Oft-heard phrases amongst retro gamers include ‘modern games are visually stunning but utterly shallow’ and ‘in classic titles it’s the game-play that counts’ (or words to that effect). Text adventures aside, Abacus Programs’ ZX81 masterpiece Protector is a title which can certainly lend credence to the latter opinion.
At first glance Protector appears as a traditional side-scrolling shmup, most resembling a clone of Scramble, albeit one rendered in inimitable ZX81 style from capital letters, mathematical symbols and chunky solid character blocks. Although graphically reminiscent of the aforementioned arcade classic, Protector neatly inverts the coin-op’s gameplay, charging the player with defending the Zarqon home-world from the might of an alien invasion fleet with nought but the space ship Sentinel.
Rocket Man was the second of four arcade-style releases from ZX81 alchemists Software Farm; proudly exclaimed beneath the fantastic cover art was the statement “…resolution identical to the Spectrum without any additional hardware”, and for once this was no marketing hyperbole.
Employing truly staggering high-resolution visuals, Rocket Man is a seamless blend of gaming styles, incorporating platforming reminiscent of Chuckie Egg along with the disparate flying elements of both Jetpac and Joust, producing six levels of addictive and distinctive gaming all of its own.
The magnitude of the software-only high resolution graphics engine devised by author Julian Chappel is best appreciated in the following screen grab, which shows the entire graphics output Sinclair’s wonderfully retro-future styled machine could offer; there is no native bit-mapped screen mode (and indeed no graphics hardware at all – the Zilog Z80 processor is used to draw the screen in much the same manner as the Atari VCS/2600 used its MOS 6507)
System: Sega Megadrive / Genesis
Year: 1990 (JP, US) / 1991 (EU)
For those of a certain age the strains of Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain will be forever associated with an era in which Sega’s Super Monaco GP wowed in the arcades and impressed on the Megadrive.
The splendid 1989 arcade machine utilised the same Super-Scalar sprite scaling technology as the acclaimed Outrun to render detailed and recognisable trackside features, recreating the famous buildings of the F1 street circuit. It should be noted that, as with Sega’s later phenomenal Manx TT Superbike, the titular track is not faithful to the real circuit, rather it is designed to maximise the racing experience.
The Monaco Grand Prix is often the most interesting of an arguably increasingly boring parade of shiny multi-million pound cars (it is a true achievement to create vehicles capable of velocities of 200+ mph, and then make racing them appear dull); the coin-op thankfully delivers the excitement of F1 at its best.
The 1990 Megadrive conversion is necessarily stripped of virtually all trackside detail, not unlike Atari’s 1982 Pole Position, a sacrifice which enables the console version to retain all the crucial speed of the original. Although visually the resulting experience is more akin thrashing around a home-counties go-kart track than the jewel in the F1 crown, the conversion successfully retains much of the thrilling and satisfying gameplay of the original.
As with the arcade parent, CPU cars can still be rammed out of the way, causing them to spin out, issuing forth clouds of smoke, and can be found to crash of their own accord, which is always enjoyable to witness. Also retained is the rear-view mirror which allows for the application blocking tactics (a feat not even the mighty Saturn Sega Rally conversion was able to achieve).
System: ZX Spectrum
Developer: Matthew Smith
Publisher: Software Projects (original release), Bug Byte (re-release)
In the early days of video games, long before production required teams numbered in the tens or the hundreds, on rare occasions certain magical titles and their authors become synonymous with the systems for which they wrote. Carmack and Romero, the IBM PC: Doom. Shigeru Miyamoto, the Nintendo Entertainment System: Super Mario Bros. Matthew Smith, the ZX Spectrum: Manic Miner.
Indisputably iconic and absolutely legendary, Matthew Smith and his Miner Willy created a sensation in 1983 with the archetypal platform game; Manic Miner beckons you to traverse twenty single-screen caverns, each encompassing wonderfully distinctive and splendidly animated sprites, precise and cunning platform designs, and intricately crafted enemy movement patterns.
By no means his first commercial release (that honour falls to the little-known TRS-80 title Delta Tower One) Smith’s pioneering magnum opus impresses from the off, presenting a cleverly animated loading screen utilising the Spectrum’s Flash command to alternately display the legend ‘Manic’ and ‘Miner’ in massive, colourful, and chunky (yet friendly) text.
System: Sega Megadrive/Genesis
Developer: Sega, Ancient
* Please note, this review was written in 2008 – certain dates and prices are accordingly now incorrect!
Very nearly 16 years ago Sega unleashed Streets of Rage II, the title promising an entire 100 per cent more angst than the original. Why so much Rage? Perhaps because back in 1993 when this bone-crunching side-scroller fought its way onto the Megadrive games regularly hit the £45 mark; according to a very, very dull House of Commons Library report, that would set you back roughly £80 today. That’s enough to wind anyone up.
Feeling like an evolution of the ZX Spectrum’s iconic Renegade, Rage II is set on the mean streets of a violent metropolis, seemingly a ghastly premonition of contemporary urban Britain; stabbings, hooliganism, and discarded KFC abound – but this is surely fantasy not prophecy, as the enemy reprobates are unable to hide behind their ‘human rights’, and beatings, not ASBOs, are meted out by the player’s character of choice (all, thankfully, more vigilante than Community Support Officer).
