Sunday 30 December 2012

The Legend of Zelda - NES - 1987

I'm not sure what race Link is supposed to be.  An elf? A leprechaun?

Like Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda is a franchise that started on the NES in 1987 and is still going strong today.  Like Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda is in a series I had never played before.  My son has Majora's Mask and Ocarina of Time on his Nintendo 64 but I have never really had the inclination to play them.  That had to change because of this blog and the first game in the series earns a place here.

The peaceful land of Hyrule has been invaded by Ganon and his hordes.   Ganon also stole the Triforce of Power - a golden triangle possessing mystical powers.  Fearing his rule, Princess Zelda broke up the second Triforce - the Triforce of Wisdom - into eight pieces and hid them throughout the realm.  At the same time she ordered her nursemaid, Impa, to go out into the kingdom to find someone brave enough to confront Ganon.  Ganon uncovered the plot, imprisoned Zelda and ordered his men to capture Impa.  Eventually Ganon's men caught up with Impa, but she was saved by a boy called Link.  After hearing the story from Impa, Link resolves to save Princess Zelda.  Before he has a chance to defeat Ganon, he must retrieve the fragments of the Triforce of Wisdom.  Only after piecing together the Triforce will he be powerful enough to make his way to Death Mountain and face Ganon.

The Legend of Zelda is viewed from above with most of the game taking place on the large overworld play area.  The play area is split into screens and scrolls onto the next when you reach the edge of the previous one.  Each screen is usually patrolled by several enemies.  Dotted around the landscape are a number of caves and dungeons.  In the caves you can find people such as merchants and others who will give you clues (sometimes for a price).  For example, in the cave on the first screen is an old man who gives you a sword.  

In addition to picking up the sword early on, Link starts the game with a shield that help can protect him from certain enemy attacks.  Although the sword will be your main form of attack, some enemies are immune and you will have to find their individual weaknesses.  If you are hit by a monster your life force is depleted.  This is represented by a series of hearts in the status bar.  Initially you have three hearts and each hit takes away half a heart. When destroyed some monsters drop useful items such as small hearts (which restores one life heart), fairies (which restore all your life hearts), rubies (currency), keys, weapons and sundry other objects.  Large hearts can occasionally be found which adds another heart to your life counter.  A sub screen can be called up at any time which shows your inventory and allows you to change items or secondary weapons.

To retrieve fragments of the Triforce you need to enter the dungeons.  The dungeons comprise several rooms and are home to different and more numerous monsters than the overworld.  The dungeons contain puzzles, locked doors, secret rooms as well as a boss that guards a part of the Triforce.  Each boss has it's own weakness and some can only be destroyed in a particular way by a particular weapon.

The Level-1 boss went down easily.

The eight dungeons that hold the Triforce fragments can be tackled in any order although the higher the level the harder they are.  Also, some higher level dungeons can only be completed using items found in lower level dungeons.

One of the secret rooms where the view changes from top down to side on.

In my mind The Legend of Zelda treads a very fine line between being challenging and overly difficult.  It was only by sheer luck that I worked out how to kill the Level-2 boss after fruitlessly trying every weapon I had.  That was one of the easier dungeons so I can only imagine how frustrating the later ones will be - I can envision weeks of experimenting with the various items.  The actual game play reminded me of a cross between Atic Atac and Sabre Wulf which is no bad thing.  After Final Fantasy the graphics look a little bit simplistic; on the other hand, the sound effects and especially the music are very good.  In spite of the difficulty level, The Legend of Zelda just about makes it onto my list.

Sunday 23 December 2012

Gauntlet - Atari ST - 1987

Whether it was a marketing ploy or whether it was something else entirely, there were several Atari arcade conversions that made it to the Atari ST but not the Commodore Amiga.  Asteroids Deluxe was one game, Super Sprint another.  Probably the most well known, though, was Gauntlet. How me and my mates would have poured scorn on our Amiga owning buddies if we had had any.  Which we didn’t.

