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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember ZERO Magazine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Life With… Enduro Racer – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Enduro Racer – ZX Spectrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Life With… The Perils of Willy – Commodore VIC-20

My Life With… The Perils of Willy – Commodore VIC-20

Expanding my VIC-20 to 16K RAM was always going to be a hard sell to my parents. “This plug-in cartridge adds 16K RAM to your VIC’s memory, which allows you to write and use longer programs, store more data and increase your VIC’s capacity.” To an 11-year old equipped with his Ladybird How it Works… The Computer book and a couple of marathon type-in games under my belt, it all made perfect sense, but between Christmas 1983 and Christmas 1984, none of this really translated into parental justification! 

03

During that time though, one thing happened, that in my mind at least, was all the justification anyone needed – I played The Perils of Willy at my friend Steven’s house! Not being able to afford most of the exotica you saw every month in Computer & Video Games magazine, this method of games discovery would be a mainstay for the next few years, at least until he went C64 and I went Spectrum, and things like Ghostbusters happened… Having said that, as I write this I’ve just had a go at their version of Green Beret on my new C64 Mini, and they definitely didn’t get it all their own way!

Over the course of 1984 – the greatest year in pop music history – I became extremely clued up on Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, but I think I stayed pretty oblivious to Miner Willy’s other adventures on the ZX Spectrum. I would later own Jet Set Willy on there, and play Jet Set Willy 2 on the Commodore 64, but it would be more than thirty years later that I’d actually get my mitts on the wonderful Manic Miner! 

The year went by, and despite still not having a clue what this bizarre, anonymous brown box that plugged into the back of my VIC-20 did, the 16K Expansion cartridge and a copy of The Perils of Willy were dutifully delivered by my parents for Christmas after months of badgering – there may have been some doubt about people knowing it was Christmas time that year, but I definitely knew it!

You could look at The Perils of Willy as a stripped-down Manic Miner knock-off that somehow found it’s way, via Software Projects, onto the VIC-20 – it may have now been a massive 16K beast to me, but to most I guess it was seen as a dying minnow, expanded or not, at that time. However, I prefer to see it as the official Miner Willy game developed exclusively for the VIC-20 that it really was. The Spectrum crowd could only look on in wonder and jealousy at the 33 screens and superior sound!

fullsizeoutput_f78

The premise is that Willy’s had a bit too much to drink on a night out and decides to walk home, catching the notes of music “that seem to hang in the air” across a variety of screens meant to be parks, railways, possibly rooms and other areas. Unlike Manic Miner, none of the locations were named, and given they’re generally a colourful jumble of platforms and conveyor belts with killer dogs, ducks and balloons flying about, it can be hard to work out where you’re at. But the gameplay itself makes it straightforward enough to navigate – collect the notes on the screen within a certain time and you move onto the next. What’s not straightforward is playing it! This is a tough game requiring precision timing of jumps that are a bit floaty (even though Willy appears to have put on a bit of weight on the VIC-20) and take some getting used to, but once you do then this is as much fun as any other Miner Willy game. What I really loved were the dirt platforms that dropped away as you ran over them – real Indiana Jones stuff (which, as a side note, I potentially saw for the first time at my Grandma’s house on Christmas Day night the very day I got the game)!

IMG_0297

Despite the hours spent being hypnotised by one of the most “hardcore” 8-bit theme tunes ever created, I never did finish it – I do recall there being a POKE in Computer & Video Games giving you 255 lives. I also recall starting it with POKE in hand on a Sunday morning, leaving it on whilst out with the family on Sunday afternoon, then playing until bedtime, and surreptitiously leaving it on overnight and all day Monday while I was at school. I got through a hell of a lot of it (or, put another way, less than 33 screens of it), but never got to the end game. Assuming there actually was one, as it was rumoured it never finished even after 33 screens! 

fullsizeoutput_f73

I guess if I’d played Manic Miner or Jet Set Willy at the time I might feel differently, but I didn’t and The Perils of Willy remains my favourite old-school platformer. Ever!

Incredible Exolon on Spectrum Next Artwork!

