Attack of the Zombie Monsters and why we all need to be more critical

Invasion of the Zombie Monsters: it's good, but not THAT good.

A few months ago a new, commercial, ZX Spectrum and MSX title was announced. Going by the admittedly rather cheesy name of Invasion of the Zombie Monsters this game, inspired to some extent by the classic arcade game Ghosts n Goblins was originally published by a small indie developer for €14.99 and then, this month, was finally also released as freeware. Gameplay videos and screenshots which looked promising had caused quite a bit of excitement in the ZX Spectrum community and so when the game was released freely mere months after its commercial outing we all pretty much pulled our pants over our heads and ran around the room.

I, along with dozens of other spec-chums, downloaded the newly liberated game and gave it a whirl. I really enjoyed my first game, loved the graphics, found it surprisingly fast and extremely well-presented. On my second game, though, I started to notice that the difficultly curve was way too gentle which, sadly, is quite common in a lot of indie games; I also felt that the character block-based movement, whilst as well implemented as could be expected, meant it lacked the fluid-feel of games like GnG. By level four, however, the game begins to get reasonably challenging and I was left, and am left, with the impression of a pretty good, if flawed, piece of indie software.

Now, that on its own isn’t all that interesting (other than that it’s my opinion which is, of course, always interesting) what was more telling was the response for the Speccy community. You see, the reaction to this game was extremely favourable, it’s already shot into the Top 100 games on World of Spectrum (it was riding close to the top of the chart for a while) and a thread devoted to the game even contains posts claiming that, had IotZM been published in the ’80s, it would have been a dead-cert for the coveted “CRASH Smash” (CRASH being the best (shush YS fans) Spectrum magazine of the period) award given to games scoring 90% or higher – the best of the best.

As cowboys supposedly said “woah there” and as I doubt they said as often “let’s all calm down”. IotZM is quite a good game, it’s a fine piece of work for a bunch of indie coders to produce and I think the fact that it’s free means we can overlook its flaws to an extent but a CRASH Smash? Really?! Is it really comparable with The Great Escape or even Robocop?

See, if we’re going to be completely objective and honest I can see IotZM scoring 70-80% if it was a £2.99 budget game and came out around 1988 but the idea that it’s one of the best games released on the Spectrum in its entire history is a bit hard to take.

Justin: a not-bad wee isometric game (although someone ought to have told the main sprite about the 'isometric' bit) but not brilliant.

Unfortunately, I think this reveals a small problem with how the retrogaming community respond to new software: there’s a bad tendency to get overexcited and married to the understandable desire to encourage the hardworking indie coders who produce it we get a great deal of overrating with almost any new release routinely described as “brilliant” by the WoS community and quickly bumped up into the 7 or 8 out of 10 scoring zone. Now, I don’t want to be seen as patronising or as dismissing either the coders or the games, there are some real talents at work (Bob Smith and Jonathan Cauldwell in particular) and some of the games are superb; indeed I’ve said before that I think Egghead Round the Med deserves its considerable plaudits and is one of the best platform arcade-adventure games on the Spectrum I’ve played. But I think there’s something wrong with simply throwing plaudits at every indie title which appears, and especially something wrong with saying that every genuinely great new game developed by indies on obsolete platforms is necessarily one of the best games released in the entire history of that platform.

For starters, if the Mojon Twins or Bob Smith or anyone else released a game as excellent as Hydrofool, Starquake or Exolon then the plaudits, the words we’d all need to rightly use simply wouldn’t be there. What’s the use of “this would have got a Smash back in the day” if it’s been used to describe good-but-not-great games like IotZM or even rather average titles like Justin? Even though I think a lot of good stuff is being produced by the indie programmers it doesn’t help anyone to pretend it’s some of the Best Software the Spectrum’s Ever Seen. Whilst we need to encourage this new breed of coder-enthusiasts and applaud the great work they do I think it’s also in the interests of both the retrogaming community and the programmers themselves to be a little more criticial. The corporate commercial programmers of the 8-bit heydey had their bosses and playtesters to sit them down and tell them what needed to be improved or tweaked to make their games as good as they can be, the new breed of 8-bit programmers rely on us, their fellow enthusiasts, to do that for them. And it pays off – the Mojon Twins have been releasing a pile of games this year and amongst all the usual “good on you, brilliant game” stuff a few people have been pointing-out the problems they find in the gameplay and the Twins seem to be taking it on board; that’s probably why their latest game – Cheril Perils – is one of their best so far.

