Cover Tape Classic – Moley Christmas

Cover Tape Classic – Moley Christmas

I don’t think I ever spent as long making so little progress as I did with Auf Wiedersehen Monty on the ZX Spectrum +2! But I adored it all the same, and was never happier than jumping around what can only have been a quarter of the 80 screens that brilliantly and ingeniously characterised the whole of Europe, collecting items and cash so Monty Mole could buy his own island. Which he never did that I’m aware of! It was hard as nails but it was enormous fun, and you never tired of trying to get just one more flick-screen further into your travels!

That was the fourth Monty Mole game, released in 1987 by Gremlin Graphics. I think I’d played the first one, Wanted: Monty Mole somewhere; I was aware of the second, Monty is Innocent, but wouldn’t play that for several decades after its release; and I definitely played Monty on the Run on a friend’s Commodore 64. I’ve never played its cannon successor, Impossamole – by the time that came out in 1990, I was all about the Atari ST and the Game Boy.

There was actually another game between the fourth and fifth entries though, but blink and you missed it! Moley Christmas was only available on the cover of Your Sinclair magazine, in the Christmas 1987 issue, in what for me ranks as one of the highlights of what would become the Spectrum cover tape wars! I know I was long gone by the time they were all abandoning actual magazine content and just sticking about ten AAA games to a few bits of glossy paper, but before that, this and Ocean’s Road Race (which we’ll come back to one day) and, of course, the seminal better-than-Arkanoid Arkanoid rip-off, Batty, were way better than most of what you’d pay full price for!

Moley Christmas might have been short, with only six screens, but the Monty Mole stamp of quality was everywhere to be seen on each of them. And as you’d expect, it was hard as nails first time around, though spend enough time on it and you weren’t just trying to do it without losing any lives, but you were doing what would one day be called speed-running too! Not sure why that never worked out for me in Auf Wiedersehen Monty though…

In Moley Christmas, you – Monty – are running about the place as usual, picking up objects, jumping over bizarre meanies, generally dodging death through perfectly timed, pixel-perfect leaps, and just working out how to get from one screen to the next, which isn’t always immediately apparent. And all of this in a bid to get the Your Sinclair cover game to the printers in time for Christmas!

In the first screen you’re at Gremlin Graphics HQ, trying to get to the program listing for the cover tape game. Then on the second screen you’re taking it to the mastering plant – successfully reach the other end of the screen and it becomes the master tape! Screen three is where it’s getting duplicated and turned into cassettes. The instructions said that although they were putting over 100,000 copies of the game on the magazine out, the Gremlin programmers made their own estimate of the Your Sinclair circulation, so you only had to pick up eight cassettes to bring to London. And that was a major clue because if you didn’t have eight in mind there was no way you were ever progressing past that screen, which gave you absolutely no indication of what you were doing before you even got to the point where you were counting tapes!

Anyway, the fourth screen was another head-scratcher, this time making your way into an M1 service station (I think), with the puzzle being how you got past the final parked car that kept eating you with no apparent rhyme nor reason! Work out that you just needed a bit of single pixel prodding and retreating there, and on the fifth screen you’re in the Your Sinclair offices for a very tricky timed jumping section that must have taken me a hundred attempts to get past the first time even though I knew exactly what I should be doing! And then you’re finally on screen six, a kind of loosely Frogger-style experience where you’re dropping off piles of magazines from one side of a lunatic road to the other, several times. Do that and it’s a lovely message of Christmas cheer / advertising and a nice Christmas tree. Then you’re strangely compelled to start again…

Despite the usual gaming perfection that a Monty Mole game demanded of you, this one seemed to be about getting lucky sometimes too. And I think that’s why even after the head-scratching is done, I like going back to it, then trying to get through it again and again a bit quicker. Combining that slight unpredictability (possibly caused by some odd timing that I can’t really put my finger on) with its shortness actually makes it more akin to playing something like Super Sprint than the traditional platformer it makes out to be. You definitely can go a bit faster, because you definitely can do it without running into something, but will you? And all this going faster is actively encouraged throughout the game because your energy meter is going down regardless of what you run into, and in the penultimate screen you’re also racing magazines getting finished (where I still don’t really know what means death and what means success)!

There’s some great use of clash-free colour, everything moves smoothly, and the level of detail you expected of a Monty Mole game by 1987 was all present and correct. Sound was alright for the Spectrum too, with a nice background tune (on my +2 at least) and some inoffensive white-noisy effects when called for elsewhere.

