Despite my being there day one, I was a little slow on the uptake when Demon’s Tilt appeared on Xbox Game Pass at the end of 2019. I’m going to blame it on my kidneys briefly giving up the ghost during the first half of an MK Dons football match at around the same time! Anyway, once I was out of hospital a week later, and in the brief (usually very late night) moments that my son wasn’t plugged into FIFA or Madden or Fortnite on his Xbox, I was very quickly being reeled in by what started as the obviously best occult pinball action game I’d ever played, then maybe the best pinball game I’d ever played, and then just one of my favourite games of all time! It left Game Pass long before I’d got my own Xbox Series X, but its appearance on Switch had already given me unlimited access, and 14 months later as I write, it’s still often the last thing I do before I go to bed at night!
Demon’s Tilt is turbo-charged pinball and then some, with its demonic ritual-driven story spanning three intense screens, multiple hidden bonus rooms and special modes. It looks and sounds insane, often veering into bullet-hell territory, and the depth of gameplay is just incredible. My love of pinball games might have started with Pinball Wizard on the VIC-20 (more here), but it ends with Demon’s Tilt!
All that said, connoisseurs of nineties pinball games might have just felt the pang of familiarity that took me slightly longer to notice as I was dealing with my lower-right abdomen’s pangs of exploding! I got there eventually though, with a little help from some kind reviewers, who were starting me on an often obsessive journey, first making various stops on the PC-Engine, then ending by way of a couple more on the Sega Megadrive / Genesis. Our tale proper begins with Alien Crush, a game I’d actually played quite a lot of on PC-Engine at this point, but had no idea of its lineage or influence, and as obvious as it may seem now, didn’t immediately make the link…
Alien Crush is a 1988 PC-Engine three-screen, Alien-inspired sci-fi pinball game by Japanese developer Compile, possibly better known now for their Puyo Puyo series. And despite being a little dated today by its flip-screening, it still plays wonderfully, offering what must have been unprecented depth at the time! It was followed on PC-Engine in 1990 by Devil’s Crush, which replaced the sci-fi with the occult, and we’ll come back here later! After that little masterpiece, there was a Japan-only Super Famicon sequel, Jaki Crush, in 1992, inspired by Japanese depictions of hell, where I guess the demon jaki from the title lives! It still plays great too, with more complex pinball mechanics, some really cool graphical effects and a classic soundtrack to drive you onwards. Then for the official conclusion to the “Crush Pinball” series, we skip all the way forwards to 2008 with Alien Crush Returns, part sequel and part remake of the original for the Nintendo Wii via its WiiWare service. This one’s a little soul-less, with a lot of the incredible attention to detail of the original games sacrificed for more sparse big 3D graphics. Move forwards again to just over a decade later, and we’re finally up to date with very spiritual successor Demon’s Tilt, soul once again intact… At least until it tears it right out of you!
The PC-Engine Mini, which was a belated birthday present when it launched here in mid-2020, took me on its own ongoing journey of discovery, but I think so far Alien Crush is still what I’ve played the most on there – it was made to be seen on a great big flat-screen! However, as my Demon’s Tilt-inspired journey of occult pinball discovery continued in parallel, we come to another “Mini” console, the PlayStation Classic and its very easy, non-intrusive modding to play almost anything, including the PC-Engine and its Devil’s Crush!
Devil’s Crush, direct sequel to Alien Crush as we’ve already discussed, is three screens high, but it’s now scrolling smoothly into a single continuous playfield containing three sets of flippers. They’ve also done wonders with the ball physics, and in the main the ball feels just like it’s supposed to feel. I was instantly sold on the occult theming, which is a joy to behold, full of sinister monks, oozing skulls and other exposed-bone monstrosities, the big vampire snake lady, dragons and hints of flame and all kinds of diabolical detail. Having worked for a Japanese company for just about 20 years, I’ve seen a lot of Japanese Powerpoint slides, and one way of identifying Japan as the source is that they like to fill every space on the slide with information – white space is wasted space! This game is the same, with not a single wasted pixel of space anywhere in the living, medieval dungeon-styled Devil’s castle backdrop.
There’s movement everywhere, with so much just waiting to respond or explode or squelch or fight back at the slightest touch from your balls, and completing the right challenges will open up one of eight special single-screen bonus tables. Get a perfect on all of these and you’re in for a big 4x score multiplier, but there’s also mega points available for all kinds of perfect shots, like dropping a ball into the snake woman’s crown without touching any slime. Actually, landing your balls in her crown regardless is going to give you the game’s trademark visual pay-off, with each one (followed by hitting the right bonus symbol) gradually changing her from some kind of vampiric sleeping beauty to alien snake monster as you play, then once she’s there you shoot her again and you’ve got another bonus table! Tilt is going to play a big part in scoring big too, with a single tilt “direction” making it a little hit or miss, but it is going to be far more forgiving than in many other pinball games, encouraging its use as part of your arsenal. Another mechanic of the Crush games is the last chance, where once you’ve lost your three balls you’ve got a spinning something-hundred number to stop; if that matches the last three numbers of your score, you get one more chance with an extra ball, so stop at 900 and your score is 427900, for example, and there you go!
There’s suitably eerie sound effects everywhere, mixed with more traditional pinball bells and whistles. Ball impacts sound suitably meaty, the plunger sounds suitably mystical, and there’s a suitably evil laugh from one of the bigger feature skulls when you lose a ball! We’ve also got a load of distinct theme tunes, with the title screen playing the pick of the bunch – a very Castlevania kind of haunted house music. Things hot up for the main in-game theme, which does a great job of eventually looping without ever getting annoying, and its high-tempo eighties keyboard-rock just hinting at something sinister. Then you’re brought back from the dead with the high score table theme taunting you with a vaguely oriental sound, somewhere in the middle of the other two! Bonus tables also have their own themes, all adding up to a lot of music, which isn’t the absolute best of the best on the PC-Engine, but it’s never very far off.
It should be noted that there’s a bit of censorship going on with Devil’s Crush, so make sure you’re on the Japanese version to get the original vision and the full occult beauty of this stunning game! Otherwise, you’ll be getting vases instead of coffins (which had those deeply offensive crucifix things on), and pentagrams and other such symbols of evil replaced by pretty pointed stars! Getting the right version is slightly easier as we move to the Sega Mega Drive (or Genesis) – and the title at the top of this page is also going to start looking less like a typo – though we’re going to have to muddy the waters of the Crush series even more to get there, which for me is just a couple of original PlayStation controller clicks away…
Devil Crash MD, to give it its full name, is the uncensored Japanese Mega Drive port of Devil’s Crush. However, it wasn’t just coffins that were deemed too much for western audiences, but the name itself, and America and Europe got the more fantasy-themed Dragon’s Fury, which was to all intents and purposes the western release of the PC-Engine game. There’s really not much between these two games whatever they’re called though, and on any given day I might veer between the larger playing area and more realistic physics of the PC-Engine version or the vibrancy and slightly more realistic flow to the game of the Mega Drive version. Overall the latter might just pip it at the post though, with its bit more gothic title music, set on top of a more flamboyant title screen featuring the snake lady. “More flamboyant” is a good way to desribe the main game theme on this version too, as well as some of the graphical flourishes like the steam going on around the base of the plunger, more flames and bigger explosions; it’s just generally all a bit more bold and in your face. It’s also got its own user interface down the right side of the screen, which does result in a comparatively smaller table size, but on the other hand is giving the serious player valuable progress information.
What the Mega Drive version does have is some really cool cheat codes. Both versions have a password save system, but enter the right password here and you’ll not only have 99 balls, but also your choice of changing the table music to the themes from Thunder Force II or III, Herzog Zwei, Elemental Master and more! I believe it’s also got an end game too, where if you score a billion points you’ll start a final boss battle, but I’ve definitely never seen that! And finally, it’s got its own sequel… Don’t get too excited, the 1993 Dragon’s Revenge is almost none of the things we’ve been so positive about with any of the games we’ve discussed up to now! Maybe that’s a little harsh, but it’s definitely a bit mediocre in comparison, with few of its own ideas except over-complicating the table design, going full on fantasy and making some dubious attempts at sexing everything up with some very 16-bit bikini-clad warrior women hosting the bonus tables! Demon’s Tilt might not be 100% canon, but it’s far more canon than this Mega Drive canon sequel!
Back to Devil Crash or Devil’s Crush – it doesn’t really matter – you’re going to have the absolute best time with either version depending on your system of choice! It’s a stunning looking, stunning sounding, imaginative pinball game that still holds its own as one of the greats despite making up the rules as it goes along. Demon’s Tilt might have had several decades to perfect the formula, but in my collection at least, Devil Crash, Devil’s Crush (and let’s not forget Alien Crush!) have just about equal billing.
There was once a marvellous arcade game called Kung-Fu Master, and eventually it made its way to the ZX Spectrum where it became the most disappointing game of all time, and no matter how many times I give it a second chance, I reckon it’s always going to stink!
It was terrible – a mass of colour clash; played like a dog (in slow motion); scrolled like a speech impediment; had one of the most grating theme tunes that even the Spectrum could manage… Although if you were really lucky, the collision detection would take out the enemy behind you while you were kicking something in front, or if the screen “scrolled” when a knife-throwing enemy appeared it would turn into a regular one!
Unlike Kung-Fu Master, Indiana Jones and the Fountain of Everlasting Life isn’t terrible – in fact, it’s the exact opposite, and that’s why it’s almost equally disappointing! In its defence, it was released as an April Fool’s joke in 2017 by Misja van Laatum, developer of the still in development at the time of writing point-and-click adventure The Fountain of Youth, a game “in the spirit of LucasArts’ classic Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis”. And the joke is that it’s over before you know it, and there’s the precise nature of our disappointment here, because it’s not only nearly the best Indiana Jones game on the Spectrum, but given that’s not a major accomplishment in the eyes of many, it’s also nearly an absolute classic Spectrum platform adventure. And in the company of Manic Miner, Monty, etc. that would be a hell of an accomplishment!
We start with a lovely loading screen – even more lovely than Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a Spectrum game that I am hugely fond of – with Indy in front of a burning pyramid and two flying saucers firing laser beams at stuff, and then were ready to begin for real in Bora Gora, French Polynesia in 1939. The first screen is called Fortune and Glory, and you’re at the rainforest entrance to some ancient ruin full of ropes, platforms, occult-looking bull statues and what might be magenta spikes or poisonous flowers, but they’re magenta so just steer clear! You’re running, climbing and jumping your way up to the top and then into the Snake Pit! Indy might not like snakes, but there’s a statue a bit like the one at the start of the first movie down there, so we’ll grab that on the way down and back up, avoiding the patrolling snakes and more magenta flowers, but stopping on the way to get a tantalising glimpse of the crazy UFO screen you’re about to encounter next. This screen, The Dig Site, is the cruellest part of this April Fool’s joke, because unless you’re already in on it, it’s the point where you get excited about this game maybe being a classic, as the platforms get more complex in layout, and there’s a guard as well as giant insects and magenta flowers, not to mention the mystery of that big flying saucer at the bottom of the screen… And then once you’ve made the leap of faith down the big drop at the end of the screen, it all comes crashing down with “Happy April Fool’s Day” and a message about them having been making this game for a long time but not 31 years. And then in your disappointment you treat yourself to another playthrough, because what’s another 90 seconds when you’ve been so close to a classic, but now you’re so far away!
I was actually in on the joke by the time I played this, having seen my friend Nick Jenkin suffer the disappointment live on his wonderful YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/njenkin) – if you’re into retro-gaming, be sure to check that out, with a load of video reviews every week that are about how much you’d enjoy the game on those first few goes rather than expert gameplay… though in the style of gameplay we’re talking about here, he is a bit of a master! And there’s also a couple of live streams per week that are always an evening well-spent with the great community he’s gathered around him. Definitely never a disappointment!
Even after all of that, I still wanted to play the game and I still wanted to write about it because, for as long as it lasts, it is really good! I’ll never buy their real game, The Fountain of Youth, because I have absolutely no desire to ever play a point-and-click adventure, but I would pay good money and play the living daylights out of a Spectrum (or even Spectrum-inspired) platformer if this is the quality they can knock up as a joke! It’s a great looking game, with all kinds of detail in the different blocks and platforms, simple but perfectly functional character designs, and some very well thought out (and very varied) use of Spectrum colour, with only a bit of clash adding to its modern-day charm. Less is more in the sound department too, with perfectly well realised sound effects and thankfully no ten second loop of a dreadful Spectrum rendition of a nursery rhyme or something, as was the case with many of these games! And they’ve nailed the all-important jump controls too. It’s just great, and they need to abandon that other thing and just make more of this please!
The mid-eighties video rental experience offered endless possibilities for the martial arts-obsessed teenager; you might have rented them a dozen times, but there was still a whole world beyond Enter the Dragon and Way of the Dragon that didn’t stop with other Bruce Lee films, or even those of the Bruceploitation greats like Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Lie, Bruce Lai, Bruce Thai, Brute Lee and, of course, Lee Bruce! The works of Jackie Chan were the natural progression, with stuff like Drunken Master, Police Story, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow or Brazil-based food-truck vigilante classic Wheels on Meals easy selections from the bulging martial arts video shelves. We’re just pre-Seagal and Van Damme here, so Chuck Norris was the big western alternative with the likes of The Octagon, Code of Silence and An Eye For An Eye, featuring loads of signature roundhouse kicks and Christopher Lee as his drug-baron nemesis.
