Discovering Hydra on ZX Spectrum

Discovering Hydra on ZX Spectrum

I’m struggling to remember how this went exactly, but there were a couple of bars at the University of Hertfordshire when I was there from 1990 – the big raucous Student Union bar, The Font, with the barmaid that looked like Summer from Baywatch, and a more civilised affair in a separate building called the EleHouse. This was so named because that building was based on the designs of the Elephant House at London Zoo. By day it was somewhere that anyone who could afford it could get some fast food while watching MTV – hopefully the saucy Maria McKee’s Show Me Heaven theme from Days of Thunder was on – and there was a shop, possibly a bank (although that might have be somewhere else), and a couple of times a month you’d get a record fair for all your bootleg cassette needs, and, of course, a poster sale for student essentials like a replica of Munch’s The Scream or an oversized image of Bob Marley doing drugs! And by night, you had the imaginatively named Mandela Bar, which if you were lucky you wouldn’t have to share with the role playing nerds’ weekly club night or similar.

Now, all of that is a bit hazy – I can’t even remember it being called EleHouse, but by process of recent elimination, I reckon I must be in the right place! Maybe Elephant House is ringing a bell though… No matter because things get hazier; now that we’ve solved one of gaming’s great mysteries – whatever happened to Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery on ZX Spectrum (see here) – it’s time to move on to two more that I don’t think are going to be quite so straightforward to research. And I think these two are closely related… Mystery number one: where was the Pit-Fighter machine I used to play that always had a crowd of people around it? By another process of elimination based on time and a vague recollection of a couple of arcade machines there, I also reckon it was somewhere in the vicinity of that Mandela Bar. Mystery number two: what was the name of the other arcade machine we played to death that either stood next to it, or might have been there before or after it?

Wondering where I played Pit-Fighter has never really kept me up at night, but not being able to remember what that other game I remember playing with my student friends, probably in that same bar, drove me mad for years, because, being an enthusiast, I just wanted to know what it was so I could play it again! Some kind of boat racing game was all I could remember, and over the years, every time I went back and saw something like The Living Daylights on Spectrum with speed boats in it, I’d be racking my brains all over again trying to remember what this thing was! I did think I’d nailed it when I picked up old arcade racer collection Midway Arcade Treasures 3 on PlayStation 2, albeit way after the fact. Hydro Thunder, an inshore powerboat racing game, was what caught my eye, and as much fun as it is, I’m afraid we’re several years too early for that. But now it was ringing bells, and how close it turned out that we were! Shortly after that, around the middle of 2019, and my Game Boy Advance screen backlight died, and I decided to try out a PocketGo handheld to host a curated list of my Game Boy and Game Boy Advance collection in ROM form. Very nice it was too – so nice, in fact, that I decided it should also host my brother’s old Sega Game Gear collection, and then his Atari Lynx collection, but those weren’t very big, so I may have supplemented them with a few others! I have genuinely tried to keep that wonderful little machine well curated though, rather than just dumping romsets onto its SD card, in an effort to actually play everything. And during that curation process, I started looking into the best of the Atari Lynx because outside of After Burner rip-off Blue Lighting and the absolute system stealer California Games, I didn’t really know much about what it had to offer. And there it was – not quite Hydro Force, but Hydra!

Even by my standards, we took some time getting there, especially when you consider that within minutes I’d decided I was massively underwhelmed with that Lynx game and was playing Klax again as usual! I don’t give up so easily though, and as I recently discovered with the coincidentally similar Bimini Run on Sega Genesis (not Mega Drive because it was a US-only release), there’s sometimes far more fun to be had when you read the instructions! Doing so then transformed it into the game I was trying to remember, though I’m still not very keen on the controls on there, and that tiny screen… Apart from having no money, I’m not entirely sure how the Atari ST version passed me by – I wasn’t exactly an arcade game connoiseur at this point, so I’d have thought that I’d have jumped at what appears to have been a decent conversion. We’ll put it down to money, but I’ve also spent the last six months or so waiting for it to appear on eBay and it just doesn’t, so it’s also quite possible it just didn’t really appear in the wild much here. As an aside, it’s worth stating that like MAME, I’m completely baffled by emulating Atari ST and Amiga, so we’re leaving those versions there and turning to 8-bit!

The Commodore 64 version of Hydra is a bit of an oddity. I’ve never been able to get it to work, and there’s very little trace of it outside of the full C64 romset that I will admit to keeping! Almost like it was never actually released though. There’s a bit more around on the Amiga version, but again, bit of a hidden gem like the ST version. And that leaves us with the ZX Spectrum, which isn’t so bad because that’s where I’ve been playing Hydra the most!

Now that we’ve established the name of the game and the platforms it’s vaguely playable on, let’s have a quick look at what it actually is! It’s Atari, it’s 1990, and we’re in the future where terrorists rule ths skies and the seas. You work for the only courier company that the world’s governments can trust to transport things like doomsday devices, mutant viruses and crown jewels about the place, and that courier company isn’t Hermes or even Hydro Force, but Hydra! You’re faced with nine delivery missions to complete by driving your Hydracraft (hovercraft) with its supercharged speed and firepower, taking out enemy forces such as boats, jet skis, mines, helicopters, zeppelins and more who all want a bit of your package. This translates to mostly driving, but sometimes hovering, dodging and shooting your way through some very pretty digitised landscapes as you travel the world protecting your parcels and making sure you stay fuelled. At the end of each level there’s a bonus stage where you can stock up on more fuel, power-ups and other goodies, then there’s a shop to spend any money earned on better weapons. In reality, Roadblasters on water isn’t a million miles away!

I think there was a sit-down version of the arcade game, but we had a cool mini-upright cabinet with a flight controller and speakers that made the top section look like a boombox, and that would make an appearance, together with some nice arcade screenshots, on the back of the Spectrum cassette box when it was released by Domark in 1991! I’m still convinced there’s more to this than the laziness that might meet the eye… The lazy eye? Anyway, the full-page advert that appeared in Computer & Video Games magazine around June 1991 did the same, but unusually there wasn’t a mention of any of the formats it was being released on, but a preview in that mag did confirm all the usual 8- and 16-bit suspects. The following month it got less than average reviews in there on Atari ST and Amiga, and a news flash somewhere else confirmed a Spectrum version was coming soon, although the Spectrum magazines like Crash and Your Sinclair seem to have got their hands on it around the same time. Apart from Sinclair User’s 79%, the rest of the reviews came in pretty average on Spectrum too, but we all know that your own opinion is the only one that counts, so let’s dive in!

If you don’t look too closely, the Spectrum’s loading screen is a pretty good approximation of the arcade game’s title screen, with your wet-look tough guy and his black sunglasses in his hover thing, burning up a tropical river and burning up an unseen enemy with a preview of my favourite weapon upgrade, the flamethrower, shooting out of the front. I really like the trees in the background here – they just demand a Predator lurking about in them somewhere! Things stay very colourful as you get to the first mission briefing too, informing you you’re off to Baja, Calfornia with a fairly pointless map, what might be you or someone else in sunglasses, and your package getting ready for despatch. There’s a simple but quite jaunty piece of almost new romantic electronica playing in the background too, which is going to accompany you through the game – not at the expense of a few sound effects at least either, even if they are all a little on the lightweight side and I’d have really liked the feedback of some engine noise.

Things do revert to more familiar ground as you start the mission proper, with a behind the boat view as your parcel is loaded onto it from the side of a shed (albeit a very nice looking shed)! It’s a similar look to the likes of Enduro Racer or Out Run on the Spectrum, with a changing dominant colour for most of the background marking each stage; for example the opening one, Colorado, is yellow, then Baja will be a pale green-blue, and so on. The background scenery itself is generally black on the sky’s colour, but some of these are really well detailed and quite imaginitive, ranging from mountains to cityscapes to ocean sunsets, although the latter is a little disappointing, with the big sun just being a circle the same colour as the sky! They repeat across stages a fair bit too, regardless of the location name changing and some of the obstacles being location specific, like the famous floating trees in Germany, but you’ve got to get pretty good for repetition to be a big problem! You also get repeating tunnels of varying lengths, usually at the end of a stage, though some are stages in themselves, and these are a bit jarring, switching everything to white on black until you come out of the other side! The end of level bonus stages do mix things up a bit, with some wild background colours in what looks like a giant circus tent full of water, ramps and power-ups! The sprites are reasonably detailed when you’re up close, but from a distance everything does all look a bit messy and indistinct, especially as you get further into the game and there’s more stuff demanding the attention of your guns or needing dodging. There’s not that many different enemies either – occasionally you’ll get a speedboat or something exciting dropping mines in your way, but more often than not you’re just blasting loads of Dalek-looking things. Given this came out in 1991, it should probably have tried harder (especially at the very expensive £10.99 they were charging for it)!

Apart from the fairly intrusive, but admittedly necessary multi-load, repetition is probably the biggest criticism I’d level at the game. I think the arcade game got away with it a bit, with big, bold sounds and fast, explosive graphics driving things along, but once you’ve seen all the colours and all the backgrounds, you are wondering do I keep trying to get better in the hope that things might change up, or will I get bored before that’s possible, or even have I seen it all now already? In terms of gameplay, you have experienced most of it by the time you get to the first bonus stage, The Hydradome, and Ziggy’s Weapon Shoppe whenever you come a cropper in there (or get to the end, though I don’t think I ever have), and then it’s a case of shooting more enemies and dodging more floating mischief. But maybe I’m being harsh, because doing all of that is quite a lot of fun!

Similar to the Atari Lynx version once you’ve read the instructions, there’s some depth to the controls here that you’re going to have to get your head around to make it fun though. Regular water driving (is driving what you do on water?) involves pushing up to accelerate, fire to fire your normal weapon, enter to select your special weapon, then down to fire it. Hitting space is going to give you a boost, and when you boost you can fly, which switches to a regular inverted down for flying up and up to go back down again, and once you’re back on the water it switches back. It’s reasonably intuitive after a few goes, but I’ve never been a fan of switching between joystick and keyboard, especially on an arcade racer!

As well as the flamethrower from the loading screen, Ziggy’s psychedelic weaponry emporium offers you homing missiles, anti-gravity flight without using up your boost, shields, uzis, bombs and a nuke to obliterate everything on the screen; possibly overkill, especially at the crazy prices of even the most basic of these upgrades, which mean you won’t be experiencing many of them until you’ve been around enough times for second and third visits! It seemed like you were getting the bonus stage and the shop every third level, each representing a different geographic location, of which there are 31 across the nine missions.

