My Life With… Jetpac (VIC-20)

My Life With… Jetpac (VIC-20)

When I started thinking about Jetpac on the VIC-20 recently, a couple of questions immediately came to mind: Where does it fit in my top VIC-20 games? And because I kind of already knew it wasn’t going to figure quite as highly as it maybe should… Where does it fit in the top VIC-20 games?

Coming back to the first question, this one is easy thanks to my big nerd list of my favourite games of all time ever.

  1. The Perils of Willy
  2. Andes Attack
  3. Jetpac
  4. Omega Race
  5. Submarine Commander

The Perils of Willy (read more here) will always be my favourite VIC-20 game, but this was the first time I’d thought about a top five, and genuinely didn’t know most of what was going to follow when I went through my big list looking for VIC-20 games from top to bottom. Andes Attack, Jeff Minter’s llama-focussed Defender clone, was a surprise in second place – without thinking much I actually thought I was going to see Submarine Commander there! But thinking much about it, it’s probably right in my mind. As is Omega Race in fifth place, and our subject here, Jetpac, in third. I don’t like that Pinball Wizard (read more here) isn’t there though! But taking away the all important nostalgia factor, we come to the second question – where does it fit in the top VIC-20 games?

Even through my rose-tinted spectacles, I can look at my list and say that The Perils of Willy [maybe!] isn’t the best game on the VIC-20, though I won’t hear any argument that it isn’t up there somewhere!!! But seriously, looking at my list here for the first time, extracted like this as my VIC-20 top five, the first thing that came to mind was hang on, why isn’t Jetpac in first place? Instinctively, surely there’s no better game on the platform from a technical viewpoint, or aesthetically, or in terms of gameplay or longevity? From my top five, maybe Submarine Commander is an equivalent technical marvel, but I reluctantly concede that its gameplay has a more niche appeal. Omega Race also needs to be in there as an almost flawless conversion of the incredible playable – and re-playable – twist on Asteroids arcade game. Add a few other titles I’m familiar with, and after far more personal deliberation that was probably necessary, we have this:

  1. Jetpac
  2. Omega Race
  3. Gorf
  4. Jump Jet
  5. Pirate Cove

We’ll get into Jetpac (finally) in a minute. In second and third place, I could easily switch positions between Omega Race and another incredible arcade conversion feat in Gorf, a multi-level spin on Space Invaders that included screen effects like I’d never seen before, not to mention the biggest enemy I’d ever seen with the Flag Ship appearing every four levels! Then we have Jump Jet (read more here), which is a Harrier flight-sim that at the time I got it was surely as good as flight sims would ever get! I could argue that A.C.E. (Air Combat Emulator) – coincidentally another flight-sim – should be in this spot too, but that was even harder than this was, and its plane couldn’t take off vertically from an aircraft carrier! It never made me air-sick like its box said it might either… Then we have Pirate Cove, part of that incredibly immersive VIC-20 text-based adventure series (almost any of which could really be here instead if you prefer) by Scott Adams where you “Go North” or “Use Mongoose” (to kill a snake if I remember right)! And if I also remember right, the first game I ever finished, not long after the mongoose incident!

List complete, and there we have it. Jetpac is officially the best game ever on the VIC-20! We should find out why.

Jetpac was released by Ultimate in 1983, but I’m fairly certain I got this after Christmas in 1984; it definitely needed an 8K expansion so it wouldn’t have been much earlier than that. Without doubt it was the screenshots on an advert or review I’d seen in C&VG or Commodore User, or on the back of the box, that attracted me to it, and amazingly they were probably even VIC-20 screenshots and not, as was usually the case, nefariously hijacked from a C64 version (which in this case never actually appeared). They could have come from the Spectrum version, but any VIC owner could proudly say that even if they did, you’d struggle to tell the difference. In fact, this was especially true because the VIC-20 version had colour clash that any Spectrum owner would have been proud of!