Outside of these heavyweights we had more niche stuff like New York- based The Last Dragon, with its classic Shogun of Harlem bad guy, or Five Deadly Venoms, where different fighting styles are represented by five different animal masks, each with its own deadly venom – you had Lizard, Centipede, Scorpion, Snake and, er, Toad! Crippled Avengers offers a similar concept, but with the fighters having a unique disability rather than a fancy mask! There was also a ton of more generic warring faction (or more likely warring kung-fu school) stuff like Martial Club, Opium and the Kung-Fu Master, Shaolin Temple or The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter – you really could start watching these now and never run out!
And I’m almost forgetting all that ninja goodness we loved so much in the eighties too! American Ninja is maybe the pinnacle of the genre (closely followed by its four sequels!), but there was an endless supply of these as well – Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, Ninja in the Dragon’s Den, Pray for Death, Nine Deaths of the Ninja, Ninja Terminator and The Ninja Strikes Back, which brings us full circle to Bruce Lee… No, hang on, it was Bruce Le, which has also taken me right back to that very easy early-teenage beginner mistake of picking up something you thought was a Bruce Lee film you hadn’t seen yet!
We’d always be watching these things, whether at home or in our slightly older next-door neighbours’ house, who were members of the other video rental shop in Bedford, which was a bit further away but had an even bigger selection of martial arts movies! Being a bit older also meant that when we were all at the local leisure centre after kung-fu or a Saturday morning roller disco or whatever was on, they’d also get first go (or most goes because they had more money) on whatever the current selection of two arcade machines was in the refreshments area where the drink and snack machines were; at least my brother and me could enjoy a Dr Pepper in the only place you could get it at the time while we watched!
In this very limited experience of arcade games, I often wonder if my favourites are favourites because they’re actually any good, or if they were just there and made a lasting impression because they were better than anything I’d ever have at home! Looking at my big list of all-time favourite games, and the top 25 specifically, there’s not a lot on offer from the arcades, but from what is there, I doubt that many would argue with Star Wars, 1942 and Out Run being subjective top likes, but then as we approach my top ten we have Elevator Action, and finally, right inside my top five, we have Shao-Lin’s Road… and I’m sure that many haven’t even heard of them, let alone ever put them in any kind of best-of arcade list!
But back in our local leisure centre in our 1985 and 1986 heyday, those two sat side by side after Shao-Lin’s Road replaced Kung-Fu Master in the very slow, very infrequent machine rotation that – apart from fun fairs twice a year – dictated my exposure to that golden age of arcade games. And coming back to my previous point, I still play and absolutely love both the arcade and ZX Spectrum versions of both as much as other all-time favourites like arcade Out Run or Spectrum Renegade or Atari ST Supersprint, for example, so it’s not all rose-tinted. And yes, these non-arcade versions of Renegade and Supersprint are stories for another time, but as a point of interest, exclusively ports and not originals of Gauntlet, Enduro Racer and Commando also feature in my top 25!
Whilst we’ve established that I might not have been that well informed on arcade games in the mid-eighties, there certainly wasn’t much I didn’t know about Bruce Lee, Brute Lee, nunchuks and ninjas! And after our first taste of the union between the two media with Kung-Fu Master’s hero-versus-many rhythmic scrapping that we knew so well from our beloved movie rentals, when Shao-Lin’s Road came along there at some time in 1986, it added a whole new vertical dimension to that against the odds brawling, and I can still picture watching over my neighbour’s shoulder as he played it for the first time and just being blown away!
Something I did know around this time was Yie Ar Kung Fu, mainly from the very distinctive advert for the home computer versions with its own take on Bruceploitation, as well as those really distinctive characters in Commodore 64 promo screenshots, with all those chains and poles and absolutely groundbreaking variety in what was still the very early days of one-on-one fighting games. And when the home conversions of Shao-Lin’s Road appeared on the horizon, it got even more cool points with me because it turned out that all this time it was actually a follow-up to Yie Ar Kung Fu. Or at least that’s what the adverts said, because in the very same issue of Computer & Video Games magazine at the end of 1986, there was another advert for something called Yie Ar Kung Fu II, which was surely a more likely follow up, right? It was definitely adamant it was, highlighting it was officially endorsed by Konami and it was a sequel not a follow-up!
Actually, I was so excited about home ports of Shao-Lin’s Road that I didn’t pay much attention at the time, but it turns our that while Ocean had been sorting out the licence to the official sequel, competing publisher The Edge had done the same for Shao-Lin’s Road, and decided to advertise it as “The smash hit follow-up to Yie Ar Kung-Fu.” Taken literally, you might argue that was not incorrect because it’s also by Konami and it did come out a year or so after Yie Ar Kung-Fu in the arcades, in April 1985, so technically it was following it up, but it’s a pretty outrageous thing to do all the same! Even more outrageous was when reviews for both started appearing in early 1987 and Road was outscoring Fu II, albeit generally as signficantly less average rather than anything outstanding in its own right! It had a couple of 8/10 reviews though, and I remember Your Sinclair liking it a lot, as well as being quite sure it was the sequel to Yie Ar Kung-Fu! All that said, I’m not 100% sure how much Ocean’s official sequel is a real official sequel either, or where the planned Konami sequel that ended up being Martial Champion fits in, but we’ve spent far longer on a possibly unrelated game than I planned to here already, so we’re moving on!
Anyway, we were going to talk about this home version advert because this is our first hint at what’s going on in the arcade game we’ve been playing all this time! And it starts with another allusion to it’s follow-up status… “Our hero has finally mastered the secret martial art “CHIN’S SHAO-LIN” but is trapped by triad gangs. With kicks and other secret powers, escape from and travel SHAO-LIN’S road to freedom!” Not sure about Yie Ar Kung-Fu, but that’s definitely along the lines of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow or something!
When we finally get our mitts on the home versions, the cassette inlay goes even further… “As our Hero Lee you have finally mastered the secret martial art, “Chin’s Shao-Lin”. You find yourself trapped in the temple by hoards of Triads. Using your kicking skills and magic powers you must fight off the Triads and get out of the temple and head for the road to freedom. At each step on your way on your road to freedom you will encounter more and more of the Triads, and at each stage you will discover one that is particularly skilful! Look out for flying kicks, breathing flame, and punches that come clear out of nowhere!”
And there we were thinking we just had a great arcade game on our hands! Unlike its predecessor – one way or another – Yie Ar Kung-Fu, which is a pure fighter, Shaolin’s Road is more arcade platformer, where you’re working your way through five multi-tiered environments packed with goons to kick and magic away, and once you’ve done that the level restarts with more goons and the aforementioned particularly skilful boss characters; get rid of them all and you move on to the next level. Beat the last one and you’ll start all over again, but with even more particularly skilful characters on top of even more goons – some of which now throw knives or throwing stars or themselves – from the outset, as well as birds dropping eggs of death onto you! Some of the goons (you’ll know them by their trousers) release power ups after a good kicking which you have to quickly catch to get one of your magic powers. The first is a spikey ball that you can kick to knock over any enemies on your level of the level, and you can even catch and do this jumping super move with if you time things right. Next is a fireball that shoots out of both sides, but only seems to work on enemies a fair distance away. Last is a ball of energy or the like that spins around you, taking out enemies as it passes by on its rotation. The boss characters are nicely varied, with demonic looking things that breathe fire, some Yie Ar Kung-Fu style weapon wielders, an angelic looking lady with a lethal flying kick and just some big, bad dudes, but here’s an expert tip – just anticipate them going up and down, kick them, then go up or down! Patience is king in Shao-Lin’s Road!
Apart from one or two expert moves with power-ups that are completely superfluous to beating all the levels, the gameplay is simplicity itself, with you jumping up and down levels and kicking your way through loads of enemies. Jump. Attack. Nothing fancy! There is a bit of strategy needed in the boss characters, and in timing your up and down movements to avoid taking unecessary damage if you want to go far, but you’re going to be on the second level and feeling like Bruce Thai in one or two goes! Most of this happens on a single screen, but at each end you’ll get a very short side-scroll that extends the play area a bit, and within each stage’s three platform levels you’ll also get some gaps in the floor or roofs to jump between to add a bit more danger, with a fantastic slapstick animation if you get too close to an edge! Clearing a level of enemies gives a slightly more rewarding animation though, with a strongman pose and the word “GUTS” captioned about your little guy Lee, who’s got three lives, and three hits are allowed per life per level.
The action starts in a temple with an impressive looking big golden Buddha statue dominating an otherwise sparsely decorated opening scene. It does highlight all the onscreen characters though – big, detailed and full of personality, and their dress-sense really pops against the dominant blacks on this level; they really move at pace too. It’s also a good place to appreciate the bouncy, if slightly stereotypical oriental theme tune, which gets more frantic as the action hots up, with an ominous bass-line warning of impending doom! Sound effects are really meaty as well – you feel like those kicks are connecting! Stage two is where the graphics really come into their own, with you outside the temple (I guess) and everything is bold and bright and really nicely detailed against a rich blue sky; it would all look great in a big SNES JRPG! Stage three sees you at what is probably the grand entrance to the temple grounds, similar in style to stage two. Stage four has you outside a long, lower building with some huge bonsai-like trees behind it providing the third layer of verticality this time, and a bit of variety to the impressive but similarly styled array of traditional Japanese architecture elsewhere. Even more variety in the final stage as you make your way through some kind of desert canyon, with the temple far behind you in the background. Really nice looking stage – especially on the Spectrum…
Apart from being the most hit or miss game to load I ever (legitimately) owned on the Spectrum, it was a superb conversion, and whilst the arcade version might have been the one that always stuck with me, the Spectrum is certainly where I spent the most time. They absolutely nailed the easy to play, hard to master, utterly addictive feel of the original, though I think it gets harder quicker before it evens out a bit in the later levels. There’s also a bit less of the enemies moving up and down to get some vertical advantage, but there is an awful lot more bonus items (vases, possibly pizzas…) flying about here to kick for extra points, which does add a risk-reward element and some high-score longevity once you’re finding yourself good enough to be going around all the levels.
The characters are a bit less varied and a bit less cartoon-like than the original, and, of course, the colours have been toned down a bit, with a lot of use of different types of monochrome with just the odd (really welcome!) colourful flourish in the background, but in the main it looks just like the arcade version. The third level does go a bit more wild, with the resulting black characters feeling a bit like you’re playing in negative, but otherwise they’re nicely detailed, full of personality and everything moves smoothly enough, apart from a little jerkiness when it scrolls, but nothing especially jarring. Just don’t spend too much time analysing the flying kick – I think his leg is shrinking a bit when he does it, and who knows why doing one forces you down a floor! It sounds alright too, with a great rendition of the arcade theme playing on the title screen and a good scattering of pleasingly inoffensive sound effects!
It took me a very long time after the fact to find out that the arcade version had been available on the original PlayStation for several decades, as part of the Konami Arcade Classics compilation, together with Yie Ar Kung Fu – which is fine too, but not a patch on its sequel! And that’s where I generally play it now, before jumping over to the Spectrum version just to see if I can finally decide which one is really the one that makes it number five in my all-time favourite games list. But it’s always both! Simple, addictive and just like being in an eighties martial arts movie!
The year 2020 might be remembered for other things before its ZX Spectrum game releases, but it’s definitely worth pointing out that towards its end we were really spoilt by some serious quality! We talked about late December’s wonderful Wonderful Dizzy here, but a month or so before that we were treated to something not a million miles away from the legendary Oliver Twins’ all-new epic, both in terms of gameplay, polish, and pushing the Spectrum to its graphical limits!
The Yandex Retro Games Battle is an annual ZX Spectrum development contest, with the best fifteen published and voted for by the public, then the top three get cash prizes. Keeping in mind everything is in Russian, I think I’m right in saying the eventual winner was Marsmare: Alienation, a metroidvania-infused arcade platformer; we’re going to have to come back to that because as fantastic as it looks, I didn’t know it existed until about thirty seconds ago! But what we can talk about it what I think was the runner-up, White Jaguar, a metroidvania-infused arcade platformer by developer and probable future legend romancha, alias Roman Varfolomeev!
I’m a great believer in you can judge a book by it’s cover, and the very first time you lay eyes on White Jaguar you know you’re in for something special… Just look at all the detail in those graphics and all those Spectrum colours all over each other! It really is one of the best-looking Spectrum games you’ll ever come across, drenched in Native American atmosphere set against this pinky, bluey, blacky forest skyline. It’s not just the fantastic use of minimal-clash colour too, but the incredible attention to detail, from distant birds and twinkling stars to the staggering variety in the stones and bricks and other environments, all meticulously and individually crafted and coloured. And the more you notice it, the more you look, and the more staggering you find it all! And this all goes on across multiple levels, each comprising a load of distinctive, just beautiful screens, filled with smooth-moving enemies and the fluid running, jumping and chucking of your little man. Not to mention his smooth-moving, fluid long hair too – this guy could bathe up a mountain and flick it about the place and Timotei would be all over him!
As implied previously, your little man is a Native American, and now we’re past the cover and onto his story, which actually, having played through the game, I’m still not that sure about! It seems to involve him seeking out his destiny and general greatness, and becoming “one of us” which I think means turning into a jaguar! This translates into a pretty intuitive arcade platformer, where you’ll be collecting items and new abilities that will allow you to backtrack and collect more, which in turn open up new areas until eventually your destiny turns up, and we’ll come back to that later! On the way, you’ll be platforming across rivers, through caves, over cactii and among ruins, avoiding obstacles, animals out to do you no good, and some really nasty mystical pieces of work that are going to gobble up your three lives in a heartbeat!
As well as a really precise jump, you can duck and throw an axe, which is very limited use and you’ll be desperately seeking out more as you go. It really does feel as good to play as it looks, and you’ll soon have a lie of the land, a handle on how to manage each of the enemy types, and will be going backwards and forwards through magical portals between levels making serious progress. It’s definitely not easy, and there were a couple of real difficulty spikes, but it’s not brutal by old-school Spectrum platformer standards by any means, and after a few goes you’ll have explored everything and be well on your way to completion well within an hour or so. Intriguingly, once you’re past the final double-boss fight (very reminiscent of a certain port of Ghosts ‘n Goblins), you’re informed youve completed Part 1, and it’s to be continued. And I certainly hope it is!
