Budget Day - Jason's Gem (ZX Spectrum)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , ,

My search for previously unplayed games takes me to many places.  However, sometimes the games I find aren't particularly suitable for blog posts.  Sometimes they're too complicated to get into, or sometimes they're just too bland to write anything interesting about.  I play a lot of games looking for good blog fodder.

Jason's Gem has been sitting on my "to play" list for a couple of years now.  I've meant to play it and never got round to it.  That's partly because I've never played it before, and I've tended to see the name at times when I've needed a quick post.  To write about a game that's new to you, you need a bit of time.  Fortunately, today I've had some.

Aaaargh! My eyes!
The first screen of Jason's Gem is annoying and completely unnecessary.  Your spaceship glides down the screen, and you must land on a moving platform to pick up some cargo.  It's never specified what this cargo is, so unless it's your ship's laser then this irritating screen could have been left on the drawing board.

Having successfully completed this screen, I was horrified to find myself in a Lunar Lander/Caverns of Mars type of game.  Jason must not only pilot his craft to the bottom of the cave, he has to shoot his way through.  This is very difficult... you don't have much time to react and you need to be pixel perfect when moving through gaps.  To make it worse, you can leave a screen in such a position that you die instantly on the next.

That's ridiculous. Did the writers of Galaxy Quest invent this room?
Should you reach the bottom of the cave, Jason exits the ship to go exploring the cave in an attempt to find his missing gem.  I'll tell you what, that must be one hell of a gem because those caverns are terrifying!  Too terrifying for me... I was unable to negotiate my way to the end.

Jason's Gem is alright for a £1.99 game, but certainly not as good as its average rating on World of Spectrum.  I could certainly imagine myself persevering with it in 1985... it would have held up much better back then.  Now, though, it's a bit too obtuse to stick with.

Budget Day - Kwik Snax (ZX Spectrum)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , , ,

I figured that any round up of budget games, especially this close to Easter, would not be complete without a Dizzy game.  Trouble was, I didn't much fancy any of that leaping around and putting objects in the right place carry on.  Luckily, Dizzy branched out a bit in later years... and that's how I came to play Kwik Snax.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Kwik Snax, but I don't think I was prepared for a Pengo clone.  After all, Pengo was an old and outdated game even when Kwik Snax was released, never mind now!  Still, if you think you have a good idea, you might as well go with it.  Pity I never really liked Pengo that much...

I like bananas, but I don't like rain.  Go away, rain!
Kwik Snax sees Dizzy in Mario mode, as his friends have all been kidnapped by the evil Zaks, and only Dizzy can rescue them.  As Zaks is insane, Dizzy must rescue them by collecting all the fruit from icy, hazard-filled mazes.  Bad guys were much more imaginative back then.

It's lucky that the walls of the mazes are made from blocks of ice, because Dizzy can push these around to facilitate easier fruit collection.  And not only that, the blocks will crush anything in their path once shoved, making them very handy weapons!

An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Pity, I might need him with these vicious critters about!
Should Dizzy collect all the fruit in a level, he will move on to a bonus level.  These play differently in that only a set amount of time is available to collect the fruit, and once you start moving you can only change direction if you're stopped by a wall.  So if you make the wrong move, you're knackered.

It's a very playable and addictive game.  The bonus levels add much-needed variety, and there's a nice little Bomb Jack scoring mechanic, whereby you can collect all the flashing fruits in order for more points.  I had a lot of fun with Kwik Snax, much more than I was expecting, and I think I might go back to it once the day is done.

Budget Day - Booty (ZX Spectrum)

by PaulEMoz in , , , ,

Arrrr, Jim Lad (fer that be yer name)... yer on a ship that be occupied by naught but ghost pirates. But this ship is laden wi' booty... and it's yours fer the takin', if ye can outwit those scurvy knaves and scabbards, and empty the hold o' its goodies.

Arrrr... enough of that, Talk Like A Pirate Day is months away! Booty is a platform game where you play the put-upon cabin boy who, sick of his lot in life, decides to gather up as much of the pirates' loot as he can and, to use modern parlance for once, "do one".

No, Jim lad! Don't do it!
Naturally, they're not about to give up their ill-gotten gains as easily as all that, and they walk the decks, cutlasses in hand, all ready to hand out a damn good thrashing to anyone wi' sticky fingers. Whoops, sorry.

It's a clever little game, is Booty. For all the pirates and their parrots deal instant death, the biggest obstacle is the layout of the ship. Some of the rooms are really tricky to negotiate, with keys having to be picked up in the right order to allow you access to certain rooms at the right times. Oh, and some of the treasure is booby-trapped...

Do you think J-Lo or Beyonce would like this game?
I first played Booty on a mate's Spectrum, and I liked it so much that it was one of the first games I bought when I got my Commodore 64. Pity, then, that the 64 version was wretched and a huge disappointment (and waste of pocket money!). There's no such problem with the Spectrum version... it was a cracking release from Firebird, and gave me a taxing but enjoyable hour or so when playing it again. Arrrr, that it did. Oh, bugger.

Budget Day - Nonterraqueous (ZX Spectrum)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , ,

Time for a game I've never played before, despite always wanting to... the rather majestically named Nonterraqueous.

It's certainly a name that sticks with you.  Whether it was one of your favourite games or you only read a review, the chances are that if you've ever heard of it, reading this article will ring a small bell in the back of your brain.

Look, it's a bermb.  A bermb?  Yes, a bermb.
I first read about Nonterraqueous in ZZAP! 64, where it was given a lukewarm reception and a 48% review score.  As the Spetrum version seems to be more highly regarded, I thought I'd give that one a try today.  Fingers crossed...

The plot of the game sees a nightmarish future come true.  An evil computer has developed a superior intelligence and is using this to oppress the people that built it.  In an attempt to wrest back their lives and their freedom, the people have constructed a robot seeker droid and have sent it to locate the computer base and destroy it!

Now I'm a sproing helicoptery thing.  Wheeeee!
This isn't an easy task... the game is massive, with over a thousand screens!  So many screens for only £1.99... that would have been pretty much my ideal game in 1986.

My first play lasted seconds, as I absent-mindedly blundered into a photon thruster and died instantly.  Harsh!  Armed with this useful information, I set about my task with a little more caution.

White lines.  Don't do it.
As you make your way around the complex, you'll find bombs lying around, and it would be rude not to pick them up (also silly, as they'll be used to destroy the computer, no doubt).  You'll also notice "SWOP" machines, where you can change your form.  I'm sure this will be very useful in places... I've only done it so far because it looks nice.

Nonterraqueous brings to mind a number of similar games, such as Starquake and Arc of Yesod.  Having played it for a while, I don't think it really comes close to matching those classics.. the main problem being that you start every game on the same screen.  Randomising your starting position would have helped a lot, with so many screens to explore.  But there's undoubtedly a massive challenge here, and a lot of playtime for your couple of quid.

Budget Day - Star Farce (ZX Spectrum)

by PaulEMoz in , , , , ,

Here's another game I played for an earlier edition of Budget Day.  I picked this one because I love the arcade game Star Force. Still, I was a bit wary... would this be a total pisstake?  I'm not necessarily a fan of parody games, unless they're done really well. I suppose there was only one way to find out.

It turns out that Star Farce is a really good vertically-scrolling shooter. The reason for the name lies in the amusing plot... aliens have been trying to make contact with Earth for years, but every time they do, paranoid Earthlings send out waves of attack craft to wipe out these "aggressors". The Universe is collectively sick of this, and to put a stop to it (and to save those that are left), they've sent in a fighter pilot to destroy Earth's resources and attack craft, and all its inhabitants while they're at it. You are that fighter pilot.

Pew, pew, boooom!
I was amazed by Star Farce. For just £1.99, this would have been amazing value. The graphics are really great, being detailed and colourful. Pretty much everything you see is destructible... it felt fantastic to shoot a power generator and see it set off a chain reaction that destroyed everything connected to it.  There are loads of other tricks and surprises, too, one of which sees you going under the planet's surface to tackle a mothership.

It is, however, very, very difficult.  You won't be completing this game any time soon, that's a guarantee.  In fact, you have to start learning the enemy attack patterns to progress, otherwise you'll be creamed in seconds, every time.  I can imagine that might be a problem for some, but it didn't bother me in the slightest here.

Off to see 'Er Indoors...
You also get loads of options before you even start playing the game. Star Farce is one of the most full-featured and entertaining shmups I've seen on either Spectrum or C64, which makes the price (and the tiny 58% review in CRASH) all the more surprising. The only quibble I really had was with the firing rate of the ship, but even that can be eased through a Star Force-style pick-up. Oh, and I suppose the amount of colour can be slightly detrimental at times as it can get har to pick out what's happening on occasions.  That notwithstanding, Star Farce is probably as close to an arcade game as you could get on the Spectrum I had a really great time with it, and quite fancy another go now...

