Rediscovering Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare on Game Boy Colour

Rediscovering Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare on Game Boy Colour

For a good few years after the disappearance of the video shop, you had the DVD rental by post service. I used LoveFilm, eventually bought out by Amazon, but I’m sure there were others. And for the horror film collector with a PC that could copy DVD’s, these offered a wonderful service! For a fixed price of a tenner or so a month, you were getting up to three films from your wishlist of every genre title that ever got released in the post. If you were lucky, you could get them all copied and back in the post on the same day, then have a new batch two days later! And they soon mounted up to more than you could ever watch, and even 15 or 20 or whatever years later, I’ve still about a dozen 50-DVD spools worth of rented films I still haven’t got around to (or brought myself to) watching!

If I had to name one film that typified those boxes of unwatched films, it would be Alone in the Dark, the 2005 Uwe Boll classic starring Christian Slater, Stephen Dorff and Tara Reid. Paranormal detective follows clues to the death of his friend, ends up on Shadow Island with its demons and gateway to hell. Sounds great, and I recently added it to my Amazon Prime watchlist now its evolved from DVD to streaming obscurity, but still have never had any real inclination to watch it… Despite it often being nominated as one of the worst movies ever made!

The plot doesn’t sound that disimilar to Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare on the Game Boy Colour (and other platforms), and that’s because it was loosely based on it. Also known as Alone in the Dark 4, it’s a kind of reboot of the original game from 1992. Which is why the plot doesn’t sound that disimilar to that either! In 2008, Alone in the Dark was recognised by Guinness World Records Gamer’s Edition as the first ever 3D survival horror game. It was originally released on PC (MS-DOS) then ported to the 3DO a couple of years later. It has you going backwards and forwards around a haunted mansion in 1920’s Lousiana, solving puzzles, killing or running away from spooky stuff and, of course, managing your inventory like all good survival horror games that followed it! I remember it looked cool at the time, with hand-drawn backdrops behind some vintage 3D polygons, but like the film, I was never that inspired to get involved – and actually, by the time I could, Resident Evil had completely superceded it.

The 2001 Game Boy Colour game has your partner being found dead off the coast of Shadown Island, which is apparently off the coast of Massachusetts. It turns out he’s been after some magical tablets, which you get roped into searching for while you’re trying to solve the murder. And that means going to the island and wandering around the spooky woods, mansion grounds and mansion itself, looking for a clue that will lead you to the next through the story.

This all manifests in a mostly point-and-click feeling game, where you’re on the lookout for a glinting object that will turn out to be a key or a crowbar or a secret switch in the bookshelf that will open up the next place you need to get to. It’s relatively well signposted if you’re paying attention, especially once you get the lie of the land and stop getting lost in the often labyrinthian mansion! Now and again you’ll get something like the random encounters that drive you nuts in the old Final Fantasy games, where the game switches to an isometric scrolling shooter and you’re taking out werewolves and spiders and the like with your pistol or whatever weapon you find and prefer on the way. Apart from the final boss battle, which also takes this form but is a little more enjoyable than the rest of these encounters, it’s not going to take long for you to dread these happening. They’re really not fun and they are where you’re going to die, often through sloppy controls and the rubbish semi-auto aim rather than anything you did yourself. That said, it does a good job of forcing you to manage your ammo, to the point where most of the tensioni in the game comes from the prospect of running out, and finding more is always a huge relief.

And now you’re really wondering why I dismissed the original game, the star-studded movie adaptation by the master of the video game to movie adaptation, and indeed the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 versions of this very game (Windows and Dreamcast also exist), when it’s already apparent that I’ve not only played this, but also finished it on the Game Boy Colour…

Some context is necessary here! Obviously, the original Game Boy was a revolution and a revelation in handheld gaming, but whilst it was great to have some colour graphics, the Game Boy Colour never really made much of an impact because it didn’t really add anything more than that – more of the same games, different screen; like moving from the crappy green monitor Amstrad CPC option to the colour one fifteen or so year previously!

For me, that was until Alone in the Dark came along. Nothing had looked like it on such a tiny screen before, and if you were making comparisons, then look no further than the aforementioned PlayStation version because when screenshots first started appearing for this, it really was that good! And as you play through it, every location is absolutely sumptuous, oozing atmosphere in the palm of your hand like you’ve never seen before – to the point that I needed a second playthrough so that on almost every other screen I could crawl under my desk where there’s no reflections and get some photos of the screen!