Just playing through it again, I still can’t get over how good some of these screens look, but the sound is definitely worth a shout out too, with pleasingly inoffensive and sparingly used Spectrum sound effects backed by a really impressive soundtrack that – like the graphics – ranks as some of the best the system has ever offered.
Like Wonderful Dizzy, anyone with any kind of interest in the Spectrum needs to play this, but it’s not just a great Spectrum game that more holds its own in one of its strongest genres, but a great game in general, and I can’t wait to see what romancha comes up with next… Part 2, please???
For all the hours I spent playing on my best friend’s Atari 2600 in the early eighties, it would take the best part of another four decades to discover my favourite game on there (submarine rescue ‘em up, Seaquest), and then even longer to discover it was also home to what I genuinely think is my favourite Pac-Man game ever (not counting Pac-Land as a Pac-Man game, of course)! And not only that, but it’s also not a Pac-Man game at all, but Alien, which, amazingly, given my love of the films and it’s now 2021, is also the first Alien game I’ve ever played! But that’s not a bad place to start, given it was the very first Alien game, and surely one of the earliest officially licensed movie tie-ins too; there was a Death Race arcade game in 1976, but not a lot else until a flurry on the 2600 in 1982, starting with Raiders of the Lost Ark, then stuff like Alien, Tron, King Kong, Star Wars, E.T…
The game’s plot, all explained onthe back of the box, couldn’t provide a better justification for ripping off Pac-Man; in fact, it does such a good job that I’m wondering if Pac-Man might have ripped off Alien! Ever since you blasted off from the last planet you visited, you’ve been hearing weird sounds around your ship, Nostromo, so you set it onto auto-pilot and have a look around… Turns out every hallway in the maze-like hull has been lined with alien eggs, so you have to run around all these corridors, crushing them underfoot as you go. But what could have produced such terrible eggs? “A hideous being with jaws like a beartrap” of course, and as you run away there’s another just ahead, and don’t forget that no one can hear you scream in space!
The manual goes further, telling us that we have to run through the hallways of the space ship, crushing all of the Alien eggs which have been placed there while also avoiding or destroying the adult aliens, and snatching up as many prizes as possible. And what do prizes make? Points of course, which the manual helpfully has space for you to write down at the back! You just move the controller up, down, left and right to run over the eggs and steer clear of the aliens, where the slightest touch from the albeit slightly forgiving collision detection means instant death. On either side of the screen you have a “Hyperwarp Passage” that is better than Pac-Man’s version because it’s called a Hyperwarp Passage, but similarly takes you to the other side of the screen. However, in an even larger departure from Pac-Man, you’ve also got a flame thrower which you can use up to four times to scare off or immobilise or potentially have no affect at all on the aliens, unless you’re on the extreme right or left of the screen where fire doesn’t work – I’m sure there’s a great reason!
Each maze also has three pulsars (or power pills) that you can destroy to weaken the aliens and, er, gobble them up or similar. You can also use the flame thrower to run over the pulsars so you can save them for later, adding a nice expert tactical touch that Pac-Man simply cannot equal! What Pac-Man also cannot equal is Frogger! Clear mazes and you get a bonus round, which involves you making a Frogger-style dash up the screen between moving groups of aliens against a harsh clock, so you need to make your route choice and stick to it quick.
As was often the case with the Atari 2600, the developers had to make the most of all those levers and switches on the console, so Alien also gives you four difficulty switch settings, where the aliens travel randomly or in fixed patterns, and where a pulsar has an effect or has no effect on the aliens (which actually equates to three settings because one of those makes no difference)! You’ve also got four skill settings, from practice to expert, though for all of these options (same as for pretty much all 2600 games), I’ve not had any more fun in any of these endless variations than by not touching anything!
Alien looks and sounds like an Atari 2600 game – it’s hard to dress it up much more than that, except it looks like a good one! The mazes are well defined, movement is smooth, the alien eggs look like dots and the pulsars look like asterisks, but there is real character in the aliens – especially the sinister yellow one! Barely any flicker either (apart from the sinister yellow one, but let’s say that’s intentional to up the scares), which you definitely can’t say for the strobe-ghost horror show of official 2600 Pac-Man! There’s a really cool effect when you go into the hyperwarp thingy at the side of the screen too, where you dissolve as you enter it before re-emerging on the other side. In the sound department you’ve got various siren noises that either up the tension or just drive you mad, and there’s a constant crunch as you take out the alien eggs underfoot. Again, classic Atari 2600, but I’ve heard an awful lot worse on the Spectrum and they work absolutely fine!
Apart from Pac-Land (more here) – and the Pac-Man cartoon it’s based on – I’m not the world’s biggest Pac-Man fan, though I’ve definitely had my fill of all kinds of revisions on all kinds of systems for over forty years! I even became something of an expert on Pac-Man 256 a few years ago, absolutely playing it to death until free-to-play arrived and sucked out most of its soul. Anyway, I like Pac-Man. But I like this more! It plays a very pure version of Pac-Man, to the point I generally forget about the flame thrower even existing. The character is responsive; the seemingly random nature of the alien AI is challenging and often panic-inducing; the mazes feel good and the Frogger bonus screen is a really nice incentive to keep going, though the concept is arguably just as addictive without it. And it’s got 2600-cool aliens from Alien chasing after you, which is loads better than crazy flickering ghosts! And for me at least, that all combines with a clear love of the film that might not be able to transcend the technical limitations of the time and the system, but is just about enough to transcend all other versions of a similar game!
Scooby Doo, Where Are You! probably has a lot to answer for! It was one of two gateway drugs to my lifelong passion for horror, along with Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, which I first came into contact with on my auntie’s bookshelf in the late seventies, and gradually became more and more obsessed with as the eighties progressed after she eventually relented and let me have it! After all these years I can pretty much read it without looking at it anymore, and I’d rank it in my top ten favourite books ever – I’m not big into fiction (though M.R. James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is forever number one!) so there’s a lot of serial killer, World War II and rock biography stuff in there too; and this wonderful big hardback encyclopedia from 1973 that’s packed to the gills with every horror movie you ever need to see when you’re old enough!
Speaking of top tens, I’d rank Scooby Doo, Where Are You! at number three in my top ten TV shows ever, after Bottom and Miami Vice. Also note I’m being specific about “Where Are You!” just to avoid any association with later abominations involving Scrappy Doo! Anyway, between them, these two things are entirely responsible for the 3,000+ movies and untold amounts of horror memorabilia I’m now sitting on! This also explains my absolute excitement when a very jaw-dropping advert started appearing in computer games magazines during the autumn of 1985, and this is where our very own mystery begins…
The advert promised the world! The “first ever computer cartoon” with over a hundred scenes of animated action, and it was going to kick off a new craze in computer gaming. The main image has Scooby and Shaggy doing a runner from an old guy that looks like he’s from the Miner 49er episode, with the Mystery Machine parked outside a creepy castle behind them. As well as being chased around the castle and the dungeon, the accompanying text tells us we’ll also be hurtling through abandoned mines in a runaway coal truck and being chased by a shark in a rowing boat. Sounding like the best game ever so far…
It was all backed up by ten very Spectrum-like screenshots; now, I could be wrong, but on closer inspection today I actually think they’re hand-painted to look like Spectrum screens, with some very authentic yellows and clear avoidance of colour clash in the sprites to throw you off the scent! You’ve got half a hanged, oversized skeleton in some kind of dungeon. There’s Shaggy and Scooby in bed with a creepy looking painting – no doubt with false eyes – on the bedroom wall. There’s a really cool view out of a coastal cave with some kind of old galleon going out to sea in the distance, then the next screen seems to a distant view of the same thing, but it’s nearly all sea and it’s very hard to make out. The next two are also a bit hard to make out, with what might be a vase and some other unidentifiable junk in some kind of dungeon in one, and a partial large modern ship in a harbour with some more unidentifiable shapes in a dominant mass of yellow behind it. Then we have a beautiful haunted castle in some windswept green expanse before going a bit unidentifiable again, but it seems to be a wooden frame with some lamps on it in another dungeon-type setting. The last two are far more identifiable and exciting, with Scooby heading towards us down a corridor in one and possibly a sewage pipe in the other.
A lot more detail appeared in the October 1985 issue of Crash magazine, where they have an exclusive preview of the cartoon-adventure “which should be released this month!” And it’s here that we find just about the most detail we’d ever get. The concept was to create a groundbreaking game where you direct the action rather than control a character. Artists started developing animations from original cartoons, while programmers worked out how to compress it all to fit on a Spectrum. We then learn that the the game is set in a Scottish castle belonging to Shaggy’s aunt, who’s being driven out by spooky goings-on. She gives the gang 48 hours to solve the mystery and unmask the inevitable villain before she decides to sell up. This was all to translate to seven or eight action sequences interspersed by the Scooby gang interacting with each other, all against the clock.
In one example of actual gameplay, Scooby is walking down a corridor in what sounds like an animation, then as he approaches a trapdoor the viewpoint changes and it’s up to you to direct the action, interfering with the outcome of the cartoon rather than just playing a game; we’re clearly talking about something like Dragon’s Lair I guess, but the intention was the action and the outcome would be different each time you played. They wrap up saying that when they visited Elite, the raw material was all there and it was being edited together, with all the animations committed to memory and just a few final details to work out…
The following month a Computer & Video Games magazine preview heralded the best graphics they’d seen on a Spectrum and comparisons with laser-disc cartoon games, all ready for review the following month…
1985 was quickly becoming 1986 and still no sign of the game, apart from what seemed to be the box art in an Elite advert for “free-lance” programmers in the January issue of C&VG.
In the February issue there’s a double-page Thorn EMI advert with possibly Frank Bruno holding up the box, where’s it pitted in a fight against Gremlin Graphics’ Super Sleuth. Lots of words about the game but even less information than before, and ominously there’s no longer a screenshot of the best graphics on the Spectrum…
The following month C&VG has an exclusive on all sorts of stuff from Elite, dominated by the iconic first level of Bombjack on C64, but opening with something intriguing… “Despite what you’ve read in other magazines, Elite still plans to release its cartoon computer adventure, Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery, for the 48K Spectrum. On the next page we’ve also got the Scooby screenshot from the advert, where we’re told the game is now coming in April, but Elite boss Steve Wilcox also tells us “it will be different from the version which has been heavily advertised.” Seems they’d run out of memory in the 48K Spectrum after all, so the plot thickens – all in the space of the same preview!
To mark the launch of the game, the April C&VG is giving away fifty copies. It seems like I filled out the entry form but was stopped in my tracks when I had to choose which machine I wanted it for when I realised I didn’t own any of them yet!
If I’d known how long I’d be waiting, I could have picked one and would probably have had it by the time the game turned up with the winners ! For now the trail goes quiet again for another six months, then we’ve one final little twist to the mystery in the November issue of C&VG – a new full page advert is on the inside cover; it still talks about a computer cartoon, but that screenshot is new… Fortunately the contents page says Scooby Doo on page 8 with a tantalising shot of a high score screen no less, but get to page 8 and not a trace. Not a trace anywhere. We need to move on one more time!
Another version of the advert with two better screenshots of the new game welcomes us to the December 1986 issue of C&VG, telling us that “after months of development he’s finally here!” And there’s even a review in the same magazine this time that confirms it!
When I reviewed The Games That Weren’t by Frank Gasking (here), I said that as much as I love what we finally got, I still look at the original advert and wonder what could have been. Those screenshots are just so good, even if I am now questioning exactly what “machine” they’re from!
In the course of our investigation, we’ve spanned a high profile cartoon license marketed for over a year with huge cost, double-page, full-colour adverts in the top gaming press, plus all the other associated pre-launch marketing costs – not to mention what sounds like serious development costs – but no game to show for it, no resulting sales, and no doubt a fair bit of corporate egg on the face too! In retrospect, all those cartoon-accurate scenes were never going to fit into 48K of memory, but Elite still needed a Scooby Doo game, and whilst it wasn’t going to be an 8-bit laser disc showstopper, Gargoyle Games had something more than decent they could quickly realise for them. And also in retrospect, a brutal take on Kung-Fu Master probably had far more mileage for the player too even if it wasn’t really a computer cartoon.
I’ve always known the final product as just Scooby Doo – it’s what the box says, the title screen, and it’s even in big words along the bottom of the screen in case you forget when you’re playing, but there appears to be one possible hangover from what was originally planned… The loading screen says Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery; it’s a great loading screen too! In its defence, the game is still a mystery set in a castle, where as you arrive Shaggy, Velma, Daphne and Fred are spirited away, and it’s up to you to fight your way through the ghosts and demons that lurk around the mad scientist’s lair to rescue them. From flasks!
After the wonderful Spectrum rendition of the Scooby gang on the title screen, we’re in that classic Spectrum rendition of a castle… it’s yellow, like all the best ones on there are! We’re in control of Scooby, next to a suit of armour, and we can see a grand staircase on the floor above us and a couple of doors. And doors are about to become your worst enemy because that’s where the ghosts and the witches and the demons and the spectral fish are coming from to attack you. Relentlessly!
You’re not quite defenceless, with a Scooby punch dispatching them instantly, and you can do a really scaredy-cat duck (by a dog) to avoid bats and the like in later levels, and jump, which will take you over the lethal skulls on the floor, gaps and the bowling ball things that also appear on later levels. A touch from every enemy type means instant death, and a few levels in when they’re coming down stairs as well as out of doors, those six lives you started with and any bonus ones from Scooby Snacks you’ve come across aren’t going to feel quite as generous as you first thought!
