Wednesday 30 January 2013

Super Sprint - Atari ST - 1987

Like Gauntlet, Super Sprint is another conversion of an Atari coin op that made it onto the Atari ST but not the Amiga.  It was also converted to the main 8-bit home computers of the time and the NES console.  Super Sprint was released in the arcades in 1986 as the latest in the 'Sprint' series of overhead racing games.  In turn the 'Sprint' series can trace it's ancestry back to Gran Trak 10 from 1974.  Controls consisted of just a steering wheel and an accelerator pedal - brakes are for wimps.

Atari's Gran Trak 10 - Grandaddy of Super Sprint

As expected the ST version is the pick of the bunch.  It has the best graphics and sound, has support for up to 3 simultaneous players, and features all 8 tracks.

When you begin a game you can choose which track to start on.  A race takes place over three laps and you can continue onto the next circuit if you beat the green AI car (the computer also controls any other car not in use).  If you finish behind the green car then it's game over and you can enter your name on the high score table.  Some circuits contain  features such as open and closing gates and poles that come out of the ground.  As the game progresses the green car gets faster and more obstacles start to appear on the track to hinder your progress.  Oil, grease and moving tornadoes spin you out of control whereas patches of water slow your car down.  If your car is destroyed by crashing too hard, a helicopter flies across the screen to replace it costing you precious seconds.

The handling of the car itself is akin to driving on ice bumping your way around the corners while the AI cars corner like they are on rails.  You can upgrade your car by picking up the golden spanners that randomly materialise during a race.  Pick up four and you can spend them on faster acceleration, a higher top speed, improved grip or extra points.  Bonus points can also be collected when they appear on the circuit.

In Super Sprint the whole race track is viewed on a single screen so by necessity the car graphics are very small.  Nevertheless, the game is well animated and the graphics do their job well.  Sound is quite simple consisting mainly of engine drone and one or two jingles and effects. As a solo experience Super Sprint is admittedly a bit limited but add a friend or two and it really comes into it's own. 

Saturday 26 January 2013

Gradius - Sharp X68000 - 1987

Okay, I think I've mentioned on here before that I wasn't going to feature little known systems or machines not released in the UK. So, ahem, here we have the obscure Japan-only Sharp X68000 from 1987.  As it's name suggests it is a computer powered by the then ubiquitous Motorola 68000 16-bit CPU.  I remember it appeared in a magazine article back in the day and it kind of stuck in my mind because of the striking 'twin-tower' styling.  What I didn't remember were it's cracking arcade conversions.  I was reminded of it again last year when it appeared in an issue of Retro Gamer.  Up until now I was in two minds whether or not to feature it, so this game is not in my usual alphabetical order but what the hell.....

As I described Gradius on the NES in my 1986 games I won't go into the plot or gameplay again.  Suffice to say it is a excellent conversion and much closer to the original arcade machine than the NES could manage.

Firstly, the graphics are a big improvement over the NES conversion.  Due to the superior hardware, the overall look of the game is much smoother and more detailed.  The enemies are more numerous and varied in their attack patterns.  It also contains items missing in the NES version (such as the lasers on the 'floating rock' on the first stage) and gone is the limit of just two 'options'. Additionally, the end of level bosses are much smaller and not as impressive on the NES.

Comparing the first level boss for the NES (left) and X68000 (right)
Secondly, the audio is much better on the Sharp.  Although the laser is a bit weedy, on the whole the music and sound effects are of a much higher quality.

Does all this mean the Gradius on the X68000 is the definitive version so far? Not quite. Even though I managed to get through most of the second stage on my second attempt, the overall difficulty level is several notches higher than the NES Gradius.  My main issue also remains - you don't get any power-ups to pick up after you lose a life (the arcade original is much more forgiving in this respect).  After playing this for nearly two weeks, I still can't get past the end of the second stage - after the boss there are enemy ships seemingly appearing at random and shooting off in seemingly random directions making them impossible to avoid (for me at least).  As it stands Gradius on the NES is an excellent game in it's own right and still deserves a place on the blog but, if you can put up with the difficulty, the X68k release beats it in all areas.

As much as I tried I couldn't make it past the second level.

Tuesday 15 January 2013

Oids - Atari ST - 1987

In the latter half of the eighties FTL (Faster Than Light) Games could seemingly do no wrong, particularly in the eyes of us Atari ST owners.  Their first ST release came out in 1985 and was an update of their Apple II game, Sundog: Frozen Legacy.  It was the best selling game during the ST's first year and has become something of a cult classic.  This was followed in 1987 by the seminal Dungeon Master (the best selling Atari ST product of all time) and the excellent Oids.

Oids is a gravity/inertia shooter that plays in a similar way to Gravitar and Thrust.  Unlike Thrust the controls are much easier to get to grips with as almost everything is controlled by a joystick. Pushing forward activates the thrust, left/right rotates the ship and pulling back toggles the shield  on or off.  Pressing the fire button shoots photons and jabbing the fire button twice launches a novabomb. The space bar is used to recharge the shield.

Compared to other FTL releases the plot for this game is pretty feeble.  The Evil Biocretes have created a race of android slaves they call Oids.  You have joined the do-gooder organisation "SaveOIDS" in order to risk life and limb rescuing these downtrodden robots from a life of drudgery. The Biocretes have colonised planetoids in several galaxies.  You can choose the galaxy in which to start which in turn reflects the difficulty level of the game.