Budget Day - Pippo (ZX Spectrum)

by PaulEMoz in , , , ,

I played Pippo for my other blog, A Gamer Forever Voyaging, a couple of years ago.  I was using my tried-and-trusted formula of trawling World of Spectrum and picking out highly rated games.  Pippo averages a score of 8.28 from the public vote... high praise indeed!  I felt sure I was in for a minor classic.
My face fell a bit, though, when I read that it was a puzzle game. Not exactly the way I want to spend any time off, playing puzzle games. Still, I was committed, so I loaded it up anyway.
What a dilemma! All that lovely money bouncing around, but you can't pick it up!

It turns out that Pippo is essentially a 2-D Q*Bert clone. That doesn't help much though... I hate Q*Bert as well! In Pippo, you play an odd, fat character, who must hop about the game board, changing the colour of the tiles. There's no reason given for this, that's just what you do.
Naturally, the boards have inhabitants, and they're dead set on stopping you in your tracks. I say that... they're not that dead set; they just potter about on their little paths, seemingly oblivious as to your presence unless you happen to blunder right into them. And they're all a bit odd... numbers, dollar signs and the like are the order of the day.

Ooohhhh, Pippo... whyyyyyy?

If you do happen to find them too offensive to actually share space with, an energy pill appears at times which, if collected, turns the enemies into springs (of course) which you can remove just by bouncing over them. Hurray for odd items that give you supreme power!

That makes Pippo a bit easier and less frustrating than Q*Bert, but on the other hand, it's not terribly exciting, either. It does have some nice touches... the music was better than I'd expected, and there's a sampled (if slightly garbled) scream if you happen to fall off the game world. Pippo is quite good fun and a nice enough diversion. I can at least consider myself a little more enlightened after playing this one.

Budget Day 2013

by PaulEMoz in , , ,

Good morning all, and welcome to Budget Day 2013!

For those of you that didn't follow my old blog, A Gamer Forever Voyaging, this is something I've done for the last couple of years now.  The intention is to take our minds away from the misery and drudgery of having more taxes imposed upon us and more of our hard-earned money taken from us in the Government's Budget, by going back to the days where a little of our money went a long way.

Often, when buying a budget game, you were taking a bit of a punt. It's quite possible you were buying it on a whim, without having read a review. Maybe you liked the screenshots on the back. Maybe it had a nice cover. Or maybe Rob Hubbard did the music. Whatever it was, there was a reasonable chance that your £1.99 purchase would give you about half an hour's entertainment before being consigned to the back of the bottom drawer. That made it all the more satisfying when it turned out you'd bought a little gem.

My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen... the House is in session. It's Budget Day!

Today, as I have done in the past couple of years, I'll be playing a mix of the great and the good (and the terrible) budget games that graced our Spectrums and Commodores.  Oh yes, I'll probably throw in a couple of stinkers just to remind ourself that not everything in the garden was rosy.  How I suffer for my art!

This particular Budget Day will be a little different, as I'll be reposting a few of the posts from previous years, probably with new screenshots and possibly with a little rewording in some cases.  It's a cheap and easy way to bolster the day's content, but what the heck.

So, sit back and relax as we take a trip back to the days of the budget game, and we'll see if our happy memories are justified or if we just couldn't admit to ourselves that we'd wasted our pocket money...

Day 247 - Eeeeeeviiiiiiillll!

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , ,

I haven't used this title purely because I've just watched the lost Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy episode with my youngest child.  Ooohhhhh, no.  I'm using it because that's what this post is about.  Pure evil.  And we (almost) all were guilty...

I was just digging through my retro stash (thanks again Mr. Reed), when I came across some of these:

Look at that.  The 80s equivalent of a bar of gold.
Surely everybody that owned a computer, be it C64, Spectrum, Amstrad, Dragon 32, BBC or Oric must have had a stash of these.  They were perfect.  You could fit almost any single-load game on one side, which negated the need for tediously hunting through tapes and writing down counter numbers for each game.  You'd just load up the game, play it, and when you'd finished you'd turn the tape over, rewind it the short distance to the beginning and load up the game on that side.  Brilliant!

Of course, the fact you were doing so meant that you were a filthy, stinking PIRATE!  But to be honest, I don't think many kids back then even knew what that meant or what the consequences were.  It wasn't something I even thought about.

That said, there can have been no other reason for these cassettes to be produced other than for kids to copy games onto.  They were dead cheap (anyone remember exactly how much?), ideal for kids with limited budgets.  And let's face it, how many of us actually wrote our own programs?  Well, I wrote one... a database of ZZAP! 64-style reviews.  But it only consisted or PRINT and IF...THEN...GOTO statements.  Hardly a complex work.

Erm... that's right, m'lud. My reviews database was called "Commando".  Honest.
And for all that, I owned tens of Boots C15 cassettes.  Boots even sold cassette carriers, which held ten or twenty of these things and had a handle... perfect for carrying your evil ill-gotten games to a mate's house.

Of course, there were times when a C15 wouldn't do.  Complex multiloads needed more tape room, for starters.  And then there was the fact that you could get up to ten games on a side of C90 cassette.  So if you didn't have a big enough supply of trusty C15s, then you had to break out the big fella.

I probably sound like a right scumbag now.  But to be fair, I owned over 200 original games for my C64.  The problem was there were just so many great games available, and kids of our age had a very finite amount of cash.  It was simply impossible to buy all the games we wanted, which is where blank cassettes came in.  But I know that I, and most of my mates, had a very impressive collection of original games.  We bought as much as we could, not necessarily because we knew it was right, but because we liked owning this stuff.

That's just WRONG, man!  Who would waste tape on Trivial Pursuit?
I'm much the same now.  I've never owned any copied games for any system beyond my Commodore 64 (except for inherited copies that have come with a second-hand system I've bought).  I'd rather buy and own a film than download it.  And although I will admit to downloading music on occasion, I will either buy it if I like it or delete it if I don't.  Although in this day and age, there are programs available that legally allow you to preview music before you buy it so downloading is becoming a bit of a thing of the past.

I don't really have a point to this.  I'm not staunchly condemning the evil pirate scum or implicitly advocating the purchase of absolutely everything you like.  I just thought it would be fun to write a bit about the old days, having found a box of treasures.  There's not much that's more fun than digging through the past.

Day 239 - snow means... Horace!

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , ,

If you look at it, any good hardware manufacturer over the last couple of decades has had a mascot.  Sega has (had) Sonic, Nintendo has Mario, Microsoft has Master Chief, Sony has... erm, I dunno, who's Sony's mascot?  Sackboy?  Crash Bandicoot?  Kratos?  I dunno.

Anyway, it wasn't always like this.  Although there were tons of memorable characters in the 80s, not many of them were attached to a platform as a mascot.  Miner Willy, you could argue, might have been the face of the Spectrum.  But if there's one unofficial mascot that endears today, it's got to be the first blue character that did a lot of running (and other things)... Horace.

Om-nom-nom!  Horace fills his belly!
Although he made appearances on other computers, Horace feels synonymous with the Spectrum (which probably had a lot to do with the fact that, on the Spectrum, his games were published by Sinclair).  He only appeared in three games, but it was enough for Horace to stamp himself into pop culture history forever...

The first time we saw the bug-eyed blue fella he was feeling a mite peckish, in Hungry Horace.  A PacMan clone of sorts, it featured Horace running around mazes in a park and eating all the food from within those mazes.  As you would expect, he wasn't left to his own devices.  Vicious parkies patrolled the grounds and wouldn't hesitate to give Horace a good hiding if they caught him.

That parkie's not exactly a handsome lad, is he?
Luckily, Horace could fight back.  Bells were scattered around the mazes, and if Horace picked one up it appeared to play havoc with the parkies' inner ears, rendering them vulnerable to a Horace attack.  This respite was brief, though, and they'd soon be back on Horace's case.

In a slight twist from PacMan, Horace could move on to the next screen without having completed the screen he was on.  However, it wasn't possible to go directly back to that screen; instead, Horace would have to work his way back around to it.  This was an interesting way of providing an escape route, but was probably necessary as the screens were a little cramped.

Hmmm.  This level looks a bit tricky.
Hungry Horace wasn't (and isn't) a bad game at all, and served as a fine introduction to the legendary character.  However, it was his next game which would cement his legacy...

That game was Horace Goes Skiing.  In essence, it was incredibly simple.  Horace was minted up with $40, and fancied going skiing ("Why dollars?" asked a lot of mags at the time... well, remember, it was written by an Australian and that's their currency...).  All he had to do was hop across the road, hand over ten bucks for ski rental, get back across the road, and away he could go, down the slippery slope.

The traffic doesn't look much, but it moves at a fair rate!
In essence, this meant that you played a game of Frogger (or more accurately, Activision's Atari VCS game Freeway) to get your skis, and then played a simplified skiing game with no real goal other than to get to the end without crashing and breaking your skis.

That doesn't sound terribly thrilling, but back in those days it was pretty compulsive stuff.  Running across the road required little skill and more in the way of luck and judgement, but you did feel like you'd achieved something just by getting into that ski hut.

Ahhhh... just look at that.  Look at it, revel in it, drink it in.
Then there was the skiing.  It wasn't very taxing... you didn't go very fast and there weren't many trees to avoid.  Your only real punishment was losing points if you missed the gates, although if you crashed you might break your skis which would force you back to the Freeway.