It’s hard to say where this would fit if you were to rank all of the Monty Mole games, but there’s more to it than meets the eye in comparison to the others, even if there’s significantly less to it, which as we’ve seen, brings its own rewards. But remember, it was free on a magazine! And if you’re anything like me, the only one of these you’re going to finish too!

Retro Arcadia Favourite Games For Favourite Systems

Retro Arcadia Favourite Games For Favourite Systems

Lists are my favourite, and a recent thread on my favourite gaming forum at Cane and Rinse inspired a new one that I’m sharing below for no other reason than I want to record it somewhere. And it’s a good checklist for important stuff I haven’t covered here yet! Join in for fun if you like though!

This is your favourite games by system. Mine is based mostly on what I owned but also what I played just as much of at the time – brother’s / best mate’s / son’s / etc. Roughly in the order owned. And exclusives where it works or where they even existed…

  • Interstate 1160 – Hockey / Football (genuinely what it was called!)
  • Atari 2600 – Seaquest
  • Game & Watch – Snoopy Tennis (more here)
  • Handheld – Grandstand Mini Munchman
  • VIC-20 – The Perils of Willy (more here)
  • BBC – Elite
  • Spectrum +2 – Feud (favourite game on any system ever)
  • C64 – Winter Games
  • Amstrad CPC – Chuckie Egg (yeah, I know, Spectrum one better)
  • Atari ST – Kick Off
  • Mega Drive – Virtua Racer
  • Game Boy – Tetris
  • Atari Lynx – California Games (more here)
  • Game Gear – G-LOC
  • PlayStation – Destruction Derby 2 (sorry, Symphony of the Night!)
  • Game Boy Colour – Pokemon Gold (more here)
  • PlayStation 2 – SSX 3
  • Game Boy Advance – V-Rally 3 (more here)
  • GameCube – Wave Race
  • PSP – Pro Evolution Soccer 2008
  • PlayStation 3 – Batman Arkham Asylum
  • Wii – The House of the Dead: Overkill
  • PlayStation 4 – Destiny
  • iOS – Alto’s Adventure
  • 3DS – Pokemon Ultra Moon
  • Xbox One – Demon’s Tilt (almost by default as I’ve not played much else but love this)
  • Switch – Gris

And stuff I didn’t have access to at the time but have played a lot of more recently…

  • Master System – Road Rash
  • NES – Mega Man 2
  • SNES – Super Mario World
  • PC Engine – Devil’s Crush

I’m throwing in the Shaolin’s Road arcade machine too as I probably spent enough on that to own it!

And there we go. As always, thanks for indulging me!

My Life With… Snoopy Tennis (Nintendo Game & Watch)

My Life With… Snoopy Tennis (Nintendo Game & Watch)

In the very early 1980’s, there was nothing more exciting than checking out the handheld gaming pages in the latest Argos catalogue! You had never seen anything like it, even though the last edition had only come out six months previous, and you’d have bitten anyone’s arm off to get your hands on any of them! Half of them were variants on Space Invaders (and for a time, I think half of those were probably called Space Invader, singular), including what must have been the first electronic game I ever laid my hands on, Grandstand’s Invader From Space – also featuring the first of many joysticks I ever broke!

You also had stuff like Missile Invader and Astro Wars, Scramble with its tiny controls and Galaxy Invader 1000 in its iconic yellow and black case. If you weren’t into space shooters, there was Caveman and Firefox F-7, some rubbish LED sports games, and it wouldn’t take long for Pocket Pac-Man, Munchman and Mini Munchman and loads more Pac-a-likes to appear. And these things kept coming and, of course, getting more advanced, like the wonderful BMX Flyers – my favourite example of the genre – all the way through to the TomyTronic 3D games like Thundering Turbo, Sky Attack and Shark Attack just a couple of years later!

And in parallel to these handheld – or often, in reality, tabletop – battery-guzzling beasts (Mini Munchman aside), there was the increasingly mind-boggling range of truly handheld Game & Watch games from gaming upstart Nintendo. At least until Donkey Kong Jr. arrived on Game & Watch Tabletop on the very day of writing this, the 28th of April, in 1983.

These things seemed to breed every time you looked away, with 60 of them eventually produced between 1980 and 1991 when the Game Boy had all but made them redundant. Even if you didn’t own it (though my next-door neighbour did) the first one that springs to mind is usually Donkey Kong from 1982, with its orange flip case, two LCD screens and the first ever incarnation of a D-Pad, but the first Game & Watch love of anyone that had one was probably one of the classic single screen, foamy, rubbery button games with Game A and Game B (usually harder, meaning faster), a clock and an alarm; and a little metal ring on the back you could pull out to make it stand up!

