My Life With… Olli and Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Olli and Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle – ZX Spectrum

For a couple of years, aged fourteen and fifteen, my then-best friend Thomas and I decided it would be a good idea to get each other no income-friendly Christmas presents. For Christmas 1986, knowing a Spectrum +2 was on the way, he acquired a C90 mix tape of Spectrum games for me from another Speccy-owning friend of his. Unfortunately the majority never worked, though I do remember being blown away by my ill-gotten copy of wire-frame helicopter sim, Tomahawk, for actually loading as much as anything else! Speaking of wires, we both dabbled in electronics at that time too, and I recall getting him a selection of different types of wire in return!  Anyway, things went slightly better in 1987 when he got sweets and I fared even better than an industrial load of our favourite lemonade crystals with what would become one of my top five favourite games of all time!

I’m not entirely sure how Olli and Lissa eluded me for another year; it was a £1.99 budget game from Firebird in 1986 and I bought some right turds at that price through the year! Everything about it was right up my increasingly spooktastic street, albeit in a very cute, cartoony way. But finally we were united, and on Christmas Eve I rode home across town from Thomas’ house on my bike, present safely secured in the pannier bag on the back, completely unaware of how much I was going to fall in love with jumping about an eight-roomed, cruel, beautifully atmospheric yellow castle over the next few hours… until I was dragged off to midnight mass, though at least it got that out of the way for Christmas Day to be lived to the full!

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As I write this, I’ve got the title screen playing its looping bursts of multi-layered gothic Spectrum chip-tune, interspersed with pauses for a clap of thunder (white noise) before it ends in a subtle crescendo and you get what seems to be a slightly longer clap of “thunder” before it starts again. It really is one of my favourite pieces of 48K Spectrum music, which I realise isn’t saying a lot, but it does a wonderful job of setting the scene for what follows!

The “menue” screen then introduces the characters while the music thankfully keeps looping for extended enjoyment. The story goes that the ghost of Sir Humphrey needs you, the titular Olli, to get him a load of ingredients so Lissa can mix up an invisibility potion in her big cauldron and he can scare off the folks that are planning on shipping his castle to America. We could debate the amount of fear induced by visible versus invisible ghost, though I suppose it depends on what he’s planning on doing while he’s invisible, so let’s just accept the storyline might not be the game’s greatest strength!

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The very first (of the aforementioned eight) screen is everything I love about this game. The creepy atmosphere is just incredible, and bizarrely everything being yellow somehow adds to the atmos! The attention to detail in the little 3D castle windows or the ornate stone flourishes above the portcullises really bring the castle alive. And it doesn’t stop with the backgrounds – don’t move for a second and Olli’s blobby sprite will turn and question what you’re playing at, then start tapping his foot impatiently. Meanwhile, up at the top of the screen, Sir Humphrey’s ghost paces (in a floating kind of way) up and down the platform where Lissa is waiting to mix stuff up.

When you start, Sir Humphrey will tell you what ingredient you need to find next in a little speech bubble, then off you trot to get it. A strange menagerie of gnomes, ghosts, spiders, little paranormal octopus things, bats and a nasty caterpillar will hinder your progress as you hunt around the castle then outside it through the woods and caverns and back across the ramparts to find the his ingredients then make your way back to Lissa and her cauldron where she’ll reward you with a kiss before you set off for the next one.

Not that you’re ever going to see much of that saucy action – this is one brutal, pixel-perfect left, right and jump platformer, and the sight of Sir Humphrey battering you with a brush when you run out of energy (which quickly ticks down regardless of you hitting stuff) is a much more familiar sight!

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You will spend a very long time jumping over beasties then trying to go up and down stairs before that come back for you in the gap before their rapid return from their movement loop in the first two castle screens before you even get a occasional sniff of the outside world! But given how much I love that castle, it never really put me off, and seeing the spiders on the spooky trees or jumping across the lake was only ever an infrequent but unnecessary bonus. Instead, I did (and still do) while away many a happy hour just dying over and over again… in the cruellest, yellowest, best ever castle in gaming history!

