Posts Tagged ‘retrogaming’


10 September, 2011

I don't like having to fanny-around with GIMP making these "montage" pics. I hope you all know that.

Well, this is odd. Not that long ago I wrote a post about two games I had recently discovered and grown to love: one of these was the superb iThing game Forget-Me-Not and the other was the 27 year old ZX Spectrum platform/action game Frank N Stein. Apart from having eerily (are you sure this is the appropriate word to use? – Imaginary Ed) similarly-structured names these are both excellent pick-up-and-play titles. And, weirdly, I’m going to tell you about them both again or rather about updates to both of them. That’s right, both.

First we have the excellent, if not entirely surprising, news (which reached me via Stu Campbell) that Forget-Me-Not has been ported to Windows and Mac-OS based machines for free. It’s probably my favourite game of the year so far and if you even slightly like videogames you have absolutely no excuse to not download a copy and learn to love it as much as I do.

The second, rather more interesting, news is that Frank N Stein creator Colin Stewart has been busy slaving over a hot Spectrum (or, more likely, emulator but let’s not destroy the romantic image) and has produced a brand new version of his 1984 game. That’s right, 27 years after it was originally published to cries of “It has lots of little additions (like ice patches) that make it better” and “Overall, a good game” from CRASH magazine we have a brand new update of this classic platfomer with new features and extra levels. Stewart isn’t publishing the game until the 14th of September – exactly 27 years since its original release, but he sent a review copy to the Retro Brothers who have an exclusive review of the new version here.

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

25 July, 2010

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.

Jonathan Smith obituary

28 June, 2010

Images from the late Jonathan Smith's games featuring (clockwise from left "Firefly", "Cobra", "Pud Pud" and "Hyper Sports"

I hope I never have to do two of these in a row again. I’m afraid today’s entry is going to be another obituary. Very sadly the legendary games programmer Jonathan “Joffa” Smith passed-away on the morning of the 26th of June 2010.

Joff (as we all learned to call him) was one of a small group of recognisable names in the early days of the British video games industry in the 1980s alongside the likes of Matthew Smith and Mike Singleton. His first published game was 1984’s Pud Pud, an ingenious mix of maze game, action and surrealism which still holds up well today and isn’t as well-known as it ought to be. Smith was only 16 when the game was bought-up by Ocean Software, then a small Manchester-based software house, and it lead to him getting a permanent coding job with the company. Joff had the distinction of being both a talented coder and artist and his games featured an unmistakable “cartoonish” art style which, along with his name written as a mirror-image on the title screens, became a hallmark of much of his 8-bit software. He went on to produce a string of successful and still-popular titles for the ZX Spectrum home computer including Kong Strikes Back (despite the name, heavily based on the arcade game Mr Do’s Wild Ride), a famous license based on the forgotten Sly Stallone movie Cobra which largely dispensed with the film’s plot and instead was a joyously silly and very playable arcade-platform game, and critically-acclaimed conversions of various coin-op games such as Mikie, Green Beret and Hyper Sports. Despite being conversions, these last titles always had a very distinct Joffa “feel” in graphics, sound and general polish.

Smith went on to form a new company in the late ’80s – Special FX – who developed titles for various software houses under commission. Among the games he helped create under this label were Hysteria, which was something of an unofficial successor to the earlier Cobra, and Firefly, the latter being his declared favourite of his software output. He also wrote the acclaimed Spectrum version of the licensed Batman the Caped Crusader.

In later years he helped write games for the new 16-bit machines including Atari ST (including a conversion of Midnight Resistance), Sega Megadrive and Super Nintendo. These were largely team-efforts and conversions, though, and fewer of the games he worked on were bona fide “Joff” titles.

Screens from "Airlock" featured Joffa Smiths distinctive art style.

Joff left the games business in 1995 having, in his own words, “had enough” and spent some time DJing before briefly returning around 2000-2001 and publishing a WAP game for Orange called Airlock. Although barely known of (and probably not played much any more) what we’ve seen of this game indicates it was a return to Joff-as-auteur with the game and graphics both the work of Mr Smith rather than a team.