Alone in the Dark didn’t only push the limits of the Game Boy Colour, but went beyond them! It benefitted from a rarely used but very cool high colour programming exploit that could get 2000 colours on the screen at once, rather than the typical maximum of 56, though I think it for most games was generally a lot less than that. And that made the environments look spectacular on the system. Or most of them… There was no way you were going to be anything but a 2D sprite, and there was definitely no way that sprite was doing anything more than moving around those beauties, so the crappy combat had to switch to a more traditional Game Boy Colour look, then switch back when you’d killed everything (or been killed because you’d run out of ammo).

To the modern eye, playing this is very early Resident Evil-lite in almost every respect (if it was on a handheld and needed a lacklustre combat mode for some reason), and if that sounds alright, then you’ll struggle to find a better looking and more enjoyable, atmospheric and surprisingly immersive few hours on your Game Boy Colour!

My Life With… Chuckie Egg (Amstrad CPC)

My Life With… Chuckie Egg (Amstrad CPC)

I always thought the Amstrad CPC 464 was an exotic-looking machine, with its splashes of green and red and blue around the keyboard, and its separate cursor keys and keypad, and, of course, its built-in cassette deck (or datacorder, as I think it was officially termed)! The fact that none of my school friends owned one also added to its exotic nature – my world involved arguing about Spectrums over Commodore 64’s, and whilst I knew all about it from poring over every issue of Computer & Video Games magazine through its whole lifespan, I think seeing one on the shelf in Boots and Dixons was my only experience of it in the wild during that time. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1990 – also the year that Amstrad stopped producing it – that I properly got my hands on one.

1990 was also the year I went to university. The University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, which had proximity to London going for it and not a lot else… Apart from a big Asda supermarket in the centre of town, it had pioneered the death of the high street years before even Bedford caught up! I think that year saw my sole contribution to Hatfield’s town centre economy in my whole time there – a Gun cassette single from a tiny independent record shop that I can’t remember the name of; I can remember it was on a wet and miserable Wednesday afternoon, and the Gun cassette single was Shame on You, with a live version of Better Days on the B-Side.

There really wasn’t a lot to do outside of the university – which was hardly a cultural mecca in its own right – until a big A1 motorway-spanning shopping centre and leisure complex, The Galleria, opened there in my last year, after four years of being teased by building work. And I think that had an HMV where I did contribute far more to the local economy than I should have given my financial situation then!

In stark contrast to the person in the last sentence who, within just a few months, would be singing with his still-to-be-formed band at the legendary Marquee club in London, back in the autumn of 1990 I was hardly the social butterfly, and most of my “socialising” at the start of my university life was a bit forced as a result of various fresher’s week attractions. A short-lived participation in the role-playing club involved coming up with a Nazi dominatrix in slingshot bikini as a character for some sci-fi fantasy game I’d decided to join in with, though I don’t remember ever actually playing it; and some kind of horror film club that gathered in a lecture room every Tuesday night to watch Young Frankenstein and other such classics on VHS. There were also single visits to a shooting club in some cool old World War 2 era military huts and a paintball club too. Rock and roll!

Anyway, all of those were history within a couple of months, during which time I’d learnt that someone I knew was living in a hall of residence just around the corner from me… I’d been to school with Scott since the age of nine, but apart from sharing the same birthday, we’d had little in common until we’d both started going out with two best friends from the year below us in sixth form, just before starting university. Through them, we eventually discovered we were not only at the same university, though he was studying at a different campus, but we were living literally 200 metres apart. After that we started sharing lifts to and from home which wasn’t that far away and hanging out in the evenings; and then I fairly quickly ended up becoming lifelong friends with the little group attached to him and his roommate, who owned an Amstrad CPC!

From around November 1990, the five of us spent every night together, either sat eating chips (having run the gauntlet into a nearby estate not known for their tolerance of students to the fish and chip shop) and watching videos in their room; or heading down the hill and through the main campus to the big student union bar; or gadding around the bounteous number of pubs in St Albans or Hertford in Scott’s Ford Escort. And by “gadding around” I mean being involved in the scariest and most insane driving I’ve ever experienced that didn’t involve one of the three life-threatening crashes I’ve been involved in since! Overtaking a car which was already overtaking another car around a series of blind bends on a national speed limit single carriageway is a particular highlight that immediately springs to mind! Anyway, whatever we were up to, there was always time to take turns sat at the big laminated wooden desk that separated their two beds for a game on the Amstrad beforehand. And there was literally one game! And that, of course, was Chuckie Egg…