Smash the controls, get a couple of upgrades and work out some of the enemy patterns (and occasionally dodgy collision detection) and it all feels pretty good to play. It’s certainly not an all-time classic, and it really is a bit of a Roadblasters knock-off when all of its original arcade finery is replaced by different shades of monochrome – you can look at a screenshot and if you didn’t know you’d think it was a Spectrum homebrew of F-Zero… Now there’s something to look into! All the same, another gaming mystery solved, an enjoyable time solving it, and now I can go back to pondering the delights of Pit Fighter, which hopefully isn’t going to involve playing that Spectrum stinker!

Game Review: Travel Through Time Vol. 1 – Northern Lights on ZX Spectrum

Game Review: Travel Through Time Vol. 1 – Northern Lights on ZX Spectrum

Throughout its lifetime, the limits of the ZX Spectrum were regularly tested and redefined by its racing games. Ironically, of course, that’s in stark contrast to its main 8-bit rival, whose limits were regularly defined by them… Buggy Boy, Super Cycle and maybe its interpretation of Power Drift excluded. Maybe.

Anyway, back on the Spectrum, we can go all the way back to the 1983-realism of Chequered Flag, with its lifelike cockpit and household name tracks; and it’s where my life with the Spectrum began! Not so much a racing game and more of a driving game, but no denying that the third-person 3D crime-fuelled cityscapes of 1986’s Turbo Esprit were a blueprint for Grand Theft Auto and more that followed. Things went nuts in 1987, with my number one (if we’re excluding Supersrint) Spectrum racing game ever Enduro Racer and its big thrill, big sprite off-road motorbiking; we also had another great arcade bike racer in Super Hang-On, and I’ll always maintain that the Spectrum’s conversion of Out Run was a stunner too! The superb arcade ports didn’t let up the following year, with WEC Le Mans’ super-smooth action coming very close to also being top of the pile. Then there was the depth of Nigel Mansell’s Grand Prix, and I’m also going to mention Super Trux for trying something new too, especially when it came to hills, and just being a really fun, under-appreciated racer!

Speaking of hills, 1989 saw a fantastic conversion of Power Drift which really nailed the gameplay of the original, and another game that’s often mentioned as one of the best (if not the best) of them all, Chase HQ, although as impressive as it runs, I’ve never really clicked with that on any system. I definitely clicked with Stunt Car Racer on another system (Atari ST), but the Spectrum also got a very impressive, albeit more bare bones version that really knows how to throw those big 3D shapes that make up those outrageous elevated tracks around. A couple of years later and we’re now really getting the most out the system’s 3D graphics capabilities – Chevy Chase is a beauty (especially the gorgeous sunset level); take your pick between Test Drive II or Toyota Celica GT Rally as the closest you’ll come to driving a car on the Spectrum (at least to look at…); and finally we approach the end of the Spectrum’s life with Super Monaco GP realising everything we thought we were looking at when we started our journey with Chequered Flag almost a decade earlier!

Super hang on a minute though! What’s all this talk about end of the Spectrum’s life? Okay, maybe briefly, but like another guy with a beard, it didn’t take Sir Clive’s little zombie long to rise from the grave with a bit of help from the insane homebrew scene that’s still thriving as we speak – no doubt whenever you’re reading this! We’ve had some absolute corkers when it comes to racing games especially over the last few years – all the way back in 2004 we had 4K Race, which was followed up with the sublime Pole Position-esque sequel 4K Race Refuelled, a super-smooth, super-fast arcade racer that fills a gap on the Spectrum I didn’t realise was there until I played it. Fast forward a few years to 2019 and we’ve got a couple of releases from developer Zosya Entertainment, who by this point were establishing themselves as a real sign of quality for modern ZX Spectrum gaming. The first game of theirs I remember wasn’t a racing game, but this really great looking fantasy (literally!) Amazon action adventure called Valley of Rains, complete with its raunchy cassette inlay! They’ve also produced the excellent platformer Bonnie and Clyde, in the vein of Bubble Bobble or Rodland, and the jaw-dropping first-person shooter The Dark: Redux, and you really need to be checking out anything with their name on… Including uber-stylised drift racer, Drift (which I’m rubbish at), and an arguably better take on the original Super Hang-On conversion by the name of Just a Gal, featuring the tale of a lady racer named Maureen!

And between the style and the storyline of these two games, we end our journey at the present day, with Zosya’s 2021 release, Travel Through Time Vol. 1: Northern Lights. Now, in getting here we’ve taken in the very best of ZX Spectrum racing (and sometimes ZX Spectrum gaming full-stop), but from the very outset it’s obvious that we’re also in the presence of something very, very special with this one!

We begin as you begin your amateur racing career in 1950’s Sweden, and what follows is a story-based racing game that spans four decades, six vehicles from those decades (up to the eighties in case you’re struggling to keep track) as the automotive industry develops in parallel, and follow the life of one family through that time. And all of this plays out through stylish cutscenes, and a variety of racing types, from challenge to time trial and duel to checkpoint chasing, and you’ll be racing at night and through different seasons and weather too.

We’re understandably in 128K-only territory here, so after a bright and breezy loading screen you’re getting a very bright and breezy AY theme tune, with meandering melodies skillfully layering over a familiar sounding Spectrum rhythm section that eventually end up in a quite moving crescendo. From there, as well as choosing your preferred control method, you’re also asked if you want OST CD or chip sound during gameplay, then you’re dumped into the 1950’s with a beautifully coloured, finely detailed and minimally animated cutscene.

The first stage is the simplest of all the different race modes – just drive with no time limits, get used to the controls and enjoy the scenery as you make your way to the first checkpoint. The first thing that hits you is the absolutely unique art style. It’s a kind of textured cartoon-noir that uses shadows to not only provide atmosphere, but somehow restrict the actual screen size without you really noticing, and this no doubt contributes to the immediate visual miracle in detail, speed and smoothness of movement. I’m a complete philistine when it comes to stuff like frame rate, and could not care less about 60 frames per second, 30 frames per second, performance mode, whatever. As long as doesn’t look like stop motion, I’ll take tons of graphics over the rest any time. And that’s the great thing about Spectrums and the like – no one cares! But when you’re hitting 25 FPS on there, even I know that’s pretty impressive. Especially when there’s tons of graphics going on in parallel!

From the outset, there’s so much detail everywhere you look that isn’t sky or shadow, which again, is such a clever performance enabler in this type of game! The first time it really hits you is something as simple as a pedestrian crossing you go over at the start of the first stage, and you think “that’s impressive” before you start noticing the dynamic shadows coming off the telegraph poles or trees or top of your car as it goes under a bridge, or the skidmarks when you brake hard, or just the difference in texture as land becomes water beneath the bridge you’re on. There’s so much attention to detail here that I’ve already said more than I should – it’s a racer but I really don’t want to spoil anything beyond a taster of the first few minutes! All that road decoration is more than eye-candy too, and you’ll soon be paying extreme attention to road signs that warn of upcoming hazards like sharp turns, narrowing roads and other regular racing game stuff, but also things like railway crossings – the first one you can ignore, but go through the next barrier without stopping and you’re in trouble… By the way, you’ll be thinking “that’s seriously impressive” by now and we’re still mere seconds into the first stage! The car sprites have an air of Buggy Boy about them – big and chunky, and what that lack in colour is more than made up for in detail – just check out the glimpse of side of the car when you’re turning! Although there’s not massive variety in them during individual events or even time periods, as a whole you are getting plenty to drive and even more to avoid, with the other cars’ AI apparently always having an eye on the rear-view mirror to make sure it’s always just in the way enough for a time-sapping clip as you pass by!

You should breeze through the first few stages despite the other cars, the trains and the introduction of various timers, and each brings new and varied scenery, new colours to complement the deep shadows (with only the slightest of occasional bleeding), and you’ll also progress the story through cutscenes. I have the say that the story isn’t the game’s strongest point, and while it’s a nice way to mix up the racing action, when you have a racer this good I can live without it! I reckon the developers had an idea this might be the case for many of us because a long hold on the gear change button will skip it and get you straight back into the action!

It was the first part of stage four where the challenge spiked a bit; this one is a checkpoint race, and the first checkpoint must have taken me about fifteen goes to get to. It’s all about setting expectations though, because from here onwards you’re going to have your work cut out, and the very next stage – a one-on-one duel – took forever, watching our opponent disappear at the start and then get further and further away on your little in-car distance meter as the race went on, over and over! By now it’s clear that the game is demanding perfection, and on many stages (but not all) that means learning every bend, every gear change and every beautiful undulation! Again, because it’s as good as it is, it just about gets away with it, because we’re still only starting out here!

Which is a good time to remind myself that this isn’t a text-based walkthrough, and I’ve already said I don’t want to spoil things, so after about 18 different stages and a brief vehicle change, you’re going to be doing that time travelling thing the game name talks about, and heading into the 1960’s to do it all over again, in a smart modern car and in all kinds of new environments and conditions. And then the 1970’s, and finally the 1980’s. I have to admit that getting there is going to be a push. As good as it feels to play, and for all the variety of race types, I honestly can’t see many people even getting half way, especially with the more brutal time limits on some of the stages. And certainly not in one session because your hand will have cramped into a claw long before that, although there is a password around 1970 if you’re not using save states between levels! That’s about as far as I’ve got so far too, but I reckon you’re looking at 5-6 hours of story at least.

But for all the difficulty spikes, it’s always wonderful racing! Behind the graphical (and some nice dynamic audio) frills, which genuinely never stop being a joy to behold (except, if I’m being a bit harsh, maybe in the snow stages where you lose the impact of all that missing black shadowing), this feels a lot like WEC Le Mans to play. And there’s not really a greater compliment I can pay any Spectrum racer’s gameplay; or at least none that doesn’t involve the words “Enduro” and “Racer” but for as good as it appears to be, I’m not quite ready to go there with this yet! Anyway, the car is very responsive, and you’ll find yourself constantly making decisions on accelerator position versus gear change versus brake as you seek the perfect runs often demanded, and with time, so far at least, these are always achievable with persistence. And as someone who just finished WEC Le Mans for the first time, I reckon I have that persistence, and I definitely have no problem with playing this for many more hours!

For anyone with any interest in the ZX Spectrum, you have to check this out! It’s up there with the machine’s very best racing games, whether from its original incarnation or any of the wonderful homebrews since. The ingenuinity, the creativity and the sheer craftsmanship on display here will simply blow you away. Oh yeah, while there is a cassette release for you purists, the digital version is completely free. No excuse. And volume one had better mean there’s a volume two on the way… Incredible!

Grab it here.

