My Life With… Olli and Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Olli and Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle – ZX Spectrum

For a couple of years, aged fourteen and fifteen, my then-best friend Thomas and I decided it would be a good idea to get each other no income-friendly Christmas presents. For Christmas 1986, knowing a Spectrum +2 was on the way, he acquired a C90 mix tape of Spectrum games for me from another Speccy-owning friend of his. Unfortunately the majority never worked, though I do remember being blown away by my ill-gotten copy of wire-frame helicopter sim, Tomahawk, for actually loading as much as anything else! Speaking of wires, we both dabbled in electronics at that time too, and I recall getting him a selection of different types of wire in return!  Anyway, things went slightly better in 1987 when he got sweets and I fared even better than an industrial load of our favourite lemonade crystals with what would become one of my top five favourite games of all time!

I’m not entirely sure how Olli and Lissa eluded me for another year; it was a £1.99 budget game from Firebird in 1986 and I bought some right turds at that price through the year! Everything about it was right up my increasingly spooktastic street, albeit in a very cute, cartoony way. But finally we were united, and on Christmas Eve I rode home across town from Thomas’ house on my bike, present safely secured in the pannier bag on the back, completely unaware of how much I was going to fall in love with jumping about an eight-roomed, cruel, beautifully atmospheric yellow castle over the next few hours… until I was dragged off to midnight mass, though at least it got that out of the way for Christmas Day to be lived to the full!

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As I write this, I’ve got the title screen playing its looping bursts of multi-layered gothic Spectrum chip-tune, interspersed with pauses for a clap of thunder (white noise) before it ends in a subtle crescendo and you get what seems to be a slightly longer clap of “thunder” before it starts again. It really is one of my favourite pieces of 48K Spectrum music, which I realise isn’t saying a lot, but it does a wonderful job of setting the scene for what follows!

The “menue” screen then introduces the characters while the music thankfully keeps looping for extended enjoyment. The story goes that the ghost of Sir Humphrey needs you, the titular Olli, to get him a load of ingredients so Lissa can mix up an invisibility potion in her big cauldron and he can scare off the folks that are planning on shipping his castle to America. We could debate the amount of fear induced by visible versus invisible ghost, though I suppose it depends on what he’s planning on doing while he’s invisible, so let’s just accept the storyline might not be the game’s greatest strength!

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The very first (of the aforementioned eight) screen is everything I love about this game. The creepy atmosphere is just incredible, and bizarrely everything being yellow somehow adds to the atmos! The attention to detail in the little 3D castle windows or the ornate stone flourishes above the portcullises really bring the castle alive. And it doesn’t stop with the backgrounds – don’t move for a second and Olli’s blobby sprite will turn and question what you’re playing at, then start tapping his foot impatiently. Meanwhile, up at the top of the screen, Sir Humphrey’s ghost paces (in a floating kind of way) up and down the platform where Lissa is waiting to mix stuff up.

When you start, Sir Humphrey will tell you what ingredient you need to find next in a little speech bubble, then off you trot to get it. A strange menagerie of gnomes, ghosts, spiders, little paranormal octopus things, bats and a nasty caterpillar will hinder your progress as you hunt around the castle then outside it through the woods and caverns and back across the ramparts to find the his ingredients then make your way back to Lissa and her cauldron where she’ll reward you with a kiss before you set off for the next one.

Not that you’re ever going to see much of that saucy action – this is one brutal, pixel-perfect left, right and jump platformer, and the sight of Sir Humphrey battering you with a brush when you run out of energy (which quickly ticks down regardless of you hitting stuff) is a much more familiar sight!

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You will spend a very long time jumping over beasties then trying to go up and down stairs before that come back for you in the gap before their rapid return from their movement loop in the first two castle screens before you even get a occasional sniff of the outside world! But given how much I love that castle, it never really put me off, and seeing the spiders on the spooky trees or jumping across the lake was only ever an infrequent but unnecessary bonus. Instead, I did (and still do) while away many a happy hour just dying over and over again… in the cruellest, yellowest, best ever castle in gaming history!

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As a footnote, there was eventually a trilogy of these games, but neither of the sequels ever really did much for me. Olli and Lissa II: Halloween, released a year after the original in 1987, had you as a witch on a broom and was a poor-man’s Cauldron (literally!) for as much as I ever played of it. By the time Olli and Lissa III: The Candlelight Adventure arrived in 1989, I’d jumped ship to Atari ST and only played it much more recently. In its defence, it is a more direct evolution of the first game with a more multi-coloured, Firelord-esque graphical style, but it definitely ain’t top five games of all time material like its predecessor!

My Life With… Enduro Racer – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Enduro Racer – ZX Spectrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Post – Incredible Exolon on Spectrum Next Artwork!

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

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

My Life With… Kane – ZX Spectrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Post – Steve Blower Imagine Software Art Uncovered

Bonus Post – Steve Blower Imagine Software Art Uncovered

I didn’t realise at the time, but those glorious old Commodore VIC-20 cassette covers, that were often the primary reason for buying a game (unless you were seduced by some misleading C64 screenshots on the back), were actually real pieces of art by real artists! Maybe it was all those logos and stuff all over them…

One such artist was Steve Blower, of Imagine and then Ocean. I was recently pointed towards some very special versions of some of his cover art by Mark R. Jones (@MarkRJones1970) who was himself a bit of an artistic legend at Ocean! They’re special because there’s no logos and stuff all over them. It’s the original uncommercialised real deal. 