Okay, it’s not real yet, but this fantastic image of what Exolon could look like on the Spectrum Next has drawn my attention to what this thing might be capable of!

Tribute to Exolon was created by the talented Russian artist Andrey Kovalchuck (Andy Little), and shared by Simon Butler on the Spectrum Next Facebook group to highlight what might just be possible on the new old machine. Now do one for Feud and I’m sold!

Retro Arcadia Top Ten Games of 2017

I very rarely have the impulse to buy anything day one, and I’ve spent most of this year playing catch-up with stuff I’ve been given for birthdays or Christmas that I’d directed people to get for me at bargain prices – Wolfenstein The Old Blood, Doom (which was the only game that’s ever induced serious motion sickness in me then outstayed its welcome a bit but I finished it), Dishonored, Dirt 3 and the marvellous Trackmania Turbo were highlights. Lego Dimensions, particularly the Midway Retro Arcade level pack and all the old favourites of mine it included, has also been a mainstay, as has No Man’s Sky, which I’ve now pumped hundreds of hours into and it remained my go-to game until November when I decided I just didn’t want to play it any more. Special mention also to Super Mario Run which appeared right at the end of 2016 and I’ve continued to play throughout 2017. I also got a New Nintendo 2DS which opened up a whole new world of Nintendo games that I’d missed out on since the Game Boy Advance – Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Harvest Moon, Super Mario Tennis and much more…

1. Elevator Action

Seeing this appear out of the blue on the PlayStation Store new release list towards the end of November was a console generation highlight for me, only previously (almost) equalled by the same for Renegade a couple of years ago! Every time I play it I’m standing in front of an arcade cabinet in the cafe area of our local leisure centre in 1984, with the music from the Saturday morning roller disco in the background and a can of Dr Pepper from the only vending machine in town to stock it on the table beside me. It’s the arcade version of Elevator Action, released on PS4 as part of their Arcade Archives series, and by default is the best game released in 2017 on any platform.

2. Stardew Valley (PS4)

This is one of the most joyous gaming experiences I’ve ever had! It also gives me the chance, as someone living on a farm in the country with no intention of ever farming or even vaguely embracing country life, to experience all of that stuff from the comfort of my own living room! You just do whatever takes your fancy, whether it’s clearing some land, doing up some buildings, growing some crops, fishing, looking after your chickens, playing the arcade games in the village pub, mining, building a fence, beach combing, helping out villagers or just wandering about the place. Slow-paced, open-ended, great looking and wonderful – just like the life waiting right outside my front door if only it wasn’t so much hassle!

3. Pokemon Ultra Sun (3DS)

For this game I did get that rare impulse to buy day one! Pokemon Gold (see below) very recently introduced me to a series I’d missed out on for decades, but this brought me right up to date with a stunning handheld masterpiece. The world is brimming with life (including some great Pokemon), the story will cost you hours that you thought were minutes, and even the necessary grinding stays fun. So much gameplay here and I can’t recommend it enough. Especially if you’re still the sceptical non-player that I was until a couple of months ago.

4. Everybody’s Golf (PS4)

I’ve never really played as much Everybody’s Golf as I should have, given I’ve owned iterations on various platforms since the original Playstation release. I have made up for that a bit with the latest one though. It’s still instantly familiar, albeit with a PS4 sheen and all kinds of modern gaming depth, maintaining a very simple mechanic that makes it very easy for a quick nine holes to turn into ninety!

5. Pokemon Gold (3DS)

Okay, it’s another pure re-release (but definitely not the last one in this list), this time of an ancient GameBoy Colour game with no 21st century bells and whistles added, but it was my first ever Pokemon game, I’ve sunk dozens of hours into it and its fantastic immersive world hasn’t aged a day, so definitely deserves to be in the top half of this list. Check out a more detailed post I did on this here.

6. Wipeout Omega Collection (PS4)

Before you think it, it’s a remaster and not a re-release! But anyone, I’m playing by my rules here so anything that came out this year goes! This collects some of the more recent titles, updating them with incredibly fast moving and great looking graphics, but the core gameplay remains, meaning it’s still the best futuristic racer out there and was a joy to come back to.

