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.

My Life With… Stunt Car Racer (Atari ST)

My Life With… Stunt Car Racer (Atari ST)

Not for the first time in its lifetime, as I write this my Spectrum +2 has just had to make way for my Atari ST! I’ve got Spectrum emulators coming out of my ears, but the ST isn’t as straightforward, and a recent obsession over an old ST favourite on other platforms meant it had to come out to play again!

And there’s a sore point we’ll come back to shortly, but for now, my ST has sat in a plastic Selfridges carrier bag in my loft for the last two years, that was also its home in my Dad’s loft for the best part of thirty. (And that’s the same plastic bag it came home from London in when I bought it in Selfridges all those years ago). Apart from looking a bit dishevelled and grubby (which is probably how it looked when it went in the bag), everything just about worked fine. My Quickshot Python 1 joystick has seen better days, with left sticking a bit, and that stupid joystick port under the front next to the mouse port is still a right pain to get at, but otherwise it powered on and the possibly pirated disc containing Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and Kick Off which was still in the drive worked great! It was a little jarring going back to that ST homescreen and remembering how to boot up a game from the floppy disc though – too much Windows in the interim when all I needed to do was press the reset button!

Neighbouring the ST in its bag in the loft was a far more appropriate Lion bar cardboard board full of games, organized to completely fill every space in the box to perfection, with all the skill of the Tetris master that once packed it. Unfortunately he’s not been a Tetris master for a while now, and there’s no way they’re all going back in that box ever again! Not that we’ve got any more plans for the box any time soon – we have everything we need right here! Well, almost everything…

Apart from having a good idea what was in there, opening that box must have been like when Howard Carter opened Tutankhamun’s tomb! There was Pac-Land (more on that here) sitting on the top with another incredible arcade conversion, Star Wars. Poking out underneath was Starglider, glorious flight-sim Falcon and game creation language suite STOS, with two Spy vs Spy games and the Gunship manual padding out a gap on one of the sides. Then there were the boxes of “loose” floppy discs, not all of which were of dubious origin I might add! Actually, I think most of them are issues of short-lived disc-based magazine Stampede. There was probably a hundred games in there in all, and as much as I enjoyed browsing through every single one in turn for the first time, then carefully deciphering the faded pencil labels just to make sure the second time, I was less enthralled with the denial then realisation the third time around that Stunt Car Racer simply wasn’t there!

Yes, for a couple of months now I’ve been playing tons of this on the Spectrum, because I had no idea it was on the Spectrum until recently, then on the C64 because I had no idea that existed either for even longer! And as wonderful an achievement as the Spectrum version is, the C64 version isn’t far off Amiga quality, which isn’t far off my beloved old Atari ST game, and it was only a matter of time until I had to get everything out and get playing that version again!

I still can’t believe that as far as I can tell, absolutely everything except Stunt Car Racer – the one game I was prepared to sacrifice my Spectrum for the second time for – is in that box! I’ve no idea why it wouldn’t be in there. I mean, it was in one of the big style Atari ST boxes where you’d get the manual and a special insert to stop the precious disc bouncing around that vast cavern, and they do take up a lot of box space, but there’s some right old crap in there (what even is Kayden Garth and why do I own it???) that could have gone in another box! And I’ve got any boxes with old copies of 2000A.D. or Murder Casebook in that it might have been shoved into instead to fill a space, and that wouldn’t have been easy to miss when I sorted those out on re-arrival with me a couple of years ago too.

I won’t bore you with the rest of the stages of grief I tore through yesterday at the time of writing, but on reaching acceptance I was immediately on eBay looking at precisely two listings for Stunt Car Racer on the Atari ST. Oh dear, thinking I was going to be spoilt with choice and pick this up for a fiver plus about the same in postage for that huge box was turning out to be wishful thinking. I added them both, at £30 each, to my watch list. Within a couple of hours, there was an offer from the seller for one of them for £26. I ignored it for 18 hours then went back with what I’d decided was my maximum price whenever I was eventually going to buy it of £20; especially knowing perfectly well that my original copy is going to turn up as soon as I click pay on anything! And within minutes they went for it, and we are now back in business!

Buying Stunt Car Racer first time around came late in my Atari ST relationship – probably in 1991 – and excluding multiplayer games of Super Sprint and Rampage with my brothers, was definitely the only single-player game that ever got a look in once Kick Off – the game I’ve still played more than any other on any platform – got its hooks into the three of us! In fact, Kick Off would extend the lifetime of my ST beyond even that of the original PlayStation! But, as much as I loved Stunt Car Racer, it’s very much associated with a specific timeframe during my second year of university.

During my first year, we were offered a kind of year-long exchange with l’ecole d’ingenieurs de Tours in France, and being an unnaturally fluent French speaker – the background for which will forever be a mystery – I decided I’d give it a go. When September came, me and another guy on my course, Stuart, who I’d become as thick as thieves with when we eventually reunited in our final year, went off with the guys (it was an engineering degree in the early 90’s!) from the year above who were doing their sandwich year for an induction week… And what a holiday that week was with the guys from our own year when it was our turn proper the following year! Anyway, we were abandoned at the end of the week (but not as badly as happened the following year!) and eventually found our way to the campus and our halls and our new life in what is the perfect university city. We made some great friends and had a great time, including some of the craziest fresher’s week antics I’ve ever heard of, but over time the course wasn’t quite what I’d signed up to and when I was offered a get-out before the end of the year I decided to take it and get back to normal. Unfortunately everyone else was already back to normal, and I ended up renting a room with a family where I certainly wasn’t hanging around for the weekends, and for the rest of that term I remember two very specific things about those weekends. First, my insistence on having U2’s Achtung Baby album playing on the car journey back there with my parents every Sunday night, and second playing Stunt Car Racer until I couldn’t put that journey off any longer!

We’re now a few days removed from all of the above, and it’s turned up in the post, so we can finally talk about Stunt Car Racer! It had been out for a couple of years before I got it first time around, and given some of the rubbish my big Lion bar box suggests I bought (let alone copied!) in the intervening time, that gap from release to purchase is a complete mystery! I was certainly aware of it, from the very first time it graced the cover of Computer & Video Games magazine in August 1989, with the headline “The best race game ever?” And that’s a very good question!

Ignoring cars, because the question also does that, I’ve got to go with SSX 3 on PlayStation 2 as the best, but that was decades away in August 1989, so we’re then looking at Supersprint on formats such as arcade, Spectrum and Atari ST as the best race game ever, with the caveat that its top-down nature is maybe not in the spirit of the question. Does Out Run qualify as a race game? That’s next if it does; arcade and – always controversially – Spectrum (more here)! Then Destruction Derby 2 on Playstation, also a big while away, so doesn’t count yet either. Then Enduro Racer on Spectrum (see here this time). I reckon Stunt Car Racer can come next in my list, just before the arcade version of Virtua Racer (also three years away), making the answer to the question “No, but it’s maybe top three” when it was asked!

Back to C&VG, and in their gushing 93% August 1989 review they start by bemoaning that aside from Super Hang On – which would be next in my list – there’s not much going on in 16-bit racing. They’d clearly forgotten about the similar-scoring Test Drive II from a couple of months earlier. Anyway, they decided it was the best race game ever. Outside of the arcades. On a home computer. Just looking through my Lion bar box, apart from Super Hang On, there’s Hard Drivin (more on that here, but also recently positively reviewed by C&VG), RVF Honda (which C&VG has also just very postiviely reviewed), Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge (I won’t labour the point) and Vroom (predictable now). Some serious quality there, so no complaints if that lot still all counts as not a lot to choose from, but I’m not disagreeing with much they say about Stunt Car Racer itself!