You play as Jetman, though bit like Mario’s first appearance in Donkey Kong, I don’t remember ever knowing him as Jetman – he was just an astronaut with a jet-pack and a blaster who had crashed on a planet far, far away and had to rebuild his rocket from the bits strewn about the place then fuel it up and start making his way home. All of this happens on a single wraparound screen, with three rocket parts that had to be dropped on top of each other in order, which you’d find lying on the ground or on mid-air ledges, whilst fending off the planet’s fauna that randomly flies around the place impeding your quest. Once you’ve put the rocket back together, fuel starts dropping out of the sky, also randomly landing around the screen, together with bonus jewels and stuff, which you collect and drop onto your rocket until it’s full up. Then you walk back into the rocket, it takes off and you start collecting fuel on the next planet, which is a similar screen but with a whole new set of meanies to attend to.

The game loops around a set of four levels, after which you’ve obviously crashed again and need to rebuild the rocket from scratch, which makes for the perfect setting for the game’s score-chasing intentions. This simplicity is what makes the game great – this gameplay loop is without fault, and it sits in the company of Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, etc. as timeless games that play just as well today, still offering endless challenge and replayability.

The sound is very functional and of its time, but the aforementioned graphics are absolutely outstanding, and unlike most VIC games stand up just as well today, with big bold sprites for the main character and the various enemies, and this incredible sense of scale as the rocket is put back together. And when you eventually fill it up with enough fuel, that sense of exhilaration as it takes of and exits the screen is still there today too! The planet design, in contrast, couldn’t be more basic, with three platforms suspended over blackness – there’s not even any ground at the bottom of the screen! But you won’t even notice that when you’re frantically trying to create a path through a kind of large-scale bullet-hell array of fast-paced aliens, either by shooting or dodging or sheer fluke as you panic your way around to get to a rocket part or fuel drop or tasty morsel. And I say you won’t even notice it because for all the hours I’ve spent playing this over decades, I didn’t either until just now! There’s a lovely subtle flame effect from your jet-pack, which moves as you change direction, and from the rocket too as it flies up the screen; the aliens have their own explosion animation too, and I really like that this happens when they crash into a platform as well as when you shoot them. Aside from a bit of flicker, you really have to pinch yourself and say yes, this really is happening on a VIC-20!

And all of this is why Jetpac sits at the top of the pile for the VIC-20, even if it’s not actually as good as The Perils of Willy in my opinion!

I’ve never played any of the Jetman sequels, and have steered clear of the overly restyled XBOX title Jetpac Refuelled, but did eventually play the Spectrum version of Jetpac in 2018, when the Rare Replay collection went backwards compatible on XBOX One. You’ve got more screen space to play in and it’s the same fantastic, timeless game that the VIC-20 offered, but it doesn’t seem quite as fast and frantic, so I’m sticking with the VIC as having the superior version despite only having half the levels of the Spectrum version. And saying that is even more incredible when you come back to what a technical achievement it is that it’s on there at all, when it’s not such a technical marvel on the Spectrum; and when you consider the pedigree of Ultimate’s other games on the Spectrum. Really incredible!

Bonus Post – A Note on the Game Boy in the Konami Anniversary Collections

Bonus Post – A Note on the Game Boy in the Konami Anniversary Collections

They might not have the profile of some of the other games in these wonderful compilations, but the Game Boy is well represented in Konami’s Castlevania Anniversary Collection with both The Castlevania Adventure and Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge included. And then we have Operation C, where C, of course, stands for Contra in the Contra Anniversary Collection.

I’m going to skip over The Castlevania Adventure because I recently covered it in a bit more detail here. Instead, we’ll take a very quick look at the other two, which I’ve also played all the way through on Nintendo Switch.

Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is both a technical spectacle and an excellent game, and a perfect companion to Adventure. By this point the developers properly knew how to get the most out of the handheld hardware, so it looks even more wonderfully atmospheric, runs smoothly and sounds even more like a Castlevania game than its predecessor, despite the same limitations.

It’s pretty quick to get through the linear levels, which you can play most of the way through in any order, though the final boss fight is a bugger! You genuinely have to memorise every single move it’s going to make and every pixel on each of the on-screen platforms that you need to be positioned on for each move to counter it. Not to mention the untold experimentation to work out some of them. This is a real shock after the relative simplicity of getting that far, but it is a great feeling when you finally beat it.