7. Fire Emblem Heroes (iOS)

For a free-to-play game built around loot crates, this is an incredibly generous, very focussed tactical fighting game. Production values are off the charts; it’s accessible but deep; there’s some very saucy characters, and in my 30+ hours with the game I collected the strongest possible units and rinsed every mode in the game without ever feeling I was grinding for it; without ever spending a penny.

8. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp (iOS)

This game is pointless. And that’s most of the reason I love it. I don’t care that it’s constantly (though completely unobtrusively) reminding me that I can spend money that I won’t spend. I’m quite happy waiting for stuff to appear that I can use to help out the animal people hanging around my campsite who give me money and materials to buy more stuff then wait for that to appear while I fish and catch bugs and rearrange things. The most casual, relaxing, mindless and fun waste of time I’ve played this year.

9. Resident Evil Biohazard

I’d have loved it if this didn’t have the word “Biohazard” in the title and been able to maintain the feeling of Texas Chainsaw inspired anxiousness that built up in the first few hours before the ooze started appearing. I’d also have appreciated it being a few hours shorter. But all the same it takes the series back to its horror roots, even including a nice nod to the dogs jumping through the windows in the original. It’s a lovely looking game, great attention to detail with surprisingly varied settings, and happily the puzzles aren’t too obscure, the inventory system isn’t too restrictive, and the save points aren’t too far apart.

10. Rogue Trooper Redux (PS4)

Some of the mechanics are creaking a bit by today’s standard, but this remaster (the last on this list I’m proud to announce) will bring a tear to the eye to anyone that’s not read Rogue Trooper since they were a kid in the 80’s! Okay, it’s not a patch on the Spectrum version that everyone’s forgotten ever existed first, but just to spend a few hours running and gunning across Nu-Earth and bringing back all those 2000A.D. memories makes it essential!

My Life With… Pokemon Gold – Nintendo Game Boy Colour / 3DS

My Life With… Pokemon Gold – Nintendo Game Boy Colour / 3DS

At this point you may well be expecting me to transport you back to the early 2000’s, which may have marked my time living in London or the start of my time back in my hometown of Bedford. I’d probably be engaged, having just proposed in the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. But actually, don’t expect that. Not happening this time, although by coincidence I was listening to The Smashing Pumpkin’s Machina / The Machines of God when I bought Pokemon Gold, as I might have been doing had I owned a Game Boy Colour and had the slightest interest in Pokemon the best part of two decades ago!

So as far as this post is concerned, Pokemon Gold was released for the Nintendo 3DS in September 2017, just a few weeks prior to the time of writing this. Which is a real benefit as I can remember exactly what was going on when I was playing it for a change!

The New Nintendo 2DS is my first Nintendo handheld since the Game Boy Advance SP. I’d had my eye on it since its announcement – nice price point, no crappy 3D gimmick, and it was properly portable, unlike its non-New predecessor. And what a games library! But since the aforementioned weirdo engagement is now a wife and family and a very old house in the country, by necessity I bided my time until I happened to check a bank rewards account balance for the first time in two years and realised my household direct debits had netted me £250 in available cash, so I decided the time was right!

It’s a lovely, well built machine. Everything feels solid, possibly with the exception of the hinges for the top screen at full extension, which give it a slight wobble. With access to everything ever made for the DS as well as the 3DS, there’s a good 12+ years of games I’ve missed out on, plus everything on the e-shop and Virtual Console from the older Nintendo hardware. Which I also missed out on. With the obvious caveat that all of this comes at Nintendo pricing…

How about Pokemon? As I said, zero interest ever, but with the e-shop also comes demos, and I downloaded all sorts that I knew I might be into – Mario Golf World Tour, Castlevania Mirror of Fate, Resident Evil Revelations, Monster Hunter Stories, Super Smash Bros, Dead or Alive Dimensions… But also stuff I’d obviously heard of but never had any interest in, like various Fire Emblems, Tomodachi Life, Poochy and Yoshi’s Wooly World, Hey! Pikmin, etc. And the first one I actually tried, Pokemon Sun and Moon Special Demo Version. (I did also buy Mario Tennis Open, a given based on my history with Game Boy Tennis, and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time; like Pokemon, I’ve never played a Zelda game).