For all the race games we’ve just run through, Stunt Car Racer can undoubtely call itself the most unique. It’s a one-on-one car race in a first-person cockpit perspective, but on a raised 3D track that you not only have to stay on, but, as you might imagine, there’s stunts too, in the form of ramps, bumps, hurdles, gaps, massive ski jumps and all kinds of rollercoaster shennanigans. At the start of each race, you’re winched onto the track, held up by chains that let you loose when the man says go. Fall off the track, and after what seems like an agonising wait – especially for some of the more flamboyant crash scenarious you might find yourself in – and you’re going to be winched back onto the track again. The winch is genius, building up big anticipation with your car swinging all over the place before it finally settles in position for you to drop.

The races themselves are hugely strategic affairs of cat-and-mouse with your opponent, and it’s going to take some experience – especially on later tracks – for you to know when you should stay and when you should go. That said, there’s nothing like the thrill of firing boost and just going hell for leather out of the blocks (or being unchained), getting your nose in front and then just trying to defend your lead for the whole race! Even when your opponent is out of sight, a very simple mechanic of telling you how far away they are adds an amazing amount of tension when you can see how fast they’re catching, or how you’re running out of laps to catch them, or even worse, that big lead you had disappearing as you’re being winched back on after a crash! And aside from deciding when to sit back, when to overtake and when to fly with your limited supply of nitrous boost, depending on your specific track situation, you’re also constantly balancing speed for the different obstacles and even for the normal turns, just to make sure you stay on the track.

And the strategy goes on. Winning a race gets you two points, which contributes towards your league position against two computer opponents. But getting the fastest lap nets you a bonus point, so what you’re going to have to consider on top of everything else is making sure that second lap is an absolute corker, because if the computer is in the lead on the last lap then you might not be scoring a time before the race ends, and if you’re in the lead you’re likely to be concentrating on staying in front and not getting a record lap time! With two tracks in each of four increasingly tough divisions, each with two different computer opponents (which the computer works out the results for), and two races each per track per season, those fastest lap points become all important towards deciding whether you’re promoted, relagated or stay where you are.

We need to come back to crashing, and one final tension-building strategic mechanic, which is the big crack that gradually spreads across your roll cage as you sustain damage! Take a corner too fast, small crack; come off the track, bigger (and bigger) crack; hit the opponent or they hit you, devastating crack if you hang around too long! If your crack gets too big, you’re wrecked and it’s race over (so make sure you got a decent lap time in before that happens)! To compound this, once you get past Division 4, there’s going to be permanent serious impact damage in the form of holes in the roll cage that the crack just jumps across, accelerating your doom!

Winning Division 1 is going to take you ages, not just from learning the nuances of each track and each opponent, but also puzzling out how the hell you’re going over some of those obstacles in the first place! And there’s some really fiendishly designed tracks on offer here! But do it, and it’s not game over yet – you’re going into the Super League with a hugely overpowered new car! Don’t worry about that for now though. First you’ve got to get over the thrill of the race on a crazy track, then you’ve got to get to know the tracks in every division, then you’ve got to get your racing strategy down. And that’s going to take some time and you’re going to love every second of it!

By chance when I was looking through my ST floppies, I found my brother Phil’s old Division 2 save on one, under the name of Bern Rubba. I sent him a pic and he replied saying how much fun it was, but he bets it looks like a dog now. I’d say it’s a little primitive by today’s standards, but the 16-bit versions at least run like a dream, even if the backgrounds are sparse, and the opponent’s car is only marginally less sparse, being made up a less 3D polygons than you could count on one hand! The lovely detailing of your cockpit and front of the car – especially the flames coming out of the exposed engine when you boost – take a lot of the graphical pressure off what’s going on outside though. But all the same, the raised 3D tracks do exactly what they need to, and all of this combined was more than enough to blow anyone away at the time! There’s some lovely between race, very 16-bit cartoon-like scenes too, celebrating your victory or having you dejectly looking on at someone else doing it. Sound isn’t spectacular, but is more than functional, and I reckon any more than that would be a distraction in a game like this.

I’ll quickly mention the 8-bit versions, as, like I said, that’s actually where this recent story begins. I was well beyond the Spectrum when I was playing this on the Atari ST, and although C&VG really bigged that version up, saying it was identical to the ST apart from being monochrome, it was only very recently that I came across it again and actually paid attention. I would say that it runs like my brother imagined the ST version to run like now, but the gameplay is all still there! And I very quickly got very addicted to it all over again! C&VG said it promised to be one of the most amazing games yet seen on the Spectrum, and I can’t disagree on that point!

Even more amazing is the Commodore 64 version. Yes, it’s got more colour (even if a lot of it is C64 brown), and the cockpit really isn’t far off looking like the 16-bit versions, but it also runs at a slightly more comparable pace. And so my addiction jumped to that platform, until I finally thought why not go to the effort of opening the loft hatch right above where I was playing and getting the ST out, because I had a nagging feeling that despite being technically close to the experience I remembered now, there was something still missing…

Playing them all in tandem now, there’s one subtle but massive difference for me between these 8-bit versions and both the Atari ST and Amiga (which I’ve also played a bit, emulated on a MacBook Pro) counterparts, which is what makes the game stand out over everything else, and that’s exhileration. Yes, if you’d never played on 16-bit, you’d never miss it and you’d have a wonderful time, but there’s something about the extra fidelity, the longer draw distances, the speed and something about the car physics that makes driving feel more tactile. You’re going to feel every bump, and that’s going to make you also brace yourself for every bump, whether just going into a curve a bit too sharply, or landing a huge jump and bouncing around from the impact. And as a result, your stomach will often be in your mouth and you’re going to be leaning all over the place as you try not to wrestle your joystick too hard because you remember just how easily they can snap by pushing a bit too far in one direction!

This game on the Atari ST is just so immersive, and has so much going for it that you’ll be coming back forever. Eventually, when you’ve admitted to yourself you aren’t going to find it again and need to splash some cash! I still question C&VG’s complaint about the lack of racing games on the platform, but if there is a lack, then no problem because this is the only racing game you need on there. It might not be the best race game ever anymore, but it’s still not far off, and there’s no question in my mind that it is still one of the most exhilerating too!

Finally, next month in C&VG… Xenon II – the most amazing shoot ‘em up ever? Yeah, maybe!

My Life With… Pac-Land (Arcade / Spectrum / Everything Else!)

My Life With… Pac-Land (Arcade / Spectrum / Everything Else!)

There are very scientific reasons about why I can remember not only every second of Live Aid, but also where I was sitting when Status Quo came on, for example. Same for what I was eating for breakfast (toast) when the Mary Rose was pulled up, or what music was playing (1999 by Prince – see here for more on that) the first time I played Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. It’s a bit like those ghost theories about high-impact things being imprinted on places, but more real and that place is your brain, not the creepy underground boiler room in your middle school that I had forgotten all about until just now… But while that works for high-impact, I am wondering why I also remember what I was wearing (blue La Coste tracksuit) when I bought Queen’s Greatest Hits from the record section downstairs in Boots in Bedford in about 1984. And also why I don’t remember almost anything about what was an hotly anticipated, but in retrospect horrendous sounding, annual church trip to Great Yarmouth that was in full annual swing around the same time. Incidentally, I also have very few memories of why I bought Queen’s Greatest Hits as I’ve never been a fan!

