Nobby the Aardvark (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , ,

And so, this trip through the Thalamus Commodore 64 catalogue comes to an end with their final release, Nobby the Aardvark. To be honest, I never really took any notice of this one... my 64, if not exactly gathering dust at this point was certainly very neglected, and I only really continued to buy ZZAP! 64 out of a sense of loyalty. Also, I couldn't be arsed to go to the newsagents to cancel it.

Awww... cute little kitty...BOMB! AAARRGH!

Nobby the Aardvark received a ZZAP! Gold Medal, which suggests it's a pretty decent game, although towards the end of the Commodore 64's life there's a suspicion that some games might have been overrated because there wasn't much else coming out. While researching this, I discovered it was programmed by Genesis Software, who had previously programmed the excellent Codemasters budget game, CJ's Elephant Antics. Hopes were indeed high.

Mmmmmm... ants... omnomnomnom.

The first time I played the game, that pedigree was evident. The graphic style and gameplay are not a million miles away from CJ, with a very cute and charasmatic main character, lots of humour and some fun and varied enemies.

The game features Nobby who, unsurprisingly given the game's title, is an aardvark. And he's not just any old aardvark... he appears to be a direct descendant of the aardvark from the Pink Panther cartoons (wink, wink). Nobby's having a peaceful day at home when suddenly a small colony of ants invade, pinch all his stuff and disappear down into their anthill. The blighters!

Big balloon... big balloon... bigger than the sun and moon...

Nobby gives chase, and manages to catch the ant that got stuck outside after he couldn't fit the fridge down there. After a bit of bargaining in which Nobby agrees not to eat the ant, the little fella reveals to Nobby that there is a place called Antopia, which is full of big, juicy ants, just there for the taking. Perhaps naively, Nobby believes him, lets the ant go and sets off to gorge himself silly.

Ah. That's going to cause a bit of a problem.

Nobby's quest is a lengthy one, which sees him walking, swimming and even hot air ballooning in his efforts to reach Antopia. That means there's a fair amount of variety to Nobby the Aardvark... something that is very welcome in a game of this type. How many platform games see you piloting a hot air balloon?

Awwww... cute little baby whales!

The aardvark is apparently a member of the cat family, as Nobby starts out with nine lives. He is, however, unarmed... something of a problem, as the road to Antopia is fraught with danger. Animals of all kinds take offence at the sight of Nobby, and will attack him as soon as he draws near. There are even planes that fly by, dropping bombs at our poor aardvark hero.

Luckily, there's a way for Nobby to fight back. Strewn around the landscap are anthills, and Nobby can use his long snout to suck up a load of ants, which can then be fired at enemy critters. That'll teach 'em! Unfortunately there are other hazards that are not animal in nature, and they must be avoided at all costs.

Aaaargh! Christ! Is it worth all this for an unlimited supply of ants?

Nobby the Aardvark is a very playable game. It's generally a lot of fun, and although it can be frustrating if you fall miles from a platform, but it's usually your own stupid fault when that happens and when you learn to take care you can usually get past anything. Some sections work better than others... the hot air balloon section (which reminds me of another of the developer's Commodore 64 games, New Zealand Story) is just a little too cramped to be entirely successful, for instance.

That said, there's not a single area that I didn't enjoy. Nobby the Aardvark is very polished, and even if the different sections take ideas from existing games, as a whole it's an entertaining game in its own right. It may have been the last time the Thalamus name graced the Commodore 64, but they maintained their high standards right to the end.

Winter Camp (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , ,

Summer Camp must have done pretty well, because within a year John Ferrari and Thalamus had a sequel ready. And when you've already been to Summer Camp, where do you go next? Of course... Winter Camp!

Yay! I win! That means I actually get to play more of the game...

Yes, Maximus Mouse returned... a good thing if you ask me, because for all Summer Camp was rock hard and perhaps not as enjoyable to play as it might have been with the odd gameplay tweak, there's no denying that Maximus was a very appealing character and he deserved another runout. Maybe the balance would be a little more forgiving this time around?

Maximus gets a chilly reception on his first day...

Maximus has found himself to be something of a hero after the events of Summer Camp, when he saved the day (and the opening ceremony) by locating the camp's missing Stars and Stripes flag. As a reward, he's been offered the post of Ranger at Camp Nice 'N' Icey - Winter Camp!

I knew that bears shit in the woods, but nobody told me they threw snowballs in them!

Excited about this though Maximus is, once he's completed his assessment (a level where he must skate off, Track and Field-style (i.e. waggling), against three opponents to prove his worth), he notices that the camp is in danger! It's up to him to save the day, and the camp, by progressing through a number of fun-filled levels.

I thought it was only Atari games where you played with paddles?

The danger comes from a large bird, which can be spotted at the top of the screen. It's flying towards a nearby mountain top... nothing too dangerous there, you might think, but there's a pebble balanced precariously on top of the mountain, and if the bird dislodges it, it'll cause an avalanche that will destroy the camp! Maximus has to get to that pebble before the bird can, and make the camp safe for all to enjoy.

What a strange looking Creature...

There are some really entertaining levels in this game. The second one, which sees you skating from left-to-right across a frozen lake or river, reminded me for some reason of Park Patrol... and that can never be a bad thing. Complete that, and you'll have to defeat some pesky snowball-throwing bears, that hide in trees and pelt you when they think you're not looking. This level plays a bit like Operation Wolf... again, no bad thing.

Going Loco, down in... oh, hang on, I'm miles away from there...

Other levels include rafting up the river (even more like Park Patrol), an irritating Master of the Lamps-style musical notes game, featuring a guest appearance by Clyde Radcliffe, a Black Thunder/Loco/Suicide Express-type joystick-waggling skiing level, a variation on downhill skiing where you're trapped in a snowball (!) and a Donkey Kong rip-off.

