Friday, 12 November 2010

Sinclair ZX Spectrum - Batman: The Movie

Sinclair Spectrum
Batman: The Movie
Ocean software were, for a very long time, considered quite rightly to be one of the best (if not THE best) software houses for converting a movie licence to a more than reasonable game.

Sure, they missed the mark every now and again, but usually they delivered the goods with alarming regularity. And the good thing was they stuck to a simple formula, where they would take certain key scenes from the film and base a level on each one, creating a multi-level multi-style extravaganza (unfortunately occasionally leaving out 48K owners).

During one of their most awesome phases, Ocean produced licensed wonders such as Robocop, The Untouchables, and the subject of this review, Batman: The Movie.

Distancing itself from the original Batman isometric 3D adventure and the “Batman: The Caped Crusader” game, this game was divided very simply into 5 levels, with you donning the cape and assuming the eponymous hero’s role.

Levels 1 & 5 are superb platform levels, the first in the form of the Axis Chemical Plant, where you had to basically defeat many of Napier’s thugs (armed with guns or grenades) by means of Batarangs and your Bat Belt, avoiding natural(ish) hazards such as long falls and chemical drips. The level is pretty big, and to get to the end you’ll need to get the hang of using your Bat Belt (and Bat Rope) to swing and hoist yourself up to platforms above. Once at the end of the level, you must knock Napier from his platform into a VAT of chemicals (much like the film), turning him into The Joker.

The player and enemy sprites are large and detailed, and, remembering you lose a third of the screen with the score panel and energy meter, it did make things a bit “Close Quarters”, as in you didn’t necessarily see an enemy until they were upon you. However, minor gripes aside, the first level was a nicely balanced affair, with enough challenge for first-time players to come unstuck, but not overly difficult.

Level 2, then, and it’s into the Batmobile and one of the more challenging and frustrating parts of the game. Viewed from the side you must drive through the streets of Gotham city, avoiding other cars on the road and blockades, occasionally turning left (and left only) to get to the Bat Cave. Getting to the end within the time limit is no problem, but without careful maneuvering your energy level wouldn’t last the distance.

You had two choices at turning left, either fire the bat rope to the lamppost on the corner and swing round (the fastest and most stylish way), or skid sideways and attempt to drive through that way. Whilst I preferred to skid, it was definitely cooler to use the bat rope.

Reach the Bat Cave, and it’s onto the puzzle mini-level. Several products are in front of you, 3 of which are contaminated by the Joker’s evil poison thing. You select 3 products and are told how many of those are contaminated. From this you must use logic to determine which three are the correct answers.

It’s a simple enough problem, made more difficult by the (very tight) 1 minute time limit. Of course, you could be lucky and pick all 3 right answers first time.

Onto level 4, then, and probably the most difficult part of the game. The Joker has decided to release his poison in the form of Gas, and to do so has staged a parade with lots of balloons, all filled with the poisonous gases. Taking control of the Bat-Wing (Seriously, was EVERYTHING in Bat Man some form of “Bat”-thing? Need a shower? Use the Bat-Gel. Bad case of diarrhoea? You’ll need Bat-Roll and Bat-Suppositories. Anyone for Cricket? I’ve brought the Bat-bat), your job is to fly through the parade, cutting the connecting cables of the balloons, releasing them into the air and away from the city.

No doubt you’re saying “That doesn’t sound so hard!”. Wait until the helicopters come along, matey. One touch equals death, so you’d better be good at manoeuvring past them, or you’ll soon end up as Bat-Soup.

To finish, then, it’s a final chase of the Joker up to the roof of Gotham City Cathedral. This time, you’ve got spiked floors to contend with (instant death!) and also crumbling floors, so you’ll need to be on your guard all the way through. Taking the Joker out at the end is slightly different, but I’ll not spoil that for you. If you got that far, you deserve to discover it for yourself.

So is the game any good?


OK, so that was a bit of a short, to-the-point answer, but this is a short, to-the-point game. Even with the time limit of 10 minutes on the platform levels, you’ll easily do that once you know where you’re going. But even so, it’s a highly polished product with some superb graphics, and lots of nice touches, so it’s certainly worth hunting down and playing through.

Among my favourite of the touches is the energy bar, something that was used in The Untouchables, too, where the energy bar is in fact the picture of Batman at the bottom of the screen. As you lost energy, Batman’s face was replaced by The Joker (In the Untouchables, they used Al Capone, obviously). This was probably why Ocean’s games often had a big status bar, to fit in the score, number of lives, time limit AND A GREAT BIG BENKING ENERGY BAR PICTURE!

Whilst it is a nice touch, sometimes you did wish the play area was a little bit bigger.

Finally, it’s also worth mentioning the music. Whilst I don’t know if it’s based on music from the movie (I’ve not really watched it that closely to be fair), the 128K soundtrack is most enjoyable, and suits each level REALLY well. In fact, it’s so good, I have the Batmobile level music on in the car sometimes.

So yeah, I’d advise you to check out this little gem of a game, you may well finish it in one sitting, but you’ll have fun doing it, and maybe you’ll want to check out Ocean’s similar movie tie-in licences such as Robocop and The Untouchables.

Magazine - Your Sinclair

Your Sinclair
Whilst we’re off the topic of video games themselves for the moment, why not turn our attention to one of THE most popular and influential magazines of the Spectrum era, the amazingly spectacularly crap (in a funky skillo sort of way) Your Sinclair.