None of that mattered.  Horace was now an icon, and Horace Goes Skiing destined to go down as a classic game title.  Despite its relative averageness (?), it's fondly remembered by all those that have played it.

Well done, Horace! Pluckier than Eddie the Eagle, and looks better on a T-shirt.
It wasn't the last time we would see Horace.  Rounding out his trilogy (and story) was Horace & the Spiders.

It could be argued that Horace & the Spiders was a very ambitious game.  After all, you have to remember that author William Tang programmed all the Horace games to run on the 16K Spectrum, and Horace & the Spiders had three different (albeit simplistic) game screens.

That spider's got some evil eyes on it.
The first saw Horace running and jumping over spiders in what was almost a simple Moon Patrol variant.  It was very short, and led straight into the next screen in which Horace had to swing across spider threads to get across a chasm.  Once a spider sensed you on its thread it tried to reel you in, and if you didn't get off in time you'd be bitten and poisoned.  Nasty!

Successfully making it to the other side meant that Horace would find himself trapped in a cave full of spiders.  The only way out was to STAMP THEM ALL TO DEATH!

How does Horace hang on without any hands?
That sounds a bit harsh, but in reality all it meant was that you were stuck in a level modelled on arcade game Space Panic.  Horace would clamber around on the webs, stamping holes in them at strategic points.  The spiders would hopefully get miffed at this and come down to repair the holes.  If and when this happened, the evil, heartless monster Horace could pounce!

This variety meant that Horace & the Spiders was a pretty nice little arcade game.  All the Horace games were high score games, which meant that repeated play was inevitable for the arcade-hungry kids of the 80s.  The fact that the games were all simple and straightforward to play pretty much guaranteed they would occupy the tape deck for lengthy spells.

I had a mate called Shaun, and it was on his Spectrum that I was introduced to the joys of Horace.  I would often find myself at his house after school, where along with the likes of Jet Set Willy, Kokotoni Wilf and Stop the Express he owned all the Horace games.  I enjoyed them all, but it's Horace Goes Skiing that has left the biggest mark.  It has that certain something that makes it stay in the memory when other games have long since disappeared.

Sadly, there were no more Horace games.  Apparently William Tang had health problems while he was developing the next, and he never finished it.  I don't know where he is or what he's doing now, but I hope that he's alive and well and knows how much he's appreciated by the now-grown-up kids of the 80s.  And if by some chance he or someone he knows reads this, please get in touch!

Day 238 - Meep! Meep? How's that for a Cliff Hanger?

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , , ,

I distinctly remember the first time I played the Road Runner arcade conversion at home.  It looked great, but I couldn't help but feel disappointed by the simplistic gameplay.  Controlling the Road Runner, you ran along a series of roads, avoiding the ravenous Wile E. Coyote who attempted to catch you in a number of mildly amusing ways.

I think the problem with that game was that you played the Road Runner.  You don't watch Road Runner cartoons for the Road Runner, after all.  The fun comes from Wile E. Coyote's misadventures, mishaps and catastrophes.  Why would you play a game that doesn't feature any of that?

See, I just wanted to let the coyote get the Road Runner.  Wile E. is great!
Luckily, none of that mattered, because may years earlier a company called New Generation Software had released a game called Cliff Hanger.  And it was the only Road Runner game you'd ever need.

I doubt I'll ever forget the first time I loaded Cliff Hanger on my C64.  It was buried in the middle of a C90 that I'd borrowed, and as I'd never heard of it before I'd primarily loaded it to get to whatever was next on the tape.  Those feelings appeared to be confirmed when a droning tune burst into life and a crippled looking character (Cliff Hanger himself!) appeared and hobbled across the screen.  The fact that his brother was called Coat almost sealed the deal...

I'm looking at this and thinking that a lot could go wrong...
Still, I'd spent five minutes or so waiting for it to load, and in those days we all had more patience.  So I decided to give it a go.  What would another couple of lost minutes be, really?

Of course, I had no idea what to do.  The first screen appeared, and my character stood in a desolate-looking desert backdrop, appearing to be as clueless as I was.  I pushed the joystick right, and accidentally walked over the ledge.  Wow... what a rubbish game.

Well, that could have gone better. But at least I'm still in one piece.
The game took me back to a title page, but I noticed it had a different name this time.  I pressed fire, and a different scene appeared.  And this time, something was moving!  It was getting closer... a bandit!  I hurriedly ran at the precariously-positioned boulder, knocking it off the edge of the cliff... and squashed the bandit!

OK, so it was a pure fluke, but in that moment I realised what this game was all about.  Set up like a film set, Cliff Hanger has you playing a series of outrageous scenes or stunts in which you, as Cliff, must stop the evil bandit from making his getaway.  Some are relatively straightforward, merely asking you to roll a boulder off a cliff and onto the fleeing criminal.  Others, though, are very complicated and lead to a bit of head-scratching as you try and figure out what you need to do.

Alright, now I'm a bit stuck.
Graphically, the game is very simple... which is perfect.  It helps to generate the look and feel of the Road Runner cartoons.  The simplistic desert settings, although not of the finest quality, could almost have been ripped from your favourite episodes.

Interestingly, the tables are turned in terms of how the characters work.  The bad guy is now effectively the Road Runner, with the hapless Cliff Hanger taking on the role of Wile E. Coyote.  That's why the game is so much fun... you get to act out all the crazy stunts.  When you first start playing, you're never quite sure what's going to happen.  Sure, there are sometimes clues in the title, but when you're faced with a sparse landscape and just a couple of objects, it's all down to trial and error as to whether or not you'll be successful.  And when you set off one of those traps, you're almost hiding your eyes as you do it, wondering how it might go horribly wrong...

Alright, who put that giant rock there?  Thanks, whoever it was!
Cliff Hanger is hilarious and a heck of a lot of fun.  I suspect it was overlooked when it was released, which would be a shame as a lot of people missed out on a great time if that was the case.  There's not much to choose between the Spectrum and C64 versions... for me the Commodore version edges it with its slightly more authentic backdrops and the fact that screens are a lot more randomised, keeping it fresher.  Either way, though, if you like Road Runner you'd love playing Cliff Hanger.

Cliff Hanger was programmed by James Day, who didn't write much else.  I'd love to get his thoughts on the game, and also from New Generation's Malcolm Evans and their other programmers.  New Generation didn't release a lot of games, but there were some genuine groundbreakers among them, and they deserve to be featured in this book.  One can only try...

Day 150 - 10,000!

by PaulEMoz in , , , , ,

I'm now five months into this project, and today I hit 10,000 page views.  I'll be honest, I'm pretty happy with that.  It's not like I've got any major backing from big websites or anything... there's just me spamming Facebook and Twitter, and website message boards that I was already a member of.  Who knows?  Maybe I'll ramp things up when there's more to talk about.

That said, I'll always appreciate any efforts my readers might want to make in plugging this.  The whole point of doing it is to attract readers, so the more I have the better.  I might even dish out rewards for anyone that gets me some good publicity... I've got about a dozen games on Steam, just waiting to be gifted (I will state that they're not current releases!).

Is there a more recognisable 80s' software house logo?
I will give a shout out to ex-Ocean graphics wiz Mark Jones, who's support of this project is much appreciated.  It's great to have people I intend to write about being so enthusiastic about this book, and quite important to me, too... it helps to validate what I'm doing, and lends it an air of authenticity.

Actually, if you're any kind of 8-bit computer fan, you ought to check out what Mark is doing to showcase Ocean's contribution to computer gaming.  The Ocean Software Facebook page constantly has new material posted, as does the Ocean Software website.  You'll find tons of fascinating pictures, storyboards and background there... it's really interesting.

Questions, questions... but who will I be questioning next?
What comes next, then?  What would you like to see?  I'm conscious of the fact that behind the scenes work isn't terribly interesting.  I'm trying hard to get a pool of stock questions for people, because I intend to send out a big batch of requests soon, but it's pointless doing that if I get a load of positive replies, only to sit there for ages trying to think of good questions!

Anyway, here's to the next 10,000 page views, the next 100 posts, and the next people who jump on board with me.  We're still looking at a great book here, the like of which is just not out there.  Let's get as many people on board as we can!

Night has fallen... goodbye Mike Singleton, the Lord of Midnight

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , ,

Man, this is getting quite upsetting... we're losing too many of our Gods.  News has reached me that legendary programmer Mike Singleton, author of bona fide classics The Lords of Midnight and Doomdark's Revenge, has passed away.

ZX Spectrum fans will be most familiar with Mike Singleton's work, and although it might not be a surprise to learn he started his games programming career in the days of the ZX81 and VIC-20, it might be more of a surprise to find he worked on games right up to Codemasters' recent racing thrill-fest, Race Driver: GRID.  He also appeared to be collaborating on a version of The Lords of Midnight for mobile platforms... let's hope the author still manages to get that released, it would be a fine tribute.

The Lords of... GRID-night?
Although he moved on to be responsible for a number of Amiga and ST classics, I'm going to concentrate on the games Mike released in the time period I'm writing about... the games he wrote for the Spectrum.