Oh bum, I've missed the extra time flags. I'll never do this level now.

As you probably recall (you should, it was just a couple of posts ago!), I quite liked Summer Camp as a cartoony game, but felt it was just a bit too difficult. Winter Camp is also difficult, but feels more enjoyable to play, and the variety between levels is a factor here. The fact that it's not just straightforward platforming all the way contributes to the fun, and each event is enjoyable despite the difficulty, although the actual level objectives can be a bit indistinct. And again, the cuteness is very endearing.

Ooh, he's a big fella. Or, she's a big lass. Not sure how you tell with birds.

For all its irritations, I think that John Ferrari just about nailed it with this one. It's not the best game ever, and not terribly original, but it's well thought-out and achieves probably everything it set out to achieve, from the cartoon look through to most of the levels being fun, stand-alone levels rather than just mini-games. Sadly, when doing my research, I discovered that John died in 1996. Thanks to the Commodore 64 community, though, his games still live on. I'm glad I finally got around to playing this one, although it's for The Human Race that I'll always remember his name...

Creatures 2: Torture Trouble (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , , ,

Creatures was a huge hit for Thalamus, getting pretty much universal praise. It was almost a given, then that it would spawn a sequel. What wasn't a given was the form it would take. The Rowlands brothers stripped back their original game and took a look at what worked best. And what worked best were the torture screens.

As you'll remember from the first game, the torture screens popped up occasionally throughout the game, once you'd gone far enough. In them, you had to solve a platforming puzzle in order to free your friend from a gruesome death. They were twisted, imaginative and funny. A whole game based around them is a great idea.

I've got a bit of a problem, though. The only working version I've got is an uncracked .tap file, which means that for the purposes of this write-up I've had to rely on my gameplaying skill.

Shoot that BASTAAARD there, jump up and kill that other BASTAAARD, then go down and GRAAAAAARRRRGHHHH!!

Turns out, I haven't got any.

I must have played the first screen over a hundred times (no, I'm not exaggerating), and I just can't do it. Twice, I've managed to get to the critter on the bike and cut him loose, only to be flattened by him. The other times, I've usually been killed by that bastard green thing. I keep getting my timing wrong, and the collision detection is accurate but very harsh.

So, Creatures 2: Torture Trouble. Great idea, and I'm sure it's very funny once you make progress. I'm just really frustrated with it, and I can't play it any more. If I can figure it out or if anyone can give me any tips, I might revisit it, but for now I'm done. Sorry.

Summer Camp (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , ,

Following the release of Creatures, all Thalamus' games would feature cute and cuddly things. A far cry from the glory days of shoot 'em ups, true, but they still seemed to do OK. Next up from them was Summer Camp. Now, whilst doing my research I discovered that Summer Camp was programmed by John D. Ferrari. I remembered that name from one of my first ever Commodore 64 games... he programmed Mastertronic's budget release, The Human Race, which is a game I've always loved. You'll see more on that one soon... but that gave me more of an urge to play Summer Camp. I'd always presumed he never programmed anything else after that, I'd never seen his name on any other games!

This game's star is a real work of art!

Summer Camp is set in, erm, a summer camp. We don't really have them in the UK, it's more of an American tradition, where kids are sent during the school holidays so that parents can have a few weeks of peace and quiet. Anyway, this particular camp is about to have its opening ceremony. But what's an opening ceremony without the Stars and Stripes flag? Nothing, that's what! And as sheer bad luck would have it, the camp's flag has gone missing.

Those little helicopters are deadly! Luckily, Maximus' tail doubles up nicely...

Now, this could have happened for any number of reasons, and who knows who could be to blame? It could be anyone's fault, but Maximus Mouse, the wee rodenty fella that lives in the camp's grounds, just knows that the finger will be pointed in his direction. With that thought on his mind, he makes it his business to hunt down and replace the good ol' Stars and Stripes, ensuring that calamity is avoided at the opening ceremony.

After all this time, at last, confirmation of life on the moon.

Of course, and you knew this was coming... that's easier said than done. Maximus is not the only creature to inhabit the camp... there are all kinds of woodland critters crawling, leaping and flying around, and more besides. Most won't actively attack Maximus, but they will certainly get in his way, and touching them is a bit on the deadly side.

Boy, you look like a horse's ass.

Maximus' objective is a tricky one, and in order to be able to complete it he's going to need vehicles ro get about. Being a mouse, there aren't any handy, but there are boxes of parts lying around the camp. Maximus must leap and bound his way to the boxes and pick up all that are lying around a level, thus completing a blueprint and getting him a step further in his quest.

The bonus level. Step on the arrows in the right order to win.

All this leaping around is an energy-sapping business, but luckily there are food icons scattered around each level, which can be picked up to restore some energy. That's not their only use, though... this being a platform game, some things may be a little difficult to reach, until you realise you can jump on the food icons...

Oh good, a bar. You might need a drink at this point.

In fact, there are other little tricks to this game. For a while, I spent my time trying to avoid everything. And then I had a little thought, and decided to try something, and it was then that I discovered that you can ride on kites and balloons. Very helpful indeed! They don't kill you, but the fall from one of them might...

Let's go fly a kite, up to the heighest height.

It's at this point that you're thinking this is one of the best games ever. Sadly, I can't say that's the case. Although it has its fair share of plus points, there's one overwhelming negative... it's just too hard. I can imagine that back in the day I'd have spent ages playing it, and I might even have done OK at it, but with my self-imposed limit of an hour or so it was really hard to make much progress (without the trainer). If you can get the right weapon you stand more of a chance, and there are some fun pickups to be had, but a game that seems to be going well can come to an end frighteningly quickly.

Maximus has met his end. You see this screen a lot.

