Friday, 26 February 2010

Sega Megadrive - Sonic the Hedgehog

Sega Megadrive
Sonic the Hedgehog

Oh, come on. You haven’t heard of Sonic? You don’t know where it all began? You don’t remember first hearing those magical words from your TV?


And that was the game’s “Wow” moment. From that very second, you just knew this whole experience was going to be magical. Sonic The Hedgehog was a blue, spiky critter with a penchant for spins and speed. His primary weapons were his spines, which, like all hedgehogs, he was able to use for protection by curling into a ball. He could roll, he could somersault, he could run, and he could jump.

Instantly recognisable, even now, Sonic has been Sega’s mascot for a considerable length of time. Conceived as Sega’s equivalent of Mario, he has featured in some of the greatest (and fastest) games of all time.

But where it all began (at least for me) was the Megadrive version. This game boasted superb graphics, extreme speed and an amazing sound track.

Borrowing aspects from the best platform games of the era, Sonic moved away from the traditional sedate-by-comparison run and bump of Mario, and into the hell-for-leather spinning and running frenzy that we all came to love.

The storyline isn’t really important, but there is one anyway… Dr Robotnik (later renamed Eggman for some reason) has kidnapped a load of your cute buddies and imprisoned them inside robots and metal containers, you’ve got to free them all. This is done by completing levels which are filled with collectable rings rather than the coins found in other games. Every 3 stages yields a meeting with Robotnik, who will attack you in interesting ways. Defeat him and he’ll run away whilst you bust open a metal container filled with bunnies and stuff, signalling the end of your time in that particular area.

Defeat Robotnik in the “Final Zone”, and that’s the end of the game, you have saved all your friends! You’d think Sonic could go and put his feet up and relax with a cup of cocoa or something, but that may not be the case… did you collect all the Chaos Emeralds?

Ah, you see, whilst you were zipping through the levels like a deranged hamster, you didn’t collect enough rings to open up the bonus stage at the end of each level. Either that or you didn’t see the big ring at the end of the level which transports you to said bonus stage… Here you can earn a “Continue” (Or 3 extra lives if you prefer to think of it that way) as well as the aforementioned Chaos Emeralds. These are the key to the true ending of the game, you need to find all 6, and they are all contained in the bonus stages, which are spinning mazes with funky parallax scrolling in the background (remember when that was a major selling feature of a game??).

I’ve just noticed a major error in my writings today… I refer to the game as having “levels” or “stages”. Of course, this was the start of a brave new world where Sega used different names to “stand out” from the crowd. The game was divided into “zones”, each of which were each divided into 3 “acts”. Each zone had their own particular characteristics, for example the Green Hill Zone had lots of Green Hills (and many fast sections), the Marble Zone was a tad slower and more delicate with lots of lava, the Spring Yard Zone was back up to speed with enormous half-pipes, the Labyrinth Zone introduced pyramid-like caverns and water, the Star Light Zone had big open spaces and huge jumps (and instant-death falls), and the Scrap Brain Zone had lots of booby traps to contend with.

Along the way were your standard power ups and bonuses hidden in TV screens around the levels. There was the usual extra rings, extra lives and invincibility, but also speed boots and a one-hit protection shield. One other departure from the standard platform recipe was that your collected rings could be lost when you took a hit. Upon being hit, your rings would spill out, or, if you didn’t possess any rings, you’d die and lose a life. This meant that if you just had the one ring, you would be in a mad dash to try and retrieve it before you took the fatal blow.

This did push the game a little towards the easy side, at least in terms of staying alive. Attaining the highest scores, though, would require some considerable skill.

Although this game spawned multiple sequels and conversions, this version is the one most fondly remembered and has won a place in gaming history, and is certainly a game you should make an effort to play, as well as the slightly more difficult Master System version.

Just one last thing, the Megadrive version featured one of the most unusual extras, as if part of the developer’s level design tools were left in the game. If I remember correctly you need to input the level select code first (up, down, left, right at the title screen), followed by up, C, down, C, left, C, Right, C and then hold A and press Start. When you then start a level you should keep A held down, and the score display will look slightly odd. You can then select various level objects and place them on screen. An interesting feature, and a reminder that most cheat modes were not originally meant to be “cheats”, but tools for a developer to reach parts of a game easily to test them!

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Arcade - Gauntlet


Surely this machine needs no introduction. Surely, out of all the classic arcade games I could choose to cover, this behemoth of a machine had such a fearsome presence compared to all those standard machines that were the staple of an 80s video arcade, and such clear audio that, apart from the death scream of Space Harrier that was as regular a sound as you could get back then, everyone noticed the sampled speech, awesome sound effects and (rare) incidental music almost before they saw the huge 4-player simultaneous-supporting cabinet with impressive looking marquee and huge screen.

