Saturday 28 September 2013

Blood Money - Atari ST - 1989

Blood Money is a shoot 'em up I have fond memories of from my Atari ST days.  It was developed by DMA Designs which would eventually become the slightly more famous Rockstar North.  I played the Atari ST version first and it was pretty much as I remembered - a slow but enjoyable shooter.  Next came the the Amiga which got me wondering why it came on two disks, rather than a single one like the ST.  The answer was soon revealed when some fantastic music came blasting from the speakers accompanying an impressive intro sequence of a spaceship flying through a digitised asteroid field. The game itself is a lot smoother and more polished than on the ST.  The graphics are more colourful and the music puts the Atari chip tune to shame.  The game runs quicker and your ship can fire faster and further.  It just has one glaring problem.....IT IS TOO BLOODY DIFFICULT!!

It seems the developers shared my thoughts during the conversion to the Atari.  After getting pissed off I went back to Blood Money on the ST and found I could get further with one life than I could on the Amiga using all the lives.  For a start the game runs much slower which makes it easier to manoeuvre around obstacles.  The gun emplacements also fire less frequently and, it may be my imagination, but the shield bar seems to take longer to run down. 

As an example, the two screens below were taken at the same spot in the game.  For the ST you have to shoot the two turning gates a few times to open them, or with careful flying you can squeeze past above or below.  You then come across a static walker which is easily dispatched for 25 credits. For the Amiga version there are five gates to get through which you have to open quicker whilst avoiding more bullets.  Like the ST you too get a walker, but behind it is a radio mast that suddenly reverses the joystick directions.  WTF?  It was here I died and switched off through sheer frustration. 

Anyway, to the plot.  Blood Money casts you in the role of Spondulix who longs to go on an Alien Safari.  It just so happens he has 200 credits burning a hole in his pocket.  The Safaris take place on the planets Gibba, Grone, Shreek and Snuff and cost between 100 and 400 credits.  This means only Gibba, in which you pilot a helicopter, and Grone, an underwater planet, are available at the start of the game. Each of the planets has its own unique enemies and landscape.

I'm loathe to call the game a scrolling shoot 'em up.  Yes it scrolls, but not in the conventional sense - it doesn't matter what way you are facing or what direction you are heading, the screen rolls on relentlessly at the same speed.  As you have the freedom to move anywhere in the play are it feels more like a single screen shooter with a scrolling background.

You start the game with a puny, short range gun and 3 lives.  There is a shield indicator at the bottom of the screen and you can get away with grazing the planet surface, aliens or bullets a couple of times before it is depleted.  Once the shield indcator is empty you lose a life.  A lot of the enemies drop coins when the are destroyed which can be picked up and spent in shops dotted thoughout the levels.  These shops provide useful weaponry and ship upgrades.

For $100 you have the choice of two extra guns - one that fires diagonally upwards and the other downwards.  For $150 you can buy a rear firing laser or a neuron bomb.  You can have up to four neuron bomb launchers - two short range and two long range.  They fire upwards first then drop so are useful for taking out enemies both above and below your ship.  For $200 you can speed up your ship or buy an upgrade for your guns which increase their range to the full width of the screen.  Finally, for $250 you can recharge your shield or purchase an extra life.  If you do lose a life during the game, any power ups are lost.

There maybe only four levels but each one is very long.  As you progress the more expensive planets are more difficult to navigate through.  I got to try Snuff which was difficult enough on the ST, so goodness knows what it's like on the Amiga.  As would be expected each stage ends in a boss fight.  You are then able to move onto the next planet.

The boss at the end of Grone, or rather one the thee or four that appeared.

So, though it boasts the best graphics and sound, the Amiga version loses out to the ST in the playability stakes.  By rights it could and should have won, but the Atari has the better balanced and fairer game.  Even though they're not as good as the Amiga, the sound and graphics can't be called bad.  While the game itself is quite slow it doesn't detract from what is a challenging and entertaining game.  There is also an option for a two player co-operative game.  I seem to remember I could get through at least two or three levels back in the day, but it would take a lot of practice to get that good again.