I think I first came across Chuckie Egg on one of two BBC B computers at my middle school around 1984. One of them was kept in a repurposed store cupboard in a completely unrelated classroom, and I remember being in a crowd at the door one lunchtime watching someone play something that reminded me of one of the few arcade games I knew at the time, Bagman, that I would later learn was Chuckie Egg. That said, I’d also learn that it was first and foremost a Spectrum game, and is a great example of the eighties bedroom coding industry in the UK, where a 16-year old Nigel Alderton took his half-finished Spectrum game to A&F Software who snapped it up and started developing a BBC version in parallel. Those versions got released in 1983, at the unusual price on the Spectrum at least of £6.90, although in retrospect I think Decathlon was advertised at that too (more on that here) so maybe not so unusual. Anyway, it then got ported everywhere else, including the Amstrad CPC, a couple of years later, and would go on to sell over a million copies. The Amstrad version is most likely a port of the BBC rather than Spectrum version though because they both share more “realistic” physics where you can leap about a bit more freely and dangerously – I think the arc of the jump is a bit different and maybe slightly quicker on the BBC / CPC which makes it a little harder, though the grating running sound of the Spectrum version probably equalises things!

Chuckie Egg is the classic arcade platforme premise. Your little guy, Hen-House Harry, sets out on a screen with a load of eggs to collect against the clock, a load of corn he can also collect to slow the clock and get a few extra points before it gets eaten, and some ducklings that look more like ostriches chasing you around platforms, ladders and lifts. This all goes under the gaze of mother duck, trapped in a golden cage at the top of eight increasingly fiendish screens, but if you conquer those then she’s out, and unlike her little fixed-path duck-ostriches who’ve now disappeared, she can chase you anywhere on the screen. Go round all the screens again and she’s back, the duck-ostriches are back, and you’ve got no chance!

Apparently there are forty levels all together, and if you get through those I believe you go back to effective level thirty-three and loop again. But that’s not something I’ll ever need to worry about! The countdown timer is reasonably generous, and I don’t really recall ever running out of time before I’d lost all of my lives in other ways! Whilst the corn can be used for some bonus time and score, it’s maybe more useful as a distraction for the baddies who will stop and eat it like Road Runner would if they come across any! As well as the duck-ostriches and the mother duck(er), if you fall through one of the gaps at the bottom of the screen you’re losing one of your five lives. Same if you don’t get off a lift before it gets to the top, or get a bit too close to the duck in the cage while its in there. Falling from a height isn’t so much of a concern as bouncing off of one of the platforms in an unpredictable direction, or missing (or overshooting) one of the lifts, which is where you seem to die the most, but there’s some cool tricks you can pull off through seeming leaps of faith in the general direction of a ladder that you can seamlessly catch the bottom of and start climbing if you’ve timed it just right! Actually, getting on a ladder is pretty easy wherever you hit it, but getting off requires you to either jump or be perfectly positioned (Donkey Kong style) and can also be the cause of some frustrating deaths.

I don’t like to use the word frustrating here though. This game is massively playable and hugely addictive once you get into the zone of how it wants you to play. Despite it being harder for me to replicate my original and most fondly remembered experience of playing now – not having the hardware – the Amstrad version I used to play in two, three or four player mode (taking turns for scores, of course!) is still the version I’d rather play over the Spectrum’s. It looks very much of its time, with simplistic single-colour sprites and level features on a black background, just like the Spectrum version, but everything is a bit chunkier and seems a bit more well-defined here; mother duck is a bit bigger and more intimidating too! There’s not a lot going on in the sound department – just some very basic (though not annoying like the Spectrum!) running and jumping stuff, and a very basic (though not annoying like the Spectrum!) chip tune when you die. But all of that is all it needs to do when it’s such a masterclass in gameplay on either that strange, exotic machine or my beloved Spectrum.

If you look really hard you’ll find a sequel that appeared in 1985 on the usual 8-bit suspects, as well as the Atari ST (yay) and Amiga (boo). By this time, Nigel Alderton was working for Ocean and the Mr-Do! style sequel that had been hinted at previously never materialised, but A&F attempted to cash-in on the success of the original undeterred with Chuckie Egg 2. This time Hen-House Harry is collecting stuff in a 120-screen factory, like a big Jet Set Willy, but nowhere near in that game’s league, and nowhere near as playable or addictive as its predecessor.

