R.I.P. Jack Tramiel

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , , ,

When I was a teenager, nothing in this world mattered more to me than my Commodore 64. School became something that just got in the way of my game time. My heroes were not rock stars, or film stars... they were the reviewers at ZZAP! 64, still the best computer magazine of all time. Or the programmers who made such awesome games: Andrew Braybrook; Jeff Minter; Archer MacLean; the guys at Sensible Software; even musician Rob Hubbard. The Commodore 64 has meant more to me than any other possession I have owned. It's part of my soul.

I didn't spare a thought as to how that Commodore 64 ended up in my possession, save for the fact my parents had bought me it for Christmas (which, whether they knew it or not, made them the most awesome people on the planet that Christmas Day). I certainly didn't think for a moment about the people who had designed and manufactured the thing. Why would I? I didn't want a job with them. I just wanted to play games.

I never had any interest in programming, as such. I think that's always been beyond me. Still, the Commodore 64 was the first machine that inspired me to so much as dabble. The first such instance was probably much the same as yours. I'd go into Boots with my mates, and there's be a few computers running in their display. We'd sidle up to the Commodore 64 and type:

20 GOTO 10 

And once we hit the Enter key, the message would infinitely scroll down the screen, and we'd run out of the shop laughing, hoping to avoid a clip from the security guard.

Later, inspired by the ZZAP! lads, I actually programmed, using much the same instructions as the infamous Boots message, an entire catalogue of reviews of the games I owned. I separated them by genre and wrote reviews in the ZZAP! style, with the same categories of ratings and my own personal comments. Somewhere, in a north-east landfill, lies a Boots C15 cassette with that program on it.

Since those days, I've always fancied being a games writer. It's why I love writing for Way of the Rodent, and it's why I've got this blog. I even have thoughts of writing a book about computer games. And it all stems from owning the Commodore 64.

The main man behind the Commodore 64 was Jack Tramiel, and he died this weekend. The videogaming world owes him an awful lot, as do I.

Phantoms of the Asteroid (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , ,

Never before has a game suffered from such an identity crisis. If you bought this game, the cover picture told you it was Phantom of the Asteroids. But when you got to the loading screen, it had become Phantom of the Asteroid. Then, once it had loaded, the title screen said it was Phantoms of the Asteroid!

So, which was it? Well, given that you were on an asteroid and there were phantoms, I would say it should have been Phantoms of the Asteroid. That's what I've always called it, anyway.

I'm-a-livin' in a box... I'm-a-livin' in a laser-edged box...

Phantoms opens with an excellent, rousing and energetic Rob Hubbard track, which just gets you in the mood for a fast-paced spacey shoot 'em up. Which, erm, you don't get. Instead, it's more of a leisurely exploration game.

Actually, it's not that leisurely. Granted, you move around the gigantic asteroid at a slow pace, but the phantoms appear very often indeed, so you'll have to keep your finger on your laser trigger or you won't be getting off the thing alive. Or dead, actually.

There's a reason why you're on this asteroid, though, besides just having a bit of a look around. It's actually on a collision course with Earth, and that wouldn't be good. So it's your job to stop it.

Ahhhh... precious fuel.

It should be easy enough... just float about the inner passages of the asteroid, collect the 36 uranium cubes that are known to be located within, combine them and get out of there before the thing blows to smithereens. Nothing to it.

The thing is, this asteroid is home to thousands of phantoms. And they're pretty clever beings, intent on taking over the Earth (although they can't be that clever, because if their asteroid hits Earth, both will be destroyed. Ummm.). The asteroid is riddled with deadly laser gates which hinder your progress. In fact, they're worse than that... touch any of them, just once, and you're dead, and all Earth's hope is gone.

That makes Phantoms of the Asteroid a very difficult game. It's absolutely huge, which makes it a bit unfair that you can lose it all with one miscalculation. You've got a lot to keep an eye on besides that; fuel, energy and oxygen are all depleting constantly and must be topped up, if you can find any of those things lying around.

That would be my first uranium cube, if it wasn't for that massive wall in the way...

It's funny, because there's a lot of emptiness in this game, with large spells where you're flying around empty caverns with just occasional phantoms for company. You could say that would make for a boring game, but I think it actually adds loads to the atmosphere. It feels like you're in a desolate place, which is how it should be.

For £1.99, it's impossible to argue with the value that Phantoms of the Asteroid provided. It's an enormous challenge, truly living up to both of those words. If you've ever completed it without cheating, I salute you.

Warhawk (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , ,

I absolutely love the arcade game Star Force. I've always loved it. I used to play the arcade machine whenever I got an opportunity, whether that was on trips to the seaside or when one of the local taxi offices got a machine in. It's a great, vertically-scrolling spacey shoot 'em up that still provides a massive challenge to this day.