I still think the current crop of 8-bit indie coders have it in them to produce many more titles which really do stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the masterpieces of the golden age but to do that they’re going to need friendly criticism as well as encouragement. Yes, it’s great people put all this effort into giving us entertainment for very little renumeration or even for free but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t raise our virtual hand and say “lovely graphics, everything move beautifully, but at the same time I really think that…”. I hope IotZM spawns a sequel and I hope the gameplay faults – the gentle difficulty curve, the lack of levels and the slightly ineffectual end of level baddies – are ironed out so that it can be something truly special. Perhaps actually deserving of a CRASH Smash or, at least, a Your Sinclair Megagame.

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6 Responses to “Attack of the Zombie Monsters and why we all need to be more critical”

  1. Marc Says:

    You are absolutely spot on. It’s a shame to piss on the homebrew love-in as it is truly a remarkable thing that people are still making games for our favourite machines, but the developers really should be getting highly critical and honest feedback to help them improve their future efforts.

    It’s a bit of a balancing act really.

    As reviewers, I think it points out to us how useless numerical ratings systems are; how subjective they are, marred by how we feel about the developers, let alone any pre-conceptions we hold about the games. Give me a couple of paragraphs of incisive critique over a percentage any day.

  2. Dock Says:

    Fantastic article! I totally agree that people are way too forgiving of the mechanics and general achievement behind something that appears to touch their buttons, and often it takes a while to let the excitement subside and be entirely objective about it.

    That said, I feel there were plenty of Crash Smashes handed out due to excitable staff back in the day. I suspect that there were times when IotZM would have received crazily high scores, just as Mayhem in Monsterland did on c64, and Turbo the Tortoise too. I remember being pretty disappointed playing Turbo as a twelve year old!

    I hope in general people start to be a little more critical, but also to encourage people and help them identify their best areas.

  3. Shaun_B Says:

    “Good point, well made Jimbo”, as someone on the Telly once famously said.

    There’s some psychology at work here: no one wants to be overly critical of new games without good reason. I personally wouldn’t have given Timmy’s Speccy game Heart Stealer more than a 6 out of ten (or an approximate percentage, say 62%) overall simply because it’s *way* too easy and I completed it first go without a problem. However, I’d have pointed out something like “if you want to introduce a younger generation to the wonderful world of the Spectrum then this might be a good place to start, especially if you have younger children”.

    However, I stand by all of my reviews published previously in Micro Mart and Retro Gamer, even if madness took me when I awarded Cannon Bubble an eight or nine, and I only managed to give Jonathan Cauldwell’s GameX – The Games Exchange a mere nine out of 10 (it should have been 10).

    I still feel that the best software is yet to be created. Look at splATTR for the 128K, and the aforementioned GameX. These two titles must rank amongst the best ever as in close to or in the top 100. Now, this might sound a little low, but there were many thousands of games published for the Speccy, and the fact that there are two recent releases that deserve to be in the top 1 or 2% of releases is true testiment to the freedom that indie programmers have today.

  4. Simon Cronosoft Says:

    Whilst you could say I’d be a little biased, considering my position, I’d like to look on it objectively. A game’s rating HAS a little to do with what is available to compare at the time – i.e. it’s peers.

    For example, Imagine’s “Jumping Jack” is an excellent Spectrum game, but would it have been a ‘Crash Smash’ if compared alongside “Knight Lore”?

    Again, in the later commercial years of the Spectrum, when the titles started to dry up, games were rated alongside others of the era, and not so much what had come before.

    Whilst I agree that reviewers rarely rate a game as “bad”, for fear of upsetting the author, these games may be bumped up a bit to average with their scores …. I agree with Shaun that there are some really blimmin’ stunning games out that really push the machine to it’s limits, and are deserved of their acclaim.

  5. gnome Says:

    Excellent article and I’m afraid I generally agree. We -well, I at least- are generally too excited to actually judge games for retro platforms. Then again, difficulty isn’t necessarily a trait.

  6. endrikhx Says:

    same reason why youtube and most things should have a simple thumbup vote button

    if u like something u want to give it the highest rating anyway, just to encourage more of the same coming out

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