Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Sega Saturn - Athlete Kings

Sega Saturn
Athlete Kings

Back in the old days of Arcade action, there was a hugely popular title by the name of “Track and Field”. A simple enough concept, re-enact the energetic exertion of Olympic-standard athletics by means of mashing buttons as fast as you can, attempting to qualify to move on through a sequence of “popular” events.

Simple graphics, simple concept, simple fun. Simple, eh?

Fast forward a decade and a bit, and the concept receives a new lease of life… a coin-op by the name of “Decathlete”, and the Saturn conversion by the name of “Athlete Kings”.

Introducing a selection of athletes to choose from for starters, they all have their own strengths to draw on in the different events. American Rick Blade and Japanese Joe Kudou fill in as “All rounders”, the Brit, Jef Jansens (hilariously named “Robin Banks” in the arcade version) and Russian Aleksi Rigel as the throwing specialists, Karl Vain, the German jumping specialist, and then the women, Ellen Reggiani, Femi Kadiena and the chinese teenager who is amazing at running but has the most forgettable name in the world.

Anyway, the events are all as you would expect in a game like this, and they take on the form of the traditional Olympic Decathlon. The 100m sprint and the 110m Hurdles are short but intense button-bashing races, the hurdles being interjected with occasional presses of the action button to jump said wooden barriers. The 400m and 1500m races are a little more leisurely, simply because you have to watch your stamina. The Long Jump, High Jump, Pole Vault and Javelin are all about button bashing to power up, and then good timing with the action button to set angles, extend legs and plant poles. The Shot Putt is all about timing alone, unless you use the “spinning” method, whereby you can increase the power using a circular motion on the joypad, the same method you must employ for the Discus event.

Whether alone or against friends, the game provides ample challenge, with tight qualification targets in arcade mode, and the honest, simple multiplayer fun, this is one of the best of the genre.

The simple truth is, this game has been one of the prides of my collection, so this doesn’t just get a recommendation, it’s a “Game to Play Before You Die”.

No, really.

Incidentally, I’d be interested to know what sort of records other people have attained on this game. Here’s the ones of mine that I can remember…

100m – 9.52seconds

Long Jump – 9.98m

Javelin – 99.04m

High Jump – 2m 56cm

Pole Vault – 6m 34cm

Sony Playstation - Parappa the Rapper

Sony Playstation
Parappa the Rapper

Ladies and gentlemen, please give a standing ovation to the original paper-thin games character. The most bizarre concept for a game, some of the most contrived storylines in games history, and the World’s Greatest Rapper… Parappa.

This game introduces so many concepts that at the time were “new” and revolutionary… The paper-thin character animation (Of course, revisited recently by the Wii’s Super Paper Mario), the “dancing-stage” style rhythm-based gameplay, and the hilarious voice-acting in cutscenes.

Our hero is a young pup who has a crush on Sunny, a walking, talking sunflower. Maybe he has dreams of cocking his leg up and urinating on her, but as far as we’re concerned, it’s all about the lurve, baby. However, Parappa’s got his work cut out in charming the young bud, he has competition from another bigger, older dog, and as such finds himself competing for her attentions.

All the tasks are completed by means of rhythmic rapping, usually following the “teacher” on each stage. However, you can progress beyond just being “good” by freestyling a bit, and at this point the teacher actually leaves you to it, just freestyle yourself to massive points, but you’ve got to be impressive with every set of beats you lay down.

He goes for Karate lessons, learns to drive, learns to cook, sells things on a market and performs on a stage in front of thousands, but ironically Sunny seems to find him most attractive when he has gorged himself on several slices of cake and his rampaging stomach requests urgent toilet attention…

Still, Parappa’s charming original gameplay left an indelible mark on the games world, and although there’s actually very little to the game itself (it’s almost like one mini-game off Bishi Bashi Special in that respect), the sheer volume of content and entertainment contained within, combined with a supremely evil preciseness on the beat makes this game enough of a challenge and experience to make it worth shelling out for. Any way you look at it, this game is one you should try and play through at least once, if only to hear the entirety of the soundtrack.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Commodore Amiga - Pinball Dreams

Commodore Amiga
Pinball Dreams

When I first got my Amiga, I got the "Wild, Weird and Wicked" pack for Christmas. Included in the offer was an extra four pack of titles, including this title... It wasn't the first game I loaded up, though. That title went to Zool.

