more than anything else this is my go-to gaming comfort food, and whilst the first screen is my chicken wings and garlic bread, here we’re talking about the second screen and a giant ham, mushroom and pineapple (yes, pineapple!) pizza all to myself! The game itself (more here) is old-school brutal and unforgiving pixel-perfect platforming. And it’s also absolute vintage ZX Spectrum colour scheming, and I can’t think of any better background colour than yellow for the final atmospheric flourish in this beautifully detailed haunted castle! If I could live in any computer game, it would be a toss up between here and the aforementioned Super Castlevania IV. And as for this screen, I could just sit staring at it all day!
Even now, I still think of the PC-Engine as being a graphical tour-de-force, and can still remember every untouchable screenshot that Computer & Video Games had a habit of shoving down my throat every month in the late eighties! For the next entry we’re still hanging around 1987, albeit in the last couple of days of the year, with the release of Victory Run. And yes, it’s another racing game, and yes, it’s another sunset, and yes, I might be some kind of orange pervert! The PC-Engine (or Turbografx-16 if you prefer) isn’t exactly stacked with racers, but this one is unique. It’s based on the Paris-Dakar Rally, it has a deep vehicle maintenance system (but not in a car-nerdy way) and it’s tough, but my favourite thing about it is that it’s also totally unpredictable, which gives it real longevity too, even after you think you’ve cracked it. The sight we’re looking at now is in the second stage, generated by the day-night cycle that accompanies your progress. The look isn’t a million miles from Out Run or a load of other contemporary racers, and actually you’ve had a preview of the sunset effect in the previous stage, but here in the mountains as you head south through France the effect really comes to life as this brilliant solid orange sky appearing over the top of perfectly tinted clouds. I can only imagine how it looks if you actually make it to Dakar, but until then I’m happy for my game to end around here just about every time I play!
We’re going to conclude this tour of my favourite sights in all of gaming with something that I was going to say is a bit less orange until I looked at it again just now, and that is the pirate ship in Stage 3 of Streets of Rage 2 on the Sega MegaDrive. At the time of writing in October 2020, Streets of Rage 4 is sitting in my top three games of the year so far (spoiler, the other two are In Other Waters and Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2). And that is a looker! Best looking toilet graffiti I’ve ever seen in real-life or a game, and such is the attention to detail that you’ll be noticing something new (or old!) play-through after play-through. Speaking of looker, Blaze has only strengthened her case as the hottest video game character of all time too! Anyway, in Stage 3 back in the second game, you’re in an amusement park and eventually you’re going through a door with a “Pirates” sign over it, through the inside of a ship and ending up on the deck full of ninjas. Not pirates. Ninjas. Don’t worry, the only thing that could have made this pirate ship deck look any better was ninjas coming down the rigging at you! This ship is such a contrast and such a surprise after the gritty journey so far, with so much detail in the wood and the ropes and the general ship’s decoration. There’s also a lovely touch with the dark blues of the night-time sky and coastal town in shadow in the background, swaying around like it’s been painted onto a canvas sheet on poles behind an amateur theatre production. And yeah, pick Blaze and she’s also there, all muscle and violence with her eye-catching minimal martial arts-wear, and if you’re lucky maybe a sword pick-up in her hand as well! Thank goodness for pause, because that ship moment is all too brief (and yes, who’s the pervert now?) and you really need to slow down the fighting and take it all in every time you get there.
And there we are, but you didn’t think I was going to let you escape without that Spectrum Out Run moment did you??? Hope you enjoyed the tour, and I would be truly fascinated to find out about your favourite sights in all of gaming!
There are very scientific reasons about why I can remember not only every second of Live Aid, but also where I was sitting when Status Quo came on, for example. Same for what I was eating for breakfast (toast) when the Mary Rose was pulled up, or what music was playing (1999 by Prince – see here for more on that) the first time I played Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. It’s a bit like those ghost theories about high-impact things being imprinted on places, but more real and that place is your brain, not the creepy underground boiler room in your middle school that I had forgotten all about until just now… But while that works for high-impact, I am wondering why I also remember what I was wearing (blue La Coste tracksuit) when I bought Queen’s Greatest Hits from the record section downstairs in Boots in Bedford in about 1984. And also why I don’t remember almost anything about what was an hotly anticipated, but in retrospect horrendous sounding, annual church trip to Great Yarmouth that was in full annual swing around the same time. Incidentally, I also have very few memories of why I bought Queen’s Greatest Hits as I’ve never been a fan!