Once you’ve found your friends in four increasingly difficult, increasingly complex maze-like levels, each with their own unique colour scheme and bizarre enemies, you’re then hunting the mad scientists. Yes, turns out there’s more than one; in fact, as far as I can tell, once you’ve got one you’ll just keep moving to the next repeated level layout to find the next, and rather than finish it will then just keep looping the levels ad infinitum!
It might be about a cartoon character, but this game pulls no punches. It’s bruta, and even once you’ve learnt the levels, it’s going to take some serious luck with enemy spawns to fight your way to where you need to be! A nice touch is a practice mode where you can get the lie of the land in each level before mounting an attack on the full game – seems a bit more casual in this mode too, though not easy by any means!
I’m not sure if this is the right way to play, but rather than spend long in practice modes, what worked for me is applying the patience of a saint to space management-based scrapping (not to be confused with Scrappy, the original Jar Jar Binks)! As said before, if you’re familiar with Kung-Fu Master and the like, you’ve got enemies coming from left and right, sometimes at different speeds, and you’re working out which way to punch first, then quickly doing it the other way. With other games, the enemies are generally coming from one of the edges of the screen, but here they’re coming out of doors as well as edges. And there’s doors everywhere! That translates to inching your way forwards, waiting got something to come out of a door, going past the door, waiting for something else to come out, then inching forwards a bit more, then repeat! Later on you need to watch out for what’s coming from above as well, and you need to apply a similar process to stairs, gaps and skull jumps until you’ve found your friend’s head in a scientific experiment somewhere on the top floor!
This winning strategy takes forever, and I definitely struggle to maintain my patience when I’m tempted by a nice-looking staircase, but it’s still fun and it’s the only way I ever got to “finish” the game… one day I might do a walkthrough video and it will become the most boring walkthrough ever; the anti-speedrun! But most times when I play I just forget all of that and enjoy larking around in the first two levels beating up ghosts! One other winning strategy, if you’re interested in high scores, is to get a couple of levels in, back up against a wall, and just hold down fire as the spooks run into your deadly paw. You can stay there forever and just watch those numbers rise!
You don’t want to be watching numbers when you’re playing Scooby Doo though; even if it wasn’t a computer cartoon, this game was helping to usher in the absolute golden age of ZX Spectrum graphics, where bold and vibrant colours backed up big, detailed monochrome sprites. The character design is superb too, with Scooby and the gang instantly recognisable (even when they’re just heads in flasks!), and the animation perfectly captures the feel of the cartoon. Just turn the sound down a bit because there’s not a lot going on, but when you notice that grating punching noise combined with the sound of ghosts coming out of doors is as relentless as they are, you’ll never unhear it!
The story of the game that wasn’t might be more interesting than the one that was, and that might not be the game I thought I wanted, but in the end it turned out to be the one I loved. It’s equally fun jumping back into for short bursts as it is knuckling down and rescuing all of your friends; or their heads at least , but with no ending (outrageously also meaning no unmasking!) as far as I can tell, we’ll never know about the rest of those pesky kids!
I’m not sure I’ll ever both love and hate any game as much as I did 2017’s jaw-droppingly stylish platform adventure Hollow Knight… 50 hours splattered with vicious difficulty spikes, filthy checkpointing and regular loss of everything that constantly had my blood boiling, with two rage-deletes before it kept pulling me back to finish it! Yacht Games’ Shovel Knight did come close though, offering a more focussed but equally polished, equally brutal take on the genre. And here they are again with Cyber Shadow, which sits somewhere in the middle in terms of gameplay experience, and comes even closer in terms of love / hate ratio! This time they’re publishing though, with indie dev Mechanical Head Studios the true sadists behind this genius nearly-NES side-scrolling cyberpunk platformer.
Creator Aarne Hunziker, who actually did pretty much everything here apart from the music, described the game as combining “the level design principles of Mario, the skills and action of Ninja Gaiden, the enemy designs of Contra and the dark visual aesthetic of Batman.” I definitely picked up the Ninja Gaiden vibe from the outset, not just from the ninja you’re leaping about killing stuff as, but also the very slick, almost cinematic way the gameplay feels. I’d also say there’s a strong whiff of Mega Man, especially in the way you progress into boss fights, and Super Metroid, both aesthetically and with some of the backtracking you can do later that makes further progress (marginally!) easier.
The plot begins perfectly lightweight and off-the-wall, with your cyborg ninja exploring the far-distant future of Mekacity to rescue his fallen clan, whose mystical powers are being harvested by nasty synthetic lifeforms. That translates to you fighting your way through ten chapters of varied sci-fi environments in and around the city as the story of the mad scientist, his robot army and your place in everything evolves into something a little more complex, and for better or worse, a lot more so than you’d find in Mega Man!
You start off basic, with your techno-ninja running, jumping and slashing, but as you progress you’ll start to discover and evolve regular genre tropes such as dashes, wall-slides and double-jumps, as well as health and secondary weapon or power lifespan upgrades. The latter are also unlocked as you progress, with a basic shuriken for longer-range combat then being enhanced with additional properties, and also being supplemented by special abilities such as energy bolts or an upward slash that fires poweful flame attacks; these are obtained and selected at most of the checkpoints you come across, in exchange for cash you’ve found on the way, and generally offer something useful for the next section or boss. As a reminder of the game’s cruelty though, take three hits with one of these equipped and you’re losing it!
Speaking of checkpoints and cruelty, once you get to about chapter four, you’re going to die and die and die again before you see the next one! As you might have worked out by now, whether you love it or hate it or both, this game only hates you! As everything naturally gets trickier the further you go, you’re also going to start to see things like robot enemies positioned exactly where you need to be landing, then between you and your landing point there’ll be an electric pit with a floating platform you need to recharge your double-jump on in the middle, but it’s covered in spikes except down one side! And that’s not enough because here come the robot spiders or a beam that’s going to trigger all sorts of homing destruction or just a wave of instant death! If it was just one such obstacle that you need to learn to get perfect at overcoming (because imperfection means instant death) that would be one thing, but increasingly there’s going to be screen after screen of them between you and the next checkpoint. But the most frustrating thing is that even when you know there’s no room for any error, you also always know it’s beatable if you try it enough times!
I think there were two points in the whole game that this frustration got me to the point of quitting though… The first was a huge mechanical dragon boss that you could start to predict fairly quickly, but killing floating robots so they turned into platforms you could use to launch enough attacks from while avoiding the dragon and the electrified water below added a whole new level of challenge. In retrospect, it was just a brilliant piece of punishing boss design, and by the time you’ve worked it out, practiced it to the point of being able to beat it and accepted you just need to be extremely patient with it, you’re going to beat it without losing any energy at all. The final boss turned out to be very similar, albeit with three stages, and the third being a bit more punishing and unpredictable, so you need a few planets to align before eventually beating it!
There were a couple of overly long, crazy difficult platforming sections too, the second of which really had me thinking life’s too short even though it was actually the approach to the final boss! The main problem I had with this one was a reliance on a clumsy pogo-to-double-jump mechanic once you got past a cruel, sprawling platforming ascent that reminded me of the awful sandcrawler section in SNES Super Star Wars! Over several evenings I was able to navigate this part unscathed (or it wasn’t worth continuing anyway), then you emerge into a multi-section ascent involving what is the only imprecise mechanic in an overall very precise experience. It was just horrendous, especially when you finally got within touching distance, only for some otherwise easy robot enemy to take your last bar of health – which, of course, is precisely why it was there! And because the checkpoint was a good ten minutes back, and you know perfectly well it might take another ten attempts before you get close again, it was just soul-destroying! That said, I’ve never felt such relief in a game as when I eventually landed on that checkpoint!
Apart from this though, the difficulty never felt unfair – it was just letting you know you weren’t good enough yet! And new abilities and power-ups generally gave you the crutch you needed to overcome the relentless introduction of new forms of sadism that never stopped right up to that final stage of the final chapter. In the main, checkpoints were just about right too; I was particularly appreciative of how they allowed you to jump straight back into boss fights (something Hollow Knight didn’t do so well). I used that last checkpoint, right before the final boss, so many times over the course of a weekend, though by that point, having got there at all, I was doing it a few goes at a time then having a break and coming back later when I’d cooled down a bit, taking time after each session to also appreciate the visible progress as you cracked the first stage, then the second, then worked out how to do it without taking too much damage so you had a fair shot at the third and final stage. And that final stage, in the game’s final twist of the knife, would have been a tough nut to crack without the other two!
Brutal difficulty is certainly not the only place that Cyber Shadow looks to the NES for inspiration. Graphically, this is the NES game of your dreams! It’s authentic, but it’s like any technical limitations have been removed, so it’s full of NES colour, full of detail and full of stuff that can kill you! I really loved the way it used big black spaces with muted highlights and shadows to invoke a very oppressive atmosphere at points too, and when you notice all that parallax scrolling, or the 8-bit rain coming down on top of it all, it just looks gorgeous! Pretty much the same can be said for Enrique Martin’s cyber-synth soundtrack too, which was noticeably sometimes the only saving grace at some of the game’s more bleak difficulty spikes!
I really loved Cyber Shadow, but I did really hate it too! And I reckon that’s what it was aiming for. I don’t think it’s going to rank as one of my favourite games ever (like Hollow Knight did), but finishing this on Xbox One certainly left me feeling that I’m not as bad at games as I often say I am, and over the course of thirteen hours and almost 1100 deaths I had a wonderful, very NES at its very best time! I know it’s only the first day of March as I write this, and I’ve not given Ghosts ‘n Goblins: Resurrection more than an hour or so yet (because there’s only so much punishment you can take at any one time!), but without doubt the most engaging and simply the best thing – old or new – that I’ve played in 2021 so far!
Here we be for the final stretch of my Top 25 favourite anthems in gaming, running down the top ten. Just like in our run down from 25 to 11 in part one (here if you missed it), there’s not really any rules, but I’ve definitely favoured sounds coming from the innards of a machine over a recording studio. I’ve also stuck with the versions I know, rather than seeking out the best possible version of anything. Let’s get on then, from number ten…
10. Shadow of the Beast II Game Over Music on Commodore Amiga
I never really got Shadow of the Beast on Atari ST. A lot of side-scrolling wandering about with minimal action then you’d find somewhere interesting and die. Looked and sounded incredible though; actually, at the time, maybe more so than pretty much anything else ever had, which I guess is what sold it to me! The 1990 sequel tried to up the gameplay with more complex combat, conversation systems and some puzzles. Unfortunately they just combined to suck out the last remaining fun that might have been there before! It was way too hard and you were dead before you knew what had hit you, but strangely that might also have been one it’s few saving graces… you saw the game over screen a lot!
This time around I was watching more than playing, on a friend’s Amiga, but I can still hear Tim and Lee Wright’s glorious, haunting title music so I’ve a feeling he might have been too! When he did play though, it wasn’t long before what could be the greatest music in video game history made an appearance! Why’s it at number ten then, I hear you ask? Well, as you might imagine, I’ve agonised over where it should be in this list, and whether or not it should be here at all, because in reality it’s more of an epic sound effect than piece of music – if you take out the fade in and out, you’re left with about 20 seconds. It’s a compromise! We start with a choral synthesiser ambience, then out of nowhere this incredible, echo-drenched soaring sampled lead guitar line makes an all too brief appearance. Listening to it again recently, it puts me in mind of the music you’d get in Miami Vice when one of Don Johnson’s big-haired love interests has just exploded and he’s leaning on a palm tree, staring wistfully out across the ocean. And actually, the more I think about it (and having just spent months watching the Miami Vice box set), I reckon it might have actually been sampled from Miami Vice because it really is that good!
9. Transparent Obstacle From Gauntlet IV on Mega Drive
I have serious form with the Spectrum version of Gauntlet! It currently sits at number nine in my top ten games of all time, after countless hours of play with my brother, starting one Saturday lunchtime in 1987 after we’d made a special trip to town to buy it; I remember every moment that day right up to loading it up and the absolute relief that it really was as good as we’d hyped ourselves (and our very limited pocket money!) up to hope it would be! I often wonder why we were so excited about Gauntlet over anything else in those glory days of the Spectrum, but I assume we’d seen the arcade machine somewhere. Anyway, the expansion pack and the sequel followed, then I wasn’t that impressed with the isometric Gauntlet III and skipped it on Atari ST. Mega Drive Gauntlet IV in 1993 was much more the ticket, combining the gameplay of the original with some RPG elements; the original was included too, which I think was my first time playing the arcade version! It was great but to this day I’d still rather play the Spectrum version, unless I’m in the mood for a bit of music…
Behind all the sampled speech and dungeon mastery sound effects – lifted straight out of the arcade version – we’re also at the very pinnacle of the Mega Drive’s musical capabilities! Hitoshi Sakamoto, Masaharu Iwata, Hal Canon and Earl Vickers’ epic dragon-synth soundtrack is as fine an electronic orchestra performance as you’ll ever hear, and Transparent Obstacle is its absolute climax! Sweeping pads juxtapose the shimmering introduction as the nineties does its best eighties action hero drumbeat, then this pure funk groove kicks in, and before you’ve had your fill of that the main melody comes crashing down on top of it all, leading to all kinds of atmospheric interplay. As good as it ever got on the Mega Drive!