Operation C was the first Contra game I jumped into from that collection – having dabbled with them all as a complete newcomer to the series, it seemed a bit easier than the rest, and as you can tell, I’m easily impressed when it comes to the Game Boy!

The classic run and gun design is all present in a compact form, but it did leave me struggling a bit until I tweaked the controls to be like Mega Man, then I sailed through the first area. I was then amazed that the second switched to top-down shooting like Ikari Warriors – not having any history with Contra beyond remembering a few screenshots and trying several first levels, I didn’t see that coming!

I think there were five gradually more bonkers stages in the end, including another top-down level with organic backgrounds and giant insects running about like something from Xenon 2! Some really cool jungle stages too in the classic Contra mould – just like Castlevania(s) on the Game Boy, the developers worked wonders with the monochrome visuals to generate just the right atmosphere.

Whether side-scrolling or top-down, none of the levels took more than a few goes to get through (apart from the first until I changed the buttons around), and the bosses were fairly easy until the (almost) last one, and that was also fairly straightforward once you worked out its couple of attack patterns. Which is how I like my bosses, and overall how I like my games!

Bonus Post – In Defence of The Castlevania Adventure

Bonus Post – In Defence of The Castlevania Adventure

I think Game Boy Castlevania Adventure gets a bum rap. Then again, I think that about Pit Fighter and the Spectrum version of Out Run too! (You can find out why here). Anyway, I remember being hugely impressed with it on the original hardware, and in retrospect, considering how early in the Game Boy’s life it came out, it really was an achievement. I’ve also just really enjoyed playing through it again in the Konami Castlevania Anniversary Collection on Switch…

The idea is that you make your way through four stages (or dark dungeons, torture chambers and vampire crypts as the description goes) of Dracula’s lair. After that, you enter what is called “the “dead” of night” to quote it exactly, to face off against Count Dracula and his multiple personalities. All with your “mystic” whip and mindful wits to sort you out.

A lot of the criticism I’ve seen of late relates to its inclusion on the aforementioned collection, on the basis of it being dull and poorly designed compared to the excellent sequel – also present – which renders it redundant, and no doubt taking the place of a GBA game or Symphony or whatever the missing favourite of the person criticising it is. I do get it, and wouldn’t have complained about an Aria of Sorrow or something being on here instead, or even the Game Boy Kid Dracula; actually, having just finished the NES version, I’d have really liked that! But I don’t think that makes it a bad game.

Admittedly the first stage is a bit sedate, but there’s some really challenging platforming, races against time and boss fights later on. Took me a few goes to remember how the end bit works, but the rest felt comfortably familiar, and more importantly, as fun as I remember. It looks really good too – very clean, very atmospheric, and it’s very clear where you need to be to make some of the more precise jumps that are called for later. It sounds like a Castlevania game too. And I for one am glad I got to play through it again on the collection!

Now I just need that Arcade Archives Pit Fighter release. Get talking to Atari, Hamster people!

My Life With… Operation Wolf (ZX Spectrum / Atari ST)

My Life With… Operation Wolf (ZX Spectrum / Atari ST)

I vaguely remember seeing Operation Wolf, with its mounted Uzi, in an arcade, but where it really made an impression was long before that in Computer & Video Games magazine’s Arcade Action section. Whilst I’d generally skip over that section with just a few glances at the screenshots, I remember three games on those pages that absolutely blew me away, and there was no chance in hell there’d ever be home computer conversions! They were R-Type, Out Run, and, of course, Operation Wolf, where all your Rambo fantasies could finally come true with graphics like you’d never seen before! 

As a side note, at the time of writing in February 2019, I recently picked up arcade perfect conversions of R-Type and Out Run on the Nintendo Switch; they did come, and with Out Run in particular, I still can’t quite believe what I’m seeing on my TV screen even three decades later- when you consider how amazed I was by the ZX Spectrum version when it came, and how bad everyone else seems to think that version is, maybe not a surprise!

I don’t think I’d ever wanted a game as much as I did this; with arcade conversions, especially such high profile ones, expectations of quality were always secondary to the fact that it was just coming to the Spectrum! It arrived in all its monochrome glory for Christmas 1988, and if I remember right was a present from my grandma and auntie. What I definitely remember right is my first time playing it on Christmas Day evening, in my auntie’s bedroom, on her Spectrum+2 and a 14-inch black and white portable TV. As was often the case playing Spectrum games at the time, the fact it lacked colour didn’t, in reality, matter that much! That said, let’s not forgot it more than made up for the lack of colour in the main game by filling the little “suiting up” montage you got when you first loaded the game up with the most garish colours it could manage!

