Book Review: The Games That Weren’t by Frank Gasking

Book Review: The Games That Weren’t by Frank Gasking

Towards the end of of 1985, adverts started appearing in my Computer & Video Games magazines for “the first ever computer cartoon” – Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery! And to a massive Scooby Doo fan like me, it was incredible! They were clearly Spectrum screenshots on there, but they definitely looked like nothing else, except maybe what a Spectrum port of something like Dragon’s Lair might look like… which, the following year, we’d find out was more or less the case!

Anyway, as 1985 became 1986, previews started appearing that hinted at an interactive story involving a spooky Scottish castle belonging to Shaggy’s aunt, presented as cartoon action sequences that you directed to solve the mystery. And yes, it really was like a laser-disc game crammed into a 48K Spectrum! As the months passed, the big double-page, full colour adverts kept coming, but no sign of any game, then in March 1986, in an Elite preview exclusive, C&VG said “despite what you’ve read in other magazines, Elite still plans to release its computer cartoon adventure, Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery for the 48K Spectrum,” but towards the end of the article also says that it won’t be in the “heavily advertised” form because there wasn’t enough memory left to make it playable! And, of course, what we eventually got at the end of 1986 was the fantastic, but utterly brutal Scooby Doo, an arcade-platformer take on Kung-Fu Master, with some of my favourite graphics ever on the Spectrum!

As much as I love what we finally got, I still look at the original advert and wonder what could have been… And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling 48K of memory! If only Sir Clive had come up with 128K a bit sooner it might all be different, but that’s the tale of my very first encounter with a game that weren’t. Wasn’t!

Fast forward to Christmas 2021, and I received a wonderful new book called The Games That Weren’t, written by Frank Gasking and published by my favourite retro-gaming book peddlars Bitmap Books, who are responsible for all kinds of equally wonderful stuff on my bulging bookshelves, but nothing that bulges quite as much as this 644-page hardback behemoth!

As someone that writes about games from time to time, I think I’m qualified to say that everything about this puts me to shame! The first thing you notice, the very first time you flick through it, is that it’s clearly an absolute labour of love, much like Frank’s website of the same name that he started way back in the nineties to document and find lost and unreleased games across many platforms. The next thing you notice is that it’s visually stunning – even more so than Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery! And then you realise that it’s so much more than that…

As games industry legend David Crane tells us in the foreword, this is all about games that never quite reached the game-playing public. Going all the way back to 1975 and up to 2015, the book covers 80 games that weren’t, and they weren’t for myriad reasons that all get unravelled here – flawed game design, internal politics, over-ambition, poor hardware sales, high cartridge costs or cabinet costs, failed field tests, expired licenses, not being able to fit a computer cartoon into 48K… Actually, I should say that Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery didn’t make the cut here (which gives me hope that it still might arrive one day!), but some of the tales around these unreleased games are definitely mysteries worthy of Scooby and the gang!

Having spent some time in my stack of old game magazines just get my head around enough of the Scooby Doo story to mention it here, I can really empathise with Frank’s decades-long obsession with investigating these mysteries – that 30 minutes putting together a timeline from first advert to previews, doubts, cancellations then something else emerging in its place was really fascinating! But where I’ve just included a picture of an old copy of C&VG, every game covered in The Games That Weren’t includes a load of development assets, screenshots, photos and artistic impressions – all reproduced in the very highest quality and sometimes for the first time – to illustrate the wonderfully in-depth analysis on each game.

Before we analyse that analysis, let’s quickly mention a few of those games to give us a bit of context, as well as what is probably my favourite thing about the book, which is not only discovering stuff you didn’t know existed, but discovering stuff you would have actually bought, and even seeing screenshots of it! And that’s why we’ll start with Elite on the Nintendo Game Boy, which got to prototype stage then the deal with Ocean fell through and consigned it to history; another nice feature is that for each game it tells you if it’s available to play or not… And apparently this one is, so definitely expect more from me on that in the future! We all know about Elite, but there’s an awful lot more that you probably won’t know anything about, such as Death Pit, Dick Special, Eye of the Moon, Virtua Hamster(!), Spitfire Fury and Starring Charlie Chaplin to name but a few. There’s unreleased sequels like Heart of Yesod, Star Fox 2 and, er, Gazza 2. There’s all kinds of film licenses that (possibly thankfully) never saw the light of day like The Terminator, Lethal Weapon and Waterworld, as well as other licenses like Daffy Duck and Tony Hawk’s Shred Session. And then there’s the versions of games you probably do know but never made it, like Rescue on Fractalus! or Bubble Bobble, Ridge Racer or The Last Ninja…

As I write this, the last game I played before I went to bed last night was Arcade Archives Frogger on Nintendo Switch, so I reckon that Frogger 2: Swampy’s Revenge on Nintendo 64 is the perfect place to talk about the actual meat of the game analysis you’re getting here! It starts with a title screen summarising the reason it weren’t – cartridge costs in this case – then the year it weren’t (2000), the developer, the platform and whether or not it’s available to play. Then we get some background history – why Frogger epitomises 1980s arcades, the aim of the game, its reception and its ports. Then we get into what happened next; in the case of Frogger, it obviously never stopped being released on different platforms, but there was a Hasbro remake developed by Millenium Interactive in 1997 that leads us directly into the non-sequel. When Hasbro wanted a sequel, Millenium weren’t available to do it, so they approached Interactive Studios. We then hear from Philip Oliver, and then the project’s technical manager, Matt Cloy, who talks about the team and how they set about developing the game for the Nintendo 64. We get right into the development kits and all the juicy technical details here, right from the horse’s mouth, as well as some great detail on the process of developing then moving on from the earliest designs.

This turned into very much a 3D game, in stark contrast to the overhead 2D original, with complex geometries and some wild-sounding environments that weren’t too far removed from Super Mario Galaxy, years ahead of its time. But Hasbro didn’t like it! Need something more traditional, more 2D, more like Frogger. So then we hear about how it was all stripped back, the action became more immediate to the player, and a story was introduced involving Swampy the Crocodile being jealous of Frogger’s fame and fortune! At this point we start getting some really nice detail about how the game actually played as levels took shape and started to be tested and tweaked, and then there’s some substitutions made in the team to bring on some experience and make sure the game was brought home as planned.

And then it was all brought down with a bang! Hasbro got cold feet on increasing cartridge production costs and lead times, and the prospect of any profit was becoming risky, so at 70% complete, the Nintendo 64 version was canned. Now we jump to the PlayStation, PC, Dreamcast and Game Boy Colour versions that did eventually make it into the wild, reviewed okay, but never really had a chance to sell properly because after a year Konami said they wanted it removed from sale because the licence had expired! Now we get into the fun part of years then passing, glitchy prototypes sneaking out into the hands of collectors, and later builds appearing that featured things like placeholder sounds from other games and Pac-Man styled frogspawn collecting that would never have made the final cut. Finally, we get to what happened next, where we are now with availability of the various unfinished states online, and how the developers feel about the project in retrospect. And as we’ve already discussed, all those written words are supported by some beautiful visuals, in this case a full-page unpublished advert for the game including the Nintendo 64 logo at the top, and a selection of half-page, well-curated (and well-defined) screenshots that serve perfectly well to bring the game to life. It really is an incredibly polished package, and that’s all for just one of the eighty games!

Now, not every game gets the thousands of words of research and interviews that Frogger 2 gets – though an awful lot of them do – but regardless, you can see the care, attention and passion that’s gone into every single feature on every single game. And all of this this is complemented by five purpose-built “Hardware That Wasn’t” blueprint features and a load of interviews with the likes of the aforementioned David Crane, Jeff Minter, the Oliver Twins, Matthew Smith, Geoff Crammond and many other industry big-hitters, plus an honourable mentions section on loads of other games, all in chronological order, that you can find out more about digitally.

As I flick through the book to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything, I’m so tempted just to keep going here! I happened to stop on Solar Jetman, where a wonderful Commodore 64 loading screen capture caught my eye; then Spitfire Fury, which would have been amazing to play on our school’s A-level Technology class’ exclusive Archimides; or maybe my brother would have bought Rolling Thunder for his Atari Lynx; and don’t get me started on Gauntlet for Ninendo DS!!! I just love this book! And it’s not only the quality of the written content that’s to love, but the hardcore hardback binding, the weight of the glossy paper, the definition on the mass of pictures, the bookmark ribbon, the generous font size for our ageing eyes… And of course, the real stars of the show are all these games that we never got to love, finally getting some of the recognition they deserve.

I hope in some way this also gives Frank Gasking and Bitmap Books some of the recognition they deserve too! Congratulations to all involved – you’ve come up with a masterpiece!

You’ll find The Games That Weren’t right here at Bitmap Books.

Discovering Friday the 13th on Commodore 64 & ZX Spectrum

Discovering Friday the 13th on Commodore 64 & ZX Spectrum

You often see the NES Friday the 13th game referenced in rubbish game lists, but the C64 and Spectrum versions never get a look in and I wanted to find out why!

There’s another “why” I want to look at before we answer that though… As a decades-long massive fan of both systems and the films, why am I playing these games for the first time in 2020?

Friday the 13th came to Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC in 1985, courtesy of Domark. I very much remember seeing it advertised because I cut the advert out and put it on my bedroom wall! I also very much remember the Computer & Video Games magazine review; it went along the lines of once you were past the gore of said shock advertising, the game was average, but the black and white screenshot they used was enough to put me right off. It looks like some kind of dreadful prototype of The Sims, not Hollywood’s greatest slasher!

Friday the 13th was long forgotten by the time I had a machine that could play it, and it was even longer before I saw my first Friday the 13th movie. I think I saw The Omen and The Entity in my early-ish teens thanks to the Wild West days of video rental shops, but the slasher movie passed me by until the very late eighties. I’d eventually make up for lost time though, and Jason Vorhees remains this 3000+ horror movie collector and general nerd’s favourite genre icon!

As many times as I’ve now seen every movie, the game remained absolutely forgotten for decades, and it took one of the aforementioned crappy NES game videos to start me digging again! I think it was a simple C64 walkthrough being recommended, but I didn’t even click it – I just made a note to look up the Spectrum version at some point.

As well as the advert, the box did its very best to lure in curious. And I’m not just taking about that immediate red-flag to me of C64 screens being used on a (relatively speaking big-budget) Spectrum inlay! There was a stark warning that before you play the game, close all doors, windows and curtains – yes, curtains have always been Jason’s kryptonite! Then you have to turn out the lights, but can use a candle if necessary – possibly down to some of the garish colours on the Spectrum version burning your eyes through some kind of light overload. Then you have to make sure granny isn’t in the room – I expect she slipped the tenner into your hand that paid for the game and you don’t want her to know you wasted it on this crap! Then turn up the volume to the max! Now, of all these tips, don’t do that. I’d there’s one thing worse than the graphics, it’s the sound, whether the horrendous (not in a good way) scream sound as one of your mates dies somewhere on the Spectrum, or the dreadful context-sensitive nursery rhymes on C64! Speaking of sound, the box also includes a competition to win a monitor if you can identify ten of the noises you heard while on holiday in Crystal Lake. Good luck identifying more than one of them!