Pokemon Sun and Moon Special Demo Version introduces you to a couple of characters, some city exploration and a trial involving photographing Pokemon in a dungeon, after which you’re free to explore a limited area. And that’s all it took to open my eyes!

Very shortly after that, when the Game Boy Colour Pokemon Gold and Silver appeared on the Nintendo e-shop at just £8.99, I had no hesitation jumping in whilst laying on my hotel room bed in Munich where I was with work, and within minutes realised that the early night I’d planned was going to be a long one!

The premise is massively simple – become the best Pokemon trainer in the top-down, classic JRPG world. This simplicity reflects in the gameplay as you wander from initial task to task, then city to city, capturing, training, fighting, puzzling, levelling up and evolving your growing collection of Pokemon, and managing your growing inventory of stuff and skills. But from the outset, you quickly start to realise the enormous depth to the game, and the enormous strategy to be employed in making progress.

As you travel the world, progress is charted through defeating the Gym boss in each city. With all the distractions on the way between cities, from Pokemon hiding in long grass or characters you meet on the way and challenges they put your way, to exploration of caves and dungeons, by the time you reach the next city your Pokemon collection should be in fairly good shape to take on these bosses, though after three or four it starts getting tougher. Beat the boss and you’re rewarded with badges that allow you to use Pokemon skills you’ve acquired on the way as and when you please, like cutting down trees that previously blocked your path or surfing on water Pokemon across lakes and seas to make further progress!

Every Pokemon has its own unique set of strengths and offensive, defensive and special skills that come into play, and there’s over 250 of them running wild waiting for you to find and catch them. Some of these are much rarer than others – they might only come out at night (with day and night in real-time) or in a certain cave on a certain day, or you might only be able to encounter them if you’ve come across the right fishing rod and you’re using it in the right lake. As said before, enormous depth and so much to do outside of Gym battles to become the greatest. In fact, after dozens of hours of play I’ve got an enormous list of things and places to come back to as and when I’m equipped to do so – there’s literally no end in sight, which is fantastic as this has become my go-to game whenever my fingers have nothing more grown-up on the go!

Strangely in retrospect, until just now I’ve never really considered how the game looks and sounds – it’s a Game Boy Colour game, so clearly it has a certain look, but even 20 years on it’s perfect for now. Everything is dynamic and colourful, every character is full of personality, and the battles play out with effective animations when you pull off a move. One really nice touch as you progress is your radio, which you can dial in to your own favourite stations when you get to the radio tower in one of the bigger cities if you win a quiz there, although admittedly the sound hasn’t aged as well as the graphics. But there’s so many other nice touches which I can quite believe you’ll never see, which is what really makes this game a staggering achievement.

I don’t often pre-order games, but at the time of writing Pokemon Ultra Sun and Moon is only a couple of weeks away and my experience with Pokemon Gold has me completely sold – I need this day one!

My Life With… Kane – ZX Spectrum

Like everyone else of a certain age, my memories of Saturday afternoon TV in the late 70’s up to the mid 80’s obviously start with sitting with your grandmother while she made roll-ups watching ITV’s World of Sport wrestling, then some time after the football results there was The Muppets and The Incredible Hulk, or later The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazzard and Knightrider (all of which are likely to get individual goings-over in later posts so I’ll leave it there for now). Were Airwolf and Streethawk in those late afternoon slots too? One of the reasons for doing this blog is to get all of this down before I get too senile and forget more important things like that! Anyway, you get the picture – the golden age of TV, despite there only being three channels to choose from.