Gauntlet was a hugely popular top-down scrolling dungeon crawler.  The original 1985 arcade version supported up to 4 simultaneous players, had plenty of speech and superlative graphics.  Gauntlet was subsequently converted to most most home formats at the time with the Atari ST boasting the best version.

On the home versions you can only have 2 players participating at once and the Atari ST was no exception.  Each player takes their pick of one of the available characters who are Thor the Warrior, Thyra the Valkyrie, Merlin the Wizard and Questor the Elf.  Each of the characters has their own strengths and weaknesses. Thor is strong in hand to hand combat but has weak magic.  Thyra has the strongest armour and I would say is the most balanced character.  Merlin (my personal favourite) has the best magic but is useless in hand to hand combat and has weak armour.  Questor has the fastest movement and shots and is my least favoured of the four.

Like lambs to the slaughter.

You start the game as your chosen character with 2000 health points which gradually decrease over time.  The objective of the game is to reach the exit on each level of the dungeon and to get as high score as possible.  There are several types of monsters that are out to stop you.  The ghosts are suicidal and just run into you to deplete your health.  The grunts try to engage you in hand to hand combat.  The demon and sometime invisible sorcerers respectively dispense fireballs and magic spells at you.  Lobbers can throw projectiles at you from the other side of a wall.  All these monsters come in three strengths and can be spawned from generators which also come in three strengths.  Their strength determines how many shots it takes to kill them.  Death also puts in an appearance from time to time – he can only be destroyed by magic or when he has drained 200 of your health points. 
Lots of Deaths and lots of teleports
To help you get further into the game or score more points there various types of pick-ups that are scattered around the levels.  There are several kinds of potions that can be used.  Standard potions can be picked up and used to damage all enemies and generators on screen, or can be shot for less destructive power.  There are also several marked potions which provide specific power ups such as more potent shots or extra speed.  Food and drink can be used to replenish health; however the jugs of drink can be shot so be careful.  For navigation, keys can be picked up to open any locked doors and, although not pick-ups, teleporters appear in later levels.  Finally, treasure chests can be picked up to boost your score.  If you linger too long a level all the doors will open automatically and eventually all the walls will turn into exits.
Merlin the Wizard is about to pick up speed potion.

Although it was the most authentic conversion of Gauntlet outside the arcades at the time, the Atari version was far from perfect.  The biggest feature to suffer was the sound – The title tune and spot effects sound like they were sampled (badly) from the arcade machine and the speech is missing altogether.  As with the other home versions only two players are supported simultaneously.  The graphics look pretty authentic but lack the palette of the arcade game and the horizontal scrolling in particular is pretty bad.  Most of these issues were addressed in Gauntlet II apart from the floor graphics which lost some colour but it was still at good game for 1987.  Oh, and did I mention it wasn't available on the Amiga?

Addendum - 22nd April 2013

Back in January, commenter Red_Cardinal left the message “What I remember of Gauntlet on the Atari ST is that it ran soooooo slowly it was virtually unplayable”.  "Pah!" thought I, "Check out the video". I then thought no more of it.

More recently they sowed seeds of doubt in my mind as to the authenticity of my review - “
As for the video, are you playing the game on an actual ST machine or are you emulating it? The two things not being the same of course :-)”.

Ok, you’ve got me there.  I hold my hands up and freely admit to playing the games on an emulator for the sake of convenience. It’s the only way I have to make half decent videos and screenshots.  But, what to do about Gauntlet

Da Daaaaaa!!

One genuine Atari 520 STe (upgraded to 1 meg) and one, ahem, not so genuine copy of Gauntlet.

After some rummaging around in the loft I found a “backup” copy of Gauntlet and an old Atari.  I switched it on at arms length half expecting a puff of smoke and the smell of frying capacitors.  To my amazement it started first time.  After more faffing about I managed to tune it in on the telly in my study.  I was a bit perturbed the disk drive light didn't go out and the top of the picture was flickering a lot but it will serve my purpose .  What was more surprising was that my copy of Gauntlet still worked….

