Friday, 30 May 2014

Ivan 'Ironman' Stewart's Super Off Road - Commodore Amiga - 1990

Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart’s Super Off Road is another game I loved in the arcades and purchased as soon as it became available on my Atari ST.  The arcade game was released by Leland Corporation in 1989 in a similar looking cabinet to Super Sprint.  I was surprised it was not released by Atari itself as it rips off borrows a lot of the look, gameplay and features from the Sprint series of overhead racers.

Home conversions of Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart’s Super Off Road started appearing in 1990.  It was released on the major handhelds, consoles and computers of the time.  On my shortlist I had versions for the Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, NES, SNES, Sega Mega Drive and Sega Master System.

The SNES, Master System and Mega Drive games were respectively released in 1991,1993 and 1994.  They dropped Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart from the title and became Super Off Road.  They play a lot faster than the arcade machine and had other gameplay differences so will not be included in this entry.  Of the ‘proper’ conversions, the NES suffers against the ST and Amiga in terms of gameplay, graphics and sound.  Although the Atari and Commodore versions look and play identically, the Amiga has the best audio.

As you can see, Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart’s Super Off Road is a top down racer.  The game plays much like Super Sprint but at a slower pace.  The race cars have been replaced by off-road trucks and the racetrack has been replaced with a dirt track.  Various obstacles such as ramps, water splashes and hillocks are there to throw your car off course.  The game is played over a series of 99 races around 8 different circuits.

Each race lasts for four laps and the goal is beat Ivan who drives the grey AI car.  Finishing behind the grey car results in game over, although you do have couple of credits to allow you to continue.  During the race, power ups in the form of nitro cylinders occasionally appear and can be picked up by driving over them.  Nitro gives your car a speed boost (or at times pushes one of your opponents backwards) at the press of the fire button.  Money can also be picked up which supplements the prize money you receive by finishing on the podium.

Prize money can be used in the Speed Shop to upgrade your car between races.  Upgrades include acceleration, top speed, tyres, shocks and more nitro.  The extra credits you receive can also be converted into cash to buy more upgrades instead of being used as a continue.

Like all these types of games they really come to into their own when playing against a couple of friends.  One person can use the second joystick while another can use the keyboard.  The keyboard controls are not much of a disadvantage as the joystick controls can be a little awkward.  The sole fire button is used for the nitro and pushing forward accelerates the car, meaning the joystick has to be held forward for practically the whole race.  There is no brake.

I do like these overhead race games and Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart’s Super Off Road is no exception.  The Amiga does a reasonable job of replicating the arcade graphics, if not the sound.  It can be limited as single player game but really comes to life with one or two friends around the same TV.  This is something unfortunately missing in modern gaming.

Example gameplay...

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Image Fight - Sharp X68000 - 1990

The first boss.  Not nearly as memorable as Dobkeratops.

How do you follow up a classic game like R-Type?  In the case of Irem the answer was Image FightImage Fight appeared in the arcades a year after the seminal shoot ‘em up and seems to be largely forgotten.  Where R-Type was converted to a myriad of computers and consoles, Image Fight was only converted to four.  And three of them never saw a release outside of Japan.

All four renditions of Image Fight were released in 1990.  The NES conversion was the only one that appeared outside Japan and is easily the weakest of the quartet.  Obviously it can't match the graphics or sound of the more powerful machines and the sprites are way too small. The PC Engine went the other way, and though the graphics are better, the sprites feel too big.  From what I can tell Image Fight on the Fujitsu FM Towns and Sharp X68000 version look and sound more or less the same.  I won’t be featuring the Fujitsu FM Towns on my blog so it's the X68000 iteration that gets the nod.
NES (left), PC Engine (centre) and Sharp X68000 (right) taken from the same point in the game.

Once again, Earth is under threat from an evil alien race and once again only a lone spaceship can save it.  This time it’s aliens from the Boondoggle Galaxy who are next in line to invade.  Opposing them is an unnamed pilot in an OF-1 Starfighter.

The game is played over 8 vertically scrolling stages each ending with a boss fight.  According to the NES manual the first five stages take place in a simulator and the final three are “real combat stages”.
The simulator, I guess.

Your main weapon is rather weedy laser (accompanied by an equally weedy sound effect).

Occasional power-ups are dropped by the enemy.  The first ones to be seen are the pods.  Up to three pods can be collected – two hover alongside your ship and one behind.  Before they are picked up the pods alternate in colour between blue and red.  The blue pod fires forward and supplements your standard weaponry.  The red pod can be aimed by moving your ship in the opposite direction you want it to fire – move left and it fires right, move back and it fires forward etc.  The side pods themselves can also be launched forward to damage the enemy (much like the Force in R-Type) before returning to their original position.  If you have three already installed, picking up any subsequent pods of either colour changes them all to that colour.
Red pods came in handy for picking apart this ship that takes up most of the second stage.