On the home versions, the Uzi was replaced by a crosshair, which controlled fine with a joystick, as the screen scrolled from left to right and enemy soldiers, tanks, gunships and gunboats filled the screen from all directions to bring you death. As well as your Uzi, you could also bring them death with your limited supply of grenades; letting the screen fill up with vehicles and soldiers then dispatching them all at once this way was a great feeling! As was shooting one of the daggers out of sky as it flew at the screen before it hit you and briefly stayed in place, full stab.

The story, such as it was, was true to the arcade original – go through six military themed levels in jungles, prison camps, airports and various bases to rescue the hostages. Each one was a bit more than just shooting everything in sight; you’d have a task like cutting off the enemy communications or getting information out of the enemies, although all of that did involve shooting everything that moved unless it was one of the fleeing civilians or nurses carrying some unfortunate in a stretcher who shouted “NO!” if you shot them. The first few levels were all do-able but I’m not sure I ever got to the end of the final level in the airport. 

The Spectrum version was one of the best arcade conversions the machine got, with absolutely stunning looking graphics that perfectly captured the feel of the original. And there were so many types enemies on screen at once in the distance and in the foreground (including the one that looked like something out of The Village People) and all over the place without any kind of slowdown or mess. The +2 version sounded good too, with a suitably testosterone-juiced theme tune. Overall, out of the two versions I owned, it’s the one I really remember most fondly…

As time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to dip into recollections from decades long past, but in the case of my Atari ST Operation Wolf experience, I have a major helping hand! Christmas always brought with it a diary for the coming year, and in the days after Christmas you would start re-writing your friends’ phone numbers, family birthdays and school holidays into your latest pocket-sized planner. They always had a theme too, like fishing or cycling or football, with half the pages full of related encyclopaedic content. And for the first few days of the year, you might even use it to record what you’d been up to… “I rushed home to play Op Wolf and it lived up to my high expectations. It is brilliant, the only problem being that it is on three disks. I got to stage 5 on my first go.” The diary then goes on to describing watching Lethal Weapon that evening!

This was all around the beginning of 1990 for me, but the ST version came out around the same time as the Spectrum one, and was probably the only dampener on that version – as great as the Spectrum version looked, in magazines like C&VG you were seeing it side by side with this incredible, virtually arcade perfect looking version on the ST. As well as the glorious graphics, you also had all the little details like the pigs running around you could shoot for extra ammo, and some great enemy death animations especially when you shot one of the guys up close to you. And more than anything, it had a mouse that made shooting stuff a lot easier than with a joystick! This was a really great conversion, but what’s interesting to note is that I don’t remember ever being blown away by it, like I had been the Spectrum version just over a year earlier – it didn’t take long at all to become spoilt by the incredible games that just came as standard in the next-gen machine. Or maybe it was just all the disk swapping.

And despite getting to stage 5 on my first go, I never did get to the end of the game here either!

Bonus Post – Remember ZERO Magazine?

Bonus Post – Remember ZERO Magazine?

Old gaming magazines like Computer & Video Games, Crash and Zzap! 64 quite deservedly still get a lot of attention, but whilst looking for a specific copy of C&VG from a pile that covers most of the eighties for my last post, I found a rogue magazine in my carefully ordered, er, pile! That magazine was issue one, November 1989, of something I’d completely forgotten existed, ZERO, “the brand new magazine for you, the 16-bit and consoles games player.” As I’d forgotten about it, I thought others might have too, so here we are!

What I expect drew me to it, and the subsequent issues I bought during its three-year lifespan, was the cover disk, which featured not only demos, but actual full games for the Atari ST and the Amiga. Actually, this mag did cause a bit of controversy when it stuck a strip poker game, Cover Girl Poker, on the cover. In the interests of a well-researched post, I did seek out this game and play a few rounds… It appears to have been linked to the UK’s finest newspaper, The Daily Sport, and features some of its finest regular glamour babes, including gaming favourite, Maria Whittaker. By complete coincidence, this is the second post in a row that mentions her – the previous referencing her most well-known work, the Barbarian cover! Anyway, it’s not a great game but I’m sure served it’s purpose for ZERO mag.