Anyway, I can now state with no uncertainty that Gauntlet plays exactly the same on a real Atari ST as it does on an emulator and I therefore stand by my review.  I have posted a video below (the rattling/creaking sound is my 25+ year old joystick). 

And Red_Cardinal – please spare my sanity and don’t cast doubt on any of my Spectrum reviews ;-)

Sunday 16 December 2012

Final Fantasy - NES - 1990

Cruising the Aldi Sea.

From 1987 we are temporarily jumping ahead in time to 1990 for my next game….

Before embarking on my blog I had never played a Final Fantasy game.  Hell, I’d never even played a JRPG.  Final Fantasy on the NES was released in Japan in 1987 with the English language version not appearing until 1990.  Due to my desire to try the Japan-only Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III I am reviewing the first game early to keep them in chronological order.  It is the first in a long series spanning not only the JRPG backbone, but includes other genres such as MMORPGs and even a rhythm action game.

As a JRPG virgin, what did I expect?  I expected lots of random encounters and a linear story-led quest.  Because of this I half expected not to like the game.  In reality I think it’s great.

Basically you control four Light Warriors as they attempt to restore light to the orbs they carry. To accomplish this they need to defeat four elemental fiends who are ravaging the land.

Your initial task is to select up to four characters from a choice of six classes. The available classes are Fighter, Thief, Black Belt, Red Mage, White Mage and Black Mage. The Fighter is your standard warrior type and can use all types of weaponry and armour.  The manual says ‘the thief is good to have when you need to avoid an attack from the enemy’ which makes him superfluous in my book (moreso as I didn't find any traps to disarm, locks to pick or anything to steal).  The Black Belt can fight effectively without weapons.  The Red Mage is described as a fairly good fighter who can cast some Black and White magic spells.  The White Mage can cast only White (mainly defensive and healing) spells and the Black Mage can only cast Black (mainly offensive) spells.  Both the Black and White Mages are weak fighters.  You can give your characters any name you like as long as they contain no more that four letters.  Your characters are given stats but I didn't take note of whether these are preset or randomly generated.  These stats  increase during the game as you gain levels.  The manual suggests rookie players should select a Fighter, a Black Belt, a White Mage and a Black mage.  That’ll be me then.

Your party is dropped on the map just south of the castle and town of Croneria.  Despite being without arms and armour I decided to take a quick look around and it wasn't long before I came across my first random encounter.  The combat screen displays your party on the right and enemy creatures arranged on the left.  The combat is turn based and menu driven with you and the creatures fighting until one side is destroyed or flees.  Combat options are Fight, cast Magic spells, Drink a potion, use an Item and Run away.  Once you select an action for each of your characters, the combat cycles through all the participants until they have all taken their turn. Some enemies have special attacks such as paralyse or poison.  Some can turn you to stone.  With the party arranged in a line, combat is not very tactical as any character can attack any enemy and vice versa and there are no ranged weapons.  Additionally if you have a character attack an enemy creature and it dies, any subsequent attacks already aimed at that particular creature are wasted.  When enemies are killed you collect an amount of gold and experience points dependent on the creature type and how many there were.

You can't have an RPG without skeletons.

After a couple of skirmishes I headed into town to heal and tool up.  With a couple of exceptions each town has the same shops.  There is a weapon and armour shop to buy combat gear.  An inn allows you to save your game and restore magic and hit points.  The Clinic allows you to reincarnate a dead character for a small fee.  There is a white and black magic shop with each store in the town selling a particular spell level.  For example, the two magic shops in Croneria sell first level spells, while Elf Town has four magic stores selling third and fourth level spells.  Finally there is a supplies store where you can purchase various potions and various shelters.  The shelters are tents, cabins or houses which are used to restore health and save the game when you are not near a town.