To Domark’s credit, they clearly knew they’d spent a load of money on the license but had a stinker on their hands, and they did their best to fix that by chucking a load more money at all kinds of provocative marketing. The game pitch is pretty decent on the surface too… Jason is hiding out in the forest in his “filthy grotto” waiting to avenge his mother’s death when a bunch of teenagers turn up to party at nearby “eerie” (that’s what several massacres will do – if only they’d had Domark’s marketing people) holiday camp. He dons his hockey mask, sharpens his machete and gets ready for a “razor-edged massacre” (nice)!

From there, I’m slightly at odds with how the box then describes the gameplay loop… “You must warn everyone that the mad murderer is on the rampage and lead them all to safety – without, of course, losing your head!” The reality is that you’re going to wander around a few screens that include a farm, some archery targets, a church and lots of gravestones and lots of trees looking for a weapon then hitting everyone in sight with it trying to work out which one is Jason so you can keep hitting him until he’s dead. And while you’re doing that, Jason is wandering around killing everyone. If you die or they all die (indicated by their avatar at the bottom, of the screen turning into a gravestone) then it’s game over.

Here we need to talk specifics about each version because they go about things – by design or not – in slightly different ways. On C64, Jason is disguised as one of your fellow campers. As you walk around the various locations, you might notice someone acting a bit suspicious, whether they’re following someone else or simply just in the act of murdering them or you. Assuming you’ve found a weapon, this is your cue to hit him, and assuming you’ve found Jason, he’ll turns from a camper into a guy in a black outfit.

And that’s about all there is to it. If you’re lucky, you’ll work it out in a few minutes, but in the game I eventually beat Jason, I was walking around forever, exploring the same places over and over again but never finding him. And once you’re down to a couple of your friends left alive, the frequency of death has all but dried up and there’s really not very much happening. You just walk about, with only minor tension that all this walking about for ages is potentially about to end in time running out because everyone else is dead.

Kill the man Vorhees and you get a game over screen telling you he’s dead, but for how long? Well, having then played the Spectrum version to completion too, there’s an easy answer to that…

There’s not a lot to the C64 version, but it has a degree of 1985 charm to it. The Spectrum version doesn’t only have no charm (which even the bizarre use of magenta on the brick walls can’t fix), but it’s a buggy stinker! Eventually you’ll work out that rather than potentially being disguised as one of your friends in this version, Jason is the guy that looks the same as you. If you get confused which is which, don’t worry, he’s the one who can walk through stuff like trees and haystacks. Get close and he’ll batter you, no escape – he’s got some very sticky pixels and that’s all your hard work wandering about these ultra-uninteresting landscapes wasted! Naturally, as you might think, he can also attack you from any direction. You, on the other hand, can only attack if you’re on his left because no matter which way you’re heading, your weapon only comes out to play on the right!

When you do get on his left, there’s absolutely no feedback that you’re actually connecting with him. Your score (which is irrelevant anyway) doesn’t even change like the C64 version. You just keep maybe hitting him and nothing happens – which, thinking about it, is how a fight with Jason Vorhees probably should turn out, but it doesn’t make for a great game! Anyway, after far more experimenting than the game deserves, I worked out that the axe will damage him even if you don’t know its working until he’s dead. The chainsaw might offer the glamour, but leave it; spear things, pitchforks, knives and other things you can chuck at him seem to do nothing. That’s all assuming you can actually pick the weapon up because it’s quite often somewhere like a top corner and the screen has flipped before you can get close enough to trigger picking it up.

And while your either on the hunt for Jason, or more likely running away, you’re also going to get stuck on scenery all the time, which is the exact opposite to Jason who can walk into fences and simply vanish into thin air. And quite often you’ll be trying to traverse what appears to be thin air between screens but you’ll get stuck on something that isn’t there regardless.

Spectrum Friday the 13th is just about without merit, but I’d definitely recommend a go on the Commodore version if you’re a fan of the films. It’s a very C64-looking game circa 1985, which I always find somehow comfortable, but like so many other licenses of the time, is just bland once you get past the fancy box art. And that kind of answers my original question about why these versions never get a mention nowadays too, but in the case of these systems there were so many greater crimes against licenses – Highlander is always a good place to start there – and there were so many worse games spanning well over a decade of their lifetimes… Sadly, Friday the 13th is just very forgettable.

Most Hours Spent in Gaming

Most Hours Spent in Gaming

Here’s some more pure self-indulgence just because I can’t resist a list, so feel free to go and do something less boring instead! My recent examination of Elite versus Perils of Willy (here) – as well as passing the 500 hour mark in Animal Crossing on Switch – got me thinking about what games I’ve put the most time into over the decades. There’s no question about the first two, both running into thousands and thousands of hours:
1. Kick Off on Atari ST
2. Elite on Atari ST

Kick Off is my second favourite game of all time. I can’t imagine the hours I spent either playing against my brothers or in the complex single player leagues and cups I invented where every player had a name long before that kind of thing was a thing. We turned it into far more than a top-down football game, and it extended the life of my Atari ST into the late nineties, way beyond when the first PlayStation should have consigned it into the loft.

Elite is also well within my top ten games ever, and unusually for me, that opinion is not exclusive to me either! Early experiences of the space-trading sim on the BBC astounded then fascinated me, but this version absolutely captivated me. A game that never knew there were limits from the outset, and equally there were no limits to playing it, pretty much forever.

Building out my top ten, I’ve got some other contenders that immediately spring to mind in no particular order yet:
– Pro Evolution Soccer 4 on PS2
– Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 on PSP
– Destiny on PS4
– No Man’s Sky on PS4
– New Star Soccer on iOS
– Animal Crossing New Horizons on Switch
– Football Manager on C64 on Pocket PC
– Tetris on Game Boy

Thinking out loud, I reckon Pro Evo on PSP then Tetris then Pro Evo on PS2 make up the top five. The only actual point of reference (at 500 hours) is Animal Crossing, and I’m going with that next, followed by Destiny and No Man’s Sky. To round out the top ten we’re going pre-smartphone, emulated Football Manager, and its spiritual descendant (and on actual smartphone) New Star Soccer.

My wife used to go nuts about my PSP always being in my hand every evening, but actually I think it was the fact I only ever played Pro Evo that annoyed her! It was full season after full season on there, even though it was about as predictable as old-school Scottish Premier League, with only a couple of teams ever in the reckoning! Actually, in a strange twist of fate about seven years later, my top goal scorer’s son and my son would become best friends in real life!

I am very familiar with the Tetris Effect. Not the game (for motion sickness reasons), but the phenomenon. I was playing Tetris every waking and non-waking hour like it or not! I loved my Game Boy, and Tetris never stopped being an integral part of its joy, through my sixth form years, university and buying at least three houses!

PS2 Pro Evo was the first to rekindle that Kick Off experience, and now everything looked just like on Match of the Day, and like on PSP later, I didn’t need to keep score for my league and cup fixes. And that Master League was just awesome – no matter how good you got, it always seemed to come down to the wire between you and one or two rivals!

I very rarely buy a game day one, but I knew that with Animal Crossing New Horizons I’d be getting incredible enjoyment and incredible value from whatever the asking price. In under two weeks I’d played more than 50 hours, and we’re now over ten times that. It’s the ultimate in gaming escapism, making the mundane as addictive as crack!

Destiny might have delivered less than it promised in the eyes of many, but not me! The shooting is as good as it’s ever got in any game, but the continuous search for upgrade materials through a continuous search for whatever was going on in that time and place you were in provided exactly the same addictive quality as Animal Crossing; it’s a different type of mundane, but you still can’t stop! Until you move to the country and have terrible internet…

Given what I’ve said about Elite, it’s no surprise that infinite space-trading discovery adventure No Man’s Sky rounds out my top ten, and it’s a game where tinkering eventually killed it for me. I was so happy with this game when it came out – unlike the rest of the world – and the first few major updates added loads to the experience that maybe should have been there previously. But the updates kept coming, and still keep coming to this day. And the one that made my sprawling moon base end up floating in the air and completely inaccessible was the beginning of a sadly quick ending.

Football Manager was one of the first games I played on my friend Paul’s Spectrum, then played it endlessly when I got my own, but it was on that forgotten pre-smartphone gadget the Pocket PC is where I spent the most time on this. It was great for emulating the C64, and this game was great for emulation. And it’s another that used to drive my wife crazy for all the aforementioned reasons!

Moving from football manager to player, New Star Soccer on iOS is one of the most addictive games I’ve ever played, to the point that in the end I knew I had a problem and had to go cold turkey! Unfortunately (or fortunately, for my sanity) it’s now a great example of a premium game destroyed by free-to-play mechanics. As well as excessive tinkering. Again.

I’m mostly happy with my top ten, but there’s also a few wildcards that I’m struggling to quantify versus the others; I just have a hunch that they might also be up there too!
– Snoopy Tennis Game & Watch
– Alto’s Adventure on iOS
– V-Rally 3 on Game Boy Advance
– Game Dev Story on iOS

Snoopy Tennis was ubiquitous in my hands in the first half of the eighties until I got my VIC-20. Likewise in the early 2000’s, I was travelling loads and always had V-Rally on the go on my GBA, and have barely taken a break from playing it since. And by 2015 I was travelling insane miles all over the world, and Alto was my plane and hotel time-killer… Until it was almost usurped by its successor in 2018 then along came Sega Ages Out Run on Switch a year later! Game Dev Story on iPhone figures here somewhere too, but in a much more concentrated time period – I went completely nuts on that for a couple of months when it came out; also one of the most addictive games I’ve ever played!

As an aside, I can probably pick out my longest narrative-driven play-throughs without too much thought, and because they weren’t long ago I even know the timings:
1. The Witcher 3 + some DLC on PS4 – 95 hours
2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on Switch – 90 hours
3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – 80 hours

None of my long games list or my wildcards are much of a surprise to me. Unsurprisingly! But what I’d never thought about before was how many of these are football-related! I know your typical FIFA player is probably out-playing anything on my feeble list here every single year, but I don’t play stuff like that. Apart from the 50% of these games seemingly being stuff like that of sorts!

Wow. This wasn’t supposed to turn into an identity crisis! And let’s not even go to why a 48-year old man is spending 500 hours playing Animal Crossing in under six months… But ignoring all of that, I’m okay with representing on Atari ST with my two big hitters, and Kick Off is still my second favourite game of all time and Elite is still in my top ten, and that’s pretty cool, so let’s just stop there where everything is good with the world!

Favourite Sights in All of Gaming – Now The Top 10 (and more…)

Favourite Sights in All of Gaming – Now The Top 10 (and more…)

Ever since I put together my list of favourite sights in all of gaming, a few weeks ago at the time of writing, I’ve been giving more favourite sights in other games a bit of thought, and we’re definitely in a position now where we can add some more to the list and make up a top ten!