Due to the style of this type of game, Oids plays in a very sedate manner. You start by being released from your mothership above the planet.  You need to descend to the planet surface and destroy the jails where Oids are held captive.  When you land nearby the Oids will hop aboard your craft and you can take them back to your mothership.  It all sounds very simple and initially it is as most of the Biocrete buildings are harmless and can be destroyed for cheap points.

As you progress the Biocretes become more aggressive.  You will soon come across Repulsors and Gravity Stations which, although they cannot harm you directly, affect the gravity to push or pull you towards devices that can.  Dimo and Pyra guns shoot photons at you.  Launchers and Missile Launchers respectively fire spheres and heat seeking missiles, both of which will hunt you down until they are destroyed.  When triggered by your presence or by a nearby shot, The Tower bursts forth from the ground and breaks open firing spheres and photons.  The Biocrete Mother Ship is heavily shielded and hunts you down shooting photons and spheres.  The Biocrete Home Base is usually shielded and fires photons and missiles.  It also launches all kinds of Biocrete ships with great names like Hell Jets, Inducers, Burst-Orbs and Reapers.

With all that against you you will be using your shields a lot.  The shield gradually gets weaker the longer it is used but can be recharged.  As recharging and thrusting eat away at your fuel supply you can land next to fuel depot to get a top up.  

Taking the opportunity to refuel while picking up some Oids.

Otherwise inaccessible or hard to get to locations can be reached via a teleporter.  The teleporters are colour coded and helpfully teleport your bullets and novabombs as well as your ship in case of nasties waiting at the other end.

As well as the inbuilt planets and galaxies, Oids comes with an editor so you can create your own.

So how does Oids fare in 2013?  Firstly there is no in-game music, buts that's not unusual for this era.  The sound effects can only be described as adequate as they do the job and are nothing special.  The graphics are quite simple but I guess they couldn't be too complicated due to the included level editor.  The Oids themselves are quite well animated despite being only six pixels high.  In my book it's playability that counts and Oids has it in stacks and is still one of the best Atari ST games out there.

 The first planet - Normite

 One of the more difficult ones

Monday 7 January 2013

Metal Gear - MSX - 1987

This is the twelfth game for the MSX I have played from my shortlist (including Vampire Killer/Castlevania) yet the first to make it onto the blog.  It's not a great hit-rate by any standard but this game is a good 'un.

Metal Gear is the start of yet another long running series making it's d├ębut in 1987.  The original game was designed by Hideo Kojima and released for the MSX2-standard home computer.  The game was subsequently converted to the NES in 1988 without Hideo Kojima’s knowledge or involvement.  He has been quoted expressing his disappointment with the changes made to the console version including the removal of the titular Metal Gear.  Commodore 64 and PC versions followed in 1990.  Both of these used the NES version as a basis but had inferior graphics.

I will be playing the MSX2 Japanese release of the game translated courtesy of NekuraThere was an official English language version released in Europe but nearly half original text was removed and the translation of what remained wasn't great.

The manual states there is a heavily defended fortress in South Africa called Outer Heaven where they have developed the ultimate weapon - Metal Gear.  The improbably named Grey Fox, a member of a covert special operations unit call Fox Hound, was sent to gather information about the weapon but contact with him was lost. As the equally improbably named Solid Snake, your task is to infiltrate Outer Heaven, investigate Grey Fox's disappearance and destroy the Metal Gear. 

Metal Gear is a top-down flick screen stealth 'em up.  You begin the game at the entrance to the enemy compound carrying only a walkie talkie and a packet of cigarettes.  Until you find a weapon your only form of attack are your fists - there's nothing like being prepared!  You immediately receive a message from the singularly unhelpful Big Boss who reminds you of your mission.  Big Boss regularly calls during the game with messages beginning with "I forgot to tell you..." or containing the "resistance leader Schneider will know...".  Of course, he forgets to tell you on which frequency to contact Schneider (I've since discovered this is a bug and Schneider should have called you first).

Now there's a surprise.
The initial enemy you encounter will be guards.  These use a line-of-sight mechanic so as long as they are not directly facing you they can be evaded.  The guards patrol in a fixed pattern and it only takes a few moments to work out a safe route through the screen. If a guard catches sight of you and a ! appears next to him, you can leave the screen and he will forget he ever saw you.  If a !! appears then other guards come piling onto the screen and start taking pot shots at you.  At this heightened state of alert it can take a while before you are able to return to 'sneak mode'.  Alarms are also raised if you are spotted by a security camera or trip an infra red sensor.
Making a run for it after being spotted.
There are many weapons and an array useful items you can collect to help you on your mission - items such as a gas mask, body armour, binoculars, a cardboard box and the essential numbered card keys.  A pistol can be found in one of the early screens and the ammo a little later, but using it before finding a silencer will attract the guards.  Ration packs can be collected to restore your health.  If you re-enter a screen after picking up an item, they will usually regenerate so you pick up as much ammo or rations as you can carry.

A few of the many weapons and items.

As you make your way through Outer Heaven you will come across prison cells.  When you release a prisoner he will give you some useful information.  Additionally your rank will increase for every five (I think) prisoners you release.  An increase in rank not only allows you to carry more ammo and rations, but it also increases your health bar.  If your health bar should reach zero you will die, but the game seems to offer unlimited continues taking you back to a previous checkpoint.  The MSX game also allows your progress to be saved.

Released captives can give helpful advise.

Overall Metal Gear is a very good game and deserves a place on my list.  The graphics are fine for the time as are the sound effects.  The music also adds a suitable atmosphere to the game.  Due to social commitments over the New Year period I have not been able to put as much time into Metal Gear as I would have liked.  I did put in a few hours and will continue to do so until I complete it.

Cunningly disguised as a cardboard box.