8. Haunted Graveyard From SNES Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts
I’ve always loved this side-scrolling platforming series far more than I was any good at any of it! I was useless at the excellent Spectrum version that I picked up at a service station on the way home from our 1987 summer holiday (more here), but I’d happily play the graveyard section over and over and over… Same with my friend’s gorgeous Commodore 64 port – one of the few games that ever made me jealous of not owning one! I could get a bit further on the Atari ST version of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, where we’re now definitely in just about arcade perfect territory, though the rain drops versus the original’s full on storm were definitely a bit of a disappointment! Since then, I’ve sought out pretty much every version of every game, from arcade to WonderSwan and Arthur to Maximo, but never really got any further than the first stage or two on any of them! Aside from 1991’s Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, which I finally played much more recently on SNES Classic Mini, and something about the double jump combined with my sheer enjoyment of how it looked and sounded drove me on, way into the second stage!!!
Mari Yamaguchi didn’t just create a soundtrack for Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, but pretty much the only soundtrack to Halloween you could ever need! We go from whimsical drama to disturbingly sinister, but everything is just drenched in a joyous creepiness, and screams trashy b-movie in the best possible way! After your damsel gets in distress with the demon that’s run off with her at the start, there’s no better way of instilling a sense of eerie panic than my favourite track (possibly by default as I’ve never really heard much beyond it!) as you travel through the haunted graveyard. It’s actually a relatively simple affair, but the attention to detail is wonderful, using the SNES to expand on Ghost ‘n Goblin’s iconic first level theme, with big Phantom of the Opera organ riffs dressed with orchestral flourishes and an energetic but wickedly subtle bass-line inspiring the horror-filled chase you’re just starting out on.
7. Nemesis the Warlock Title Music on Commodore 64
If I were to list my favourite comic book characters, apart from Dan Dare and Doomlord from Eagle, I think they’d all come from 2000A.D. Actually, let’s have a quick go, in no particular order… Slaine, Rogue Trooper, Judge Dredd, Judge Death, Strontium Dog and, of course, Nemesis the Warlock, because otherwise there’d be no point in any of this nonsense! In a particular order, we’d probably go Judge Death first then Nemesis, then Slaine, then it doesn’t really matter here! Anyway, Nemesis the Warlock is a demonic alien out to free the galaxy from religious nut-job Torquemada’s tyranny. It’s all very swords and sorcery in a sci-fi setting. The 1987 Spectrum game arriving was a huge deal for me, though I think I mostly enjoyed it for being the character and how it looked (despite some interesting colour clash!); the single screen platforming as you shot your way through terminators (no, not those ones!) wasn’t that inspiring. Apart from being able to use their piled-up bodies as new platforms! I eventually got to the Commodore version, but whilst that didn’t even have the art style, it did have a very special title screen!
You’ll have noticed a couple of recurring names as we’ve travelled through this countdown, but as we might just continue to find out, there’s none so recurring as Rob Hubbard! And back on his rightful C64 throne this time too! Here we have what might be his most epic work, clocking in at a whopping seven minutes long! At the very beginning it harkens to the intro to Michael Jackson’s Beat it, but instead of going pop it goes even more ominous with a dense bass drum beat slowly picking up steam and this Tardis-type effect ushering in a militaristic heavy synth melody. About half way through and we’re in full flow, with a new, more high-pitched, more complex melody that puts me in mind of stuff like Devil May Cry where you get style points for how you kill – this is the soundtrack to Nemesis in full slaughter mode! As we approach six minutes, Hubbard’s SID chip magic show is in full effect, with everything going on around each other, interspersed with drum fills and snippets of new melody, which becomes more prominent as the tempo starts to slow and we gradually return to that ominous ambience where it all started. Don’t press fire to start, just stay here forever!
6. Mega Man X Spark Mandrill Stage Theme on SNES
I’m noticing a pattern here – a lot of my favourite sounds are from the games that punish me the most! I’m not sure, but I think Mega Man X was the first Mega Man game I played, and certainly the only one I played when it came out, albeit very briefly on a Super Nintendo demo unit; which would have been 1993 in if I’m right. About 25 years later I’d become a bit obsessed with Mega Man, playing through the original six brutal 2D platformers in the space of about a year, before jumping onto Mega Man X and realising that game I’d had a quick go on in a shop all those years ago was actually my new best friend! As well as a slick new look, you get all mod-cons here, with dashing and sliding and wall-jumps and stuff, but the Mega Man fundamentals don’t change as you take on boss-themed levels that absolutely hate you in any order you like. Interestingly, apart from the much more recent Mega Man 11, I’m still to play any game in the series beyond X. Need to fix that!
I’m not great at dodging, so the electric-themed Spark Mandrill stage is definitely not my favourite (although the boss fight can be one of the easiest), but if you want a good tune it’s the place to go! Setsuo Yamamoto and the team of Capcom musicians came up with some corkers for Mega Man X – you can just feel the love in every track – but this stage’s music just goes the extra mile for me. I think it’s the bass-line, which seems to be made up of strobing electronic drumbeats, that turns it into this intense energy fest, which couldn’t be more fitting! The proper drumbeats themselves are awesome too, with non-stop fills and rolls making sure the intensity never relents, and the multi-layered synth melodies sound like something Iron Maiden would come up with in an alternate dimension! Electrifying, literally!
5. Aquatic Ambience From Donkey Kong Country on SNES
The SNES has been well represented in these parts recently, and now we’re at the very top of that particular tree with one of the few parts of this game that doesn’t involve trees! I would say I’m much more of a Donkey Kong fan than I am a Donkey Kong Country fan… actually, where’s the Donkey Kong music in this list? Anyway, SNES Classic Mini strikes again with this one all the way from 1994, and while I did have a fine old time with it, and have since played through the sequel on Switch and the 3DS games, I can kind of take or leave it. I think it’s all the monkey-folk. Not my bag. I do like a good pre-rendered background though, and I do really, really like the underwater sections!
David Wise was behind most of the DKC soundtrack, and has noted that Aquatic Ambience was its biggest technological achievement, where he created a waveform sequence on the SNES using a Korg Wavestation synth. It really is SNES audio to the limits, but I think it achieves far more than that too; it seems to transcend musical taste – whatever you’re into, this is an absolute masterpiece! The oceanic ambience, the crystal clear melodies and then about halfway this haunting lead-line that’s part guitar, part brass, and wouldn’t go amiss on a saxophone in the middle of some huge Dire Straits ballad on Brothers in Arms. And then it slides back into the murky depths. This is probably the most beautiful piece of music ever made for a video game (if you don’t count Shadow of the Beast 2’s game over sequence)! And it’s all about a monkey riding a swordfish!
4. Skull Man Stage Theme From Mega Man 4 on NES
First two Robocops, now two Mega Men, and even more sonic treats from something else that hurts you so bad! And who would have thought the humble NES would out-anthem its successor here too! Of all the Mega Mans, my heart lies with Mega Man 2 – it just has an extra bit of magic that I’ve never really been able to quantify! But of all the Mega Man bosses, Skull Man from 1991’s (or two years later in Europe) Mega Man 4 is the man! My Mega Man Official Complete Works encyclopaedia implies that a lot of this game’s bosses resulted from player submissions to come up with new ones, and the developers liked this guy so much too that they completely scrapped then redesigned the level he was originally intended for. Anyway, apart from a charge shot and a Russian bad guy, it’s familiar territory as you action-platform your way through eight punishing boss-themed levels in the order of your choice. It’s a very good Mega Man!
Minae Fujii’s soundtrack to Mega Man 4 is extensive and inspired, which is also familiar territory for the series on NES and way beyond! There’s an incredible density and vibrancy to all of the robot boss stage themes here, but I also want to make special note of the fantastic urgency in the level select music too – come on, make your choice, doesn’t really matter… Skull Man’s theme isn’t just my favourite because he is, but it goes to so many places, and as a result gets so much out of the NES! And once they simply couldn’t get any more out, they’ve just added a bit more at the end of the part where it should have been so you know that was the intention! The main riff is a real earworm, all electronic brass, but there’s always so much more going on with it and around it, from the relentless high-speed bass-line and chip-tune blast-beats trying to keep up as they throw in a roll or a fill, to the occasional haunting pipe melody reminding you you’re fighting your way through a literal boneyard! It’s like each element is looking at each other as it’s playing saying right, your turn, now your turn, okay, now top this, now let’s do that bit again but together this time! The only thing that would make this better is lyrics about Skull Man on top… Now there’s a project!
3. Ghostbusters Theme on Commodore 64
I’m not sure any game’s title screen made my jaw drop as much as this one did in 1984, and it was a double whammy! First what might have been the first sampled speech I ever heard shouting “Ghostbusters” (and if you’ve ever heard it I can guarantee you’re hearing it again now!) and then some actual real life music that you’ve heard in the movie or seen on Top of the Pops is actually playing on your computer. Or my friend’s C64 in this case! The game remains pretty much unique, and is absolutely faithful to the movie, with you buying your ghostbusting equipment then patrolling the streets of New York from a map view, then when you spot a ghost infestation you’re top down in Ecto-1, sucking up rogue ghosts on the way (if you bought the right gear) until you arrive at the haunted building. Now your setting your trap, positioning your two guys and teasing the ghost above it without crossing the streams, then when it’s near enough you unleash the trap and get your reward. As the city’s paranormal activity rises (together with your bank balance) you’ll eventually meet the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and head for the big Zuul climax. As you can tell, I could talk about this game all day – it remains one of the best movie licenses ever made, and I still play through it on both C64 and Spectrum regularly. And I still absolutely love it!
Back to the title screen, and we’re back to that incredible SID chip rendition of Ray Parker Jr.’s incredible Ghostbusters theme by Russell Lieblich. It’s a complete – albeit marginally slower – recreation of the seven-inch single, and just so you can be sure of that, there’s a little ball at the bottom of the screen bouncing along the lyrics at all the right times so you can sing along. It might not have had the very first sampled speech (Sinistar, right?), but I reckon it’s the first in-game karaoke! It may not be the most complex C64 tune of all time, but the attention to detail more than makes us for that. Every element is 100% recognisable, and each has its own take on every nuance in the song; when you get to bits like the “bustin’ makes me feel good” part, you’ll have a huge grin on your face over and over as you appreciate what he’s done here. That said, I have a huge grin on my face every time regardless, from the moment the spooky, wobbly melody of the song’s introduction starts, and only fractionally less so than the first time I heard it and realised what was going on! The very best thing, though, is that once you get into the game proper, it’s on an infinite loop, and nothing is better than infinite Ghostbusters!
2. Divine Bloodlines From Castlevania: Rondo of Bloodon PC-Engine
My beloved Castlevania meets my beloved PC-Engine! Stuff like Ghosts ‘n Goblins might have made me want a Commodore 64 from time to time, and that Amstrad CPC version of Chuckie Egg might have even made me raise an eyebrow in that weird direction once or twice, but I never lusted after any machine like I did the exotic, unattainable PC-Engine! And as a Japanese exclusive on there, that made 1993’s Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (or Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo) even more unattainable! It was soon reimagined as Dracula X on SNES, though it took the PlayStation 4 double-up with Symphony of the Night for me to get my hands on the original version. A couple of years later I’d finally get them on the official Japanese version too, albeit on the wonderful PC-Engine Mini console rather than original hardware. But near enough at last! And after Splatterhouse, it would be the second game I’d complete on there, as well as be the last classic Castlevania I hadn’t previously played through. Super Castlevania IV on SNES is still the best though!
Castlevania’s soundtracks are crammed with standout tracks, full of intensity, tension and richly atmospheric gothic drama. Symphony of the Night has a good shout for the greatest video game soundtrack of all time. Super Castlevania IV is a game world I’d happily retire to, and that’s down to its atmosphere, and that’s mostly down to its soundtrack. Bloodlines on Mega Drive was another groundbreaker on that system. But nothing says Castlevania to me more than Rondo of Blood’s soundtrack, and on there, the all-too-short Stage 1’s Divine Bloodlines (or Blood Relations of Heaven and Earth, translated from the original Japanese) by Akira Souji says it the loudest! We begin with a tight guitar lick that’s always reminded me so much of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes, as the main song kicks in after the piano intro! From there, drums and keyboards kick you into the perfect rocking electronic guitar soundtrack with a simple riff that somehow perfectly complements everything burning behind you, then some sweeping synths emerge and your suddenly hearing the theme to an epic eighties American soap opera – something classy like Dynasty mind! The guitar riff brings you back down to Earth and the undead skeletons lobbing beer barrels at you, accompanied by an almost Doors-like haunted keyboard track that slowly introduces this gorgeous lead keyboard solo as orchestral strings crash across everything. Then the bassline that’s been hammering in the background suddenly wants a piece of the action too, and launches you back into the main riff and even more vampiric interplay. It’s just so rich and textured and brilliantly produced, and keeps the world burning so brightly.
1. Commando Theme on Commodore 64
No game says C64 to me more than vertically-scrolling run and gun Commando (more here). I first played it on my friend’s machine when I still thought it was about the ultra-cool Arnie movie I wasn’t allowed to watch that also came out in 1985! I’d also been well hyped by the big double-page adverts (my absolute favourite game adverts ever too!) in Computer & Video Games magazine, complete with what I think are hand-painted screenshots! Anyway, despite no Arnie, it didn’t disappoint. Some time later I played the Spectrum version a hell of a lot more, and it was a great version, but it wasn’t the same; and I’m not only talking about the weird colours! Actually, for pure gameplay the Spectrum was better because you had to hit space on the keyboard to throw grenades on the Commodore, but a flick of the joystick would do it on the Spectrum, and that made a big difference. But anyway, it wasn’t the same, and neither were the later 16-bit versions or even the arcade version when I finally played that about thirty years later, because it turns out a lot of the experience was down to the C64 music!