I'm sure I can squeeze a few cabins and a couple more houses into my backpack.

As I mentioned, magic spells are bought in shops with the higher level spells getting progressively more expensive.  Each level has four spells while a mage is only able to memorise three of these so you need to choose wisely.  You are able to cast a set number of spells for each spell level.  The number of spells you can cast is increased as your character gains experience.

Here is my summary and thoughts of the game (for a full walkthrough check out Zenic Reverie's  RPG Consoler blog here (still WIP at the time of writing) or the irreverent Shen Nung and his Inconsolable blog here). 

  • Unlike a lot of CRPGs, Final Fantasy does not let you explore everywhere straight away.  For the first quest you can only travel in one direction as you are blocked in by mountains and the sea.  After this you can again only explore a bit more land before you get a ship.  After this you can navigate a landlocked sea until further quests opens this up.  Although you are spoon-fed the plot, the pacing is set just about right.  It is not until you get an airship that the whole world opens up.
  • Random encounters are not nearly as annoying as I thought they would be.  They are set at just the right difficulty and frequency. I only wished it could be like the Ultima series and you could see monsters coming.  Also, the enemy creatures increase in level depending on location.  As you explore new locations the stronger the enemy get.  Earlier locations will always contain the same weak enemies no matter what level you have reached.
  • There is no NPC interaction to speak of.  Talking to an NPC triggers a stock response which may or may not change if a related quest is completed.
  • The amount of money you get is set about perfectly.  You can get about every necessary item you need without much grinding, and there is always something (such as higher level spells) to spend your gold on or to save for.  It is only late in the game that gold becomes irrelevant.
  • Buying from shops is a pain in the arse.  You can only purchase one item at a time so buying, for example, fifty potions with at least three button presses for each one is needlessly time consuming.
  • Gaining experience/levelling is very well implemented and didn't have to go out of my way to grind.  For a few quests I had to make a several attempts, getting closer each time, without feeling the need to go hunting for random encounters.  Additionally, one of the early dungeons has a lot of set encounters on adjacent tiles so you can use these to gain experience points if needed. When I completed the game all my characters were on level 37.
  • In comparison to a lot of random encounters the boss fights were relatively easy, rarely lasting more than a couple of rounds.
  • One thing I really loathe is unmappable levels.  One of these appeared in the Sky Castle where you can travel on indefinitely as the level just keeps wrapping around.  This strikes me as lazy programming and it was more through luck than judgement that I made it to the next floor on my second attempt (my first thought was that the game wouldn't let me continue because I didn't have the adamant sword).
  • Considering the limitations of the NES the graphics are nigh on perfect.  Apart from some odd palette choices (green wolves?) I can’t see how they could have been improved.
  • The music and effects are okay.  There are only a handful of different tunes used on the various screens and locations yet I didn't feel the need to mute the sound which must say something.

Final Fantasy is a peach of an early RPG.  The graphics are excellent and sound is good considering the host platform.  It is also nice having the play area taking up the whole screen rather than viewing it through a window (à la Ultima/Bard's Tale etc).  The plot unfolds at a decent pace - you are forced along a linear path in the first half of the game but once you obtain the airship the whole world opens up.  There is also a nice twist at the end.  The  difficulty is set just about right - there were times when I had to limp into the nearest town with two dead characters and I only had a couple of full party deaths.  If the other games in the franchise are as enjoyable as this I am in for a treat.

You are given a Rat's Tail(!) on completing the Citadel of Trials.  Taking it to Bahamut the dragon rewards you with a class change.

Entering the dungeon to defeat the final elemental fiend.  It is only accessible by a submarine.
There is a nice twist near the end of the game.  You have to travel back 2000 years in time to defeat the final boss and complete the game.

Final boss fight and rather long-winded ending....

Sunday 9 December 2012

Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa - Sega Master System - 1987

I was beginning to get a bit worried about a lack of Master System games on my blog.  I have played about nine or ten games from my shortlist, including the original Fantasy Zone, and this is the first one that has really caught my attention.

