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
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.
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).
Author: Alan McNeil
Now three and a half decades old, what can be said about Stern’s 1980 all-time classic Berzerk that hasn’t already been written a thousand times before?
Game concept derived from Alan McNeil’s dream of deadly robot attacks – check
Breakthrough synthesised speech (‘Intruder Alert!’, ‘Chicken, fight like a robot!’) – check
Two real-world heart attack deaths chillingly attributed to high-scoring sessions – check
Designed as monochrome but retrofitted with colour in response to Defender‘s success – check
Berzerk certainly boasts a plethora of fascinating facts, yet most fail to convey the captivating emotional response elicited during a frantic bout of arena-based robocide. Entrapped within a two dimensional maze of deadly right angled walls, your laser-beweaponed stick man combats Cylonesque killing machines in a bid for freedom.
Expertly exploiting the limitations inherent in the hardware, powered as the coin-op is by a Z80 slower than that of the humble ZX Spectrum, Berzerk is an exercise in studied minimalism. Interestingly, also shared in common with the Speccy is the Sinclair machine’s iconic colour clash, due to the quarter-resolution of the colour map overlaid on the original monochrome graphics.
In the dying days of 1986 Capcom unleashed one of the most gloriously named coin-ops ever, in Side Arms: Hyper Dyne. This second instalment of the Jet Pack Heroes trilogy, sequel to Section Z, was seemingly designed to appeal directly to my then-teenage self, featuring glittering robots, outrageous weaponry, and spectacular explosions.
Allied to the visual splendour is a wondrous sonic assault, a cacophony of crisp lasers, thunderous detonations, pounding electro-magnetic bolts, and (inevitably) croaking toads…