Anyway, I’ve mentioned the church trip before, and playing Mini Munchman on the bus on the way there one year, and the arcade by the big funfair with the giant outside where we were dropped off and picked up that had a Track & Field machine. And on top of that, I vaguely remember thinking that one of the rollercoasters there seemed really rickety as we were going around it one time, but generally, I was thinking my only memories of what we actually did there revolved around that arcade. Now, a apart from a section in Computer & Video Games mag, an arcade was a once-per-year novelty in itself – so kind of makes sense according to our theory – and we’d be in it as soon as we arrived, then be hanging around in it with no money left to play anything anymore for a bit before we left. But coming back to memory, apart from “arcade” and exactly where the Track & Field machine was, in the far back-right corner, I really don’t remember anything else about what else was inside it either… At least until one year something new appeared, around the corner and about five machines to the right of Track & Field, that immediately demanded your full attention and pocket full of 10p’s!

Look it at it today, and it’s probably hard to imagine why Pac-Land might have that impact on a passer-by, but try passing-by this on the way to Track & Field in 1984 or 85, when you’re getting a double-whammy of not only seeing the Pac-Man in a new perspective, but a whole new side-scrolling perspective on gaming too!

Let’s get into the first new perspective, and its cartoon inspiration. As much as I’m a huge fan of Hanna-Barbera’s 1960’s and 70’s output, when it comes to the 1980’s it’s all about Pac-Man: The Animated series, which first aired in 1982 and ran for 21 episodes and a couple of specials until then end of 1984. And that makes it the first cartoon ever based on a video game! It was always going to be a hit with me because it was shown as part of my absolute school summer holiday favourite, Rat on the Road, the Roland Rat [Superstar] show that came on at the end of TV:AM! Which gives us a probable first airing date here of summer 1983. Interesting fact about this is that Roland Rat’s appearance then boosted the ailing breakfast show’s viewer numbers from around 100,000 to 1.8 million. Yeeeeaaaaaaahhhhhhh, Rat-fans!

Back to Pac, you’ve got Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man (known as Pepper for some reason) and Baby Pac (in his only speaking role!), and they live in Pac-Village in a place called Pac-Land, of course! Actually, as we’re going far deeper into Pac-lore than I ever intended, what about the older Pac-kid, Jr. Pac-Man? I get that his love antics with Blinky’s daughter might have been problematic to the storyline, but it’s like he never existed! As some compensation, you do get Super-Pac in the second season! The plotline in most episodes is Pac-Man protecting the village and its power pellets from his familiar ghost foes (and Sue from Ms. Pac-Man) and their evil uncle, The Ghost Wizard of Mezmeron… And let me tell you something, if I ever decided to change my name, I would change it to The Ghost Wizard of Mezmeron!

The hugely vibrant look of the show was ported wholesale to the arcade game, as was the iconic music that looped throughout, which you could sniff out in an arcade like a pig sniffing out truffles; in an audio kind of way! The detailed character designs, complete with hats and hair – not to mention their super-smooth animation style – were also a big feature of the game. Pac-Man alone had 24 different frame patterns, where one or two was the norm at the time. As a[nother] side note, something that didn’t come from the cartoon, but by coincidence is relevant here, are the controls – they came from Track & Field, using buttons instead of a joystick, which allowed for those lovely springboard long jumping bits that will always be my favourite part of the game!

And this brings us to that second new perspective. Super Mario Bros. might spring to mind when you think of side-scrolling platformers, and rightly so because it pretty much set the template for anything else that followed it, but Pac-Land was doing the power-upped walking and running and jumping bidirectional horizontal scrolling thing a good year beforehand. It was far more influential than it gets credit for, but seeing it moving in an arcade was seeing that cartoon brought to life, from left to right and sometimes back again, and at the time that was very probably something you’d never seen the like of before!

Back to playing the game, each of the levels is a multi-stage journey to Fairy Land to get a lost fairy home, rewarding you with some super boots that will make your journey back through the level to your family a bit easier. You’ll be going through towns, forests, deserts then castles, and each stage ends with Break Time at the church on the hill where you’ll be awarded bonus points for your jumping performance as you come to a stop (preceding Mario and his flagpole), and I can’t emphasise how welcome that Break Time sign is on some of the more frantic stages! That said, it’s worth saying that things never really gets that frantic, which I think is why I appreciated the arcade game so much – good value for money for the casual player was as important as anything!

Obviously, there’s the ghosts that are constantly on your tail, driving buses at you, chucking stuff at you out of planes and allsorts more to hinder your progress. Then there’s enviromental obstacles like the aforementioned springboard, quicksand, ropey wooden bridges with spinning logs, fire hydrants and other water-based hazards ready to spray you down and take you down. But as well as the boots and sporadic power pills that do exactly what you expect them to do, there’s also a bunch of hidden stuff that will help you out. For example, turn around and push the right fire hydrant in certain stages and you’ll get a hat that will stop you being harmed by dangers from above. There’s also hidden fruit behind certain jumps (something else it preceded Mario with) and even a Galaxian flagship worth loads of points!

And the whole thing comes together to be such a joy to play! On the arcade machine, you’re going to get your 10p’s worth out of the first couple of stages for the visuals alone – the transitions from one distinct stage to another are just wonderful, and no matter how far you go, everything will soon become reassuringly familiar, and after each Break Time you’ll be fondly entering the next bit… before you realise that at some point things got a bit hard and you’re starting again!

In the grand scheme of things, whilst it had the biggest impact on me, the arcade machine is the version I played the least. That’s not unusual for me, having had infrequent access to arcade machines back then, but what is unusual is that I might have played a lot on more different versions of Pac-Land than any other game I can think of. It came out on nearly everything, and somehow I’ve spent a lot of time with it on nearly everything!

As was often the case, the Spectrum was the first version I really spent a lot of time on. Strangely though, the Spectrum version did come out about four years after the fact in 1988, along with CPC, MSX and Atari ST versions, and then the C64 version arrived even later. The Spectrum conversion gets a bad rap – it’s got weird colours and Pac-Man has a funny nose and it doesn’t scroll (meaning you need to remember that falling log is right after the next screen-flip!), but its genuinely only latterly that I’ve had those thoughts! It was and still is a very competent port with nearly everything else present and correct, and as was also often the case, it was Pac-Land in your house, on your Spectrum, and that’s all you needed for it to be fun! In terms of reviews at the time, I do remember it getting a bit of a hammering though. If it had come out in 1985 it might have fared better, but we’re not only years after the original (which was decades in eighties home computing terms!), we’re also years after the new Super Mario yardstick.

The version I’ve played most seriously on – not quite finishing it but not being far off – is the PC-Engine conversion from 1990, though actually playing it was much more recent. As much as I’d love it to be a part of the mostly beautifully curated library on my PC-Engine Mini, it’s not, but another machine in my collection does a very good impression of a PC-Engine and plays whatever game you care to throw at it right with no fuss, right through an HDMI cable! Much like the Spectrum conversion of Pac-Land, the PlayStation Classic is very unfairly maligned; at least when it has a USB stick with a certain emulator suite stuck on it! For me this is the ultimate conversion of Pac-Land. I know I’m going from almost 40-year memories, but this is exactly how the arcade version looked, sounded and played. In the last couple of years I’ve played dozens of hours, having a couple of games at least once a week. And that’s a beautiful thing to be able to do!