I'll be honest, because I only got to play on Spectrums in short bursts, I found myself baffled by The Lords of Midnight and Doomdark's Revenge.  They were far, far deeper than anything I'd ever encountered up to that point... I was all about arcade games.  It was after I'd been hooked by The Bard's Tale on the Commodore 64 that I went back to them, playing the C64 conversions.  I can't lay claim to having beaten the games, but I did learn to appreciate and enjoy them quite a bit.  But they weren't Mike Singleton's only games... I'm going to start with the 16K games.


When someone writes a game named after Gandalf's horse, you know immediately where they're coming from.  Having said that, with only 16K to work with you couldn't be expecting a Lord of the Rings-style epic.  What you get is a game that reminds me of Stampede on the Atari 2600.  Riding your beautifully-animated white horse from right to left, you must fire lightning bolts at the hordes of Sauron's dread riders.  And... that's it.  A high score is your reward for surviving for as long as possible.  It's simplistic arcade fun, and an innocuous start to a storied career.

Ride, my beauty... ride like the wind!

Taking on a more traditional military theme, Siege sees you atop a particularly high wall, which is being scaled by a seemingly-infinite army.  Luckily, you have a seemingly-infinite supply or projectiles to drop on them, knocking them from the wall.  It reminds me, oddly, of Kaboom! on the Atari, except you get to be at the top of the wall rather than at the bottom doing the catching.  Again, it's simple, but it's pretty good fun.

This isn't going to end well...
Snake Pit

A cross between Snake and PacMan, Snake Pit sees you as a yellow circular thing with a big mouth, who likes nothing more than eating eggs.  The trouble is, once you start eating eggs, you free some big, horrible snakes, and they like eating yellow circular things with big mouths.  A bit of a problem, that.  On the other hand, if you eat all the eggs, you then get to try and eat the snakes, so it's not all bad.  It's OK for what it is, and probably went down really well on the 16K machine at the time.

Snakes.  Why did it have to be snakes?
3-Deep Space

I thought that this was a straightforward space shoot 'em up with fiddly controls, until I did a bit of research, which revealed that this actually was, literally, a 3D shooter!  That explained a lot!  That being the case, I couldn't really give it a proper go, as you need 3D glasses to see exactly what you're doing... the ships move on a 3D plane, so you can only destroy them if you're on the same plane.  It's a pretty ambitious and innovative effort in that case, but one I can't really comment on properly.

I bet this looks better through funny glasses.
The Lords of Midnight

Nothing that Mike Singleton had previously done had given any indication as to what would be next.  You just couldn't imagine that someone who had programmed some fairly simple-but-enjoyable arcade-style games would suddenly come out with one of the most epic strategy-cum-adventure-cum-fantasy war games that had ever been seen.  Indeed, the combination of genres made The Lords of Midnight one of the most original games available in its time.

Luxor the Moonprince... the original pensive hero.
Intended as the first of a trilogy, this is not a game to play when you have a few minutes spare, although it's possible you can lose in minutes when you first start out.  But even after a few hours, you've only just begun to scratch the surface.

The object of the game is to take Prince Luxor and defeat the Wichking, Doomdark, who is threatening to seize complete control of the Lands of Midnight.  As you would expect of someone who is a Witchking, Doomdark is quite evil and has a huge force at his disposal.  But evil will always be opposed, and there are characters all across the land who may be willing to help Luxor in his quest... if you can find them.

This doesn't look good.  Do you think if I get a round in they'll be OK?

Fortunately, Luxor has three allies from the beginning, and you can also control them in your attempt to destroy Doomdark and his armies.

Once you begin, you start to realise just how impressive the scope of this game is.  For a start, the story, although heavily inspired by Lord of the Rings, is very well fleshed-out.  The number of unique characters you encounter is also surprisingly large, and given that you can send any or all of your four initial characters in any direction and in any combination right from the beginning, it could take you a long, long time before you encounter them all.

Rorthron the Wise is also Rorthron the Deadly, it seems...
For all that, though, you never feel as though you're stuck in a boring trudge across the landscape.  You always feel as though you're part of something epic, and that danger and evil is lurking around every corner.  And with two distinct ways of completing the game, the longevity is guaranteed.  The Lords of Midnight has inspired countless games, and is rightly regarded as a classic.

Doomdark's Revenge

How do you follow a game like The Lords of Midnight?  How about with a sequel that is bigger, more involved and which addresses any small issues that the original may have had?  That always sounds like a good idea, and so it was that Mike Singleton released Doomdark's Revenge.

He's back, and still awesome. As a side-note, the only time I ever played D&D, my
character was called Luxor.  Bastard DM killed him off within an hour of starting.
With Doomdark beaten, the Lands of Midnight are peaceful again... or so everyone thinks.  What they didn't take into account was that Doomdark the Witchking had a daughter... Shareth the Heartstealer.  And she is now consumed by anger and fury... not that her father is dead, but that someone else killed him before she could.  That's how you know she's especially evil, and that trouble is just around the corner...

Doomdark's Revenge sees you travelling to the Lands of Icemark, where Shareth dwells.  The quest is larger, more epic and more involved, for you are not just attempting to destroy Shareth, but also to find Luxor's son, Morkin, who has been spirited away by the evil Heartstealer.

Tarithel is attempting to win back her love, who was taken by Shareth.
A showdown at the end could be the 8-bit equivalent of female jelly wrestling.
This time around there are more commands at your disposal, and it seems slightly more user-friendly.  The map is quite a.bit bigger than in Lords of Midnight, but consequently seems less inhabited.  I suppose you might expect that, especially in a land called Icemark, but in games like this you actually like bumping into things.

Special mention must go to the superb packaging of these games.  The artwork is striking and excellent, and the inclusion of the novellas with the instructions really helps to set the scene and get the story across.

"Luxor is not at all despondent".
He obviously wasn't planning to watch Poland v England on Tuesday night.
Doomdark's Revenge is certainly a worthy sequel to The Lords of Midnight, and a great game in its own right.  It will forever remain our loss that we will not see The Eye of the Moon, and the conclusion of the trilogy

Throne of Fire

This game was designed by Mike Singleton, but apparently not programmed by him.  I'm sure there's a story behind that, maybe I'll be able to find out.  There's a story behind the game too, and it's typically involved.

King Atherik is dead, and the Throne of Fire is empty.  Atherik had three sons: Alorn, the Lion Prince; Cordrin, the Sun Prince; and Karag, the Wolf Prince.  Only one of these sons can take over the Throne... but the condition is that whoever takes the Throne must be the last one alive.  So begins a cat-and-mouse hunt throughout the castle, with ultimate rule being the prize, and death awaiting the losers!

Avast, ye varlet!  Oh wait, that's pirates, isn't it?
This is a very novel premise, and I'm not sure if I've ever seen it repeated, although I suppose it is a little like the forefather of the deathmatch, as it is possible to play a two-player game using the split-screen.  The castle interior is displayed on a map at the bottom of the screen, but you can only see a small part of it at a time.  Handily, it shows you which rooms are occupied, and by which Prince's men, so you always know whether you're going to be in a fight or not.

Sadly, the fighting is the least satisfying part of the game.  All that happens is you walk into a room with an enemy, the two characters waggle their weapons at each other, and one of them vanishes.  There's no feel involved, no feedback or even any real idea if you're winning or losing.  I don't know if it would have been difficult to implement some kind of energy system (besides the beating heart at the top of the screen), but it would have helped.

And with that, my dreams of being King are over.
That said, it's still a fun game and the allure of becoming King is strong.  With a little bit of tweaking, Throne of Fire could have been a classic.  As it is, it's "merely" a fairly entertaining romp.

Dark Sceptre

I will always remember the first time I saw Dark Sceptre in Crash magazine.  I couldn't believe my eyes.  The characters were huge!  And it looked like a fighting game... it had to be awesome!

Harry was late for his Ku Klux Klan initiation.
Of course, being a Mike Singleton game, it isn't really a fighting game at all.  It is, in fact, a very strategic game where although the characters fight, you don't personally swing a single sword in anger.  Instead, you're like the supreme commander, and you issue orders to your legion who will do their best to carry out your will.

The story goes that the Northlanders, their ships battered by wild seas, ended up at the Islands of the Western Sea.  Generously, the Lord of the Isles offered them shelter through the winter, and strong ships for their journey home when spring arrived.

The list of commands, as you can see, is quite extensive.
The Northlanders, though, chose not to leave, demanding land to make their homes.  The Lord of the Isles was not pleased, and fashioned a magical Dark Sceptre with which he planned to drive out the Northlanders.  The plan went awry when the Sceptre gave the Northlanders a terrible power, and turned them into Lords of Shadow.  The Sceptre would have to be destroyed to rid the Isles of this evil.

Dark Sceptre is not a fast, action-packed game.  Far from it.  But it's really quite compelling.  Choosing one of your characters, giving him a series of commands and then watching him stalk the landscape, attempting to carry them out, is compulsive stuff.  I found myself really intrigued as each of my warriors went to do battle with the Lords of Shadow.