Since the very moment I first heard Rob Hubbard’s Commando theme, it’s been my favourite music in any game ever! It’s an astounding, greatly enhanced, more complex version of the original arcade music, which he famously put together in less than twelve hours! He did a lecture where he talks about getting invited to Elite’s offices, so he gets on a train from Newcastle to Birmingham that same afternoon and when everyone else goes home, he’s left on his own there. After one listen to the original arcade music, he did an all-nighter, and by the time everyone else arrived back for work the next morning he had the C64 music playing on every machine in the office. Then he was given his cheque and was on a train home by 10! What he did to manipulate the C64’s three “voices” here is nothing short of black magic; it’s like getting Elite to run on a BBC B – not possible but there it is! The level of intensity in this military rave surely comes from loads more stuff than that going on at once! It all sounds like black magic too – apart from the electronic tom-toms and a relatively grounded bass-line driving it all along, the insanely complex set of main melodies are just terrifying sci-fi trance waveforms dancing around each other like maniacs! Then about half way through this sonic heart attack, everything goes crazy high-pitched, and just as you think your ear-holes are going to explode, for a brief second if relents and you think you’re safe as what might be identified as the melodic ringleader by now makes its return, only to be instantly replaced again by this high-pitched cacophony, which gradually turns into an exotic solo and we all go again! There’s just so much going on here that it can’t contain its own energy, and somehow that ends up amplifying the gameplay on the Commodore 64 version more than on any other machine. And some of that energy jumped right into my thirteen year-old soul back in 1985 and cemented itself as my number one favourite anthem in gaming ever!
Obviously, there’s stuff I’ve missed, even from my limited pool of gaming experience. There’s a few things particularly that jump out, but I’ve just not heard enough of them for them to have stuck yet… I’m not a big Michael Jackson fan (though he’s now had two mentions here), but I remember stopping and listening to the Moonwalker arcade game rendition of Smooth Criminal and thinking it was incredible. I am a very big Airwolf fan, and actually persevered with the famously difficult Spectrum version far more than it deserved, but if you want the theme music, you want the Commodore version; unfortunately they upped the difficulty even more here by also making it absolutely appalling to control, making it effectively unplayable. There’s also the similarly unplayable (for the same reasons) The Last V8 on Commodore 64, which features yet another Rob Hubbard classic, but you’ll never hear more than 20 seconds of it before game over!
I could very easily do a top Castlevania anthem list, such is the consistent quality of soundtracks in that series, but I tried to pick the absolute best of the best of most things in this list to keep it relatively varied, only repeating a couple of times where games might have the same subject matter but were different beasts on different systems. Similar for Mega Man and Thunder Blade especially. Likewise, I could have picked stuff from Shadow of the Beast rather than the sequel, and I could easily have picked the theme from that too. Then there’s probably stuff deep in a load of space shooters or run and gun platformers that I have got but will simply never be good enough to deserve to know about! Oh yeah, Robocop and Cybernoid 2 on C64 – just forgot about them!
Anyway, unlike a lot of my favourite things lists that I can usually put together in minutes or even seconds, this one turned into several months of very enjoyable thought and recap as I looked at my history in gaming in a whole new light, so while it might not be 100% comprehensive and will no doubt evolve over time, I’ve had an absolute blast doing it and definitely recommend the exercise to anyone else!
For someone whose life is so occupied with music, it often surprises me that I’ve generally had so little interest in game soundtracks! Now, of course I might appreciate them while I’m playing, but apart from a couple of listens to the Castlevania: Symphony of the Night soundtrack and a bit of Thunder Force now and again, I don’t think I’ve ever gone out of my way to listen to any in-game music.
That’s also not to say I don’t have favourite pieces of gaming music (despite owning a ZX Spectrum for much of my formative gaming life!) and that’s why we’re here and now! I’ve been thinking about this for a good few months, after seeing a couple of gaming soundtrack best-of videos on YouTube. Not really any rules, but I’ve definitely favoured sounds coming from the innards of a machine over a recording studio. I’ve also stuck with the versions I know, rather than seeking out the best possible version of anything. We’ve also split the whole thing in two because I didn’t quite anticipate its epic nature until about a quarter through, but that also builds up the suspense and gives you something to look forward to! But apart from that, this is what I’ve thoroughly enjoyed coming up with so far, starting at 25 all the way to 11…
25. Fear of the Heavens From Secret of Mana on SNES
I only got to Secret of Mana – originally released in 1993 – for the first time playing through everything that the SNES Classic Mini had to offer when that came out, and not being a JRPG connoisseur it got shoved right to the back of that queue, meaning my history with it is very recent at the time of writing. Also not being a JRPG connoisseur, my play-style possibly meant I wasn’t making life as easy for myself as I might (more here), but I eventually got hooked on the grind and completed it, and at the very least got to experience its wonderful soundtrack as originally intended!
This is actually the title music to Secret of Mana, kicking off a masterful soundtrack by Hiroki Kikuta, but I think it only really got its claws into me when it appeared again in the game itself when I found the Mana Tree. We’re starting our list here with something simple, but for the most part beautifully haunting too (but don’t worry, we’ll soon change that!). Just an electronic piano kind of melody with occasional flourishes from a cymbal, then a a melodic bassline takes over as some very electronic woodwind provides harmonies, then it ups the ante a bit for a brief combined climax before heading back to calm. A nice reflection of the game itself!
24. Splatterhouse 3 Title Theme on Mega Drive
You didn’t think it was going to stay all fairy-nerd for long did you? This is more like it, when Splatterhouse mixed things up by going all Streets of Rage! I love this series, and the original side-scrolling gore-fest is one of the few arcade games I’ve ever completed; the PC-Engine version is also one of my favourite arcade conversions. We then get to more of the same with Splatterhouse 2 on the Mega Drive, and it feels right at home there, but 1993’s Splatterhouse 3 didn’t just add new dimensions to the violence, but also to the gameplay as a whole, being a far more non-linear affair. And that possibly makes it the best game in the series… Mmmm, not sure about that thinking about PC-Engine… We’ll come back to that!
Eiko Kaneda’s whole soundtrack here is classic horror b-movie, and the when this song kicks in on the title screen you know exactly what you’re in for! After an intro that mainly serves what’s happening on the screen behind it, we start out proper, right in Munsters territory, with spooky haunted house melodies gradually joined by some gentle percussion and overlapped with a shifting, more complex and more electronic melody (and occasional very Doom-like monstrous sound effects). By the end it’s transitioned to something very upbeat, which strangely you’ll have barely noticed happening, though that might be down to the insane strobe effects complementing the title image going on throughout!
23. Xenon Sector One on Atari ST
Apart from what’s right at the top, this track was one of the first things that came to mind when I started thinking about this list. The Bitmap Brothers were absolute groundbreakers in sheer graphical and audio polish when they launched with this most metallic-looking ever vertically-scrolling shooter appeared in 1988, and that never stopped through Speedball, both sequels, Gods, The Chaos Engine, maybe some of the later stuff I never really played… Xenon 2 remains one of my very favourite ST games, though that’s more to do with that incredible organic aesthetic it has than “Music by Bomb the Bass” as proudly emblazoned on the box – not my cup of tea!
In terms of music though, the original Speedball title music is narrowly pipped here by the similar vibe, but just more bombastic first-level music of the original Xenon. They’re both by the incredibly prolific David Whittaker, whose stamp can be found all over eighties and nineties gaming! This one is all synth multi-melodies and harsh stabby string things over this Euro-disco rhythm that simply shouldn’t work – especially when the stabs completely intentionally drop slightly out of time – but it’s all just right!
22. Metal Squad From Thunder Force IV on Mega Drive
I love the Thunder Force games – gorgeous multi- or just side-scrolling, weapon-switching space shooters that I think I’ve mostly experienced backwards, from Thunder Force V on PlayStation to IV then III on Mega Drive to AC (an arcade port of III) on Switch, then most recently Thunder Force II back on the Mega Drive! It’s a toss up betwen IV and AC as to where my favourite lies, possibly for no other reason that I’ve played them both the most – along with Road Rash II, they are both my regular football half-time games depending on which room I’m watching it in! Thunder Force IV is an absolute stunner, with some incredible parallax scrolling, but in reality doesn’t add much in gameplay terms, and that’s absolutely okay!
The soundtrack by composer Takeshi Yoshida is among the strongest on the Mega Drive too, and not just because it must be among the most complex to ever come out of that FM sound chip, but it’s probably the most metal too! If you listen to the whole thing you’ve got about an hour and a half of jaw-dropping creativity, but we’re stopping here at Stage 8 for an incredible piece of space-thrash, where layer upon layer of pure metal energy emerges on top of this pulsing bassline and high-octane drumbeat. If Judas Priest called up Dragonforce and said let’s make some Mega Drive music, it would sound like this!
21. Hard Road From Arcade Super Hang-On
One of the few benefits of not having regular exposure to arcades in the eighties was that by the time the my Atari ST came along, as far as you could remember (if you were lucky), most arcade conversions were pretty much arcade perfect! Star Wars, Operation Wolf, Pac-Land, Bubble-Bobble, Championship Sprint… Loads of them! With Super Hang-On, it’s really not far off either, with everything intact except maybe for a bit of pace and some graphical fidelity, and it was on the Atari ST that I first came to properly appreciate the soundtrack, even if that turned out to be a little less impactful than the original too, which I’ve more recently enjoyed on PlayStation 3 and 3DS.
It might not be as magical as its sibling, Out Run, but the four tracks by Katsuhiro Hayashi and Koichi Namiki that you get to choose from at the start of each race in Super Hang-On absolutely scream out arcade game music circa 1987! Hard Road has always been my go-to track regardless of platform, with pacey rock drums supporting a lead-guitar-like bassline and an increasingly intense (dare I even say prog at its heady heights!) keyboard track, that in its defence mostly veers between eighties b-movie theme and early Spandau Ballet in its some of its chord changes. I’ve just described the best song ever…
20. Big Blue From F-Zero on SNES
When I bought my launch day Game Boy Advance, I also got my first exposure to legendary space race series F-Zero – sitting on a toilet in the Milton Keynes hotel room I was staying in for a work night out because that’s where I could get the most light onto its pitch-black screen! That was Maximum Velocity, and I’d later work my way through later GBA releases, then GX on the GameCube and finally back to where it started in 1990 on the SNES, or for me the later Classic Mini variant.
It doesn’t take long for you to get to the original F-Zero Big Blue theme. You’ll know it because for a second you’ll think you’ve reached the final boss on some insane bullet-hell shooter instead of beginner track number two! I often think this course was all about showing off colour on the SNES, and I reckon composers Yumiko Kanki and Naoto Ishida wanted to deliver the the audio equivalent with this. Electronic drama, an impossible bass-line and enough melody for a dozen bonkers eighties cartoon soundtracks!
19. Warhawk on Commodore 64
Warhawk is very nearly a very forgettable vertically-scrolling shooter from 1986, just like a hundred other budget tiles from the time. It’s generic, it’s hard as nails, and is one of those games that we all took a punt on because it was only £1.99, but that was also all the money you had in the world and it just became an object of regret! Except this one had the most incredible music!
One name is synonymous with C64 music – Rob Hubbard! He was truly at one with the machine’s SID chip; its sonic cyborg! And this track won’t be the last time we’ll hear from him in this list… Stripped back melodies alternate with supernatural synthesiser ambience before launching into this epic, complex, driving fist-pounder, then doing it all over again. It’s a shame the gameplay itself didn’t offer similar peaks to complement its troughs! It’s also a shame that whilst the title track also plays while you’re playing, you won’t hear most of it because it’s sharing the same chip as the sound effects, and that fire button is also going to be taking a pounding!
18. Robocop 3 Title Music on SNES
The original Robocop, which I loved on both Spectrum then Atari ST, was a masterclass in polished, varied, fun movie tie-ins. I wasn’t so keen on the sequel, which just tried a bit too hard and was less fun as a result, and less fun can also be used to describe the third instalment from 1992, but that’s now down to it being way too hard… and then it made you start from the beginning every time either the difficulty or the dubious collision detection killed you! In its defence it’s got a great look, but once you get past the title screen there’s not a lot else to recommend it!
If this was a list of the best NES music, Jonathan Dunn’s Robocop 3 title music on there would be at the top. This version is not my favourite SNES music (and not even my favourite Robocop music!), but it’s certainly an unmatched take on this amazing song, and certainly has the most accomplished rhythm section you’ll ever hear in a game! Moody guitar licks layer on top of each other, with subtle but complex synth melodies adding colour to, er, panpipes, but don’t worry – it all works, and it all screams Robocop!
17. Gotham City Street From Batman on Mega Drive
The world went Bat-crazy in the summer of 1989 for Tim’s Burton’s uber-stylish Batman movie. The Bat was everywhere, and Prince’s iconic soundtrack wasn’t far behind! Batman: The Movie came out on everything 8- and 16-bit in 1989, was equally stylish and didn’t just give you some fighting goons across platforms, but you also got to drive the Batmobile and fly the Batwing (and play a Bat-version of Mastermind). The Atari ST version especially blew me away, but it was no Prince to listen to! A year later, the NES got its own game that was very much its own thing, then once Nintendo’s strangehold on the license expired, the Mega Drive got something far closer to the plot of the movie. It looks really nice, but is distinctly average in its sub-Castlevania platforming and side-scrolling shooter sections, and although you can beat it in 45 minutes, you probably won’t!
The very first level, Gotham City Street, sees you simply beating people up from left to right, but while the action here is a bit sparse, you’ll be thankful for the lack of interruptions to Naoki Kodaka’s beautiful piece that accompanies you (especially when the rain kicks in and demands that bit more atmosphere). Some big drum hits instantly set the drama as these almost siren-like synth sounds start to weave you around what would surely have been the best Batman cartoon theme song ever, then the drums start filling and accentuating, and these wonderful chord changes bring you back around and it’s all over way too soon!