Smith was a very active and popular poster on the World of Spectrum forums, as well as numerous other parts of the world wide web (he was a regular poster on another forum I visit as well as WoS) where he gained a reputation as an eccentric, often funny personality. In reality, however, he appears to have been rather uncomfortable with social gatherings by his own admission and avoided doing promotional gigs during his programming days. As a result, despite being very active in Spectrum fandom in an online capacity, he rarely made appearances at “real life” events. The one time he did put in such an appearance – at Byte Back in 2009 – things didn’t exactly go well. Despite this, he was much beloved amongst the Spectrum and retrogaming community where he was always happy to talk about the “old days” and give advice to people still writing software for Sinclair’s venerable machine. He also kept us entertained with his distinctly odd (and usually very short) YouTube videos, sometimes made in response to whatever we’d all been discussing on the WoS forums.

In the mid-2000s he revealed he was working on a brand-new Spectrum title, Saucer, which was to be released through the small retrogaming publishing house Cronosoft. After releasing a couple of in-progress versions development on this eventually stalled. Possibly due to his later ill-health. He’d also planned to make a film – an ambition which seems to have gone back to his school days and which he mentioned at his Byte Back appearance – called Testing Natasha which also looks unlikely to ever be finished.

It’s for his 8-bit games for which he’ll be best remembered, though, and it’s probably not an exaggeration to say that the likes of Cobra and Pud Pud will probably still be played another 25 even 50 years hence.

If you follow this link here it will take you to his World of Spectrum programmers page which lists all of his Spectrum games and also includes links to some interviews he did near the bottom of the page.

My thoughts are with his family and friends. We’ve all lost a unique talent.

Jonathan “Joffa” Smith 1967-2010 R.I.P.

Polyplay – Hase und Wolf

28 August, 2009
"I'll get you, the hare!!"

"I'll get you, the hare!!"

Its time for the second game in my exciting review of East German video game system Poly Play.

Hase und Wolf (Hare and Wolf) is a maze game based on Pac-Man. The player controls the hare (represented by a hare head) and must eat all the food on each level to complete it and progress to the next whilst avoiding the wolves (represented by a wolf head). The food consists of peas (guess what Pac-Man feature those replace), carrots and pears which can be collected for bonus points. To be honest, the Hare was probably eating a better diet than most of the people who originally played this game.

Gameplay is almost-exactly like Pac-Man; the player moves around the maze collecting the dots – sorry peas – pursued all the time by the wolves. The wolves are actually quite effective opponents and genuinely seem to try and home-in on our hero which surprised me as, after the programming “expertise” shown in the previous game I’d played, I was expecting them to just wander around the maze at random. The carrots seem to have taken the place of power pills and collecting them turns the wolves red and makes them jerk around a bit rather than try and pursue the hare. Annoyingly, though, it doesn’t seem to make it possible for the hare to eat them – colliding with a red wolf still causes the loss of a life – which would have been a terrifically world-turned-upside-down version of nature.

Graphics and sound are still fairly lame but an improvement over Hirschjagd with the hare head having two frames of animation (which give it one twitching ear and a flashing eye giving the impression that the dear old hare is on drugs) and a suitably demonic-looking wolf (which also has two frames of animation). The peas and carrots are recognisable if somewhat out of proportion (unless the East German government was trying to insinuate that Marxism-Leninism had given the German people giant peas) but the pear looks rather, erm, odd. More like a hanging yellow bogie than anything else. Sound is some very simple blips and bloops which at times even seem to be trying a valiant attempt at a tune; it reminded me a lot of early ZX Spectrum stuff so I found it quite endearing.

As for the important thing, Hase und Wolf actually plays okay. It doesn’t have Pac-Man‘s smooth control because, unlike our yellow pill-popping hero, the hare doesn’t move continuously and so getting him around corners is a bit more tricky at first because if you press a direction too early the hare will stop rather than wait until turning the corner; but its fast enough and you soon get used to it. The wolves, as I said before, are actually quite worthy opponents and increase in number as you progress through levels so, unlike Hirschjagd, things get trickier as you go along. The carrots are more of a deterrent than a way of munching the enemy for bonus points, but the player soon learns to adapt. After playing a couple of games of this I actually felt no trepedation in playing it again which is much more than I can say for that deer-hunting atrocity.

I give Hase und Wolf three Karl Marx’s out of five.

Tour de Force – like Tour de France but silly

7 July, 2009
Riding through the horrendously-stereotypical streets of Japan in the Spectrum version.

Riding through the horrendously-stereotypical (Sumo-wrestlers and bowls of noodles left in the road just offscreen) streets of Japan in the Spectrum version.