Go on, son.  Get stuck in!
As you would expect, you're not going to beat this game quickly.  In fact, it takes a lot of planning and experimentation to get anywhere at all.  It will take weeks of in-game time to drive out the Northlanders, and it's not something that will be to everyone's taste.  Personally, I was easily interested enough to persevere, and I want to play it again even now.

War in Middle Earth

After all the games that were inspired by The Lord of the Rings, it was inevitable that there would eventually be a game based directly on The Lord of the Rings.  The only surprise is that Mike Singleton didn't actually design the game he programmed.

What isn't a surprise is that War in Middle Earth is an epic war game.  How could it be anything else?  The object of the game is to... oh, come on.  Really?  You must know this by now.  Oh, alright... the evil Sauron has lost his ring of power, and he wants it back.  The ring has found its way to the unlikeliest of owners, the unassuming Hobbit, Frodo.  An allegiance is made between all the races of Middle Earth, and a quest to Mount Doom to destroy the ring is undertaken.  It must be successful... Middle Earth depends upon it.

If only Peter Jackson had done the graphics...
The game displays a map of the whole of Middle Earth.  Highlighted on it are various factions, and you have a gloved hand at your disposal with which you can select any of these, or just magnify any part of the land if you want.

This is where your strategy comes into play.  You must move your "pieces" into place so that you can counter Sauron's forces.  You choose each unit, give them an order, then select the "Time" button, and everyone will begin to move accordingly.  Sauron's armies will also move at this point, so you must hope that your moves are strong enough to counter his, and that eventually you can drop the ring into Mount Doom, thus destroying it and returning peace to the land.

I'm not sure about that Frodo.  He doesn't seem determined enough for this task.
As quests go, there aren't many more epic than this one.  There's an enormous amount of game here for those that are strategically-inclined, and it will no doubt take months to achieve a successful outcome.  For me, personally, it's a strategy game too far.  It's just a bit much for my meagre brain to grasp, and though I struggled manfully with it I didn't get anywhere.  Anyone with a penchant for controlling armies and a love of little men with big hairy feet, though, would have no doubt loved War in Middle Earth.

There were other games, of course, on other systems, with various degrees of involvement.  The Midwinter games, especially, are highly renowned.  For Spectrum owners in particular, though, the legacy of great games is as strong as that of anyone you could care to mention.

I had hoped to talk to Mike Singleton about the games I've written about and his Eighties' programming days.  Indeed, I'd recently sent an email to someone asking if it might be possible.  Sadly, I didn't even realise he was ill, and it was not to be, but I will certainly be featuring his works in my book, and would love to include quotes in tribute from those that knew and worked with him, or were inspired by him.

We, as creatures, are not on this planet for long.  It's important to try and leave our own mark on it, in some way, while we are here.  Mike Singleton has left an enormous, indelible mark, one that has inspired generations and will no doubt continue to do so.  He will be sadly missed.

Day 99 - Set myself a Task

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , , , , ,

I'm sure you've noticed my posting has slowed down of late.  There are a few reasons for that.  Real-world stuff has reared its ugly head again, with me having to get my eldest prepared for going back to school this coming week... he's at a new school, and it's ridiculous how much stuff I've had to buy.  I sense another eBay purge in my near future...

Another reason is one I've been both hoping for and dreading at the same time.  I've got through to the next stage of both the jobs I applied for recently, one of which means I have to have an interview.  I've never liked interviews, and it's been fifteen years since I had one.  So I have to prepare really thoroughly for this one.  It's quite important, so I might well be less evident here until it's out of the way.

Pew! Pew! Shoot the little saucer things from your giant Gyro thing!
With that being said, I have to have the odd respite from all that, and this is where games come in to save the day, yet again.  I delved into the depths of my mind, and pulled out the name of one of the more charming software houses, and one who really only existed in the early-ish days of the 8-bit computers... Taskset.

One of my mates had a few of their games before I even owned my Commodore 64 and they were quite distinctive and fun to play, although not many of them would stand out as classics.  They were colourful, with very big, mostly chunky graphics, and an immediately recognisable music style.

Some of their games could only have come from the minds of the British.  Take Bozo's Night Out, for example.  The object of the game was to get Bozo home after an epic night on the lash.  This, of course, is much easier said than done.

Yep, this has all the makings of a good night out.
Bozo is a chunky-looking bloke... and not in a good way.  This doesn't help when he's staggering about after a skinful.  Nor does the fact Bozo has many obstacles to overcome in his quest to sleep it off.  As if avoiding cops, skinheads and, ummm, naked women (?) wasn't bad enough, attempting to take a shortcut through the park sees Bozo bumping into all kinds of horrors.

It's mental stuff, and not all that good in the cold light of day, but back in the day it was entertaining stuff.

Another Taskset game that you wouldn't get from any other nation was Seaside Special.  Borne from the legacy of the seaside postcard but imbued with a British sense of satire, the game saw you trawling a beach for radioactive seaweed, with which you then trooped off to 10 Downing Street to lob at the sackless political residents.

Even Tebbit would be crapping himself at the sight of that stripey loon!
To be fair, it sounds a lot better than it actually was.  Every aspect of the game was simplistic, but again, it was a bit of a laugh to play back in the day... for a while, at least.

All this does make it sound as though Taskset were a bit of a novelty company, who were only there to make up the software numbers at the beginning of the 8-bit revolution.  There were, however, two stone-cold classics in the Taskset lineup... Super Pipeline, and its sequel, Super Pipeline II.

The object of both games is to guide your plumber and his mates around a series of pipes, keeping them open so that the water (or whatever liquid it is) can flow into the barrels at the end.  This sounds easy, but as you would expect, there are a number of obstacles which attempt to make things run far from smoothly...

You know, this would be a lot easier if they built a pipe
that went straight to the barrel.
Rogue tools will make holes in the pipes, and these will need to be fixed.  That's where your mates come in... they're skilled at pipe fixing.  While they're at work, you have to fend off anything that might drag them from the pipes.  And I do mean anything... besides the roving tools, insects and lobsters wander about, and they will drag you and your pals from the pipes at every opportunity.

The Super Pipeline games are frantic, cartoony and great fun to play.  They were unquestionably the jewels in the Taskset crown, and kept me amused for many a long while.  It's a shame that the company died out as things were really taking off with computer and video games... Andy Walker was their key man, maybe I'll get to hear some of his and their story in weeks to come.

Day 93 - the objects of my affection

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , , , , , , ,

One of the great things about the British is our love for the absurd.  We can take anything, no matter how ridiculous, and fashion it into something not just acceptable, but ground-breaking.  Take Monty Python's Flying Circus, for example.  A lot of their comedy sketches were bizarre, and a fair number of them didn't work in hindsight, but they were embraced the world over and are still revered today.  British computer games used to be like that.

If you consider today's multi-mega-million dollar industry, it's all about the lowest common denominator.  Make a product that ticks all the boxes for the masses, and it's a go.  It's much trickier to get backing if you have a brand-new, off-the-wall idea.  That's probably why indie games are having such a resurgence.

Attack of the Mutant Camels... on my iPhone.
Pity the controls are rubbish (not Jeff Minter's fault!).
If British games in the Eighties had to go through the same sort of committee approval as they do now, then we wouldn't have had much to choose from.  It's fair to say that a decent number of them were quite mental.  With talented, often maverick individuals holed up in their bedrooms or tiny offices with little to reference other than arcade games, any subject was fair game, and nobody thought anything of it.

This was great, and led to some incredibly imaginative, unique games.  And in the grand spirit of Monty Python, some of the adversaries we had to contend with, or some of the protagonists we played as, were about as unlikely as you can get.  I thought I'd look at a few.

Even if you've never watched Monty Python, this might look familiar...
Miner Willy was one of the first true gaming icons.  Playing as a miner isn't necessarily that odd... it's just another human character.  But Matthew Smith put the poor fella in some real nightmare scenarios.

Both Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy are legendary names in the world of gaming.  And although at their core they are simple platform games, each is blessed with the twisted heart of an evil genius.  The games, that is... I'm not saying that Matthew Smith is evil, although I will level the charge of genius at him.

I need a wee, but I think I'd be better off holding it in...
When Willy starts exploring the abandoned mine in Manic Miner, it doesn't seem that odd... OK, so finding penguins in a long-lost cavern underneath London is a bit mental, but you can run with that.  It's when you find yourself having to leap over animated toilets, their lids flapping wildly and angrily, that you realise something darker is at work here.  Vicious telephones only serve to compound the bizarre nature of the dangers at hand.

That darkness was expanded upon with the sequel, Jet Set Willy.  Doing what all good sequels should, it increased the size and scope of the game massively, and threw far more off-the-wall enemies and situations your way.  Forced by your maid to tidy up your mansion after an epic party if you want to sleep it off, you find there's far more to this abode than meets the eye.

What in the name of all things Holy is that thing?  And why is it in my house?
Chainsaws, spinning razor blades, secateurs and ice creams are all out to get you this time, but that's only the half of it.  Nightmare visions await, with mad chefs, dancing rabbits and scary floating heads which will freak you out, and if they don't, well, there's always the room that turns you into a flying pig...