The sequel never dared show its face in the laminated furniture, laminated carpet tiled grubby hall of residence room that five 18-year old nerdy students effectively called home for that first year at university. Nor did any other game for that matter, making Chuckie Egg on the Amstrad CPC not only one of my favourite games ever, but also still the only game I’ve ever played on that platform almost exactly thirty years later (and thirty six years after the machine first appeared) at the time of writing.

I’m going to leave you with one more car related story from then though. One of the guys in our circle, Ian, lived in one of the university’s other halls of residence, Roehyde, which was also known as Rawhide for it’s wild west reputation. Such was my fear of this reputation that the only time I ever ventured into its prefabricated, temporary classroom-styled walls was to roll one of four wheels from Ian’s Mini down to his bedroom door in the dead of night so we could pile them up there, knock on his door and run away! Yes, that’s what happened when you decided you were staying in to work on an assignment rather than play Chuckie Egg with the Hatfield Hard Men!!! And the car? It was safely sitting wheel-less in the middle of a roundabout half a mile away where we’d rolled it to, without keys or access to the handbrake! Great days…

Not Remembering Home Computing Weekly

Not Remembering Home Computing Weekly

When we celebrate the classic magazines of the early days of gaming, such as Crash, Zzap 64 and C&VG, Home Computing Weekly is unlikely to get a look in.

During its lifetime from 1983 to 1985, I remember buying a few issues, but I always found it to be really dry. Even when they added a bit more colour and made games feature a bit more prominently than industry news, I’d only really get it for any VIC-20 type-in games – reading the rest was always a bit of a chore.

About 20 issues in, they obviously realised they needed to do something to expand their audience, and in issue 21 went for the strangely punctuated headline feature “GIRLS MICROS ARE FOR YOU, AS WELL” which for the time was a very forward-thinking move – I don’t remember any girls playing games back then, but there were certainly a lot of them around in the 80’s, and I’m sure a few could have been convinced. The feature on page 36, where Susie helps you out with your typing speed on a ZX Spectrum surely converted a few to the hobby too.

Obviously thinking they’d done enough to attract the female audience, it was business as usual in issue 22. Then in issue 23 a strange thing happened – after all that effort to be inclusive, they became a lad’s mag, years before Maxim and Loaded thought of it!

This went on for four issues, with the stars of Page 3 smothered all over the cover, holding Spectrums more provocatively than issue 21’s Susie could even dream of doing! The highlight was surely one of the biggest (if not one of the biggest) tabloid honeys, Linda Lusardi, pouting in a bikini with an Oric held up to her face!

I can only imagine why it went back to dry business as usual again after that. Perhaps being put on the top shelf next to Razzle and Escort did as much to help sales as Susie and her typing class did a short time earlier! There was a brief reintroduction of sauce on the front cover in issue 37 with a naughty Bug Byte t-shirt competition, but the best you were going to get now was a bit more colour and your type-in games.

If only Home Computing Weekly hadn’t tried quite so hard, so often, it might not be struggling for our attention (four issues aside) 35 years on.

You can still get your fix, and all the VIC-20 type-in games you could ever need, over at the Internet Archive here.

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!

Rediscovering Wacky Races on Game Boy Colour

Rediscovering Wacky Races on Game Boy Colour

A quick note on something I’ve pretty much overlooked since it came out in 2000, but I’ve recently discovered a new-found admiration for, despite it really not being the best racing game you’re ever going to play!

I’ve always been a fan of late 1960’s Hannah-Barbera, and Wacky Races is one of my favourites. This game takes that concept and slaps it into a crazy, chaotic and, above all, colourful kart racer for the Game Boy Colour. It’s massively simplistic, the rubber-banding is totally unfair, and so is the power-up distribution for other Wacky Racers in front of you who always pick up mines, which they’ll drop as soon as you’re right behind them and can’t do much about it! But despite all of that, and despite the existence of V-Rally on the platform, there’s so much to love here that makes it my go-to racer on the Game Boy Colour!

Different racers bring different racing styles, so Penelope Pitstop will be quick but get knocked around easily, whereas nuanced overtaking isn’t something you’ll worry about when you’re Sergeant Blast! All your favourite characters are here – The Anthill Mob, The Slag Brothers, Rufus Ruffcut, et-al – and you’ll be racing them in different cups across different American states. Win the Crazy Cup and you’re going to be unlocking more of the gang, including Dastardly and Muttley of course! As well as the three regular cups, you’ve got time trials, endurance and championship modes to keep the fun long-term.