Most of us who grew up in the ‘70’s remember the institution that was the ‘roller disco’. Part of me likes to think that one of the game’s two new characters, eight-wheeled Eddie ‘Skate’ Hunter, was inspired by memories of pugilistic mayhem witnessed at just such an abomination (hopefully set to the sound-track of Saturday Night Fever).
Even more so than the fine original, the sequel’s game-play is immediate, relentless, and deeply satisfying. The four playable characters deliver convincing blows both with limbs and a variety of weapons, ploughing through the interactive stages and enemies alike – can any guy not wince at the knee-in-the-groin manoeuvre?
The action is complemented by an aural and visual feast in which fantastically atmospheric early 90’s dance music provides the backdrop to a cacophony of visceral, oddly satisfying thuds, cracks and screams. The graphics are at once vibrant and gritty; a walk amongst these streets is like a brawl in Tech Noir, without the Terminator as bouncer.
If you don’t have your Megadrive to hand then fire up your favourite emulator and transport yourself back to an era when rage-fuelled punishment beatings kept the streets clean for the good people of the land.
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.
System: Sega Megadrive/Genesis 32X
Developer: Sega AM2
Release date: December 1994 (Japan, US, UK)
Life on Mars?
In January 1994 Sega CEO Hayao Nakayama instructed his development department to create a 32-bit console, a commandment which, along with the Saturn, resulted in Project Mars, the US developed 32X Megadrive add-on. It never stood a chance, launching virtually simultaneously with Sony’s Playstation and Sega’s own Saturn in Japan, and with a scant few months head-start over both in Europe and America, and priced at an eye-watering £170 in the UK.
Doubtless the Megadrive’s magic mushroom was too little, too late; nevertheless, viewed in isolation the machine is blessed with a number of hugely impressive games, Virtua Racing Deluxe ranking amongst the very best.
System: Sega Dreamcast
Type or Die!
Whilst fast fingers have long been a prerequisite for video-gamers, keyboarding skills have enjoyed a relatively dim limelight, one shone mainly upon pre-PC home computer enthusiasts. Speed aside, typing accuracy is a skill generally only of marginal benefit to text adventurers.
Sega evidently noticed this travesty and produced a game the qwerty keyboard had waited 125 years for: The Typing of the Dead (TOTD). This title and its 2007 sequel must surely be the only coin-ops in the world equipped with twin keyboards; ported to the Dreamcast in 2000 this brilliantly unusual offering is best described as a mod, rather than a remake, of the on-rails lightgun zombie blaster The House of the Dead 2 (HOTD2).
System: PC Engine CD (a.k.a TurboGrafx-Cd)
Developer: NEC Avenue / Capcom
Release date: December 14, 1989 (Japan)
Three years after the coin-op debut of Side Arms, NEC released Hyper Dyne: Special on the awesome PC Engine CD. As per the original, the home incarnation opens with the words ‘The battle for survival has started!’ Never has a truer phrase been uttered.
Alongside the impressive, if cheesy, 80’s synth-pop red-book CD audio the game earns its ‘Special’ tag through the availability of the unique ‘Before Christ’ (BC) mode in which Side Arms masquerades as R-type, replete with mid-stage reset points, a chargeable beam canon, support weapons pods, and enhanced graphics.
In BC mode the weapon upgrade POW icons no longer switch type in response to incoming fire, instead they periodically cycle through the available options, whilst bobbing lazily around the playfield. Multiple user-selectable weapons are also eschewed, requiring careful consideration when approaching power-ups.
Both original and BC modes feature tight risk/reward gameplay, placing the upgrade you really, really need to survive for a further five seconds in the thick of the alien flak; succumb to temptation and death swiftly follows, ironically leaving you with less weaponry than before.
Manoeuvring your protagonist demands pixel-perfect precision, precision which is sadly unobtainable; The Mobilesuited Lieutenant Henry moves like he’s been knocking back Red Bull, resulting in awkward staccato movement (usually head-on into an alien projectile).
Developer: (arcade) Japan Capsule Computers (Capcom)
Developer: (ZX Spectrum) Elite Systems
In Capcom‘s seminal 1985 arcade run-and-gun title Commando you are cast in the role of Super Joe, hero of the arcade legend’s earlier Bionic Commando coin-op. Dropped behind enemy lines by helicopter (unfortunately absent from the Spectrum conversion – perhaps due to defense budget cuts) you find yourself undertaking that 1980’s favourite mission of ‘one man against an army’, aiming to breach a pair of super-fortresses located at the end of two sets of four vertically-scrolling action-filled desert levels.
Your frankly suicidal commando is equipped with everybody’s favourite weapon, the unlimited-ammunition machine gun, along with a stock of grenades which must be replenished from handily placed supplies throughout the levels. By default grenades are dispatched by holding down the fire button for a moment as, unlike the arcade parent, Spectrum-era joysticks were restricted to a single logical fire button, even for multi-triggered Quickshot sticks.
In the heat of the action this delay often proved deadly until a little cunning was applied in the form of a foot-activated button dedicated to grenade lobbing, fashioned from a Ram-turbo twin-port joystick interface, a classic Atari CX-40 controller, and the extremely handy ‘redefine keys’ menu option…