And one of them is of the very game that inspired the name of my blog (separate post later I’m sure), Arcadia! Enjoy…

Interestingly, once he’d moved to Ocean, he also came up with some cover art that was cut out of C&VG and stuck on my bedroom wall, and as a super-fan should have been very special to me. But it’s a game I’ve neither owned nor even played, Frankie Goes to Hollywood. I’ll try and remedy that in a future bonus post – FGTH played and reviewed for the first time, right here, right now. Because Frankie Says so! Even so, I think I’ve probably missed out on the live version of Relax. 

You can catch up with Steve Blower on Twitter, @wsteveb. 

My Life With… Commando – Commodore 64 / ZX Spectrum

I usually start these posts with the year I first played the game and what I was up to, but not this time. I want to show you something from the 29th May 2017, just two days ago at the time I started writing, whilst watching my ten year old son play cricket…

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I’ve been persevering with Commando on iOS, complete with dreadful touch controls, since it appeared in its Japanese “Wolf of the Battlefield” guise a couple of months ago. But there was no way I was going to let something like that spoil an arcade-perfect version on my phone, so I played and played until the frankly bizarre nature of the controls was meaningless and I saw this screen for the first time ever!

Commando on the C64 was an incredible achievement – also arcade perfect as far as I could tell at the time (though I learnt two days ago that it was lacking a few stages), and that music… I normally switch off when I hear the words Rob Hubbard or SID, but this theme tune is as intense as the first time those big gates swing open at the end of the 1st Area! There’s a great quote from the man himself on this Hubbard remix – “[I] started working on it late at night, and worked on it through the night. I took one listen to the original arcade version and started working on the C64 version. […] By the time everyone arrived at 8.00 in the morning, I had loaded the main tune on every C64 in the building! I got my cheque and was on a train home by 10.00.”

But let’s get back to form, and probably Christmas 1986, which I think must have been the Christmas my brother Phil and me received our ZX Spectrum +2, though verifying that hasn’t been as easy as I’d expected of Google! I’d recently said goodbye to my VIC-20, which was part of the upgrade deal; we sold it and almost all of my games collection for £25 to my Grandma’s next door neighbour for her young son. And it still hurts! It was also the time my friend Steven and I officially went our separate ways. He’d got a Commodore 128 for his birthday the previous April. He’d later get an Amiga and I got an ST, then he went XBOX and I went Playstation, and so it continues to the present day. It was never really a Commodore vs Spectrum rivalry though – I loved his machine as much as my own, which looking back I don’t think he was so impressed with…

During this Christmas period, we played a ton of Winter Games and Commando at his house. And probably Oh Mummy! at mine, but the less said about that the better.

I have to admit that Commando, as great as it was, wasn’t quite what I expected – where was Arnie??? His film of the same name had come out the previous February, and despite it having an 18 rating and me being 14 (and looking 12), I’d obviously seen it just after release thanks to the magic of pirate video! When we’d started upper school at Bedford’s St Thomas More the previous year, there’d been an influx of kids from Milton Keynes, about 15 miles away and without a Catholic school of its own, so they were bussed in; and out, fifteen minutes earlier than us Bedfordians, much to our chagrin. Naturally, after a few months friendships formed, and I became friends with a kid called Clive. Back in those days, the modern metropolis of Milton Keynes had Sky TV, which just wasn’t available to us yokels. He talked about American wrestling a lot, which the rest of us got to see once or twice a year as a special treat in the Saturday afternoon ITV wrestling slot, though my only real recollection of this was a guy called Moondog Rex… when I later became an WWF connoisseur, I learnt that he had a tag partner called Moondog Spot. The Moondogs. Great days. Anyway, at some point he lent me a video of that week’s WWF show, which was the one where Macho Man dropped the ring bell off the top rope onto Ricky The Dragon Steamboat’s throat. And that hooked me, so he’d start recording it every week for me. And along with that the movies started to flow, generally filmed off a primitive camcorder in a cinema, complete with people walking by to go to the loo. Notably that year, we had Platoon, Top Gun, Highlander and Cobra, which was a close second to my favourite pirate video that year, Commando, with Arnie as a retired special forces guy on a massive killing spree to rescue his daughter, Alyssa Milano, who’d grow up to be a right old sauce pot. This film influenced me so much that I actually bought a camo stick like he used for my face; I never used it, but it was probably a safer bet than buying a massive gun and not using it.

At some point in the distant past I was talking about a video game, and the point is that despite sharing a name with this film, it was actually nothing to do with it. Which took about thirty seconds of play to stop being a problem. There may have been no Arnie, but the premise was the same – you’re a crack commando travelling up the screen, shooting everything in sight, lobbing your limited supply of grenades and freeing the odd hostage across eight areas on the way to taking out the enemy fortress.

When I picked up the Spectrum version at some point in 1987, it took a few more seconds than that to get over a different problem, which was the graphics. Or more specifically, the colours. The loading screen is kind of what would have you’d have expected of the Spectrum, with all colour removed, but the developers had other blue and red and yellow ideas for the game itself, which resulted in some lovely colour clash if one of the enemy soldiers ended up behind a tree!

Aside from the colours though, this was another great conversion. The graphics are beautifully detailed and everything seemed to have been translated over from the arcade machine in all the right places – something else that the new iOS version revealed! It’s missing the great C64 tune, of course, but the sound effects are fine. The gameplay remains outstanding though, with a relatively easy first area that culminates in a frantic onslaught out of the first mini-fortress, but then the action really heats up with bunkers, bazookas, gun emplacements and barracks full of enemy soldiers appearing from all directions. It controls so well though that it rarely feels unfair when you die, generally in the second area if you’re as skilled at playing as I am, which kind of negated the high score table for me – it was only ever about getting to the third area!

This is a Spectrum classic, and standing waiting for those big gates to swing open and unleash hell at the end of each area is an enduring magical moment in gaming! Until next time…