It’s a lot about speed and a lot about skill and a lot about luck, but just like the cartoon (unless you’re Dick Dastardly, of course), what’s going to win you races is how you use the power-ups; there’s ten of them, from regular turbo speed-ups to a devastating lighting attack. And you’re going to learn to love and hate them all equally!

I’ve no doubt that the best thing about Wacky Races is how it looks. It really is the cartoon on a cartridge, and in my humble opinion it’s one of the best looking games to ever see the light of day on the Game Boy Colour. Each state is beautifully characterised with scorching deserts, rolling hills, lush grassy farmland and snowy mountains flying by, and everywhere you look you’re getting outrageous popping colour that works brilliantly! And your car, and those of your competitors, is going to look just like you remember it from the cartoon, as do the occasional cut-scenes.

Really shows that a game doesn’t have to be technically great to be technically great fun!

My Life With… Daley Thompson’s Decathlon (ZX Spectrum)

My Life With… Daley Thompson’s Decathlon (ZX Spectrum)

I’m fairly certain that Daley Thompson’s Decathlon was the fourth game I ever played on the ZX Spectrum! My best friend Paul had moved from an Atari 2600, and our days of playing Boxing and the one with the two tanks (Combat?) on their family TV in the living room were replaced in the most part, in my memory at least, by the distinctive sound of Spectrum loading screens in his bedroom, interspersed by actually playing the occasional game! It was the Classic setup – rubber-keyed 48K Spectrum connected to the type of small portable cassette recorder every home had at the time but didn’t belong to anyone in particular, connected to a tiny portable TV and a couple of games; all on the floor.

I think Horace Goes Skiing (more here) was my first experience of the ZX Spectrum, with it’s Frogger rip-off first screen getting in the way of what still holds up as one of the best-feeling skiing games ever! Second was Chequered Flag, and I can still remember being totally blown away by that in-car view with the moving wheels and steering wheel! Still one of my favourite racers ever. Then a bit later his collection extended to Alcatraz Harry, an early Mastertronic £1.99 title where you negotiated the maze-like prison, avoiding guards and collecting escape tools, but usually ended up caught and in front of a firing squad. We did actually finish that one once! And then a bit later still we got to what would become one of the system’s defining games, as well as the ruin of many a Spectrum itself…

Not sure if he had any other games up to then, but I don’t remember playing anything else over what must have been his first year owning it, with most of the action happening over the summer of 1984; frequent trips backwards and forwards down the network of alleyways that connected the roads where we lived. We all knew and loved every inch of those dusty, poorly surfaced, weed-strewn alleways that ran the length of both sides of each of three roads, behind the terraced houses and gardens and sometimes garages, and were connected by another at each end, one of which was interrupted by the roads. These were our hide and seek and ball tig grounds; our cycle tracks and skate parks; our football and cricket pitches; our assault courses and everything else we needed them to be whenever we were playing outside with the neighbouring kids! And from the time I was allowed to walk to Paul’s house by myself, to when we used to get the bus to upper school near there, to when as young bucks on the prowl I’d go to his house on Friday and Saturday nights to get a taxi into town to go out drinking, that was my own almost private shortcut!

As a related aside, on what was probably one of the last of hundreds or thousands of journeys down those alleyways to Paul’s house, I had music playing on something – most likely my Aiwa PX347 “Walkman” with Super Bass, Feather Touch Control and Dolby 8 NR! It was an incredibly hot summer day, probably around 1993 or 1994, and on came Heat by The Mission, and the lyrics that I knew inside out by that point somehow chose that particular listen to make an eternal connection in my brain between that song and that mundane trip on that particular scorching Friday evening:
And the heat comes down
And the heat comes down
And hand in hand
We melt in the heat