The second type of power-up fixes to the front of your ship to replace the standard laser.  There a number of different attachments each providing a different weapon type.  These power-ups also act as a weak shield and are lost after one hit.  These attachments can't be dropped so occasionally it is necessary to take a hit to pick up weapons more suited to the current stage.  Lose a life and all power-ups are lost.
I screwed up here by not having the correct weapon, couldn't move to left and duly lost a life.

The OF-1 also has a choice of four speed levels.  Changing speed causes a large blue flame to appear behind your ship which can alternatively be used to damage or destroy enemies directly behind you.

One has to wonder why Image Fight did not get the acclaim it deserved.  It may not be as innovative as its predecessor but it is certainly a lot better than many of its contemporaries.  Although the sound and music are nothing special, the graphics are good.  There is a wide variety of enemies and it offers up a tough challenge.  This is yet another game I have never played before but one to which I will certainly return.

The obligatory (for this period) sprite snakes.

 Example gameplay.....

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Hellfire - Sega Mega Drive - 1990

Hellfire is another side scrolling shooter for the Sega Mega Drive (or Sega Genesis if you live in North America).  It was released in 1990 and is a conversion of a 1989 Toaplan coin-op.  I’d never heard of either game before but by all accounts the console version is better, boasting a number of improvements over the arcade original.  An initial glance at the screenshots doesn’t do the game any favours with a rather large and unattractive spaceship taking up a large amount of the screen.

Hellfire is set in 2998 and mankind has been busy colonising other solar systems.  However a mysterious force known as the Black Nebula has been engulfing other stars and has now appeared on the latest colony’s doorstep.  A robotic dictator called Super Mech is the controlling force behind the Black Nebula.  As usual the humans can only muster up one spacecraft with which to take on Super Mech’s armada.  You are cast as Captain Lancer, pilot of the snappily named CNCS1 armed with the most potent weapon available – Hellfire.

The game is played out over 6 horizontally scrolling stages, each containing at least one minor boss and concluding in a tougher end-of-level boss.  The play area is just over one screen in height so it also scrolls slightly in the vertical plane.
The red sphere is the weak spot on the bosses.  This one circles the centre when hit and has to be shot at from all four directions.

The main feature that sets Hellfire apart from its contemporaries is the unique weapon system.  Pressing the B button cycles though four laser configurations, each represented by a different colour.  The laser can be set to fire forwards, rearwards, vertically or diagonally. 

One of the challenges is working out which configuration works best in a particular situation as you will always have vulnerable spots.  The laser can be upgraded several times by collecting [P] icons which are dropped by certain enemies.  Other lettered icons include [S] which speeds up your ship and [B] which awards bonus points.  Unlike the arcade version, collecting a sequence of [B] icons increases the bonus points awarded, up to a maximum of 10,000.

Other collectable items include a shield and a distracting, autonomous drone that damages enemies and can absorb their bullets.

The final weapon is the titular Hellfire laser.  This is a limited shot ‘smart bomb’ type weapon that packs a big punch and clears the screen of enemy bullets.  Again, more shots are occasionally dropped by enemies.  Strangely, the Hellfire laser is absent in the original arcade game.
Unleashing the Hellfire laser on the Egyptian themed section of stage 2

According to Wikipedia, Mega magazine placed Hellfire at number 4 in their Top Mega Drive Games Of All Time and it’s easy to see why.  It’s an extremely slick and addictive game boasting great graphics and sound.  Your ship looks rather large and cumbersome but didn’t cause me too many issues.  However, cycling through the weapon system trying to find the right configuration cost me more than a few lives.  Losing a life in itself is a problem as you are stripped of all upgrades and sent back to a previous checkpoint essentially making Hellfire a one life game.  Unless you die near the beginning of the game it is very difficult to get up to speed again.  There is no denying it is a very challenging game, yet one that rewards plenty of practice.

Example gameplay...

I would normally compare different versions of the same game towards the top of the entry but due to the number of differences I thought I would add a short description of the PC Engine version here.  IMO the Mega Drive version is better so this won’t get a full entry on my blog but I thought someone might appreciate it…

The 1991 PC Engine CD-ROM² conversion of Toaplan’s arcade game has been renamed Hellfire S and is subtitled The Another Story (sic).  Personally, I prefer the Mega Drive version as Hellfire S is tougher than an already very difficult game.