You can read about the original top five here, but just to recap…

1. The road opening out in the first stage of arcade Out Run
2. The sunset background in level two of arcade P-47
3. Olli & Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle’s second screen on ZX Spectrum
4. The sunset background in level two of PC Engine Victory Run
5. Mega Drive Streets of Rage 2 third stage pirate ship

I struggled a bit to get far beyond a top five previously, but did give a single honourable mention to Super Castlevania IV’s ghost and glitter and gold level, also known as Stage IX, also known as The Treasury, so it’s only fair that we start right there at our new number six favourite sight in all of gaming!

I could probably make up another top ten only using sights from Super Castlevania IV on SNES! And actually, before I came up with Stage IX, my initial thought was climbing the famous Castlevania steps up to the final boss with the moon behind the castle. Absolutely stunning, and in every Castlevania this sight is an indicator that your’ve nearly made it! If I had to choose any game world to live in, it’s this one (or maybe Silent Hill… more later)! I absolutely adore the unique gothic art-style, the sumptuous colours and the sheer imagination. The game has already put you through the ringer by the time you get to Stage IX, but seeing this unique environment compared to everything you’ve been through before is like a reset, refreshing you for the last push! The ghosts that float up all around the screen are harmless but remind you that in Castlevania, all that glitters – and there’s a lot here that does – might not always be gold. What is gold, though, is this little tip – jump on any treasure chest in this level 256 times and you’ll be rewarded with a big meat to boost your health. It’s all just glorious, unique in the game, and you’re welcome!

If I ever do a list about gaming music, that level in Castlevania might figure too (though it might have some competition from Symphony of the Night), but what would definitely figure – and probably right at the top of the list – would be Commando on the Commodore 64. And that’s where we heading now in our favourite sights list too! This is a mid-eighties vertically-scrolling run and gun arcade conversion, where your commando (who is more Rambo than Commando) is shooting up the enemy, chucking grenades and freeing hostages. When it first came out, like many kids on many games of the time, I spent most of my time in the first stage. And that didn’t matter, of course! And at the end of that first stage, you’re clearing out a few last soldiers as you reach a huge set of double-gates. As you get close, they spring open and all hell breaks loose as masses of enemy soldiers rush you all at once. You’d start off getting into a good position to spray them down with bullets from the side, then it was a case of just never stop moving, and should one of the enemies come face-to-face with your rifle, take them out! If you’re lucky you won’t get killed by the last guy left – which seemed to be what happened most times – and you’ll run through the gates into stage two. But if you don’t, no worries, because every time you get there you’ll get that same sense of anticipation and exhileration as those gates swing spring apart and all those guys break through!

Before we move on, I’m going to quickly mention the advert for Commando too. Obviously, the advert for Barbarian was the greatest gaming advert of all time ever, closely followed by its sequel. But, for the purpose of this discussion, let’s pretend there’s no adverts featuring Page Three stunner Maria Whittaker wearing a couple of scraps of metal… As dire as that world might be, the Commando advert – complete with what appears to be a hand-painted screenshot – is definitely one my favourite gaming adverts.

I’m not sure I can write many more words about Silent Hill 2 than I did already here! I think it’s the greatest horror game of all time, which I’d also say about its predecessor if this didn’t exist! The original Silent Hill was probably as famous for its fog as its sequel is for Pyramid Head, but this was mostly there to hide graphical limitations of the original PlayStation; it just happened to create an incredible atmosphere while it did it! The second game, on the PlayStation 2, didn’t have those limitations, but it did have fog… the absolute best fog in any game to this day! At the very start of the game, you notice wisps of fog swirling around you, and then you begin your descent, and then the fog starts to envelope you. And when you’re moving down towards the town and slowly become completely surrounded by this brilliant, multi-greyed, almost living and breathing entity, you suddenly realise that you’re really back in Silent Hill. And that’s a wonderful realisation in a wonderful moment!

In 2020, Star Wars: Squadrons came very close to the thrill of flying an X-Wing, but a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, something else came even closer! When you sat down in the sit-down Star Wars arcade cabinet in 1983, you were Luke Skywalker climbing into the cockpit of an X-Wing. And you’d never seen graphics like this before – you were in a 3D colour vector dogfight approaching the Death Star, then you were navigating your way across the surface of the Death Star, and then, in one of the most exhilerating moments you’ll ever come across in the history of gaming, you dropped down into the trench! You’re being shot at from side-mounted cannons and you’re avoiding beams up and down and in the middle, and it all feels wonderfully claustrophobic and so dangerous, until that moment of absolute panic when you need to fire your proton torpedo down the exhaust port. “Great shot kid, that was one in a million” then rings out as the Death Star explodes and you start all over again with the difficulty ramped up. Never before did a few coloured lines spark so much imagination!

We’re closing out our top ten with a game that took the giant leap into filling-in those coloured lines, and not only that, but doing something else you’d never seen the like of in a game before… especially a racing game! I have absolutely no recollection of Hard Drivin’ in any arcade, but it was a huge deal when the conversions hit in 1990, and the undisputed highlight of Christmas that year was the Atari ST version (more on that here)! Even though I’d never played it before, like everyone else that played it, I knew exactly what I was looking out for the very first time I loaded it up. Go up the hill from the start, do a right towards the Stunt course, take the bridge (again and again until you realise the speed limit signs at the side of the road aren’t just there for decoration), one more right, and there it is in all it’s majesty – the legendary loop-the-loop! I still think it’s a technical marvel every time I play it, and I still every time I go around it I still wonder quite how I did it! And there you were thinking I was going to say the cow that moos when you run into it!

As we had an honourable mention in our previous top five, which is now our number six, before I summarise the full top ten I just want to award a replacement honourable mention! I struggled to not include this, but if I had included it, I’d have struggled to decide exactly what I was not going to include, or, indeed, what from this game I would! Before stuff like Halo (RIP) or Uncharted or Tetris or various Marios became system sellers on their respective consoles, a game called Defender of the Crown was exactly that on the Atari ST. I don’t think there was ever a graphical leap between computer or console generations like that one. One minute you’re prodding monochrome ghosts in Scooby Doo on the Spectrum, and the next you’re looking at this jaw-dropping vista with the most realistic medieval castle you’ve ever seen recreated on anything!

I’m also awarding another honourable mention because if the first instalment had one, then surely this one deserves one too? This time we’re talking about the arcade version of Gradius II, known as Vulcan Venture outside of Japan. I’ve dabbled with Gradius and its offshoots (such as Salamander, also known as Life Force) for years, and I’m equally terrible at all of them, but fortunately this sight comes midway through the first level, so even I get to have a gander! This is a 1988 side-scrolling power-up shooter, and you’re quickly dodging these stunning suns that fire-breathing fire serpents occasionally slither out of. Then at one point you’re surrounded by three of these fiery planets and it just looks terrifyingly beautiful. If only I could get past the flaming boss at the end of the level, because who knows what incredible sights lie ahead?

Finally, unless I think of anything else that urgently needs to be included in the next five minutes (like stage one of 3D Fantasy Zone II W, or a mass of ghosts in Gauntlet, or the cemetery in Resident Evil 4, for example), I’m going to further preview what’s potentially already turned into the inevitable top fifteen! It would be be here right now – and in all probability be a lot more than something after the honourable mentions too – except I reckon there’s a better version of it waiting in the arcade game, and that’s the wonderful scene from Stage V of Splatterhouse on PC-Engine with the flying scarecrow pumpkin skeleton thing and it’s bony zombie army. I’ve just never got that far in the arcade game, but there’s a challenge for me one fine day…

In the meantime, let’s just run down our all new top then!

1. The road opening out in the first stage of arcade Out Run
2. The sunset background in level two of arcade P-47
3. Olli & Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle’s second screen on ZX Spectrum
4. The sunset background in level two of PC Engine Victory Run
5. Mega Drive Streets of Rage 2 third stage pirate ship
6. Super Castlevania IV ghost and glitter and gold level (Stage IX)
7. Gates opening at the end of C64 Commando first stage
8. When the fog engulfs you at the start of Silent Hill 2 on PS2
9. Dropping into the trench in Star Wars arcade (sit-down)
10. The loop-the-loop in Atari ST Hard Drivin’

As a final aside, when I was playing Star Wars again recently to get some screenshots, I noticed something that I’ve never noticed before in all these years! After you’ve done you’re business in the trench, check out the Death Star just before it explodes… May the Force be with you!

Discovering 4×4 Offroad Racing on ZX Spectrum

Discovering 4×4 Offroad Racing on ZX Spectrum

Very prominent screenshots from another system were something I became accustomed to when I had a VIC-20, but by the time I’d had a Spectrum +2 for a while I’d get a bit suspicious when what were clearly C64 screenshots were plastered all over the box. In the case of 4×4 Offroad Racing, you can kind of see why they did it though!

That said, back in the November 1988 issue of Computer & Video Games, their 47% review of that version ended with an update, saying that US Gold were unhappy with the C64 release, and the Spectrum and Amstrad versions would contain “vast improvements” when they eventually arrived.

Maybe they spent all their time on vast improvements on the Amstrad version, because let’s be clear, the only reason we’re here is the Spectrum version stinks! Sinclair User gave it 40% and Crash were slightly more impressed, awarding 42%. I think they were both generous to say the least, with their main concerns being loads of loading, and its attempts to mix some racing strategy with arcade racing falling flat and doing neither in any interesting way.

I do have that copy of C&VG, though my own recent history with this was simply coming across a very garish Spectrum screenshot on social media and being intrigued. And here we are! I’m not going to review it, but I would like to give you a commentary of my first (and last) impressions if you’ll allow!

After a decent loading screen, you’re straight into a very uninspiring list of the four “toughest, roughest” course locations and a helpful description of the terrain you can expect in brackets next to it. From what I can tell, that terrain is exactly the same regardless of the description, apart from either one or both colours you get on the screen (you read that right) changing…

1. Baja (Rough Desert). Yellow and red monochrome.
2. Death Valley (Desert). Same as rough desert but yellow and black.
3. Georgia (Mud & Hills). Same as rough desert and desert but green and black.
4. Michigan (Winter). Same as rough desert, desert and mud & hills but white and blue.

And everything in every course is genuinely those same two colours – car, road, background, obstacles, other racers…

After some more loading (and it won’t stop there) it’s time to choose your utility vehicle. There’s several, there’s lots of stats about each, and again, it’s all very uninspiring and won’t make the slightest difference to anything!

You are then a guy that looks like a darts player from the eighties wandering about outside some shops. He’s wearing some strange high-heeled shoes. You can walk into the Custom Shop to buy a bumper and something else I couldn’t work out the identity of. Then you can walk to the Auto Mart to buy extra fuel, springs and stuff like that. All of this is like a bad version of Ghostbusters. Eventually you work out that you then need to walk right to the right edge of the screen (rather than walk to your new car which is parked outside the shops) and press fire to race. This bit looks a bit like a bad Everyone’s a Wally game, and is utterly pointless. Even the next multi-load is more interesting!