It's heady stuff, to be honest.  The design, whether intentional or accidental, is such that you're compelled to keep playing after yet another irritating death.  And, as with many games of this type, you want to keep exploring so you can see what's around the next corner.  It's a template that was followed for quite a while, until platform games grew up a bit and started being either cartoony or a bit more realistic.  For a couple of years, though, they were gloriously... manic.

Something tells me that alcohol wasn't the only thing ingested at this party...
Another gaming legend that refused to bow to the norm, whatever the norm may have been back then, is Jeff Minter.  You might have gathered as much from the moment you saw his company was called Llamasoft, although strictly speaking, maybe it should be called Ungulatesoft, as no hooved animal is left unloved by the Yak.  Attacks by mutant camels, deep-space sheep and. erm, lawnmowing are just some of the unconventional situations you'll find in his games.

Possibly his finest example of beast/object cross-pollination, though, is Ancipital.  Playing the role of Cippy, an anthropomorphic goat-like creature from an unnamed planet far away, wasn't enough, as far as Jeff Minter was concerned.

A 'No Smoking' sign on a cigarette break? Is that ironic, or not?
You found yourself trapped in a 100-room complex where you were asaulted by all kinds of common-or-garden earthly objects.  Apples, boots, hammers, spanners, hamsters, floppy disks... all these and more roam the complex, looking to bring an end to the invading critters.  Better still, you returned fire with a range of equally mundane yet appropriate objects, almost antidotes in fact, such as bananas, washers and cassette tapes.

Ancipital is an excellent game, and provides a ton of entertainment even today.  I'm of the opinion that it would make a superb iOS game... let's hope that Jeff Minter has similar thoughts.

David and Richard Darling formed Codemasters, who are now renowned for producing some of the fastest and flashiest current-gen racing games.  But they didn't start out like that.  They started out as an 8-bit budget game label, selling games with the word Simulator in the title for £1.99 a pop.  That was relatively successful for them, but things really took off when they published a series of games which put you in control of... an egg.

Like a whirlpool, it never ends...
Dizzy was its name, and it had arms and legs, and a big smiley face.  It jumped and flipped and rolled its way around a variety of landscapes, searching for the correct items to use in the correct places.  More of an arcade adventure than a platform game, it had been done before, but thanks to Andrew and Philip Oliver's eggy vision, Dizzy really popularised the genre and gave it legs, so to speak.  Six sequels were testament to the egg's popularity, and even today, people clamour for a new game.  I doubt that a game starring an egg would get greenlit today, even at Codemasters, although with the way the iPhone market is going these days, who knows?

Who remembers Fat Worm Blows A Sparky?  No, it wasn't Ron Jeremy's first gay porn film.  It's actually an ingenious game where you controlled a worm that was stuck inside your ZX Spectrum.  The object of the game was to collect fifty items called Spindles, then find a disk drive and clone yourself.  Unfortunately, roaming around inside the Speccy were Creepers and Crawlers, and if these bugs managed to pounce on Fat Worm then eventually he would perish.  His only defence was to fire Sparkies at the bugs.

Hope there aren't any seagulls inside this Spectrum...
You what?  If you pitched that now, you'd be laughed out of the room.  And yet, back in November 1986, CRASH gave it a massive 95% score.  It really was quite an achievement for its day.  Of course, this wouldn't be the last time worms would play an integral part in a game...

There were many others, of course.  Monty on the Run featured a mole versus a whole host of marauding household objects.  Fox Fights Back saw you playing as a gun-toting fox, defending himself against the likes of cycling beagles, mad squirrel bombers and egg-chucking chickens.

To progress, you must get past the flying clock and roaming teapot.  Naturally.
Even an early game like Casey Jones, a clone of Moon Patrol, Britished the whole thing up by putting you in a train rather than a moon buggy, and had you attacked by flying burgers, Horaces going skiing, and rogue Melbourne Houses (did the author have a game rejected by them or something?  Maybe I'll get to ask!).

We all love a bit of Horace. There's something not quite right about this, though.
This led to many early computer games feeling slightly amateurish, but that's because they were.  They were also very endearing, with a charm that was lost when games became soldier versus soldier, space marine versus space marine.  And while there's no arguing that current mega-budget games are polished to the nth degree, finely-honed, slick and ultra-professional, you can't help but wish that someone would throw in a daft gun that fired bananas, or something.

The quick brown fox can't outrun the lazy dog on a bike.
That's why he's carrying a shotgun.
I think a large part of the reason household objects played such a part in early games was the 'one man band' factor.  It's quite likely that a number of programmers in the early days could make a game, but were not graphic artists, and so used characters that you would see in every day life and which were easy to draw.  As games, and the process of making them, grew more sophisticated, you saw dedicated graphic artists producing stunning works of art and some great sprites and characters.

This was an important step in the evolution of video games... they would never be quite the same again.  It's something I'm planning to talk about in the book to a degree, with comments from programmers and dedicated graphic artists hopefully providing some interesting insight.  It'll certainly be interesting to me... I'm absolutely terrible at drawing!

Day 85 - here's an idea

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , , , ,

You know me by now, I'm all about sharing thoughts and ideas for this thing.  I've had a couple lately, but bear in mind that even at 85 days in, these are still the very early stages and anything I dream up might not necessarily happen.

One of my ideas has stemmed from digging through some of my old stuff.  In there, I found a book: Kerrang!" Direktory of Heavy Metal: The Indispensable Guide to Rock Warriors and Headbangin' Heroes.

Yes, that's the whole title.  That's not what I'm taking from it, though.  The book is an A-Z of heavy metal groups, from the late Sixties up until the book's publication in the early Nineties.  Now, I'm not going to cover a timescale like that.  But I was already planning around doing this in some kind of A-Z format... this got me thinking a bit deeper.

Hands up if you had the faintest idea what you were doing when you played this?
Who am I to decide who our Gods were?  I've got a big list of people to include, sure.  But is it big enough?  I'm considering having entries for a much higher number of people.  Even if it's just a name and what they worked on, and maybe a personal recommendation as to what you should try from their works, I think it might be worthwhile.  Much of the point of books like this is having your memory jogged by something you might have otherwise forgotten, and saying "Ohhh yeah!" with a smile.

Naturally, there will be plenty of large entries with lots of text and quotes.  That's always been the plan, and it remains so.  But this is something interesting to mull over in the coming weeks.

This idea throws up another possibility for consideration: if I do make this a much bigger A-Z-style project, do I also make it more international?  I really, really want to cover the British programmers that don't get the mentions they deserve in these kinds of publications.  Don't get me wrong there, my focus on them will not shift or diminish one little bit.  But the other programmers were our Gods, too.  You think back to the classic Accolade titles, for instance, or Interplay's RPGs.  We loved them, so should they go in?

Much like a famous American from the past, my mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives.  In other words, I've got a lot to think about.  And it's all great.  I'm really enjoying myself doing this.

Day 84 - Everybody's working for the weekend

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , , , ,

I had a day off yesterday.  Not from work... no, I still had to go trailing there and back.  No, it was a day off from the book and the blog.  I was home by about 7:15, and I could have done something on it, but I just fancied having a little rest.

Instead, I switched on my recently-neglected XBox 360.  I really haven't given it much time at all lately, and there were a couple of XBLA games I fancied checking out from their poorly-titled Summer of Arcade.  The first game I tried was Deadlight.

Standing here is all well and good, but what the hell do I do now?
If you haven't heard of Deadlight, it's the latest in a seemingly endless stream of zombie games.  You don't need me to tell you that the market is on the verge of hitting the saturation point when it comes to games featuring zombies.  If they're just in there because "OMG ZOMBIES!" then it's a bit wearing.  But if it's a good game and the setting is used well, then we can always take another one.

Deadlight is a good game.  You know what it reminded me of, just a little bit?  Flashback.  I think the animation is the main reason for that, but the game itself is a side-scrolling platform game where you have to solve puzzles while avoiding the zombie outbreak, all the while searching for your family and safety.  I haven't played all that much of it yet, but what I have played was enjoyable and it's presented really well.

The other game I tried was Dust: An Elysian Tail.  This game is also a side-scroller, but it's very different from Deadlight.  It's a fast-action beat 'em up with RPG overtones, levelling up, items to collect and a shady merchant, apparently on his holidays from Resident Evil 4, who you can buy useful items from.  It's got some beautiful graphics, although a few of the monsters are a touch dull.  But that's being a bit harsh and nitpicky.

The whirling Dust Storm attack is great, but it makes for crap screenshots.
You play as a trinity of sorts... you control Dust, the main character, but your sword is alive and talks, and there's an odd flying thing called Fidget who accompanies you with her terrible voice acting.  In fact, I reckon the voice actor was also responsible for the voices in Trouble Witches Neo.  That's not a bad thing... those voices were so bad they were good, and this is heading in that direction too.  It doesn't detract from the game at all, and I'm looking forward to playing it some more.

So there you have it... what I did on my day off.  Well, you have to keep it current sometimes.  And in doing so, it's good to see that in these days of first-person 3D ultra-realistic games there's still plenty of room for classic side-scrolling action.  A good game is a good game, simple as that.