Rediscovering Merlin on ZX Spectrum

Rediscovering Merlin on ZX Spectrum

When we were looking at The Trap Door (here), we had quite the discussion on Twitter (I may have even gone a bit viral for a moment!) about the best-looking Spectrum game – came up with quite the list too! The Trap Door obviously came out pretty well, as did stuff like R-Type, Exolon, Dan Dare, Light Force and Bomb Jack; no disagreement here so far! I discovered some absolulute corkers I’d never even heard of too, like Savage, Draconus and Astro Marine Corps, all of which possibly coincided with the arrival of my Atari ST! And we also covered a few more modern Spectrum games, like 1997’s The Dark, 2014’s Metal Man Reloaded, 2019’s Valley of Rains and the even more recent, very wonderful Wonderful Dizzy (more here!). Aside from The Trap Door, there were quite a few shouts for other Don Priestley games – the sequel, Through The Trap Door, Flunky, Benny Hill’s Madcap Chase, and probably just about as popular as The Trap Door, Popeye! I had a problem with Popeye though, because everything else (apart from Benny Hill!) looks as good in action as it does on screenshots; Popeye, on the other hand, moves like a dog, and delivers the exact amount of colour clash you’d expect a game with that much colour moving about on a Spectrum… Loads!

It’s not the first time we’ve been caught out by a screenshot though! All those VIC-20 games like Jump Jet with those beautiful Commodore 64 screenshots on the back of the box; the Spectrum wasn’t averse to those kind of shenanigans either, though we did occasionally get our own back with masterpieces like Enduro Racer! And it wasn’t the last time either, although the game missing from the list above may well have been the last time for me at least, with the aforementioned Atari ST looming large on the horizon, and that was, of course, Merlin!

There was no more effective way of selling your game than festooning it with some of the biggest and best-looking graphics you’ve ever seen and then sticking a £1.99 price tag on it, and that’s exactly what Firebird Software did with Mike Westlake’s Merlin early on in 1988. He’d still be plugging away at the Spectrum’s life support machine five year later, with a similarly big and bold pirate take on Merlin, Pieces of Eight, then another called S.A.S. Combat Assault, which appeared when the only people putting out games were Sinclair User magazine! But as good as all of them look, I’m all about his first Spectrum game, Tarantula, a 1987 cavern crawler where you’re flying about on a jetpack collecting stuff and avoiding insects, especially the giant tarantula, which is genuinely one of my favourite sights in all of gaming!

Anyway, back to getting sucked in by Merlin! I was, and whilst it’s nowhere near in the league of something like Kung-Fu Master, I distinctly remember coming home one evening from my Saturday job collecting trolleys at Sainsbury’s with this graphical powerhouse in my pocket, loading it up and just being so disappointed. Big generally isn’t beautiful, whatever wishful thinkers might say, and it also makes playing what thinks of itself as a modern-day Manic Miner an absolute stinker! We’ll get to that again, I’m sure, but however much that evening was just about all the chance I ever gave playing it, it’s always been on the tip of my tongue every time there’s talk of fancy 8-bit graphics, and over three decades on I reckoned this was the time to have another look at it, so here we are!

You might get glamorous screenshots for £1.99, but you rarely got a literary work of art to back them up, even when it’s based on one like this is! Yes, this Merlin is that Merlin! “Mystery magic and mayhem from Merlin the magnificent mage” is what the back of the box tells us; nothing else, but we are getting it in no less than seven languages! Let’s delve deep inside the inlay card instead… “Guide Merlin around the mystical Kingdom of Camelot collecting stars to recover his lost magic powers.” That’s it! No heavyweight medieval romances here, just wander about and collect some stars. For £1.99 I’m not even going to point out that the legendary Camelot is a castle and court, not a kingdom, though given that everything happens in a little castle and its spooky garden, I think we’re all square anyway!

I know I’ve come across as a little dismissive so far, but let’s be clear, once you get past the slightly ropey loading screen, this game is absolutely stunning to look at! It really is up there with me, The Trap Door and the rest as one of the best-looking things you’ll ever see on a Spectrum. It’s not just Merlin that’s massive, it’s everything. Except the castle! But everything else – the suits of armour (or are they actual knights standing about?); the intricate tables and chairs and bookcases; the lecterns holding a literal literary heavyweight; the giant fish that lives in the moat and the oversized barrels of booze in the cellar… all enormous! In the middle of the castle, you’ve got King Arthur’s Round Table, and we know it’s this and not any old table because it’s written in big capital letters on the side – twice – like some kind of old brand logo. Makes me laugh every time! The colour palette is classic Spectrum, but there’s an awful lot of it, with beautifully detailed magenta brickwork, some exquisite red woodwork and a subtly shaded bright green pikeman!

We could say all of that about Popeye though, so how is it in motion? Given that Merlin’s probably an old man, his stiff movement is forgivable, although he’s quick on his feet – too quick for something that relies on a bit of precision a lot of the time! That said, a lot of the stiffness of movement is very much down to the lack of animation – apart from bending his knees to either duck or jump, I’m not convinced there’s any whatsoever! He’s either facing left or right and there might be a bit of movement in his feet, but even despite his enormous size, it’s really hard to tell! There’s so many objects in so many colours everywhere, there’s an awful lot of the time that you won’t really be able to see Merlin at all, which, again, isn’t always ideal for this kind of game! And all of those colours do exactly what you think they will; there’s some glorious colour clash here! I think my favourite examples are any time his bright blue wizard’s hat goes past anything (which is a lot of the time given his size), and when he moves behind the red, green and yellow bookcases and almost completely disappears – all you can see is a total merging of the sprites as he moves across them, Predator style. Actually, with a lick of paint this could have been even better than the actual Predator game that I think came out at exactly the same time!

The sound is a bit grating. The unrelenting classic Spectrum footstep noise is just about tolerable, but there’s these higher-pitched, almost nasal versions of it for some of the enemies which are really annoying, or quieter versions for others, which range from big insects to ghosts to living broomsticks, though these are mostly normal game size, which is a little odd when you’re in one of the few less cluttered environments, but they mostly move about in an inoffensive way. Which isn’t the case for some of the other sound effects – the squelchy beep as you catch a star, or the squelchier one when you lose a life and the more high pitched variant when you’re just losing life force. It’s all just a bit of a cacophony of annoying Spectrum sounds! The title screen music isn’t much better – if I had to write a game theme, I reckon it would sound like this – random notes until you get a hint of a melody, then speed things up and repeat it!

I’m not sure how many screens make up the seemingly small castle of the kingdom of the Camelot, but I reckon around thirty. There’s absolutely no variety in the gameplay no matter which direction you go and how many you make it through though – you’ll have a bunch of stars to collect on each one, which will involve some light jumping and ducking, and some pixel perfect avoiding of enemies that are usually synchronised to make anything less than pixel perfect mean either loss of life force or instant death. I never did work out which enemies would cause which outcome, but you’ll soon find out why you start with ten lives and a life force meter for each one! As we’ve already hinted at, regardless of you being an overly fast but ultimately stiff giant, that pixel perfect thing really gets most problematic when you’re going all Predator in the colour clash jungle of death and you can’t actually tell where he is in relation to the baddies! And that’s the major fun-sucker here.

In the end, all those wonderful graphics are Merlin’s downfall. Too big, too much, and whilst a bit of all fur coat and no knickers can go a long way in delaying such simple gameplay quickly running out of steam, in this case it just serves to accelerate it. But for all it lacks in any kind of long-term fun, I probably got my £1.99’s worth out of bringing it up over the years every time I get the chance to talk about the best-looking game on the Spectrum!

Discovering WEC Le Mans on ZX Spectrum

Discovering WEC Le Mans on ZX Spectrum

WEC Le Mans was an arcade game by Konami in 1986 that I never saw in the wild – I guess there was just too much Out Run everywhere when we went on holiday that year! In fact, I think the first time I ever really paid attention to it was when glowing reviews started appearing everywhere in early 1989 for the home versions. Which is a shame because this thing would have been a real showstopper in the arcades, especially if you came across the bonkers Big Spin version that jumped, turned and span 180 degrees! For an arcade game it was very simulation focussed though, with both day and night driving in a condensed but accurate version of the Le Man 24 race and some very challenging track designs. And with some impressive sprite-scaling it looks the part too – probably more so than Out Run – but while the soundtrack is no Magical Sound Shower, it’s pretty outstanding all the same!

Those home conversions came at exactly the wrong time for me, and to my shame I think I was pretty much ignoring Spectrum reviews by then no matter how big the score, especially when multi-format magazines like Computer & Video Games told you that Atari ST and Amiga versions were imminent! Actually, not just that, but the back page of that particular issue also confirmed this, with price information and some screenshots that definitely weren’t 8-bit, but in retrospect were probably from the arcade version. Regardless, that’s just about the last we heard of those versions and as a result it would be a very long time before I came back to WEC Le Mans!

The years have been good to WEC Le Mans, and if it missed out on challenging Out Run in the arcades, it certainly didn’t in the memories of Spectrum enthusiasts… I still love you though, Spectrum Out Run! Actually, the only reason I’m here now is because I was playing Out Run on there the other day, and that reminded me that I really should have a serious go at WEC Le Mans, so here we are with some first and several hours’ worth of subsequent impressions!

When you fire up the game for the first time, long before you think of reading the instructions or work out what’s being asked of you, there’s immediately two things going for WEC Le Mans on the Spectrum – it moves at pace and the car feels good to control. I didn’t really get much more than that out of the instructions when I did return to them – mostly marketing blurb telling you it’s the most realistic and addictive racing game yet, featuring four dramatic laps of the most gruelling and challenging car race in the world, with three checkpoints to pass on each one. Also some useful tips, like change the gear to go around bends, don’t oversteer, keep off the grass, don’t change gear too soon and always start in low gear. Everything you need to know to be successful in any racing game!

It might not last 24 hours, but hitting those checkpoints with enough time left to carry over a bit for the next one is rough! You’ve got 66 seconds to hit the first one, and if you make any mistakes here you might as well start again, but don’t because this game is way too much fun for that kind of seriousness, and anyway, you clearly need the practice! If you crash off the road, the timer does stop for you, but you’ll take so long getting back up to race pace that it’s not massively helpful. Everything is against the clock, but there’s loads of competitor cars to not crash into as well, and even though they all look the same, it feels like you’re racing them because they aren’t going to let you pass easily, and if you whack one of them you’ll be catching up with them again for another go – which is great until you get five or six of them at it at once to keep catching up with! They’re devious too, and you’re going to be trying to out-think them with every overtake; and there’s some extra realism with your opponents the further you get, with them sometimes losing concentration and spinning out just like you! Patience is definitely key, despite the very demanding checkpoint times. That said, get a few stages under your belt without any problems and bonus time starts stacking up, and you could always take a gamble on some dodgy collision detection, which will benefit you as much as hinder you once you’ve worked it out.