Finally we’re at whatever race we chose ages ago. Winter is blue and white and is the only one you’ll have any recollection of choosing. Your car looks like it was programmed in BASIC.

Once you’re underway, you’ll notice there’s no car physics in evidence. Driving feels like moving a slider left and right. Which is precisely what you’re doing and there’s no attempt to disguise it. I think a lot of racing games move the track rather than the car, and this might be a very good example of why that trick exists!

The sound doesn’t help with any potential suspension of disbelief. You’ll find the garish monochrome graphics are perfectly complemented by completely monotone engine sounds regardless of the high or low gear you’re in. Every race is just never-ending drone!

In every course, the main obstacle is the cactus in the middle of the track every few seconds. If you hit the cactus you explode. That’s why you have three lives in a racing game in case you were wondering. You also get potholes or piles of stones or exploding blades of grass or something to avoid (like a rubbish Buggy Boy), and there’s more obstacles on the track than other racers.

There’s a lot of hills and valleys in this game. These are signified by a line on the road then the screen violently shifting, and most of the car disappearing off the top of bottom of the screen.

You also get a lot of rivers – and sometimes something slightly wider than a river – on your courses. Now, I was always impressed reading about the scale of some of the American rivers that the old pioneers used to struggle to cross on their way west, but some of these here are seemingly more ocean than river. Anyway, often when you drive through a river on any level you get stuck, and unless you’re prepared to slowly waggle the joystick left and right and up at the same time for several minutes (assuming there is a shore in sight which isn’t always the case), you’re better off just shutting down and loading the whole game again. Or just playing something else! And I’ve no idea how I worked that out or persevered in doing it once I did during my very short playtime!

The road sometimes forks like Out Run. I’m not sure if it means anything, but it’s a bit of variety I suppose. Similarly, but of more concern in a racing game, is whether or not your race position means anything. It was, admittedly, the last thing on my mind until I noticed it for the first time on the Ghostbusters-like screen you also get when something goes wrong. I’m also not sure what triggers that – your damage indicators are something else that seem meaningless most of the time. Anyway, whatever that most important problem is, now you’re here you can try and fix it (which seems possible by clicking random icons whether you bought the right gear in the Everyone’s a Wally stage or not).

Back to your race position, I didn’t notice it anywhere else, but as I said, like many things in this game I’m not sure it means anything anyway! The courses are so long and monotonous that you’re unlikely to ever get to the end of one, let alone worry about where you came. And all of the opponents are as non-descript and seemingly as uninterested as you are, so what does it matter which one comes first! It’s like those scenes in The Matrix with all the same people fighting each other. Everyone wins or no one wins or no one cares. Actually the only winner here is the cactus. Cacti. Steer clear!

On paper this isn’t a million miles away from Victory Run on PC-Engine. For a system not known for its great racers, this is a great racer. In fact, it’s a toss up between Victory Run and Pac-Land for my favourite game on the system. Anyway, if you like the sound of this and fancy a bit of spare part management in your racing, you’re far better off admiring a garish screenshot of Spectrum 4×4 on social media then going there instead!

The Battle of 1984: Perils of Willy vs Elite!

The Battle of 1984: Perils of Willy vs Elite!

Back in October 1984, as was usual, I was avidly flicking through a friend’s new issue of Computer & Video Games magazine. A couple of months later I’d be starting an almost decade-long collection of my own, but for now reading it second-hand was just fine because devouring almost every word together was part of the fun!

And I very much remember this issue for one reason – there was a kind of review feature on the Amstrad CPC, which had come out in April that year, and there was screenshot of a ghost in front of a castle that I thought I could program on my Commodore VIC-20, so I duly borrowed the magazine and if I remember right I actually did it, though any evidence is long since gone!

Flicking through it again more recently, exactly 36 years later in fact, just past the CPC ghost castle and the feature review of Avalon on the Spectrum (a game I still can’t get excited about), a couple of reviews jumped right out at me from the very same page. I’m sure that 12-year old me took them in at the very least, and one of them might have even influenced a purchase I’d be making a few months down the line, but I’d certainly have had no concept of the significance of these games to me as a 48-year old with his utterly nerdy but highly curated (and very extensive) list of his favourite games of all time!

The first of those games was Perils of Willy for the VIC-20 (+16K Expanded). You’re Willy of Miner Willy from Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy fame over on the Spectrum, and you’re in for a brutal platformer as you travel home from a boozy night out, collecting musical notes that are hanging in the air and avoiding manic geese and stuff on the way. There’s no doubt it’s still my favourite game on the VIC-20, and overall it sits at seventeen in my all time favourite games list! I’ve written a load on this here, and also on the 2020 Spectrum port here.

What I’ve not written about elsewhere (yet) is the other game that jumped out at me. This one is also a bit special to me and – possibly more-so than Perils of Willy – is a bit special to lots of other people too… Elite for the BBC B computer! I think it was my friend Thomas that had a BBC, and assuming it was I remember watching him play Elite a couple of years later, fascinated by the enormous scale and scope of it all. And it was definitely him that years later copied it for me on the Atari ST, and lent me the 64 page manual that was then illicitly photocopied so I could answer the “first word on page x” security question every time you loaded it up! It is also definitely that wonderful version of the original limitless space-trading adventure that sits at number nine in my favourite games of all time list!

My lovingly curated favourite games list now numbers 200, and as I look at it now I can see the final game on there is Southern Belle on the Spectrum (which I covered here), and now I’m thinking that can’t be right so will no doubt be spending hours poring over it again later! There’s no way I like Tai-Pan at 199 more than Southern Belle. Outrageous! And to give it some context, that’s two hundred out of thousands of games played since the seventies. Super Mario Bros. didn’t make the cut. Ocarina of time is there but doesn’t crack the first hundred. My list isn’t a normal list and it’s certainly not easy to get into!

Which makes those two games, reviewed on a single page in the November 1984 issue of Computer & Video Games magazine, very special to me indeed, but how did they fare with them?

Perils of Willy is alright by C&VG! They’re impressed by faithful transition of the Willy character from the Spectrum, and seem to like the gameplay set-up because it let’s them make willy jokes. They talk about the enemy dogs and balloons, though I think they do underplay quite how nasty these things are. This really is a tough-as-nails old-school platformer, even by 1984 standards; though having just been playing Hunchback on the Spectrum as I write this, it certainly wasn’t the only one! They conclude by saying it’s not as good as Manic Miner or Jet Set Willy (but I don’t see either of them on my list!), but it is one of the best “climbing” games they have seen on the VIC-20. I like how descriptive reviewers used to get before “platforming” became a generic term, which can’t of been much after this?

Anyway, here’s the scores they awarded Perils of Willy:
Graphics 7
Sound 8
Value 7
Playability 7

Elite next, and let’s keep in mind, this might be number nine in my list, but has regularly topped proper best game ever lists for decades! I absolutely love how this review starts… “Put simply, Elite is a flight simulation game for people who can’t normally get to grips with flight simulations.” I also love that almost 50% of what in retrospect might be deemed one of the most important games they ever reviewed is dedicated to the manual, the reference card with commands on it and the 48-page novel you also get in the box. They gush over the graphics, and rightly so, as this was some pioneering 3D going on here, right on the BBC B! One of the BBC computer designers, Sophie Wilson, once called Elite “the game that couldn’t have been written” and C&VG also point out its complexity – possibly the most complex game ever produced on any system. Quaintly, they also mention the ability to save the game because “it’s going to take some time to complete the mission.” I’m assuming they hadn’t “completed” it when they wrote the review! Then in a final bizarre twist, they invite readers to submit their high scores to them…

Here’s the scores they awarded Elite:
Graphics 10
Sound 5
Value 7
Playability 7

As a quick scores on the doors, Elite wins outright on graphics, Perils of Willy sounds better, they both offer exactly the same amount of value for your pocket money, and they are both equally good to play. Where to begin…

No discussion needed about graphics. Perils of Willy is a 2D climbing game on the VIC-20. Its dogs and geese are among the best looking on the system, and there’s some nice animation going on in the balloons. I’ve also always loved the way certain sections of floor fall away from under you as you walk over them. But they’re not the best graphics on the machine – Jetpac and Skramble spring to mind at definite 8 out of 10’s – but I reckon for the end of 1984 and a bit too much sprite flickering, that 7 is about right. Equally, 10 is about right for Elite! The wireframe 3D models flicker a little, but apart from that just look at it now and everything still moves so smoothly, and that hyperspace jump is still a treat! There’s also loads going on in your cockpit, with the dual radar and no less than fourteen different indicators surrounding it. And 3D like this back in 1984 was just jaw-dropping. Incredible stuff!

Sound is a little more interesting! Elite’s sound is functional and nothing more. There’s not a great deal going on when you’re not shooting stuff and 5 out of 10 might be a point or so on the low side in my view, but is in the right ballpark. Over on Perils of Willy, we’ve got 8 out of 10… And I can only assume that’s for sheer amount of sound rather than quality!!! If I remember correctly, there’s a quite jarring death sound that is perfectly apt, and a beep when you collect a musical note. That’s your sound effects. But on top of those is a non-stop loop of the first 8-9 seconds of a VIC-20 – with its three pulse wave and one white noise generators – rendition of the opening of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. And it will drive you completely nuts! Actually, play it enough and you desensitise, but it really is a piece of work on your ears!

With the benefit of 2020 vision, if I was reviewing these games I’d be giving them both 10 out of 10 for value! As I write I’ve just gone over 500 hours in Animal Crossing, but Elite – together possibly exclusively with Kick Off – would be in the several thousands. Granted that’s the Atari ST version, but I don’t think it would have been much different if I’d owned a BBC back in 1984. No one is playing thousands of hours of any Willy game, but there’s no doubt I got my £5.95’s worth out of it! It was the first and possibly only game I ever left a computer secretly running for days for because, unlike Elite, you couldn’t save it and I wanted to get the most out of my infinite lives poke! But also unlike Elite, I still play Perils of Willy regularly today! Back to C&VG’s scores though, in the eyes of a normal person I reckon Elite is being a little harshly scored here. But I’m also not sure they got what Elite actually was when they were reviewing it – that review really doesn’t stink of greatest game of all time material!

Finally, we have nice subjective playability. I’ve always read that as how good something is to play. And I don’t think you can really compare how good a platformer is to play versus a space-trading sim, but again, I’ve got to veer on the opinion that Elite is being hard done by here – as said just now, 7 out of 10 for anything does not scream best (or even ninth best) game ever! I’m wondering now if the fact that Elite was so ground-breaking had a negative effect on some of these early reviews; that people just didn’t get it, or alternatively couldn’t quite comprehend the vastness and complexity of what they had in their hands because they’d simply never seen anything like it before. It didn’t just define the space-trading with a bit of combat sim genre, but also defined a lot about video game design full stop. As the only reference point for gameplay in any context in this review, the playability score surely has to be as much higher as it can be! Subjectively speaking of course… Oh yeah, while we’re being subjective, 7 out of 10 also stinks for Perils of Willy!