My first experience of Game & Watch, and one I’d continue to experience for what must have been hundreds of hours for years after, was Fire. Didn’t belong to me – was my auntie’s and resided at my Grandma’s house where we spent every Saturday afternoon, and whilst I must have played it all over the house, my abiding memory is stealing her armchair next to the big 1970’s mahogany-effect dresser while she was cooking lunch and playing it in comfort there!

This was originally one of the early Silver generation of Game & Watch, but the one I played was part of the Wide Screen generation released a year or so later in late 1981. This update looked similar but was nicer to hold, had a great looking case, even better looking graphics, and was widescreen! Either way, you were catching people jumping out of different floors in a burning building and bouncing them on your stretcher into an ambulance. Things soon got crazy frantic as you literally juggled multiple people bouncing at different speeds. Fantastic game! Even better was the alarm function though, with the fireman waving his bell about with a crazed look on his face!

I reckon I’d have first played Fire in the middle of 1982, which was enough bugging time for my parents to have got me my one and only Game & Watch for Christmas 1982. I’ve no idea how that ended up being Snoopy Tennis though. It could have been my idea – at aged ten I was definitely a fan of Charlie Brown in comic and TV form, but not a huge one; he might be better known for his Christmas and Halloween exploits, but was as much a part of school summer holiday morning TV back then as Roland Rat, Why Don’t You? and Huckleberry Finn (or Silas if you were unlucky that year). It was probably around the time I started playing tennis at school too, which I always enjoyed, but again, not a mega fan. Alternatively, that might have been the one that was in stock wherever it came from! Doesn’t really matter which because it was definitely the right choice!

Like all the great games from this period, it’s all so simple, so skill-based and so fiendishly addictive! You’re playing as Snoopy, stood with his tennis racket waiting for Charlie Brown to serve a ball at him, high, low or in the middle, and you’re moving up and down a tree to return them with perfect timing (first time or you’re screwed waiting for the animation to restart!) from the right position. When you return a shot, it flies over the top of Charlie Brown, who’ll be busy lining up his next ball, but now and again Lucy will appear on the wooden platform above him and hit the ball back at twice the speed, and if you return that she might disappear for a bit and let the ball go, or she might keep returning it like this for a few more shots at the same time as Charlie Brown is lobbing his balls at you with increasing frequency.

You get 2 points for every Charlie Brown ball returned and 3 points for Lucy’s, and as your score increases, so does the speed! It all starts out very sedate, especially on Game A (where Game B has more balls that move faster), but it won’t be long before there’s all sorts of balls moving at different speeds all over the screen, and your main task is judging which one you’re going to hit first. Miss three balls and it’s game over. Get to 100 points and it slows down again for a while before getting faster until another 100 points passes. Get to 200 points, 500 points, 1200 points, 1500 points… (yeah, right) and your misses are all cancelled out; should you have got there with no misses, then you’ve got about a minute of bonus time, where Charlie Brown’s shots are worth 5 points and Lucy’s are 6 points.

You’re controlling Snoopy with up and down buttons on the right side and a hit button on the left for your perfectly timed returns. The buttons feel great – really tactile and responsive and a bit spongy. And after about ten minutes of play, will be surrounded by a sweaty fingerprint outline spreading across the main case; and being able to wipe that away is actually the main benefit of getting that brief slowdown every 100 points!

The character graphics were incredibly sharp and perfectly realised – something these LCD games were years ahead of home computers in achieving – and these are perfectly complemented by the coloured overlays of Lucy’s platform on one side and Snoopy’s dog house on the other, with a wonderfully detailed and shaded tree for Snoopy to return shots from and Woodstock to sit in his nest surveying the action (at least until the alarm is ringing and he jumps out of his nest to the sound). The great attention to detail is capped off by the tufts of green grass along the bottom of the screen. The user interface is just perfect too; completely unobtrusive, but all-important stuff like your score and the current number of misses – shown by broken bottles – are just a tiny change in focus away without having to move your eyes from the very frantic later game action.

The other incredible thing about these games was the battery life. You’d easily get months of play out of two LR43 or SR43 cell batteries before the screen started fading and the sound disappeared, and, from experience later, you could literally leave it for years sleeping away and it would come back to life! And speaking of back to life, it still works absolutely perfectly today and is still as fiendishly addictive as ever!