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As a footnote, there was eventually a trilogy of these games, but neither of the sequels ever really did much for me. Olli and Lissa II: Halloween, released a year after the original in 1987, had you as a witch on a broom and was a poor-man’s Cauldron (literally!) for as much as I ever played of it. By the time Olli and Lissa III: The Candlelight Adventure arrived in 1989, I’d jumped ship to Atari ST and only played it much more recently. In its defence, it is a more direct evolution of the first game with a more multi-coloured, Firelord-esque graphical style, but it definitely ain’t top five games of all time material like its predecessor!

My Life With… V-Rally 3 – Game Boy Advance

My Life With… V-Rally 3 – Game Boy Advance

When the Game Boy Advance SP arrived in 2003, I was a couple of years into the job at a Japanese electronics mega-corp that I’m still to escape, which has had me travelling the world on a far too regular basis. Now I still owned the original Gameboy, and a Gameboy Advance, and a vast collection of games for both, but in reality, they weren’t that portable, and for the latter, playing in anything less than the equivalent of midday summer sunshine was a major challenge.

The SP, with its tiny, travel-friendly folding shell and it’s backlight, and not to mention its awesome battery life, was an absolute game changer for the nerdy regular flyer! Whilst we’re only talking 15 years or so ago at the time of writing, air travel wasn’t anything like what it is now – your limited electronics (giant Archos MP3 player for me!) were forbidden for the best part of an hour that seemed like an eternity wherever you were going; there wasn’t the huge selection of films on tap like you get now on every long-haul flight – you rented a pair of headphones with a customised adaptor and watched whatever crap they were showing; and unless you carried half a library with you (which I often did), you didn’t want to blow the whole of your book on the journey there!

And that’s why I’ll always think of the SP as the beginning of flying in relative comfort, although Nintendo still haven’t solved the problem of being six-feet one inch in economy class… And more than any other, I’ll think of V-Rally 3 as the game that saw me through thousands and thousands of miles.

I’d actually picked up V-Rally 3 on release a year or so before I got my SP, and even without a nice backlight, this thing was really special. For starters, it looked absolutely stunning, especially in my preferred cockpit view; actually, that was probably the biggest draw for me – ever since playing Chequered Flag on the Spectrum, I’ve never wanted to drive a car I’m ten metres behind and three metres above! Everything is in full 3D, with detailed textures flying past you everywhere you look with never a hint of slowdown. I’d even go so far as to say this wasn’t that far off what you’d have expected on a full console at the time.

Once you get past the breathtaking visuals, it’s all about the handling of the car, and I’d maintain that this is still one of the best feeling rally games there was before or has been since; as I write this, I’m dipping in and out of Dirt Rally 3 on the Playstation 4, and as much as I want to enjoy its ultra-realistic driving experience more than a 15-year old game on an ancient handheld, I simply don’t! Once you’re in cockpit mode, it just feels like you’re chucking a real car across dirt, snow, sand, gravel, tarmac, up and down hills or over jumps. Everything behaves like you think it should, which again, when you consider it’s on this old tiny handheld, is some achievement! And if I’m making it sound like some stony-faced simulation (also see Dirt Rally 3), it definitely isn’t – for all it’s great physics, this definitely feels like an arcade racer.

The meat of V-Rally 3 is a career mode, where you sign up with a real car manufacturer and compete in a championship that spans different countries, from miserable Great Britain to an incredible looking Kenyan Savannah. You race across five stages in each race, with a chance to repair damage after every other race – especially important if you’re in cockpit view and the windscreen is covered in a load of cracks that appear one at a time with every bump, and ends up looking like an inpenetrable mass of spider webs that often spell game over! You can, should you wish, also modify the car set up, but in all the racing games I’ve ever played this has never appealed to me! I’m not sure how much difference that would make, but I’ve never had a problem getting through the first championship fairly comfortably, at which point you’re given a bunch of better teams to sign up with, and a bigger engine. The challenge does pick up a lot here, and winning this one does take some delicate finger work!