In summary, I actually love that my old VIC-20 favourite Perils of Willy is scoring on par with Elite in my favourite old computer games magazine! But before we say goodnight, let’s quickly see how other games reviewed in the same issue stack up against one (two!) of the greatest games of all time!

As mentioned before, wizardy adventure Avalon on the Spectrum is this month’s marquee game, and apart from graphics it’s beating Elite significantly on every front. As an aside, I remember being really impressed by how this looked on the Commodore 64 when it was reviewed, but the Spectrum version just never did it for me. Maybe I need to pull myself together and give it a proper go now I have a proper yardstick for how good it is! American election sim Election Trail on C64 is next, and whilst they conclude by saying it’s not a game you’d buy for its entertainment value, it’s still out-scoring Elite on playability! As is the Spectrum port of one of my Atari 2600 favourites, Enduro. Falcon Patrol 2 on C64 wins out on everything except graphics, as does Pi in ‘Ere on the Spectrum, which looks a bit like Boulderdash but I can’t say I’ve ever really paid much attention to! The reviews are getting more brief now as we move down the pecking order of C&VG excitement, but Spectrum Piromania, Terrahawks and decent Manic Miner-a-like Frank n Stein, as well as BBC Crawler, are also outperforming Elite on all but graphics. Now a bit more colour on the page again, and Bird Mother and Gumshoe on C64 are trouncing all over Elite and even coming close on graphics with 9 out of 10 each. Same for the full-page (and fully deserved) spread on Pyjamarama, which is in all honesty the first recognisable game for most that we’ve covered here in a while! The Wally (not Willy) games on the Spectrum were always lookers, and that deserves its 9 out of 10 for everything except sound, which only got 8. Next we’ve got Activision classic Zenji on the C64! It’s a maze game that looks like something on an old Atari machine, and despite being “all in all a fairly dull game” is still more playable than Elite. And Perils of Willy!

Moving into the special section they’ve got this month for MSX games, which strangely has its own scoring system, we can still easily conclude that Comic Bakery is better than Elite on all fronts except a narrow miss on graphics. And finally, also on MSX, we have classic Konami penguin ice-skater Antarctic! Again, not too hard to draw a conclusion…
Additive quality 10
Lasting appeal 8
Graphics 10
Overall 10

Keep in mind that even though lasting appeal is all that’s stopping it being the perfect game, it’s still out-lasting the thousands of hours worth of gameplay available in Elite and the decades of challenge in Perils of Willy! In the words of the reviewer, “I recommend this family game to anyone who has an MSX computer. It’ll be remembered as a classic.” And I want you to remember that the next time anyone tells you Elite is the greatest game of all time!

Discovering Out Run on Sega Game Gear

Discovering Out Run on Sega Game Gear

The greatest thrill for me in Out Run is when the road opens out into a majestic six lane coastal highway, just a few seconds into the very first stage. In fact, that moment is my favourite sight in all of gaming (which you can read about here).

The Game Gear version doesn’t do that. In fact, it takes a while before you even realise it’s a coastal highway at all, let alone anything more than a two lane one! For better or worse, this version is its own thing. No lazy Master System port for Out Run (although no one would have complained), and for all the compromises made as a result to get it inside this old Sega handheld, it’s exactly the port you need if you have one!

I love Out Run (even more to read on that here), and for someone who’s generally rubbish at games, I’m still pretty good at it; I think I’ve seen every inch of every track that the arcade version and several others have to offer. What I’d never done is play the Game Gear version, and despite my brother owning one in the early nineties, I don’t think Out Run on there even registered with me. In fact, it took Sega’s 30th anniversary of the Game Gear Japan-only Game Gear Micro – released mere days ago at the time of writing in October 2020 – for me to notice it at all.

Now, there’s absolutely no doubt that I’m going to own one – if not all four – of these bonkers tiny machines (and magnifying glass if you buy the lot) at some point in the near future. At the Japanese Yen equivalent of $50 plus exorbitant shipping costs, these things come in four colours with four games on each colour. The black one (my inevitable starting point!) includes Sonic the Hedgehog, Puyo Puyo 2, Out Run and Royal Stone. The red one comes with Revelations: The Demon Slayer, Shin Megami Tensei Gaiden: Last Bible Special, The GG Shinobi and Columns (which I did play a lot of on my brother’s original Game Gear). Blue has got Sonic Chaos, Gunstar Heroes, Sylvan Tale and Baku Baku Animal. And finally yellow is a bit more specialist for the non-Japanese speaker, coming with the text-heavy Shining Force Gaiden: Ensei – Jashin no Kuni he, Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya, Shining Force Gaiden: Final Conflict and (I hope I’m pronouncing this right) Nazopuyo Aruru no Ru. And they all come with a literally postage stamp-sized 1.15 inch, 240 x 180 screen!

About an hour ago as I write this, I was just touching up my epic on Silent Hill 2 (which you can read here, assuming that like me, you are also in the future by now). That was a game where I showed similar levels of self-restraint to those I’m increasingly struggling to contain right now! From the moment the credits rolled on the first game, just a few months ago (long story that I won’t repeat here), I spent six weeks waiting for it to go for sub-£20 on eBay, which is the price I’d justified to myself I needed to pay. Likewise, I thought that sooner or later either I’ll turn up in Japan again or they’ll turn up here, and all I really want to do is play a new version of Out Run anyway, so why not just get the Game Gear version of Out Run for the time being? Most sensible!

Despite the compromises, which we’ll jump into shortly, the premise of Game Gear Out Run is a familiar and authentic one. You’re choosing your music then cruising down branching routes from behind your Ferrari with your girlfriend in tow (in the seat next to you, not literally). The start line in the palm trees is classic Out Run, and although what then follows is cut-down a bit, and the tracks have their own identity in the main, it all stays completely recognisable throughout!

That music is also completely recognisable – no compromises here! In fact, what you get are some of the best versions of Out Run’s iconic soundtrack tunes that you’re ever going to hear, and I’m not just talking about on conversions either! And it’s all here, with your choice of Magical Sound Shower, Passing Breeze and Splash Wave waiting for you before every race. These versions are just so complete and so joyful, and I really can’t imagine that anything else coming out of a Game Gear speaker has ever bettered them!

In terms of difficulty, there’s various things at play to balance it out when you’re comparing with the original. Firstly, you’re completing four stages of your choice rather than five, so it’s shorter. There’s also less traffic, which makes getting around a bit easier than the arcade version, but with track space limited to two lanes throughout, and a shorter draw-distance – especially over hills – you’re going to be slowing down a lot more, or just hitting things, with similar frequency. And time to complete each stage is not generous! In the arcade version, if you’ve got your foot down in the main, you can get away with a crash or a couple of spin-outs and still rack up enough extra seconds from the first couple of stages to reach the end. Not so here, where reaching the end of each stage seems to be down to the wire from the outset, and even without any mishaps in the first few stages, you’re going to be lucky to reach the end.

But Out Run isn’t about reaching the end (which I’m now qualified to say having reached all the ends)! It’s about a glamorous thrill-ride in a fast car through exotic locales and then doing it all over again. And whilst it might take a while to see the end of any of these routes, you’re going to get your money’s worth out of every game and most likely see a couple of stages at least right out of the box. The tracks are missing all the beach huts and stone arches and cliffs of the original, but what’s there is flying by at a very smooth, very fast pace. And the developers really went out of their way to give the Game Gear its own experience, with every track offering something unique. You might start in familiar territory – even if it does take the sea a while to make an appearance – but you’ll soon be bombing around glorious desert sunsets (which you’ll see I do have a bit of a fetish about in my gaming sights thing here), Egyptian pyramids and something like Las Vegas to name just a few favourites. Incidentally, you can also race single stages against single computer opponents on a choice of tracks from the home screen, though it’s not much of a challenge. If you’re up for the challenge of connecting a friend’s Game Gear in the 2020’s, that mode might offer more of a gaming challenge too!

Throughout approximately eight hours of play time with this over the past couple of weeks, there was one thing I’d never had any expectations to find in this version of Out Run, and that was exhilaration. For decades, the main draw of the arcade machine was the exhilaration of the first stage. I never forgot it. And then in 2019, with the release of the Sega Ages version on Nintendo Switch, I discovered another moment that may have even surpassed that, in the final stage of route D, where you went up then down and into a bend at full speed, surrounded by traffic and lines of trees leaning over the road that simply took my breath away. There are occasions in Stunt Car Racer on Atari ST (more here) that maybe come close, but I can’t think of any other more exhilarating moment in all of gaming than that. And yes, that does, of course, include the Game Gear version, but it did still manage to surprise me. I was playing through to the end of every route, and I think it was the second last (right, right, left at the forks), on the final stage of the route, where we got into some serious undulations around corners with a bunch of traffic, and I’m in the dark and completely absorbed, and I got that thrill, completely unexpected and wonderfully out of nowhere!

I can take the arcade version with me wherever I go on the Switch, so I’m not sure I’ll be all over the Game Gear version like I’ll always be all over that one, but it truly surprised me. It’s not the same, and that’s fine, because it still manages to feel like Out Run (and most definitely sounds like Out Run), and that alone makes it an awful lot of fun and just a marvellous achievement! Worth another £45 plus shipping from Amazon Japan??? Watch this space…

My Life With… Silent Hill 2 (PlayStation 2)

My Life With… Silent Hill 2 (PlayStation 2)

I gave the original Silent Hill a raw deal. Bought on launch day whenever that was in 1999, and – judging by my fairly meagre collection of games for the system – may have the honour of being the last game I ever bought for the original PlayStation. But not only did it take me over 21 years to finally complete, thanks to my recent play-through at the time of writing, I probably got 15 minutes into it first time around! And after that first 15 minutes (which, in my defence, I probably saw several times!), it went into a box with an old Babycham ashtray, some pin-badges from the mid-90’s (including a really nice Alice in Chains one), the first two Resident Evils and some old magazines. And over time, that box moved from my parent’s loft then three different garages until I thought “I wonder what’s in there” and fancied another go in the strange days of summer 2020!

And I feel worse about that than for the first two Resident Evil games, which also got similar treatment until recently, because I can take or leave them and their pre-rendered spooky stylings, but I absolutely adore Silent Hill! Something clicked big-time when I actually gave it a chance, and I properly rinsed it, getting one of the better endings just because I didn’t want to leave that wonderful fog-drenched, blood-drenched horror town.

Actually, as another side note, I’m playing Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 on Switch at the moment and I’m having exactly the same feelings there – I’ve now seen the credits three times but there’s one ending I’ve not seen yet, so I’m back in again. And whilst twice in two months might signify some new phase in my middle-aged gaming life, I can’t think of any other games I’ve ever done that with before now! 