The graphics aren’t quite up there with Enduro Racer, but it’s as good as Spectrum racing gets apart from that (including Chase HQ, in this humble opinion). The track curves and undulates beautifully, and with the signs, adverts and trees along its sides, it’s all moving at a very smooth and a very fast pace. The backgrounds aren’t anything you’ve not seen before, and the car sprites are a little boxy, but they’re big and detailed, though I’m still not convinced about the choice of blue for your car, which is most apparent when you go off-piste and the colours start fighting with each other. But given the sense of speed, and the sheer amount of stuff being thrown around at that speed, I’ll forgive it a bit of clash, especially when the car’s in full spin. Sound is non-existent on the 48K version and barely functional on 128K, though it does have a nice bouncy title tune.

The final impression isn’t going to be so different from the first – this is up there with the very best of the Spectrum racers (even if it should have been up there with the very best of the Atari ST racers), but a lack of nostalgia means it has some catching up to do before it’s one of my very favourites. The speed and the handling make it an absolute joy to play, and whilst it doesn’t have the variety of Enduro Racer or Out Run’s changing environments, it certainly has the longevity – for all the hours I’ve now put in, I still haven’t quite finished it, and usually count myself lucky if I see the third lap! But this is the guy who spent 40 hours not giving up on Bay Bridge on arcade Virtua Racing, so watch this space!

My Life With… The Trap Door – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… The Trap Door – ZX Spectrum

FRANKIE SAYS that there’s all sorts of reasons why 1984 is the greatest year in the history of history! It was the be-all and end-all for pop music, from the majesty of Purple Rain to the stadium new romanticism of Spandau and Duran; when people talk about eighties music, what they mean is music from 1984! The arcades were evolving from sci-fi distraction to creating fantasies, from wartime aerial dogfighting in 1942 to being Bruce Lee in Kung-Fu Master in the arcades; we weren’t doing too badly at home either, with a non-stop parade of what would become all-time greats, from Jet Set Willy to Knight Lore to Elite. When the games got kicked off of the TV for the evening, Miami Vice introduced the world to the eternal definition of being cool, and Airwolf and Blue Thunder fought for helicopter supremacy. Over in the cinema, the classics just didn’t stop – Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones, Police Academy, Gremlins, The Terminator, Ghostbusters… And, of course, This is Spinal Tap became the last word in movie comedy, forever cemented in my top ten favourite films ever!

We’re only scratching the surface too! What about Wham and Van Halen, Radio Ga-Ga and Big in Japan, Pac-Land and Hyper Sports, Sabre Wulf, Moon Fleet, Fraggle Rock, Karate Kid, Romacing the Stone, Footloose, Footloose, kick off your Sunday Shoes…? And don’t forget, we’re still in prime A-Team, Knightrider, Dukes of Hazzard and ITV World of Sport Wrestling territory, and we’ve got 2000AD and Eagle, and the FA Cup Final is still a big event, and there’s the LA Olympics to look forward to, and Do They Know It’s Christmas… Okay, I get it, that last one’s got you convinced and I don’t need to go on! I was 12 in 1984, and there’s no doubt that this cultural tsunami is why I am what I am today, and, combined with an emerging taste for the weird and horrific, it’s also why I was perfectly positioned to completely fall in love with another new TV show that year, The Trap Door!

“Somewhere in the dark and nasty regions, where nobody goes, stands an ancient castle. Deep within this dank and uninviting place, lives Berk, overworked servant of the thing upstairs – “Berk! Feed Me!” – but that’s nothing compared to the horrors that lurk beneath the trap door, for there is always something down there, in the dark, waiting to come out…”

What I didn’t appreciate at the time, but with the benefit of a horror collector’s hindsight can very much appreciate now, is that this was a parody of the introductions Vincent Price used to do at the start of his horror movies like The Haunted Palace and The House on Hanted Hill. Slightly more child-friendly, we were then treated to the iconic theme tune, which was penned by none other than the guy who wrote then equally iconic Shakin’ Stevens’ Merry Christmas Everyone – “Don’t you open that trapdoor, you’re a fool if you dare! Stay away from that trapdoor, ’cause there’s something down there…”

What follows is a stop-motion plasticine animation set in the gothic psychedelia of the aforementioned ancient castle – we’re stylistically somewhere between the simplicity of Tony Hart’s Morph that we already knew and loved, and those dreadful Wallace and Gromit things, which some of the team here would actually go on to be involved in. Most of the action takes place in the castle pantry and cellar, where Berk, a big blue blob from the West Country lives with Boni, an intellectual talking skull, and his pet spider Drutt. Then there’s his master, The Thing Upstairs, who we never actually see but in most episodes he’s ordering Berk to make him food, fix things or clean him; and in most episodes, these orders spark some kind of misadventure involving Berk opening The Trap Door, which shuts out the monsters and “horrible things” living in the caverns below.

As an aside, even though we never see The Thing Upstairs, the clues are there if you pay attention… There’s sponge-like tentacles in a flash of lightning in one episode; Berk also refers to his three eyes and later asks which of his heads is suffering from toothache; we also see bits of him – that sore tooth comes out and is more than half the size of Berk, and at one point one of his eyes ends up in The Trap Door, and that’s almost as big as him; there’s also references to three humps and having wings, which we hear beating at one point. Anyway, the sort of thing you’d probably jump through monstrous hoops for!

Creators Terry Brain and Charlie Mills, supported by the instantly recognisable voice talents of Willie Rushton, gave us 25 episodes of The Trap Door, which if I remember rightly ran on weekday evenings on ITV to begin with, then on one of their Saturday morning shows, and lasted about 5 minutes each. There was a second series, but not until 1990, and as far as I know those episodes were mostly re-hashes of the first one, but being 18 at the time I was probably more into Sarah Greene on Going Live on Saturday mornings! Actually, I’d have been collecting trolleys for Sainsbury’s in Bedford, but that’s far less exotic than Sarah Greene! Anyway, back in 1984, two years later we’d finally get The Trap Door game of the cartoon, released by Piranha Games on ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC, and written by none other than Don Priestley, who by this time had made a bit of a name for himself – especially on the Spectrum – for really groundbreaking oversized and very colourful graphics. I think a friend’s copy of Popeye was one of the very first games I played on my Spectrum +2, and I was just blown away by these enormous, detailed sprites that really brought one of my favourite comic strips to life, even if they didn’t move so well and the game wasn’t really that much fun to play! But you can see the seeds sown in the not dissimilar but even less fun predecessor Benny Hill’s Madcap Chase starting to grow into something that might end up really good!

And in 1986, The Trap Door evolved his signature format into something really good that didn’t just drag the Spectrum kicking and screaming way beyond its normal limits to perfectly nail the look of the cartoon, but captured the essence of what made it so engaging too, masterfully transporting its plot mechanics into solid puzzle-solving gameplay mechanics. Like the cartoon, you as Berk are grudgingly carrying out the orders of The Thing Upstairs, but there’s an end game – a safe full of loot – if you successfully carry out five increasingly bizarre tasks in the harder but more rewarding Super Berk mode, or four in the easier but lower scoring Learner Berk mode. You need to do them quickly and accurately before his anger boils over, sending your completeed offerings Upstairs on the dumb waiter in the hope that The Thing accepts it. As you might have guessed, each of these tasks is going to involve opening up that Trap Door and letting out one of the ‘orrible monstrosities that lurk down there, which, if you’re lucky, is going to play a role in in completing it. And if you’re not lucky, you’re going to have to get rid of it (somehow!) before you either run out of time or worse. If that wasn’t bad enough, having the trap door open in Super Berk mode risks letting spooks out, and like everything else in Berk’s world, they’re hungry and the only way to get rid of them is to feed them whatever you have at hand (even your mate Boni!) before they do you mischief.

There’s more to Boni than being ghost-bait though, and if you pick him up he’ll sometimes give you a clue on what to do next. Drutt the spider isn’t quite so useful though, generally getting in the way as he hops around trying to catch worms to eat. Apart from that, you’re relying in The Thing Upstairs to tell you what he wants, then finding whatever it is you need to give it to him. These will be scattered around the place, and you’re going to have to work out what’s needed and when, then how to use it and what monster you’re going to need to complete it. The first mission gently introduces you to this multi-dimensional puzzling… You need to send up a can of worms, so you’re going to find a can in the kitchen and take it back to the room with The Trap Door, which you’re going to open to release some worms then try and catch before Drutt eats them. Get a couple in the can and that’s it, you can put them in the dumb waiter and send them up to your master.

Obviously, things soon get more complicated! You’ll be working out how to transport small eyeballs so you can grow them into bigger ones in plant pots before getting them into a vat so one of the monsters can crush them; you’ll be using fire-breathing robots to roast slimes; you’ll be using The Trap Door (sorry, has to be capitals!) to fling bullets or anything else at hand at bizarre birds that, after a load more equally bizarre steps, will end up as fried eggs, and so on. There’s some strategy at play with this puzzle solving as well though; The Thing Upstairs’ anger is measured by an anger meter, and you need to get stuff done before it gets too high, but once you know what you’re doing with the puzzles, you can use any time left over to maximise your score. For example, you might want to start those eyeballs growing or move objects to the locations they’ll need to be used in later before you send your current delicacy up in the dumb waiter. Get your four or five tasks done and it’s time to tidy up, which involves throwing everything down into The Trap Door, then working out how to open the safe and taking your place as a true Super Berk!

Learner Berk mode is definitely where you want to cut your teeth, learning the layout of the castle’s six screens and  just enjoying being there for a while as you work out the puzzles without stuff trying to kill you. The puzzles do require a bit of lateral thinking, but this isn’t Monkey Island, and a lot of the objects can be used in a variety of ways, so if for some reason you’ve lost the thing that might have been best-suited to doing something, you’ll most likely have a back-up if you give it a bit of thought. The game might be 35 years old at the time of writing, but I’m not going to spoil it too much more than this because its complex logic still deserves your attention way more than that! But it does involve a lot of moving a huge sprite up and down and left and right, manipulating objects and shoving them around, and where this game really deserves credit it the way it makes this so easy, almost guiding you in as you approach an item or a door. Super Berk mode is going to ramp up the difficulty, adding far more danger even if you are repeating a lot of what you’ve done before, but it’s also where you’re going to have the most fun, juggling escaping monsters breathing fire at you while avoiding the ghosts and trying to collect worms before your pet spider eats them all with that anger meter counting down in the background! And unlike Benny Hill and even, though it’s always pained me to say it, my beloved Popeye, for all its bells and whistles, The Trap Door really is fun!