Since it’s Tour De France time, I thought I’d take a wee look at an old cycling game from 1988 – Gremlin’s Tour De Force to be precise.

Unlike now when sports simulations are limited to motor-racing, football and golf back in the golden age ™ of videogaming just about every sport under the sun received a simulation at some point, even judo and squash got their own home-computer versions. Cycling doesn’t get a look-in these days but back in the ’80s there were a couple of cycling games published one of which (funnily enough) is this one.

Now, because the sport of cycling involves peddling along a road somewhere and very occasionally overtaking (or being overtaken by) a sweating man in very tight shorts it doesn’t have much to grip the typical gamer. For this reason Tour De Force relegates the “cycle race” part to just the core of the game and adds all sorts of things around it that you wouldn’t get in the actual Tour de France that this is so very very thinly based on. So, as well as just having to overtake the other cyclists the player also has to dodge roadworks, occasionally jump over them using a ramp, collect food and drink to boost points and keep heat levels down and avoid obstacles placed in the road both living and inert.

The Amstrad CPC version: like the Spectrum version but less colourful (a common complaint amongst CPC users in the '80s - damn those lazy ports indeed)

The Amstrad CPC version: like the Spectrum version but less colourful (a common complaint amongst CPC users in the '80s - damn those lazy ports indeed)

Actually, come to think of it, most of those things probably are encountered on the average Tour de France.

Tour de Force also takes place over a number of levels with races in a number of different countries, starting in Japan (that well-known home of the long-distance cycle race, there) although I wasn’t able to get much further than level two (France, which should have been level one or something).

This isn’t a bad wee game. The graphics are okay, have plenty of character and aren’t too messy or confusing and although there’s some frustration (such as crashing into an obstacle and then making the same mistake with the start of your next life and an inability to cycle backwards meaning no way of getting out of a pickle you’ve managed to cycle into) it’s quite good fun to play. There’s just one thing about it that really, really annoys me, though. When you finish a race the wee bloke doesn’t cycle across the finish line, he stops with the front wheel right on top of it whilst all his opponents cycle across it and then he has the termacity to raise his arms up as if he thinks doing so makes him look good rather than a tit. Whoever signed off that little detail at Gremlin Graphics wants a strongly-worded letter, I tells thee.

I played both the Spectrum and Amstrad CPC versions (Speccy has better graphics, Amstrad better sound). You can find both of them here.

New Retroaction

11 May, 2009

RetroactionA quick (but not dirty) post to let you all know that the summer edition of quarterly retro-gaming magazine Retroaction has arrived and is full of excellent features, including reviews some of which have been written by your’s truly. Rather than tell you which ones, I’ll let you all download the magazine and read it to find out, although anyone who reads this blog regularly won’t be entirely surprised to find out which venerable gaming platform they’re all for. Ha.


3 May, 2009

This is how not to do it.

This is how not to do it.

I have a love-hate relationship with the remakes scene. On one hand, remaking an old game for new hardware is a chance to iron-out the problems and glitches that often plagued games from twenty-odd years ago and make them into something closer to the original designer’s vision. On the other, many games of yesteryear felt “perfect” to their fans and remaking them often unintentionally upsets the gameplay by subtly changing things like the speed or collision-detection making them feel like a bastardisation to the very fans they’re often aimed at. There’s also the question of “bloating” with some games that previously ran on a 3.5mz machine in about 40K of memory now needing 256MB RAM and a P1000 just to get started which begs the question “where did it all go wrong?”. Some remakes are undoubtably worthwhile, though, if likely to still divide people and I thought I’d suggest a few below, in no particular order.

1. Arcadia.

Imagine’s 1982 survival-shooter was one of several good games the Liverpool software house released before succumbing to mediocrity, bad management, encroaching competition and eventually the bailiffs. This 2004 homage, by Peejay’s Remakes, adds trendy modern particle-based explosions as well as up-to-date graphics and sound whilst retaining the same enjoyable gameplay and clever scoring system. You can get it from the Peejay’s Remakes homepage

2. Manic Miner

A tremendous example of “if it ain’t broke…”, Andy Noble’s much admir’d 1999 DOS (ported to Windows and Mac some years later) remake of Matthew Smith’s seminal 1983 platform game barely touched the way the game played (there’s the option to have it move at the same speed as the Spectrum original if needs be) whlist beefing the graphics up to 256 colours (and thankfully not upping the resolution) and giving us an excellent new rendering of “In The Hall of the Mountain King” to accompany the jumping and key-grabbing. All we need now is for someone to do a similar job on the suberb, if sadly relatively-obscure, SAM Coupe version with its plethora of new screens and features… Manic Miner can be downloaded from its page on the Retrospec website.