Day 81 - Paul is in the living room

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , , , ,

You know, sometimes when I'm writing these things and I have my titles at the top there, I feel like I'm in the Big Brother house, with all that "Day 36", "Day 81" stuff.  It probably doesn't help me much when trying to promote this thing, either.  But I think it's important I do that, because keeping track of the time it takes to do this is good for spurring me on and making sure this doesn't drag on until the end of time.

I haven't got much that's game-related to write about today, as it happens.  I was absent yesterday... I was out with the lads, in a pub, taking part in a Fantasy Football auction.  It was great fun, and I think I picked a good team.  Fingers crossed I can win a bit of cash.

Right, England, your time has come!
It actually got me thinking about football games again.  There are some absolute classics that I've already written pieces on... the Match Day games, Football Manager... but there's another one that was also important in shaping one of today's classics, and it's one that maybe not so many people have played.  That game is Track Suit Manager.

I just fancied a game of that today, especially as there was a round of international matches taking place this evening.  So I loaded it up, installed myself as England manager, and I was away.

Hmmm... Butterworth or Hardyman?  The agony of choice!
The good memories came back, and as soon as you get into a game you see the one innovation it brought to the table that remains to this day.  That innovation is the commentary. As the match progresses, rather than showing you the action, it's described to you through text. It feels a bit like you're listening to the match, and the sense of tension that's built is palpable.

It was also quite a laugh to take my pick of the cream of England's players... who could resist the stout defensive qualities of Mel Sterland or the midfield guile of Glynn Snodin?  There are 100 players to pick from for your squad, or you can choose another country altogether if you so wish.

It's easy, this management lark.
The challenge of leading your country to World Cup success is always irresistible, but it does take time, so I'm just a little way into the campaign.  But the hook, as always, is very strong, because of the innovative (for the time) commentary.  It's easy to see why it was taken on by the Championship Manager series (and now into the Sports Interactive Football Manager games)... it's simply because it works so well.

I doubt I'll be able to track down its author, but it would make a nice companion to Football Manager, as the two games between them are responsible for the management games we know, love and are completely addicted to today.  How many hours did you lose to them?

Day 78 - like throwing three pickled onions into a thimble

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , , , , ,

I wasn't sure what I'd be doing today... yesterday's blowout had left me a little bereft of ideas.  But then the sad news came through that legendary Geordie darts commentator Sid Waddell had sadly passed away, and I knew what I had to do... 180!

Darts is a hard sport to do in video game form, especially when you're only using a keyboard or joystick as a controller.  Not only that, but as Julian Rignall said back in 1986, a board and a packet of cheapo darts hardly costs more than yer average computer game, so why buy a game when you could play the real thing?

Still, many tried, and most failed, until Binary Design came along with their budget title 180.

That pub carpet is very authentic.
One of the problems with early computer darts games was that they lacked fun.  Darts is essentially a pub game, played with mates for a laugh.  Although it helps to be decent at arithmetic, it's not purely a game of number crunching.  And this is one of the areas where the Binary Design gang got it right.

If you ever watched darts on the telly in the Eighties, and you must have at some point, you'll know that it was a sport played by oversized men wearing ridiculous shirts.  180 positively celebrated this fact, with some ludicrous opponents for you to battle.  Who could ever forget the lack of subtlety of Big Belly Bill, or the strategic nous of Tactical Ted?

Ste Pickford's disembodied hand isn't just an underdog, it's an underpuppy!
The C64 and Spectrum games are basically the same, but they do play a little differently.  The aim is the same... beat a series of opponents over a number of legs from 501 down.  The control method is the same... control Ste Pickford's disembodied hand as it wobbles across the board, making sure you line it up with where you want to throw your dart, and then trying to let go at the right time.  What is noticeable is that in the C64 game, the dart pretty much goes where you release it, whereas in the Spectrum version it flies up a bit.  So if you alternate between the two games, you have a bit of an adjustment to make.

Look at the state of him.  The flash ones are always easiest to take out.
Chances are you played one version or the other, though, and so you wouldn't have encountered this.  What you would have encountered is a fun time, taking on progressively more difficult opponents in your quest to be the best arrer chucker on the planet.  It might have been a quid more than the average budget game, but it was well worth it, especially if you had a human opponent.

There's only one word for 180... magic darts!  RIP Sid, you gave the game a voice like no other.

Day 77 - a sporting chance

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Right, now that I've finished with all that tedious job application stuff, I can finally get back to the business of playing games.  I've missed that in this last week!  Today, I decided that I'd treat myself to a sporting extravaganza, which ties in nicely with the last weekend of the Olympics.  I thought I'd play sports games or events that are featured in the Olympics.  I decided not to necessarily focus on any one person or any aspect of the book... purely writing about what I've played, instead.

Although there were arcade conversions of classic multi-event sports games on the 8-bit systems, there were a surprising amount of original games based on sports, too.  Many of them were quite successful, meaning that when we weren't out kicking a ball around in fields or the streets, we had plenty of athletic activity to keep us busy in front of the TV screens.  I probably can't cover everything in detail, but hopefully you'll enjoy this look at our computerised world of sport.

What's an Olympic Games without an opening ceremony?
The first multi-event game I ever played in my own home was Activision's Decathlon, on the Atari 2600/VCS.  It was a good job the Atari joystick was a sturdy effort, because this legendary game would have broken a lesser stick in no time at all.  The amount of waggling required was phenomenal, and I'm certain that our generation had the biggest biceps of any era of teenagers as a result of this and arcade games like Track and Field.

Once computers became more commonplace, we were treated to more sports games than we could ever have imagined.  I remember the time I went to a friend's house and found he had Daley Thompson's Decathlon for his Spectrum.  We must have practically battered those rubber keys into submission that afternoon.  Featuring the ten traditional decathlon events, it used the usual waggling control method to build up power, helping you to run faster, jump further and be more awesome.

Not showing the greatest technique, there.
You were (somewhat generously) given three lives to help you through the game, although technically you should have been allowed to play every event, regardless of score.  Although it would be surpassed by later titles, it became a legend in its own right and was a great starting point for the computer multi-event sports game.

The first game I played of this type on the Commodore 64 was the much less-well-known Brian Jacks' Superstar Challenge.  If you're anywhere around my age, you'll remember Superstars... it  was a TV show featuring top sportsmen and women of the era competing against each other in a number of sporting disciplines.  You'll probably have three main memories of it... the theme tune, Kevin Keegan falling off his bike and getting gravel rash, and judoka Brian Jacks destroying all opponents.  He was simply awesome.

This would be a strange sight in the Olympics!
Because of this, although perhaps a few years too late, he was immortalised in computer game form.  This game proved to be more interesting that you might have expected though, being more of a cross between Track and Field, the Superstars TV show and Summer Games.  Along with more traditional events such as canoeing and cycling (which make it eligible for inclusion in an Olympic feature!), it featured some unusual and even unique events to tackle, such as squat thrust and the boar shoot.  These proved to be enough to hold your interest, and the control methods were a bit more thoughtful, not relying on pure waggling but incorporating timing and rhythm.  This variation was enough to make Brian Jacks' Superstar Challenge a worthwhile addition to the collection.

Speaking of Brian Jacks, he came to renown as a judo expert, and his sport was represented on the 8-bits by Martech's Uchi Mata.  This was another game I owned, having bought it at a second-hand shop after reading the enthusiastic review in ZZAP! 64.  Now, judo is not like karate or boxing, or any other fighting, really.  You don't punch, and you don't really kick.  Instead, you throw.  You might think that this would be difficult to get across in a computer game, but Uchi Mata handled it surprisingly well.

Early series of Strictly Come Dancing lacked pizzaz.
Incorporating a grip meter and a graphic representation of the players' stances, it took a lot of effort to score points.  You had to really work hard to get the measure of your opponent.  Satisfyingly, counter-moves could be pulled off pretty successfully once you had the hang of the game, meaning that bouts could last for quite some time, although that proved to be just as exhausting as joystick waggling!  The transition didn't carry across well to the Spectrum, but the C64 version was a nice change of pace.

Tennis is now an Olympic sport, for better or worse, and it's been served by video games since the year dot.  Of course, everyone is aware of Pong, and who didn't have some kind of variant console in their homes?  Again, it was Activision to the rescue on the Atari, with their Tennis providing epic battles in households across the land and the world.

Look everyone!  Tim's winning!
There were loads of tennis games on home computers, though.  I wasn't going to play them all, so I concentrated on one that I had strong memories of... Psion's Spectrum classic, Match Point.  As is usually the case with Spectrum games, I played it at a friend's house, and I distinctly remember getting thrashed as I just stood there, swinging the racket wildly.  If you held the 'hit' button down, your player would just constantly swing away.  It looked silly, and it didn't help your game at all!  Once you got the hang of it, though, you could get into some lengthy rallies.  It was fun, but it seemed a bit slower than I remembered when I played it again.

Heading back down the "obscure Olympic sports that you wouldn't expect to play on a computer" road, the next game I played was one that, again, I owned courtesy of the local second-hand shop... Gremlin's Water Polo.