But what bells and whistles they are though! There were a couple of times I remember the Spectrum going bigger later, for example that dreadful Merlin game, but apart from maybe its sequel and spiritual follow-up Flunky, I’m not sure the Spectrum ever got bolder. We should also mention that for all of those huge sprites, that would sometimes take up about a third of the screen, and all of that boldness, and all of that colour in them, there’s barely any colour clash. It really is a remarkable achievement, especially when you compare it to the other versions – not sure about the Amstrad, but the C64 actually had worse colour clash; actually, I always found that struggled a bit in comparison on most fronts, closer in performance to Spectrum Popeye than Spectrum Trap Door. The animation was impeccable too, with a smoothness that defied the sheer scale of some of the monsters especially, and you’d often just sit back and watch like it was a cartoon as Drutt and all the little nasties just wandered about doing their own thing; it really brought the characters to life too, providing a level of individuality to everything that moved! There were some great looking games on the Spectrum – Starglider, Exolon, Merlin, Savage, R-Type, Bomb Jack, Lightforce, and not forgetting Popeye of course… but if you’re talking visual aesthetics as a complete package, I’m not sure anything tops The Trap Door.

There’s not a huge amount going on sound-wise once you’re in the game, but before that there’s an occasionally bombastic rendition of the theme tune on the title screen! If only the Spectrum had even a bit of the Mega Drive’s finesse when it comes to drum sounds! Then it’s just a few blips and beeps as you open doors and pull levers, accompanied by a few more that act as audio highlights when Drutt is bouncing around, for example. It’s a little sparse, but less is often more when it comes to 48K Spectrum sound!

I think Don Priestley’s Flunky appeared before the sequel proper in 1987, but being utterly indifferent to anything royal, I gave it a miss then and still give it a miss now! From what I understand it was a similar affair, but in Buckingham Palace rather than a cool horror castle, and from what I’ve seen it still did the business graphically! As did Through The Trap Door, which appeared later the same year, but now the gameplay is getting mixed up a bit, with you able to switch between Berk and Drutt in a single-player co-op effort to rescue Boni from inside The Trap Door. I didn’t play a massive amount of this – you could argue it’s more interesting, but for me it was more Dizzy than the cartoon I loved. Definitely worth playing for Berk’s facial animations alone though!

The Trap Door was an absolute work of art on TV, and the same can be said for the original Spectrum game at least. If you ever wanted to impress your friends with your new Spectrum, this was the game to show them! It was a lot more than immense sprites though – just think of the turgid licenses for Miami Vice, Streethawk and the like; this was a TV license done absolutely right that completely tapped into the soul of the source material! And how many puzzle games have so much longevity after you’ve solved them? Super Berk, indeed!

Game Review: Danterrifik III on ZX Spectrum

Game Review: Danterrifik III on ZX Spectrum

I might be rubbish at games, but me and brutal platformers have some history! Of course, stuff like The Perils of Willy on the VIC-20 was just a normal platformer when I was spending dozens and dozens of hours playing that. Same when I got to Willy’s better-known adventures on the ZX Spectrum a couple of years later, or stuff like Chuckie Egg on the Amstrad CPC. I reckon stuff being “difficult” rather than just par for the course started with the likes of Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and definitely its sequels, if we’re counting those as an evolution of the platforming genre. Castlevania was definitely a tough old platformer, and the Mega Mans went even further, refining difficulty as a badge of honour. Me and platforming went our separate ways a bit for a while, but I remember Rayman on the PlayStation was too hard for its own good, as were moments in Super Mario Sunshine on GameCube – a game I love and hate in equal measure! Coming quickly up to date (as this wasn’t supposed to be a history lesson), the same is true for Cuphead, Hollow Knight and Shovel Knight’s gorgeous, punishing adventures. And, of course, we have the more retro-looking modern branch of cruel platformer too, with the likes of Celeste (though I’m not a huge fan of this despite several attempts to be on several systems), the minimalist N++, which I’ve played to death on the Switch, and the undisputed heavyweight champion, Super Meat Boy, where you – a cube of meat – are literally a celebration of tough-as-nails platforming death!

Super Meat Boy is a very apt place to start (several hundred words later) as we turn to brand new ZX Spectrum platformer Danterrifik III, because unlike its early eighties forebears, its singular mission is exactly the same – it just wants to destroy you, in very rapid succession! I must confess that at the time of writing (although this will definitely get fixed very soon) I’ve never played either Danterrifik or its sequel, both released in 2020, also for the Spectrum, but can provide a quick recap from the cassette inlays… In the first game, protagonist Dan wakes up in a cemetery having been turned into a skeleton, and he’s making his way through hell (probably literally) to recover his soul, his body and his identity. In part two, he’s lost in the labyrinth of his own mind and pitted against both the satanic dangers of hell and his own surreal hallucinations. Some serious ZX Spectrum colour insanity too from what I can tell!

The setup for this, Danterrifik III, is a little less well signposted! No cassette inlays this time, and before I first played all I had were some words on a map I found on the wonderful Spectrum Computing website that I assume was from one of the incarnations of the creator, David Gracia. And I quote…

DAN HAS ESCAPED FROM DANTEMONIUM
BUT THIS IS NOT GOING TO BE
A HAPPY ENDING.
WE HAVE RECOVERED
OUR SADISTIC IDENTITY.
WE HAVE PAID FOR OUR
VIOLENT ACTS IN THE PAST.
TO BE CONTINUED…
DAS LEBEN IST NICHT
SCHWACHE VERZEIHEN. “FUHRER”

Doing a bit more digging now, we get a bit more information (or just different nonsensical words, depending on your point of view) and a much better translation of that German than my original attempt… Life does not forgive weakness [that’s the German bit]. Dan will have to pay for all his unpunished acts. Dantemonium [sounds like a song by Fields of the Nephilim] will be his place of reception as punishment. And apparently these are the words of the high priest of the German Catholic Church. But fear not, we’re getting to the meat of the game now… “Dan will face all kinds of physical and mental torture. The only option to get out alive is to escape from the Dantemonium Cathedral, where all kinds of monstrosities and despicable beings are housed who have also paid for their actions in the past, and have been locked up to unleash their heinous murderous instincts. Can Dan regain his identity and find out what happened to him? Why has he been locked up in a German Church called Dentemonium?”

Now that we’re completely clued up on why we’re here, you start the game in black and white, and you’d better stop trying to work out if that really is a Nazi bishop holding a decapitated head over there and move sharpish because there’s three bats about to fly at you and claim the first of your 99 lives! Reminds me of the Atari ST Turrican II demo from a Zero magazine cover disk – you know you’re in trouble when a game gives you 99 lives! That said, just to ramp up the difficulty a bit more, it’s two for one because every time you die you lose two lives!

What follows is some of the most fiendishly difficult platforming I’ve ever come across, where you’re not just looking at pixel perfect positioning, but split second timing too, with some of the tiniest windows you can imagine to react and move in and out of the tiniest of spaces before death comes knocking! And this might be one of about twenty such timing and moving conundrums of a single screen, so you’re going to be spending a lot of time just perfecting them, one at a time, usually at the expense of many of your lives until you’ve got it right, and then working out how to do the next in the same way, then pairing them together until you’ve made it across to the exit. And then doing it all over again across each of the 25 sadistic screens!

As well as platforms that have been shaved down to almost the point of impossibility, you’ve got all sorts of enemies to contend with, from giant spiders and vampire bats to scarred, disembodied heads, glowing demonic eyes, spikey mines floating about in the water (or is it blood?) and various fanged monsters. As well as your usual flames and spikes and moving objects you really shouldn’t touch! Dealing with all of this isn’t quite Mario, but you have a very predictable jump that’s also loose enough for some very necessary and very frequent mid-air adjustments that combine to make this feel almost as much a puzzler as a platformer. Despite that, the hit detection is going to have you seething, but I reckon as cruel as it is, it’s pretty much always fair once you’re aware that even a sniff of danger is killing you!

Everything is black and white (or white and black) with more or less red depending on the screen you’re on, very similar to something like the relatively recent Downwell if you’re familiar with that, though I was often put in mind of the old Spectrum Nemesis the Warlock in graphical style too. The opening screens are mostly black detail – some nice crumbling brickwork, church pews, church windows, murderous nazi bishops, etc. – on a pure white background with the odd red flame. Then you get red being introduced as liquid, often filling most of the screen, and then you’ll get white stone platforms on a mostly black brick background, again with the odd red highlight. The only real variation I remember is a grey minimalist impression of Hitler at about the halfway point! It mostly works really well, especially when it’s just white behind everything, though I did find a couple of screens a bit busy, possibly not aided by my red-black colourblindness. One thing’s for sure – you’ll forget you’re playing on a Spectrum because I’m fairly certain this is how it’s supposed to look whatever the platform. All in all very intricate, very stylish and very bold though, and as well as the slightly jarring appearance of blocky Hitler or a giant swastika, there’s a few really nice surprises to be found, if you have the time or inclination to get good!

While sound effects are as minimal as blocky Hitler’s moustache, the in-game music is absolutely incredible! This is about as close as I’ve heard the Spectrum coming to the Commodore 64’s SID chip, in the way you sometimes got it sounding like it had all kinds of channels playing at once when in reality it was all smoke and mirrors! It’s as sinister as it is impressive too, ranging from Castlevania-esque gothic flourishes through to a more thoughtful ebb and flow, before a classic Spectrum drum roll launches us back into the dense main melody. And somewhere it there it’s subtly restarting and looping again, but it really is as seamless as it is varied. Now I’m thinking about it, I’m struggling to think of any better in-game music than this on the Spectrum, and even if the brutality of the gameplay isn’t for you, you’ll want to play for the soundtrack alone!

At this point I was planning on saying I got as far as Hitler then gave up – I just wanted to give you that screenshot! But arguably harder than that young pretender Super Meat Boy or not, I’m a Perils of Willy veteran and there’s no way I’m being defeated by only 25 screens worth of the purest torture! That said, being a Spectrum game, unlike Super Meat Boy there’s no checkpointing, and modern life demanded I use the modern concession of a save state at the end of every one of those screens from Hitler onwards. All the same, that took me pretty much all of those hundred lives, as well as several hours of tearing my hair out, just to “cheat” my way to the ending. Speaking of which, I don’t know what it was about the last screen proper because most of the preceding few screens had really turned every move into a puzzle, but working out the correct timing as you leap around this upside-down bloodletting (to avoid spoiling my favourite bit completely) between a load of floating monsters was just completely bonkers to me, and having done it once after dozens of goes, I’m not sure I could ever repeat it.

And I never plan to repeat it! But I do plan to seek out the first two games to find out how bad they hate me too, and it sounds like there’s more to come, so keep watching the skies in the direction of Spain for more of this insane sado-masochistic old-school and then some platforming brilliance!

Rediscovering Soft & Cuddly on ZX Spectrum

Rediscovering Soft & Cuddly on ZX Spectrum

I think the 10th Personal Computer World Show, held at London’s Olympia from 23-27 September 1987, was the first of what became a brief annual trip for me, up to its end in 1989, though we definitely made at least one trip to ECES – the European Computer Entertainment Show at Earl’s Court – the following year because that’s where my original Game Boy with Tetris and Super Mario Land came from just after it launched! Apart from that, the first was definitely the most memorable, and not just for the vast amount of free stuff we came back with compared to the next two years, which really are not memorable apart from the diminishing amount of free stuff on offer!