Summer Camp is a cute game with a real sense of character. The star of the game is endearing, and its filled with cute, cartoony touches (a great example is the way Maximus is redrawn after a death). But that cuteness is a velvet glove wrapped around an iron fist. It's just that bit too difficult, whereas if it had been toned down a bit we might have been looking at a really fun platformer. A visit to Summer Camp should be the time of your life... this one has just a bit too much hard labour.

Creatures (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , ,

Right, from this point on we can say I haven't played any of the remaining Thalamus games on the Commodore 64. That might sound a bit like sacrilege... the Creatures games are very highly regarded, after all. But I've only ever dabbled with those two on emulators, and only for a few minutes. I didn't have the patience to stick with them, for all the praise they received in their day. I haven't really got much choice now!

I knew I shouldn't have had those extra hot chillies on my pizza...

Creatures is a platform game, with cute and cuddly characters being the order of the day. That makes the storyline all the more surprising when you read it... a race of creatures from the planet Blot have left their planet in search of hipness. They have renamed themselves Fuzzy Wuzzies (know nothing about being hip, this lot), but before they could find a place of their own, they crashed on Earth. Luckily they ended up on an almost-deserted island, which they renamed The Hippest Place In The Known Universe.

Nice day for a balloon ride. Let's blow him out of the sky.

Pity, then, that the only other inhabitants of the island were demons who, having been annoyed by the Fuzzies' presence invited them to a party, then promptly captured them and whisked them away to be tortured. The only one to escape this fate was one Clyde Radcliffe (see? Not hip), who was throwing up in the bushes when the capturing took place, and so it is he, under your guidance, who must embark upon the quest to free his brethren...

Clyde Radcliffe, intergalactic jet-setter and playboy.

There's a premise for you. And with that, off you go, traipsing through a very pretty and colourful world, hoping to locate and free your fellow Fuzzies. Clyde starts the game with the ability to spit arcing fireballs at anything in his path, and if they prove to be ineffective, he has a short-burst flamethrower that he can breathe at the demon enemies, which will usually cause them to explode after a while.

It might be dark in here, but there's an extra life to help...

That sounds like a fine array of weaponry as it is, but if you should get far enough into the game you'll encounter a fine-looking witch who will be all too keen to sell you an assortment of upgraded, more powerful armaments, which should be enough to see off any demon that dare stand in your way. There's a catch, though; the witch doesn't give these away for free. You'll have to collect as many of the special flashing creatures that you can find throughout the world. These can then be used to mix the potions you'll need for your nice, new destructive toys.

Why, yes there is, as it happens. Pity I don't seem to be in the mood...

Eventually, having battled past shedloads of cute little critters, you'll find one of your stricken friends. Hurrah! Unfortunately, they'll be on the wrong end of a fearsome torture device. Boo! And in true Penelope Pitstop fashion, your friend is not immediately executed in front of your eyes... the demos will at least give you a sporting chance to rescue the beleaguered Fuzzy. Should you fail to get there in time, though, then a terrible fate awaits...

Now, what the hell is going on here?

I found Creatures to be a little bit of an odd game. The main game plays quite ponderously, with Clyde being a little bit on the slow side, and this being compounded by the size of the levels. They're huge, and can take ages to get through. Luckily the gameplay is decent, but if I'm being honest, I didn't find it that spectacular or markedly above any of the Commodore 64's better platformers.

Yes, hurry! The poor thing is probably afraid of heights, or something.

The torture screens, on the other hand, are twisted, sick and very funny. They're also pretty difficult to figure out, at least for one who appears to have lost his 8-bit gaming ability. That's the good thing, though... even if you're not able to figure them out, you can have a good laugh at the horrific end that befalls your Fuzzy friend.

Ah. Too late. Looks like he was worried for a good reason, after all.

Creatures, for me, is a game of two halves. I can certainly see why it was so highly rated back in the day... it's extremely polished, as you'd expect of a Thalamus release, and you get a huge amount of game. The main core of the game, trudging through the level to get to your friend, looks lovely, and even the bad guys are really cute and endearing. It's a shame that I didn't find the gameplay as endearing, though... a bit of extra speed in Clyde's steps would certainly have helped. It's the lure of seeing the torture screens that keeps you playing. They're the real works of genius here, and elevate a game that I found relatively average into something pretty special.

Heatseeker (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , ,

Heatseeker, of all the Thalamus games, is probably the least well-remembered and the least well-reviewed. I never played it, although I did play the author's previous game, Arac. That was an odd and very distinctive effort, from what I remember, and although I can't say I particularly loved it, it was interesting enough to have me playing it for a fair while. So while I didn't exactly come into Heatseeker filled with excitement, there was at least an air of curiosity on my part.

Yep. That sounds like a good idea.

The instructions paint a bleak tale, one of an ancient and doomed world protected by three giant magical plants. Industry has ravaged the planet, and the resultant choking smog and acid rain is polluting the old world to within an inch of its life. The three giant flowers have closed their petals... the poisonous acid rain is now seeping in... the end is nigh...

Such a tale of woe. And yet, there is hope. It may be impossible for humans to venture out into the world for fear of a gruesome, acidic death, but a wise and almost-forgotten race have constructed a robot that can survive these harsh conditions, capture heat from fires that burn on the planet's surface and transfer this heat to the three flowers, the Triphyllos, in order that they can be revitalised enough to reopen their giant petals and once again bring balance to the world.

Are we sure this isn't a Monty Python game?

Wow. Such an environmentally-conscious game for its time! And of course, it falls to you to control this robot on the planet's surface, gathering up the precious heat wherever it can be found. What cool device did they build? An invincible humanoid? Some kind of cool flying craft? No... you get to control a giant bouncing leg, with a ball on the top. What?

In truth, this is where Heatseeker makes its first and biggest mistake. Who the hell wants to control a big bouncing leg? It's hardly the stuff dreams are made of, unless perhaps you're Terry Gilliam. It is different, though, and with that in mind I set out on my quest.