Back to Silent Hill, and unlike many of the PS1’s 3D vistas, I reckon age works in the original game’s favour too, and all that fog and darkness that was there by design to disguise hardware limitations now combines with the pixellation of decades of screen evolution, and general graphical clunkiness by today’s standards, to create a new contemporary atmosphere all of its own. And for all the fantastic story in the first game, where you’re looking for your missing adopted daughter through exploration and puzzle solving, and for all the literal otherworldliness and gore and monstrosity, and the cults and rituals and symbolism and never-ending nerve-wracking tension, the real star of the show is that atmosphere in that town. Its tourist days might be behind it but I’d still visit!

“The name of that town is Silent Hill. Although it is known as a scenic resort area, it is a cursed place where the town’s former inhabitants were once driven away, brutal executions were once carried out, and a mysterious plague was once prevalent. The town is centered around Toluca Lake, from which a thick fog perpetually enshrouds the area and makes vague the reality and dreams of those who visit the town. And according to those who have seen them, there are also times when “things” that should not naturally exist appear.” Not my words, but a near-enough translation from the Japanese-only Lost Memories: Silent Hill Chronicle that was on the back of their Silent Hill 3 official game guide in 2003.

I still can’t believe quite how affected I was in 2020 by this old thing I’d mostly ignored since 1999. I’ve been back several times since first finishing it, sometimes only to hang around that first 15 minutes or so because there’s something I just find strangely comfortable in Silent Hill, and whenever my mind wanders, it often wanders there! Something definitely came out of Silent Hill with me the first time I left, but of course, we don’t need to leave it there because as you might have worked out by now, it got a sequel (and then some, but maybe let’s not go there…)! And from the minute I saw the credits for the first time, I then spent six weeks being incredibly restrained and incredibly patient on eBay until it appeared at a reasonable price for PlayStation 2!

And when Silent Hill 2 finally arrived I was also left not believing how affected I was in 2020 by this old thing I’d never given the time of day to whatsoever since it first came out at the end of 2001 because it’s the first game cranked up to eleven! But it’s so much more than one louder too, to the point that I’m actually feeling quite intimidated talking about it. Weird, maybe or maybe not… It’s an intimidating and disturbing game way beneath the fog and the sirens and the surface-level horrors, which is something subsequent sequels (and let’s not forget the movies!) seemed to forget from what I can tell. You come out feeling dirty, like you’ve witnessed something you shouldn’t have but didn’t want to stop witnessing, and still don’t even after you’re done. Unless you get the dog ending, and then all bets are off! At this point I’ll state I’m not going to avoid spoilers, and will give my view on what I think I’ve seen, but I’ll also not go out of my way to spoil too many individual plot points here, so you can look that little piece of insanity (and possibly the greatest video game ending of all time) up for yourself. And regardless of the ending you get – and there are several, including some that demand multiple completions on one save – you’re going to come away wondering what it was you’ve just witnessed, and long after the fact maybe looking at things that happened in a different lights. But even right after the fact, as soon as you get back to the title screen after the credits, you’ll probably even look at what’s on there again and start wondering…

I’ll get into the story a bit, but I’d also like to start with some commentary of the opening scenes, because I’d like to give some indication of how quickly the game also affected me too. And that will also give me an excuse to restart the game for the fourth time in one less month than that! And that will also give me an excuse to talk about toilets, because that’s where we’re starting our story, with the most beautifully-shot row of urinals I’ve ever seen in a game as your character reminisces about his dead wife, Mary, asking her if she can really be in this town? You’re playing James Sunderland, and he’s stopped off for a slash on arrival at the outskirts of Silent Hill to look for her after she sent him a letter saying she’s waiting for him in their “special place.” Which is complicated by her having died from an terrible long-term illness three years beforehand. Anyway, despite the interesting Hebrew graffiti on the wall, it turns out their special place isn’t this toilet, she’s not here, and he’s got a bit of exploring to do! After trying to clear his head for a bit outside the toilets, you’re in control and within a couple of minutes a huge grin is going to descend onto your mush as you realise you are really back in Silent Hill, but with the shackles of the original hardware a thing of the past, this is now Silent Hill to the max!

Leaving the toilets and that huge draw-distance panoramic view of the lake with not a hint of technical fog behind, you’re quickly descending into… fog! Actually, beneath your viewpoint up on the observation deck you’ve already noticed the fog swirling around the treetops, but it’s proper fog, and as you start your journey you notice wisps of it all around you, accompanied by an ominous single-chord synth drone. And I don’t think wisps of fog in a game have ever been bettered, nor the descent into ever thickening fog, hiding whatever creature is making those occasional dog-like sounds, and what might have been something falling or breaking or maybe it was footsteps? You can’t see it, but it’s close… And you keep going down and down further into the fog and that ominous synth sound starts to vary a bit and a well emerges. There’s something inside, and you touch it and the screen turns red… And it turns out to be a save point! And you keep going, down into the fog, through the gates that sound like a metal bin-lid being dropped on the floor when they open, and into the graveyard. And even though it won’t be the first time you hear it, it’s in here that you’re probably going to really notice the legendary Silent Hill 2 voice-acting for the first time!

And then you’re continuing your descent through the fog as everything you remember about Silent Hill gradually emerges in front of you. But this time – just like the fog – it’s “proper” Silent Hill like you’ve never seen it before, and it’s beautiful! The textures on the pavement and the wooden telephone poles and the chain-link metal fences, and the attention to detail in things like signs or posters or stickers on dirty shop windows, and the kerbs and drain covers and bloodstains on the ground… And that fog is still so cool and so real this time with its own dynamic textures and shades of grey! And by now those ominous sound effects are really doing a job on you too! You’re touching everything (except, perhaps, dirty urinals) because everything looks like it’s there to be touched, and you realise all the roads aren’t half a mile wide like in the first game anymore, and you’re trying to get your bearings, and then in the midst of all this tension that’s been building up in you for the last twenty minutes, is that finally something unnatural shuffling around in the fog ahead of you? And so it really begins!

Many years after Silent Hill 2, we got P.T. (Playable Teaser) from Kojima Productions, and of course it turned out to be teasing something called Silent Hills. “Tease” is one way of putting it, I suppose! It was creepy-looking and very realistic, and years after it was pulled from the PlayStation Store (along with any hope for Silent Hills), people still fawn over it. But for me, it was horror by numbers, like a Paranormal Activity movie; horror for people that don’t like horror; the horror Nickelback! Or in gaming terms, Resident Evil trying to be Silent Hill! Both Silent Hill and its sequel are different because they’re not about what you’ve seen shuffling around in the fog, but what you might have seen, or what you think you saw, and where that might be leading you next. A really good recent (relatively) movie example of this is The Conjuring II, with scares you might not even notice first or second time around! The Blair Witch Project is completely built on that premise too, or going back further when inspiring your imagination was a bit like the use of fog in the first Silent Hill, there’s The Haunting (the 1963 version which is not to be confused with the later Liam Neeson dull-fest!) or, going back even further, Dead of Night. That all said, to its credit P.T. did have a ghost right behind you the whole time that no one knew was there for years which is pretty cool!

Before long that thing you followed into the fog turns into a familiar progression through exploring unsettling environments all over the Silent Hill map, which is going to become your best friend, just like in the first game. And when you can’t read it for whatever reason you’re going to panic just like in the first game too! It’s not only essential because the town is so big, but it’s also going to mark out places you’ve been or haven’t been able to get into yet, give you clues and generally tell you where you should go next. When you’re outside, the glorious, realistic, scare-inducing-not-technical-reasons fog is ever-present, but inside the apartments, hotels and restaurants, prisons, strip-clubs and bowling alleys everywhere is often dark, and your waist-height flashlight is going to build its own atmosphere of uncertainty and claustrophobia, complemented by all those incidental details peeking into the torchlight that spell decay and murder and sickness on every floor, wall or piece of furniture in every building you visit. Lovingly crafted bloodstains on the walls, trampled wheelchairs, rotten bed-frames and stinking blankets, the general detritus of abandonment, and holes in the wall that you’re just willing the game not to ask you to put your hand into!

And of course there’s a hospital, and of course there’s the Otherworld, the very personal nightmare parallel or non-parallel reality or non-reality! This alternate dimension takes the previous oppressiveness of wherever it springs up and multiplies it by a hundred, where those bloodstains are not details any more, but entire walls, with floors piled with rotten meat and corpses, and rusty chains and cages and general nastiness. On subsequent visits there’ll be fire and burnt-up horrors too; and a freezing, bloody slaughterhouse; and something draped in scarred, decaying flesh in a room draped in scarred decaying flesh that’s moving and pulsating and as soon as you work it out will probably be more disturbing than anything else you’ll see in rest of the game. And these reflect that personal nature of the Otherworld depending on who you’re with when it appears, and what’s made them so messed up that they can create this version of hell. Then there’s the water. Always some water around… And the darkness is now pitch blackness.

A very long time ago, back in the graveyard, I mentioned the legendary voice acting in Silent Hill 2! That’s when you met Angela, who’s looking for her missing mother and warns you that there’s something very wrong with the town. Taken out of context, and, admittedly, the first couple of times you come across any of the conversational cut-scenes, you’re going to find the voice-acting jarring. On one hand I can forgive it a bit – these were the pioneer days of this kind of thing! But on the other, by today’s standards, it’s comical, to the point it was all re-recorded in 2012 for the PlayStation 3 HD Collection. But you do also get used to it, and you stop noticing it as it becomes normal to you, and you’ll soon forget it as a possible detraction – in fact, the strange pacing and sometimes primary school nativity play delivery could even be argued to add something other-worldly to these personal… No, we’ll come back to that! But the HD Collection voice-acting stinks even worse – nothing other-worldy here, just weird and a bit disrespectful!

One thing you’ll never get used to is the amount of vomiting that’s going on the first time you meet Eddie Dombrowski, hunched over a disgusting toilet after he’s found a corpse in a disgusting fridge in a disgusting apartment. And the vomiting goes on and on and on! The gluttonous, paranoid Eddie has been bullied to hell all his life to the point that he’s killed a dog and shot a footballer in the knee for revenge reasons, and as defensive as he is about the corpses piling up around him, he’s come to Silent Hill to reach breaking point. “From now on, if anyone makes fun of me I’ll kill them. At least a corpse is more useless than I am.”

As there’s only a couple more characters, and because they’re, well, you’ll see, we’ll quickly cover the other people you meet on your travels through Silent Hill 2. Back to Angela, after the initial warning shot in the graveyard, our next meetings start to expose one of the most tragic characters you will ever come across in any form of media, let alone in video games. Lifelong abuse by her alcoholic father and her brother, which is justified as being deserved by her mother, culminated in her slitting her father’s throat, then spiralled into all kinds of guilt, zero self-worth and suidicidal depression, which promises both the escape and the punishment she also now feels she deserves. She’s left disgusted at herself by both her actions and those of her abusers. And eventually, after sharing her Otherworld for the last time, we’re left to assume that she finally found peace. And let’s remind ourselves, all of this in a 2001 video game. Good on you for being so bold so long ago, Konami!