I'd always wanted a conversion of it for my Commodore 64, but that was never likely. So when I saw a game called Warhawk on the shelves, and from the shots on the back of the box it looked like Star Force, I bought it instantly.

Mine! Mine! Mine!

I wasn't disappointed. It was obviously massively inspired by my beloved arcade machine. And although it lacked the polish of Star Force and obviously wasn't as good to play, it still scratched the itch more than satisfactorily. I had a really great time with it back then.

And so, I decided to play it today.

At first, this time, I was disappointed. It didn't feel that good to play at all. But after a few games I got back into it, and it all came flooding back. The Star Force-inspired enemy ships and attack patterns, the belting Rob Hubbard music, the difficulty...

I'm feeling a little blue. That pick-up will pick me up...

Yep, Warhawk is pretty difficult to start with. You only get one life, but you do get an energy supply. If you can see out the level intact, this is replenished. The problem is, every enemy fires bloody homing bullets. Every single projectile flies at you like your ship is some kind of intergalactic bullet magnet. So you have to be constantly on your toes, always moving around the screen, which means you're very likely to fly straight into a new attack wave.

Make it to the end and it all goes quiet. And then, rather than being attacked by a boss ship, lots of little ones kamikaze their way onto the screen, again homing right in on your ship. It's like the boss ship is off-screen, and he's just chucked a load of toys at you. If you've got enough energy left, you should be OK. If not, and luck isn't on your side, expect your game to come to an end.

One to one problem, yes. Five to one problem, too much ask anybody.

You do get help, eventually. Once you get a couple of levels in then, much like Star Force, a pod moves down the screen. If you shoot it, a capsule is released which, if you manage to pick it up, gives you a fast autofire. You definitely breather a little more easily once you've got this, because hammering away on your fire button causes you a world of hurt after a while.

It has to be said that Warhawk is pretty repetitive, and nowhere near as good as the game that inspired it. But at the time, it did exactly what was required of it, and is a really good budget game. I've certainly enjoyed playing it again for the first time in years.

Have I Still Got It? Number 1 - The Human Race (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , ,

I've been asked many times if I'd incorporate video into my blog, and I've always thought that it's a good idea in principle, as long as it fits in OK. I've added a few representative gameplay videos lately... I think this is a good idea, although they aren't getting a lot of views. I still think it's better to have them than not... I won't be commentating on them, I prefer to do that through the writing. But sometimes, watching a game in action can be a better memory jog for someone. So they're staying, although I might try and find ways to make them more interesting (all suggestions welcome!).

Another idea I had was to start a new series, called Have I Still Got It?, where I play a game I used to love and be really good at many years ago, and see if I've still got the skillz. I figure that might be a slightly more interesting angle, although I doubt, given my time constraints, that I'll be doing it on a regular basis!

The first game I'm having a go at for this feature is one I've written about before... The Human Race.

I'm not going to go into the game too much... I did that last time. I used to play it so much though... mostly because each level had its own astonishing Rob Hubbard tune. I couldn't get enough of them, and the only way to really listen to them properly was to play the game, and I suppose that was what spurred me on. It got to the point where I could easily complete the game on a single life, which goes to show how often I played it just for that music!

The game itself was a good un, to my mind, and well worth the £1.99, even though it only had five screens. But almost everybody else I've talked to and that knows about the game seems to think it's really difficult! That being the case, it seemed like the ideal candidate for an experimental feature. But the question is... have I still got it? Well, watch the video and find out!

The Human Race - have I still got it?

The Human Race (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , ,

The Human Race is a game that I bought on a whim one day, played to death and loved... only to find that hardly anybody else seems to have heard of it!

Based upon the evolution of man, it's a five-screen game that mixes up a few game styles as you aim to progress from dopey caveman to stylin' sophisticate. There are many obstacles in the way, from dinosaurs early on (yeah, OK), to massive lava-spewing volcanos, crocodiles, giant spiders and finally Fate himself.

Level two, and it's getting a bit hot underfoot...

Each screen was quite difficult in its own right, but once you'd worked it out it was likely that you'd complete it nine times out of ten (although the final level, the race against Fate, was a bit trickier). Graphically it was a bit of a mixed bag, although still quite nice for a budget game. The music, though, was amazing. There was a different Rob Hubbard tune for every screen, and each one was absolutely superb and well-suited to the level.

If I saw a spider that big, I wouldn't make it until tomorrow, never mind another 25,000 years.

With no ZZAP! 64 review of this game, I'm not sure what prompted me to buy it, but I never regretted it. I completed it loads of times, and kept enjoying it, although a large part of playing it again and again was to listen to the music. Funnily enough, though, any time I've asked anyone else to play it, they've found it incredibly difficult and hated it. Even the person that cracked it for use with an emulator built in a scrolling message saying the game is rubbish and far too hard!

Level five, the race against Fate. I really don't see what's so tricky.