Fantasy Zone II is set 10 years after the original game and a band of Blackhearts have banded together to take over the planets that make up the "Fantasy Zone".  You take control of a be-winged and be-footed spaceship called Opa-Opa with which to take on the invaders.

The developer must have made use of the entire Master System palette.
Each Zone contains enemy bases which are your primary targets.  The bases spawn small nasties which drop a small coin when destroyed.  There are also formations of enemies which release larger coins when eliminated. When the bases themselves are blasted they either drop some cash or reveal a warp gate.  A blue warp gate transfers you to a different scene within the current zone.  A red warp gate takes you to a boss fight and is only activated when all the enemy bases in the Zone are eradicated.  Each scene is quite small but indefinitely wraps around Defender style. 

The bosses drop lots of coins when destroyed. This is the boss of Zone 2.
Opa-Opa has standard weapons of a bomb and forward firing cannon.  One of the scenes will contain a shop where you can upgrade your ship or weapons.  Ship upgrades such as faster engines or bigger wings last until you lose a life.  Cannon upgrades are time-limited and bomb upgrades are quantity-limited.

Each time you buy an item it gets more expensive the next time.

Fantasy Zone II has jolly music to match the psychedelic graphics.  The sound effects are good and it has a perfect difficulty level with each zone getting progressively tougher.  Hidden behind it's colourful cutesy graphics is an addictive and challenging little shooter.


Tuesday 4 December 2012

Exolon - Sinclair Spectrum & Commodore 64 - 1987

[Spectrum] Just before Game Over.  I don't have enough ammo left to break the force field.

Exolon is a flick screen run and gun game released in 1987.  It was originally released on the Spectrum, C64 and Amstrad CPC, with the feeble Amiga and ST offerings following on in 1989. The game was designed by Raffaele Cecco who produced some highly regarded shooters in the mid to late eighties.  The best versions of Exolon were on the Spectrum and Commodore 64.  The gameplay on both versions is the same but whereas the Spectrum has sharper graphics, the Commodore can boast superior sound.  The graphics on the Amstrad are colourful, though very blocky and it feels slightly sluggish so it didn't make the cut.  The 16-bit versions are completely forgettable.

[Commodore 64]  Better sound than the Spectrum but blockier graphics.

Exolon is a very simple game - basically you walk left to right shooting anything that moves and firing RPGs at anything that doesn't.  The game is set over 5 levels each made up of 25 zones (screens).  The fact that you start the game with 9 lives means it's not going to be a walkover and it's very easy lose several lives on one screen.

[Commodore 64] Entering a teleporter to get to the ammo boxes.

You start the game with 99 bullets and 9 grenades.  These can be replenished from the ammo boxes that are dotted over the landscape.  Enemies normally come in two forms - flying and static but both can lead to cheap deaths as you get near the edge of the screen.  Some of the screens are split into two levels with teleporters allowing access between the two.  On each level there is also a dressing unit where you can pick up an exoskeleton.  The exoskeleton doubles your blaster power and provides extra protection against some of the nasties, but your bravery bonus takes a hit.

[Spectrum] A reaction test game at the end of the first level.
At first glance Exolon seems like a simple game, and it is, but it is also pure mindless blasting and quite addictive once you get into it.  The good reviews it got on release are well deserved.

Spectrum gameplay

Monday 26 November 2012

Dungeon Master - Atari ST - 1987

There was never any doubt from me that Dungeon Master was going to be included in my blog.  It is a game I have completed numerous times and has been the inspiration behind titles from the Eye of the Beholder series to Legend of Grimrock.  Although it was released on a few platforms I have opted for the Atari ST version as this was the original and was released at least a year before any others.  According to Wikipedia it achieved a 'market penetration of more than 50% of the Atari STs ever sold'.

