Posts Tagged ‘cecco’

Exolon

2 December, 2010

In real life, firing grenages at missiles is not recommended

Everyone should play Exolon. It’s slick, challenging, fun and it’s one of those games that I can’t really imagine anyone with any sort of interest in videogaming disliking. Exolon was far from Cecco’s first game, but it was his first real critical hit and it turned him into a “big name” programmer, someone whose association with a title alone was enough to spark interest from both the gaming press and the kids who bought games. He paid back on that interest (I think I’ve just accidentally created some kind of banking pun, I apologise) more than enough as well; look at earlier articles in this series for details.

Even before Exolon was published there was a certain amount of excitement building-up about the forthcoming title. Previewing the game in their July 1987 issue, CRASH magazine declared “everyone in the office enjoyed playing the preview copy, and now we can’t wait for a production version.”. When they got their hands on the finished game a month later, the reviewers heaped praise upon it and awarded it the famous ‘CRASH Smash’. Other magazines were just as enthusiastic: Your Sinclair awarded it a ‘Megagame’ and Sinclair User gave it their rather strangely-monickered ‘Classic’ award.

Playing Exolon now, it’s easy to see why reviewers in the ’80s got so excited about it. For a start, it’s a beautiful-looking game making excellent use of the Sinclair machine’s bright colours and avoiding its notorious attribute clash. But that’s not the main attraction, Exolon‘s strength lies in the fact that this is a shoot-em-up with, at the time, a difference since it plays screen-by-screen with each screen presenting a different challenge for the player to overcome. Some just require Vitorc (the player-character, described in the instructions as a “heavily-armed humanoid”) to destroy a couple of obstacles using grenades whilst taking-down flying aliens whilst others need the player to tackle problems such as obstructive pods and the aliens which swarm from them once the grenade does its business, homing missiles and ‘crushers’ which, despite the name, actually rise up out of the ground. The game is split into several levels and on each level there is a sort of futuristic gazebo which Vitorc can enter to don the Exolon battle armour – with this his task will become easier (it has twin cannons and protects him from mines and crushers) but if he finishes a level without it he gets a juicy 10,000 points bonus.

For some reason, when Vitorc loses a life he pulls this ridiculous "dancing badly whilst sitting down" pose.

Exolon therefore is not merely a screen-by-screen run and gun game, it actually has small elements of strategy and a risk-reward balance; the latter applies not only to the Exolon suit but also teleporters which can be used to ‘sneak’ past some enemies on one screen but places Vitorc on a different elevation which might mean his task on the next screen is more difficult. Although it feels very different, there are the beginnings here of the gameplay ideas which Cecco developed further in the Cybernoid games.

Although this game was converted to numerous platforms, the ZX Spectrum version remains the definitive one. The Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC ports are okay but they lack the attractive look of the Spectrum version and are a bit blocky. Avoid avoid avoid the fuck-awful (that expletive is justified) Amiga and Atari ST version, though, which aren’t worthy of the name.

And, if you still complain about the ‘new’ 5p pieces and have, similarly, no time for ‘fiddly’ emulators, why not try the rather-good Windows and Mac OS port by Retrospec which you can find here? Happy Exoloning.

I didn’t even do the “it’s an Exolont game!” pun, neither.

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Raffaele Cecco – Stormlords

19 October, 2010

Stormlord - man in need of a better posture

With the success of the Cybernoid games, Cecco became a bankable programmer; the sort of person whose name would appear on the covers of his games as a perceived mark of quality. In Spring 1988, CRASH magazine began a feature called ‘Cecco’s Log’ which followed the development – interrupted around summer of that year with an emphasis on finishing Cybernoid II – of a new game, Stormlord. In contrast to most of Cecco’s games, this new title would not have a sci-fi theme but instead be based on Tolkien-esque fantasy with the player controlling a medieval warrior type of character, the Stormlord of the title, tasked with rescuing fairies from an evil Queen.

By December 1988, Cecco announced that Stormlord was nearly complete and, in the Spring of ’89, the ZX Spectrum version arrived for review. Visually, it was typical of a Cecco game with the usual bright and well-drawn graphics but there was something new: this time it scrolled. Cecco had managed to make the Sinclair machine scroll horizontally smoothly in full colour, quite a departure from his usual flick-screen technique and, as Commodore 64 owners were happy to point-out, something Spectrum owners weren’t used to. Here it was, though, along with a game which conbined platforming, shooting and simple arcade-adventure elements.

Bollocks to the "Hot Coffee" mod - this is racy!

