A monster from savage prehistory;
A machine from the dawn of microcomputing;
A man pioneering the concept of survival horror.
There are many classic retro games, but only a select few are truly system-defining; 3D Monster Maze, by far my favourite ZX81 indulgence, is one such title. A full third of a century after release, Malcolm Evans’ undisputed masterpiece remains genuinely, thrillingly playable, without recourse whatsoever to rose-tinted eyewear.
Contrary to popular conception, Monster Maze is not the earliest three-dimensional maze game released on Sinclair’s diminutive micro; that accolade goes to Axis software’s 1981 3D Labyrinth. The earlier title, however, is a stripped-back affair lacking in many features so integral to its more famous counterpart, not least of which is the critical addition of a bloodthirsty opponent: the inimitable Tyrannosaurus Rex.
3D Monster Maze’s concept is deceptively simple, tasking the player with locating the exit of a randomly generated labyrinth, the view of which is convincingly presented in first-person perspective. Upping the ante is the presence of the titular monster, a beast who is not about to let his human ready-meal escape.
The genius of the game lays in a sublime, immersive combination of engrossing gameplay and pervasive atmosphere. Allied to the intellectual challenge of besting the labyrinth is the engagement of the player’s primal fight-or-flight instinct; stranded and weaponless, for this is no first person shooter, fleeing is the hapless adventurer’s only option.
System: Sega Megadrive / Genesis
Developer: Aisystem Tokyo / Taito
‘There’s no place like home’
Taito’s 1987 arcade sequel to Bubble Bobble, Rainbow Islands, is a charming vertical-scroller which sees the player cast as a dragon-turned-human (yes, really) on a quest to defeat an evil monster named Krabo and save the rainbow sea. A platform-hopping search for seven mystical gems ensues across numerous thematically grouped levels including Monster, Robot, Toy, and Dragon islands, each sporting appropriately styled backdrops, enemies, end-of-level guardians and collectables.
Admittedly this abundantly saccharine world of spectral light may not immediately appeal to all, especially those whose virtual lives are spent at the darker end of the retro rainbow, embattled, perhaps, in Doom’s murky corridors; those willing to emerge bleary-eyed into the light, and to trade firearms for an altogether more novel weapon, may find themselves refreshingly rewarded by this gaming gem.
Your protagonist, Bubby, is blessed with the ability to cast dual-purpose rainbows of solid light, utilised both for vertical movement and for fending off the cute-but-deadly enemy hordes. Collection of certain special items increases the number rainbow-weapon spans, whilst others confer the ability to project sideways arcs of destructive light. As the frenetic action builds, and the screen becomes wreathed in prismic arches, the effect is akin to psychedelic trip in a toy box.
System: Sega Megadrive / Genesis 32X
Developer: Sega AM2
Graphically very close to its arcade parent, After Burner Complete on the 32X successfully emulates the super-scalar technology of Sega’s arcade original, but in an arguably less effective manner than Space Harrier. Pop-up, the blight of the first generation of true 3D consoles, is evidenced even here on last generation 2D hardware, causing scenery to appear Mr. Ben Style (‘as if by magic…’)
Perhaps I’m just sorely lacking in ability, but to me this game redefines ‘unfair’, even when played on the surely ironically-named ‘very easy’ difficulty setting. Enemy fighters, helicopters, missiles and bullets fill the skies to such an extent that you feel as though you’re ploughing head long into a wall of metal. To add to your woes the aircraft doesn’t appear interested in reacting to the player’s input; the experience is less fly-by-wire, and more like a rodeo simulator.
Soon abandoning any attempt to fly rationally as too suicidal, two modes of progression emerge through Darwinian forces. The first option is to follow Peppy Hare’s admonitions in Star Fox 64 and barrel roll, constantly. This works as an evasive manoeuvre, but only in the same manner as the hyperspace button in Asteroids; inevitably in avoiding one collision you emerge helplessly straight into the face of another. Alternately, apply the aeronautical breast stroke – repeatedly alternate between lunging towards the floor and climbing as fast as possible, in a bid to pull off the old Blue Thunder 360 loop (which sadly can’t be done in this game).
System: Sega Megadrive / Genesis
Developer: Game Refuge, Inc
Publisher: Electronic Arts
War is Hell, a hell of a lot of fun that is, in Electronic Arts’ 1993 title General Chaos. The game immerses the player in a frantic small scale war raging across a wide variety of pseudo three-dimensional single screen backdrops; The battlefield is rendered in a bright, colourful cartoon style reminiscent of SNK’s supreme Metal Slug.