16. Mega Turrican Stage 1-2 on Mega Drive
My history with Turrican begins with the February 1991 Zero magazine dual-format Atari-ST and Amiga cover disc, and in yet another decisive victory over the Amiga, a Turrican II demo that only worked on the ST! And it gave you 99 lives for very good reason because if you escaped the level with half of them intact you were doing very well! As we’re discussing music though, if I was stuck with only the ST or Commodore 64 versions I’d be happy taking either Turrican II soundtrack here! By 1995, Super Turrican 2 on the SNES was a different matter, all well-balanced shooting and grappling and some less well-balanced Mode 7 effects! The first level features some absolutely stunning backdrops too, with the wrecks of these old galleons atmospherically rotting away against a desert sunset! I got to 1993’s Mega Turrican on the Mega Drive much later, which is another graphical stunner that plays great, with huge levels full of secrets and huge enemies, weapon upgrades and a sci-fi twist on Sonic the Hedgehogs spin-dash!
There’s little that this game does wrong, especially in the music department! Chris Huelsbeck’s synth-rock soundtrack clocks in at an hour, and the craftsmanship never relents, but you’re getting the best first, with the intro, then the first stage, and then when you’re wondering where it can possibly go next, Stage 1-2 comes along and blows you away! If Nick Kershaw had stuck some words over this ten years earlier it would be on every hits of 1983 compilation ever, with its painfully catchy melodic interplays over those seminal Mega Drive drums driving your attention. It’s simply Turrican in song form!
15. Central Park Music From The Last Ninja 2 on Commodore 64
Winter Games was the first thing that really blew me away on Commodore 64 – those trees! It took a couple more years to get to The Last Ninja, but that did it all over again – those flowers! It wasn’t always as good to play as it was to look at (or listen to), but all the same, this was eighties ninja obsession being acted out in the palm of your hand (by your joystick) – who needed to rent American Ninja 2: The Confrontation by the time this appeared alongside it in 1987? Well, luckily someone did or we’d never have got all the way to number five!
What’s incredible about the soundtrack here is how much music maestro Matt Gray got out of so little memory! There’s about an hour’s worth of deep, expertly composed and bewilderingly polished audio in six distinct stage themes and one for the final boss, and it’s all in about 40K of data! The Central Park music starts ominous – like a John Carpenter horror theme – then so much texture comes out of nowhere, climaxing in a classic action-hero melody that meanders into this atmospheric extended drum break and back into classic slasher territory before going even more action-hero than before! I can’t remember the theme to American Ninja, but I really hope it sounded just like this!
14. Agent X Title Music on ZX Spectrum (and the 48K one no less!)
We’re now on sacred ground, with my number 12 favourite game of all time (more here)! Never did £1.99 provide such quality and attention to detail from such variety, as you took your Bond-type character through four stages of multi-load heaven! First it’s isometric driving, then a side-scrolling beat ‘em up that slightly numbs the pain of the Spectrum Kung-Fu Master horror show, then it’s indoor Operation Wolf before chasing off the dastardly villain Airwolf-style but with sensible difficulty! I love this game now as much as I did in 1987 (to the point I had to interrupt writing this until I’d completed it again).
If you locked Brian Wilson away with a 48K Spectrum and one-too-many packets of Chewits, the Agent X title music is probably what he’d have come up with! This impossible polyphonic rave by Tim Follin simply shouldn’t exist on a Spectrum! The 128K Spectrum might have had all the sounds – including some marvellous stuff in the less than marvellous Agent X II – but I can’t think of any original Spectrum music that came close to this for originality, for sucking the machine’s sonic capabilities dry, or for sheer bonkers-ness. Absolute genius!
13. Robocop Title Music on Game Boy
At this point I’m wondering if any other top 25 gaming anthems list ever has ever approached its halfway point with a 48K Spectrum game followed by something on the Game Boy? Maybe more likely there’s been one with two Robocop games in it though, because everyone knows that Robocop is the best music! Anyway, Game Boy Robocop came out in 1990 and isn’t quite as brutal as other Robocops we’ve already talked about here, but being a conversion of a late-eighties arcade machine, isn’t far off! It’s a side scrolling gun ‘em up with occasional first-person hostage rescues, and it’s no Operation C, but it’s alright.
As hauntingly beautiful as it is (yes, we’re still talking Game Boy!), I’m not entirely sure why this title music by Jonathan Dunn (remember him from the other Robocop?) exists – it’s not only pretty much hidden away on a niche handheld game on a screen that’s gone in the click of the Start button, but it’s also completely at odds with anything to do with Robocop! This is a lesson in melancholic composition that is somehow perfectly at home on this ridiculous audio output, creating far more raw sound than it has any right to! It also turns out to be perfectly at home on home appliance adverts and well-known rap songs, but you can’t carry them around in your pocket!
12. Pacific Coast From Mega Drive Road Rash
As we already discussed, Road Rash II on Mega Drive is what I’d describe as my gaming comfort food. Road Rash is a series I knew from the outset, but could take or leave until relatively recently – I think it was playing the original game for the first time on Master System in about 2017 that properly converted me. It’s an incredible technical feat even if it’s not massively challenging for a very long time. But I loved it, and migrated to the Mega Drive version, then everything the PlayStation had to offer (which is mostly soulless in comparison despite some wonderful licensed alt-rock sounds), then back to the third instalment on the Mega Drive which was great until I got to number two on the wonderfully curated Mega Drive Mini and it just absolutely clicked for me.
There’s some great music in all three Mega Drive Road Rashes, especially the gothic Knight Rider vibe of the Redwood Forest course in the 1991 original, but even that mystifying concept is narrowly surpassed by the sublime intensity of Pacific Coast in the same game. The complex rhythms; the dramatic melodies; the high-speed pan pipes being overtaken by this haunting guitar-thing… oh, the intensity! If you’re going to punch a fellow motorcyclist in the head, you want to be doing it with this on your Walkman! Oh yeah, it’s by C64’s best-known musician Rob Hubbard too. Don’t tell those Commodore fans!!!
11. Magical Sound Shower From Arcade Out Run
Yes, you’re reading that right – eleven not one! Out Run completely upped the ante for video games when it was unleashed in the arcades in 1986. Nothing else looked like it, sounded like it, played like it, or was quite so exotic, exhilarating and aspirational! I wrote about my favourite sights in all of gaming here, and the moment where the coastal highway spreads out into six lanes near the start of Out Run easily tops the list. It’s just stunning! No surprise it’s also one of my favourite games ever (even more here), but what might be a surprise given how rubbish at games I generally am is that I’m actually quite good at it too – every route on pretty much every version now! Only took 35 years of practice…
Before every race you’re tuning in your radio to choose from what’s still one of the most iconic soundtracks to any game ever – Passing Breeze, Splash Wave and, of course, Magical Sound Shower. (You’ve also got post-race Last Wave later too). Composer Hiroshi Kawaguchi has tied everything together with a kind of Latino-Calypso feel, part rock and part jazz, but all feel-good! They’re all to love too, but I’m going with Magical Sound Shower just because it can transport me right back to the mid-eighties just a little bit quicker than the others! If Miami Sound Machine had written the theme to Miami Vice it would sound exactly like this, and if you were driving down that coastal highway in a Ferrari with your hot girlfriend by your side, there’s no other track you’d want to have blaring out of your cassette player! That said, my wife just walked by as I’m listening to it and said that’s the most irritating music she’s ever heard! Maybe she’s more of a Splash Wave girl…
Anyway, as we exit that glorious coastal highway we conclude our journey for now, and look forward to the next instalment where we count down the top ten.
On the 1st August 1996, I was a couple of months into a five year career working for an electronic components distributor in the glamourous town of Leighton Buzzard. As well as being notable for rampant inbreeding (so a bigger boy told me!), it’s also known for the Great Train Robbery and actor Rusty Goffe, who was a Jawa and several other similarly-sized things in a film called Star Wars, though many of us will be more familiar with his work as The Canary Dwarf, Britain’s bounciest weather man, on the sadly defunct Live TV’s Topless Darts. None of that is relevant whatsoever here, except there wasn’t anywhere to buy games in Leighton Buzzard, so I had to call in to Toys R Us in Bedford on the way home to buy Resident Evil, because that was the day it came out here and I needed it immediately!
And there begins my rather disfunctional history with Resident Evil. There was never any question of me getting it the instant it came out – the violence, the realism, the zombies… It was going to be the best game ever! And for quite a long time, I absolutely loved it. Wandering around the best spooky mansion since Scooby Doo, shooting stuff in the face to that epic soundtrack, the first (and still one of the greatest) jump scares in a video game was all fantastic. But there was this ridiculous inventory system, and I kept finding all these items that I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in working out what to do with. Then Wipeout 2097 came out and Destruction Derby 2 and Twisted Metal 2 and WWF in Your House and Legacy of Kain, and then it had no chance of being the best game ever!
That didn’t stop me going through exactly the same process with its sequel a couple of years later though! Or Resident Evil 3: Nemesis in 1999, though in my defence having just played Remake on PS4, I reckon I was most of the way through that one when I ditched it! When I got a GameCube at the end of 2001, more than enough time had passed to justify getting its shiny new remake of the original, as well as Code: Veronica and Zero as a bit more time went by!
I think I just liked the idea of Resident Evil more than actually playing it! And that’s partially behind my decision not to buy Resident Evil 4 the day it came out, or, indeed, for about thirteen years afterwards (when I’d then sit on it for a couple more). For all the hype the game was getting ages before it came out in 2005, to me it just wasn’t Resident Evil – I was interested in zombies, not crazed Spaniards in mud huts. Even if one of them had a chainsaw and a bag on his head! I really was the worst hardcore Resident Evil fan ever! Anyway, I didn’t like how it looked in screenshots either – all that brown was like playing on a Commodore 64 all over again! I just wasn’t interested, no matter what the reviews said, ironically echoing all that best game ever stuff I’d had in my head when I handed over my money for the first game.
Before deciding I was finally going to play through Resident Evil 4 on the GameCube over Christmas 2020, there’s a bit more history to add. I finally played through the remaster (such as it is) of the original on PS4 a couple of years before that, prompted by being lent a copy of Resident Evil 7 and thinking I can’t play the new one without at least a refresh after all those years, particularly after it had been free one month with PlayStation Plus. And lo and behold, this time something was clicking here, no doubt down to the patience that comes with age; or more likely getting less good at just shooting stuff! I finished it then immediately dived into Resident Evil 7, and being decades beyond all about my aforementioned misplaced loyalty to the original games, loved the tense Texas Chainsaw vibe of the first two-thirds before it get a bit more mundane and unnecessarily dragged-out towards the end. Then I went back to my original PS1 disc, this time on the PS3, then the same with the original sequel before playing the absolutely brilliant Resident Evil 2 Remake on PS4 in 2019, followed by the less brilliant but – in my opinion at least – fun all the same Resident Evils 5 and 6 on Nintendo Switch. And through all of this, my impulse (i.e. cheap) eBay pick-up from some time over the last few years, Resident Evil 4, still sat there unloved next to my GameCube; and also next to a to-this-day equally unloved copy of Zelda: Wind Waker, but that will be another story!
In summary, aside from two GameCube games, we’re now caught up in the series to a respectable level at least, having at the time of writing in January 2021 literally just finished the also absolutely brilliant Resident Evil 3 Remake on PS4, so that makes it time to talk about its sequel! And would you believe that for all the years of first having an aversion to it, then having complete indifference to it, Resident Evil 4 has now had a remarkable impact on me and my long history in gaming.
We could go all the way back to way before the start of our tale here when the first one came out, and if you’d asked me what my favourite games were, without any hesitation whatsoever I’d have said Feud on the Spectrum, Kick Off on Atari ST and Renegade, also on the Spectrum and not that arcade version with its weird controls. And whilst my favourite games list has got much bigger, after all these years the bit at the top has never changed… And then we get to about halfway through Resident Evil 4, and this voice in my mind-brain starts telling me that this 15-year old imposter might actually be my favourite game ever, however outrageous that was sounding and however much I genuinely didn’t want to hear it! I mean, Silent Hill 2 (more here) entering the top ten not that long ago was bad enough – poor old Elevator Action – but now we’re talking about complete disruption to a load more things that have been not only been even more deeply pondered over, but have also been even more utterly sacred for so long…
It ended up at number three; nothing will ever top Feud and Kick Off! What’s even more shocking, though, is that it ended up there after such strained beginnings! By the time we got here, right at the end of 2020, having been through all those Resident Evils and developed a proper affection for what the series actually is – even if affection was all it was – I really wanted to get stuck into this. I duly inserted tiny little GameCube Disc 1 (which thankfully has you covered until the final chapter), pressed start and got into the opening Umbrella and its misdemeanours in 1998 recap; jump to six years later and returning hero Leon Kennedy is in “rural Europe” looking for the American President’s missing daughter, who was kidnapped by a strange cult just before he started an assignment to protect her. Someone’s spotted someone that looks like her, so here we are in the back of a police car with two distinctly Mexican-sounding local police escorts, on your way to your start point at a distinctly medieval-looking village, in the middle of nowhere in what is obviously meant to be Spain!
A couple more cutscenes later and we’re on our way, in what was a revolutionary over-the-shoulder viewpoint that would completely re-write action-adventure gaming… Except now, after all those re-writes you’ve been playing for the last fifteen years, the controls absolutely stink! And that’s before you’ve drawn your gun or pulled out your knife. Oh dear! Okay, we’ve come this far down this very atospheric dirt track in the woods and that looks like a house in the distance, so we’ll have a look. Now, this being a Resident Evil game, you’re obviously not going to use any gun ever given the choice because you have to save up all of your ammo for the final credits, so this first guy you’ve got to kill because you’re now in his house is going to have to get stabbed up. Shoulder button, knife out, slash, try and slash in the right direction, and what the hell is going on with this direction button??? Now we’re dead. Restart the game!