Stormlord is split into separate levels in which a number of fairies have to be found and rescued before progressing. The main character is the usual walking, jumping type of player character (not unlike that in Exolon in fact) and comes equipped with two types of weapon – some kind of mystical balls (not in the load-of-old-crap sense, they really just look like jaggedy tennis balls or something) which are fired by tapping the fire button/key and a broadsword which is fired by holding down fire and then releasing and, as you’d expect, does more damage. As Stormlord explores the levels he encounters all sorts of mythological silliness such as the giant fairy-like creatures in urns (?) which, on the 128K machines, wolf-whistle him if he walks across them and which also, unexpectedly for a time when video games were still largely for kids, show a bit of pixilated nipple. Good heavens! As far as less-friendly (and certainly less sexy) inhabitants are concerned there are killer caterpillar things, deadly plants, swarms of bees, green dragons, giant wasp-things which hatch from huge eggs and even what seem to be marauding chess-pieces. Stormlord has no energy, only lives, and touching these opponents is fatal. As well as fighting past these monsters, our hero has to solve simple logic puzzles using objects; these range from things like using keys to open doors to swapping an object with a pot of honey (objects, of which the player can only carry one at a time. are “swapped” with each other on contact in the manner of the Wally Week games rather than picked up and dropped where the player feels like it) to attract a swarm of indestructable bees so the player can pass. Springboards are also found throughout the levels and these can be used to leap from one part of the level to another, often being the only way to reach some areas.

Stormlord is a pretty tough game whose gorgeous looks accompany challenging gameplay. Whilst the arcade-adventure aspects are quite straightforward some of the areas are teeming with monsters who are difficult to deal with. Despite that, the game is enjoyable enough once a little practice has been put in and the challenge makes it reasonably addictive. Contemporary reviews were rather kinder – the game won accolades from the gaming press and found itself converted to even more platforms than Cybernoid had – including MS-DOS and the Sega Megadrive. Naturally, a sequel was expected and, in the summer of 1990, it arrived.

Although the main sprite, in common with Cybernoid II, is different to that in the original game (albeit merely a little taller here, possibly to counter the impression that Stormlord, with his beard and helmet, was some kind of dwarf) but first impressions suggest nothing much has changed – same graphics style, same nice scrolling, same impressive 128K sound. Then you start to play it and realise what a different beast it is.

Taller, slightly better posture, surrounded by more gratuitous nudity, what could possibly go wrong?

Stormlord was tough, Stormlord II: Deliverance makes that game look like Caspar Milquetoast. Within seconds of starting the player encounters devious enemies, a tricky jump and pits of lava that need accurate jumping to pass, and it doesn’t get any easier; the arcade-adventure elements which added interest to the original game are also gone. The plot has Stormlord descending into hell to rescue more kidnapped fairies but that’s really no excuse for the difficulty level. Whilst the original game was tough but nonetheless seemed to encourage perseverence, the sequel is simply frustrating and annoying. It’s a shame because it’s a bigger game (it uses a multi-load system), later features such as flying on a dragon seem fun and it’s as technically proficient as ever. The magazines largely agreed; although CRASH and Your Sinclair gave this game high marks, they were down from the original’s score and the difficulty was criticised. It’s a shame, really, since this was Cecco’s second-last Spectrum game and the last to have the distinctive Cecco “feel” (Time Machine, his last game for the Sinclair machine, was a monochrome pseudo-3D arcade-adventure). Deliverance was also widely converted, including a version for 16-bit machines released in 1992 which played completely differently from the 8-bit originals.

So, in conclusion, Stormlord is well-worth a look although be prepared for the old-school difficulty level. Deliverance, though, is such a tough bastard I can’t really recommend it to anyone except people who feel they have something to prove or those who love the original so much they feel drawn to its sequel. Don’t blame me for the swearing and chucking your Spectrum (or platform running emulator of choice) through a window, though. I did warn you.

(Footnote: Deliverance has “Press up to define keys” on its title screen. How fucking silly is that?)

Raf Cecco – Cybernoids

10 October, 2010

The original Cybernoid says "bye bye, strange-looking gun-turret"

Cybernoid, and its rather obviously-titled sequel Cybernoid 2, were both published in the same year, 1988. There was already a fair bit of excitement about Cybernoid before the magazines got their hands on it in the Spring of 1988. Cecco’s previous game, Exolon, had gone down more than well when it was released in 1987, managing to be one of those games that worked to the Spectrum’s strengths. The graphics were clear and very colourful with little in the way of the machine’s notorious attribute clash, the sound was excellent (on 128K models with the AY chip, anyway), progress was screen-by-screen rather than scrolling (something the Sinclair machine was never too good at) and the gameplay was challenging and addictive; if arguably a little sedate.

When it arrived there were some clear similarities to Cecco’s previous game: same colourful graphics with little clash, same great music and effects, same screen-by-screen progression; but this time around the gameplay was quite different. Cybernoid had moved things up a gear.

Both Exolon and Cybernoid (or, to give it its rather-excellent full title Cybernoid: The Fighting Machine) could loosely be called “shoot ’em ups” but whereas the former game sits more precisely in the “run and gun” sub-genre with its walking-and-jumping soldier protagonist and screens divided into an ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ section by platforms, Cybernoid, moving faster and with a player-controlled ship which could fly rather than just jump, was closer to scrolling shooters like Nemesis. There was one crucial difference, of course: Cybernoid didn’t scroll. The ship flew around and took-on gun-emplacements, missiles and flying enemies (space pirates, according to the essentially-meaningless fits-onto-a-postit plot) with a variety of weapons but rather than the conventional scrolling levels this had levels split into a number of screens, each with its own challenges.