To be honest, I regret that in a way. Zool wasn't a bad game, by any stretch of the imagination, but the moment I loaded up Pinball Dreams that was it. This game was going to get some serious play. Well, until I bought Pinball Fantasies, of course.

The moment the music started and the 21st Century Entertainment logo appeared, I just knew this was going to be a special experience. In fact, this would be my introduction to the wonders of "MOD" music, as you can find the soundtracks for the Pinball Dreams/Fantasies series for download in MOD format.

Bearing in mind, I've never been really into Pinball machines in the arcades, I very rarely left the realms of video games, but occasionally I have been tempted to give them a go. But this game showed me a little of what I was missing... Of course, when you load a game like this up, and you see the four tables available, you invariably start with number 1.

Table number 1 is a sci-fi themed table called "Ignition". Possibly the weakest moment of the entire series, I still haven't played this table much. I think the main problem with it is the big open space in the middle, all the targets and ramps are at the side, but the ball physics and the gameplay remained solid, and the competition between me, my father, and all the rest of my family began.

The table that would ultimately begin the true obsession with beating each other's scores would be table 4, "Nightmare". The combination of superb table design, multiple features and bonuses, superb music and perfectly placed targets resulted in a tussle for the number 1 spot in the high score table. Stupidly high scores were possible given luck and skill, but every single score you could set is theoretically beatable!

Tables 2 and 3, "Steel Wheel" and "Beat Box" were good tables too, plenty of features, great sound, and, particularly for Steel Wheel, high scores a-plenty.

This is a game everybody should play at least once, twice in the case of the superior sequel.

I guess that's it, though, I'm seeing new features even now on these tables.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum - Myth: History in the Making

Sinclair ZX Spectrum
Myth - History In The Making

Back in the early 90s, there were few games that graphically stood out as much as Myth on the dear old Spectrum. The hardware back then, primitive as it was, could easily handle a multi-level, multi-puzzle game such as this, and indeed it did, and admirably, too.

But let’s get this straight… System 3 did their research on this one. The game followed various myths and legends from different eras, from the general perception of Hell, across to Greece, Scandinavia, Egypt and finally to the final battle with Dameron, the evil demi-God type thing responsible for some kind of shenanigans up in the ethers somewhere.

Basically, the slightly irrelevant plot goes along the lines of “Student with passion for myths gets hand-picked by the Gods to combat evil dark power, odds stacked against him etc.” Yes, the plot is irrelevant, as the game itself is superb from start to finish, and really doesn’t need it, the few hints in the instruction manual are enough to see you through without giving everything away.

As soon as you plunge into the game (after navigating a slightly annoying menu system, but we can forgive such a small crime for the wonders you are about to experience), the first thing that strikes you is the graphics... 8-bit pixelated HEAVEN. Seriously, I can't think of many Speccy games with smoother animation and THIS MUCH attention to detail.

Anyway, you begin your quest plunged into the depths of hell, with several puzzles to solve and lots to do for starters. First off, the super smooth animation strikes you as your character runs along, jumping around, punching and kicking, with objective number one appearing to be to obtain some fireballs with which to bring down the essential teleport balls. These fireballs also make eradication of the nasty skeletons much easier than punching them. Fireballs, immunity and other artifacts will be found inside various chests and pots littered around, a couple of swift kicks will burst them open, and away you go.

So as well as killing skeletons and collecting their skulls, you also are after the teleport balls. Shooting them enough times will cause them to drop to the floor and allow you to collect them. Collection of all these will allow you to find the teleport activator, which will then allow you to… erm… well… activate the teleport pad, transporting you to the next level.