Aaargh! Fire! No, wait... that's a good thing.

That didn't last long. Frankly, I didn't have the slightest idea what I was doing, to begin with. It looked nice, though. Turns out that sometimes you really do have to read the instructions.

Armed with this new information, I set forth into the world again, and did actually manage to make a bit of progress, unlike in my first attempt. You have to bounce your robot leg around the planet's foliage, hunting down and collecting the heat from flames that are, for some reason, burning merrily away.

Oh bugger, it's raining. Wish I'd brought me brolly.

It's pretty tricky... the leg is hardly a precise instrument to control, and when you find a fire you have to release the ball from the leg and move it into the fire, soaking up the heat before returning to the leg. It's all very cumbersome, and as weird as it sounds.

I did manage to hop around for a bit and collect some heat, which is a big part of the game. Then I got stuck, with no idea where to go or what to do. There's not much that's apparent in this game. It's a real oddity in all ways... looks, subject matter, gameplay... and it's hard to get to grips with and not particularly enjoyable trying. Heatseeker is an interesting game, with a commendable subject matter and a real sense of individuality. It's just a pity that there's not enough fun there to encourage you to dig any deeper with it.

Retrograde (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , ,

Now I'm really moving into uncharted territory. At this point, Thalamus' games were released when I had other interests... most weeknights I was at my friend's house, playing on his Amiga; on Tuesdays I played for one of the local pub's darts teams; and of course, weekends were spent on pub crawls. Yep... I'd hit 18, and the Commodore 64 was losing some of its lustre at last.

Bloody aliens... they all look alike, to me.

I did have Retrograde, as it happens... but it was buried at the back end of a C90, and I couldn't be bothered with trawling through the tape to play it. So I think had maybe one go, and then moved on to something else, never to return. That means I'm coming into it now with relatively fresh eyes.

Hey, how come he gets a cool speeder bike? Not fair!

Retrograde is a two-way horizontally scrolling shoot 'em up. To being with, it'll leave you reeling. The screen is filled with fast moving enemies of different types, and you're something of a bystander as bullets and ships whizz about your head at dizzying speeds while you have little clue as to what the hell is going on.

Oooh, guns, guns, guns! They won't know what's hit them once I'm spent up.

Once you've taken stock of the situation, you can at least think about flying around amongst the mayhem, and maybe taking a pop at an enemy or two while you're at it. I say "maybe"... you're very under-equipped for the job at hand to begin with, having just one forward-firing weapon at your disposal. It's nowhere near enough, given the sheer speed and number of enemies. Fortunately, most of them drop currency when destroyed, and you can take this to the local shop and spend it on upgrades.

That ground soldier's about to get a faceful of fist.

This is where the real fun begins. Your suit features sixteen upgrade points, and depending on what level you're on and how much money you've got, you can bolt on an array of weaponry to turn you from weedy flying soldier to rock-hard space marine. If you can survive long enough to gather the cash (not necessarily a given), your life will become a lot easier. A player firing in eight directions at multi-upgraded power is a sight to behold, and the more powerful you get the more cash you can rake in for further upgrades.

Come and have a go, if you think you're hard enough.

There's a downside to this... call it strategy, if you will. Although you have sixteen upgrade points, you're limited to the number that can be occupied, depending on which weapons you want to own. So you're going to need to use some trial-and-error to see which ones work best for you. Chances are you're going to have to sell some of your lower-level weapons as you progress, so that you can try out the new stuff.

Glad I don't have to deal with those two...

Just in case you were worried that all that blasting would get boring, there's another side to Retrograde. In order to progress through the levels, you'll have to spend a bit of time on foot. As well as landing to visit the shop, there's a need to say hello to the planetside aliens with your fists. Eventually you'll be able to purchase the Planet Buster, which opens a door that leads underground. All you need to do is fight your way down to the bottom. Easy.

With great power comes great responsibility... or lots of dead aliens.

Beat enough of the underground levels and you'll come up against the planet's boss... a huge, Armalyte-esque effort that will take all your upgraded weaponry just to make a dent. They also take a fair amount of time to destroy... time that will see their attacks eat away at your precious energy... and lives.

There's nothing like a day in the country. Wonder if the shop sells ice cream?

I must admit, I found Retrograde to be a pleasant surprise. If I could compare it with anything, I suppose the closest would be Forgotten Worlds, but it has a lot of its own elements too. At first it was frantic and overwhelming, but once I got into it and things settled down, it became a lot easier to play, and once my weaponry started accumulating I had that joyful feeling of being a supreme Death Dealer. It may become a little repetitive in time, even with the two different game elements, but Retrograde appeases an itchy trigger finger with some ease.

Snare (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , ,

Once upon a time, way, waaay back when, I had my own website. It wasn't anything flash... I was bored and so I decided to make a little website in an attempt to learn basic HTML. And it worked quite well, to a degree... although so lacking were my skills that the reviews were stitched together using JPEG and PNG images that I'd created, rather than through code. The problem was, it was on GeoCities, so it only took about eight views before my bandwidth allowance was smashed, thanks to those images. Still, it was quite a nice little ZZAP! 64 rip-off, if I do say so myself. It was called Retro-Active Reviews. Did you ever see it? It's gone now. Quite sad.

One of the games my team reviewed (yes, I had a team!) was the Commodore 64 game, Snare. A Thalamus release (their seventh) coming on the heels of the amazing Armalyte, it was probably one of their lowest-profile games, and to be honest I probably didn't give it a fair shake at the time. Had puzzle elements to it, see. That was about seven or eight years ago, though... time to give it another shot, I reckon.

Look, the arrows point the way. How hard can it be?