Controlling the ship was fairly simple: the player used left, right and up to move (gravity affected the ship so when the player wanted to move down they would release up rather than press a down key) and fire to release killer white lines (don’t do it) at the enemy. The additional weapons which the ship came fitted with, though, were rather harder to use. Each life (one collision with an enemy or bullet was fatal) came with a full compliment of these weapons which were: bombs, mines, shield, bounce bombs and seekers. These were accessed by pressing the keys 1 to 5 and fired by holding down the fire button.

The special weapons were crucial to getting through the levels (although the brave/foolhardy could theoretically complete most of a level without using them) and since each screen presents its own dangers, the weapons needed also change. For example, screens featuring pirate ships spawning from the opposite exit were made easier by using bouncers or mines to make the pirates’ lives a little bit more difficult (and shorter); seekers could be used to clear homing missiles or destructable gun-emplacements which make some screens trickier; shields could be used by those lacking pixel-perfect ship-manouvering skillz (ie most of us) when negotiating the troublesome “lift” screens (in which indestructable and deadly “lifts” move up and down in pairs with the player having to manouever their ship between them and through gaps); bombs (which could be “dropped” upwards or down) were great for clearing blocks covering the exit to a screen or taking-out a gun-turret. Accessing these weapons using keys was, to be blunt, a bit of a pain in the old arse and tended to mean you took your eye of the action for a split second meaning that by the time you’d selected “seeker” to deal with a troublesome turret one of the weird spirally-looking green bullets had collided with the Cybernoid ship causing the game’s tremendously-colourful explosion effects to take its place.

The weapons, though, are largely what makes the Cybernoid games unique. Along with the screen-by-screen advancement they added a significant strategic element to gameplay. The player quickly learned which weapons were most effective when facing a certain enemy or mixture of enemies so quick thinking was as necessary as quick reflexes. There was a lot more to Cybernoid than “move and shoot”.

Adding a little more spice to gameplay, the pirate ships would sometimes drop items when destroyed. These might be cannisters (which would provide the player with an extra one of whatever weapon they had chosen, up to the initial limit), extra exterior weapons (a rear gun which fits onto the ship sprite, Cyberrun-style, and a mace which flys around the ship destroying enemies) or treasure. The last was apparently stolen by the pirates and the amount collected appeared onscreen under the score. When the level was completed, if the player failed to collect enough treasure then they forfeited a Cybernoid ship. And, just to stop anyone hanging-around an “easy” screen taking-out pirates and clocking up points/treasure, each level is played against a time limit as well.

In Cybernoid 2 the ship was bulkier. Or do the kids say "phatter"? It's pretty "sick" anyway (erm). Note the original Cybernoid sprite circling the player ship.

Cybernoid 2 (or, to give it its quite-shitty full title Cybernoid 2: The Revenge) arrived in the Autumn of ’88 and with a bigger, beefier version of the Cybernoid ship but, otherwise, largely-unchanged gameplay. The levels were still screen-by-screen, the different weapons were largely the same as the first game with the mines being replaced by ‘time bombs’ and with the addition of a couple of new ones: ‘smart bomb’ and ‘tracer’. There were also some tweaks to the enemies such as the gun emplacements now having opening-and-closing “blast doors” for firing meaning you had to launch a seeker or drop a bomb at the moment the doors open to shoot (and when you blow it up a pirate ship flew out heading for the Cybernoid ship – naughty but nice, Mr Cecco); oh, and a terrific new pick-up in the form of the smaller original Cybernoid ship which flew round your ship like the mace only with firing ability. But, yes, apart from these small changes it was basically the same game right down to the plot (which basically says “you did a good job last time, going to do it again?”), the treasure and the dire consequences for finishing a level without enough wonga in the hold.

None of that mattered or matters, though. The Cybernoid games were terrific then and they’re terrific now. I still love playing both of these titles, not only because they look and sound fantastic (and I have to say that, although the other versions are perfectly good, the Spectrum versions come off best for me – I think it’s the sharp graphics and bold primary colours) but because they’re a great test of skill and quick wits and work brilliantly as high-score games. Not everyone will like them, some people will hate the “fiddly” finger-dash for weapons and the screens with the “lifts” to negotiate (although everyone cusses them, to be honest) but, for me, these are two games that have stood the test of time very well, proper classics. Top marks, Raffaele.

Cybernoid is available for a host of systems from Speccy to C64 to CPC to NES to Amiga to Atari ST and even, I think, the Wii virtual console; Cybernoid 2 spreads its pixellated wings almost as widely (?! – Ed). If you’ve only got a Windows PC and can’t be bothered with “fiddly” emulation (you big wuss) then both games have been the subject to brilliant remakes which you can find here and here.