Almost exactly ten years before that, at the end of that exact journey, something similar had happened with another song, 1999 by Prince. Like The Mission’s Heat, it would have been a song I was already very familiar with by that time; it had come out two years earlier in 1982 and was obviously a massive hit, getting non-stop airtime all over the radio and in my fledgling record collection, as well as becoming a regular feature at school discos when 80’s nights really were 80’s nights! But there was something about that song that just happened to be playing in the background at the exact moment I started hammering two rubber keys as fast as humanly possible for my first ever 100m dash that forever connected 1999 with playing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon in Paul’s bedroom! Actually, it was very much the concept of the song at that time that stuck with me during that particular listen, maybe taking note of what the lyrics were saying for the first time… To a 12-year old in what would have been heading into late or even Christmas 1984 by the time the game actually appeared on Spectrum, all that partying like it’s 1999 seemed like science fiction! It was literally more than a lifetime away, too far in the future to fathom. And then when we got there far sooner than this 12-year old might have imagined, that memory and that connection in my brain was still there, but it didn’t seem so long looking back as a 27-year old. And it seems even closer all these years further on! Funny how your brain makes connections just as strong for minor, seemingly random and mundane events as those it makes for remembering where you were on 9/11 or when you heard Kurt Cobain was dead or when the Mary Rose was pulled out of the sea…

Or maybe even where you were when Daley Thompson won his first Olympic decathlon gold medal in 1980 (about my limit!), or again in 1984. Daley Thompson was massive – even bigger than Prince at the time! Remember, we had four TV channels and things like the Olympics, and athletics in general, were a major factor in the summer TV schedule even if you weren’t much of an athlete. And if you owned a Spectrum, you just needed a copy of Ocean Software’s Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. Interestingly, I don’t remember any of my Commodore 64 owning friends ever having a copy (even though I think it came first and was the same great game and a bit more, for example having a second competitor on the screen on track events), and obviously I didn’t know anyone with an Amstrad CPC, which it also appeared on!

As well as cashing in on the man himself, Track & Field was also a big deal in the arcades at the time, sucking up my 10p’s during a church trip to Great Yarmouth that year (also memorable for playing a neighbour’s Mini Munchman on the bus journey there) and the next, and this was as close as you were getting to a home version. In fact, you’d have to wait until 1988 and the Game, Set and Match 2 compilation for a Spectrum (or Amstrad CPC) version; and it wasn’t great, especially as we’d been spoilt by an excellent port of Hyper Sports inbetween. That said, this compilation was generally awesome on the Spectrum – Super Hang On, Basket Master, Match Day 2 and Championship Sprint more than made up for any duds (and the stuff you weren’t interested in, Nick Faldo Plays The Open I’m talking about you)!

The game, predictably, has you taking part in a decathlon. I’d like to say as Daley Thompson, but your character is very white. You might justify this by thinking that’s just to cover up any colour clash, but I’m not sure how the very “white” character hairstyle contributes to that. The loading screen goes a step further, where he’s even more white than the white fellow competitors behind him! At least the hair works a bit better there, and the cassette inlay makes further strides in recognising his actual skin colour.

Anyway, regardless of whether you are playing as Daley or a white imposter, you’ve got two days of athletic pursuits ahead of you, one of each side of the tape! On day one, you’ve got 100 metres, long jump, shot putt, high jump and 400 metres. On day two, you move on to 110 metre hurdles, discus, pole-vault, javelin and 1500 metres. Gameplay ranges from the famous, keyboard killing button mashing of two keys (or joystick waggling if you really want to break some stuff quickly) to make you go faster in races or run ups, to precisely angled jumps then more strategic stamina management in the long distance races. You effectively have three lives, meaning fail to hit the qualifying time or distance or height in an event three times and you’re out. Get through everything and you’re the champ!

Things start pretty smoothly. No brains required in the first event, just hit those left and right buttons as fast as you can and you’ll qualify pretty easily. Play it safe and you should qualify in at least one of your three long jumps next too – just hit jump near enough to the line and hold it down until you get to about 45 degrees – and make note of that number! Shot putt was a variant on that, but you’re throwing a heavy ball at 45 degrees instead of jumping when you get to the line, and it’s really easy as long as you don’t cross the line. High jump is where the challenge starts, and has you hitting and holding jump a second time to adjust your body angle mid-jump, and this is going to take some experimenting until you know the right angle numbers (about 80 and 20 degrees if I remember right) and more importantly, when to hit jump to take off because there’s no distance indicator before you reach the bar; keep going higher until you’ve fouled three times. Should you get there, 400 metres takes the button mashing approach of the 100 meters but goes on four times longer, and your fingers aren’t going to forgive you in a hurry!