3. The Ur-Quan Masters

Just one of the ships from The Ur-Quan Masters waiting to blow things up

Just one of the ships from The Ur-Quan Masters waiting to blow things up

In 1992, Accolade published Star Control 2, the sequel to Star Control a game that had enjoyed some success on the 16-bit machines and games consoles. Star Control 2 was released for a much smaller number of platforms (MS-DOS and the 3DO games console) which is a shame as it’s generally (rightly) held to be a far superior game to the original. Whilst Star Control was a mixture of strategy and Space Wars-style shooter, the sequel branched out further into an arcade-adventure which encompassed a collossal galaxy. Although there was a main story to follow involving freeing Earth from its extra-terrestrial overlords the player was pretty much at liberty to do what they felt like, visiting star systems and hoovering-up precious metals and minerals from planets as they saw fit. In August 2002, fans obtained some of the source code from Toys for Bob (the original programmers) and a fan-made port called The Ur-Quan Masters was released for a variety of platforms and is still being updated and tweaked. It can be found at this page here.

4. Pyjamarama

MicroGen’s 1984 arcade-adventure Pyjamarama (named after a Roxy Music song, of all things) was entertaining enough, if not the best example of the genre; but the 2005 remake is well-worth playing because it’s such a great example of what an latter-day homage should be. It manages to improve and update just about everything without putting a dent in the gameplay that made the original work. Download it and see for yourself by going to its entry at the Remakes Zone website.

5. Total Eclipse

In 1987, British software house Incentive released a game called Driller for a number of popular home computers and showed us the future. The game used an engine dubbed “Freescape” which allowed fully-navigable solid-3D landscapes. Although very much a precursor to modern 3D gaming, the relatively slow processing power of then-contemporary computers meant that the game was slow moving and both Driller and the Freescape games which followed it were more puzzle-based than shooter. It’s surprising it took so long for someone to remake a Freescape game and when they did, they decided on 1988’s Total Eclipse, a 1930s-set title based around a race against time to solve the puzzle of an Egyptian pyramid before the eclipse of the title ends the world. The fast processors and smooth 3D of modern machines means that Ovine by Design’s remake feels weirdly sedate and cerebral compared to what we’ve come to expect of first-person gaming but it’s worth playing not only for the fiendish gameplay of the original but the impressive atmosphere created by modern graphics and sound (including the unintentionally funny macho American bloke saying “Uhh, refreshing water!”) and the numerous “secret” areas that Ovine incorporated. It can be downloaded from its page on Ovine’s website.

6. Head over Heels

Retrospec’s remake of Jon Ritman and Bernie Drummond’s famous 1987 arcade-adventure caused numerous ripples when it appeared in late 2003. Most were bowled-over by the successful retention of the look and feel of the original (even with the graphics redrawn in high-resolution) and the excellent new additions such as shadows (meaning objects are easier to locate in space) and a save feature cunningly utilising the reincarnation fish of the original; some, however, tutted at the apparent changes to Heels’ speed, the new doorways that jutted into the screen (unlike the “flat” originals) which changed the gameplay, the re-design of Castle Blacktooth, the divisive in-game tune and the loss of the “room entry” jingles. In spite of these problems, this remake is an undoubted labour of love and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the original even though some will doubtless feel it fails to supercede it. Make your own mind up by going to its homepage and downloading it.

7. Sir Fred El Remake

Sir Fred: Who art thou calling "Big Nose"?

Sir Fred: Who art thou calling "Big Nose"?

As with Pyjamarama, this remake by Computer EmuZone of Made In Spain’s (a software house from, erm, Spain) 1986 arcade-adventure is less worth playing because the original was a spectacular example of the genre (although it’s not bad if you don’t mind the tough learning curve) and more because it’s such a good example of how to remake a game. The graphics have been completely redrawn and designed and stick more to the “idea” of the originals rather than the looks and the whole thing has a pleasingly 16-bit feel, as though this is a high-class Amiga version meaning it feels both updated and “retro” at the same time. Why not see what you think by downloading a copy.

Who Dares Wins 2

29 March, 2009
Take that, soldier from an unnamed country which is almost certainly Germany in the 1940s!

"Take that, soldier from an unnamed country which is almost certainly Germany in the 1940s!"