There’s also a time trial mode that I don’t think I’ve ever really bothered with (and again, you could apply the same to pretty much any other racing game I’ve ever played), and there’s a really cool mode where you’re forsaking the lonely regular rally experience and going head to head against other cars in a more traditional car race. However, playing it again now you’ll notice that collision physics have come a long way in the last 15 years, and wonder how you ever put up with being slowed down regardless of where your car was in relation to the one that it’s just made contact with!

It’s a tough call to say whether I’d take this over Mario Kart Super Circuit as the best GBA racer, so let’s just say this is the best rally game on the Gameboy, and probably my favourite rally game ever!

Bonus Post – Ghouls ’n Ghosts on iOS: Arcade Perfection Behind Massive Controls!

Bonus Post – Ghouls ’n Ghosts on iOS: Arcade Perfection Behind Massive Controls!

This is something I wrote in 2017 that started for someone else then fell between the cracks, but having just found it again I didn’t want it to go to waste…

My history with the original Ghosts ‘n Goblins is indelibly etched on my mind, from the second in the summer of 1987 that I bought it for £1.99 at a service station on the M4, on the way back from a holiday camp in Dorset, possibly Pontins; although the only real memory I have of the camp itself was its shop, which had a fantastic array of pop badges, where I got a fantastic reflective Adam Ant badge that I still wear to this day! Back at the service station, two games jumped out at me from a bargain games rack (which must have been an eighties service station thing) that I’d heard about in C&VG magazine, but like most games, didn’t have the money to buy on release. For completeness, the second game was Southern Belle, which, apart from the London to Brighton speed run mode, never really got a look in for quite some time once we got back home to my Spectrum! That conversion of Ghosts ’n Goblins was all I was interested in that hot and sticky afternoon, and in time would become one of my favourite games ever, despite never getting very far!

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Ghouls ‘n Ghosts admittedly made less of an impression – maybe because by the time I’d picked it up on the Atari ST, I’d been playing platformers for the best part of ten years, and the ST offered so many newer things in gaming to me – Hard Drivin’s 3D replays and mooing cows, Defender of the Crown’s cinematography, Carrier Command’s vehicular variety, Speedball’s sporting violence, etc. But for all the familiarity of the genre by now, it was still lots more of Ghosts ’n Goblins in every way, especially when you consider that I was coming from the dumbed-down Spectrum version! The graphics were beautifully detailed and drawn (and without a hint of colour clash!), the soundtrack was one of the best on the ST to date, and the simplistic, hard as nails gameplay was on another level. Which meant not getting very far all over again!

There was one thing missing though, which it took me the best part of another twenty years to realise… There were no dirty great virtual buttons all over the TV screen! Fast forward to 2017, and Capcom have finally solved that huge (literally) omission with the release of Ghouls ’n Ghosts for iOS!

Ghouls ’n Ghosts arrived onto iOS a few months after its predecessor, which was released earlier in 2017 together with mobile versions of 1942 and Commando; two more games that are among my favourites of all time! They’re all pretty much arcade-perfect versions, which blows me away every time I load any of them up – we’ve come a long way since Snake on phones, and even further since the Spectrum!

Unfortunately, the few months between releases weren’t spent on the dirty great elephant in the room that all of these versions occupy – the controls. Now, I play a lot of games on iOS and I’ve got absolutely no problem with touch controls, virtual buttons, swipe controls, etc. but these are something else! And rather than trying to optimise them for Ghouls ’n Ghosts after all the “constructive criticism” they can’t have missed for the other releases, Capcom have simply offered the same wealth of bizarre alternatives…

Type A gives you left and right arrows, two slightly misaligned (but massive so it doesn’t really matter) up and do wn buttons, and on the other side massive attack and jump buttons, all with convenient icons in case you can’t read the massive words on them. Type B offers two massive up and down arrows with invisible left and right between them, and massive attack and jump as before. Type C gives you invisible up, down, left and right and the standard massive jump and attack. Then there’s virtual controls, which give you a more normal looking directional control that should be the best of the lot but I’m still strangely drawn to Type A as my preferred method.