Just when you think you’re making some progress in the game’s first building, along comes a little girl and puts a stop to it! This is Laura, an eight-year old orphan who’s also somehow found her way to Silent Hill to look for her friend from a time she spent in hospital, Mary – yes, your dead wife Mary – though she doesn’t know she’s dead yet. You’ll meet up with her all over Silent Hill, alone and with some of the other characters, and all the time you’re wondering how? And how? And how…

Finally, still relatively early in the game when you’ve made it through the apartments where you’ve met the others, you make it to Rosewater Park and there you meet Maria. Maria is a slutted-up version of Mary. She looks and sounds just like her, but the hair and clothes are like a fantasy Mary to James, and he doesn’t know whether to be scared or attracted, and is generally confused from hereon in! Maria end ups being both guardian angel and antagonist, and also ends up very dead several times!

At which point it’s probably an idea to talk about the other inhabitants of Silent Hill – the monsters! There’s clearly sexual overtones pretty much everywhere you look here, with possibly the least messed up being the bubble head nurses, with legs and cleavage everywhere, mangled oversized heads and epileptic movements. The Flesh Lips are masses of meat attached to a cage-like bed, complete with what appear to be vaginal lips mouthing animal abuse above the hanging legs that are going to strangle you. The mannequins are headless and armless dummies with two sets of legs (one for walking, one for killing) in some kind of putrid skin ensemble that covers the joins! Then there’s insects and a various humanoids that are all skin and sinew but with too many or too few of any given appendage. But then we get to the really nasty stuff. Abstract Daddy comes in both boss then lesser form at various points, and seems to be a combination of two figures on a bed frame wrapped in a covering of skin, intertwined to represent both rape and suffocation, highlighting that this is potentially James’ perception of Angela’s Otherworld rather than being a part of it. Maybe?

And then there’s Red Pyramid Thing. Also known as Pyramid Head, who’s undoubtably become the Silent Hill poster boy thorughout the series’ lifetime since! He’s a human-like giant in a bloodstained butcher’s apron with a huge triangular helmet, echoing an ancient executioner with his knife that seems to be a mega version of the knife Angela is waving about just before you meet him for the first time! But unlike her knife, we’re in one hit kill territory with this thing. You can actually find this knife later on and use it yourself, but it’s way too cumbersome to bring out in anything other than special boss occasions! You’ll meet him (and his friend) (and his spear) a few times, several of which are going to start with you wondering if Konami would really go as far as making him do what you think you just saw him doing when you turned up. I think the answer is yes… Maria’s also not coming out of these encounters well, again, several times.

If it’s alright with you I’m going to leave out the final boss and move onto gameplay. Everything is kind of fixed camera plus, where you’ve got the advantages of the set piece coming from the best possible angle, but you can also manually move the camera around in most situations, and where you can’t, you’re not going to pay a price for something cheap coming out of the fog at you! A lot of what you’re doing is classic survival horror – go here, fetch that, find the key for this, look into this dark hole and hope it doesn’t look back at you, etc. Combined with the aforementioned map, which is the first thing you need to seek – usually on a wall or a reception desk or similar – every time you enter a new area, you’re going to be following what are in the main logical clues to what are in the main logical puzzles.

Now, I’m not a big one for puzzles in games that aren’t puzzle games, but I actually found myself really enjoying a lot of these, to the point that in the one I’m going to describe in a minute, I didn’t want to backtrack between rooms one final time because I knew I was going to solve it! A lot of it is simple stuff, just relying on your sense of exploration to find the answers – need a safe combination? Then check the blocked toilet upstairs in the place that you thought you couldn’t get into because the door was locked because the wallet in there might have it written on a note! What’s really cool here is that there’s four puzzle difficulty levels when you start the game, though having only ever done them on normal I’m not entirely sure how that works – I think the hard version of the toilet wallet puzzle, for example, used Roman numerals for the combination, and for stuff like riddles are more complex the higher the difficulty.

The puzzle I wanted to mention is called Hanged Man. You come across a room with six bodies with a note on each face telling you of each persons’ crime – kidnapping, arson, murder, etc. You’re then going to a second room with six nooses hanging from the ceiling where the bodies were in the first room. Near the door is a poem on the wall, and you need to work out from that poem which man is innocent, then go and tug on his noose; get it right and there’s a key waiting for you in the first room. My poem documented a bunch of crimes (as well as graphic detail about the hangings that followed), including one where three houses were burnt down and the sheriff just arrested a stranger in the town for it because he was a stranger. So there’s your innocent man. And yes, in this puzzle there are four different poems depending on your puzzle difficulty, and I really can’t fault that commitment to the cause because they’re actually pretty good poems too!

You can also set the combat difficulty at the start of the game. Combat is rarely the strong point of any survival horror game, and here it’s just functional! As well as Pyramid Head’s big chopper, you’ve got the standard handgun, shotgun, plank of wood, lump of metal, etc. You can strafe and spin 180 degrees, and apart from bosses generally avoid combat altogether by just running in most cases. The boss battles are relatively straightforward, and just need plenty of decent ammo in reserve and a bit of patience. As said, functional but certainly not offensive in any way!

We’ve talked about the PS2-stunning graphics a few times, and how everything combines to create this incredible atmosphere, but that atmosphere only works because of the sound design that we’ve only briefly touch upon so far. And yes, we are currently pretending the voice-acting is not part of that sound design! The ambient sound is everywhere and it’s incredible. There are times when some kind of animal noise or possibly human scream or moan seems to be being carried across the fog from miles away, where you can’t see it. Attention to detail isn’t spared here either, like with different footsteps on grass and concrete and broken glass; the things you barely notice but contribute immeasurably when you are creating atmosphere. I’m fairly sure a lot of the sound effects are random too, and combined with periods of silence, create an incredibly unsettling audio experence to go with the unsettling Cronenburg-esque visuals and unsettling everything else!

Before we get somewhere near the end, quick mention of the Theme of Laura. I know this won’t be a popular opinion, but I’m not really fussed by it – melancholy melody with a strong beat, meaning it sounds like a Cure b-side idea that didn’t make the cut. It’s fine and does the job, but Silent Hill 2’s soundtrack isn’t something I listen to in my spare time.

Now let’s move on to my very amateur conclusion about what’s going on. Whatever happened to the town of Silent Hill for it to end up like it is, it’s now a pull for messed up people with messed-up pasts, and is populated by their own very personal monsters. The question is, are the other people you come across in Silent Hill there because they’re messed up like you, or because you are? Like the monsters, I reckon the town made them just for you… Eddie eventually represents James’ disgust at killing a human, charatecterised by his remorse after the meat-locker encounter. Maria is the dying wife manifested as the perfect wife she couldn’t be, back to mentally punish James forever through witnessing recurrent violent deaths at the hands of Pyramid Head, who, like most of the game’s other monsters, is a manifestation of James’ repressed but increasingly violent sexuality coming from years of sexual frustration at the hands of disease. Angela is James’ acceptance that he deserves what he’s going through, of his guilt and not being worthy to live anymore, albeit in reverse as the abused and not the abuser – her father, your wife, just different sides of the same coin; the guilt is the same. And then there’s Laura. She’s not so messed-up and so the town isn’t dangerous to her; she’s not seeing what “everyone else” is seeing. She’s James’ guide towards the truth – if she hadn’t kicked that key away from him in the early game, where would he have gone next? So I think that unlike the other characters you meet, she is real and is in Silent Hill to find her friend – your dead wife – just like you are, but without the horrors of the past to cloud (fog) the way to the end-game… The guilt of being a sexually deviant murderer that demands punishment at your own hands is a horror that is yours alone.

And would you believe I got there without ever once actually spelling out that naughty thing you did, though I’m sure I might as well have by now! I’m mostly happy with my conclusion so far, but I’m still not sure about the sexual deviance thing – it’s clearly there, from the relatively innocent (keep telling yourself that!) manifestation of your sexy nurse fantasies shuffling about the place, to the women as sex-object mannequins, to the more disturbing symbolism of the Abstract Daddy and the more blatant actions of Pyramid Head; as well, of course, as in the characterisation of the dreadfully abused Angela and overly-sexualised Maria. Is that whole messed-up psycho-sexual mess really all borne of not getting your leg over for a few months? Not for me to say, and like what we think we might have witnessed with Pyramid Head and what he was actually doing to the mannequins, I can’t really be sure. Maybe James has always been a sexual deviant and when his wife couldn’t be party to that anymore he went over the edge on that front. But without getting too stereotypical, as a frequent visitor to Japan, I am now probably in the realms of over-thinking this point!

There’s one more small conflict I’ve got over one of the endings I’ve seen. I’m not going into each of the endings here, but I’ve got a theory about James and dead Mary ending up at the bottom of the lake in a car; the lake you were looking at while you were next to your car at the start of the game. I can buy into that he simply came to Silent Hill to kill himself in their “special place” but here’s the conflict. I initially considered this as happening at the end of the game, but what if it happened before you started?

That aside, I think we can conclude that you are the monster and you are the horror in Silent Hill 2! And with that concluded, I can also conclude that in my view, Silent Hill 2 is without doubt the greatest horror game of all time. It’s also potentially one of the greatest pieces of horror art of any kind of all time – now there’s a list I need to create, with this and M.R. James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies all right near the top! And whether you’re talking about the story, the metaphors and symbolism, the dark places it creates or the dark places it goes to, the soundtrack or the atmosphere… it’s also probably one of the most important video games of all time too. And the voice-acting really isn’t as bad as people say!

Favourite Sights in All of Gaming

Favourite Sights in All of Gaming

A year or so ago I was playing P-47 on Amstrad CPC (and that’s P-47 Thunderbolt or Freedom Fighter depending on where you’re looking in that package at any given time), and thinking what a great job they’d done on capturing the atmosphere of the sumptuous, sun-setting second level of the 1988 arcade version… Far more so than the Spectrum version I was far more familiar with, where atmosphere by complex colour gradients was a bit more of a challenge! And then I thought about the arcade version and how that level was still just one of the best-looking things I’d ever seen as I approached my sixth calendar decade of gaming.

Being a bit useless with MAME and arcade emulation, I went straight to the next best thing with the PC-Engine version, quickly remembering that this was a bit more of its own interpretation of the original. My old band rarely did cover versions, but when we did, we’d make a point of not listening to the original and just going from memory and what we thought it sounded like (which is how our Brown Sugar ended up being an 8-minute goth-punk odyssey)! And that’s just how this feels! You know what it is, but, for example, the train “boss” at the end of the first stage is now the big plane that briefly drops into the arcade version mid-stage. Fortunately, they remembered the sunset background on the next level and got it pretty spot-on; actually, the second level is a pretty good conversion, though overall, for a machine so well-known for its shooters, it does feel a bit floaty to control, and the CPC and Spectrum versions are more fun to play, if not quite as fun to look at.