As Doctor Who might say “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry”. I really do try to get at least one article up on here per week but sometimes I just don’t manage it. Feel free to point and look annoyed if you like, I probably deserve it!

Anyway, I was a bit stuck for what to write about this time around. There’s some new Spectrum games that have been released recently but I’m writing about them for an online fanzine so to find out what I think you’ll have to download the next issue and read them there (was that a plug? I think it might just have been!).

This game is a Spectrum game (and a Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, MSX and a whole host of other platforms one) but it’s rather older than the games I alluded to above. The original C64 version was published in 1985 whilst the Spectrum conversion came out in 1986. Because I like the Speccy and the C64 computers (I know, I know; it’s like liking Oasis and Blur or something) I decided to play these versions both to get a feel for the game and to see which of them is better.

So, what about the game itself? Where did the name come from? Well, in the early 1980s there was a hostage-taking situation at the Iranian Embassy in the UK which was ended by the SAS (whose motto is “Who Dares Wins”). This seems to have created a surge of interest in the special forces unit which lead to a (fairly-rubbish, from what I’ve seen of it) film called Who Dares Wins and, seemingly unrelated to the film, a C64 game of the same name a few years later. Who Dares Wins 2, the sequel to this game, and the subject of this article, was released not long afterwards and unlike the first game recieved a Spectrum conversion.

Now, at the time, WDW2 didn’t exactly set the gaming press alight and it didn’t help that it was widely seen as a cheap knock-off of Capcom’s Commando arcade game which had been converted to home computers to much acclaim at roughly the same time as the release of WDW2. My own memories of it, though, are as a reasonably-entertaining shooter and this, combined with a few good words for it on the World of Spectrum forums, made me decide to re-visit the game.

Despite the title, the SAS aren’t mentioned at all in the paper-thin plot which seems to be a straightforward “storm the enemy base and rescue your comrades” storyline. Combine this with the cover art (see above) and you’ve got a WWII setting little different from that of Commando making this game look like even more of a shameless coat-tail-grabbing effort to chase the popularity of Elite’s conversion. And yet, that’s not really fair because despite the obvious similarities the surprising thing is that WDW2 is actually a pretty good game in its own right.

Despite what it might look like, I am most certainly not running away in this C64 shot

Despite what it might look like, I am most certainly not running away in this C64 shot. Instead I am making a "tactical retreat" with the aim of striking-back soon. Yes.

Start playing the game and you’ll wonder where the difference is between this game and its arcade inspiration: you play a blue soldier who must make his way through a scrolling (flick-screen on the Specrum) level shooting the bad guys and dodging their bullets. As with Commando, the player also carries a limited number of grenades which are unleashed by holding down the fire button and more of which can be collected from boxes handily parachuted in by allies (I’m not sure parachuting boxes of grenades over an active and confusing warzone is an especially good tactic but hey). Even the end of level screens are similar with our hero having to dispatch dozens of soldiers who pour out of a commando outpost before he can capture it. Even a certain Mr Price might point and laugh.

And yet what actually made Commando work was that it was a fun game and, by following closely in its footsteps, this game manages to be fun too; weaving around shooting the soldiers, lobbing grenades at troops behind barriers and dodging the bullets is entertaining regardless of how derivative it all is. It’s not as good as Commando or as fun (not least because it all feels a bit slower and a lot less slick) but it’s still entertaining enough

In this screenshot from the Spectrum version, we can clearly see that the bad guys have painted their outpost bright purple, the international colour of machismo.

In this screenshot from the Spectrum version, we can clearly see that the bad guys have painted their outpost bright pink, the international colour of warlike machismo.

WDW2 even adds little touches all of its own: as well as fighting footsoldiers our hero will also find himself faced with marauding tanks, enemy aircraft and even runaway trains. Commando had a few vehicles to deal with, of course, but WDW2 chucks even more into the fray which all need different ways of dealing with them. Low-flying planes which spray the ground with machine-gun fire or drop bombs need to be avoided whilst the tanks can be taken-out with a well-placed grenade and the trains can be grenaded whilst rushing down the tracks for extra points.