Issue one featured a couple of games, worth £40 according to the first issue’s cover! On the ST you had Recoil by Jonathan Smith, who’s previous works included classic Spectrum conversions Green Beret, Hypersports, Batman, Mikie, Cobra and more. This was a Defender clone that was pretty fun. On the Amiga you had Merv the Merciless, which I’ve never played but you seem to be a troll collecting stuff and avoiding other stuff whilst trying to keep up with a top-down scrolling screen. Also looks very nice.

Back to the mag itself, reading it again it’s pretty cool. Usual stuff – previews, reviews, competitions, developer features, tips, comic strips, and best of all, The Price I$ Right, a feature on budget games that is actually presented by Leslie Crowther! Or at least there’s a picture of him on the page, which I really wasn’t expecting when I flicked through it today!

This month one of the opening features was a kind of lighthearted mass review of some of the big flight sims making waves on ST, Amiga and PC at the time, including Falcon, F-16 Combat Pilot, Interceptor and F-15 Strike Eagle II. Quite rightly,  Falcon came out on top with a score of 92% – Top Gun had finally arrived on your home computer with this corker – MIG21’s, burning it up over desert mountain ranges, outside views for a cool fly-past and some brilliant cockpit action (my words not theirs)!

I’m a little disappointed by the main event review this month – Tintin on the Moon. No interest in Tintin ever, and I imagine that 17-year old me was equally unimpressed. Continental Circus, the pioneering “True 3D” arcade racer was next, justifiably getting a better score than Tintin; interesting fact here – it was supposed to be called Continental Circuit but without Google Translate in 1989, they had a few Japanese to English translation problems! Also reviewed were Steel, Dynamite Dux, Gunhed, Vigilante, Bloodwych, APB, Oil Imperium, and the mighty Strider, which received a disgraceful 84% on the ST, and 81% on the Amiga, which makes me a bit happier! In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best month ever to launch a new games mag! To be fair, things did hot up a bit in the Review Shorts section, which mostly featured conversions of older gems like Paperboy and California Games, but also the 3D alien Pong favourite of mine, Shufflepuck Cafe (83% on the ST and 82% on the Amiga – justice done again!), which was actually a longer review than the non-Shorts reviews earlier in the mag!

After the reviews, one of the features made me smirk… Chip Shop Boys,  a feature on getting the most out of your MIDI music features with some bloke from Bomb the Bass, which begins with “Fancy yourself as Jason Donovan? Garry Glitter? Richard Clayderman?” I can’t believe they spelt Gary Glitter’s name wrong…

The tips section featured a complete solution to Spherical, which I don’t have any recollection of, and a map for Mr Heli. Again, hardly magazine sellers, but with £40 of games on the cover, who cares? There’s even a section for hex, POKEs and hacks to type in!

Near the end now, and it’s time for the Price I$ Right, featuring £9.99 budget titles such as Populous Promised Lands, which scored 80%, and Postman Pat at 77%; funny how nowadays you don’t hear about the Postman Pat game only 3% less than you hear about Populous…

Even in 1989, computer games mags still insisted on an adventure game section, quite rightly at the back of the mag where no one cared about it, but ZERO really knew how to close a magazine, and in issue one it did so with an interview with none other than Jeremy Beadle. Genius!

I had a great time flicking through this, even if most of the games in October 1989 were a bit crap. What’s really cool is seeing the adverts you used to see every month everywhere again after a near 30-year gap! Remember this one with the MIDI keytar?

My Life With… Enduro Racer – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Enduro Racer – ZX Spectrum

I bought Computer & Video Games magazine religiously every month between the end of 1983 and around 1991. By April 1987, my school journey consisted of either one slow bus from about ten minutes walk away from home that went right across town, or a quick one from the end of the road into town then pick up the slow one there. As well as less of a walk, the latter also allowed a cheeky visit to WHSmith, which at around 7.45am was always an interesting shop because only the newsagent bit was open, signified by the lights being on there whilst the rest of the shop was in darkness! Anyway, until I realised that Smash Hits wasn’t really covering the type of music I liked anymore, it meant I could buy that every week, then for a few days every month go in wondering if C&VG would be out yet.