I remember the advert for Snare... "One man's killing joke". As the story goes, in the year 2049, Andre Thelman, one of the world's richest men, died. Prior to this, he'd spent years building a massive twenty-level maze in a temporal cavity in the grounds of his home. Once finished, he ventured into this maze with his most prized possession, where he promptly snuffed it. Rich, then, but not very smart.

In the years since his death, the rumours built this treasure into legend, and many have died attempting to retrieve it... to the point where all attempts are now televised, in what must be something a bit like The Running Man. Well, as far as contestants getting offed on live telly goes, anyway.

Oh, for fork's sake... which way do I go?

Snare puts you in the seat of a ship designed especially to conquer this maze. It can accelerate and decelerate at incredible rates, it can jump and it can shoot. This is important... there are huge gaps in the maze that you really wouldn't want to fall down, and this is no empty, ghostly relic... guardian ships are on patrol, ready to ward off treasure hunters at a moment's notice.

Actually playing the game takes some adjustment... it's not like anything else you've played before. It sounds straightforward enough, but as soon as you take your first turn, you'll be confused...

Success! Those sparkly star-like tiles are the teleport to the next level.

Designed, I'm sure, especially to mess with your mind, Snare snaps the screen ninety degrees with every turn you make. I now know what Automan's mate felt like. Your brain just can't cope at first... it's really difficult to condition yourself to the fact your ship always points up the screen, no matter what direction you're actually travelling in. Once it clicks you become OK with it, and it's just one extra puzzle to stay in tune with.

The switch on the left has activated the bridge. Hurry... get across while you can!

It's very cleverly done, with the initial levels gently working you into the game, introducing you to the different tiles in a way that you can learn their effects without too much danger. And your ship, despite the ninety degree snap-turns, is fairly manoeuvrable, being able to accelerate and decelerate at speed. At least, it can to start with... you don't half get a shock when you reach a level where you can't stop!

What's going on here? I thought the Triple Jump was in Hyper Sports!

Snare is a very well-conceived and well-executed game. It's a bit of a mindbender, and it's satisfying when you manage to successfully complete a level you've struggled with. I enjoyed it a fair bit more, second time around, so I'm really glad I gave it another chance. Oh, and about that "killing joke"... thanks to emulation, I've discovered what Thelman's most prized possession was... very naughty indeed, Thalamus!

Armalyte (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , , , ,

If ZZAP! 64 had courted controversy over Thalamus' releases in the past, either with the awarding of Gold Medals that people didn't agree with or the supposed under-rating of Delta, there was nary a murmur when it came to their opinion of Thalamus' sixth game - Armalyte. Why the quiet? ZZAP! 64 gave it a Gold Medal... but this time, almost everyone agreed.

Once more, unto the breach... do they have to make it so claustrophobic right from the outset?

The plot of Armalyte is... oh, who cares? Some twaddle that loosely ties it in with Delta... apparently, it seemed like a good idea to market this as a sequel to that game, as if this wasn't good enough to stand on its own. It's more than good enough, and certainly doesn't need the Delta II subtitle it was lumbered with.

With no structures to run into, this doesn't look so bad... just don't get rammed.

Armalyte is a game that takes every other shoot 'em up on the Commodore 64, and ramps up all their best bits by a few notches. It starts in classic Nemesis/Gradius fashion, with your ship flying from left to right as waves of enemies fly toward you, intent on your destruction. The power-up system is different, though... rather than collecting pods left behind by the destruction of enemy formations, a la Konami's classic, weapons pods are to be found floating in space, and you activate them by blasting them.

Mmmm, eggs. Wish I'd had a proper breakfast before I left...

Shooting the floating pods repeatedly switches them through a cycle that includes increased forward fire, rear fire and vertical fire, among others. And if that's not enough for you, you have two huge laser weapons you can switch between that are very satisfying to unleash. Oh, and you start the game with a drone ship which replicates your firepower, which is just as well, given everything you have to attempt to cope with...

Don't go spitting that stuff at me. That's just rude.

There are a few things that elevate Armalyte beyond the bog-standard shooter. The first thing you're likely to notice is the number of enemy ships that you have to deal with. The attack waves come thick and fast, with each containing a good number of attackers. They're relentless, and they're difficult to deal with as they whip about at an often alarming rate. It's overwhelming at first, and you'll find yourself crushed to dust far more often than you'd like.

OK, big fella... get a load of what I'm packing.

Then there are the levels themselves. They're huge, and you'll often be praying for the relative safety of deep space, as you'll frequently find yourself with just a small gap to squeeze through, which mightn't be so bad if it wasn't for the alien attack ships waiting on the other side... There's quite a bit of variety to the levels, which is highly commendable. OK, so the game loaded each level separately, but I can think of plenty of multiload games that didn't try so hard. The levels change in colour as you move through them, and each has its own style, giving the game a massive sense of scale.

It's not the scary heads I'm worried about. It's that giant wall beyond them.

Should you negotiate the countless minions and treacherous landscapes, you'll find that each level has its own gigantic boss to overcome. These are actually probably the weakest points of Armalyte. They're not bad, don't get me wrong, just a bit too similar to each other. It's always been pretty difficult to come up with good enemy boss ship it seems, and for all they look impressive, especially when they take it upon themselves to fly across the screen at you, I can't help but feel they could have been better. But that's as much a constraint of the horizontally-scrolling shoot 'em up as anything else.

Die, alien scum! OK, I've used that one before. If it ain't broke, etc...

Armalyte is pretty much a wonder of the 8-bit era. It came at a time when people thought they could no longer be surprised or impressed by a Commodore 64 game, and were proven wrong in slack-jawed amazement. It was easily Thalamus' most impressive release to date from a technical standpoint, although whether it's actually a better game than Hunter's Moon is something we can argue about over a pint down the pub one day. Regardless, it was fully deserving of its ZZAP! Gold Medal, and any other honours that may have been thrown its way. It's good enough to make me want to play again now that I've finished writing about it... the sign of a top-notch game if ever there was one.