I'm not having that, and I'm going to share the love a bit today. For me, The Human Race kept me entertained for the entire life of my C64 and beyond. I know it's not the best game ever, I wouldn't claim that, but I've always enjoyed it and for me it was a fantastic use of £1.99, It's a game that I still fire up now and again, even today. And I still manage to complete it.

Action Biker (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , ,

I reckon that if you ever played Action Biker back in the day, then you can still hum or whistle the music. Altogether now: do-dee-dooo, do-do-dee-doooo...

Lovely, catchy little tune aside, Action Biker (subtitled Clumsy Colin after a marketing deal with KP Skips!) saw you riding a motorbike around town with no real objective other than to pick up an item before time ran out. The quicker you found the next item the higher your score, providing the only real incentive to get a move on.

The last item picked up was a crash helmet. Just as well, if you're going to go dicking around on a building site...

Some of the items would prove useful in extending your game, such as a bigger fuel tank, and you could get items such as turbo boost which could help you complete the race course more quickly. And there were some memorable locations to explore, such as the building site or rollercoaster.

Action Biker was a great Sunday afternoon game, very chilled out and relaxed as you pootled around town. There was no great sense of urgency, even though you had a limitation on your fuel, and the laid-back soundtrack contributed further to that. It never got the heart racing, but Action Biker always left you with a little smile on your face.

I, Ball (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , ,

"I, Ball! I-I-I-I, Ball! I, Ball!"

I just about shit myself the first time I loaded this game and it shouted that at me. They could have put some kind of warning in the instructions or on the loading screen, or something. I'm sure it just said "Music and FX by Rob Hubbard".

It's an odd game, this one. I, Ball's family has been captured by the evil Terry Ball (groan) and I, who managed to escape, is in a hurry to get them back. What follows is something of a race against time, with guns!

GIANT ENEMY CRAB! Well, sort of.

You have to whizz up the screen before time runs out on the level. Making this more difficult are the peculiar obstacles in your way... some are merely that, whereas others are radioactive and deadly to the touch. You just bounce off the ordinary obstacles, but this can cause enough of a problem... bouncing into a deadly obstacle or enemy is not nice!

There are loads of constantly respawning enemies, although it's a few seconds before they become active and therefore threatening. It's best to shoot them at this point, but you have to be careful because your lasers can overheat. To help you out, discs can be picked up along the way, and these can contain all manner of impressive weaponry.

Taste the rainbow of fruit flavours, y'bastards.

With sixteen levels, lots of blasting action and a great Rob Hubbard soundtrack, I,Ball was well worth the £1.99 at the time. I enjoyed playing it again now... there are some niggles, with the collision detection on the obstacles being a bit ropey and causing more problems than necessary. It's still an entertaining and challenging blast, though.

Thrust (Commodore 64)

by PaulEMoz in , , , ,

Although I'll be a mixture of the great and the good and the weird and the wonderful today, it seems only right that I begin with a game that is considered to be perhaps the Godfather of budget games... Thrust.

I'll be honest... I hated Thrust when I first played it. It was keyboard only, for a start. We 64 owners were used to using joysticks to play games. And who wanted that big brown thing perched on their lap? Nope... hated it.

For some reason, though, I kept going back to it. Maybe with it being so highly rated I figured it was me that was wrong about it, maybe I just felt drawn back to it to at least try and complete a couple of levels... but eventually I was drawn in.

This doesn't look like it'll end well...

The premise is pretty simple sci-fi stuff... our planet is running out of energy, but it's known there is a system of planets that was mined to death years ago, and the plan is to send in a ship to retrieve a power pod from each planet, blow up its main generator thus setting off a world-destroying cataclysmic explosion, and then get out of there with the power pod before you're caught in the blast.

Naturally, it's not as easy as it sounds. And the real beauty of Thrust lies in the perfectly balanced gameplay. The controls are absolutely spot on, the inertia is absolutely spot on... when you connect to the power pod and try to lift it clear, you really feel the extra weight. And then you go spinning out of control and implode on a cavern wall. Well, I do.

OK... sooo... now what?

Just when you start getting good at it, the game turns into an utter bastard and will throw in a new element to keep you on the hop and further test your skills. Get a few levels into the game and you'll have to deal with reverse gravity. Get further still and the walls of the caverns become invisible. Yes, that's ridiculous... you can only see the walls when you activate your shield.

Thrust, unbelievably, is twenty-five years old this year. Quite often, home computer games from that time have aged badly, and aren't what you remember them to be. Thrust, however, is still as fresh, playable, demanding and entertaining as it ever was. It seems incredible that it only cost £1.99 when it was released. It's an absolute stone-cold classic, and if you've never played, get it downloaded right now. Better still, get onto eBay and buy the setup you need to play it for real. It's an amazing game.

*Thrust did not originate on the Commodore 64... in fact, it was a full-price release on the BBC computer. Amazing that it wasn't full-price when released on other systems.

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...