Despite how pictures might look, because cameras don’t seem to like the technology when it’s running and show blemishes that just aren’t there, Snoopy Tennis and it’s early Game & Watch brethren (unlike some of the far more complex later releases like the Gauntlet abomination by Tiger Electronics!) are utterly timeless. And this is true whether you’re talking about the technology, the graphics or the gameplay – nothing has dated and it never will. It also sold 1.2 million units after its release in 1982, so if you don’t have it, I’ll bet it’s not that hard to track down. And whatever the asking price is when you read this, after almost 40 years of enjoyment at the time of writing, it will be worth every penny…

Just don’t push down on the LCD screen, no matter how cool it looks, because it’s not going to last another 40 years if you do!

Sacrilege!!! The Perils of Willy On ZX Spectrum!

Sacrilege!!! The Perils of Willy On ZX Spectrum!

Yes, you read that right. What was once hallowed ground for the VIC-20 owner is here and now on the Spectrum…

And once I was over not having our own exclusive Manic Miner / Jet Set Willy game anymore, I was totally thrilled with Perils of Willy finally being ported to the ZX Spectrum! It’s perfect and it’s available now!

This was my favourite VIC-20 game, and currently sits at number 17 in my top games of all time list. It’s all about getting Miner Willy home after a night out by collecting musical notes through a variety of platforming locales, but as is hopefully increasingly the case, you can read my full thoughts on that here!

The Perils of Willy Spectrum recreation was lovingly crafted by Allan Turvey, and as far as I can tell so far (because after several hours of play I can still only get through about a quarter of the 32 brutal screens) it’s a direct port apart from the screen dimensions being necessarily shifted a bit. Some might say the background music is slightly more bearable too!

It genuinely feels as good now as it did in 1984, meaning a tough as nails lesson in hardcore platforming that I can’t stop playing all over again!

You can download it either free or for a donation of your choice here.

Just never forget the VIC-20 had it first!

My Life With… Agent X – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Agent X – ZX Spectrum

I have two very distinct memories of buying stuff from Boots (when they were still much more than a chemist) in May 1987 – that month being significant for my birthday, meaning I had more money then than at any other time of the year and could afford to buy two things! The first was U2’s The Joshua Tree; my £4.99 contributing to it becoming the fastest selling album in British music history. I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favourite albums (maybe top 50), but side one is without doubt one of the strongest ever, and to this day I still listen to it regularly whenever I notice it in my record rack. That said, there’s a moment in their 1988 Rattle & Hum movie (about 55 minutes in) where you hear the keyboard intro from Where The Streets Have No Name kick in, and the words “Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Arizona” appear on the screen, and to me those words and the next 5 minutes of live performance were the most rock star things I’d ever seen to that point! If I was here naming the top ten things that inspired me to form a band, that would definitely be one of them, but that’s something for another day…

Back to the slightly less glamorous lower floor of Boots, at the bottom of the spiral walkway in the even less glamorous Harpur Centre in Bedford, and from the very same entertainment section we come to my second purchase. This time we’re slightly later in May, during school half term and I’m with my Mum and two brothers, which I know because my other very distinct memory is walking with them to my Grandma’s house on the way back from town, reading the Agent X cassette inlay!

The reason I’m writing about Agent X – or Agent X in the Brain Drain Caper to give it its full name – right now rather than something else is because I was just flicking through the June 1987 Your Sinclair magazine and noticed it climbing up the top ten. Actually, it was the whole top ten that caught my eye first, which, including Agent X, features no less than four of my top ten favourite games ever – Feud, at number one where it deserves to be in whatever games chart you care to mention, plus Olli and Lissa (not Lisa, Your Sinclair, but see my post on that here for the full rundown!) and Gauntlet. Pretty good month for games in my opinion!

Also of note in that copy of Your Sinclair, just before the chart rundown, was the legendary advert for Barbarian featuring Wolf from Gladiators and Page 3 stunner Maria Whittaker, which I may have mentioned before, but as it’s of so much cultural significance to the 15-year old boy in 1987, bears repeating again here!

Back to Agent X, it’s interesting it was climbing the charts now because I think it had been released at some point in late 1986, and seems to have been reviewed pretty well in early 1987, but as a £1.99 release from Mastertronic, wonder why it took a while to get going? If I’d noticed it in the shops earlier, I’d have certainly bought it on the strength of the screenshots on the back of the box alone. Maybe everyone else was strapped for cash until their birthday too!

It wasn’t just how good it looked on the box that caught your eye, but the variety you were getting too. This was pretty much unheard of until now in a budget title – it looked and read like you were going to be part of an entire James Bond movie! “A multi-load mega action adventure, in which you set out to stop some lunatic scientist turning the President into a warmongering maniac. You are the only one who can help. If you’re superb at espionage, karate, driving, flying helicopters and bomb aiming you MIGHT have a chance. Just.” Not entirely sure that multi-load was the key selling point they thought it was at the start of that pitch, but what’s not to love about the rest?