Anyway, back in August 1987, I’d won a Microprose competition in Your Sinclair for an all-expenses paid trip to the show for a go in a real-life AH-64 Apache simulator as part of the launch of the wonderful Gunship helicopter game, which we’ll definitely come back to here very soon! As well as that, and copies of Gunship and Pirates and loads of other Microprose booty, I remember having a tenner to spend on games as well, most of which went on the just-released – and my future top 5 favourite game of all time – Renegade on the ZX Spectrum. With a couple of quid left over, we passed a tiny table-top stand for a company called The Power House, where they were selling a game I’d never heard of called Soft & Cuddly, but a quick look at the inlay and you had the most garish, gruesome graphics you’d ever seen, and it came in a sick bag, and it was £1.99! And obviously, to 15-year old me just discovering a lifelong love of horror, it was a no-brainer!

Once we got home though, the problem it had was that 15-year old me was also just discovering a future top 5 favourite game of all time! And let’s just say that once you’d seen a few of its surreal, grotesque screens, the part-platforming and part-shooter gameplay wasn’t quite on par with Renegade’s, so from then and forever after it would then only ever get the occasional look in! But after all this time, did it deserve more of a look in? Let’s find out…

Before Soft & Cuddly, there was Go To Hell. Developed in 1985 by John George Jones, after a title screen that ripped off the Alice Cooper Goes To Hell album cover, it had you searching a garish colour clash hell for your friend after you’d told him to go there. And he did. I only remember seeing this in magazines when I was still sporting a VIC-20, but I think once you got past its horrific graphical gimmick, there wasn’t a lot of fun to be had in the sub-Atic Atac gameplay. A couple of years later, and John George Jones is back with Soft & Cuddly, turning his hellscape up to eleven, introducing a bit more urgency to proceedings and having your little man fly around the ridiculous labyrinth of screens, moving across the Ultimate Play the Game back catalogue to Jetpac maybe… That said, I’ve always got a bit of a Manic Miner feel out of this despite everything. But we’re jumping ahead of ourselves!

The cassette, with its skinless fanged demon perched on a pile of bloody, decapitated heads, is a bit cryptic about what’s going on. “All dead, all dead, all dead and gone. But this is the Cyborg Age. Kids laugh and joke on the streets and say “we can re-build him!” Well you can, but it has to be the right mix of sinew and metal and first you have to enter the nightmare to retrieve the pieces of what spawned you… Eurgh! …Horror show, horror show.” Somehow poetic, but as said, a bit cryptic. Venture inside the inlay and we’re told that your mother, The Android Queen, has had an accident and been badly damaged. But apparently not before she locked your father in the fridge with a bunch of evil spirits. You need to find eight spirit keys, taken them to your father in the fridge, and exchange them for the lowdown on where the parts of your mother are hidden; which sounds a bit more than being badly damaged in an accident, but it was £1.99 so we’ll go with it! Once you’ve then found all the bits of your mother, you need to get them back to the fridge too, then go and find the needle and thread so she can be sewn back together.

First off, you’re going to be looking for the fridge, which is randomly placed in this 256-screen nightmare at the start of every game. Each screen is a room full of platforms and passages, spikes, falling objects and mundane things that might do you no harm on one screen then kill you in an instant on the next! There’s also various ghosts, aliens, pumpkin monsters, TV’s and unidentifiable machines of ill-repute flying about the place either shooting at you or just waiting for a touch to drain your life away. You can take these enemies out with your laser gun, but use it too much too soon and it overheats and jams. You can also become invisible three times per life, making you invincible as well, but then the only way you’ll know where you are is by shooting your gun to reveal yourself. Your gun can even be used to take out the scenery – spend ages shooting at a brick or a tree, for example, and eventually you’ll whittle away what’s probably going to be a very pointless shortcut!

The scenery though!!! Let’s cut to the chase… The gameplay we’ve just described is boring, and there’s no way you’re going to be putting up with it long enough to do all that collecting and sewing in a fridge crap. What you’re actually going to be doing is travelling from room to room marvelling at the sick and twisted scenery! Right from the off (assuming you avoid the falling anvil in the opening seconds) you’re going to be blown away by the half a screen high oozing fish head in glorious red and blue with big green eyes, moving surprisingly smoothly about the place without a hint of colour clash! You’ll soon be seeing an oversized bleeding head being repeatedly squashed by hydraulic spikes on a platform that simply says “DIE!”

Then there’s a framed picture of a skull in an army cap surrounded by green skulls in army caps, then a big one appears and chases you around as another set of spikes ominously hang from the ceiling next to a sheep with a fish’s head moving around on a trolley. There’s four co-joined babies being stretched on a rack over a dead body being drained of blood by some spikey hammer things. There’s gibbets and other medieval torture devices amongst the Spectrum-magenta brickwork; there’s piles of bodies and another baby, but this time its head is in a cobra’s mouth! And all of these things are huge and brightly coloured and moving around with gay abandon between all the platforms and moving catwalks and traps you need to negotiate.

And then you’ll enter a very plain black room with a load of bricks or some grass or something along the bottom, but hang on because here comes the big one! A huge scarred, slashed-up, very bloody wild-haired witch face thing has just appeared out of nowhere to take up most of the screen and absolutely destroy you!

And all of that is why you need to go back and play Soft & Cuddly! It’s not about the mundane and slightly confusing gameplay (which as I’m playing and writing still bizarrely think feels like Manic Miner even though it’s absolutely nothing like it!), or the very functional sound effects or the early-eighties enemy or platform designs (sounds like Manic Miner!). It’s not even about the free bonus music track by H.E.X. on Side B, which is actually a very good piece of pre-romo post-punk… It’s about what surreal, grotesque (but almost completely colour clash-free) monstrosity you’ll come across next. And how big it will be!

Before I started here, I did have a concerted effort for a proper run at the game, and I found the fridge and some other bits a few times, but there’s so much of it and once the nightmares start repeating you definitely reach a point where you feel you’ve seen everything even if you havent. But until you reach that point, it’s quite the sight to see all the same!

My Life With… 1942 – Arcade / ZX Spectrum

My Life With… 1942 – Arcade / ZX Spectrum

My Grandma stayed on in England after World War II, and coming from an Irish family of twelve brothers and sisters, by the time we got to me that meant a lot of toing and froing of relatives for as long as I could remember. It also meant the occasional trip to Ireland for us too… And that always meant the Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire ferry at the end of a relatively epic car journey through darkest Wales, or a train to London then another west that I’m sure took far longer in the 80’s than the under four hours it does today! Fortunately, the ferry marked the end of the journey too, as our final destination was also Dun Laoghaire, a port town developed to serve Dublin in the early 1800’s, and where Bob Geldof and most of the rest of The Boomtown Rats come from too.

Bob Geldof was probably busy with planning Live Aid around the time I’m going back to now – I reckon we’re in the late Spring half term of 1985 and I’m just thirteen, sporting some great highlights in my hair and a part-new romantic, part-C&A lemon jacket that Don Johnson would have been proud to wear as he made his way across the Irish Sea! I reckon he’d have been just about cool enough to hang around the couple of arcade machines on the ship as well, once the cold had brought you in from standing on deck and the subsequent monotony of being stuck on there for another three hours had kicked in!

And of course, the highlight of whatever the rest of the arcade machines were on this particular ferry crossing was an all-new vertically scrolling war plane shoot ’em-up marvel called 1942! It originally appeared the previous year, at the hands of Capcom’s Yoshiki Okamoto, who, as well as designing its follow-up, would later go on to design Final Fight and a much under-appreciated series called Street Fighter! But back in 1984, he was very successfully following in the footsteps of another Capcom vertical shooter (and actually, I think it was their very first arcade game), Vulgus, where you alternated between being on a planet surface and in outer space taking out giant insect mutants from the planet Vulgus! Despite that, it’s not terribly memorable, though I do have a soft spot for it as a clear predecessor to 1942, and it’s also where that famous Capcom “Pow” power-up icon first began!

Back in 1942, it wasn’t giant mutant insects, but certain enemy planes (the red ones) that would give you this Pow power-up if you shot down the whole group, and that would give you a double-shot, wide-shot, a smart bomb that clears the screen or, a bit later, a pair of escort planes that lasted until they were shot or collided with something – easily done because suddenly your plane isn’t just your plane anymore! Speaking of power-ups, you also had what was a shooter super power at the time, the roll button, and that took you out of the 2D action and into a loop-the-loop, meaning you temporarily avoided any enemy planes or fire. You could do this three times in every stage, but got a decent score bonus at the end for not using it… No chance of that though – it was the coolest thing in the game and exactly what totally gripped me the first time I saw it in the middle of the Irish Sea because it was also one of the coolest things I’d ever seen in any game to that point!

The other thing that got me was the subject matter, which I realise I’ve virtually skipped so far, though there’s really not a lot to it and if you didn’t already know it you’ll have mostly worked out by now! In 1942 you’re the pilot of a “Super Ace” – the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a single-seat fighter plane used by the US Army Air Corps in World War II that was a real jack-of-all-trades including fighter-bomber, bomber-pathfinder and long-range escort fighter; it performed uncommonly well at very high altitudes too, and was responsible for 90% of all the aerial film captured over Europe. Questionable whether or not it could have taken off from an aircraft carrier though… And yes, at this exact moment in 1985 I was also a bit of a World War II plane nerd! Anyway, you’re in the Pacific Theatre, where the P-38 did most of its real-life fighting, shooting down the entire Japanese air fleet and its various fighters, light bombers and heavy bombers, plus four slighly less realistic big boss planes across 32 stages on your way to Tokyo, over the sea and over tropical landscapes. At the end of each stage you’re briefly landing on an aircraft carrier, getting a stage summary, then you’re on your way again. Simple stuff, but, having worked for a Japanese company for one month short of twenty years at the time of writing, and learnt quite a lot about Japanese culture from many visits, it’s curious subject matter all the same having the Japanese as the bad guys!

The first few levels are very sea-based, meaning lots of fighting over a mildly textured blue background! For all of the nicely detailed, mostly recognisable little planes flying all over the screen, it’s not that much of a looker yet, but then that aircraft carrier you strictly speaking cannot land on appears, and you land on it, and it’s a really wonderful sight! Get a little better, and things pick up as you cross very Pacific island-looking Pacific islands, with lush jungle foliage, volcanoes, outcrops, ruins lakes and beaches scrolling smoothly below the aerial warfare, then transitioning back into the contrastingly bleak but very blue expanses of sea.