In fact, Gauntlet was such a knockout of an arcade cabinet, it very often got the much-desired position of being the first machine you see when you come through the door. Of course, the option for 4-player simultaneous play was a big pull, but invariably there would be a scramble to choose the best of the characters, or in my case to avoid being the Warrior.

Gauntlet had many “unique” features that seemed quite revolutionary at the time, for example the just mentioned characters that were all different. Most two player games (see Double Dragon for an example) would have 2 different-looking characters, but they would have the same abilities and move set, often the only difference would be a palette swap of colours. But in Gauntlet, not only did we have actually different characters with different weapons, they also had different statistics, for example Thor the Warrior threw axes, which were the most powerful weapon both thrown and hand to hand, he also had tough skin which would reduce damage by 20%, but unfortunately he was not particularly good with the magic.

On the opposite side of the cabinet was Questor the Elf, who had slightly less protection with his leather armour, was much better at magic, but his weedy little arrows weren’t anywhere nearly as powerful as Thor’s axes, however they could fit through small gaps in walls that axes couldn’t. His dagger for hand to hand combat was also pretty poop.

And you get the idea. Usually people fought to be the Valkyrie because of her 30% damage reduction thanks to her shield, but it is generally accepted now that the Elf provided the best chance of completing the dungeon.

Hold on, I haven’t even mentioned the dungeon yet! The dungeon is an immense series of maps viewed from above, inhabited by all manner of creepy nasties. From your first encounter with a ghost to Death himself, there are several different enemies, who come in different strengths, and most of them will emerge from a “generator” of some sort. Unless you have powerful weaponry, it can take up to 3 shots to kill an enemy, except Death, who can only be killed by magic or by letting him drain up to 200 health. You can also engage in hand-to-hand combat (except with Ghosts), but very rarely escaping without damage.

And now I’m going to spoil it all. Gauntlet was a great game, a great experience. But unfortunately, it hasn’t stood the test of time for me. The reason is that I have since discovered there is no end to the game. I’ve always believed there to be about 120 levels, but I have now found out that although the first 8 are fixed, the rest of the game draws maps randomly from a store of about 16. The game will, in fact, loop forever after this first 8.

Maybe it’s just me, but that’s a sin! Gauntlet isn’t like Space Invaders, it’s not the type of game you want to play on “Score Attack”, mainly because you can continue to try and get further into the dungeon, but for what? If you’re playing for Score Attack, you’re better starting at the beginning each time. Everybody wanted to “beat” the dungeon, find the end of it, be the person that could joyfully proclaim to be the first true expert of Gauntlet. It almost seems like a fraud to have no end to it.

Maybe the worst part is that I now KNOW there’s no end to it. When I didn’t know, I could at least naively play it thinking “Where’s that magic warp to level 100+”, but now I know there was no such thing. On level 1, you could warp to 4 or 8 if you so desired.

I haven’t mentioned the in-game speech (probably some of the best of its kind) yet, but I’m feeling the urge to wrap this review up. In short, then… if you want to play this game, play 1 credit and 1 credit only, preferably with 3 friends. Otherwise, you’re in for a world of repetitive and fruitless dungeon hunting.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Handheld - BMX Flyer

 Handheld Games
BMX Flyer

Back in the good old days, before the advent of the Game Boy, Game Gear and the real boom for handheld gaming, there existed a number of devices that allowed you to play just one game. The main players in this market were Nintendo (surprise surprise) with their Game & Watch series of handheld games, but they weren’t the only ones involved. Grandstand had a wide range of handheld and tabletop games available, as well as companies like Systema, CGL, and many others.

I owned several handheld games. If I had to pick the best of the bunch, it would probably be Bombsweeper by Nintendo. But a close second would definitely be this little gem by Grandstand.

Using simple LCD technology, boosted by a bright backlight and with a coloured overlay, the “graphics” looked superb, in fact some of the best LCD graphics games ever made used this style of graphics. Unfortunately, this was at the expense of battery life, but I tended to use the adaptor anyway, so I really didn’t mind.

Onto the game itself, then… You are the “BMX Flyer”, a BMX-riding stuntman type person, and your mission is simple, get from the beginning to the end of each course without crashing. This would be a very simple game if there weren’t plenty of things along the way that would cause you great pain and misery, not to mention the loss of a life.

These range from cans (at least I think that’s what they were meant to be) on the floor, to short pits, long pits, and birds, and that’s just the “natural” hazards. There’s also a couple of people out to get you, i.e. the bomb-dropping helicopter pilot (a bit extreme for a BMX game, perhaps), and the evil rider who either slows down in front of you for which you must jump, or comes up behind you every now and again, but you can simply fart in his face to get rid of him.