The good news is that if still can’t decide on the method that suits you best, rather than connect a bluetooth controller, Capcom wants to save you all that messing around with pairing and connecting, and gives you the choice of Normal or Compact control modes! If you’re taking advantage of the arcade experience on an iPad’s big, lovely screen, the Compact method might be the more user-friendly option unless you have giant hands, as the Normal mode spreads the action to all four corners of the screen for you. In their unplayable defence, they are a bit smaller in this mode. This really is a new level in touchscreen design!

But what about the game hiding beneath the massive controls? I’m pleased to report it’s definitely Ghouls ’n Ghosts in all its gorgeous, brutal glory! Every element of the original side-scrolling, medieval-shooting arcade platformer is intact – the stunning, crisp, atmospheric graphics; the Phantom of the Opera on a chip-tune organ soundtrack; the oddly high-pitched sound effects; and, of course, the mystifying amount of fun to be had from a game so horrendously difficult!

That difficulty isn’t helped by the controls, and it takes quite a lot of playing before you stop mashing the wrong buttons in panic when you’re surrounded by grim reapers and a swooping vulture! But when I faced similar problems with Commando (or Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando in case you’re struggling to find it by its Western name), having this on my phone and tablet meant too much to me to let the controls beat me – the game did a good enough job of that by itself! Just find the least offensive control method and persevere, and there’s the same endless enjoyment you had taking Arthur through hordes of undead, demonic stuff that you experienced in the eighties!

A new casual mode is offered if things get too tough. You get more lives, a double jump, and I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but it is a bit easier – possibly less enemies – though it all still seems pretty frantic to me! Regardless of the mode you choose, you’ve still got all those lovely touches that made this game stand out all those years ago – losing your suit of armour on the first hit and playing in your pants; the magician popping out of a chest and turning you into a defenceless duck; the grim reapers peeking out from behind trees; and I want to give a special mention to the wind effects, should you ever get out of the graveyard, which hinder your progress but reward you with the most stunning trees getting blown about that you’ve ever seen in a game, and they really pop on an iPhone 7 or iPad Pro screen!

Many will find the control issues a game breaker, but every time I get frustrated with them I just think of myself thirty years ago and wonder what that fifteen year old would have thought about not only carrying a version of this around in his pocket, but carrying around the arcade version in his pocket… That had cost him less than half the price of a Mastertronic game… Then I hit that virtual start button again!

Before I leave you, one closing word on the controls. If you think these are bad, just check out Sega’s new port to mobile of Phantasy Star II, released just a week ago at the time of [original] writing. At least Capcom had the forethought to show you most of the action, but if you have any interest at all in the story behind this text heavy, creaking RPG, you might want to find a different way to play it!

My Life With… Hard Drivin’ – Atari ST

My Life With… Hard Drivin’ – Atari ST

Just take a look at this for a second…

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Yes, it’s a loop. And in 1989, that was a complete groundbreaker. It’s why you had to own this game – the ultimate show off to your mates title; they’d simply never seen anything like it. It was seeing Virtua Racing on my brother’s MegaDrive all over again. But there was more! The more-or-less filled 3D vector graphics, cars and trucks [slightly inexplicably] on the track in both directions, the Dukes of Hazzard style bridge jump, the instant replay, and the cow! Take out the cow by the farmhouse [located at the side of the race track] and you got a beautifully sampled, realistic MOO! And the realism didn’t stop with the cow – the car drove like a real car, and I should know because I’d just turned 17 and started driving lessons! Which was great, but temporarily spelt an end to the riches from my Saturday job at Sainsbury’s that had funded my ST and its burgeoning games collection up to that point.