But wait! It’s not that simple! Other denizens await to try and put a halt to your progress, one of which is a demon that rises from the flames, granting you a trident that is crucial to the vanquishing of a rather impressive dragon, which in turn leaves behind a key to an extra room, where the final teleport ball must be retrieved.

That’s just level 1… As you travel on your journey you must face Medusa, Vikings, Ogres, Odin, Mummies and a whole host of booby traps inside a pyramid, and with a limited number of lives available, you’ve certainly got your work cut out. But it’s all presented in glorious multi-colour, and although the final battle is a bit of a disappointment (it’s far too easy, the trials of the Pyramid prior to this are some of the finest puzzles and traps to negotiate in any game EVER) you’ll certainly feel a sense of achievement when you do manage to save Zeus and his chums from whatever Dameron was trying to achieve.

So, if you haven’t already played this game, thanks to the wonders of emulation (or indeed, retro gaming), you haven’t got an excuse to miss out on some of the finest gameplay £9.99 used to buy.

A remake of this should be delivered as a matter of urgency, providing the original gameplay and addictiveness is retained.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Sinclair ZX Spectrum - Chaos

Sinclair ZX Spectrum
Chaos - The War of the Wizards

The game that was so good it made it onto TWO Your Sinclair cover tapes due to reader demand. I don’t know, you get a game for free, break the tape through playing it so much, and expect the magazine to provide it free AGAIN?

Well, they did. One of the simplest games graphically, the depth of play speaks for itself.

I’m sorry, but really, I don’t think my feeble words on this page can do the game justice. However, in the interests of actually writing some content for this site, I shall try.

Chaos, then. Wow. A game for 2-8 players, some or all of which can be computer controlled at a variety of skill levels. A choice of 8 styles and 8 colours of wizard allow you to identify your mage from your enemy with ease.

The game takes the form of turn-based strategy, each player gets the opportunity to view their spells, choose a spell and examine the game board. The spells you can choose from range from creature spells (all with different chances of success), weapon spells (improve your wizard’s attack and movement capabilities), spells that affect the balance of the universe (each spell cast affects the universe somewhat, but the Law and Chaos spells can increase the likelihood of successfully casting the more deadly creatures much quicker), odd spells that can create forests or castles, and the always available “Disbelieve” spell.

Once all players have chosen their spell for that turn, we enter the “casting” phase. Here, each wizard takes their turn to cast their spell. Some will succeed and some will fail, all dependant on the casting chance of each particular spell. Once all players have completed casting, we enter the movement phase. Each player now takes a turn to move all their creatures and their wizard. Most creatures can move but one space, but some (especially the flying creatures) can move several, and some have ranged attack.

Each creature and wizard has their own set of statistics… Attack & Defence and Magic Resistance for example, and it’s these statistics that can affect the outcome of each skirmish. Ranging from the poor Giant Rat (Combat 1, Defence 1) to the ultimate Golden Dragon (Attack 9, Defence 9), each creature has the chance to move and attack each other. Of course, the standard laws of fantasy battles apply, undead creatures cannot be harmed by non-undead creatures or weapons, but can still engage an enemy, magic weapons can destroy any creature, and some creatures can be mounted by the wizard for both added range and protection.

Generally, the worse the creature is in battle, the easier it is to cast. Giant Rats, for example, are always 100% casting chance. The Golden Dragon starts at 10%, but if the universe shifts towards Law as a result of the spells that are cast, the chance can actually increase to 100% (Chaos based creatures, however, become LESS likely). When choosing a creature spell, you also have the option to cast the creature as an illusion. Whilst this automatically means the creature cast WILL succeed, it can also be destroyed in an instant by the “Disbelieve” spell, which can reach anywhere on the board. As a result, you might only get one turn with the creature, so it’s worth keeping hold of those high-risk creatures for a time where you might get a chance to do lots of damage in just one turn.