Turn the tape over and you’re going to load into the 110 meters – button mashing with the added challenge of timing a jump whilst staying in your running rhythm; screw it up once and you’re going to struggle but avoid crashing into any hurdles and crossing the finish line feels really great. Discus has you spinning rather than running, then timing your 45 degree let-go when you’re facing the right way having reached a decent rotational pace. Another tough one until you’ve got the timing in your head, then it’s hard to not qualify.

Pole vault is another test of timing and knowing when to start dropping the pole, but like the 110 meters, you’re going to feel great when you finally get over a really high bar; like high jump, this keeps going until you foul three times, and is great fun when you’re chasing your record scores. Javelin goes back to the standard running and chucking formula, but I always found watching it (very) slowly ascend and flatten out along the top of the screen then descend quite hypnotic! Qualify this far and you’re at the 1500 meters, the epic final event that struck fear into any Spectrum gamer, but in reality was more sedate (or even boring, some might say) than the long distance test of finger stamina it was perceived to be! This time you have an energy bar, and the faster you go, the quicker it will deplete, so it’s all about finding a rhythm and speeding things up when your energy looks like it can take it. This is definitely the most thoughtful of all the events and whilst the gameplay might not invoke a frantic final push to the podium, it certainly feels great when you get there, though it’s hard to fail once you know what you’re doing.

Sound effects are mostly non-existent up to this point, apart from some white noise of varying lengths representing a starting gun or crowds cheering when you qualify, but there are some short bursts of music elsewhere between events, and, most notably, when you win gold at the end of all this, with a beautiful (in Spectrum terms) rendition of Chariots of Fire as white Daley stands on top of the podium with his arms held high. Then you get the final score and you’re ready to go all over again. After loading side one again, of course.

Apart from Daley Thompson’s questionable ethnicity in the game, there was an awful lot to look at and be impressed by. As said earlier, the white character did avoid any serious colour clash so everything else was very colourful. That screen was really clearly presented (and pretty much directly lifted from the Track & Field user interface) – your score and qualifying requirements at the top, current attempts and records below, then the best crowd representation I’d seen up to that point, moving around excitedly with their Ocean banners; below them you’ve got the track or field area with your main man in action, and at the very bottom a speed, angle and distance guage that appeared as required. Every event was smoothly animated even if the running has aged a bit today, with nice touches like the guy with his tape measure in the long jump or the shadow under the shot putt as it flies through the air.

The game won Best Arcade Style Game at C&VG’s Golden Joystick Awards in 1984, and also Best (Overall) Arcade Game in the Crash Readers Awards, fending off challenges from the mighty Jet Set Willy and only marginally less mighty Sabre Wulf. The following year it joined both of those games and Beach Head on the first They Sold a Million compilation, so we can assume it sold a ton too. And rightly so! Play this or Track & Field or Hyper Sports today, and whilst bashing buttons for speed might not feel as natural and ubiquitous today as it did in the mid-eighties, it’s just as much fun and is just as destructive to your equipment… And don’t forget the old pro tips about rubbing a biro really fast across the keys for an extra boost. I’m sure they all work equally well nowadays!

Game Boy Tetris Body-Paint Cosplay

Game Boy Tetris Body-Paint Cosplay

This quick bonus post poses a very important retro-gaming related question… How do you miss someone dressed as Tetris on Game Boy, in body-paint, no less, for nearly 8 years?

This Inna Doll session was part of a Mesh for UnikoGirls collaboration in 2012, by photographer Nicolas Ahouansou. You can see the full set and the rest of his work right here, but we also have a preview!

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!

A Look at Star Wars Curio Deathstar Interceptor

A Look at Star Wars Curio Deathstar Interceptor

The April 1985 issue was when I decided I needed to buy my own copy of Computer & Video Games magazine, and not rely on reading hand-me-downs from friends when they were feeling generous. What might have sparked the decision was the type-in game Starship Victory for the unexpanded VIC-20; I was big into those at the time (as you can read about here) and there was no way I was missing out on a cool Asteroids clone like this! There were also a few reviews that probably caught my eye – at the time, there was still pretty good coverage for the VIC-20 here, but of course we were in the minority… and you couldn’t help looking over the fence at what you were missing out on for the big new machines! Impossible Mission, Ghostbusters and Cauldron being of particular note that month! It wasn’t so much jealousy – at least for a year or two – but just wanting to lap up the massive amount of exponentially increasingly incredible games that were now coming out on a massive amount of computers; in that month alone, a quick scan just now revealed stuff for BBC, Electron, C64, Spectrum, VIC-20, MSX, Atari, Amstrad, Dragon and Texas, and I’m sure I missed some PET and C16 stuff too!