Trying its best to be as beautiful is the Commodore 64 version, and as a contemporary conversion for an 8-bit machine, you couldn’t expect any more. I’ve been playing this on the C64 Mini for a few years at the time of writing. The colours are a little muted, there’s only 16 levels (I think in common with most if not all other 8-bit conversions) and you can’t jump on top of some of the enemies so a touch from below is death here, but the soundtrack is classic C64! And it scrolls! It’s also a bit easier than the other versions so getting to the end of this one is very achievable.

I’ve not played a huge amount of the Amstrad CPC version – actually, when I finally got around to emulating a CPC for the very first time in 2019 (also on the PlayStation Classic, albeit a bit more fiddly to do than the PC Engine), it was the first thing I fired up and has been about the only thing I’ve regularly gone back to! It’s a real mish-mash of the other two 8-bit versions here, and would be on a par with the C64 version if it hadn’t inherited the Spectrum’s lack of scrolling!

Jumping back to around 1990, and the Atari ST version was a whole fantastic different matter. When I made the jump from Spectrum +2 to Atari ST, I very distinctly remember this being one of the games – together with Star Wars and Operation Wolf – that announced that arcade conversions were finally that mythical arcade-perfect we’d been hearing about for years! In retrospect it stuttered a bit in places, and was lacking parallax scrolling, but do you think that mattered coming from the Spectrum version? This was the holy grail of Pac-Land conversions to that point!

My brother was also a big fan of Pac-Land in the Great Yarmouth arcade, and he also owned a Lynx! And a couple of years later again, Pac-Land on there was also a fantastic conversion. I’d say in some stages it’s even more vibrant than the arcade version, with very faithful graphics, sound and gameplay. And let’s not forget, that’s a contemporary conversion in your hand, which the Atari Lynx was very good at! It moves at pace but the scrolling is a little off when it’s got big stuff like buildings to move along the screen (though I’ll take this over flip-screening and even the ST suffered from this). It’s checkpointing seemed a bit broken too – die in the forest and restart in halfway through the town, for example! It’s main crime though – and I’ll say “apparently” because I’m not the target audience for stuff like this – is that it has no ending! Just keeps going, I assume replaying the same levels over and over. No complaints from me about this version at all though. Still massively impressive!

Moving forwards half a decade again, and the original PlayStation was being peppered with loads of original arcade game version compilations covering loads of ancient stuff, and Namco was front and centre with no less than six of them! Pac-Land finally appeared in 1997 on Volume 4, drawing a short straw I think, being packaged with lesser known games in the West like Ordyne, Assault, The Return of Ishtar and Genpei Toma Den… Where’s Metrocross, Pac-Mania and Dragon Spirit??? (For information, coming a year later in Volume 5). But now we finally have the real holy grail of the actual arcade version in your home. And now I’m sitting here wondering why I spend so much time playing the PC-Engine version when the actual original is also sitting on exactly the same machine… Having just fired it up again, one thing is for sure – all that PC-Engine practice has made me really, really good at the arcade version now!

Most recently, we come to Namco Museum Archives Volume 2 on Nintendo Switch, which along with a favourite version of classic vertical shooter Xevious (Super Xevious) and loads of other NES goodies, we also have the NES conversion of Pac-Land. Firstly, it takes some getting used to, because as far as I can work out, unlike the PC-Engine version that allows you to press Select to switch from default “button” controls to regular “lever” controls, this one only seems to have button controls. And they take a bit of getting used to because you’re walking and running and changing direction on your right hand, and jumping with a directional button on the left. It’s also very minimal looking, Pac-Man is tiny on the screen, and it suffers from a bit of slowdown despite there being very little detail in the characters or backgrounds. There’s a few bits missing too, including the fairy screen – you get a Fairy Land sign like for Break Time instead – and also no super boots for your return trip. And like the Lynx version, I think it loops after 16 levels. I’m not doing a great job of selling it, but despite all of that, give it a chance and it plays absolutely fine and is a great version to have if you’re out and about with your Switch!

And that’s a whole lot of Pac-Land, one of my top five favourite arcade games (we’ll cover that another time) and probably in my top five on a lot of other systems too! Now do yourself a favour and dig up that cartoon!

My Life With… Winter Games (Commodore 64)

My Life With… Winter Games (Commodore 64)

When my friend Stephen got his Commodore 128 for Christmas, I couldn’t spend enough time at his house. And his house was so close to ours that I couldn’t even use the racing bike I got the same year to get there! The best Christmas present I never got… Except maybe my brother’s Mini Munchman and BMX Flyer handhelds! Anyway, that Christmas, and any other time I could get away with until I got my Spectrum +2 a year (or possibly two) later, I was at his house playing almost exclusively C64 games on his C128!

I think my very first experience of his better Commodore than my VIC-20, possibly the day after Boxing Day, probably in 1985 though I’m not 100% sure, was Impossible Mission. To this day I still have no clue what was going on, but somersaulting over electric robots, searching computers and stuff, and going up and down those awesome huge lifts where you could see “under the ground” either side of the shaft was more than enough to say this was the best game I’d ever played!

It was certainly better than the next game we played, Special Delivery, where you flew about in Santa’s sleigh avoiding lightning while you caught presents from angels in the clouds, then landed on a roof, climbed down one of three ladders in an unfeasibly oversized chimney dodging unspecified baddies, then crept around a crude 3D house to deliver it under a tree while avoiding its inhabitants. I recall landing was pretty cool, and actually the variety did give it a bit of life, but there’s a reason why it’s not mentioned alongside stuff like Impossible Mission or The Last Ninja and the like!

What can be mentioned in the same breath as those classics, though, is what came next. And that was, of course, Winter Games! And Impossible Mission instantly became the shortest-lived best game I’d ever played of all time!

As a graphical showpiece for what any home computer could do in 1985, I can’t think of anything more mind-blowing than Winter Games on the C64. The trees were undoubtably the standout, with multiple shades of green that made them look more like trees than anything I’d seen on a computer screen before. Even in Horace Goes Skiing! Then there were the clouds and the snow-capped mountains, and incredible details like the shadows under the fences in the biathlon… The whole thing just transported you to an alpine environment with almost no imagination needed, which is saying something for even the greatest games of that golden age! More than anything, it felt suitably cold!

But we’re jumping way ahead of ourselves! What about that opening ceremony when the game first loads, with its bombastic anthem playing in the background as the torch-carrying athlete runs towards the huge Olympic cauldron and lights a fire that looks and acts like real fire, as doves fly by the fluttering flags in the background! And such was the depth of attention to detail throughout the game, this was just the first of many incredible first impressions you’d be getting for hours to come!

Epyx had released Winter Games earlier in 1985, and it followed the previous year’s Summer Games and then its 1985 sequel, neither of which I’d ever played, but distinctly remember being very impressed by in one of my earlier copies of Computer & Video Games magazine – actually, I think it was the great-looking fire from the opening ceremony that got me in that advert screenshot too!

