Saturday 13 August 2016

Goodbye 1991, Hello 1992

Goodbye Atari 2600 - Released way back in 1977, Atari Corp finally retired this piece of video game antiquity on 1st January 1992.  Not only did it outlast its successor (the Atari 5200) but ceased production on the same day as the Atari 7800.

Goodbye ZX Spectrum - Going through a lot of changes in its 10 year lifespan, Amstrad pulled the plug on the ZX Spectrum with the +3 version.  As of July 2012 there had been over 24,000 titles released for the Speccy.  Not bad for a British computer built down to a price.

Goodbye Sega Master System - Soundly beaten by the NES, Sega withdrew their Master System from sale in the US.

Goodbye Amiga - Released after the Atari ST, the Amiga outsold its rival by roughly 3 to 2, mainly due to its superior hardware.  Commodore ceased production after 7 years.  It is not all bad news however...

Hello Amiga - A second-generation Amiga appeared in 1992 featuring the AGA chipset.  Despite many improvements over the original, the new Amiga (or Commodore itself for that matter) wouldn't survive much longer against the PC and console onslaught.

Hello Windows - Version 3.1 was released in April. This (or at least 3.11) was the first taste many PC users of the time had of a Microsoft GUI.  It was then a DOS program rather than on OS in its own right and didn't see much in the way of games.

Hello SNES - As usual Europeans were the last to receive a major console release - in this case the 16-bit Nintendo.  It arrived in the UK in April and in June for the rest of Europe.

1991 took a long time to get through, mainly due to real life getting in way and not having enough time to dedicate to playing games.  1992 looks like it will be a long year too as a house move is on the cards before the end of 2016.  There are also a lot of  RPGs on my shortlist.

One RPG we won't see is Ultima VII: The Black Gate. I took a sneak peak at it and despite the amazing graphics and the start of a good storyline, it just didn't grab me.  I remember things that annoyed me such as the AI controlling NPCs in combat, the difficulty in mapping, and Iolo being constantly hungry.   What I didn't remember is how bloody long it takes to do anything.  Just exploring a single town and speaking all the citizens seemed to take forever as does traversing the map.  I didn't get on with the new 'improved' interface either.  Not a bad game but not a favourite.

Other RPGs include the last of the Gold Box games.  The series started off very well but seemed to get weaker as the years have gone by - I didn't even bother to finish Pools of Darkness. I'm hoping we see another glimpse of what made Pool of Radiance  and Curse of the Azure Bonds such classics.

Out of the other games for 1992, Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss is the only one that really caught my eye.  It got rave reviews on release, but how will it fare nearly a quarter of a century later?  And will it make me nauseous like nearly all early (and a lot of later) first person games did?  Only time will tell.

Saturday 11 June 2016

Super Off Road - Nintendo SNES - 1991

Super Off Road is obviously based on the 1989 arcade game Ivan 'Ironman' Stewart's Super Off Road.  I played the Amiga version from 1990 but didn't included the subsequent console versions in the entry which, apart from dropping Ivan, are not quite straight conversions.

First task is to pick the best version from the SNES, and Sega's Master System and Mega DriveUnsurprisingly the Master System release from 1993 is first to go. The console struggles against the 16-bits in terms of graphics, sound and gameplay.  The Mega Drive version was a latecomer to the party, arriving in 1994.  The 16-bit Sega and Nintendo are pretty much on a par as far as audio and handling go, but I prefer the larger sprites on the SNES.  The graphics seem too small on the Sega and leaves empty space either side of the track.
Master System (left) and Mega Drive.  The tracks on the Mega Drive do not fill the screen like they do on other versions.  The same track is shown at the top of the page on the SNES.

Whereas the computer versions of Ivan 'Ironman' Stewarts Super Off Road are derived from a game designed to gobble coins, Super Off Road is a little easier on the consoles:-

  • You are given $100,000 to spend on car upgrades before you have even started the first race.
  • Although the game plays a lot faster than the original, handling has been made much easier.  The graphics may show your car pitching all over the place but it continues in a straight line unless you make a turn.  Only other cars can knock it off course.
  • It is no longer necessary to finish ahead of the grey car to continue (which is just as well).  Finishing on the podium will suffice.
  • Prize money has increased by 50% for first place - you now get $150,000.
The upgrade screen appears before each race.