The sound is very unique, in the same way a dog whistle probably sounds “unique” to a dog; in fact, I think I know exactly what that sounds like after playing 1942 so much recently! There’s some vaguely war movie type music playing now and again, and some very functional gun and plane engine revving sounds as it loops, but there’s also a non-stop whistle! And it’s like the whistle you’d get at the start of Match Day or something on the Spectrum! A shrill, beeping impersonation of a whistle… Beep, Beep-Beep, Beep, Beep, Beep-Beep-Beep, [silence], Beep! I don’t know what it’s meant to be, or what the rhyme or reason is for the sequences it’s sounding in, but it’s terrible! I guess it made people look as they went by though, and while you’re playing it does add an air of chaos to that wonderful gameplay, especially when you’re fully powered up and mowing down everything before it’s even realised your on its screen!

Speaking of the Spectrum, I’m not sure I was ever more excited about an arcade conversion on there than I was for 1942! Okay, maybe Shao-Lin’s Road (more here), but sacred ground like that aside, I couldn’t wait for this to land! The main difference here was that I’d played loads of arcade Shao-Lin’s Road over a long period of time, whereas in reality I’d played minutes of 1942 on a single ferry journey, but somehow those minutes had had an enormous impact on me, and just to be able to play it again in any form – let alone one in my own home – just had me at absolute fever pitch!

Elite handled the 1986 conversion, which was promising after they’d recently scored big with fantastic conversions of Bombjack, Paperboy, Commando and Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and I think that 1942 is programmed with a similar philosophy to Commando especially – a simple conversion that focusses on the simple gameplay mechanics that work so well in the original. By which I mean yes, there’s not a huge amount to look at, especially in the first couple of levels, apart from reasonably detailed planes with some occasionally suspect colour choices! What is there has plenty of attention to detail though – the planes moving in partial 3D as they tilt their wings to turn; there are unique explosions depending on the plane type, with multiple explosions when you take down a big one; and all the planes have working propellors, even the ones that indicate how many lives you’ve got left! They nailed that special roll too!

It does all pick up once you start flying over islands though, as does the inevitable result of some of those colour choices, with some especially fine examples of colour clash when you make landfall! Sound is equally – and mercifully – bare bones too; can you imagine all that whistling coming out of the Spectrum??? They cracked the gameplay though! It’s a little less frantic than the arcade version, though no less challenging, and some very minor suspicions about collision detection now and then aside, it’s always held its own as both a Spectrum shooter and a great conversion. And most importantly for something as addictive as 1942, it was now in your bedroom, so no more bugging your mum for another 10p, and not a disembarkment in sight!

I have played other versions, though not to any great extent… The C64 version is a reasonable conversion, let down some very blocky larger enemy sprites, and what I’ve always considered a very geographically misplaced rendition of Ron Goodwin’s 633 Squadron theme – was there ever a more completely British tune that that, so why’s it playing over the Midway skies? The NES got a great version apart from the sound effects, which are a mix of a dumbed-down take on the arcade’s iconic beepy whistles and some white noise for guns! And I spent a fair bit of time with the Game Boy Colour’s version, which I think is a port of the NES version, but to me seems a lot easier, although the sound is definitely less offensive out of those tiny speakers! It would take the Capcom Classic Reloaded collection on PSP for me to finally get that holy grail of the arcade version not only at home, but in my hands too, back in 2006, and then another fifteen years to be able to play it on a telly as well with Capcom Arcade Stadium on Switch.

That PSP collection was also where I first got my hands on the sequel, 1943: The Battle of Midway, though it was some time later that I really took any version of that seriously with the Japan-only 1991 PC-Engine reimagining, 1943 Kai, which is actually based on the also Japan-only alternate arcade version of the sequel, 1943 Kai: Midway Kaisen, with reworked graphics, sounds and even lasers! But either version was effectively more of the same, with you now taking out Japan’s naval fleet as well as its air force, so you’ve got bombs for them, and a health bar rather than lives too. I must confess I’ve barely touched the original original on Capcom Arcade Stadium so far – after all, it’s got original original 1942 on it! But I have played the Spectrum version, which is graphically very impressive, going into complete overdrive compared to its 1942, but I find the gameplay a bit soul-less, and I’ll generally switch it off before my life bar is depleted! The NES version is also worth noting because it features a persisent upgrade system for your plane.

At this point, just don’t think too hard about the Battle of Midway actually taking place in 1942 or it will throw the whole space-time mess of the entire rest of the series into total destructive disarray! Not that I have much experience of the rest though – 1941: Counter Attack seemed like a 1990 update of the original; 19XX: The War Against Destiny in 1996 had multiple planes to choose from; 1944: The Loop Master in 2000 offered tactical invicibility; and then we had 194X: 3D Dogfight in 2005, 1942: Joint Strike in 2008 and 1942: First Strike in 2010, none of which I’d even heard of until two minutes ago!

Despite having multiple versions of the original 1942 now, I think it’s a testament to the deceptive quality of the Spectrum conversion behind that simple facade that I still play on there more than anywhere else. That fleeting glimpse at the arcade machine on a ferry with its loop-the-loops and exotic warplanes might have sparked my imagination, but the Spectrum is where the game really came to life for me, and it’s never really stopped living there, despite the bells and those shrill, beeping whistles of the original!

Game Review: Indiana Jones and the Fountain of Everlasting Life on ZX Spectrum

Game Review: Indiana Jones and the Fountain of Everlasting Life on ZX Spectrum

There was once a marvellous arcade game called Kung-Fu Master, and eventually it made its way to the ZX Spectrum where it became the most disappointing game of all time, and no matter how many times I give it a second chance, I reckon it’s always going to stink!

It was terrible – a mass of colour clash; played like a dog (in slow motion); scrolled like a speech impediment; had one of the most grating theme tunes that even the Spectrum could manage… Although if you were really lucky, the collision detection would take out the enemy behind you while you were kicking something in front, or if the screen “scrolled” when a knife-throwing enemy appeared it would turn into a regular one!

Unlike Kung-Fu Master, Indiana Jones and the Fountain of Everlasting Life isn’t terrible – in fact, it’s the exact opposite, and that’s why it’s almost equally disappointing! In its defence, it was released as an April Fool’s joke in 2017 by Misja van Laatum, developer of the still in development at the time of writing point-and-click adventure The Fountain of Youth, a game “in the spirit of LucasArts’ classic Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis”. And the joke is that it’s over before you know it, and there’s the precise nature of our disappointment here, because it’s not only nearly the best Indiana Jones game on the Spectrum, but given that’s not a major accomplishment in the eyes of many, it’s also nearly an absolute classic Spectrum platform adventure. And in the company of Manic Miner, Monty, etc. that would be a hell of an accomplishment!

We start with a lovely loading screen – even more lovely than Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a Spectrum game that I am hugely fond of – with Indy in front of a burning pyramid and two flying saucers firing laser beams at stuff, and then were ready to begin for real in Bora Gora, French Polynesia in 1939. The first screen is called Fortune and Glory, and you’re at the rainforest entrance to some ancient ruin full of ropes, platforms, occult-looking bull statues and what might be magenta spikes or poisonous flowers, but they’re magenta so just steer clear! You’re running, climbing and jumping your way up to the top and then into the Snake Pit! Indy might not like snakes, but there’s a statue a bit like the one at the start of the first movie down there, so we’ll grab that on the way down and back up, avoiding the patrolling snakes and more magenta flowers, but stopping on the way to get a tantalising glimpse of the crazy UFO screen you’re about to encounter next. This screen, The Dig Site, is the cruellest part of this April Fool’s joke, because unless you’re already in on it, it’s the point where you get excited about this game maybe being a classic, as the platforms get more complex in layout, and there’s a guard as well as giant insects and magenta flowers, not to mention the mystery of that big flying saucer at the bottom of the screen… And then once you’ve made the leap of faith down the big drop at the end of the screen, it all comes crashing down with “Happy April Fool’s Day” and a message about them having been making this game for a long time but not 31 years. And then in your disappointment you treat yourself to another playthrough, because what’s another 90 seconds when you’ve been so close to a classic, but now you’re so far away!

I was actually in on the joke by the time I played this, having seen my friend Nick Jenkin suffer the disappointment live on his wonderful YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/njenkin) – if you’re into retro-gaming, be sure to check that out, with a load of video reviews every week that are about how much you’d enjoy the game on those first few goes rather than expert gameplay… though in the style of gameplay we’re talking about here, he is a bit of a master! And there’s also a couple of live streams per week that are always an evening well-spent with the great community he’s gathered around him. Definitely never a disappointment!

Even after all of that, I still wanted to play the game and I still wanted to write about it because, for as long as it lasts, it is really good! I’ll never buy their real game, The Fountain of Youth, because I have absolutely no desire to ever play a point-and-click adventure, but I would pay good money and play the living daylights out of a Spectrum (or even Spectrum-inspired) platformer if this is the quality they can knock up as a joke! It’s a great looking game, with all kinds of detail in the different blocks and platforms, simple but perfectly functional character designs, and some very well thought out (and very varied) use of Spectrum colour, with only a bit of clash adding to its modern-day charm. Less is more in the sound department too, with perfectly well realised sound effects and thankfully no ten second loop of a dreadful Spectrum rendition of a nursery rhyme or something, as was the case with many of these games! And they’ve nailed the all-important jump controls too. It’s just great, and they need to abandon that other thing and just make more of this please!

My Life With… Shao-Lin’s Road – Arcade / ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Shao-Lin’s Road – Arcade / ZX Spectrum

The mid-eighties video rental experience offered endless possibilities for the martial arts-obsessed teenager; you might have rented them a dozen times, but there was still a whole world beyond Enter the Dragon and Way of the Dragon that didn’t stop with other Bruce Lee films, or even those of the Bruceploitation greats like Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Lie, Bruce Lai, Bruce Thai, Brute Lee and, of course, Lee Bruce! The works of Jackie Chan were the natural progression, with stuff like Drunken Master, Police Story, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow or Brazil-based food-truck vigilante classic Wheels on Meals easy selections from the bulging martial arts video shelves. We’re just pre-Seagal and Van Damme here, so Chuck Norris was the big western alternative with the likes of The Octagon, Code of Silence and An Eye For An Eye, featuring loads of signature roundhouse kicks and Christopher Lee as his drug-baron nemesis.

Outside of these heavyweights we had more niche stuff like New York- based The Last Dragon, with its classic Shogun of Harlem bad guy, or Five Deadly Venoms, where different fighting styles are represented by five different animal masks, each with its own deadly venom – you had Lizard, Centipede, Scorpion, Snake and, er, Toad! Crippled Avengers offers a similar concept, but with the fighters having a unique disability rather than a fancy mask! There was also a ton of more generic warring faction (or more likely warring kung-fu school) stuff like Martial Club, Opium and the Kung-Fu Master, Shaolin Temple or The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter – you really could start watching these now and never run out!