In comparison, you can send out a risky bit of Magic Fire, or a Gooey Blob, both of which will spread randomly around the board, devouring creatures that are unlucky enough to get in the way. Walls can be cast to provide some extra cover from creatures and ranged weapons, and wizards can hide inside a castle or citadel, which will crumble after a certain length of time. Shadow Wood provides you with a forest of trees that can attack enemy creatures, Magic Wood provides a wizard with cover, and also enable you to pick up extra spells, including the ultra-rare Turmoil spell, which moves EVERYTHING around the board, causing ultra chaos in the process.

Your wizard can improve his abilities and attack potential through spells like Shadow Form and Magic weapons like Magic Bow. He can also unleash unholy fury on an enemy with a swift Magic Bolt, or Lightning. He can resurrect the body of a fallen creature, enemy or ally, opening the possibility of an undead Golden Dragon… but beware, it could always fall under a spell of Subversion, resulting in another wizard gaining control of your unholy behemoth.

Or, the final set of spells, which are the real nasties. Nothing is worse than having a veritable army of dangerous creatures and having a serious advantage over the opposition in the late stages of the match, only to be attacked by one of the Dark Power, Vengeance, Justice or whatever the other one’s called. Each of these has the ability to destroy a single creature anywhere on the board, illusion or not, but used on a Wizard, if successful, all creations can be lost in an instant, shifting the advantage somewhat.

So there it is, the ultimate classic game on the Spectrum, simple in concept, big on gameplay, big on multiplayer fun and big on still being playable almost 20 years later.

What more could anyone ask for in a game?

TI-99/4A - TI Invaders

TI Invaders

Something the TI-994/A was capable of back in the day was the delivery of arcade standard games in your own home. Something unheard of was the delivery of SUPERIOR games. However, this is exactly what happened…

As Space Invaders’ popularity and addictiveness at the time was in absolutely no doubt whatsoever, many software producers of the time jumped on the bandwagon, producing many ports, rip-offs and spin-offs of the game on various formats. One of those that is sadly often overlooked is the TI’s tribute to the franchise…

TI Invaders is, in my opinion, by far and away the best version of Space Invaders up until the franchise was truly revisited in 1991.

Initially faced with a choice of two difficulty levels (Merely Aggressive and Downright Nasty), the game begins with the standard fare of space aliens, advancing across the screen in their hordes, requiring destruction by means of the missiles dispatched from your missile base. There’s not many games simpler than Space Invaders, and as a result, thoughtful creation of various space enemies combined with pixel-perfect collision detection equals a game with more depth than most clones of the genre.

The enemies begin as large red aliens, and progress to smaller and smaller sizes, including some balls that actually disappear save for two pixels that stay visible. Occasionally, a yellow UFO travels across the top of the screen, awarding you a bonus that varies according to where you hit it… hit it dead centre for maximum score!

In between each stage there is a “UFO” stage where you must shoot a pink UFO (strangely enough), causing it to dash back across and become smaller. Eventually the UFO is so small it disappears, and this is where timing is crucial. You can continue to bounce the UFO from end to end for as long as you like, providing your timing is amazing.

Yep, the game had the simplicity of the Space Invaders we all know and love, the perfect difficulty curve, and, above all, sheer playability. If you haven’t already played this, whether emulated or on the real McCoy, then you’ve missed out, big style.

Download it, buy a TI-99/4A on Ebay, steal one from someone you know, do whatever you have to do, just make sure you don’t miss out on THE definitive version of one of the oldest video game franchises of all time. You’ll thank me for it.

But, having looked at this page on Brian J. Noggle's Blog (many thanks for the permission to use this image) you haven't lived until you've played TI Invaders on a big screen...

Thursday, 3 September 2009

TI-99/4A - Parsec

TI 99/4A

Ladies and Gentlemen. May I present to you a game that was probably the humble TI99/4A's "Killer App". Or it would have been if more people knew about it.