The more you play it and the further you get the more WDW2 breaks out from the mould a little, as though the programmers having fulfilled their remit of creating a Commando clone decided to throw in a couple of things of their own, and it all adds up to something which, whilst not as good as its excellent arcade inspiration or the home computer versions which followed it, is nonetheless a surprisingly-worthy rival. Back in the day it would have been foolhardly to choose this over the excellent Commando; now, more than twenty years later, this is worth a look-in and doesn’t deserve to be thrown onto the pile labelled “shameless cash-ins” and forgotten about.

Oh, and which was better, the Spectrum or C64 version? That’s a tough one. I wish I could be decisive and stand here with my (metaphorical) hands on my (metaphorical) hips and tell you “Spectrum” or “Commodore 64” but I really can’t and I have to admit that it probably comes down to personal taste. Some people are going to favour the Spectrum’s flick-screen and slightly-easier gameplay whilst others will prefer the scrolling, lack of flicker and better sound (the Spectrum version makes it seem like the computer is full of angry bees) on the C64. Me, personally, I think the C64 version nudges out in front but I suggest playing both versions and finding out which one you prefer. Them’s the way with these things.

Information about the Commodore 64 version here.

Information about the Spectrum version here.

Treasure Trap

10 February, 2009
Id like to be, under the sea, in an octopuss garden in the shade. Collecting gold.

"I'd like to be, under the sea, in an octopus's garden in the shade. Collecting gold."

Oh, woe is me! There’s two games that I really want to write articles about (Times of Lore and the silhouette-based Blade Warrior) but they’re going to have to wait because both games are proving more complex to play than I expected. But let’s not worry about them right now, let’s worry about the forgotten game of yesteryear I’ve decided to dig-out and talk to you all about instead: that would be Electronic Zoo’s  Treasure Trap (1989) for the Amiga, Atari ST and DOS (I’m playing the Amiga version for the purposes of this review).

The plot is very straightforward – you’re a treasure hunter in an old-fashioned diving-suit who’s been lowered into the wreck of a ship called the Esmerelda and have to explore it and loot all the gold on board. That’s it: no “emotional journey”, no cut-scenes, no “moral choices” to make, no sub-B-Movie plotline written by hacks to get in the way of the game. Modern game developers take note! (rant over).

Anyway, enough about my personal issues with the current gaming scene, what does Treasure Trap play like? Well, if you glance around the couple of screenshots I’ve provided around the screen you’ll notice that it bears more than a passing resemblance to Knight Lore, Head over Heels and other 8-bit isometric; and, unsurprisingly, it plays a bit like them as well. The player character can perform the usual moves in four directions plus a jump; he can also collect keys (which come in the form of various shapes) and carry three at at time for the purposes of unlocking doors. The gold bars are collected automatically on contact and on many of the screens can only be reached by solving basic puzzles in order to reach them – usually of the “push this box here, use it to reach that platform” variety that will be familiar to anyone who’s played this type of game before. Of course, our hero isn’t alone in the depths of the ship and there are various underwater menaces which take one of his lives on contact. These include crabs, eels, stingrays and some really really annoying mines which home in on you. The only thing the player has to combat these are ‘smart fish’, friendly fishies which eat hostile creatures; you start with two of them and get more if you collect lots of gold bars (presumably they’re attracted to shiny things, like some kind of aquatic magpie). So, in the main, the player has to avoid the nasties and use smart fish sparingly. Treasure Trap came at the end of a decade which had seen its fair share of isometric arcade-adventures and it seemed to be attempting some kind of minor evolution. It all moves faster and smoother with the more powerful sprite-shifting powers of the 16-bit machines and shadows, much-missed from older titles and necessary to identify where a lot of blocks/monsters actually are in relation to other things, are actually present in this game. It’s also possible to save the game each 50 bars of gold you collect – there’s none of the play-it-all-through-in-one-load problems that we had in Head over Heels and the like. It even has a map which is fills in as the player progresses in surprising detail – this is (as far as I know) unique in isometric adventure games like this and a quite welcome feature.

This screen is a bastard. Trust me.

This screen is a bastard. Trust me.