Now, I recently responded to a Facebook post about albums where you never skipped a track… I was aghast that people actually did that! I mean, I was never a big fan of Round and Round on Spandau Ballet’s Parade album, but I’d have never dreamt of skipping it! I could say the same about Kiss on Prince’s album of the same name. If you’re playing an album you’re playing an album! Especially when it’s on vinyl and skipping involves a steadier hand than you’d need removing the funny bone in Operation if you don’t want to scratch your disc up! And anyone that’s played Winter Games knows exactly where I’m going with this diatribe!

Once you’d torn yourself away from the opening ceremony, there were a very generous seven events included in Winter Games. You had Hot Dog, where you did ski tricks off a ramp. Then there was Biathlon, which was all about skiing speed versus breath control to make sure your shooting bits were up to scratch. The big glamour event was Ski Jump, with its massive ramp and massive tension as you fly past some of the game’s most beatiful scenery. After that you’ve got the rhythmic joystick waggling of the Speed Skating event. Another glamour event was the unique Bob Sled with its big turns and big crashes. And then there was Figure Skating (Spandau’s Round and Round)… And then there was Free Skating (Prince’s Kiss)! In one you had to do a set number of tricks and in the other you could do what you wanted but it went on longer. Which wasn’t ideal, but regardless of the ability to play individual events or some events and completely avoid these two stinkers for the rest of your life, it was not an option. You shall not skip the skating events!

Actually, they weren’t that bad, but when you could have had slalom or downhill or moguls or something else instead of at least one of them, and when everything else was just so cool, your heart did sink a little bit when they appeared as the next event! And as a 13-year old at the time, I didn’t play computer games to pirouette! At the time of writing my son is the same age, and if I went and suggested to him now he should turn off Fortnite and try something where he has to pirouette instead, I know what the answer would be! 

There was also a practical reason to not only play them, but to be really good at them, and that was multiplayer, and even in spite of its graphics and sounds and music, this is where Winter Games really shone! You could do an incredible 8-players turn-based, or two players simultaneous (at least in events like Speed Skating where that was practical), and with occasional help from Stephen’s sister and my brother, we caned the hell out of both to the point that Free Skating at least became critical to overall success or failure. And it’s definitely worth looking at the events from the viewpoint of the expert player (which is a viewpoint I’m rarely familiar with so need to take advantage of whenever the opportunity presents itself)!

Going in order of choosing “compete in all the events” you’re starting off with Hot Dog. This is marked out of ten, so getting ten is essential to start competitive! And to do that, you’re pressing fire to start, then doing one trick (for example a mule kick which is joystick left down) then returning the joystick to neutral and doing one somersault (for example joystick right), or doing two different somersaults, then returning back to neutral in time to land. Those tricks are all about timing though, and you’re holding the joystick in position for the duration of the trick, no more and no less!

After a little awards ceremony, national anthem and maybe one of your multi-loads that cue up the next set of events (yes, I know, but it’s a small and very bearable sacrifice), it’s Biathlon. You’re cross-country skiing across a perfectly animated little alpine stream at a nice steady rhythm onto a downhill screen which is also fairly laid-back, but you want to get three downward thrusts in to give you some speed on the uphill screen that you need to frantically waggle your joystick up and is going to completely ruin your breathing, highlighted by an increasingly fast-beating heart indicator. This is important because every few screens you’re going to be shooting five targets (down, up, shoot, down, up shoot…), and the higher your pulse, the less accurate you’ll be. This event is all about overall time, with each missed target giving you a five second penalty, but you shouldn’t be missing anything so whether or not you’ve taken the lead after the second event is going to be about tenths of seconds.

That’s your fun over for a while because now it’s Figure Skating! As I said, it’s not that bad, but it’s just so very bland compared to other events. Most of the screen is ice white, with some crowds behind some flags scrolling by at the very top, though I have to say that the music – which wouldn’t be out of place in a Robocop game – is fantastic! Your execution of the mandated tricks is going to be down to how well you judge foot positions and the little shadow that signifies where your skater is jumping or spinning or whatever. I am being really harsh here again though, because the absolutely stunning character animation is far more useful for getting your timing right than the also well animated shadow alone! Anyway, do your sixty second routine with enough double-axels and triple-lutzes without falling over and the honours for this event should be even with maximum points all around as you get back onto the mountain!

Ski Jump is going to be most people’s favourite event. It looks great and it’s skilful, but it’s also unpredictable and is somewhere else where you’re going to need to score points! You start in a tower at the top of this enormous ramp, then a second fire button press as close to the end of the ramp as you dare is going to launch you onto the jump proper screen, with its wonderfully vibrantly coloured ski resort welcoming you at the bottom. Once you’re in the air, it’s all about the keeping your posture as perfect as possible to get the maximum distance, with continous joystick adjustments of your little man shown in close up in a second screen in the top right as you see him flying through the air in the background. If the skis are crossed, joystick down, leaning back too far, joystick right and so on. The longer your posture is good, the further you’ll go, and the more likely the next anthem played will be yours. Which would probably be the same as your opponent’s too if you’re sat in their bedroom unless you’re trying to be cool and choose USA instead of UK…

Now we’re Speed Skating. I always found this a bit disconcerting because youv’e got four lanes for four racers but I’m sure you only ever saw two of them at the end, and regardless of whether or not you won I’m also sure one of them was always in front on you. I might be overthinking my memories though, and regardless this was a lot of fun, especially because in simultaneous two-player play you’ve got a very clear and instant winner (if you ignore the other two)! You’re waggling your joystick rhythmically rather than especially frantically to try and get your speed guage to the max and keep it there, but actually this one is all about getting the best possible start. Of all the events, this one just feels really good once you’re in the zone.

Just Free Skating between you and the home stretch now! Precisely two minutes of Free Skating… This is like the other skating event, where you’re looking at big air and perfect landings care of a well-timed press of fire when the shadows are right for decent points, though you’re going to want to perfectly transition from pirouette to sitting piroutte with perfect timing for the best possible points! This is free style so you’re needing to do a decent mix of tricks and transitions, and because it’s less prescribed than the other skating event, it’s not all about both of you making sure of maximum points so don’t fall over now!

Of all the events on offer here, Bob Sled is probably the most memorable to me. By which I mean I can still hear in my mind the swish as you hit the corners, and feel exactly how hard do push that joystick from middle to left or right! Half the screen is taken up by an overhead view of your progress on the course, but you’re going to be staring intently at the other half, anticipating the glorious 3D turns with a bang of the joystick to the left, then a bang to the right, and don’t forget that double right at the end. And even more glorious is you and your fellow players watching that all-important big stopwatch underneath you! This one is over in less than 22 seconds, but play this game enough and it’s going to boil down everything that’s happened in the half an hour or so before it into that short period of time, and as the final standings appear, someone it going to be jumping up and down on the bed like a loon, and someone is going to be trying desperately to be sensible with the Atari joystick still in their hands!!!

Winter Games was baked into the wonderful C64 Mini, so around 2018 I did eventually own my own copy (complete with that clunky old-school joystick we used to use), but naturally, when I got a Spectrum long before that I had Winter Games there too, and became just about perfect at everything all over again! And while it doesn’t look or sound quite as good (and that all important skating shadow is completely missing in action), it still looks and sounds very good, and most importantly plays just as perfectly.