Dungeon Master is a 3D realtime dungeon crawler viewed from a first person perspective.  What set it apart from its contemporaries were the gorgeous (if repetitive) graphics.  These along with the sparse sound effects help to create an eerie atmosphere.  It was the first game I can remember actually making me jump when I rounded a corner to be faced by a bunch of monsters. The interface is also very intuitive as the game can be entirely controlled by a mouse.  This makes it quick and easy to move around, manipulate items, cast spells and fight.

The manual starts with a short story that sets the scene for the game.  The Grey Lord has retrieved an orb called the Power Gem from the centre of a mountain.  The Power Gem had "thawed the ice from which dwarf and halfling, elf, man, and High Lord alike had risen". He hoped to use this to bring peace and harmony to the world.  However, when retrieving it the Grey Lord got the spell wrong which resulted an explosion.  The explosion caused his being to split in two - the good Lord Librasulus and the evil Lord Chaos.  A similar fate befell his apprentice, Theron, who was split into a bodily and spirit state.  It is as this spirit state you must enter the dungeon, choose four champions and guide them as they attempt to retrieve the Firestaff.  The Firestaff will enable Lord Librasulus to enter the dungeon, retrieve the Power Gem and banish Chaos......
You start the game by entering the Hall of Champions and have to choose up to four characters to guide through the quest.  The Hall of Champions has mirrors on the wall that contain the souls of previous adventurers who failed to retrieve the Firestaff.  You can choose to resurrect or reincarnate a champion.  A resurrected champion will have abilities and memories from their previous life; a reincarnated champion will not have any skills but will have better attributes.

'The Hall of Champions'

Physical attributes are made up of Health, Stamina and Mana.  Health decreases when a character is hit, stamina by fighting while encumbered and mana by casting spells.  The physical attributes replenish over time and can be topped up with potions. Other attributes are strength, dexterity, wisdom, vitality, anti-magic and anti-fire.  These can increase when a character improves their skill level.  Skills comprise Fighter, Ninja, Wizard and Priest.  Fighter skill increases when fighting with hand held weapons, Ninja when throwing objects and fighting unarmed.  Wizard and Priest skills increase by using the respective spells.  Any character can become proficient at any skill so there are no 'character classes' as such.

The party is arranged in a 2 x 2 formation with two characters at the front and two at the rear.  Only the front rank can physically attack monsters they are facing.  It worth rearranging the position of the characters now and again to get them levelled up in all four disciplines.  Even swinging weapons and throwing objects at thin air can increase skills.  Indeed, even a character starting with 0 mana can eventually gain the Priest and Wizard abilities by drinking mana potions and practising the simplest spells. 

Not a bad spellcaster for a character that started with no mana.

Magic is another clever aspect of Dungeon Master.  Spells are made up of two to four runes and can be found on scrolls as you progress through the game. In most games the power of a spell is determined by the level of the caster.  In this game the power of the spell is determined by the which of the first six runes you select.  For example, you have the option of creating one strong health potion if you have enough mana (and sufficient skill) or you can knock out several weaker ones instead. 

After choosing your party it is on to the game proper.  Discounting The Hall of Champions, the dungeon is made up of 13 levels.  As graphics throughout the dungeon look the same, careful mapping is essential if you are not to miss any areas (I'm glad I've hung onto all my old game maps).  The learning curve is set just about perfectly.  At the start enemies are easily defeated, puzzles are simple,  food and water is plentiful.  As you progress you are rewarded with greater weapons and armour, but the monsters get a lot harder to defeat, the puzzles are more devious and water sources become scarce.  There are also false walls and cunningly hidden switches that open up new areas of the dungeon.  Spinners, hidden pits and invisible teleporters also make an appearance later in the game.  A compass is found early on which helps with the mapping.

Combat is very simplistic and not very tactical, unless you call hit and move tactical.  It is not worth going toe to toe with most monsters as you will quickly perish.  As a real-time game there is no flee command - you retreat when you have to.  It is best to keep in mind an escape route so you don't get cornered or wind up in a dead end.