But despite all that, it doesn’t succeed in beating these older games. The puzzles and screen designs in Head over Heels and Hydrofool (an older aquatic underwater title where you played a robot that looked like Stan Laurel who had to pull plugs out of a giant aquarium – I’m not making this up) were much more devious and well-thought-out than in this game; and it’s not just that the puzzles aren’t as good, some rooms just seemed generally ill-thought-out with enemies that were too hard to avoid and gold that was hidden away from view (although the letter “G” on the gold indicator on-screen does flash if there is gold on a screen still to be collected). There’s also less of a sense of progression; the older titles had considerable freedom of movement, as does this, and weren’t linear but Treasure Trap feels like just one big maze of rooms rather than smaller, individual groups of rooms that need to be beaten and passed. It also has some ill-thought-out features like the “whirlpool” monsters who deposit the player in a random room on the Esmerdela; imagine if Head over Heels had had something like that! Players should have to persevere to see these later screens and work-up to their greater challenges gradually, not just be deposited in them at random!

Ultimately, isometric gaming didn’t die in the 1990s but it left behind the old room-by-room platforming arcade-adventure of the 8-bit entries in the genre and tended more towards RPGs (like Legend) or scrolling action games (like Skeleton Krew). Treasure Trap feels like a last hurrah of a type of game that was dying out in 1989 and, sadly, it’s more of a whimper than a bang. Worth a shot if you like this kind of game but you’d be better off playing some of the classic 8-bit games in the genre.

Grandad: Quest for the Holey Vest

3 December, 2008
Thems some shiny wheels, old timer!

Them’s some shiny wheels, old timer!

Old people aren’t very often chosen to be the heroes of video games. I mean, video games need athletic heroes, not bald people with walking sticks. The elderly can’t pull-on
powersuits and fly through space shooting aliens, they can’t leap from platform to platform dodging the evil wibbly-wobbly sprites and they’re not especially good at diving around a room with a gun in each hand whilst the player curses the rubbish camera. Well, they can do all of these things but you suspect their doctor would tut at them. And that they’d die.

This 1992 Atari ST indie game, though, features an old man as its main protagonist. It’s called Grandad: Quest for the Holey Vest and as the name more than suggests it’s about an old bloke looking for his missing vest. Let’s get that out of the way first of all: this is not a game with a thunderously exciting plot but then, as I’ll bang on about to anyone who’ll listen, plots are usually irrelevant to gameplay which is why I get so annoyed when a lot of modern reviewers treat the “story” like it’s as important as the action in a shoot-em-up. But I digress.

Grandad is, basically, a very traditional graphic adventure. The player controls Grandad, in his electric wheelchair (which appears to have a limited battery life making this a race – if you can call it that – against time), as he rolls around his house and the surrounding gardens solving puzzles and being mean to kids. Whilst moving the old grouch is all done by joystick, the commands which allow him to interact with his environment (look, use, and suchlike) are all accessed via a drop down menu. So Grandad might examine a bit of wall and see a key sticking out but he can’t reach it because he’s too old so he has to use the bit of wire he found in the garden to hook it out and then he can open a door leading to more of the house. It’s these sorts of puzzles we’re talking about.

too busy with their crack-knives and Playingstations

This is the room you start off in. Note lack of concerned relatives. Tsk, young people today: too busy with their crack-knives and Playingstations

Despite being, essentially, an extremely simple adventure game with animated (well, slightly animated) graphics and having none of the richness and depth of something like Beneath A Steel Sky this is fairly engaging to play. Like all of these types of games, there’s something undeniably satisfying about solving the puzzles and there’s a desire to see more albeit not all that much: the game’s shameless mundanity means that it lacks the fascination that superior titles do – it’s not so exciting when the new room you’ve accessed isn’t a glittering diamond cave but some old git’s kitchen. Nonetheless, for an indie title this isn’t too bad. The graphics are pretty good and grandad himself manages to convey character even if it’s just that of a grumpy old fogie in a wheelchair and the puzzles are generally logical without being insultingly easy. This isn’t worth disengaging yourself from superb commercial graphic adventures like Sam and Max or Monkey Island (doubtless being ignored in a charity shop near you) for but if you’ve got a spare couple of hours you might like to try spending it with Grandad. Just don’t expect to be bowled-over.

#Ive been sitting here all day, drinking...

“#I’ve been sitting here all day, drinking…”

As those of you who peer carefully at the screenshots might have noticed from the title screen up at the very top-right of the article there, this game seems to have been some sort of shareware/licenseware scheme whereby only a portion of the game was playable from the start with the player needing to enter a license key to access a lift and explore further reaches of Grandad’s house (I’ve not got this far yet because I’m rubbish). Where you’d get this I’ve no idea; perhaps the programmer is still selling it or perhaps it’s been released somewhere in full as freeware. Whatever, I’ll try and find out and unpdate accordingly.