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).
Right, here we go, I’m in the dungeon. OK first step – how do I move? Ah, ok, click on the arrows. Bit annoying- should be able to use the cursor keys. Doesn’t seem to be anything aroun. . . oh, wait. . . is that a picture on the wall over there? Yes, yes it is. . . oh, and another. Am I in a medieval version of the Tate Gallery? I wonder what happens if I click on this girl’s pictu. . . ‘Resurrect’ or ‘Reincarnate’? Huh, com esta? What’s the difference? Sod it, resurrect. Ooo, she’s in my party. No wait. . . it’s a ‘he’ apparently. “Boris. . . Wizard of Baldor”. Hmmm. . . Wish I’d chosen someone who looked more like a proper wizard. He looks more like Justin Bieber. Right, must be more careful with my next choice. “Daroou”. Not sure. . . he looks like a gormless Chewbacca. Next. “Halk The Barbarian”. Yep, he’ll do. Always need a bit of brawn in these games.
Ok, so that’s a wizard and a warrior. . . what next? “Syra Child of Nature”? What’s she? A healer. Yep, probably need one of those at some point. Right. . . last one. . . let’s go a little left-field here. . . “Elija Lion Of Yaitopya”?. . . nah, he looks like a tramp version of Morgan Freeman. “Wuuf the Bika”? Yeah, ok, he’ll do. Resurrect. Crap, should have checked his class. . . Ninja? But he’s a man-dog. Since when did Ninja man-dogs ever exist? Bloody weird. Ah well, never mind, party’s full. . . let’s get to it boppers!
Syra: “Hi all.” Halk: “Hi.” Boris: “Hi.” Wuuf: “Woof.” Syra: “Oh, hey Wuuf. How ya doing mate?” Wuuf: “Oh, Hi Syra. Yeah, I’m not too bad thanks, just been ‘hanging around’ if you know what I mean”.
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.
Back in the early Eighties, the general perception of a hardcore role-player was a yellow fingered loner with a level five beard and a penchant for graph paper and Devenish ale. They’d rather roll a die in a darkened room than roll out of the pub at closing time. They were intimately familiar with the works of Tolkien long before Peter Jackson brought them into the public consciousness via the big screen (and they probably disapproved of the exclusion of Tom Bombadil). Dungeons and Dragons provided the ruleset for life, the anchor. Level 42 meant lessons in conjuring, not love and Necromancers were the height of fashion, not New Romantics.
This view was probably unfair – they’d simply chosen a form of escapism different to most others. And anyway, who’s to say what’s more acceptable; venturing to the local park for a game of football, or venturing into an imaginary dungeon looking for imaginary treasure? Regardless, things have changed in recent years… the modern gamer is as likely to pick up the latest Witcher release as they are FIFA 18 – Rooney Hair Transplant Edition. And it’s not just the Witcher series which has risen in popularity; Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, Diablo, Mass Effect, Fallout – they have become as well-known as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. So what changed? When did RPGs become a form of mainstream entertainment? Didn’t I get the parchment?
In the past RPGs were a niche market, outshone and over-whelmed by arcades and the games they spawned. Shoot-‘em ups and racers remained popular throughout the Eighties, but arcades didn’t lend themselves to the more complex nature of RPGs with their persistent stats and ponderous long-term gameplay. However, as gaming platforms became more powerful, they allowed developers to not only render beautifully crafted worlds, but flood them with life, mystery and virtual bodies.