One of the toughest monsters in the game - very fast and very poisonous

It was not until recently I discovered there was an alternative ending to Dungeon Master.  If you follow the story in the prologue (which I probably read once and quickly forgot) and take the Firestaff back to the Lord Librasulus, he says he no longer has need of you and destroys the party.


I had always experienced the 'proper' ending by using the Firestaff to trap Lord Chaos in a flux cage.  Once he is surrounded he is unable to teleport away so you can then use the Firestaff to 'fuse' Chaos and Librasulus together to bring back the Grey Lord.  I guess we wait until the sequel to find out what became of Theron.

Yeah, but who cocked it up in the first place?

So, how does Dungeon Master stack up today?  It is still a great game although it fails to create the same atmosphere it conjured up a quarter of a century ago.  The dungeon and monster graphics are still pretty good.  The monster animation is composed of very few frames but is tolerable.  The sound is still adequate if sparse. The challenge remains though and I really enjoyed playing it through once again.

I deliberately have not written a walkthrough for Dungeon Master as there are already plenty out there.  You could do worse than reading The CRPG Addict's experiences here.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Goodbye 1986, Hello 1987

Hello Amiga 500 - Announced at the same time as the Amiga 2000 and released in early 1987.  It was the entry-level Amiga model sold as a direct competitor to the then dominant Atari ST.

Hello VGA - Video Graphics Array was introduced by IBM in April 1987 on their PS/2 line of computers.  With up to 256 different colours on screen at once, the PC was at last able to display decent graphics. 

Hello Sinclair Spectrum +3 - The ultimate Spectrum model went on sale in June.  The +3 model came equipped with an inbuilt 3-inch floppy disk drive in place of the tape drive.  Despite being released late into the life of the Spectrum it did well, making up 15% of all models sold.

Hello Sega Master System (again) - Launched in Europe in September it proved more popular than the NES.  It eventually outsold the Nintendo machine despite the NES having an 11 month head start.

Hello PC Engine - Released in Japan in October 1987.  The PC Engine was never officially released in the UK, but thanks to articles in various magazines there was a demand for 'grey' imports.  In those pre-internet days I remember seeing magazine adverts selling the machine  and games for exorbitant prices.

1987 looks like being a long year with several RPGs to wade through.  There is a good mix of console and 8-bit and 16-bit computer releases this year.  What games am I looking forward to that I have never played?  Two 8-bit games that seem to be universally praised are Head over Heels* and Wizball.  I was disappointed with Jon Ritman's Batman so I hope Head over Heels will make up for it.  Two seminal NES games also stand out for me - Final Fantasy** and The Legend of Zelda.  It will be interesting to find out how well they all fare in 2012.

*Sorry, Head over Heels simply didn't do anything for me and consequently won't by in my blog. I must not like Jon Ritman's style of isometric games.

**Yes, I know Final Fantasy wasn't released in English until 1990.  I'm going with the Japanese release date as I want try Final Fantasy II (1988) and Final Fantasy III (1990) in chronological order.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Uridium - Commodore 64 - 1986

After his success with Paradroid, Andrew Braybrook comes up trumps again.  After we read the review and the 94% score it got in Zzap!64, me and my mate headed straight into town to get this for his Commodore 64.  We were allowed to play it on his big downstairs telly and I still remember being blown away by the graphics - it was like having an arcade machine at home.

The plot goes that fifteen enemy super-dreadnought starships have gathered in the solar system and are draining minerals from the planet cores.  Each of the super-dreadnoughts is named after a metal, culminating with the titular (and fictional) Uridium. As per usual it falls on your shoulders to take a lone starfighter and destroy the enemy vessels.

Uridium takes place over the smoothly scrolling decks of these super-dreadnoughts.  The game uses an unusual viewpoint as it is a side scroller viewed from above.  You control a fighter called the Manta which is rather nippy and can travel in both directions.  You start at one end of the enemy ship and have to travel to the other end strafing objects on the surface and downing waves of airborne enemies.  Once enough of the enemy defences have been destroyed you get a 'Land Now!' message and can land on a runway at the back of the ship to presumably plant a device to destroy it.