My Saturday afternoons were spent with my two brothers at my Grandma’s house – she didn’t smoke roll-ups; Benson & Hedges if I remember right, and this was probably the period when she was vowing to give up if a packet of fags ever reached a Pound! We spent a lot of the time between classic TV programmes outside, climbing trees, seeing how many neighbouring garden’s fences we could chuck stuff across, fighting, and all the other good stuff kids used to be allowed to do. But even in those glorious times, sometimes the weather got too grotty, and you’d have a choice on TV of guessing which horse would win on the racing, an ancient musical starring Mario Lanza, or a black and white western like My Darling Clementine or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; High Noon or Red River. To the boy from the 70’s, nothing was more glamorous than seeing the white man slaughtering the evil Apaches. Except maybe shooting Germans. We all had a cowboy outfit, a sheriff’s badge and a collection of cap pistols and rifles. For those of us fortunate enough to holiday in Great Yarmouth, there was the Wild West show where the sheriff and his posse had a real-life shootout with a band of outlaws in what I remember to be an entire frontier town recreated on the Norfolk coast. And in 1986, Mastertronic gave us Kane on the Commodore 64!

I played this a few times on my friend Steven’s Commodore, but don’t have much recollection of that version beyond frustration from never getting far enough to ride horses like did on the second stage, but it must have made an impact because when I later got my Spectrum+2, it was the first game I went out and bought. Although the familiarity in a bewildering mass of titles available compared to the now meagre pickings for my VIC20, combined with £1.99 price tag, may also have been a factor! With a bit of practice, I soon worked out the secrets of that first stage, and soon realised I was in cowboy heaven, and some thirty years later Kane would work its way into my top twenty games of all time when I started compiling that list that inspired what you’re reading now.

fullsizeoutput_8a8.jpeg

In Kane, you’re a cowboy doing different cowboy stuff over four stages. The first stage sees you in front of a colourful Red Indian village surroumded by some even more colourful (clash inducing) mountains, armed with a bow and arrow. It was all about lining up a crosshair just in front of some birds and timing your shot to hit their undersides as they flew at different heights from left to right. The higher the bird, the more time you had to allow for the arrow to get there, less as it got closer and flew twice as fast. Kill enough, and you’re on to stage two, but if you didn’t kill a few more than enough you were still screwed because the amount dead dictated how many lives you carried on with – lives traded for lives with the injuns or something. Clever. Then you got to ride your horse across the arid western prairie, jumping over some rocks and bushes for what seemed like forever, especially if you’d missed a few birds earlier. This was all about timing again, because it was all too easy for your horse’s back foot caught on an obstacle and get thrown off if you were a fraction out, especially on the dreaded double-rocks! Or if you were on a keyboard, missing the jump completely. Eventually you got to the Wild West town for stage three, a fantastic shootout where the outlaws appeared from behind barrels, wagons, in windows or through the saloon doors, and you had a second or two to get your revolver’s sight on them and get them before they got you. Kill enough and it’s back onto your trusty steed as you sped along the side of a runaway express train to slam the brakes on.  And if you thought that the imaginatively titled “Horse Ride 1.” stage required superhuman timing, then you were in for a treat on Horse Ride 2. with some cruelly positioned rocks and cacti and stuff! Get to the front before the timer runs out and you get to start the whole game all over again!

fullsizeoutput_8a2.jpeg

I love the presentation of this game, despite there being minimal sound of any kind, and some of the most garish colours the Spectrum ever produced! And there may have been four stages, but in reality this meant not much more than four different screens. But what screens they were! You got a bit of every western ever made in them, and they all did a great job of telling your brain that you were The Duke in all his finest roles! The character design was simple but with some great animation, especially the horse accelerating from a canter to a gallop.

fullsizeoutput_8a9.jpeg

Apart from Horse Ride 2. it wasn’t the most challenging game once you’d played it a few times and worked out the timing, but every stage was satisfying in its own way, and you made your own challenges as you went round the loop again and again after saving all the train passengers, trying to kill every bird, clear every jump or shoot every baddie. Endless cowboy fun. Literally!

As much as I’d adore Red Dead Redemption many years later for finally bringing all those childhood cowboy fantasies virtually to life, it was no Kane. One of the best £1.99’s I’ve ever spent… But not quite the best. Stay tuned!

