Posts Tagged ‘retrogames’

Populous II: Trials of the Peter Molyneux

4 January, 2012

If you take too long to conquer a world monsters from ancient mythology start wandering across the sea and land causing all sorts of indescriminate trouble, a nice touch.

Happy New Year for the Space Year 2012, I hope you had a good Christmas and all of that. Now, where were we…?

This is the first part of a story about two games I’ve been playing quite a bit over the holiday period. They both have the same designer (Peter Molyneux) and share a lot of the same DNA but are separated by ten years and represent very different evolutionary stages of gaming. One is Populous II: Trials of the Olympian Gods and the other is Black & White.

Populous II I bought from Good old Games for the distinctly un-princely sum of $2.99 (that’s less than two quid in real money) during their Holiday Discount period (it’s over now, you’ll have to pay a mammoth $5.99 for it instead!). I have a lot of good memories of playing the Amiga version in the ’90s and the PC version is largely the same only with higher-resolution graphics, a few new features on full-screen mode, one extra spell and (as was typical in the early ’90s alas) poorer sound. For those who aren’t aware of Populous II it’s a god-game (in fact I think the first Populous may have been the originator of that particular label) where the player takes on the role of one of Zeus’s many demi-god children and must fight numerous opponents taken from Greek mythology (starting with figures like Pan and other demi-gods and ending with the gods of Olympus themselves) over an incredible 1000 different levels. Each level is an individual world containing followers of both the player and whoever you’re up against as well as having a number of rules (eg in some worlds water is fatal and others not, in some worlds you can raise and lower land and in others not).

A wee man representing the army of your leader leaves his villa. Maybe he's been forced-out by Coalition housing benefit cuts (satire! Or if you will, since this is ancient Greece, satyr)

To complete a level you have to defeat your opponent demi-god or deity which means you have to wipe-out his population of followers either by slowly defeating them or massively outnumbering them, building up enough mana to use a godly power called “armageddon” and have everyone change into a mythical hero and charge towards a big ruck from which only one side’s followers will emerge victorious. There are other powers to help you win as well and these are slowly handed-out to the player as he or she progresses through the game. These include the “papal magnets” which provide a focus for your followers, various godly powers (including destructive powers like rains of fire and earthquake as well as subversive ones such as the fonts which change the allignment of any army which walks through them) and the heroes, based on characters from Greek mythology, who the player’s leader (identified by the tiny papal magnet which floats next to him/her) takes the form of and who then march into the enemy’s land to do mischief based on who they are (Perseus fights people, Helen of Troy leads them away etc). Your followers will build houses and cities based on the amount of farmland they have access to so you spend a lot of time manipulating the geography until its nice and flat so that your people can multiply.

Populous II takes ages to get going, so to speak, having so many levels and a gentle learning and difficulty curve. What makes it work, though, is that it’s plain fun and the range of things you can do means there are numerous potential strategies to win. For example, on earlier stages its easiest to just create farmland, have your followers settle it and build-up mana for armageddon, the computer being too slow and dozy to build up his own followers quickly enough. Later, though, the computer gets faster and more aggressive and starts sending his followers into your territory and using godly powers to trash your land meaning you have to respond in kind and can use godly powers, heroes or even just standard armies to invade and take-over his land and defeat him more quickly (speed brings higher scores, quicker advancement through the levels, and sometimes more experience). The Populous titles have often been criticised for being “land-flattening games” because, early on especially, this is what you spend most of the time doing but the fact that you end up mixing this up with a little warfaring, self-defence and godly wrath as the game slowly opens up its wide range of features means this is a simplistic criticism. Flattening the land is also, believe it or not, quite satisfying and nimble mouse-clicking makes for faster victory (indeed, Populous II is arguably as much an action game as strategy).