Prior to commencement of battle the players assemble a five-man squad of gung-ho heroes, mixing and matching at will from amongst machine gunners, flame-thrower bearers, grenadiers, and rocket launchers. The different soldier classes muster different capabilities, including varied weapon ranges and instant-kill attacks. One of the five available soldiers appears for all the world to be U2 front-man Bono’s evil alter-ego; sporting wrap-around shades and wielding a flamethrower, world peace seems the last thing on this guy’s agenda.
The player’s squad is controlled via a simple and effective point-and-click interface; a large cursor is guided to a suitable location, to which the currently selected squad member can be commanded either to run, or directed to unleash their arsenal.
System: Sega Megadrive / Genesis 32X
AM2 (arcade, 32X)
Year: Model 1 hardware (arcade original) 1993
Year: 32X 1995
The classic Simpson’s episode Treehouse of Horror VI sees Homer unexpectedly breaking through the 2D confines of his world to appear in the three spatial dimensions of ours, the juxtaposition highlighting the hitherto unnoticed confining nature of the previous reality; Homer’s revelatory sensation is one mirrored by first-time players of Sega’s iconic Virtua Fighter.
Often hailed as a breakthrough for the genre, the Model-1 powered 1993 arcade title dragged the one-on-one fighting game kicking and screaming into the third dimension, eschewing sprites for fully animated quadratic-surfaced mannequin fighters. Whilst rendered entirely in 3D, the action still ensues entirely upon a horizontal plane, much to the title’s credit. As Bruce Lee once said:
‘Do not deny the classical approach simply as a reaction, or you will have created another pattern and trapped yourself there’
The polygonal nature of the game enables a true paradigm shift in gameplay. Unhindered by pre-drawn animation frames Virtua Fighter’s smoothly realistic movement conveys the satisfying solidity of its fighters, and the bone-crushing weight of their attacks, whilst allowing a previously unobtainable fluidity and depth of gameplay. The resultant experience appears a different beast entirely from those iconic 2D brawlers Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat.
Bereft of fireballs and fatalities alike, Virtua Fighter’s strength lays not in what pugilistic purists may bemoan as gimmicks, but in a repertoire of over 700 moves derived from a variety of traditional martial arts, including boxing and wrestling; training is the key to success as much in the Virtua world as the real.
System: Atari ST
Developer: The Bitmap Brothers
Publisher: Image Works
Guest review courtesy of SweetMrGibs
For those of you who were too busy burning off your eyebrows with Bunsen burners to pay attention during science class, Xenon is an element within the Noble gas group of the periodic table. For a while it was considered to be chemically inert… Unlike the explosive Bitmap Brothers shoot‘em up which shares its name.
Chemistry lessons and tenuous links aside, if you’re as old as me, dear reader, you’ll remember that in 1988 mankind came under attack from a violent alien species known as Xenites. Unfortunately, at this point in history Apple had yet to develop the “Upload Virus to Alien Mothership” app and Jeff Goldblum was busy morphing into a fly. However, we came up with the ingenious plan to use the enemy’s strengths against them. You see, the first excimer laser design used a Xenon molecule. Xenon also happens to be the propellant for ion thrusters in – that’s right, spacecraft. And what does Lasers + Spacecraft equal? Why it’s the formula for turning Xenites into Ar-goners.
However, a year later the tenacious Xenites came up with a new, more cunning plan – a plan which involved wiping you – yes, you – from the very history of time! If you never existed, dear reader, you could never defeat them, right? I have no idea which Xenite came up with such an original idea, but hats off to them, they deserve a medal. Based on the above, I have either good news or bad news for you; if you completed Xenon 2:Megablast then congratulations, you beat one of the toughest shoot ’em ups of the era. However, if you gave up, well, I’m afraid it means that the Xenites succeeded in terminat* …killing you, and you were deleted from existence. I appreciate that this isn’t the sort of revelation you’d expect to find whilst reading a retro games review, but, well… there it is. Still,whilst you no longer actually exist, for the rest of us the Kardashians are a distinct reality, so – you know – swings and roundabouts.
System: Sega Megadrive /Genesis
To anyone with memories of the often cold and wet chore of the Great British paper round the digital recreation promised by Atari’s all-American Paper Boy is alluring. Grab your papers and hurtle along on a bmx throwing news-filled projectiles at your designated customers’ homes; apparently there’s none of your ‘actually walk up to the door and post the paper through the letterbox’ shenanigans for our Stateside cousins. Added to the thrill of (relatively) high-speed delivery is the positive encouragement to smash the windows of non-customers’ abodes, and to attack burglars, drunks, break-dancers, and wayward pets.