As an aside, around the same time I also got a very similar game called Winter Sports, which did have downhill and slalom skiing, and ice hockey too, and it was a lot of fun, but in a world where Games existed with all of its polish, just wasn’t enough fun to be in the mix for what I’d later consider to be in my top five favourite sports games ever. Or, indeed, one of my top two winter sports games ever… Sorry Winter Games, you might beat Horace in the tree department, but with its lack of ice skates, SSX 3 on my PlayStation 2 and my GameCube just edges it!

My Life With… Milk Race (ZX Spectrum)

My Life With… Milk Race (ZX Spectrum)

Nothing says 1987 like the Milk Race. Except maybe Lethal Weapon. And Robocop. And U2. And big storms in the south of England that meant we spent an afternoon in the school sports hall watching Clash of the Titans instead of lessons. But anyway, apart from those, round-Britain pro-am cycling extravaganza the Milk Race was a big deal! To put it into context, Tour de France was a song by Kraftwerk, but everyone knew the Milk Race – in no small part, simply due to it being televised, and at the time there wasn’t a huge amount of early evening viewing choice. Just like snooker in its BBC Two 18.5 million viewer heyday a couple of years earlier.

However, unlike snooker, the Milk Race can be traced all the way back to 1945, and the Victory Cycling Marathon from Brighton to Glasgow. It would soon attract the News of the World newspaper as a sponsor, then the Sporting Record, then the Daily Express until they decided to put their money into a new sport called Formula 1 motor-racing instead. In 1954, Quaker Oats got in on the act until their breakfast bowl bedfellows the Milk Marketing Board took over in 1958, and that partnership would go on for another 35 years until 1993, when they got wound up because of pesky European monopoly laws. And as that takes us well beyond our start date of 1987, I think this completely unplanned history of the Milk Race, its politics and its sponsors can come to a close! Except to say that nowadays you’d be right to think its now called the Tour of Britain.

Despite all of its relative popularity, and despite the £1.99 budget price tag, I still wonder how confident Mastertronic were when they signed off on a niche game about a niche sport. But I suppose that once it was on the shelves the inlay looked pretty cool, the screenshots suitably conveyed its likeness to what you could see on telly, and the blurb did its best! “In May cycling nations from all over the world send their best competitors to England for the 1000 mile trek…” And there wasn’t much more you could ask for when you were staring at cassette boxes in your local games emporium, desperate to spend your pocket money.

The most fun you’ll have is in the first stage (which is lucky because unless you get serious it’s where you’ll spend all your time) where you’ve got forty or so riders in front of you and you get a real sense of being in the pack. It’s also much harder to position yourself to pick up milk from either side of the road, which is how you’re going to keep your energy bar topped up enough to manage all those hills and keep up a decent enough speed to make your way fowards.

Stay near one edge or the other and you should be able to pick up milk regularly enough, so just  keep an eye on your gears and speed when you’re going uphill and energy won’t be too much of a problem for most of the race. 

After a couple of stages you should be somewhere near the lead and you just need to stay there or thereabouts, which shouldn’t be too much of a problem for a while. Actually the only problem you’ll now have is the cars that don’t just drive by you, but might decide to swerve up and down the whole width of the road – this is the only way you’re not going to stay in the lead for now…

That’s until you get to stage 12 of 13 because for some reason the Milk Race has apparently run out of milk! And where the other riders couldn’t steal it away from you fast enough in the early stages, they couldn’t care less about the lack of it now and will sail past you as you panic about conserving energy, and you watch that top three position you’ve now held through most of the race dwindle away. And that’s not the only thing to be in a panic about, because there’s no way you’re completing a time trial with enough energy left to finish the next stage though the mountainous region that is apparently Chelmsford to Milton Keynes! What a treat to have Milton Keynes featured so prominently in a game in 1987 though…

This penultimate stage is all about luck. The gradients you’re going up and (sometimes) down throughout the game seem to be randomly generated. If you’re lucky here you’ll avoid any really nasty slopes, avoid the ridiculous swerving cars, and have enough after the time trial to trundle to the finish in the top few.

The milk’s still off the menu in the final stage around the streets of the capital, but this is short and you’re unlikely to be in first place at the start, so you’re just going flat out to get back in front before you get to the finish. Again, assuming the gradient gods allow!

Then you have one of the most anticlimactic endings to a game ever. Mainly because it’s not the end – after your 1000 mile trek, win, lose or draw, if you get there it’s just a Race Over message and you’re starting stage one again!

I always thought the game captured England (if not central London specifically in the last stage) in 1987 perfectly, with its monochrome hills, housing estates, shops and churches scrolling pretty smoothly by in the background at a decent lick, and brightly coloured spectators right in the foreground flying by slightly less smoothly. The completely monochrome cyclists, while all looking the same, move along equally well, with a nice sense of speed coming from the simple animations in the detailed wheel and pedal movements. Just don’t think too hard about the size of the bottles of milk at the side of the road!

The user interface at the top gives you a clear view of your all-important energy and the current gradient so you don’t need to take your eyes off the road, then look a bit harder and you’ve got speed, gears and position, and bizzarely a score, though given the ending I guess that explains why! Whilst there’s not much sound going on during the race stages themselves, there is one of the better examples of Spectrum chip-tunes on the between-stage map!

I remember Crash magazine being down on this game. Too simple, too tedious, and didn’t justify the price tag. (Yes, that’s the £1.99 price tag)! But I’ve always been a cycling fan, Milk Race or not, and there’d never been anything like it before so I’m glad I ignored them a took a punt. Or pint maybe.

And yes, I know. Snooker, India, 19th Century…

Crash! PC-Engine & Bimbos of the Death Sun

Crash! PC-Engine & Bimbos of the Death Sun

As a current employee of what used to be NEC Electronics, I couldn’t resist sharing this page from the August 1989 issue of Crash magazine. But I’m really not sure what caught my eye first – a very unexpected “advert” from NEC in a Spectrum magazine, or the the proper advert it shares the page with for Bimbos of the Death Sun! Actually, it was the latter, but I think they both deserve a bit of attention…

I started working for Japanese electronics monster NEC just under 12 years after this was published, but you’d still see occasional material with this old, very Japanese logo, especially when you visited one of the two offices I used to frequent in Tokyo. As well as being very Japanese, I really had to laugh at how typically corporate the message on this advert was, even though the readership of Crash was mainly kids who owned Spectrums – if we did it now, I’m sure it wouldn’t be all that different either!

This is all about the PC Engine, and how “NEC Corporation, NEC Home Electronics Ltd, and NEC (UK) Ltd (collectively ‘NEC’ hereafter)” didn’t want it being sold in the UK. Therefore, you need to know it’s not compatible with our old European PAL TV’s, and if it is then it’s been surreptitiously modded by someone that shouldn’t be selling it to you regardless, and if anything goes wrong with it, tough!

Obviously, it probably wouldn’t be wise for me to offer too many more opinions than I have already, but all the same, this is such a wonderful snapshot of the transition from our beloved 8-bit machines to 16-bit computers and consoles. I’d just about moved to my Atari ST at the time, but I do remember the PC Engine was a very exotic-looking piece of kit, with its exotic-looking arcade ports and just generally stunning graphics in screenshots. I also remember it seeming very expensive to own, even once you’d got hold of a console you could actually connect to your telly!

In hindsight, through emulation then much more recently my beloved PC-Engine Mini, it’s also become the one machine I wish I’d owned at the time, but personal favourites like the wonderful Devil’s Crush, Pac-Land and Victory Run, and all the other stuff it’s probably better known for, are maybe stories for another day!