Whenever I return to this game I’m surprised by how well the gameplay has aged, how much fun it still is to play and how it manages to suck you in for hours despite the more rational part of your brain claiming that there’s not quite enough variety, largely because despite all the godly powers and no matter how much you might enjoy it you are still just spending an awful lot of time flattening land. Like Black & White, which I will talk about in the next few days, Populous II is a product of a starry-eyed ideas man but in this case his grand plans have somehow created an addictive, absorbing action-cum-strategy title which offers the player a great deal of potential strategies but ultimately has less depth than I think he imagined although is arguably better for it. Can the same be said for Black & White? Does it marry the enjoyable gameplay to real depth? Ooh, let’s see in a few days shall we…

Footnote: a data disk was released for this game called The Challenge Games which took place in Japanese, rather than Greek, mythology and had both a conquest game and a series of levels based around puzzles. As far as I know, this wasn’t released for MS-DOS computers and isn’t available on GOG, a shame.

Time Bandit: no dwarves, no David Warner, lots of shooting

10 October, 2011

Mister Bandit goes wandering around a mystical cod-medieval landscape. Later he'll probably visit Ancient Rome, or starship.

Chances are you haven’t heard of Time Bandit. You’ve probably heard of Time Bandits, of course, because it’s the brilliant 1981 fantasy flick directed by “the American Python” Terry Gilliam, everyone’s heard of that except boring bastards. But Time Bandit is completely unrelated, sharing nothing but a similar name. And it’s a shame that you’ve probably not heard of it, because Time Bandit is in its own way just as brilliant.

If I’m being honest the reason that I’ve heard of it is because of the aforementioned link: I came across a game called Time Bandit on the Amiga, wondered if it had anything to do with the film, loaded it up and realised that it didn’t. But after a couple of hours worth of play I realised that that’s not important because Time Bandit is a brilliant mixture of videogame styles with an ingenious non-linear progression.

Originally appearing on the relatively obscure TRS-80 home computer in 1983, Time Bandit was later ported to the Amiga and Atari ST in ’88 and it is these versions which were most popular (and which I am concentrating on). The easiest way to describe Time Bandit is to say that it’s a Gauntlet-style top-down game which borrows elements from other games including Pac-Man and Bomberman as well as text adventures (yes, really!). The player travels through time visiting different worlds (and a signpost which gives information about progress so far and the option to save the game) via a main Mario/JRPG-style scrolling play area; these various worlds, all of which can be accessed from the start, are split into 16 stages and in each stage the basic goal is to open the exit and escape at which point the player is returned to the level selection area and has the choice of either re-entering the world just visited and attempting the next level which will be more difficult or of tackling a different world and returning to the next level of previous worlds later on. Whilst playing a level of a world, which uses the same top-down scrolling display as the main selection stage, the player can simply concentrate on reaching the exit, take time out to grab as much treasure as possible dotted around the world (score for treasure in a level increases for each treasure taken so the first will be 100 “cubits”, the second 200 etc) or even take a quest or solve puzzles that can be found in the level. The worlds themselves are very diverse covering various time zones (hence the game’s name) and include an Enterprise-style starship, medieval castles and even a Pac-Man-style maze. They’re also full of ‘orrible things which spawn from (apparently indestructable) points on the floor and patrol the rooms and corridors. Our hero can dispatch them with his laser/plasma/whateveritis gun earning cubits as he does so; and depending on skill and bravery in doing so, earnings for beastie-shooting increase, reducing again if the player shows a lapse in heroism.

If the above description confuses the hell out of you (and I don’t blame you) try watching this YooToob vid of someone playing the Atari ST version and you might get the idea.

Like many great videogames, it’s better to discover Time Bandit and its wealth of features and surprises (barely scratched in the above description) for yourself. It’s not perfect – a time limit on levels would have stopped score-scumming and the text-adventure aspect, whilst a nice touch, would have worked better as some kind of icon-based arcade-adventure instead. Nonetheless, this game is great fun, addictive, and pleasingly barmy and despite the mixture of game styles sounding utterly bloody absurd on paper it somehow works. They really don’t make them like this anymore, although to be honest they didn’t really make them like this back then either.

Oh, and there’s a two player simultaneous option as well…


“The cheese is bait for the rats, and also gives you oxygen”

1 October, 2011

Post-Tizwas, pre-looking jowly on HWTBAM

I’ve Daren at the World of Spectrum forums to thank for bringing this wee YouToob gem to my attention. It opens with some promotional videos for a whole raft of videogames for various home computers circa 1984. Apart from the obvious retrogaming interest side these puff pieces are worth a gander because they look so cheaply put-together, like those adverts that used to appear in cinemas for a local curry house. The joystick ad is hilariously amateurish (you can almost hear the director saying “can you just wiggle it a bit more…”) and many of the voiceovers (the wonderful Tom Baker excepted) sound dreary and pedantic; it doesn’t help that some of the games look like they’d appeal most to the side-parting and NHS-specs crowd.