My Life With… Joe Blade – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Joe Blade – ZX Spectrum

My Catholic school education across three schools in Bedford always involved a bus journey, and starting upper school in September 1985 took the bus journey right across town (and seemingly through most of its streets) into uncharted territory to me, far north of the river. The bus stop specified on my free bus-pass was ten minutes’ walk away, but over time us paupers from the south of the river realised that the drivers were happy with a flash of the card and probably wouldn’t notice if we started going rogue and getting off the bus in the town centre and changing to a more direct one that stopped right near my house. And for the most part, it worked, though there was the double-jeopardy of the mythical inspector getting on which provided an ever constant fear!

Then there was the additional thrill of sprinting across town from one bus to the next to not miss the first one home (otherwise there was little point in the whole exercise). But as we became more experienced in being teenagers, that sprint became a leisurely stroll via our favourite shops, namely WHSmith to see if the new Computer & Video Games or Smash Hits was out, a newsagent that was the first to stock Cherry Coke, and a tiny independent games shop in the newly opened Boulevards shopping arcade that had the biggest VIC-20 section I’d ever seen! Which in a very roundabout way brings me to the point that at this time, a lot of what you bought was solely down to judging a book / record / game (I don’t think anything else to buy existed then) by its cover.

On one of these trips, on a Friday afternoon towards the end of the VIC-20’s life when magazine coverage had all but dried up, I was completely seduced by a cops and robbers game that I can’t for the life of me remember the name of, but had some huge, impressive sprites on the back of its box that I just couldn’t resist but had no money to buy. And I’ve a horrible feeling it was full price… The following morning, with funds in place, I convinced my Dad to drive me into town, then drive around while I ran in to the shop and bought it. I’m not sure if I feel worse today for making him do that or wasting what was probably several weeks of pocket money on that button-mashing turd – you played the big on-screen robber on the run from the big on-screen cop and just waggled the joystick left and right as fast as you could until your hands hurt too much and he caught you. Game over.

But sometimes judging a game by its cover worked out fine, and there’s no greater example of this than Joe Blade. I don’t think there was a lot of life left in my favourite games shop (or the too-exotic-for-Bedford Boulevards shopping arcade) when 1987 came, but once again seeing those screenshots – on a budget title no less – meant must-buy.

Joe Blade was monochrome Spectrum graphics in all their colour clash-free glory – big, detailed black sprites and environments on garish yellow, purple, green, turquoise, etc. backgrounds that made complete sense providing you didn’t think about them too much! And the sprites were so big and detailed that you could easily have mistake the distinctly moustachioed Joe for Charles Bronson hoofing Germans all about the place, even at cassette box size!

Actually, they turned out not to be Germans but the minions of the evil mastermind Crax Bloodfinger, who’s kidnapped a load of world leaders that you need to rescue. But they did look enough like German soldiers to give it the distinction of being one of the first games banned there! Once you’re in his lair, you run about the flip-screen complex shooting up the non-SS goons, collecting stuff like ammo, keys to open cell doors, food and booze for health, disguises that give you temporary immunity and bombs that you need to prime in a letter-rearranging mini-game. Once you’ve sorted all the bombs and come across the six hostages, it’s time to escape from where you began.

fullsizeoutput_72a.jpeg

The gameplay was a lot like Dan Dare (see my post on that HERE) though probably a bit less frantic in terms of gunplay (especially as you didn’t get shot by the armed enemy but lost health on contact), but those cell keys were not easy to come by and that complex was complex, so a bit of mapping on some graph paper you’d nicked from your classroom stationary cupboard was essential! Whilst the box screenshots did do some justice to the wonderfully evocative (not World War 2) scenery and humorous touches such as the goon-like prisoners and sleeping hostages slumped on the floor with their arms casually behind their heads, what they couldn’t do justice to was the superbly smooth animation, and on my +2 at least you also had the benefit of some decent sound from the 128K version.

I don’t think I ever defused all the bombs or rescued all six world leaders, or even completed my map, but as was often the case with games at the time, it wasn’t about reaching the destination, but having a total blast over and over again without caring if you ever got there. Joe Blade is up there with the best of the original budget games ever released (the untouchable Feud excluded of course), and was more stylish and playable than most full priced games at the time.