What I can offer an opinion on is the second advert, featuring “MURDER MOST FUN!” with Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb. Firstly, why has this never been made into a movie? You might be surprised to hear that in 1988, this won the Edgar Award for Best  Original Paperback Mystery, though apparently it was less well received from the sci-fi and fantasy scene it parodied. And in that case, I assume it parodied it very well.

It’s all about a nerd convention called Rubicon, where the guest of honour Viking fantasy author, Appin Dungannon, gets murdered with a bullet through the heart. Everyone hates him, so who done it is anyone’s guess, but according to the back of the book, fellow author James Owens Mega, “…dons the role of Dungeon Master, and solves this uproarious whodunit in the ultimate Dungeons & Dragons role-playing climax!”

It’s still in print (and digital), and apart from some out-dated technology references, seems to still be pretty much spot-on in terms of nerd culture and their stinky gatherings, as well as being a decent pulpy thriller.

Follow Up: Deathstar Interceptor on Commodore 64

Follow Up: Deathstar Interceptor on Commodore 64

Previously on Retro Arcadia, we took a look at Deathstar Interceptor – a game I first came across being advertised in the May 1985 issue of Computer & Video Games magazine, liked the look of, but wouldn’t play for decades.

I won’t bore you with any more recapping because you can read all about it right here, but I will just mention again that the Commodore 64 version was very much an afterthought in the advert…

I recently went back a year or so further into the C&VG archives, to July 1984 specifically, and that gives us a bit more to go on than the assumption that it was an afterthought because it’s a stinker in comparison to the Spectrum version. Which it certainly is, but with this new context, it’s all about the Spectrum because the C64 version had been the subject of previous advertising. And the headline might confirm this, with the fight continuing on the Spectrum because the C64 version appeared already. Maybe?

Apart from the word “Deathstar” we are not really getting the very in your face Star Wars vibes of the Spectrum advert, so we are possibly pre-licensing of the Star Wars theme tune. And when we previously mocked the C64’s hamburger and coat hanger enemies, they might simply have been what was there in this original(?) version before any Star Wars association – as loose as it was – materialised on the Spectrum.

A disservice then? Absolutely not! It’s still garbage, though that does make the outrageous advertising blurb even more comical. And I quote…

52K of pure machine code giving you 12 screens of 3D graphics, super smooth 3D animation, unbelievable sound effects music, 4 skill levels and hiscore table… this is the ultimate challenge? This game has to be played to be believed! You have not seen what the Commodore 64 is capable of until you have played Deathstar Interceptor! – Commodore 64

You’re really better off not knowing what it’s capable of if that means playing this awful game! However, thanks to this advert you don’t even need to, because look closely and in one final twist, their strange insistence on showing every gameplay element on offer in tiny numbered screenshots includes “Victory (Screen 12)” – the end game screen!

History once again teaches us everything if we care to look. And I’m glad I came across this older advert and could maybe shed a bit more light on this version – and a bit more context on the Spectrum version – of a true Star Wars (or not?) curio.

My Life With… Paperboy – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Paperboy – ZX Spectrum

It’s easy to forget there was TV outside of Miami Vice in 1986, such was its influence on the style of a 14-year old at the time, but it did exist! The Chart Show started a 12-year run, and would become almost equally influential later for its indie or rock chart every other week… Winona by The Drop Nineteens, in my top three favourite songs ever (behind The Cure’s Pictures of You and Ride’s Vapour Trail, if you’re interested) was found there. I seem to remember Today by The Smashing Pumpkins too, and bands like Faith No More and Suede. Shame you had to sit through so much crap to get to those five minute slots, though we were, of course, entertained by Samantha Fox’s Touch Me on there in its first year, so you got something else worthwhile out of it sometimes! I was also a big fan of courier-cum-detective Boon, which would be around for another six years from then, though I always feel that over time it got a bit eclipsed by the adventures of sexy antiques rogue Lovejoy, who first appeared in 1986 too. We also got Neighbours for the first time, most hours of the day from what I remember!

Over on kids TV, which I was becoming a bit more choosy about by this point, the biggest thing happening was probably Zammo’s ongoing slide into heroin oblivion on Grange Hill; if only he hadn’t made such a big deal of winning the moustache-weighing competition, he might have got away with it, and we’d have never had to suffer Just Say No… We also suffered the end of Bananaman, Robin of Sherwood and the wonderful Terrahawks, but we did see the launch of Gaz Top’s Get Fresh on Saturday mornings (though he was still no Sarah Greene), The Trap Door (which also spawned the best looking Spectrum game ever), and a quiz show that no one remembers called First Class…

No one remembers First Class because the majority of the programme was completely forgettable – a BBC1 kids quiz show with general knowledge and popular culture rounds for teams representing their schools. But make it through those, and things got interesting because the last round was an arcade game round, where members of the team were nominated to compete against each other on Hyper Sports or Paperboy, and I think 720 too. And for me at least, there was no better advert than seeing any of them for the first time than on the living room TV! If only they had home computer versions… If only I didn’t have a VIC-20… As an aside, when I said the majority of First Class was “completely forgettable” I was doing a disservice to its presenter, Miss Great Britain 1984, Debbie Greenwood, who could definitely give Sarah Greene a run for her money!

Of course, in the grand scheme of things it wouldn’t take long for the home versions of all three to arrive – and fine ports they all were – and my Spectrum +2 wasn’t far behind either. But for another 20 years, my only experience of arcade Paperboy was that tantalising segment on First Class! I eventually got my hands on the arcade version on the PlayStation Portable no less, as part of the Midway Arcade Treasures: Extended Play compilation, which also included 720 and around 20 other arcade wonders. The whole thing was a modern wonder, but it was on a tiny screen, and it would be another 10 years (2016, in case you’re keeping track) before it turned up in Lego Dimensions Midway Arcade level pack and I got to play it on a much bigger screen than originally intended via my PlayStation 4!

But now we’re way ahead of ourselves, and we need to get back to the origin story. Paperboy hit the arcades in 1985, complete with its bicycle handlebar controls that were actually a modified version of the yoke found in the greatest arcade machine of them all, Star Wars! This meant you were pushing forwards to speed up, back to brake, then steering your bike left and right as normal… If you’re bike had an X-Wing yoke instead of handlebars, which is now the greatest bike of them all! Anyway, there was also a button on either side that allowed you to chuck your newspapers…

The game had you, the paperboy, delivering newspapers to your subscribers down Easy Street, Middle Road or Hard Way (also the three difficulty levels), every day from Monday to Sunday. You start with a minimap of the street showing where your friendly neighbourhood subscribers are, and also where the villainous non-subscribers are, though you will pretty much ignore this as one lot live in bright houses and the others dark houses. You need to deliver the newspapers by throwing them at the mailbox outside the house, ideally, which gets you the most points, and if you get them all you’ll double your score. This will also win back any non-subscribers you’ve lost previously because you missed their house. You also get points by vandalising non-subscriber houses, and smashing one of your newspapers through a window is still one of my favourite things in all of gaming! (Closely followed by breaking what I think are gravestones you can bust in half)! But don’t go too nuts because you’ve got a limited supply of newspapers so keeping your subscribers happy needs to be your priority, though you will come across refills on the way.