Hawkeye (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , ,

The ZZAP! 64/Thalamus controversy continued with Hawkeye, which was awarded a Gold Medal by the magazine; incorrectly, in the views of many. My mate Reedy bought the game, and we spent a long, long while playing it and enjoying it. If those are any criteria that should count towards a good review, then we'd certainly have given the game very high marks back then.

I wasn't sure I'd think so highly of it now, but then my expectations have changed over the years.

Awww, look at that cute ickle fing! Makes a great noise when it explodes, too.

It was a tricky start... it turned out that I'd completely forgotten how to play this game. And so I piled along as far right as I could go as quickly as I could go, hair flowing in the breeze, synthetic muscles rippling in the sunlight, bullets flying like, well, bullets. And I had to shoot this big dinosaur-type thing. So when it died, why didn't the level end? And why did the dinosaur-type thing come back when I scrolled the screen?

Ooh, I love dinosaurs. But... it's not stopping. Shoot it! Shoot it!

And then I remembered... the game is called Hawkeye, and at the top of the screen are two rather majestic-looking hawks' heads. And when the eye flashes on one of those heads, it's telling you that that's the direction you need to go in to pick up the next of the puzzle pieces need to complete the level. It all came flooding back...

Well, alright... will it take long? I've got a bus to catch in thirty minutes.

Hawkeye, as expected of a Thalamus game, is really well presented, having maybe even more bells and whistles than any of their previous games. There's the Mix-e-load to mess with as the game loads, this time featuring the music of Jeroen Tel; an animated storyteller providing the backstory of the game; and everything is brilliantly set out, with a helpful title sequence letting you know what to expect from the in-game icons. There's even a secret level in there, if you're good enough to unlock it...

Jesus Christ! Look at the size of that flying thing! I'll have to swat it with my laser...

But it also has a pretty damn good game attached to that. Although it's a simple collect'em up at heart, it throws loads of baddies at you as you're running around, which makes it a lot more intense to play than it otherwise might be. That said, you can choose to avoid a lot of the combat, if you wish. Each level, although only one screen in height, is littered with platforms. The majority of the creatures in the game hop and bounce around in such a way that you can often duck underneath them or run straight past them.

Aaahhh... nothing like a quick recharge...

It might seem a bit strange to even want to do that, but your ammunition is limited, although more can be picked up, if you're lucky. More importantly, your energy depletes over the course of a level... it's a kind of time limit, in essence. Again, this can be replenished occasionally, but there's no point in risking losing more than you need to, if you can help it. Especially as, once you get to level four, enemy attack patterns get more complicated and make things even more difficult...

Well, I can't say I was expecting that.

I enjoyed Hawkeye a considerable amount whilst playing it for this. There are times when the shooting action is really frantic, and you have to be quite selective about what you're doing if you want to progress. I wouldn't say it's a thinking man's shoot 'em up, but with a choice of four weapons, each of which is effective in different ways, and this element of having to pick your battles carefully, it keeps you on your toes at all times. It's also a pretty good high score game, and with plenty of levels it's a real challenge. Another high point for the Thalamus catalogue, in my opinion.

Hunter's Moon (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , ,

With Stavros Fasoulas out of the picture, Thalamus had to look elsewhere for someone that could do their label justice. And where they looked was in the direction of Martin Walker. It might have seemed an odd move... his games until then hadn't exactly set the world on fire, although his Chameleon had been praised by the lads at ZZAP!. It would be interesting to see where he would take Thalamus...

An easy start. Shoot your way in, collect the starcell, job done.

It turned out he would take them back into space. Hunter's Moon is a game that I didn't give a lot of time to in its day. I found it too difficult and a bit too odd as a shoot 'em up... it's not an immediate game, it's not instantly action-packed and, as shooters go, it actually takes a fair bit of thought. Over the years it's been championed very strongly by ZZAP! 64's Gordon Houghton (or as I like to call him after one crazy night in Oxford, my pool brother... but that's another story). So there must be something to it that I missed at the time...

Twinkle, twinkle, little starcell...

Hunter's Moon, as previously mentioned, is a space-based shoot 'em up. There are 128 levels in the game, spread across 16 ever-more-complex star systems... a mighty proposition. You're trapped in a galaxy of organically-engineered hives... beautiful structures that it almost seems a shame to destroy. However - these hives contain starcells, and you need to obtain these in order to make your escape.

This is a bonus subgame. No starcells here, just shooting.

Now, when I talk about destroying the hives... you can't actually do that. Workers patrol the perimeters, constantly refreshing the walls. If you damage any part of a hive, it'll be rebuilt on the workers' next circuit. That being the case, you have to get in and out of there quickly, especially as you'll also die on contact with a worker.

It's been quite an odyssey, getting here...

Luckily, you have time to plan your moves. You can fly around the outer rims and use your radar to work out the best, quickest and safest ways to the starcells. And if you pick one up while it's still flashing, you'll obtain one of the four co-ordinates you need to escape the current star system.

OK, now this is getting a little bit hairy.

That all makes it sound terribly easy, but as well as trying to figure out your way in... and take it from me, with the routes those workers take, that's far from easy... you'll also have to watch out for their defensive firepower. Well, you are a thieving, laser-blasting scumbag... they're within their rights to try and ward you off. And they're good at it too... it's not long before they're throwing homing bullets at you, so the idea of just sitting there and planning your strategy goes out the window.

Oh no! They've bricked me in!

Hunter's Moon is a very clever game. It's superbly designed and structured, extremely polished with beautiful graphics and excellent sound, and it's a very challenging game, but not to the point of frustration. It seems like a bit of a slog, especially having to play through from the start every time, but once you get better at the early levels and can start skipping a few, you can concentrate on learning how to get past the more difficult stuff. Having finally played it properly, I reckon it still stands up as a great game, and a unique entry into the shoot 'em up field. I feel a bit silly for not paying it more attention years ago. Great stuff.