The only real downside to Super Off Road on the SNES is that you can only have one extra player - there is no option for three players even with a multi-tap adaptor.  The grey car is also tuned to go a bit too fast in my opinion.  Unless you get a jump on him in the first race he gets impossible to beat as he spends all his prize money on nitros.  Nonetheless it is still a great game.
A rare win against the grey car.  Note the amount of nitros he has left.

 Example gameplay.....

The podium ladies are modestly dressed on the SNES.

Friday 20 May 2016

Super Castlevania IV - Nintendo SNES - 1991

Judging by the sheer number of entries on my shortlist, the Castlevania series certainly has something going for it.  For the NES I've played the first three titles and a spoof called Akumajo Special: Boku Dracula-Kun, plus Vampire Killer for the MSX.  So far none of these has managed to float my boat.  At first glance Super Castlevania IV seemed like nothing special - just more of the same with enhanced sound and graphics.  Unless I'm certain I won't like a game, I give each one a fair crack of the whip (pun intended) and after a while Castlevania IV began to grow on me.

The manual says that every 100 years the powers of evil grow stronger and the forces of good become weak.  During these times Dracula is revived, intent on turning humanity into creatures of darkness.  Over the centuries the Belmont family has passed down the secrets of vampire slaying to their eldest son, successfully keeping Dracula in check.  

Now an evil group has performed a ritual in a ruined abbey allowing Dracula to rise once more.  Armed only with a mystical whip, it is up to Simon Belmont to face the Prince of Darkness....

The game is basically an action platformer in which you guide Simon through a generous eleven levels.  Each level ends with a boss fight.  The ultimate aim is to defeat Dracula himself. 
Koranot - one of the many bosses

In Super Castlevania IV, as with previous Castlevania games, the protagonists primary weapon is a whip.  It can be used to attack enemies in eight directions.  It can also be used to latch on to hoops to swing across gaps that are too large to jump.
Hanging on to a conveniently placed hoop while the whole level turns through 90 degrees.

Secondary weapons and whip upgrades can be collected by destroying candles.  Only one secondary weapon may be carried at a time and include a watch (freezes enemies), an axe (powerful but difficult to accurately aim), fire bomb (which I found basically useless), a 'boomerang' (causes damage when thrown and when returning) and a dagger (easy to aim but doesn’t cause much damage).  These secondary weapons are powered by hearts which are by far the most numerous objects dropped by candles.  A small heart allows one use of a weapon and a large heart gives five uses.
Where's the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch when you need it?

If Simon gets hit by an enemy his life bar decreases.  The life bar can be replenished to a certain degree by picking up food that occasionally drops from the candles.  If it expires he loses one of his three lives He can be instantly killed by falling off the bottom of the screen or if the time limit runs out.  Once all lives are lost you are presented with a password, allowing you to restart at the beginning of the same level without power ups or secondary weapons. 

Super Castlevania IV certainly is a great game, although some may find it repetitive.  There is a soundtrack playing throughout which, while not really memorable, is pretty good and matches the mood of the game.  Likewise the sound effects do not really stand out but are more than adequate.  The graphics, however, are excellent.  The artwork is superb and there are several layers of parallax scrolling on some levels.  Mode 7 is put to effective use at various points.  My only gripe is a small one and that is the animation of the main character himself.  If lowly 8-bit computers can manage it in Dun Darach, and Prince of Persia does it with many more frames of animation, why can't Konami make Simon Belmont walk realistically instead of looking like he is ice skating?  It doesn't detract from the action at all but is a personal annoyance I have with animation in many video games.
Mode 7 is put to good use in this rotating corridor

Example gameplay....

Thursday 28 April 2016

Sonic The Hedgehog - Sega Mega Drive - 1991

In the early days of consoles, manufacturers decided it would be a good idea to have a video game character as a company mascot.  Not becoming a console owner until the Playstation 2, I had assumed Nintendo’s Mario and Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog had always been rivals.  I later discovered this was not the case and that they both made their debut in the arcade a decade apart – Mario as the protagonist in Donkey Kong in 1981, and Sonic in the racing game Rad Mobile.  As an air freshener. 