Shreek and Snuff

Thursday 26 September 2013

Blazing Lazers - TurboGrafx-16 / PC Engine - 1989

Blazing Lazers (or Gunhed as it was called in Japan) was one of the first games to appear on the new TurboGrafx-16.  It was released by Hudson Soft, one of the co-developers of the console, so remained exclusive to that machine.  As a highly regarded vertically scrolling shoot 'em up it should be right up my alley...

The plot says that Earth is under threat from the evil Dark Squadron with only you and your Gunhed fighter standing in their way.  Your aim is to make your way through nine stages, taking down various bosses as you go, in order to destroy the Dark Emperor.

The main weapon on your Gunhed ship is a rapid fire laser.  There are four numbered pickups that can change the weapon between a Photon Blaster, Field Thunder, Power Wave and Ring Blaster.  The firepower of these weapons can be upgraded by up to six levels by collecting purple power ups called 'gels' which are dropped by the enemy.

They also drop secondary power ups consisting of [H]oming missiles, [S]hields, [M]ulti-body (a drone that follows your movements) and [F]ull fire (strengthens the power of your weapons).

Finally there is the cluster bomb of which you carry a limited number.  These wipe most of the enemies on the screen and are useful for getting out of a tight spot.

Firing the ever handy cluster bomb.

Blazing Lazers eases you in gently with the first couple of levels being fairly simple affairs with plenty of power ups being dropped.  Different areas in each of the long levels favour certain upgrades so you often have to avoid power ups, as well as the enemy, in order to retain your weapon of choice.
The guns at this point fire missiles that come in from the side, making the shield the best upgrade.

Maybe it's just me, but I found the difficulty really ramped up in third level with lots of invincible enemies (and cluster bomb usage).  It then eased off again for the fourth level.  At the end of each stage a boss appears.  For the most part these are quite underwhelming - they have obvious weak points and simple movement patterns.

Boss no. 4 - Tarax the (not so) Great.

The actual game itself is an absolute blast.  The gameplay can get very frenetic in places, but it is in no way a 'bullet hell' shooter.  Although you lose your power ups when you die, so many are dropped it's quite easy to get up to speed again.  There are also a number of checkpoints in each level so you don't have to restart from the beginning.

The graphics are very good with a varied and smooth scrolling background.  The sprites are colourful, detailed and varied in size and shape and there is not the slightest hint of slowdown when the screen gets busy.  The sound effects are also pretty good including snippets of speech when you collect a power up.  There is music playing throughout, although I found some of it sounded a bit out of place in a fast shoot 'em up.  Overall, an excellent game.

Sample gameplay.  The ship disappearing in places is down to the recording software and not the game.

Monday 23 September 2013

Goodbye 1988, Hello 1989

Hello SVGA - According to Wikipedia it was in "1989 that a standard for programming Super VGA modes was defined by [the] Video Electronics Standards Association".  This is the point at which PC graphics quality had finally surpassed those of the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga.

Hello Sega Genesis - The Genesis was the North American name for the Sega Mega Drive.  Released in August, it was the first of the 16-bit consoles to enter a market dominated by the NES.

Hello TurboGrafx-16 - A redesigned and renamed PC Engine.  Also released in the US in August, the NEC machine failed to make any impact against its 16-bit rivals.

Hello Atari STE - An enhanced Atari ST released in late 1989.  Designed to take on the dominant Amiga, it featured upgraded graphics and sound.  Technologically it still lagged behind the Commodore machine and few games took advantage of the improved hardware.

My biggest surprise of 1988 was that Ultima V didn't make it onto the blog.  I had never played it before and as much as I tried I couldn't convince myself I was having fun - it just felt like I was going through the motions.  I gave it a good few hours over a couple of weeks so didn't feel guilty about stopping.