Quedex (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , ,

If Delta had the good fortune to appear just when Nemesis was fresh in peoples' minds, then Thalamus' next game, Quedex, struck it lucky by turning up when people were still gaga over Marble Madness. "Oooh, look! You control a ball through a series of mazes! That'll be awesome!"


The game got its name from its subtitle - The Quest For Ultimate Dexterity. So that's two reasons why I never played it back in the day... I never really liked Marble Madness, and why would I want to play a game to test my dexterity? Besides, I gave that enough of a workout playing shoot 'em ups. And so Quedex remained completely off my radar, with nothing there to pique my interest in the slightest.

This level has you chasing around after white squares. The excitement!

What doesn't help is that when the game has loaded, it actually tells you that it's "number 3 in a series designed to frustrate and enrage". I don't want that from my games! I want to have fun, to be entertained, even to relax. I don't want to be put on the verge of a stroke.

Still, moving onwards, I figured I'd have to at least see if there was any fun to be had from Quedex.

This teleport might take you somewhere good. It might not. Grrrr!

The game gives you ten "planes" to conquer, using your dexterity, which would have been directly related at the time to which joystick you were using. I had a Zipstik, so I would probably have been awesome at the game. Anyone with a Quickshot II would, likely as not, have been knackered.

In order to help you get the most out of the game, you're allowed to select the planes you'll tackle in whatever order you like. This is definitely for the best, because if (like me) you got to the second plane and got completely stuck, you'd feel like you'd wasted your money. If you'd bought it, of course.

Odd level, this one. The goal is right there... you can complete it immediately or try and pick up the tokens for extra points.

For all the game involves joystick wrestling as its mechanic, it does a fair job of providing variety over the ten planes. Number 1, for instance, has you negotiating a number of small floors with precision, with each floor requiring a different kind of manoeuvring. Number 2, though, sees you attempting to negotiate a maze by finding keys to unlock certain passages.

And that, for me, is where the game goes wrong. Because then it's not a test of dexterity, it's a test of memory and, at least to begin with, luck. When the levels are purely you against the clock, weaving in and out of obstacles or jumping across holes, it's really good fun. But when you're trying yet another teleport in the hope of landing next to that all-important key, then it's an exercise in pure frustration.

It's not all bad... this level makes me want a custard cream. Mmm... custard creams... hang on, we haven't got any in! Damn!

It's a bit of a shame, that. Really, what you've got here is half a game... maybe two-thirds. Those irritating levels really take the gloss off it, and from my point of view, are what will stop me from attempting to complete it. There are some game types I just can't hack, and those levels are just about the epitome of all that makes me mad in a game.

Quedex was Stavros Fasoulas' third game for Thalamus, and it proved to be his last. Not because Thalamus didn't like what he was doing... for all the frustration I found in his games, he was obviously a talented coder with a bright future in the industry. But he was called up for National Service in his home country, Finland, and was never heard from again. I read recently that he may be living in the United States now, and has left his gaming past entirely behind. Shame, that. Stavros, if you ever feel the need for an interview, get in touch... you've got a lot of fans that would love to know how you're doing.

Delta (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , ,

If Sanxion was seen as something of a contentious effort, Thalamus' follow-up Delta, it could be argued, could be regarded as being even moreso. ZZAP! 64, being affiliated with Thalamus' publishers, had taken some frightful stick over their review of Sanxion, being accused of bias after rating it highly. So when the magazine hit the shelves and ZZAP! had only awarded Delta 74%, eyebrows were raised. Were they deliberately over-compensating on this occasion?

Mix-E-Load. What a great idea! Just don't choose the "Nolans" setting.

On the face of it, Delta takes everything that was good in Sanxion and ramps it up a notch or five. Whereas Sanxion had a fantastic loading tune from Rob Hubbard, Delta revolutionised game loading by using something called Mix-E-Load. This game you the opportunity to play with a Rob Hubbard tune as the game loaded, using different instruments and effects to alter the tune in a good number of ways. It was a really cool idea that was appreciated by everybody I knew that played it... I'm sure it was almost universally enjoyed.

Shoot the core! Well, the one in the middle, anyway...

Once the game loaded, another fantastic Hubbard tune played, fast, upbeat and uplifting... really putting you in the mood for a good blast. And the musical piece de resistance came in the game itself... a Philip Glass-inspired piece, again by Rob Hubbard. Lasting over ten minutes, it was a moody number, without the trademark Hubbard drums... it felt very atmospheric and well-suited to the strange alien landscapes, and the levels were timed so that changes in the music seemed to fit perfectly with changes in the game.

Oh come on... they were easy to shoot. You're throwing money away!

Graphically, Delta shifted from Sanxion's planetside plains and cityscapes, instead moving into deep space. Flying through ruined cities, warped rock formations, boiling seas and bizarre jelly-like structures, the imagination on display was a joy to behold. And the alien craft and formations were similarly inspired, moving with grace, fluidity and purpose.

Pity the actual gameplay couldn't live up to any of that.

Oooh, pretty colours! Prettttyyyyy.... Kill it!

Delta came not too long after Nemesis had made weapons upgrades popular. And indeed, there's a fine array of weaponry here for the taking; from the usual speed-ups and bullet upgrades to multiple bullets, multi-directional fire and shields, you can really tool yourself up to the wazoo in readiness for the alien onslaught.

I realise I'm still not saying anything that comes as a downside. So... here goes.

Sometimes I feel like there's some kind of wall between us...