The first noticeable difference is the animated attract screen and intro aided by the extra storage capacity of the CD ROM.  The game was only released in Japan, so a lot of it is lost on me. The protagonist has been changed from the male Captain Lancer to the female Karou.  This has no effect on the plot and just seems a flimsy excuse to show some cartoon flesh.

Also shown in the intro are two CNCS1 spacecraft.  The PC Engine is a more faithful conversion in this respect as two players can play simultaneously.

Not having played the arcade version of Hellfire, I can’t tell how accurately the graphics are replicated in Hellfire S but they are certainly downgraded from the Mega Drive.  Although the level layouts are the same, most of the backgrounds and sprites have been changed.  Also the ships don’t switch colour when the laser configuration is changed – Player 1 always has a red ship and Player 2 a blue one.

The sound is much better on the PC Engine.  I suspect this is due to the soundtrack streaming from the CD ROM.

Finally, like the arcade game, the Hellfire laser is conspicuous by its absence.

I suspect Hellfire S may be the most accurate conversion of the arcade game, but  that doesn’t necessarily make it better.  As I said earlier, Hellfire on the Mega Drive is widely considered superior to the game it is based on.  A better-than-arcade conversion.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Gaiares - Sega Mega Drive - 1990

The last scrolling shoot 'em up I played for the Mega Drive was Fire Shark.  It didn't make the grade due to its mundane backgrounds, unimaginative sprites and forgettable music - it had nothing to make it stand out from the crowd.  By 1990 shoot 'em ups needed that little something extra.  Why mention Fire Shark here?  Well, at first glance Gaiares also has mundane backgrounds, unimaginative sprites and forgettable music but it also has a unique selling point.  R-Type has the Force, Gradius has the Option and Gaiares has the TOZ.  More on the TOZ later, but first the plot.

The planet Earth has been turned into a polluted, uninhabitable wasteland by careless humans. The last vestiges of the human race are surviving on a space station.  The United Star Cluster of Leezaluth has sent them a warning about an inter-galactic terrorist group called Gulfer.  Led by Queen ZZ Badnasty, the Gulfers plan to use the polluted material to make military weapons.  If the humans fail to stop the Gulfers then the United Star Cluster of Leezaluth will blow up the Sun and wipe out the Solar System.  If the humans defeat the Gulfers they will be given a new Earth-like planet to populate.  Not much at stake then.  You take on the role of the intrepid Dan Dare (not the intrepid Dan Dare from the 1986 Spectrum game) who will single handedly take on the Gulfers.

Our hero Dan Dare and terrorist leader Queen ZZ Badnasty.  With a name like that she was never going to be one of the good guys.  I bet she was bullied at school too.

The game starts with your ship launching from the space station.  You are initially armed with a rapid fire laser and a downward firing missile.  The TOZ system follows the movement of your ship and replicates its firepower (much like an Option from Gradius).  It can also absorb enemy fire and damage enemies (much like the Force from R-Type).  Where it stands out is that it can latch onto enemies to steal their weaponry.  The weapons can be upgraded a further two times by firing the TOZ at the same type of enemy.

Certain sections of each level are best dealt with by a particular weapon.  The enemies that carry these weapons normally appear just before the area where they are needed.  Failing to collect them can make for tougher going and I lost many a life using inappropriate armament.
I liked the T-Braster (blaster?) but quickly got bogged down in this section.  The G-Beam can be picked up just before it and cuts straight through.

Losing a life in Gaiares doesn’t mean Game Over.  Although you lose any weapon ugrades you were carrying, it won’t take long to max out your firepower again.  There is also the occasional shield and smart bomb pickup to be found throughout the stages.  These are activated as soon as they are touched – they can’t be saved for later.

The game is played over eight stages each containing a rather weak mid-level and a much tougher end-of-level boss.
Gulfer - the only inter-galactic terrorist group to recruit bivalve molluscs.  Once destroyed this giant clam boss reveals a giant mermaid boss.

Your ship also has three turns of speed.  MID is fine for me with LOW coming in useful for navigating more intricate sections of the scenery.  MAX is too fast for my reflexes and normally ends up with me losing a life.

As I said the game is not much to listen too.  The graphics get better the further you go – I particularly like the watery effects towards the end of level two - but for the most part the enemy sprites are uninteresting.  It is also a very tough game and I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see all eight stages.  It is something I will persevere with.  Overall though Gaiares is a great shoot ‘em up with the TOZ adding a unique element to the gameplay.

 Example gameplay....