As for 1989 I am really looking forward to dusting off my Pool of Radiance characters and tackling Curse of the Azure Bonds.  I also enjoyed Phantasy Star so I'm looking forward to it's sequel.  Hopefully Phantasy Star II* will tie up some of the loose ends from the original story, but I'm not counting on it.

A game I have played before is Chaos Strikes Back** on the Atari ST. I played it on release and found it waaaay too difficult to be enjoyable.  I'll give it another crack of the whip and see if it's any better through older and wiser eyes.

* I got the year wrong - the English version of Phantasy Star II wasn't released until 1990.  I only realised this after I played (and dismissed) it.  It was way too linear and I found the combat even more simplistic than Phantasy Star.  The dungeons also had an annoying parallax scrolling thing going on which obscured dead ends and walls making them infuriating to map.

** Nope, Chaos Strike Back didn't make it on the blog.  It is slightly better (easier) than I remember but it is more like a puzzle game wrapped in the Dungeon Master engine.  I may go back to it when I have more time but I can't ever see it becoming a favourite.  Sorry Petrus.

Friday 20 September 2013

Xenon - Commodore Amiga & Atari ST - 1988

Where the elusive Stamper brothers at Ultimate were content to let their games do the talking, the next group of British programmers to have an effect on me couldn't have been more different.  The Bitmap Brothers burst onto the scene in 1987 promoting themselves as 'rock star' developers and appeared in arty black and white promo photos in their trademark dark glasses.  Fortunately Mike Montgomery, Eric Matthews and Steve Kelly had the talent to back up the hype.  They produced games over several genres with most being very well received.

Early in the days of the 16-bit computers (in the UK at least), a lot of offerings were 8-bit games with tarted up graphics.  The Bitmap's d├ębut game was Xenon and was created on the 16-bit machines first.  It was ported less successfully to the PC, Sinclair Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC.  Xenon was also one of a handful of games to appear on the Arcadia Arcade System, an ill-fated coin-op based on Amiga hardware.

The game initially looks like a rather sedate vertically scrolling shoot 'em.  The first thing to strike you are the crisp, metallic looking graphics of the first level - this was to become the Bitmap Brothers trademark look for their first few games.  To leave you in no doubt who programmed the game, and possibly to massage their egos (indeed the game was originally going to be called Kelly-X), Eric Matthews appears to announce 'Sector One'.

You start the game controlling a ground vehicle that can move and shoot in 8 directions.  Pressing the space bar or a swift wiggle of the joystick morphs the tank it into an aircraft.  The aircraft is more traditional - it moves relentlessly up the screen and can only fire forward.  A lot of the time you are forced into using a certain mode.  Additionally, certain targets can only be destroyed from the ground and vice versa.

You are initially armed with a puny forward firing gun.  Destroyed enemies can release power-up cannisters to enable you to upgrade your ship and it's weapons.  The power-ups have letters on them so you have a choice of what to pick up or what to leave behind. Some of the weapon upgrades are time limited and some, such as the laser, only work when in the air.  Capsules denoted with the letter 'F' replenish some of your fuel supply which diminishes when you are hit.  When your fuel supply runs out you lose one of your three lives.

They forgot the annoying 'G' that turns lasers back in to normal bullets.

In total there are four levels and each one features a mid and end of level boss.  Each boss takes a lot of shots to uncover a weak spot, followed by some carefully placed shots to finally destroy it.

Both the ST and Amiga versions sport identical graphics and gameplay.  There is music that plays throughout and it's here that the Amiga's superior sound reveals itself. The chiptune rendition on the ST has it's own charm and almost matches the Amiga for quality so I have included this version on the list.  The graphics are generally good with smooth scrolling and well defined (if formulaic) enemies.  If I had to nitpick, the shadow of the spacecaft slightly spoils the look.  Overall it's a polished and challenging shooter.

A glimpse of the second level

 Example gameplay from the Amiga