I’ve never been that big into superhero stuff, but I always consider the May 1985 cover of C&VG as iconic as well as fairly unique in its styling for them. There’s so much going on in both the main illustration itself and also the text blurb around it. Amazingly, if you actually read it, it was mostly all just promoting stuff you could win, including a copy of text-adventure Questprobe 3, featuring the featured Fantastic Four, but not forgetting a map of Alien 8, which was about the first thing shoved in your face after the contents page! What really stuck in my mind that month though was the advert inside the cover for a game called Deathstar Interceptor by System 3 Software.

I might not have been into superheroes, but Star Wars was another matter, and that X-Wing and the three screenshots had me hooked (mostly because the text was pink on black which was near enough to my red-black colour blindness to make it not worth trying to read). Definitely a Star Wars game though, even though it doesn’t mention it! Strange… Actually, it barely even mentions what the game’s called, which is why it might have long-since escaped my memory by the time I eventually got a Spectrum, and would do so for another 35 years until I was sorting through a stack of old computer games magazines in the garage!

“The Fight Continues… On The Spectrum. …Earth is threatened by an Empire Deathstar, can you penetrate its defences, destroy it before it destroys you? …Deathstar Interceptor gives you 12 screens of 3D graphics, super smooth 3D animations, unbelievable sound effects, music, 4 skill levels and hiscore table …this is the ultimate challenge! …This game has to be seen to be believed! You have not seen what the 48K Spectrum is capable of until you have played Deathstar Interceptor.”

I was probably just as well off with the screenshots! The first one is the first part of the game. A real oddity where you’re taking off in your X-Wing, which at some point will veer off to the side of its own accord and you have to guide it back towards the hyperspace thingy (I guess) at the top. It’s not very scientific and seems to be a matter of luck if your single press in the right direction actually gets you into the middle of it or not, allowing you to proceed into space and the second screenshot!

This looks fantastic; it’s a kind of Galaxians with tie-fighters and some other nasties, and you have horizontal and a bit of vertical movement… Expert tip – move to the top left and nothing can shoot you! As this is going on, the Empire Deathstar is getting bigger and bigger it’s close enough, then you’re into the trench. There’s a couple of phases, involving dodging lasers from the sides then shooting some more enemies, then either I got lucky with an unintentional shot to the exhaust port (unintentional because I never even noticed it) or it does it for you.

Either way, you’re rewarded by the ultimate insult to the red-black colour blindness sufferer – the red explosion in the black of space! Like the advert, I don’t think I was missing a lot here; it was hardly the mind-blower when the same thing happened in the Star Wars arcade game. Then you start all over again, looping until you die and you get a really nice rendition of the Star Wars theme.

If you look hard enough, the advert also mentions it’s available for the Commodore 64. Not surprised they didn’t make a big deal of it though – it’s a shocker! The Spectrum game looks like a Star Wars game and has a bit of variety to its “12 screens of 3D graphics” but for as much as I played of it, the second stage en-route to the Empire Deathstar is a really ropey shooter, then when you get to the trench you’re still playing the same ropey shooter as before but against a trench background. And you’re not even fighting tie fighters in the C64 version, but what look like coat hangers and hamburgers!

The best thing here is the Empire Deathstar design in the second stage though – for some reason, the C64 version has the big round shooting part at the top of the Empire Deathstar repeated at the bottom too! Two death bits! Even the Star Wars theme sounds better on the Spectrum, and when did you last hear that?

As you can tell, at the time of writing in the year 2020 I’ve now played both versions (actually both emulated on a PlayStation Classic console!), and I even got to the end of the Spectrum’s loop. And I think I appreciated that version at least a little more than I would of in 1986 or 1987 when I got my Spectrum +2 because there was loads more going on there then than hunting out this old Star Wars curio I couldn’t remember the name of anyway. The Spectrum version is really fun!

But what about Star Wars? Is this a Star Wars game? Or was it really the case the in the wild west of video games in the mid-80’s you could get away with ripping off even Star Wars this blatantly? Well, partially at least it seems. I’ve learnt recently that the Star Wars theme tune was licensed, but as for the rest, probably not! Which might explain certain aspects of the advert, and using words like “Empire Deathstar,” and not even mentioning their limited official Star Wars licensing, let alone barely mentioning what the game is called! A curio indeed.