Since then, earlier in 2020 we got the Arcade Archives release of the orignal P-47 on Switch and elsewhere I expect too, giving us that ancient holy grail of the arcade-perfect version to play at home. And also the holy grail of that wonderful, sumptuous, sun-setting second level in all of its glory on the TV in our living rooms! Now, as regular viewers will know, I like a list. And all of this has had me thinking for months about my favourite sights in all of gaming, and here we are!

I wanted to keep this focussed on quality over quantity, so I’ve been thinking about top five rather than top more. But interestingly, that five was pretty straightforward for me to come up with, where a top ten, for example, would be more of a challenge because I’m still struggling to really come up with anything else that has had the same visual impact on me. Actually, the only thing I have come up with in those months as a potential number six is that glittery ghosty gold level in Super Castlevania IV on SNES (also known at Stage IX)!

I’m also not sure about the right order yet, so I’m going to start with the undisputed winner then just see what happens! And the undisputed winner is, of course, a very specific moment near the very start of the very first stage of Out Run, where you’ve just hit the first hill and then the initial dual three-lane bits of road you’ve been driving on come together into this vast, exotic six-lane coastal highway, giving you the first of many exhilerating moments of speed and gravity as you take in that glorious view. And whilst I’m talking about the arcade version here, the Spectrum version – which I’ll defend forever (see here) – had a similar visual impact at that exact moment! The more I play Out Run, the more I think it’s perfect, which is an accolade I’d maybe only also apply to Tetris and Super Mario World aside from that. And whilst that’s very subjective, I think I can be less subjective when I say that this 1986 vintage arcade machine is still an absolute stunner!

Next up I’m going with the aforementioned P-47’s second level. I’ve just always thought that use of colour here is absolutely jaw-dropping, and couple that with loads going on on-screen and at least 7-8 layers of parallax-scrolling clouds going by under the setting sun, and you’ve got a sight that will keep you coming back to the game for that alone. Good luck getting past it, but if you do get a bit further along there’s some more really nice cloud effects to swoon over, but they’re grey not orange, which means they’re not quite as good!

We’ve been from 1986 to 1988 so far, and now we’re landing right back in the middle with 1987’s Olli & Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmore Castle on the ZX Spectrum. Apart from Feud on the same machine, more than anything else this is my go-to gaming comfort food, and whilst the first screen is my chicken wings and garlic bread, here we’re talking about the second screen and a giant ham, mushroom and pineapple (yes, pineapple!) pizza all to myself! The game itself (more here) is old-school brutal and unforgiving pixel-perfect platforming. And it’s also absolute vintage ZX Spectrum colour scheming, and I can’t think of any better background colour than yellow for the final atmospheric flourish in this beautifully detailed haunted castle! If I could live in any computer game, it would be a toss up between here and the aforementioned Super Castlevania IV. And as for this screen, I could just sit staring at it all day!

Even now, I still think of the PC-Engine as being a graphical tour-de-force, and can still remember every untouchable screenshot that Computer & Video Games had a habit of shoving down my throat every month in the late eighties! For the next entry we’re still hanging around 1987, albeit in the last couple of days of the year, with the release of Victory Run. And yes, it’s another racing game, and yes, it’s another sunset, and yes, I might be some kind of orange pervert! The PC-Engine (or Turbografx-16 if you prefer) isn’t exactly stacked with racers, but this one is unique. It’s based on the Paris-Dakar Rally, it has a deep vehicle maintenance system (but not in a car-nerdy way) and it’s tough, but my favourite thing about it is that it’s also totally unpredictable, which gives it real longevity too, even after you think you’ve cracked it. The sight we’re looking at now is in the second stage, generated by the day-night cycle that accompanies your progress. The look isn’t a million miles from Out Run or a load of other contemporary racers, and actually you’ve had a preview of the sunset effect in the previous stage, but here in the mountains as you head south through France the effect really comes to life as this brilliant solid orange sky appearing over the top of perfectly tinted clouds. I can only imagine how it looks if you actually make it to Dakar, but until then I’m happy for my game to end around here just about every time I play!

We’re going to conclude this tour of my favourite sights in all of gaming with something that I was going to say is a bit less orange until I looked at it again just now, and that is the pirate ship in Stage 3 of Streets of Rage 2 on the Sega MegaDrive. At the time of writing in October 2020, Streets of Rage 4 is sitting in my top three games of the year so far (spoiler, the other two are In Other Waters and Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2). And that is a looker! Best looking toilet graffiti I’ve ever seen in real-life or a game, and such is the attention to detail that you’ll be noticing something new (or old!) play-through after play-through. Speaking of looker, Blaze has only strengthened her case as the hottest video game character of all time too! Anyway, in Stage 3 back in the second game, you’re in an amusement park and eventually you’re going through a door with a “Pirates” sign over it, through the inside of a ship and ending up on the deck full of ninjas. Not pirates. Ninjas. Don’t worry, the only thing that could have made this pirate ship deck look any better was ninjas coming down the rigging at you! This ship is such a contrast and such a surprise after the gritty journey so far, with so much detail in the wood and the ropes and the general ship’s decoration. There’s also a lovely touch with the dark blues of the night-time sky and coastal town in shadow in the background, swaying around like it’s been painted onto a canvas sheet on poles behind an amateur theatre production. And yeah, pick Blaze and she’s also there, all muscle and violence with her eye-catching minimal martial arts-wear, and if you’re lucky maybe a sword pick-up in her hand as well! Thank goodness for pause, because that ship moment is all too brief (and yes, who’s the pervert now?) and you really need to slow down the fighting and take it all in every time you get there.

And there we are, but you didn’t think I was going to let you escape without that Spectrum Out Run moment did you??? Hope you enjoyed the tour, and I would be truly fascinated to find out about your favourite sights in all of gaming!

Commodore 64 vs ZX Spectrum Power Drift Power Face-Off!

Commodore 64 vs ZX Spectrum Power Drift Power Face-Off!

Power Drift passed me by for a very long time. I remember the arcade game in the late eighties, and thinking it looked like Out Run on a rollercoaster, but don’t think I ever played it, and never got a home version, which at the time would have been the Atari ST one for me. Much like Stunt Car Racer (see here), it’s a bit of a mystery why I didn’t get it because it was right up my alley and I seem to remember it reviewing pretty well. That said, looking at it on the ST more recently, the cars look too big for the tracks and it seems to struggle a bit with some of the more exotic track furniture, so maybe steering clear was a good move. I also remember the PC Engine version being reviewed, and like most things on there, wished I had one of them!

That’s about it until 2016 and the Sega 3D Classic Collection on 3DS, and suddenly realising how much I’d wanted to be able to play Power Drift for all those years without ever knowing it! And it’s the arcade game in your hand, which will never cease to amaze me whether it’s this or R-Type or Elevator Action! That said, in this case I’m still pining for the arcade version of Power Drift at home on a big screen, and hope that one day Sega will do the right thing on the Nintendo Switch so I’ve got the best of both worlds! Just like its predecessors Out Run and Super Hang On, the sprite scaled 3D with loads of parallax scrolling is still a wonder to look at, with all those huge ramps and bombastic environments. And the game still feels great to play, where your car is always just about under control as you fling it around some really fun track designs. But that’s not why we’re here today…

We’re also not here to talk about Fantasy Zone II on that compilation, but I need to give it a mention because I’d never even heard of this gorgeous side-scrolling shooter franchise until then, and it would not only become the game I played more than even Thunder Blade on there, but it would also become a beloved series for me as a result! Since then I’ve obsessed over seeking out every Fantasy Zone game on every system I can get my mitts on, and whilst I may never admit it again, any number of Fantasy Zone variants might top Andes Attack on the VIC-20 as my genre favourite when I get around to thinking about it properly!

Back to Power Drift, after the arcade game was released in 1988 it was ported all over the place the following year to the 8- and 16-bit computers, then the PC Engine and I think the Saturn too. But as was often the case for stuff like this at this time, versions for my old flames the Spectrum and Commodore 64 would be way off my radar for decades to come. Until now!

At this point I need to thank my kindred spirit and favourite YouTube streamer Nick Jenkin for taking me on this particular journey of discovery, as well as several others – on top of the C64 version of Power Drift, which led to the Spectrum version, there’s also Pacmania and Super Monaco GP on the C64, and Komando 2 and Enduro on the Spectrum to name just a couple. I’ve been watching his retro gaming reviews for a few years, but have recently really enjoyed his company several evenings per week in his live streams. Very nice man and very nice community having a very nice time with retro games on a variety of systems, and you should check out his channel here!

Racing games were never really a big part of my original C64 experience (not being a big part of my C64-owning friend Stephen’s C64 experience), but I’ve always loved that version of Buggy Boy. I’ve latterly spent a lot of time playing Super Cycle too. And I’ve played some stinkers, with WEC Le Mans probably being the greatest culprit of all… Play it on the Spectrum instead! And we’ll come back to that later.

My first impression of the C64 version wasn’t that great. And keep in mind that at this point, this is my only experience of an 8-bit version of the game, not Spectrum bias! The road edges looked rough, and when you hit the hills you’ve got a jarring journey up the screen on a straight, flat floating road with no ground on either side, versus the exhilerating gravity rushes of the arcade version. I’m not a fan of the sound either – if I have to make a choice, I want engine sounds in a racing game and not a chiptune. But for all of that, it’s so much fun to play! I had no expectations that this was going to run at any kind of pace at all, but apart from the lacklustre hills, everything flies by in beautifully varied 3D across the different courses. Cornering feels really tight but loose enough at the same time to make you feel like you’re hanging on for dear life in the later tracks. This is a really, really good conversion!

Over on the Spectrum, it starts off looking and feeling very much like its superlative version of WEC Le Mans. With rollercoasters! And no, I know what you’re thinking, but I won’t have a word said about the Spectrum version of Out Run (see more here)! Anyway, it’s by the same guys that did the Le Mans game, and carries over all of its detail and all of its speed (as well as its colour schemes, for better or worse), delivering not only a great-looking version of Power Drift, but a very faithful rendition to play too.

This just feels like a much more ambitious conversion that the Commodore 64 one. The graphics have loads more going on, with all sorts of bumps in the road that you really feel, as well as the arcade-like hills going off in all directions. The 128K version (which is the one you want to avoid multi-load) kind of fixes the lack of sound effects too… Until someone in front of you finishes before you, in which case everything seems to go silent in sympathy! And sometimes it seems to just decide you’re getting music instead of the preferred engine sounds on some tracks too.

Compared to the C64, the Spectrum version is a harder game which feels more tactical and more like you’re in a race. Actually, I’m even tempted to make that comparison with the original arcade version too! It reminds me a lot of Enduro Racer on the Spectrum. And that is high praise indeed!

But now that Spectrum bias is back, right? Just look at all those Spectrum words! Well, maybe they’re compensating for how I’m going to close this. For everything the super-slick Spectrum version does right, and for the really, really crappy hills in the C64 version, the latter is just more fun to play! It absolutely nails the spirit of the arcade version, and doesn’t try to go one better like the Spectrum one.

Which, in conclusion, means that you need to be playing both versions of this for two different, but probably equally engaging versions of the wonderful Power Drift.