A couple more deaths later and you’ll have resorted to your gun; it’s twitchy as hell, the sight is moving wildly all over the screen in the opposite direction to where you want it, and you’ll be lucky to shoot this guy anywhere, let alone in the head where you know he wants it! He’s dead, so time to search the house then jump out of an upstairs window to go through the same process with two more guys (at once if you’re not quick enough). A couple more restarts later and you know where the items near them are, so decide to grab them then do a runner instead of fighting, right down to a save point in a shed! At this point I decided not to save but keep practicing my knife skills instead, but they didn’t get any better, so we save and move on down towards the village that had turned me off in all those screenshots, occasionally stopping to shoot one of the loads more enemies hanging around the trail if you have time to line up a shot because their back is turned, but otherwise just running, stopping only to try and smash open item boxes in more sheds with that stupid knife, then get out before one of them comes in and corners you!
Big gate ahead signifies a checkpoint and we’re in the village and there’s tons of angry villagers with a dead look in their eyes, and you know perfectly well that for all the creeping around you do at the start, you’re in for the most hellish fight you’ve ever been in – just because of these awful controls! Eventually you’re trapped in a house, and it goes all Night of the Living Dead with you trying to block up windows while you try and shoot and stab (good luck!) your way to some kind of safety upstairs, where they’re also now coming in through the windows on ladders! Somehow you get by and get out of one of them, and just start running frantically – at least you’re getting used to how that works now, even if you can’t shoot anything! And then the guy with the chainsaw and the bag on his head appears with a load more psycho-villages, and you can keep running but you can’t hide and eventually – more checkpoint restarts later – you concede that you’re going to have to get some tactics down for a scrap, but at least by now you’re starting to get used to shooting stuff, and eventually you’re starting to appreciate the incredible tension of being stuck in that house with loads of stuff coming through windows, or coming up against Dr Salvadore, the chainsaw guy, because now you’ve got a chance.
A couple of hours later, with the village sections behind you, the archaic controls are going to feel the most natural and pretty much perfect you could ever wish for, even by today’s standards! You’re going to be combining quick leg shots with knives and kicks, jumping between pistols, shotguns, sniper rifles and grenades, dodging and spinning and knowing what’s going to work for cover or just slowing things down, and then you can relax a bit and start marvelling at how everything looks because it turns out it’s not all about brown!
So far I’ve liked the initial creepy but too short woodland stroll, and the wooden-hutted village and farm bits actually turned out to be pretty cool as you run around them, with tons of detail giving a real sense of oppression and a surprising amount of claustrophobia, like that you might experience being stuck in a big city rather than rural Spain. You’ll eventually emerge into a valley, absolutely riddled with wooden platforms, rope bridges and all kinds of huts and a swarm of different enemies, and this is where you really first notice both the scale of the game and also its incredible visual quality. It’s also worth noting that we’re talking visual quality on a GameCube on a modern TV, so when it came out I can only imagine how impressive what they were getting out of that little purple box must have been! What really got me though, not long after this, was going up an even creepier wooded path then emerging into a big graveyard with a church towering over it on the hill in the distance. At this point I actually stopped playing the game, turned off the lights, and started taking photos of the TV, adjusting Leon until I got the shot of the scene over his shoulder that I wanted, and with the benefit of hindsight and far more thought than you should give something so trivial, can say it’s one of my favourite sights in any game ever!
After a bit more killing (zombie wolves not dogs for a change!) and a bit of classic Resident Evil item collection and puzzle-solving, it’s around here that we’re going to find Ashley, the President’s daughter, and oh no, next disappointment, she’s coming with us and it’s not only going to be dreadful escort missions, but she’s a 20-year old American girl that acts like a 15-year old American girl! Actually, neither turns out to be so bad, and for a mostly non-playable character from 2005, she even displays a modicum of intelligence and tactical nouse in combat! Anyway, I was going to say, this is probably a good point to expand on the plot, because it’s now clear that there’s more to all of this than just finding your newly un-kidnapped sidekick!
This mysterious cult that kidnapped her is called Los Illuminados, and it turns out that all these villagers that keep attacking you have not only renounced farming to pledge their lives to it, but have also become infected by a parasite called Las Plagas that’s taken over their minds! On your travels so far, you’ll have been captured and infected by it too, and while captive you meet Luis Sera, an investigator who was researching the cult; once you both escape he’ll become useful for filling you in on the plot throughout the game! And then we find Ashley, who it turns out was also injected with the parasite, and the cult leader’s plan is for her to take it home to inject her father with it, which will in turn allow him to take over the world. Once you’ve found her, you’ll end up in freaky man-child Ramon Salazar’s castle, get separated then have to start searching for her all over again. In the lead-up to fighting mutated Salazar, you’ll meet saucy blast from the Resident Evil 2 past Ada Wong who’ll both help and hinder you as you go on.
Next you’ll go to an island research facility to find Ashley, and someone else from Leon’s spec-ops past, Jack Krauser, appears as the mercenary that kidnapped Ashley. Now we learn that both he and Ada Wong are working for star (also STAR) of original Resident Evil Albert Wesker, now a born-again nutcase who also wants a piece of the Las Plagas action. After dispatching him you’ll find Ashley again, discover a big machine that can cure the pair of you, then have a showdown with the also-mutated big bad cult leader, assisted by Ada Wong and her inevitable Resident Evil final boss rocket launcher! As a final twist in the tail, Ada’s going to do a runner with Leon’s parasite sample, and all that’s left to do it escape the island on a jet-ski before it explodes!
The parasite enemies versus zombie enemies of previous Resident Evils do change things up quite a lot, where they’re quicker and have some intelligence about them, though shooting them in the head still works fine – especially when it’s from miles away with a fully-upgraded scope on your rifle! It’s not just zombie cult farmers, tooled-up chanting monks, very well-armed (and sometimes shielded) soldiers, walking suits of armour, chainsaw bag-head guys and the like you’ll be shooting up though. There’s different, much tougher (and far more sinister) versions of them that wouldn’t look out of place in Silent Hill; there’s various parasites, flying bugs and those undead wolves; there’s lumbering giants that act as regular mini-bosses and Iron Maidens with extending spikes on the outside; and there’s the regenerator – no doubt one of the most feared monsters in gaming history, relentlessly moving towards you, with multiple parasites regenerating body parts, each requiring individual attention from your rifle (or just shutting a door on them)!
That’s regular enemies, but you’ll come across a wonderful menagerie of bosses too. I’m not that keen on boss fights, but I think I only really struggled with Salazar when he turns into a humungous zombie flower and you need a bit more precision at speed than I’m capable of any more! It only took a few goes though. The rest are wildly varied, from a set-piece filled epic with superman Krauser to more regular shooting all the pulsating sacs filled with ooze Lovecraft-style monsters. The final boss – cult leader Osmund Saddler now mutated into a huge four-legged oozing thing – is a lot of fun, and when that rocket launcher is thrown into the mix there’s a great feeling as you realise you’ve just about done him in, but my favourite boss I think was the very first one. This was a lake monster, brought back to life by Saddler to stop anyone crossing it, and you’re hunting it down in a tiny fishing boat that is being dragged around by this giant whale thing after it got caught up in the anchor. And it’s from this vantage point that you’re trying to harpoon it, while steering and trying to avoid being capsized, which results in a frantic swim! Once its done for, it’s not over though because you’re still attached and now being dragged to the bottom. Thank goodness for quick-time events – one of many you’ll experience throughout the game, but I don’t remember this one being quite as punishing as others that may assume far more familiarity with a GameCube controller than you may have so long after the fact!
The aftermath of this fight sees you end up in a cabin on the other side of the lake, and another visually stunning moment as you look out of the window into the rain. This was another favourite moment for me, and that went straight into another! As you go outside and peer across the murk of the lake, you can just make out some blue flames, which you’ll now be starting to recognise as the welcoming signal of the Merchant having set up shop there. As fantastic as this guy is, you don’t want to be thinking too much about him and his various impossibilities though, like why he’s not dead, how he travels in the blink of an eye, who else he’s selling to and various other stock management issues – just enjoy this constantly out-of-place walking weapons shop with his wares hidden inside his long black coat or in his backpack, or in some of the more permanent establishments he frequents around the game, like this one! You’ll be buying new weapons and upgrades using coins you’ve found or by selling him treasures or stuff you don’t want. At certain locations he’ll also have an optional shooting gallery on the go, and he’s usually near a save point too!
Recalling all these things I enjoyed one after the other is testament to the game’s pacing throughout the 25 or so hours it took me to complete it. From the very start, it’s relentlessly pushing you forwards, whether to progress the story or to progress your ability to progress the story. You’re rarely going to be wondering where to go next or trying to fathom obscure puzzles involving myriad items and all the related back and forth Resident Evils before this loved to throw at you so much. There’s a bit of backtracking and a bit of puzzle-solving, but I’m struggling to remember anything that bothered me whatsoever, and on the whole you’re on your way from one set of set-pieces in one area to another set in the next, interspersed by different levels of adrenaline rush. This might be from something as simple and frequent as taking down a regular enemy with some style, getting through an onslaught of firey catapults, completing one of the frantic on-rails sections, or finding yourself face to face with Dr Salvadore and his chainsaw in a minecart, but the biggest rush for me came from just turning around and looking back at one particular room…
In Chapter 4 (of 5, each split into 3-4 areas plus one final chapter), you’re after a lion ornament to go into something else and open up a new part of the castle – all classic Resident Evil! You go through a door in from a very steampunk area to be faced by a cavernous room full of maze-like stone stairways and walkways across a sea of volcanic lava spraying all over the place. There’s also a load of dragon statues ready to spit flaming death all over you too, manned by monks in skeleton masks that you’ll need to snipe while taking on a load of their mates out to get you as you make your way across various platforms and obstacles. This took me a few goes, but once you’ve got the lie of the land you do fine, and the pay-off when you pick up the ornament and head back is incredible! You’re faced with this incredible, impossible set of structures across this vast flaming pit, smoke and fire everywhere, and you just think did I really just do that? Absolutely stunning. Again! When you combine so much fun from so much variety with that pacing we talked about, you’re getting close to perfect gameplay, but surely there’s a catch?
It wouldn’t be a Resident Evil game without some inventory management, so you’re going to spend a fair amount of time playing Tetris in your attaché case and making painful decisions about what to store or just abandon. As usual, it’s expandable as you make your way through the game, and key items and treasure are kept separately so they’re not taking up slots. And as usual, you can combine some health items, ammo and bits of weapons. I think there was one instance where there was a rocket launcher that just wasn’t going to fit, but otherwise there was usually space for all that handgun ammo I didn’t actually need!
We’ve not talked about how things sound yet, and as you’d expect from a game in this series (and genre in general) there’s some very ham-fisted dialogue delivered in typically unique ways! Actually, the voice acting isn’t bad – it’s certainly no Silent Hill 2 – and the script is mostly fine, even offering up a couple of genuinely funny lines, but it definitely gets cringeworthy at times, and I’m sure that in any remake that might come along in the future, Luis won’t be talking about her dad equipping Ashley’s with ballistics! And probably no close ups of his crotch when he says he’s got something for you guys either… You are going to get a lot of abuse coming your way in Spanish too, which is probably more effective if you don’t know Spanish (which I assume Leon doesn’t which is why it’s never translated), but it is proper good abuse!
The soundtrack is responsible for so much of the horror you’re going to experience throughout the game’s duration. It moves seamlessly from disturbing localised ambience to pulsating primitive rhythms, and from minimal almost industrial pieces to climactic gothic orchestrations. There’s thankfully a couple of tracks that wouldn’t be out of place in an eighties action movie like Cobra or Bloodsport too! Sound effects layer on even more disturbing ambience – love those killer monk chants! – and it really sounds like they’ve gone the extra mile with things like gunshots, where each distinct sound is going to include the chink of spent cartridges and the sounds of a reload as well.
I’ve talked about how impressive it still looks even being pumped out of a GameCube onto a modern TV. I know I have the benefit of being a complete luddite when it comes to things like resolution and frame rate though, where the upscaled PS4 version doesn’t look all that different to me, although that said I’m not certain it actually is! Some of the locations like the swamp, any of the woods, the church and a lot of the castle are pure Hammer Horror though, which might be a good analogy for how it looks – Plague of the Zombies (best film ever created!) looks like it was made when it was, but it still looks great! The polish might have tarnished a little with the years, but the creativity and artistry on the locales and their inhabitants (especially some of the nastier-looking bosses) haven’t one bit, with all the character models looking and moving great through brilliantly lit environments (especially when night comes). Details like the heat haze in that lava room, or just smoke rising or rain falling would also still impress today, bouncing realistically off of different surfaces, and those effects when you pop something’s head off are still second to none!
What else to say? Well, it’s oven got its own zombie dogs through the window moment! Like what I did there? Otherwise, looks great, sounds great and eventually plays great; is full of atmosphere, full of horror and full of variety; and the gameplay is just outstanding. And that’s even in 2021 as I write this, having now played the GameCube version twice and the Wii version once in the first three weeks of the year! I have to say that on one hand I expected a bit more of the Wii version, having heard many lauding its motion controls and it being the ultimate way to play, but I wasn’t that fussed. On the other hand, it cost me £1.10 on eBay so I can’t complain!!!
Now that it’s firmly entrenched in my top three games of all time, shockingly relegating the definitive version of Renegade to number four after all those years sitting pretty there, do I regret not playing it until now? If it wasn’t for those pesky screenshots, I’d have probably bought Resident Evil 4 back in 2005, day one, just like all its predecessors! But just like them, I’d have probably played it for a bit before being distracted by God of War, Call of Duty 2 and Star Wars Battlefront 2… What a meathead! But for me at the end of 2020, it was perfect! And now that remake would be pretty perfect too…