Seeing the cover on the shelf was always exciting, and over the years produced some incredible, iconic artwork that could sell you a game by itself, let alone the magazine! But  now and then it was a bit crap, as was the case with the May 1987 issue – an evil looking, wounded elf-thing throwing two badly proportioned, overly-loaded dice with some purple pterodactyls flying about behind him. “Join the Guild of Thieves!” it exclaimed. Really didn’t do much for me, but slightly deflated, I still dutifully bought it and things quickly picked up inside…

But before that, I’m going on one of my asides. I went digging back through my old copies to find the pictures you can see here, and remember what I said about Smash Hits a minute ago? Well, right there in the contents is a picture of the guitarist from Dark Angel – Music, p.56… I’d completely forgotten about C&VG’s We Will Rock You section, which this month featured reviews of the aforementioned Dark Angel’s Darkness Descends, Joe Satriani’s Not of This Earth, classic Christian metal act Stryper’s To Hell With The Devil, and a tiny, two paragraph review of an album called Master of Puppets by Metallica, which they’re not very impressed with due to the lack of originality and their lack of songwriting skills! Maybe they should stick to games in future…

And the same probably applies here, so let me go back to where other things were picking up inside the May 1987 issue. Inside cover – advert for one of my favourite compilations, HIT PAK, featuring Scooby Doo, Fighting Warrior, 1942, The Sacred Armour of Antiriad, Jet Set Willy 2, Split Personalities and Duet (a previously unreleased bonus game that I really don’t remember being on my copy when I eventually got it). Some of my all-time faves all in one place! Opposite was an advert for Paperboy, then the heavy metal contents page, then a big double page advert for Enduro Racer. And for a Spectrum owner, this advert was very special because whilst the game was out on Amstrad and C64 (and possibly Atari ST or that might have been shortly after), the two screenshots were very definitely Spectrum ones and not the usual C64 fodder, so things were boding very well. Then we got to news, a couple more adverts, then Game of the Month… Arkanoid! Classic of course, though not as good as the Your Sinclair cover freebie Batty on the Spectrum. Then, what’s this? Another Game of the Month… Enduro Racer! And two more Spectrum screenshots!

I’ve gone on about this a bit because, as mentioned in previous tales, I very rarely got games at launch, but with my birthday only a month away, C&VG’s closing words of “Get it!” had a real resonance with me after reading and re-reading and re-reading their review and poring over the incredible looking Spectrum screenshots!

I do have a vague recollection of seeing Enduro Racer in an arcade in Great Yarmouth, but not so much the game as seeing people violently heaving back on the faux-bike they were perched on to try and get over the game’s big selling point – jumps! It was Sega’s follow-up to Hang On, and shared the above and behind the rider view, but now switched the action to racing an off-road bike.

You’ve got one minute to complete each race, with five different tracks that take in different vistas featuring deserts, snow, lakes and the seaside, all of which are filled with hills and undulations that scroll the track up and down brilliantly at a hell of a pace, other riders, cars, vegetation, water, far too many rocks and boulders, and of course, those wonderful jumps that you had to wheelie in front of just right so you didn’t slow down!

The Spectrum conversion was, quite simply, phenomenal. It is probably the best arcade conversion ever made for the machine – the graphics, the playability, the feel of the bike, the speed, the slight panic as you bounced off the ground after a jump, the little touches like the rider putting his foot down if you went far enough into a turn… and the 128K version even sounded okay! It really was a feat of programming that no other racer on the machine ever really equalled.

Without question in my top twenty games of all time – number fourteen to be specific, sandwiched between The Perils of Willy on the VIC-20 (with its own post here) and Journey on PS4! And just to conclude, we move forwards to the June 1987 cover of C&VG, where normal service resumed with an illustrated Wolf from Gladiators and busty Page-Three starlet Maria Whittaker, of course based on the legendary Barbarian cover art, but that’s another story for another time!