All the way down the street you’re avoiding hazards like bins and rampant tyres and lawnmowers, cars, go-karts, pets, skateboarders, breakdancers and all kinds of crazies that will spell instant death, losing you a life but thankfully allowing you to carry on your journey until you run out of them. Get to the end of the street and you’re rewarded with a go on the training course, with ramps to jump over, moving obstacles and targets to throw your remaining papers at for more points. Including this was a genius move, because whilst they already had a unique game in an isometric racer that involved delivering newspapers, they also hit on the massive BMX craze in the mid-eighties with the training course that pretty much sold the game by itself! Anyway, get to the end (or not) and you’ll get your daily totals and any cancelled subscriptions, and you’re onto more of the same but harder and with different things to kill you on the next day.

The home versions started appearing in 1986, and would eventually be available on pretty much everything you could imagine, but I guess I picked up my Spectrum version around Christmas 1987. And it’s a fantastic conversion! The main gameplay area – about two-thirds of the screen – is presented in a blue and black monochrome with some lovely colour-clash provided by the odd garish obstacle! Apart from the lack of colour and things being a little on the small side, the impressive attention to detail of the original is all present and correct, and that transfers to the gameplay itself, which feels exactly how it should at it scrolls along at a fair old whack. It’s just as tough too, but like the original is never overly punishing once you get used to what’s happening and where you need to be to avoid it – for the first couple of days at least!

I did get the Atari ST version a few years later, in one of those awkward oversized cassette-style cases it used to favour, though I don’t really remember playing it much. From what I do remember, it was pretty much the arcade version, with big colourful graphics and a lot more sound than the incidental beeps the Spectrum version managed! I played a fair bit of the Game Boy version too, which was like a mash up of my previous two versions – big graphics, great sound, all monochrome! Very impressive though, but not as impressive as the final version I’m going to mention, which I’ve only played on emulation but is a real technical marvel – the Commodore 16 / Plus 4 version! Considering this would have been squeezed into about 12K of code, it still manages to at least resemble and, more importantly, feel like the arcade game (if it was slowed down a bit).

I’ve only ever played the SNES version of the 1991 sequel, Paperboy 2. This time you could be a papergirl if you wanted, and you were delivering to both sides of a more elaborate road as even more bizarre obstacles got in your way. It’s fun but it’s all a bit soulless though, and there’s no way I’d ever load this up when there’s so many ways to play the original… Which I probably still wouldn’t load up while my Spectrum +2 is sitting right here in front of me!

Discovering Rik the Roadie – ZX Spectrum

Discovering Rik the Roadie – ZX Spectrum

I’ve been reading a wonderful book called Attack of the Flickering Skeletons by Stuart Ashen. So wonderful I bought it twice… “More terrible old games you’ve probably never heard of” and the sequel to Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of, which I haven’t read yet. I bought this for my cousin for Christmas because he has read it (because I bought it for him), then I bought it again because I forgot I’d bought it!

I didn’t get very far before I got to a game called Rik the Roadie for the Amstrad CPC, all the way from 1988. And I’m not going to say what he thought about it because you can read it for yourself, or use your imagination, but at the end of his rant he mentions that there was a Spectrum port… And, despite everything he said, I still wasn’t convinced it sounded that bad…

You’re the roadie for alternative rock band Alternative Rock. You’ve got to drive them 200 miles to their gig in your van. Then you’ve got to carry their stuff from the van into the music venue. Then the last stage has you sorting out their gear so they can play. As I said, doesn’t sound that bad, right?

You hit the road in what seems like the driving bits from the brilliant Ghostbusters, minus the road markings, seeing your van top down in four lanes of traffic. Get moving and you’ll soon be hitting 100mph, though until you get there you won’t notice any physical change in speed. At this point, Stuart Ashen mentions an actual acceleration until you get to your top speed of 128mph, though that might be a CPC thing because I didn’t notice this. And while all this excitement is going on, you’re weaving in and out of traffic. Occasionally. And all the traffic is moving at the same speed as each other, and relative to you, so it doesn’t matter how much you slow down or speed up to avoid them, it’s just left and right, assuming you have that option… Actually, once you’re moving at all, there’s no need to worry about what speed you’re going whatsoever! There’s even less driving skill needed here than in the Ghostbusters driving filler. It’s just luck if you don’t come across enough unpassable rows of cars to crash into – which knocks your timer down – before you’ve driven 200 miles. Did it first time, took many more attempts before I did it again. And this all takes so long that it genuinely feels like you’ve driven 200 miles by the end!

Now you’re at the venue, and this level is a bit like the biathlon in Winter Games – you’re waggling or pressing left and right to move nondescript gear from the van to the stage door at a specific rhythm against an endurance bar, which in reality is a timer that depletes in about 3 seconds regardless of your rhythm. What you need to do is like Han Solo’s flying casual technique; you know, keep your distance but don’t look like you’re trying to keep your distance… In this case, there’s a specific fast but not fast cadence that is pretty much impossible to judge! Should you get your equipment to the stage door – which has a cat in it – you’re going to have to do the same again several more times before all the gear is in!

I’ve no idea what happened in the third level, and I’m not going back to find out! I think you’re now at the sound desk because there are four volume level indicators and four volume controls on the screen, and you have to do something with them to stop the audience getting deafened, which apparently I’d successfully done before I even worked out what was going on. At less than ten seconds though, whatever happened at least happened quickly! Actually, that reminds me of a Lauren Harris gig I was DJ’ing at a few years ago, at a 250-capacity venue in Bedford. The resident sound engineer had been slowly going deaf, so the volume had been slowly going up month by month, and her dad, Steve Harris from Iron Maiden, claimed it was the loudest gig he’d ever been to!

Back to equally rock and roll circumstances, your job is now done, and the screen switches to the sight of Alternative Rock on the stage under flashing lights (meaning the whole screen just changes colour over a static picture every few seconds), and having got your band all the way here, you’re treated to their gig as your end game sequence! Which reminds me, all the way through this game is some of the worst music you’ll ever be subjected to in a game. And it just continues its mercilessly short loop through this end-game treat! Which you can’t skip…

Speaking of can’t skip, before we hit the closing credits, in the form of the most painfully slow scrolling, lengthiest and incredibly harsh high score table you’ll ever see (but don’t go anywhere because it still has merit!), I need to mention spelling (not to mention punctuation) throughout the game. Now, we know mistakes happen even today, just like they did in pre-spellcheck, bedroom-coded games in the eighties, but we’re at a whole new level here! Before you even turn the ignition key, I quote, “Guide Riks van allong the road to the next gig, dont hit any other cars, or you loose time……….”

Things do briefly pick up when you start the second level, when loose becomes lose, but just a couple of seconds later you’re inevitably going to be told that “you have droped the equipment!”

But all of this pales into insignificance once you get to the high score table, which is effectively a chart rundown of the big hit makers of the day, like U2, Simple Minds, Bruce Willis (Bruno, surely?), Erasure and Sam Fox. And Banarnarama, Des O’Conner, Madona, Kim Wild, Jean Michel Jarr… And it doesn’t end there, but typing things that incorrectly is a real struggle in this day and age, and you also need something to discover when you play it for yourself!

One last thing… spare a thought for the BBC owner. Not only did they own a BBC, but if they also owned Rik the Roadie and they also got this far, they were rewarded with this. And it moves…!!!