Anyway, I’ve mentioned the church trip before, and playing Mini Munchman on the bus on the way there one year, and the arcade by the big funfair with the giant outside where we were dropped off and picked up that had a Track & Field machine. And on top of that, I vaguely remember thinking that one of the rollercoasters there seemed really rickety as we were going around it one time, but generally, I was thinking my only memories of what we actually did there revolved around that arcade. Now, a apart from a section in Computer & Video Games mag, an arcade was a once-per-year novelty in itself – so kind of makes sense according to our theory – and we’d be in it as soon as we arrived, then be hanging around in it with no money left to play anything anymore for a bit before we left. But coming back to memory, apart from “arcade” and exactly where the Track & Field machine was, in the far back-right corner, I really don’t remember anything else about what else was inside it either… At least until one year something new appeared, around the corner and about five machines to the right of Track & Field, that immediately demanded your full attention and pocket full of 10p’s!
Look it at it today, and it’s probably hard to imagine why Pac-Land might have that impact on a passer-by, but try passing-by this on the way to Track & Field in 1984 or 85, when you’re getting a double-whammy of not only seeing the Pac-Man in a new perspective, but a whole new side-scrolling perspective on gaming too!
Let’s get into the first new perspective, and its cartoon inspiration. As much as I’m a huge fan of Hanna-Barbera’s 1960’s and 70’s output, when it comes to the 1980’s it’s all about Pac-Man: The Animated series, which first aired in 1982 and ran for 21 episodes and a couple of specials until then end of 1984. And that makes it the first cartoon ever based on a video game! It was always going to be a hit with me because it was shown as part of my absolute school summer holiday favourite, Rat on the Road, the Roland Rat [Superstar] show that came on at the end of TV:AM! Which gives us a probable first airing date here of summer 1983. Interesting fact about this is that Roland Rat’s appearance then boosted the ailing breakfast show’s viewer numbers from around 100,000 to 1.8 million. Yeeeeaaaaaaahhhhhhh, Rat-fans!
Back to Pac, you’ve got Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man (known as Pepper for some reason) and Baby Pac (in his only speaking role!), and they live in Pac-Village in a place called Pac-Land, of course! Actually, as we’re going far deeper into Pac-lore than I ever intended, what about the older Pac-kid, Jr. Pac-Man? I get that his love antics with Blinky’s daughter might have been problematic to the storyline, but it’s like he never existed! As some compensation, you do get Super-Pac in the second season! The plotline in most episodes is Pac-Man protecting the village and its power pellets from his familiar ghost foes (and Sue from Ms. Pac-Man) and their evil uncle, The Ghost Wizard of Mezmeron… And let me tell you something, if I ever decided to change my name, I would change it to The Ghost Wizard of Mezmeron!
The hugely vibrant look of the show was ported wholesale to the arcade game, as was the iconic music that looped throughout, which you could sniff out in an arcade like a pig sniffing out truffles; in an audio kind of way! The detailed character designs, complete with hats and hair – not to mention their super-smooth animation style – were also a big feature of the game. Pac-Man alone had 24 different frame patterns, where one or two was the norm at the time. As a[nother] side note, something that didn’t come from the cartoon, but by coincidence is relevant here, are the controls – they came from Track & Field, using buttons instead of a joystick, which allowed for those lovely springboard long jumping bits that will always be my favourite part of the game!
And this brings us to that second new perspective. Super Mario Bros. might spring to mind when you think of side-scrolling platformers, and rightly so because it pretty much set the template for anything else that followed it, but Pac-Land was doing the power-upped walking and running and jumping bidirectional horizontal scrolling thing a good year beforehand. It was far more influential than it gets credit for, but seeing it moving in an arcade was seeing that cartoon brought to life, from left to right and sometimes back again, and at the time that was very probably something you’d never seen the like of before!
Back to playing the game, each of the levels is a multi-stage journey to Fairy Land to get a lost fairy home, rewarding you with some super boots that will make your journey back through the level to your family a bit easier. You’ll be going through towns, forests, deserts then castles, and each stage ends with Break Time at the church on the hill where you’ll be awarded bonus points for your jumping performance as you come to a stop (preceding Mario and his flagpole), and I can’t emphasise how welcome that Break Time sign is on some of the more frantic stages! That said, it’s worth saying that things never really gets that frantic, which I think is why I appreciated the arcade game so much – good value for money for the casual player was as important as anything!
Obviously, there’s the ghosts that are constantly on your tail, driving buses at you, chucking stuff at you out of planes and allsorts more to hinder your progress. Then there’s enviromental obstacles like the aforementioned springboard, quicksand, ropey wooden bridges with spinning logs, fire hydrants and other water-based hazards ready to spray you down and take you down. But as well as the boots and sporadic power pills that do exactly what you expect them to do, there’s also a bunch of hidden stuff that will help you out. For example, turn around and push the right fire hydrant in certain stages and you’ll get a hat that will stop you being harmed by dangers from above. There’s also hidden fruit behind certain jumps (something else it preceded Mario with) and even a Galaxian flagship worth loads of points!