Most of your lives will be lost colliding with the superstructure of the dreadnought.  There are pylons and walls to be avoided whose height can be determined by the length of the shadows they cast.  The game plays so fast it quickly turns into a memory test.   The further you progress, the narrower the gaps get between the tall structures. There are also homing mines that are occasionally launched from from flashing ports and these have to be dodged until they self destruct.

Attempting to out-manoeuvre a pesky homing mine.

Once you have landed on the enemy vessel you can earn extra points in the form of a reaction test mini-game.  You then take off and fly back over the dreadnought while it vaporises before heading off to the next one.  

Each level ends with a mini-game.

This is one impressive game with outstanding graphics and good sound.  The scrolling is fast and silky smooth running at 50fps - which is faster than my video clip.  It can and does get frustrating when trying to get through the same gap or flying into the same wall time and again  but once you memorise a layout you can get that bit further each time you play.

The gaps are starting to get narrow.

The Commodore 64 is far and away the best version of Uridium.  The other 8-bit machines can't hope to match it graphically, lacking as they do the hardware scrolling and sprites.  The Atari ST version looks the same as the C64 but the game is so slow and cumbersome it feels like you're playing in treacle.  Not to mention the worse scrolling and a lack of destruct sequence at the end of each level.  A very, very lazy port indeed.  A version also appeared in 1990 on the NES as The Last Starfighter with different sprites. It lacked that 'certain something' the C64 had and was ultimately a charmless version of the game.
A vaporising dreadnought.

Monday 29 October 2012

Thrust - BBC Model B - 1986

Another blast from the past I used to play on my mates Beeb.  Thrust was originally released for the BBC micro in 1986 and despite being converted to a host of other computers it is this version that remains the best.    It beats it's rivals in all the main areas - Atari ST (gameplay), Commodore 64 (sound), Amstrad CPC (speed) and Sinclair Spectrum (everything).  It plays similarly to the Atari arcade game Gravitar and is rock hard.

The blurb says the resistance is going to launch an offensive against the evil Intergalactic Empire but they lack the Klystron pods needed to power their battlegrade starships.  You are tasked with pilfering the Klystron Pods from the Empires storage planets.

For each planet you start just above the surface.  Ship controls are rotate left/right, thrust, fire, and shield/tractor beam.  Nearby you will always find a reactor which powers the limpet guns that protect the base.  Pump a few bullets into this and it will disable the defences for a short while. Shooting the reactor too much causes it to go critical giving you 10 seconds to escape before the planet explodes. 

Blasting the reactor disables the defences for a short time.

The first Klystron pod is located on the surface of the planet but subsequent ones need to be collected from underground.  Navigating the underground tunnels is made tricky by the gravity, your ships inertia and the limpet guns taking pot shots at you.  You can activate shields to protect you from the shots, but the shield quickly uses up fuel.  Extra fuel can be picked up from the silos dotted around - just hover near them and activate the tractor beam.  

Once located, the Klystron pod also has to be picked up with the tractor beam.  When collected it is attached to your ship and has to be taken from the planet.  As the pod has it's own weight and inertia navigating the caverns is easier said than done.  The game cycles through six planet layouts, with the later levels featuring reverse gravity and invisible walls (which can only be seen with the shield activated).

Thrust is one game I'm absolutely crap at (as can be seen from the video clip) though it is a fun, if frustrating, game to play.  The graphics and sound can best be described as 'functional' but as it was a budget game this is forgiveable.  The only real gripe I have with the game, and this applies to nearly all versions, is the keyboard layout which is not the easiest to get to grips with.  The awkward positioning of the buttons makes it difficult to get comfortable and you can't redefine the keys.

Shooting the orb opens the door.