Five minutes in we move to a documentary called “The World’s Greatest Computer Games” presented by Chris Tarrant, back when he was still considered a yoof-friendly presenter. This is a bit of a promo piece as well but Tarrant proves a much more engaging voiceover and actually manages to make the games sound fun rather than snooze-inducing as the previous promos managed to. And with phrases like “splattered all over the screen”, “before I’d mastered the joystick”, “I’ve got to fly my chopper as far as I can” and “precious booty” (which Chris laments not even getting a “sniff” of) do I detect a hint of under-the-radar innuendo? Or have I just watched too many Carry On films?

On a more serious note, this is a fascinating look into how the media dealt with videogames when they were still a new phenomenon. There’s an interesting point around 11 minutes in where Tarrant talks about the difficulty in fitting videogames into popular culture claiming that they owe something to films, books, board games and carnival games. It’s also easy to see the earliest incarnations of genres which are now slick multi-million pound efforts from RPGs through platform gaming and sports simulators to games based around music. Flight sims seem to have completely vanished from the radar, though, so to speak. There’s also an abundance of the early, eccentric, gaming that was a result of the individuality in the industry at the time and which was stamped-out by the growth of corporate games publishers only to re-emerge in the last decade with the rise of the independent sector.

Well worth a watch if you’re interested in old video games, 1980s media, or even just a young(ish) Chris Tarrant in a rugby shirt.

Exclusive Willy

18 August, 2011

The first room. Should have been called "Willy's Gone to the Dogs" or something.

A quick article this time around and one I was inspired to write when I discovered, today no less, that there’s another little-known entry to the Jet Set Willy series along with Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy II.

It’s called The Perils of Willy and was released only on the Vic 20 in 1984. It’s not a homage game, it’s  an actual official Miner Willy game published by Software Projects and it even has the distinctive art style used by the later games on its box art (check out its entry here to see). I was intrigued to say the least.

So, I found a copy and gave it a shot.

One of the first things people will wonder is “why didn’t it come out on the Spectrum, then?”. The answer is obvious as soon as you start playing: Perils is, basically, a poor man’s Manic Miner. It’s a screen-by-screen platform game where Willy has to collect all the objects on the screen (musical notes in this case) in a time limit to complete it. Due to the Vic’s 16K of memory it’s far more limited than the 1983 Spectrum game in terms of variety (although it supposedly has more screens – 33 in all) and the srooms lack names (something I always think removes a lot of atmosphere). The sound is technically better thanks to the Vic’s superior sound chip but the repetitive in-game tune is nowhere near as, well, likeable and atmospheric as Manic Miner‘s croaky rendition of In The Hall of the Mountain King and quickly becomes annoying.

Having said that, The Perils of Willy is actually not bad at all. It’s nowhere near as good as Manic Miner but once you get used to the games little quirks (such as Willy’s jump which feels ridiculously long and the Vic’s display which is lower resolution that the Spectrum and makes Willy look like he’s been at the pies) it’s an entertaining wee game in its own right and the screens are well laid out and satisfying to beat. In fact, it’s a bit of a shame that a converted version of this couldn’t have been knocked-up to provide a bonus B-Side to Jet Set Willy II. Worth a shot for Willy-heads (fnar).

Cecco’s Cop Out – as good as it sounds

16 February, 2011

Our lone police hero takes on the menace of the man behind the rock, three men in pork pie hats, a mexican bandit, a man chucking bottles and two birds.

So my series on Rafaelle Cecco comes to an end (later than expected or, if you’re remotely realistic about my ability to get these things written on time, as late as expected) with one of his earliest games and also, arguably, his poorest: Cop Out.

Published by Cecco’s first employers, Micro Gen, in 1986 this is distinctly different from both his later titles and his other release for Micro Gen, Equinox (which I wrote about last year). Cop Out is a shooting gallery game with the player-character present on screen meaning that as well as aiming and firing at the various enemies he has to avoid their returned fire by running back and forth – quite similar, in fact, to the arcade game Cabal. But there, I’m afraid, the similarities fall out and decide it would be best for all if they went their separate ways.