Despite the incredibly promising premise, Paperboy can be an insufferably frustrating experience, mainly due to the desperately uncontrollable nature of your protagonist’s transport; unlike a real bike the virtual incarnation proves harder to control with increasing velocity, forcing progress down to a snail’s pace to give a sporting chance of survival.
Whilst the coin-op sported a responsive handlebar controller (adapted from the Star Wars arcade machine’s analogue yoke), Tengen’s 1991 port of the 1985 Atari original is limited to the Megadrive’s lowly joypad; the resultant fight for directional precision engenders an experience making the execution of Ryu or Ken’s Dragon Punch seem simple in comparison.
Psychopaths in stadiums, bloodied steel struts for goalposts
If you wanted to sum up Speedball 2 in one sentence “Imagine playing a futuristic, ultra-violent Kick Off, or – even better, Sensi Soccer… on a pinball table” would be pretty accurate.
Released on the Atari ST and Amiga in 1987, The Bitmap Brother’s sequel to Speedball improved on every aspect of the smaller-scale original. The stadium was bigger, the action faster and more ferocious – even the soundtrack was catchier.
A rudimentary transfer system allowed you to improve your squad and, most importantly, there were more ways to score points; bumpers! multipliers! and, perhaps the most satisfying of all, injuring the opposition. Bring on the robo-medics! And whilst modern football games require you to memorise a dozen button combinations in order to perform a back-heel, all of the player actions in Speedball 2 could be achieved at the press of one. single. button. “PUNCH!” Press button 1. “THROW!” Press button 1. “BIGGER PUNCH!” Press button 1. Take note, PES developers.
System: ZX Spectrum
Developer: Bob Pape
Publisher: Electric Dreams
Genre: Arcade / Shoot-em-up
For the majority of gamers in the Eighties a rare and much-coveted visit to the amusement arcades provided exposure to truly cutting edge gaming experiences. Ensconced in dark, neon-lit caverns of alien sounds lay technology so advanced that it appeared to have arrived from another galaxy, perhaps one such as the setting for the 1987 arcade phenomenon R-Type.
Irem‘s horizontally scrolling blaster was a title of such finesse that it can truly be classed as genre-defining, due in part to phenomenal game mechanics and in part to the then state-of-the-art M72 hardware on which it ran. Producing a conversion on the infinitely less powerful ZX Spectrum was always going to be a tall order.
The history of colour in Spectrum games appears inversely related to that of cinematography and television. Early games were awash with hues, revelling in the polychromatic capabilities newly added to the Sinclair computing range. As time progressed the games market was increasingly pervaded by ports of arcade titles sourced from machines utilising ever more powerful hardware; the requirement for graphical verisimilitude saw colour sacrificed on the altar of attribute clash and the visual landscape of the Spectrum rendered increasingly, and ironically, monochrome.
Into this often dreary world of Spectrum conversions R-Type exploded like a glorious supernova, effecting a sudden switch from black-and-white into colour that was every bit as stunning to contemporary audiences as the transition from Kansas to Oz in Victor Fleming’s famous 1939 movie.
System: Sega Megadrive / Genesis 32X
Enter the Dragon
Back in 1984 it was possible to Chase the Dragon and experience a full-on psychedelic trip for a paltry 50 pence, all thanks to Sega’s legendary AM2 team, creators of Space Harrier; this technicolour wonderment provides an early glimpse of magic from Yu Suzuki, author of the yet-to-come coin-op classics Outrun, Virtua Fighter, Virtua Cop, and groundbreaking open-world extravaganza Shenmue.
At my local arcade Space Harrier attracted long queues, being both a spectacular introductory showcase for Sega’s System 16 Super-scalar sprite-scaling technology (long before the infamous SNES mode 7 made such effects ubiquitous) and among the earliest articulated sit-down cabinets. Each credit for the deluxe incarnation cost a small fortune in comparison to contemporary machines and, for the average punter (well, for me at least), yielded a scant 30 seconds of gameplay in return.
In this early example of the rail-shooter the player is cast in the role of the eponymous Space Harrier, rushing into the psychedelic chessboard screen by means of a combined jetpack and laser-canon device. A frankly insane collection of enemies assaults the player, ranging from alien spacecraft to psychotic green heads (possibly modelled upon the mentally-challenged Gizmo doppelganger from Gremlins II. Then again, possibly not).