Favourite Sights in All of Gaming

Favourite Sights in All of Gaming

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!

My Life With… Pac-Land (Arcade / Spectrum / Everything Else!)

My Life With… Pac-Land (Arcade / Spectrum / Everything Else!)

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 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) and probably in my top five on a lot of other systems too! Now do yourself a favour and dig up that cartoon!

Crash! PC-Engine & Bimbos of the Death Sun

Crash! PC-Engine & Bimbos of the Death Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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