And the whole thing comes together to be such a joy to play! On the arcade machine, you’re going to get your 10p’s worth out of the first couple of stages for the visuals alone – the transitions from one distinct stage to another are just wonderful, and no matter how far you go, everything will soon become reassuringly familiar, and after each Break Time you’ll be fondly entering the next bit… before you realise that at some point things got a bit hard and you’re starting again!
In the grand scheme of things, whilst it had the biggest impact on me, the arcade machine is the version I played the least. That’s not unusual for me, having had infrequent access to arcade machines back then, but what is unusual is that I might have played a lot on more different versions of Pac-Land than any other game I can think of. It came out on nearly everything, and somehow I’ve spent a lot of time with it on nearly everything!
As was often the case, the Spectrum was the first version I really spent a lot of time on. Strangely though, the Spectrum version did come out about four years after the fact in 1988, along with CPC, MSX and Atari ST versions, and then the C64 version arrived even later. The Spectrum conversion gets a bad rap – it’s got weird colours and Pac-Man has a funny nose and it doesn’t scroll (meaning you need to remember that falling log is right after the next screen-flip!), but its genuinely only latterly that I’ve had those thoughts! It was and still is a very competent port with nearly everything else present and correct, and as was also often the case, it was Pac-Land in your house, on your Spectrum, and that’s all you needed for it to be fun! In terms of reviews at the time, I do remember it getting a bit of a hammering though. If it had come out in 1985 it might have fared better, but we’re not only years after the original (which was decades in eighties home computing terms!), we’re also years after the new Super Mario yardstick.
The version I’ve played most seriously on – not quite finishing it but not being far off – is the PC-Engine conversion from 1990, though actually playing it was much more recent. As much as I’d love it to be a part of the mostly beautifully curated library on my PC-Engine Mini, it’s not, but another machine in my collection does a very good impression of a PC-Engine and plays whatever game you care to throw at it right with no fuss, right through an HDMI cable! Much like the Spectrum conversion of Pac-Land, the PlayStation Classic is very unfairly maligned; at least when it has a USB stick with a certain emulator suite stuck on it! For me this is the ultimate conversion of Pac-Land. I know I’m going from almost 40-year memories, but this is exactly how the arcade version looked, sounded and played. In the last couple of years I’ve played dozens of hours, having a couple of games at least once a week. And that’s a beautiful thing to be able to do!
Trying its best to be as beautiful is the Commodore 64 version, and as a contemporary conversion for an 8-bit machine, you couldn’t expect any more. I’ve been playing this on the C64 Mini for a few years at the time of writing. The colours are a little muted, there’s only 16 levels (I think in common with most if not all other 8-bit conversions) and you can’t jump on top of some of the enemies so a touch from below is death here, but the soundtrack is classic C64! And it scrolls! It’s also a bit easier than the other versions so getting to the end of this one is very achievable.
I’ve not played a huge amount of the Amstrad CPC version – actually, when I finally got around to emulating a CPC for the very first time in 2019 (also on the PlayStation Classic, albeit a bit more fiddly to do than the PC Engine), it was the first thing I fired up and has been about the only thing I’ve regularly gone back to! It’s a real mish-mash of the other two 8-bit versions here, and would be on a par with the C64 version if it hadn’t inherited the Spectrum’s lack of scrolling!
Jumping back to around 1990, and the Atari ST version was a whole fantastic different matter. When I made the jump from Spectrum +2 to Atari ST, I very distinctly remember this being one of the games – together with Star Wars and Operation Wolf – that announced that arcade conversions were finally that mythical arcade-perfect we’d been hearing about for years! In retrospect it stuttered a bit in places, and was lacking parallax scrolling, but do you think that mattered coming from the Spectrum version? This was the holy grail of Pac-Land conversions to that point!
My brother was also a big fan of Pac-Land in the Great Yarmouth arcade, and he also owned a Lynx! And a couple of years later again, Pac-Land on there was also a fantastic conversion. I’d say in some stages it’s even more vibrant than the arcade version, with very faithful graphics, sound and gameplay. And let’s not forget, that’s a contemporary conversion in your hand, which the Atari Lynx was very good at! It moves at pace but the scrolling is a little off when it’s got big stuff like buildings to move along the screen (though I’ll take this over flip-screening and even the ST suffered from this). It’s checkpointing seemed a bit broken too – die in the forest and restart in halfway through the town, for example! It’s main crime though – and I’ll say “apparently” because I’m not the target audience for stuff like this – is that it has no ending! Just keeps going, I assume replaying the same levels over and over. No complaints from me about this version at all though. Still massively impressive!