Although the cover art,  blurb and loading screen suggest a US-set, 1920s gangster atmosphere with their picture of a distinctly American cop flanked by two weirdly spectre-ish (not to mention rather hunched-shouldered) mobsters, the actual game is rather different. The first three stages (I couldn’t get any further) are a generic street, a generic North America desert and some kind of mansion house (nb I’ve just checked the map on World of Spectrum and later levels seem to be warehouses and train stations) none of which feel distinctly like anything from the early 20th century. The bad guys are a mixture of dreary and just plain weird – there are no fedora-wearing mobsters (unless you count the chaps who run back and forth and to me those look more like pork pie hats), instead we get men in boiler suits (?), 1980s hipsters in sunglasses, men in wide-brimmed Mexican-style hats, girls with their hair in bunches (?), birds (?) and various vehicles which can be shot for bonus points. Cop Out doesn’t feel like a war against the mobs of 1920s Chicago, it feels like a cartoon shooting gallery.

It’s not just the atmosphere that’s the problem, either. Whilst dodging the bullets requires some skill and keeps the player on their toes, the collision detection seems a bit off and the player-character has an annoying inability to shoot at regular intervals, instead just firing about five shots in succession before being unable to shoot for an annoying second or two which is as conduitive to enjoyable gameplay as it sounds. It also doesn’t help that there seems to be no goal to completing a level other than time – at first it looks like the player just needs to clear all the bad guys but on taking-out (say) the chaps on the second stage who look a bit like the Three Amigos they just regenerate. After a certain amount of time, apparently regardless of how many bad guys you’ve taken out or how much score you’ve clocked-up, you complete the level (in fact I just had a game there where I shot only about three bad guys and still finished the level so this theory appears to bear-out). This feature takes away any real sense of achievement and further diminishes the idea that you’re a lone cop taking on the bad guys – no “area cleared” just “well done, you lasted a couple of minutes”. Poor stuff.

Cop Out isn’t completely terrible, there’s some fun to be had and in 1986 this was probably an adequate arcade shooter for many of the kids who bought it but now its gameplay deficiencies really stand out. Cecco would go on, as we’ve seen, to produce some cracking titles for the ZX Spectrum but this really isn’t one of them.


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.

Equinox – Cecco’s numero uno

8 November, 2010

"Colourful, mazy, got-a-ball-as-the-player-y; it'll be a hit!"

Now here’s a thing: I’d always assumed that Cecco’s first game was Cop Out (of which more in the future… at some point) but a little research reveals that Equinox was reviewed in the gaming press a few months before and so it looks like that was the first ZX Spectrum sprog Rafaelle dropped (and I’m going to leave that metaphore there because the mental image it created isn’t suitable for a Sunday afternoon as I type). So, having decided that this next article was going to be about the first Cecco title, Equinox it is.

Equinox was published in late summer 1986 on the Micro-Gen label. A quick glance at the screenshot in the top-right will give those who know their British 8-bit software a pretty strong idea of what successful games this was aspiring to; we’ll see how it compares later on.

The plot is nice and straightforward – humans want to colonise a new world but can’t until dangerous radioactive materials, kept in cannisters, are disposed of. Naturally, it’s down to the player to do this dirty work. Gameplay wise, this is practically a perfect museum-piece for the 8-bit era. It’s got flick-screen gameplay, it’s got lots of indeterminately-designed villains flying around that can be shot with a straight-beam laser, it’s got an energy-based life system for the bad guys to sap, it’s got pick-up-here and use-there “arcade adventure” gameplay of the sort now widely dismissed as a relic of a bygone age (even though many modern games essentially use the same device only with added narrative and cinematics that allows washed-up actors to explain in sub-George Lucas dialogue the mystical properties of the red key before the “incredible set-piece” of the red door opening); it also has a curio of the era: the player controls a rather impersonal sphere (see also: Rasterscan, Marble Madness, Nonterraqueous, arguably Spindizzy and the determined-to-fuck-up-my-punctuation I, Ball) as opposed to something recognisably humanoid or even sentient. Whether this was a gaming fad at the time or, more likely, down to the fact that such player characters were a lot easier to draw I can’t say for sure.