The biggest problem in Delta comes with those extra weapons. Like Nemesis, shooting whole formations of enemies will get you a credit (automatically added in this case, rather than floating around waiting to be picked up). At times, a group of icons will appear, like a corner shop in space, just waiting for you to spend your credits. Blue icons can be "bought", simply by flying over them. Grey icons will kill you if you touch them, so don't be so silly.

Let's see... I'll have a Marathon, a packet of pickled onion Tudor and a multi-directional laser cannon, please.

The alien enemies move in strict formations. So once you've learned where they appear, theoretically you'll remember and wipe them all out, every time. But what if you don't? Well, if you don't have the right set of power-ups at any given time, you're in big trouble. This is true right from the off... miss any of the first wave and you can't buy a speed-up, which means you'll miss the next waves and can't buy a power-up, which means you're effectively dead in the water. Might as well start again.

I don't want to crash here... I can't swim!

The whole game is played out on this knife edge. If you miss anything, you're going to have to be very lucky to stay alive. And if/once your weapons start running out, particularly the speedup, then you're as good as dead. It takes the emphasis away from the shoot 'em up part of the game, and almost turns the whole thing into a puzzle game. In that respect, it almost reminds me a little of Ikaruga, although it plays nothing like that.

Uh-oh... looks like you've found your Nemesis...

The final act of cruelty comes with the apparent predecessor to Burnout 3's Heartbreaker icon in the Crash Mode... eventually, you will discover that shooting certain alien formations actually removes credits. That just isn't fair... you should never be penalised for doing well, and in a game where you're so utterly reliant on collecting power-ups, it's a real kick in the teeth.

When I see you, I just turn to jelly...

Delta is not a bad game. The production values, as expected, are of the highest standard. I've seen me load the game just to listen to the two outstanding tunes. And if you happen to be into shoot 'em ups where you need to learn patterns, then you'll be in spacey nirvana with this. That's not my bag, though, and as much as I've always wanted to truly love this game, playing it again just reminded me of all the reasons why we parted less-than-amicably all those years ago. As a technical demo for the Commodore 64, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better game. But if you're looking for a great game, I happen to think that ZZAP! 64 got that review just about right. For all its aural and visual splendour, as a game, Delta falls sadly short of the mark.

Sanxion (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , ,

I'm going to do this Hyper-Thalamus! thing in chronological order... makes sense, really. That being the case, I'm starting off with their first release, a game that caused a bit of a stir for a number of reasons... Sanxion.

For those unfamiliar with the history, Thalamus was owned by Newsfield Corporation. Also owned by Newsfield Corporation was the legendary Commodore 64 magazine, ZZAP! 64. So when Sanxion was reviewed by ZZAP! 64 and awarded a Sizzler!, there were cries of foul play from other quarters. Were they right to be suspicious?

I don't think so.

Uh-oh... this looks like trouble...

Sanxion is a horizontally-scrolling shooter, although it's a little different from many of the day in that the bottom half of the screen has a side-on view where the action is concentrated, while the top half has an overhead-view scanner. That said, the scanner view doesn't extend much beyond what you can see in the bottom screen, but it gives you just enough extra to let you prepare a little for each upcoming wave.

Something that's a bit frightening from the off is the speed of the game. Once you push that stick to the right, you're really moving! Truth be told, you go too fast to really have a chance, but luckily you can dictate the pace at which you fly, which makes things a little bit easier (albeit far from easy!), and only results in your end-level bonus taking a hit (no great hardship).

Bonus time! All you have to do here is blast everything!

There are, though, occasional levels or moments within levels where you're forced to fly at full pelt. Unfortunately for you, that's usually at sections where there are barriers to negotiate. They're always in the same place, so once you've learned where they are and committed them to memory, you should sail through every time. Getting there takes a while and a lot of lives, though...

After every level, you'll play a bonus section. During these, you'll fly through rainbow-striped areas, either destroying waves of spaceships or picking up bonus coins. You can't die in these areas, but careful piloting can net you some pretty big scores.

Oh come on, that's hardly fair...

Sanxion is a funny game. It can be, in the same game, both exhilarating and frustrating. When you whizz through a few attack waves or barriers at top speed and come out unscathed, it's quite a rush. On the other hand, it can be annoying to hit barrier after barrier and watching your number of lives dwindle. Still, it's a highly polished game, with good graphics (the wobbling ship is a lovely touch), amazing music (particularly the loading screen - one of Rob Hubbard's best) and plenty of stuff to blast.

Looking back on it, Sanxion was an impressive debut game from Thalamus, but also a pretty big statement of intent. The high production values and polish would be synonymous with the Thalamus name, although so would the occasionally frustrating gameplay...

Creatures (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , ,

I'm surprised I hadn't played Creatures before! It was one of the most highly rated games on the Commodore 64, and it was by Thalamus, and I had most of their games. For some reason, though, this (and its sequel!) escaped me.

Creatures tells the story of Clyde Radcliffe, a cute and fluffy thing that's landed on a desert island on Earth. The heartless (but cute!) bastard then sets about eliminating all the indigenous species on the island, just so he and his friends can bunk down there. Harsh.

Right turn, Clyde!

It's fairly typical platform stuff, but although it's a bit on the slow side, it plays pretty nicely. In fact, it probably helps that you're not haring around at breakneck speed, because it's quite difficult and it would be easy to miss things. You can fire, erm, fireballs, or you can charge up and unleash a flamethrower. From your mouth.

There are also things to collect and go shopping with, and then at the end of each stage, there's a torture screen. In the torture screen, you must rescue one of your fuzzy friends from a fate worse than death. Or you can just sit there and watch them get ripped to shreds. Your call.

Creatures is a fun game, if possibly overrated at the time. On the other hand, if I've enjoyed it now, I'm sure I would have enjoyed it more at the time and possibly played it to completion. I don't think I'd be awarding it Gold Medals, but it was almost certainly a cut above the competition then, and as far as 8-bit games go today, it holds up pretty well, I reckon.