And I’m almost forgetting all that ninja goodness we loved so much in the eighties too! American Ninja is maybe the pinnacle of the genre (closely followed by its four sequels!), but there was an endless supply of these as well – Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, Ninja in the Dragon’s Den, Pray for Death, Nine Deaths of the Ninja, Ninja Terminator and The Ninja Strikes Back, which brings us full circle to Bruce Lee… No, hang on, it was Bruce Le, which has also taken me right back to that very easy early-teenage beginner mistake of picking up something you thought was a Bruce Lee film you hadn’t seen yet!

We’d always be watching these things, whether at home – from Video Age (VHS downstairs, Betamax upstairs) – or in our slightly older next-door neighbours’ house, who were members of the other video rental shop in Bedford, which was a bit further away but had an even bigger selection of martial arts movies! Being a bit older also meant that when we were all at the local leisure centre after kung-fu or a Saturday morning roller disco or whatever was on, they’d also get first go (or most goes because they had more money) on whatever the current selection of two arcade machines was in the refreshments area where the drink and snack machines were; at least my brother and me could enjoy a Dr Pepper in the only place you could get it at the time while we watched!

In this very limited experience of arcade games, I often wonder if my favourites are favourites because they’re actually any good, or if they were just there and made a lasting impression because they were better than anything I’d ever have at home! Looking at my big list of all-time favourite games, and the top 25 specifically, there’s not a lot on offer from the arcades, but from what is there, I doubt that many would argue with Star Wars, 1942 and Out Run being subjective top likes, but then as we approach my top ten we have Elevator Action, and finally, right inside my top five, we have Shao-Lin’s Road… and I’m sure that many haven’t even heard of them, let alone ever put them in any kind of best-of arcade list!

But back in our local leisure centre in our 1985 and 1986 heyday, those two sat side by side after Shao-Lin’s Road replaced Kung-Fu Master in the very slow, very infrequent machine rotation that – apart from fun fairs twice a year – dictated my exposure to that golden age of arcade games. And coming back to my previous point, I still play and absolutely love both the arcade and ZX Spectrum versions of both as much as other all-time favourites like arcade Out Run or Spectrum Renegade or Atari ST Supersprint, for example, so it’s not all rose-tinted. And yes, these non-arcade versions of Renegade and Supersprint are stories for another time, but as a point of interest, exclusively ports and not originals of Gauntlet, Enduro Racer and Commando also feature in my top 25!

Whilst we’ve established that I might not have been that well informed on arcade games in the mid-eighties, there certainly wasn’t much I didn’t know about Bruce Lee, Brute Lee, nunchuks and ninjas! And after our first taste of the union between the two media with Kung-Fu Master’s hero-versus-many rhythmic scrapping that we knew so well from our beloved movie rentals, when Shao-Lin’s Road came along there at some time in 1986, it added a whole new vertical dimension to that against the odds brawling, and I can still picture watching over my neighbour’s shoulder as he played it for the first time and just being blown away!

Something I did know around this time was Yie Ar Kung Fu, mainly from the very distinctive advert for the home computer versions with its own take on Bruceploitation, as well as those really distinctive characters in Commodore 64 promo screenshots, with all those chains and poles and absolutely groundbreaking variety in what was still the very early days of one-on-one fighting games. And when the home conversions of Shao-Lin’s Road appeared on the horizon, it got even more cool points with me because it turned out that all this time it was actually a follow-up to Yie Ar Kung Fu. Or at least that’s what the adverts said, because in the very same issue of Computer & Video Games magazine at the end of 1986, there was another advert for something called Yie Ar Kung Fu II, which was surely a more likely follow up, right? It was definitely adamant it was, highlighting it was officially endorsed by Konami and it was a sequel not a follow-up!

Actually, I was so excited about home ports of Shao-Lin’s Road that I didn’t pay much attention at the time, but it turns our that while Ocean had been sorting out the licence to the official sequel, competing publisher The Edge had done the same for Shao-Lin’s Road, and decided to advertise it as “The smash hit follow-up to Yie Ar Kung-Fu.” Taken literally, you might argue that was not incorrect because it’s also by Konami and it did come out a year or so after Yie Ar Kung-Fu in the arcades, in April 1985, so technically it was following it up, but it’s a pretty outrageous thing to do all the same! Even more outrageous was when reviews for both started appearing in early 1987 and Road was outscoring Fu II, albeit generally as signficantly less average rather than anything outstanding in its own right! It had a couple of 8/10 reviews though, and I remember Your Sinclair liking it a lot, as well as being quite sure it was the sequel to Yie Ar Kung-Fu! All that said, I’m not 100% sure how much Ocean’s official sequel is a real official sequel either, or where the planned Konami sequel that ended up being Martial Champion fits in, but we’ve spent far longer on a possibly unrelated game than I planned to here already, so we’re moving on!

Anyway, we were going to talk about this home version advert because this is our first hint at what’s going on in the arcade game we’ve been playing all this time! And it starts with another allusion to it’s follow-up status… “Our hero has finally mastered the secret martial art “CHIN’S SHAO-LIN” but is trapped by triad gangs. With kicks and other secret powers, escape from and travel SHAO-LIN’S road to freedom!” Not sure about Yie Ar Kung-Fu, but that’s definitely along the lines of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow or something!

When we finally get our mitts on the home versions, the cassette inlay goes even further… “As our Hero Lee you have finally mastered the secret martial art, “Chin’s Shao-Lin”. You find yourself trapped in the temple by hoards of Triads. Using your kicking skills and magic powers you must fight off the Triads and get out of the temple and head for the road to freedom. At each step on your way on your road to freedom you will encounter more and more of the Triads, and at each stage you will discover one that is particularly skilful! Look out for flying kicks, breathing flame, and punches that come clear out of nowhere!”

And there we were thinking we just had a great arcade game on our hands! Unlike its predecessor – one way or another – Yie Ar Kung-Fu, which is a pure fighter, Shaolin’s Road is more arcade platformer, where you’re working your way through five multi-tiered environments packed with goons to kick and magic away, and once you’ve done that the level restarts with more goons and the aforementioned particularly skilful boss characters; get rid of them all and you move on to the next level. Beat the last one and you’ll start all over again, but with even more particularly skilful characters on top of even more goons – some of which now throw knives or throwing stars or themselves – from the outset, as well as birds dropping eggs of death onto you! Some of the goons (you’ll know them by their trousers) release power ups after a good kicking which you have to quickly catch to get one of your magic powers. The first is a spikey ball that you can kick to knock over any enemies on your level of the level, and you can even catch and do this jumping super move with if you time things right. Next is a fireball that shoots out of both sides, but only seems to work on enemies a fair distance away. Last is a ball of energy or the like that spins around you, taking out enemies as it passes by on its rotation. The boss characters are nicely varied, with demonic looking things that breathe fire, some Yie Ar Kung-Fu style weapon wielders, an angelic looking lady with a lethal flying kick and just some big, bad dudes, but here’s an expert tip – just anticipate them going up and down, kick them, then go up or down! Patience is king in Shao-Lin’s Road!

Apart from one or two expert moves with power-ups that are completely superfluous to beating all the levels, the gameplay is simplicity itself, with you jumping up and down levels and kicking your way through loads of enemies. Jump. Attack. Nothing fancy! There is a bit of strategy needed in the boss characters, and in timing your up and down movements to avoid taking unecessary damage if you want to go far, but you’re going to be on the second level and feeling like Bruce Thai in one or two goes! Most of this happens on a single screen, but at each end you’ll get a very short side-scroll that extends the play area a bit, and within each stage’s three platform levels you’ll also get some gaps in the floor or roofs to jump between to add a bit more danger, with a fantastic slapstick animation if you get too close to an edge! Clearing a level of enemies gives a slightly more rewarding animation though, with a strongman pose and the word “GUTS” captioned about your little guy Lee, who’s got three lives, and three hits are allowed per life per level.

The action starts in a temple with an impressive looking big golden Buddha statue dominating an otherwise sparsely decorated opening scene. It does highlight all the onscreen characters though – big, detailed and full of personality, and their dress-sense really pops against the dominant blacks on this level; they really move at pace too. It’s also a good place to appreciate the bouncy, if slightly stereotypical oriental theme tune, which gets more frantic as the action hots up, with an ominous bass-line warning of impending doom! Sound effects are really meaty as well – you feel like those kicks are connecting! Stage two is where the graphics really come into their own, with you outside the temple (I guess) and everything is bold and bright and really nicely detailed against a rich blue sky; it would all look great in a big SNES JRPG! Stage three sees you at what is probably the grand entrance to the temple grounds, similar in style to stage two. Stage four has you outside a long, lower building with some huge bonsai-like trees behind it providing the third layer of verticality this time, and a bit of variety to the impressive but similarly styled array of traditional Japanese architecture elsewhere. Even more variety in the final stage as you make your way through some kind of desert canyon, with the temple far behind you in the background. Really nice looking stage – especially on the Spectrum…

Apart from being the most hit or miss game to load I ever (legitimately) owned on the Spectrum, it was a superb conversion, and whilst the arcade version might have been the one that always stuck with me, the Spectrum is certainly where I spent the most time. They absolutely nailed the easy to play, hard to master, utterly addictive feel of the original, though I think it gets harder quicker before it evens out a bit in the later levels. There’s also a bit less of the enemies moving up and down to get some vertical advantage, but there is an awful lot more bonus items (vases, possibly pizzas…) flying about here to kick for extra points, which does add a risk-reward element and some high-score longevity once you’re finding yourself good enough to be going around all the levels.

The characters are a bit less varied and a bit less cartoon-like than the original, and, of course, the colours have been toned down a bit, with a lot of use of different types of monochrome with just the odd (really welcome!) colourful flourish in the background, but in the main it looks just like the arcade version. The third level does go a bit more wild, with the resulting black characters feeling a bit like you’re playing in negative, but otherwise they’re nicely detailed, full of personality and everything moves smoothly enough, apart from a little jerkiness when it scrolls, but nothing especially jarring. Just don’t spend too much time analysing the flying kick – I think his leg is shrinking a bit when he does it, and who knows why doing one forces you down a floor! It sounds alright too, with a great rendition of the arcade theme playing on the title screen and a good scattering of pleasingly inoffensive sound effects!

It took me a very long time after the fact to find out that the arcade version had been available on the original PlayStation for several decades, as part of the Konami Arcade Classics compilation, together with Yie Ar Kung Fu – which is fine too, but not a patch on its sequel! And that’s where I generally play it now, before jumping over to the Spectrum version just to see if I can finally decide which one is really the one that makes it number five in my all-time favourite games list. But it’s always both! Simple, addictive and just like being in an eighties martial arts movie!