First impressions of Equinox scream “Starquake” at you but this is not simply a copy of the 1985 hit. For a start, there are the aforementioned arcade-adventure elements. As play progresses, the player will find their way blocked by numerous inconvenient barriers, from piles of rocks to, well, doors. There’s actually little explicit logic for some of the “which object removes which barrier” puzzle-solving (why does a hand-held drill remove one door, for instance?) but with a little experimentation, the player soon gets used to it – if you find a barrier covering an exit then there’s an object somewhere that’ll remove it and (usually) there’s a certain amount of common sense at play (ie a key opens a door, dynamite clears piles of rubble). The game is also divided into levels, each of which contains a radioactive cannister which must be disposed of to make the level safe and these stages are literally “unlocked” (back when this word was not yet ubiquitous in gaming) using keycards which give access to the next level. What is interesting is that the player is able to move back and forth between current and previous stages, unusual at the time. There are also transporters for moving from one part of a level to another and which are activated by collecting and using something which I think is supposed to be one of those plasma ball things (as memorably featured on a Kenny Everett TV quiz show in the late ’80s, the name of which escapes me) but which looks more like a marble, one of those round sticking plasters or a cyan eyeball (depending on what kind of mood I’m in). Actually, thinking about it maybe it’s a lady ball (or a gentleman ball – we don’t know the player character’s sex after all): that gives a whole new meaning to “pick up”.

If we’re going to be honest, though, Equinox is generally rather unspectacular. It lacks the enormous scale of something like Starquake and the arcade-adventure aspect of play is very crude and seems to be more a way of forcing the player to backtrack through each level’s quite small number of screens than anything else. Certainly, the puzzles don’t seem to be unique and once the player has worked out what object to use with which barrier the “arcade adventuring” turns more into a search for “keys”. Despite all that, this game is still rather fun. It looks nice and colourful and there are some nice touches such as the large green harmless aliens in some rooms which sit there doing nothing except occasionally blinking their one massive eye, embryonic versions of the sort of thing which became characteristic of later games by the same programmer; it also plays rather well in a Starquake-light way and is, arguably, better suited to an era when many retro-gamers prefer more casual games to epic mappers like the aforementioned Steve Crow classic. Whilst Equinox pales next to the likes of Cybernoid, this is still an interesting early title from a great 8-bit programmer.

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.

Tai Pan – buy buy! sail sail!

15 July, 2010

The player character (in white) wanders the streets of a port in the Far East, passing a drunk who seems to be miming a flute. How odd.

Oh, where to start with Tai Pan? Ocean Software, the once-mighty Manchester-based British software house, released this game in 1987 for Atari ST, Commodore 64 and 128K ZX Spectrum. I’m playing the Commodore version, as you’ve probably already guessed.

Tai Pan is loosely based on the 1960s novel of the same name (in fact it was the, as far as I know, last of several trading games inspired by that novel) and is concerned with profiteering by trading in the markets of the Far East in the mid 19th century with the aim of making so much moolah that you become the ‘Tai Pan’, the Supreme Trader. The player character starts off in a Chinese port called Guangzhou with pretty-much nothing to his name. Wandering around you eventually come across a restaurant and, being taken into the back room, you do a deal with a moneylender – he gives you $300,000 and half a medalion and you promise to pay him back within six months (blimey) or you get killed. Them was tough times.

I like that opening, actually, because it’s exactly as much plot as a trading game ought to have. We get given the start of a story and the rest is up to us. Admirable. So, how to play? Well, when you’re in port the game plays like a maze game. The player character wanders around the, rather samey, streets of the city passing various other characters and sword-wielding policemen along the way. There are also icons at the bottom of the screen allowing you to buy, sell, pick up (quick! pick up the rubber truncheon you’ll find lying around, you’ll need that for later!) and load and save game. On some screens there are entrances to various shops and establishments (including, rather racily, a brothel; or “ladies house” as the game has it in it’s PG-cert way). First thing you need to do is head to the bank and buy a ship (I’ve no idea why it’s the bank and not a ship merchant selling this) then to the supplies store to pick up a map and telescope and some food. Then onto the Inn to hire some sailors.