A year into my role there, and I was specialising in collecting trolleys. I was the master! I knew all the hiding places around Bedford town centre – the car parks, the alley ways, where the bins were at the back of Iceland… I could get ten of them into a car park lift at once. I could push fifty of them in a massive train like a supermarket Rubber Duck out of Convoy. Nothing annoyed the shopper more than no trolleys, so once the supervisors picked up on my brilliance, there was no more stacking shelves or till duty. especially as the old mechanical tills I knew had transitioned to electronic ones that were clearly beyond me once I’d missed the training. This afforded such freedom too, being paid to hang out on the top of a car park surveying the impressive Bedford skyline with a can of Dr Pepper and a Boost bar, putting a bet on the Grand National, buying tickets for a Simple Minds concert, or – wait for it! – taking part in a police identity parade and earning an extra precious tenner for the driving lesson fund! And in retrospect, fortunately not getting collared in the process!

I’d pass my test, first time, after 15 lessons, which I’m sure owed no small debt to Hard Drivin’. As I said, this game felt realistic, which I think had a lot to do with the mouse controls (a first for me) – they felt great once you got used to them, offering far more control than my days with a keyboard on Chequered Flag or Out Run with a QuickShot II on the Spectrum. It was also easier to pull off a deliberate skid (also maybe a first?) which meant faster lap times and meant slightly more forgiving cornering, especially on the speed track when a decent time rewarded you with the challenge of the Phantom Photon ghost racer (another first?) on the stunt track .

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Like collecting trolleys, the stunt track was where the glamour was at. And specifically, being upside down on the loop. In 1989, there was no thrill ride outside of the corkscrew roller coaster at Alton Towers that was like it. If you could stay on the loop, take the banked corners, pull off the jumps, avoid the trucks (that wouldn’t look out of place in Crossy Road with all those straight lines) and resist the urge to hear the MOO, beating the exotically named Phantom Photon would result in the Phantom Photon taking on the ghost of your ride in the next race, which you could even save to disk, providing endless challenge despite there only being two tracks.

This game looked and sounded like a stunner, moving at pace with great attention to detail – the cracked windscreen when you crashed, the engine sound, the skidding noise, the manual gear shifting from a separate joystick, but mostly the cow! And the replay was worth every crash, switching to a fully 3D rendering of your final moments.

A gorgeous,  groundbreaking 3D masterpiece at the time, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find something to match that precarious feeling half way around the loop wondering if you’ll make it around or just drop off!

 

 

Can You Name Your Top 50 Games?

Can You Name Your Top 50 Games?

Can you name your top 50 video games? That’s the question that prompted what you’re now reading. The top ten came pretty quickly; I’ve maintained a top 3 of games, films, songs and albums in my mind for years. That’s not too weird for this stage in our relationship, is it? The other seven took thirty seconds to list and two minutes to put in order. The other forty probably occupied me for an hour or so.

Ten seconds after that, as I proudly surveyed my fondest gaming memories, I realised that this wasn’t just list of games, but the history of my life, at least as far as I could remember.

Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve never considered myself a massive gamer. It’s just one of several constants that have tracked my life to greater and lesser degrees – rock music, horror films, Arsenal FC, the paranormal, Jim Morrison, Jack the Ripper… What my list made me realise, though, was that video games had framed my life for longer than any of these, most of which are greater passIons, if not obsessions; which gaming certainly isn’t.

What I also realised was that my history and that of popular gaming run very much in tandem, starting in the mid-1970’s to the present day.

This is where we begin to jump into, in no particular order, some of these games. And it’s now a lot more than 50 in my list, but we’ll get to that some day.

I’m not going to go nuts, I’m not a great games reviewer, and I’ve got no special qualifications to do this beyond “I was there.” I hope you enjoy this blog all the same though. First post, first game tomorrow.

But before we start, do you recognise my No. 1?