Pah.  There's even an action replay to confirm how rubbish you are.
On the other hand, why shouldn't it be a computer game?  If you can have football, you can have water polo.  They're both team sports where you have to put a ball into a goal, after all.  I quite enjoyed it when I bought it, although playing it now proved a tricky proposition.  I might have accidentally set the computer opposition a bit high, because I was trounced.  No Gold Medal for me!

Now, I know you probably won't believe me here, on any counts, but there was actually a sailing game available.  Well, there were a few as it happens, but the most prominent was Sailing by Activision... and I owned it!  Yes, really.  It was another four quid special from my favourite second-hand shop.  I must have spent so much pocket money at that place!

Shouldn't this game have been released by Ocean?
Part simulation and part racing game, it took a different tack on the racing genre (ho-ho!) and proved to be surprisingly absorbing.  It was difficult to get into, and the lack of variety meant I didn't play it for months, but it made a nice change from racing cars.  I might have liked it more if I had any kind of sea legs...

One of the most popular Olympic events is boxing.  In parallel to that, we've always loved a good scrap on our computers.  I don't think there are any Olympic boxing games, so I've played the one that was always my favourite... Barry McGuigan World Championship Boxing.

'Ave some of that, Ramirez.
Despite the fact that a side on view is quite restrictive for boxing, Barry McGuigan's did an awful lot right.  It gave you the chance to construct a boxer (although options were limited), and then either work your way up from the bottom or start as a contender.  I like taking the hard road, so I always started from the bottom.

You always have a choice of opponents, and once you've picked your fight, you can allocate the amount of time you spend training using various methods.  This determines your abilities in the ring, such as strength and endurance.

And it's a sweet left from Morrison...
I always enjoyed the flow of fights in this game, with a genuine momentum being built when you started to get on top, and the rising volume of the crowd noise (which seems sadly missing on the Spectrum version) added hugely to the atmosphere.  I never did get to be champion, but I always had an excellent time with this game.

One of the more intriguing Olympic events is table tennis.  The players get so pumped up and the games are really intense.  The games can make for some spectacular viewing... you can't quite believe some of the shots those players can pull off!

Table tennis is represented here by Konami's Ping-Pong, a conversion of the obscure arcade game of the same name.  I've played the arcade version before, and it's not a bad little game.  I'd never played a home conversion though, so I played Spectrum and C64 versions.  I have to say, the Commodore version looks and sounds a lot like the arcade version... I was pretty impressed.  As for gameplay, well, I was rubbish at both.  It's not exactly a top-drawer game, but it's a fun way to pass half an hour or so.

There's no body here.  What?
I've been surprised, in recent Games, to find that BMX is included as an Olympic sport.  I think most things can get in nowadays... when will darts be given its rightful place, I wonder?  Still, it gave me the opportunity to play a number of games from my younger days, all in the name of sporting greatness.

A couple of games get a mention here, from opposite ends of the quality spectrum.  One of my favourite budget games was Richard Darling's BMX Simulator.  A variation on the Super Sprint genre, this game gave you a number of BMX tracks to race around, either against a computer opponent or a friend.  The tracks were well-designed, and looked really nice, with ramps and raised bends all being effective obstacles which could help or hinder.  It was well worth the £1.99 asking price.

I'm doing about as well as the Team GB racers here.
Less successful was Richard's brother David Darling's BMX Trials.  Also a budget game, I received it on Christmas Day, the day I got my Commodore 64.  Frankly, it was appalling, not that it stopped him from going on to much bigger things.  It gave you a number of events to complete, such as racing, wheelies, etc.  It just played really badly and wasn't any fun!

"FOUL" is right...
Finally, and more in keeping with the mayhem of Olympic racing, I owned a game called BMX Kidz.  Again, it was a budget game, but this time it saw you racing against a decent number of computer-controlled opponents.  Tracks had a variety of jumps that you could (and had to, in fact) pull stunts off, and there were pick-ups along the way to boost your skillz.  It was pretty entertaining stuff, although a little bit annoying when you lost because you had to do well in the race and do enough stunts or you were out.  Nice title tune, too!

Go! Go! G-G-G-Go!
Of course, multi-event games are more in keeping with the Olympics, and that's how I'll finish this piece.  Hyper Sports was always one of my favourite arcade games.  I'd play it in arcades, taxi offices... wherever I could find it.  I was pretty good at it, too.  So I was very happy that it was released for the home computers.

Oh toss, I've failed.
Naturally, I owned the Commodore 64 version, and a very good version it was, too.  It was missing the pole vault, but that wasn't that big a deal, and worth the trade-off to get it in a single load.  It had the now-legendary version of the Chariots of Fire theme music, and the events were pretty faithful representations of the arcade game, so I was really happy with it, and it gave my Zipstik a real workout.

I expect the American coach might have something to say about this.
Spectrum owners were also well catered for.  Their version was also missing the pole vault, but it was also very playable and great fun.  Having played it myself now for this piece, I reckon it's pretty much on a par with the C64 game, with its skeet shooting having a slightly better feel but the C64 long horse being a better representation.  I think we all did well out of this one.

But the daddy, or daddies of the multi-event games were Epyx' classic Games series.  I'm not kidding, I couldn't believe my eyes the first time I saw Summer Games II.  The animation in the triple jump was astonishing.  The games themselves were stunning, with intelligent control methods linked to very enjoyable events.  There weren't too many mis-steps in these games.

A bit of over-rotation early in the dive.  That'll cost him.
The original Summer Games is something I didn't play for a long time.  Coming after I'd played Summer Games II, it lost some of its "wow" factor.  Nonetheless, it featured a number of very impressive events that were fun to play.  I expect that it blew a lot of minds upon release.  Personal favourites for me were diving, rowing, pole vault and skeet shooting.

Good though it was, it was improved upon to a massive degree for Summer Games II.  Right from the opening triple jump event, you're hooked by the presentation, graphical brilliance and sheer playability.  Being a triple jumper at school, I loved this event, and would play it over and over, attempting to get further and further.  I never got tired of it, even when I'd more or less maxed out the distance.

Good form there.  A good attempt is on the way.
Some of the other events were equally stunning.  The high jump and javelin throw featured the same stunning animation and clever controls, making them a joy to play.  The other events were varied and brilliant, making sure that Summer Games II is a game that has stayed in memories for a long, long time.

I've missed many games out of this, of course.  Epyx released a number of other Games which featured all kinds of varied events.  There's Track and Field and loads of games inspired by it, along with alternative Olympic-style games.  I could have sat here for a week and not finished, if I'd wanted.  You have to draw the line somewhere, and here it is.  Hopefully there are some happy memories for everyone in here... I've played about fifty Olympic events, and had a great time putting it together.

Day 76 - that's Great, Sister!

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , , , , , ,

Right, then.  It's been a tough few days... I have a promotion opportunity at work and I've had to drop everything fun to concentrate on that.  It's meant writing and editing and proof-reading and re-writing, etc., etc...  But it's submitted now, and I've taken some online tests this evening that I also had to complete, so I can forget about that for a few weeks until I hear the outcome.

That means I can get back to writing and editing and proof-reading and re-writing, etc., etc... but for fun, this time!

If you've followed me for any length of time, either here, in my other blog A Gamer Forever Voyaging, or on various message boards, you might know I'm quite a big advocate of Kickstarter.  There have been some fantastic video games projects on there, and all the ones I've been interested in have obtained funding, so far.

There's another one up there now... it's called Project Giana.

Hey, you can run on top of those bricks above the level! What a great idea!
There are those amongst you for whom this will strike an immediate chord.  Yes, it's a new version of a game that only just managed to see the light of day... Great Giana Sisters.

If you haven't heard of it before, then you can probably guess from the name that it's based on Super Mario Bros.  So much so, in fact, that Nintendo's legal team had it yanked from the shelves after less than a week on sale, the swines!  I managed to get a copy, though, being at the computer shop the day it was released.  And I really enjoyed the game.

The differences between levels are like night and day.
It really is a lot like Super Mario Bros.  The level design, enemy design and game design are all pretty close to Nintendo's classic, even to the point of there being secret bonus rooms and warps.  For computer owners with no chance of an official port, it was a pretty damn good substitute... for those that managed to get hold of it.

Its undignified removal from the shops means that copies have always been hard to come by, making them pretty valuable.  Pity, then, that my parents chucked mine out, along with all my other Commodore stuff, when I moved out.  Gaaahhhhh!!!

Mmmm, hope that was done in butter.
That's not a problem in this day and age, where emulators are preserving the classics (and the not-so-classics) for posterity.  You can just load up your system of choice and be transported back in time in an instant.  Doesn't make up for the loss of a potentially valuable item, but at least the game itself is there.

I'm interested to see how this new version turns out (if it does, in fact, turn out).  It's being produced by people from the original team, with Chris Huelsbeck contributing on the music front. He's been busy lately, and still is, having just had a successful Kickstarter project of his own come to a conclusion.  He's working on an epic multi-disc box set of the Turrican soundtrack, which I'm happy to say I'll be getting when it's finished.  I'm hoping to talk to Chris a little for this book, if he has the time.  And although its creator, Armin Gessert, is sadly no longer with us, there will be a place for him in this book too.