Now, there’s also the warehouse which sells goods which can be sold at a profit at the right ports but this was my second time playing the game and, on my first, I made the mistake of buying up goods in the starting town without knowing if they were cheap or not. So, I left the goods and instead bought some contraband from one of the many dodgy characters hanging around some of the streets offering it. It’s never made clear what the contraband is but I assume it’s supposed to be illicit drugs of some kind. Anyway, having picked-up my package I made my way to the dock and set-sail.

Ah, the open sea. Insert joke about salty seamen here.

The sailing section is shown from above with the player given the option of raising/lowering sails as well as checking maps or entering combat mode (to fend of pirates or even pirate yourself) and using the telescope to check for ships on the horizon. I raised the sails and headed East and towards what I hoped would be start of my trading career. Oh, there’s another icon – one which lets you distribute food rations. To be honest, I wasn’t keen on this level of micromanagement and wished the game would do it automatically as, for example, Sid Meier’s Pirates does. It’s easy to forget about it. For some stupid reason your box of food only lasts one voyage too and needs replacing when you enter a port.

The first port I entered was quite close to my starting one but I found the prices were roughly the same (unsurprisingly) so I set off again, having had to buy some food again (grr) and decided to sail much, much further this time. I pointed the ship roughly in the direction of what is modern-day Taiwan and raised the sails. The game claims that leaving the “shipping lanes” (which seem to be white lines on your map) is risky due to pirates but I had no problems and reached a port called “Qingdao” on the island. Here I managed to flog the contraband for a small profit (around $4000) and picked up two boxes of tea which was quite a bit cheaper than the home port. Having loaded up with another (sigh) box of food (did I mention they cost an absurd $2000 a box? What the flippety flop is in them? Pickled venison and caviar?) , I made for home hoping my tea would raise around $3000 a box.

The journey back was very slow, though, owing to the wind now opposing me more than it was behind me and I ended up dropping-in on a “midway” port. The tea would make no profit here, I discovered so I headed back to the ship and sailed off.

Oops, forgot to replace the food. Silly me. Nothing to give the crew on the journey home leading to one of them dying of scurvy just before we entered port. Oh, cruel fate! Anyway, got off at a port (Shenzhen, a word I associated with nom-able chicken) very close to the one we started at (I thought it was the actual port but it wasn’t) and managed to flog the tea for a measly $1000 profit per box. Not happy with this but noted jade was cheaper here than out in Qingdao so I bought a box of that and some more contraband and having used the truncheon I mentioned earlier (if you thought it was for doing something dirty you lose ten points!) to cosh a wandering drunk and press-gang him into replacing the dead crewmember (you can do that, you know, it’s very naughty and the police don’t like it) I set sail for Taiwan again and, I hoped, more profit.

Except, only a couple of days into the voyage, my ship sunk without explanation and I was told I’d drowned. Oh, cruel fate! I had $0 in assets (I still owed the moneylender) and the status of “slave”. So, rather abruptly, endeth my game of Tai Pan.

In conclusion, there seems to be a lot to this game. It’s got a great atmosphere and the C64 graphics are pretty good although the constantly playing music gets a bit annoying. I found the trading harder than in any other game of this type I’ve played, though, and barely managed to find goods that could turn much of a profit – it also doesn’t help that there are essentially only four things to trade: tea, jade, silk and the aforementioned mysterious contraband. I’m sure spending more time on the game or having suitable maps/charts to hand might make things easier. I also thought that the sailing part was needlessly slow (the instructions claim that it speeds time up to avoid slowness but I didn’t see this) and the need to manually issue rations was annoying. Oh, and having to buy fresh rations for each journey is both expensive and unrealistic. And don’t get me started on the ship suddenly sinking, I really hope there was a reason for that (perhaps because I didn’t use the brothel, maybe the player character sails badly if he’s too horny, I dunno) and it wasn’t just random.

So, overall, maybe worth a look if you like the whole trading/pirating genre (although I didn’t get to do any pirating or combat because my bloody ship sank) and admirably atmospheric, but when it comes to an enjoyable game you’d be better off plumping for Sid Meier’s vastly superior Pirates instead.