Sorry, did I say fart? I meant to say throw dirt. But I know what it looks like.

Anyway, although the game throws a lot at you, there are a couple of things to help you along the way. There is an energy meter, which can be replenished by means of Water Bottles along the route. Certain actions, such as jumping and throwing dirt, use your energy, so it’s important to keep your energy levels up as much as you can. Also helpful is the balloon that comes along every now and again. Jumping and catching hold will give you a nice bonus as well as a free ride past several obstacles, dropping you off almost at the finish.

But as a game, is it any good?

Oh, yes. The game forms a nice little challenge, obstacles come at you in varying degrees and with alarming regularity. The choice between expending a little energy with the dirt or avoiding your enemy by means of using the obstacles to help keep him at bay can often mean the difference between survival and “death”.

As an 80s handheld game, it’s certainly a collectable bit of history, and if you did manage to find one working (like mine, it still works! In fact, I’ll try and get it videoed.) you’ll soon be humming the chirpy little tune it plays, which I’d quite like to pay tribute to by means of XM music.

As far as handheld gaming goes, prior to the advent of the Gameboy, this is as good as it gets.

See one, want one, get one. Simple as.

Interestingly, I’ve found a Flash remake of this game, unfortunately the gameplay isn’t quite as accurate as I’d like, but it gives you a good indication of how the game played and looked.

Arcade - Pit Fighter

Pit Fighter

Back in the days when gameplay was key to a successful game, gaming technology was making massive leaps and bounds. When you look at where we are today, with the snazzy graphics and the computing power to finally deliver excellent gameplay AND snazzy graphics, it’s hard to believe there was a time where you really needed to make the choice of one or the other. Arcade games, despite their dedicated hardware and often inventive and original control methods, still had to make the same choice.

Atari clearly forgot this and released Pit Fighter anyway. 

At the time, the graphics pulled in people for a game or two, but the lack of depth, lack of playability, and, probably worst of all, the lack of balance ensured it wasn’t a roaring success. It was never going to be anything other than what it was, a gimmick of a game ruined by appalling controls, and, despite the digitised graphics, proof positive that 4 frames per second does not a good game make.

However, all is not lost. Thanks to the wonders of retro gaming, retro collecting and appreciation of the history of all things retro, this game has found a small corner in my heart. Yes, it’s bad, but only if you look at what else was around at the time. Pit Fighter was up against some mighty stiff competition in the arcade department, many games had graphics almost as good, but superior gameplay. Mortal Kombat, for instance, was an example how a game of this type SHOULD have been. 

So, you take the role of a bare-knuckled prize fighter, either a big wrestler by the name of Buzz, a Thai kickboxer by the name of Ty (Imagination was hard to come by in those days) or a Chinese Bruce Lee-alike named Kato. Very simply, the objective was to batter your opponent until their energy is depleted, lest you be battered to the same extent. The eager crowd would occasionally get involved, sometimes walking into the arena, thrusting a knife, and then stepping back in again. On other levels a variety of weapons were available and could be used until destroyed, and sometimes you might find a Power Pill inside a barrel or crate. This would temporarily make you... erm... well... better somehow, I guess. Fairly uniquely, the enemy could also use the Power Pill, ramping the difficulty level up by a considerable degree.

With a basic move set, and no real "special moves", this game was basically trying to be the nearest thing to UFC , but before UFC was even a twinkle in the eye of the fans of blood and violence. Unfortunately for Atari, who followed Pit Fighter up with their “sequel”, Guardians of the Hood, it seems as if they didn’t know what was necessary to create a winning formula for a fighting game. 

Still, the basis was there for what could have been an arcade smash across the world. Scaling, digitised graphics, a decent enough concept, but simply not enough frames of animation to REALLY make it stand out, and not enough gameplay to make the game stand up on its own merit. But that’s not to say there’s no nice touches to it; the bonus “knockdown” game where you try to knock your opponent down three times, for example, or the crowd getting involved in the fight, or the timer that records the “record win time” for each opponent, or even the varying stages of being “stunned” or knocked down. 

Yes, this was probably a good example. If you took a good hit to the chest or gut, you might double up and recover in a few seconds, or you might be knocked to your backside, with a slightly different recovery. Take a blow to the face and you might briefly sink to your knees, be knocked flat out on your back, or even be spun to land on your front. It wasn’t simply a case of take 3 hits and down you go, unfortunately the outcomes appear to be random.

Still, It’s a game of importance in arcade history, even if it is for the wrong reasons.