After your first multi-load, the game starts out with you in your sports car on the way to the abandoned mine / underground lair. This is a really nicely presented section, playing a bit like a simplified isometric Spy Hunter but instead of guns your car can jump. Speaking of nicely presented, your current health is displayed by your agent, cigarette in mouth, moving ever closer to his gravestone in a beautiful moonlit graveyard. What you want to do is get to the end of this section with that intact! It’s not that hard to reach the end but to have a chance later on you need to get there without the tanks coming towards you, and dozens of lorries and police cars in front and behind, knocking you into the kerbs or various holes in the road and causing damage.

Another fantastic multi-load and you need to stop the tape, press any key but do not rewind! The next section is switching to a Kung-Fu Master (see my views on that here) style side-scrolling beat ‘em up. Now this is where the challenge ramps up… As well as the colour clash, with your man changing from white to whatever garish colour the current background feature happens to be – green doors, yellow control panels, pink No Smoking signs and so on; make a feature of the colour clash and it’s not a problem anymore… They should have put that on the box with multi-load too! If you get to the end of this section halfway to your grave you’re doing pretty well. As well as regular goons, you’ve got what looks like guys in capes and fencing masks, unicyclists and runaway minecarts to deal with coming at different speeds from all sides. Real damage limitation stuff as you kick and jump and flying kick your way gradually to the left until the relief (and joy) of your next multi-load appears from nowhere!

Next we’re in an Operation Wolf (yes, you guessed it, more here!) style setting, and you’re face-to-face with the lunatic scientist in his lab! Visually this is really striking, even if you don’t really want to think too hard about what’s going on here. He’s in the middle of the screen in a kind of lab control room, surrounded by eight mechanical doors that shoot out 3D shapes (missiles, according to the depressingly slow progress bar at the side) at you. You need to move your crosshair to shoot them, which is greeted by a speech bubble full of comic-style obscenities from him, otherwise you get a “Ha” if you miss, and a big step towards your grave. This is another tough section that’s really going to put a strain on your joystick as you wrench it all over the place, especially when things get a bit frantic towards the end. Hang on for long enough, and your man lines up his crosshairs on the lunatic scientist with a “This one’s for you pal!” and he blows a whole through the glass and takes his head clean off leaving a smoking neck hole. Cool!

Make the most of this multi-load as it’s your last one – you’re now on the home stretch, flying Airwolf style in a helicopter to get a bomb from a platform out in the sea. By the way, you won’t find a link to any post on Airwolf here any time soon. You’d soon get bored of me going on about the first three screens – I might be able to beat Mega Man but I’m not that good! The first part of this is pretty simple, flying through gates and avoiding missiles, then things get a bit harder with guys on jetpacks (wait for it…) shooting at your approach to the bomb, which you’re going to bring all the way back to Omega Base as the underground lair seems to be called! This is a great looking side-scrolling section that doesn’t have that much to it but it’s really nice to control the helicopter when you’re at speed on the return leg. Or the return return leg after you re-plant the bomb and get the twist…

As you can tell, I still love this game! The variety works brilliantly, nothing is too challenging that you won’t get through it sooner rather than later, then it’s just about getting good enough at each section to set you up for finishing the next. Apart from VIC-20 text adventure Pirate Cove, I think this was one of the first games I ever finished, and as I write this almost 33 years later, it’s the last game I finished too. The best £1.99 I ever spent? Well, it’s one of the top three at least!

Based on the commercial success of the first game, Agent X did come back for more with different genres tackled in Agent X II, but it never really clicked with me. The first section was a very frustrating side-scrolling shooter that looked like Zynaps meets Jetpac (here you go!) that just went on and on for way too long. Then you had a platforming section where you had to jump about collecting codes, followed by a bonkers version of Breakout where everything moved too quick and out of control for its own good, and was more luck than judgement, though you would get lucky most of the time. It did feature one of the Spectrum 128’s most acclaimed pieces of music, so worth seeking out for that, but otherwise was a bit anticlimactic in every other respect (especially the abrupt ending). Better to stick with the original if you want a proper good time

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 a year after it’s release; it was a £1.99 budget game from Firebird in 1986 and I’d 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!

Ghouls ’n Ghosts on iOS Review: Arcade Perfection Behind Massive Controls!

Ghouls ’n Ghosts on iOS Review: 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?