Moving forwards half a decade again, and the original PlayStation was being peppered with loads of original arcade game version compilations covering loads of ancient stuff, and Namco was front and centre with no less than six of them! Pac-Land finally appeared in 1997 on Volume 4, drawing a short straw I think, being packaged with lesser known games in the West like Ordyne, Assault, The Return of Ishtar and Genpei Toma Den… Where’s Metrocross, Pac-Mania and Dragon Spirit??? (For information, coming a year later in Volume 5). But now we finally have the real holy grail of the actual arcade version in your home. And now I’m sitting here wondering why I spend so much time playing the PC-Engine version when the actual original is also sitting on exactly the same machine… Having just fired it up again, one thing is for sure – all that PC-Engine practice has made me really, really good at the arcade version now!
Most recently, we come to Namco Museum Archives Volume 2 on Nintendo Switch, which along with a favourite version of classic vertical shooter Xevious (Super Xevious) and loads of other NES goodies, we also have the NES conversion of Pac-Land. Firstly, it takes some getting used to, because as far as I can work out, unlike the PC-Engine version that allows you to press Select to switch from default “button” controls to regular “lever” controls, this one only seems to have button controls. And they take a bit of getting used to because you’re walking and running and changing direction on your right hand, and jumping with a directional button on the left. It’s also very minimal looking, Pac-Man is tiny on the screen, and it suffers from a bit of slowdown despite there being very little detail in the characters or backgrounds. There’s a few bits missing too, including the fairy screen – you get a Fairy Land sign like for Break Time instead – and also no super boots for your return trip. And like the Lynx version, I think it loops after 16 levels. I’m not doing a great job of selling it, but despite all of that, give it a chance and it plays absolutely fine, sounds lovely, and is a great version to have if you’re out and about with your Switch!
And that’s a whole lot of Pac-Land, one of my top five favourite arcade games (we’ll cover that another time), same on PC-Engine, and probably true on a lot of other systems too! Now do yourself a favour and dig up that cartoon!
As a current employee of what used to be NEC Electronics, I couldn’t resist sharing this page from the August 1989 issue of Crash magazine. But I’m really not sure what caught my eye first – a very unexpected “advert” from NEC in a Spectrum magazine, or the the proper advert it shares the page with for Bimbos of the Death Sun! Actually, it was the latter, but I think they both deserve a bit of attention…
I started working for Japanese electronics monster NEC just under 12 years after this was published, but you’d still see occasional material with this old, very Japanese logo, especially when you visited one of the two offices I used to frequent in Tokyo. As well as being very Japanese, I really had to laugh at how typically corporate the message on this advert was, even though the readership of Crash was mainly kids who owned Spectrums – if we did it now, I’m sure it wouldn’t be all that different either!
This is all about the PC Engine, and how “NEC Corporation, NEC Home Electronics Ltd, and NEC (UK) Ltd (collectively ‘NEC’ hereafter)” didn’t want it being sold in the UK. Therefore, you need to know it’s not compatible with our old European PAL TV’s, and if it is then it’s been surreptitiously modded by someone that shouldn’t be selling it to you regardless, and if anything goes wrong with it, tough!
Obviously, it probably wouldn’t be wise for me to offer too many more opinions than I have already, but all the same, this is such a wonderful snapshot of the transition from our beloved 8-bit machines to 16-bit computers and consoles. I’d just about moved to my Atari ST at the time, but I do remember the PC Engine was a very exotic-looking piece of kit, with its exotic-looking arcade ports and just generally stunning graphics in screenshots. I also remember it seeming very expensive to own, even once you’d got hold of a console you could actually connect to your telly!
In hindsight, through emulation then much more recently my beloved PC-Engine Mini, it’s also become the one machine I wish I’d owned at the time, but personal favourites like the wonderful Devil’s Crush, Pac-Land and Victory Run, and all the other stuff it’s probably better known for, are maybe stories for another day!
What I can offer an opinion on is the second advert, featuring “MURDER MOST FUN!” with Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb. Firstly, why has this never been made into a movie? You might be surprised to hear that in 1988, this won the Edgar Award for Best Original Paperback Mystery, though apparently it was less well received from the sci-fi and fantasy scene it parodied. And in that case, I assume it parodied it very well.
It’s all about a nerd convention called Rubicon, where the guest of honour Viking fantasy author, Appin Dungannon, gets murdered with a bullet through the heart. Everyone hates him, so who done it is anyone’s guess, but according to the back of the book, fellow author James Owens Mega, “…dons the role of Dungeon Master, and solves this uproarious whodunit in the ultimate Dungeons & Dragons role-playing climax!”
It’s still in print (and digital), and apart from some out-dated technology references, seems to still be pretty much spot-on in terms of nerd culture and their stinky gatherings, as well as being a decent pulpy thriller.