Later in 1991 Sonic appeared in his own right as the star of Sonic the Hedgehog, ousting Alex Kidd as the Sega mascot.  By this time Mario was already established, having been the main character in several titles (including Dr Mario and three Super Mario games) and a cameo a few others (such as Punch Out!!, Tennis and Golf on the NES).  Importantly, when Sonic the Hedgehog was released on the Mega Drive, Mario had yet to star in a 16-bit game.

Fittingly, Sonic the Hedgehog is a platform game.  Compared to the amply built, moustachioed Italian, Sonic is a lot faster and exudes an impatient attitude.  Pause too long on a level and he puts his hands on his hips and taps a foot. 

The manual says that the mad scientist, Dr Ivo Robotnik, is capturing innocent creatures and turning them into evil robots for whatever reason.  It is up to you to reach Robotniks secret lab, defeat him and save the animals.

The game is set across six zones with every zone divided into three acts.  Each zone has a distinct look and feelGreen Zone is the one that everyone knows.  It contains loops, springs and several routes through.  I like to zip through the stage a fast as possible whereas my wife likes to take her time and collect all the items (this is the only game she has liked on by blog thus far).  Marble Zone slows things down.  It is a linear stage containing some simple block puzzles and requires careful jumping in parts.  Spring Yard Zone is fast level built like a pinball machine with lots of springs and bumpers.  Labyrinth Zone is a convoluted stage with underwater sections where Sonic has to jump into large bubbles to avoid drowningThe Star Light Zone has parts constructed like a roller coaster.  Scrap Brain Zone I haven't yet had chance to play properly.
An underwater section in the Labyrinth Zone.  Game play is the same only slower.

The aim of each act is to move from the far left of each level to reach the goal at the far right.  Inhabiting the levels are Robitnik's metallic minions.  These can be dispatched using the Super Sonic Spin Attack which involves Sonic rolling into a ball and barrelling into enemies.  It is performed by using the jump button for a high attack and the down button for a low attack.  Some of the robotic animals have spikes which must be avoided.  When an enemy is killed it releases the animal trapped within.
This creature can only be killed by jumping on it's head.  Anywhere else and you die.
To aid Sonic there are several types of power ups dotted around including extra lives, extra rings, shields, speed boosts and temporary invincibility.  Lamp posts act as checkpoints so you don't need restart the level should you lose a live.  There are also rings that can be collected.  Collecting 100 rings in an act rewards Sonic with an extra life.  If you should get hit by an enemy while carrying rings you lose them all.  The rings get scattered but you can normally collect a few before they disappear. If you get hit and have no rings you will lose a life.

Reaching the end of an act with a certain number of rings sends Sonic into a bonus screen, known as the Secret Zone.  This is a spinning level where the goal is to get the Chaos Emerald.  If you pick up enough rings here you can also collect another life.  The manual says you must collect six Chaos Emeralds but doesn't say what they are for.  I assume they are needed to complete the game.
The Secret Zone

At the end of each zone you face off against Dr Robotnik.  He flies a different contraption for each zone and can be defeated by hitting him a number of times with the Super Sonic Spin Attack.  Once defeated you can release all the animals from that zone.
Releasing the animals at the end of Sprint Yard Zone.

In all, Sonic the Hedgehog on the Mega Drive is an excellent game.  The graphics are smooth, colourful and very fast, with slick animation.  The sound and music are top notch.  The controls are spot on and for the most part it's your fault when you die.  There are some very difficult sections and a couple of places where there are unfair deaths.   The unfair deaths can be avoided once you start to memorise the levels.  It also speaks volumes that of all the games I have played so far, this is the only one the Mrs Wingnut has wanted a go on.  She told me used to play it when she was younger, so I let her do the gameplay video.  Bless.

It's not all running.  There are some simple puzzles such as pushing this block onto the switch.

Example gameplay (courtesy of the missus)