Your Sinclair, or YS as it was affectionately referred to, started life as a slightly more technical affair called Your Spectrum, however due to the QL launch (and much hyped potential), the magazine closed and relaunched as the Your Sinclair we knew and loved so well.

Unfortunately for myself, I missed out on a lot of the “Golden days” of Your Sinclair, only beginning my collection from issue 49 (with N.O.M.A.D. and Bilbo and the Lizard King on the covertape), but straight away YS had its impact on me. The way the reviews were written, the way the letters were answered, just about everything in there really, all contributed to the way I spoke and talked about things.

Stuff wasn’t “rubbish” anymore, it was “crap”. If something was good, it was “Brillo”. Scary statements could be proceeded with “Yikes”.

Sarcasm and humour were key ingredients to most articles, which is probably why it was such a cult smash magazine, outlasting both Crash and Sinclair User by a long margin. Among the regular sections were the usual “Tipshop” and Letters pages, supplemented with columns from the Pico family (long story), Marcus Berkmann’s clinic, the Trainspotter award, Around The World (a section where people from foreign lands could write in with profuse amounts of Engrish). Other regular features included Program Pitstop (type-in listings and hexadecimal machine code), Input Output (Classifieds), Pssst (latest industry news and sneak-peeks), Megapreviews (first in-depth look at forthcoming games) and more. Some features ran for a limited time, such as Spec Tec (Technical queries answered), the Programming Launderette (spawning the amazing game, The Pathetic Pablo Brothers), Crap Game Corner (Readers’ games reviewed, some were actually pretty good!), Haylp! (problem page introduced to TRY and pad out the dying mag with the distinct lack of reviews forthcoming) and “Complete Guides”, which covered whole genres of games such as Beat ‘em-ups, Shoot ‘em-ups or platform games (and the rest), giving a humorous look at the essential ingredients for each genre, and a run-down of the best and worst examples.
Occasionally we would be treated to a photo-love story, or the brilliant “Competition on every page” (issue 50!) or some other wonderment of one-off article (Rich Pelley’s Guide to YS-Speak was particularly enlightening).

Blessed with a covertape practically every issue (certainly from when I started reading it), some fantastic full games were given away over the years, from N.O.M.A.D. on issue 49 (a game I would have hunted down from playing in Comet), including Chaos (twice due to popular demand, and stretched tapes from the first time round), Dizzy, Ninja Hamster (eventually), Captain Blood, Advanced Lawnmower Simulator and many MANY MANY more.
Advanced Lawnmower Simulator - The original "Crap Game".

The magazine writers (Joystick Jugglers, as they were known) were a varied bunch, the first lot I remember included Matt Bielby as editor, Dave “Whistlin’ Rick” Wilson, Marcus Berkmann (who I think went on to write for a major national newspaper), and Johnathan Davies (famous for owning a pet Warthog called Farty). Other faces to come and go included the hippy Andy Ide, Jon Pillar, Maryanne Booth, Andy Ounsted, Rich Pelley, Duncan MacDonald (Yibble), Jon Nash, my teenage crush Linda Barker, and freelance/regular contributor Stuart Campbell (whose crowning achievement was probably the all-time top 100 games article).

It got that even regular readers became well-known through the letters/tips pages, including the Ellesmere Port Elf, Leigh Loveday, (who put together the Complete Guide to Your Sinclair for the Big Final Issue), Stephen “Not Sven Andersson” Anderson, and the comic-strip by Phil McCardle that became a regular feature, Ernie the Psychotic Madman.

Being a Your Sinclair reader was like being part of a special club, I felt it a great privilege to be a reader, in the same way a regular watcher of Monty Python’s Flying Circus felt it a privilege to see that particular form of comedy.

When I read that Your Sinclair was closing down, and there was to be a big final issue, no matter what the cost, I wasn’t going to miss it. I had to hassle the newsagent I usually bought the magazine from to get it in (they were reluctant, but finally convinced), and despite the slightly high price tag it was absolutely worth it, and is still a treasured possession today. No matter what, I won’t be selling it for many years to come. Seeing the page numbers (which counted down to the end, a great touch) and the back cover (2 cowboys riding into the sunset, with the slogan “Your Sinclair… our work here is done”) still brings a lump to the throat, because, quite simply, no other magazine has come close to reviving the feel and spirit of YS. No other magazine (with the exception of Retro Gamer) has made me want to purchase it month after month. No other magazine (even with old YS writers) has been able to nail down the persistent entertainment that YS sustained to the end.

One of the final articles in the Big Final Issue was a Chaos battle between some of the editorial team. That was truly a fantastic article, and worthy of the price tag alone.

Fortunately for everyone, the World Of Spectrum archive has preserved Your Sinclair in digital format, and with a site like the “Your Sinclair Rock and Roll Years” keeping us up to date with the old writers and anything new that might crop up in the world of Your Sinclair, or indeed the Spectrum, rare as it may be these days. You can find that website HERE, and the World of Spectrum archive? Right HERE, my friend. 

With that in mind, it’s not too late to check out the glory of the perfect magazine. Believe me, I could write for hours about the content, quality and humour contained within the many pages of Your Sinclair. Even when they had to introduce pages like Haylp! and The World to pad things out a bit, they were still done in the YS way.

Their work here may be done, but their legacy will live beyond all expectations.