If you like your side scrolling shoot 'em ups, and you like them action packed and with a nice difficulty curve, this one for is you. But it's got a little bit more to it than just shooting, there's strategy in there, and some serious pixel-perfect maneuvering.

So, let's begin. Get past the "no-frills" title screen (It just says "Parsec", basically. In plain mono-spaced text, no less) and we're hurtling across space in our natty little space ship. You can fly around a little, even crash, just get used to the handling, the game doesn't start until you press fire.

Once you do, you are warned that alien craft are advancing, and then on they come, swooping down one at a time, easy fodder for your laser cannon at this stage. They don't fire back, just hurtle their craft at you, and when they go off the left side of the screen, they reappear on the right. Until they're destroyed, the aliens will fly right to left over and over again, getting faster and faster until they're literally whipping across the screen, making it impossible to hit them. But hit them you must, you have to destroy them all to progress.

On the first level, these beasties take one shot to die. On level 2, they take 2. And so on, until level 4, after which they just come faster instead.

The next aliens are the Urbites, a craft that fires back at you, and for the first couple of seconds they are invincible. They're quite slow, though, but will move up and down with you, and advance on you when they're level, so you need to kill them before they get too close for you to avoid their shots.

Another wave of aliens (This time it's the "LTFs" that attack you), and then you must face the Dramites. They look just like the Urbites, except they move really fast, fire really fast, and unless you keep on your toes, they'll have you.

Next come more aliens, this time it's the UFOs. The UFOs are sneaky, and attack from behind. Will they come high or low? You don't know until the first one comes out, and you really need to hit them first time to maximise your chances of survival. A tricky wave indeed.

Next are the Bynites. They are like Urbites and Dramites, but advance towards you all the time, firing their cluster-like missiles at you. From level two onwards, they have an extra trick up their sleeve, after the first hit they turn invisible until you destroy them.

Finally, you face an Asteroid belt, and must destroy a certain number of rocks to begin the next level, where we start all over again.

But that's not the end of it! Not by any stretch of the imagination. You see, you only have a finite amount of fuel, and you must refuel by means of refuelling tunnels that appear whenever your fuel is low. These come in three varieties, the easy short one, the medium not too bad one, and the one that's about 2 minutes long with loads of jagged bits. 2 minutes of pixel perfect maneuvering... that takes it out of you.

Thankfully, you do have 3 speeds of movement. Known as "Lifts", Lift 1 is the one you'll use for the refuelling tunnels. Lift 2 is medium speed (I never used this, EVER) and Lift 3 is full speed, what you'll be using for the majority of the game.

From level 4 onwards, you begin to get surprise attacks by "Killer Satellites". These little meanies appear with NO warning (you get a little siren and warning text for all the other alien waves), and start tracking and firing at you straight away. If you're not prepared for it, you can get caught out.

Also, your laser can only be fired for so long before it overheats, destroying you. On Level 1, this is about 6 seconds of continuous fire. From about level 10, one tap on the fire button will start your ship flashing, the warning signal for an imminent overheat.

There's supposedly 16 levels of fast paced action, and I never saw the end. I did have one mammoth session once, reaching level 12, but the combination of speed, laser use restrictions, and general difficulty was too much for me in my tender years. Maybe now I could complete the game, but I would have to get used to those hideous joysticks again... On the other hand, I could use the keyboard, or even the wonders of emulation, but it wouldn't be the same.

I developed a symptom we called "Parsec Leg", which always occurred when the Dramites attacked... the sudden action to avoid their speedy attacks resulted in me involuntarily raising one of my legs in the joystick-twisting frenzy. My family laughed, but I was quite traumatised by it! I'm considering setting up a charity fund for anyone else who was affected by it. I can see the TV adverts now... I just need to sign Michael Winner over to present it.

But I don't care, I'm going to remember Parsec for the quality game it was, and so should the Retro world.

It was an arcade-quality game playable at home. That's difficult to achieve in the modern era of gaming!